Monday, July 24, 2023

Ullapool! And The End of an Era.

Crossing The Minch from The Shiants to Rubha na h-Aiseig on Skye went smoothly. The sea was exactly that and the south-westerly headwind was gentle enough to be pleasantly cooling. For a long featureless crossing the time went remarkably quickly.

In theory the tide should have been taking us south-west but there was no noticeable drift all the way across. We’d timed the crossing to be off the point of Rubha na h-Aiseig at about 1300, the Tidal Atlas indicating the stream changed north-east sometime between 1230 and 1330. A couple of kilometres from Eilean Trodday, the island about 2km off the point, we could see a beach that offered the chance of landing as after nearly three hours in the boat lunch was very much on our minds. 

But… slowly dawned on us that it didn’t seem to be getting any closer. Out came the GPS and sure enough we were down to less than 4kph. Damn, the north-easterly stream! 

Muesli bars were eaten and bearing away to the east to go with the current also enabled us to put the sails up, our speed doubled and in the lee of Eilean Trodday we sped up even more. 

Fours hours after leaving The Shiants we found a beach just inside Kilmaluag Bay to land and finally some lunch.

Our camp for the night at Staffin was about 10kms further south. Along the way was a spectacular section of cliffs boasting basalt columns that rivalled those on Garbh Eilean.

Nesting fulmars.

Pulling into the beach at Staffin, the jetty busy with fish farm workers, local families and tourists, suddenly there was a shout. There were the very friendly locals who had tried to help us with new golf cart wheels in Uig last Sunday. It was great to catch up and thank them again for their efforts.

The next day south along the coast from Staffin, across to Rona through Caol Rona, the channel separating Rona and Raasay, to continue south along the eastern shore of Raasay was a day to forget.

It was one of those days when if bike riding you’d have stopped to make sure the brakes weren’t rubbing. Or for us in a kayak, do we pull up the rudder to detach the line of creels we seeem to be dragging along behind us? Paddling uphill, through treacle - all day.

With relief we found a grand spot for the tent near the light on Eyre Point. The farmer there didn’t mind us camping right on the point - but the resident Arctic terns did …. we paddled a few hundred metres back and settled in.

Eyre Point was also decision point. 

Do we head south through Kyle of Loch Alsh, Kyle Rhea towards Mallaig, Ardnamurchan, Sound of Mull to pull up in style on the beach in front of our friends’ place in Appin. A distance that we could achieve if focused and not held up by weather. Timing could possibly be tight. 

Or head north, as planned, to Ullapool. A shorter distance, easily achievable in the time we have left, too easy perhaps we’d really have to be lily dipping to use up the time. Surprisingly we could extend our hire van booking by a few days with a nominal increase in cost enabling us to arrive in Appin in plenty of time and with wheels. Wheels that open up the opportunity to roam and visit more old friends before the seasonal imperative of southerly migration to the warmer climes of Devon and Tim’s Mum’s 90th birthday.

Paddling south and pulling up on the beach at our friends place was very persuasive. What better way to deliver the kayak to its new owners, rather than in four pieces out of the back of a hire van. 

So too was heading north, a gentle figuratively downhill cruise to the end.

South it was. Charts and Tidal Atlas consultation began, we could easily make the tide through Kyle of Loch Alsh but not today through Kyle Rhea.

Suddenly decision reversed. Head north, are we sure? Yes! Right, wrangle the van hire booking, new dates confirmed, old booking cancelled. 

Chill, lily dipping our way to Ullapool. 

The Inner Sound between Raasay and Applecross is a submarine exercise area, muscle flexing of a live firing variety rather than the lifting of weights.

“Considered to be clear of shipping” Oh good that is reassuring.

UK sea kayak ‘pilot’ Tidelines has this to say.

“Inner Sound testing area: Underwater weapons testing is carried out in the Inner Sound (MOD BUTEC). If leaving the shoreline, it may be prudent to monitor VHF channel 13.”

The submarine exercise area monitoring buildings. We’re no doubt on some sort of hit list now for this photo.

A short sharp very heavy shower had done its torrential thing on us just as we took down the tent at Eyre Point. Great. Fantastic. A soaking wet tent to put up at the end of the day.

En route to our camp at Ardban and its lovely beach we explored the narrow channel, drying at low tide, that splits the Crowlin Islands.

The southern end of the channel made a great lunch spot.  

We then paddled north up the eastern side of the Crowlins against a fresh northerly wind, and relieved, turned south to investigate the northern end of the channel under sail.

After two kms gentle sailing, another heavy torrential squall bore down on us  from the south !!

Within minutes we were now sailing,  fast, back the way we’d come!

A perfect storm of unpleasantness. Another squall with a chilly north west wind just as we arrived at Ardban, us very damp and getting cold in old slightly leaky dry suits and a tent with pools of water inside. We need shelter, now. 

We forego our preferred tent spot on the exposed bank above the beach with grand vistas across Inner Sound to Raasay and find a hollow out of the wind just big enough for the tent and dive inside to mop out the pools of water with our pack towels. 

As the restorative powers of coffee and cake take hold and we’re warmed up, we set off dressed in full waterproofs and wellies to explore our new surroundings. 

The drizzle and wind abate to the point that our little sheltered hollow having done a sterling job sheltering us on arrival has outlived its utility and we’re looking longingly at the bank above the beach. 

I’ll bore you again with the practicality of a free standing tent, lifted in entirety with sleeping mats and other gear inside to our proper place of great views and nae midges. 

Ardban, such a lovely spot that we stayed three nights. If we had wanted to stay longer perhaps we should have bought the white house on the left in the picture above. For sale last year for £150,000, access only by sea or a 2km walk from the road, but it does have mains power.

The days based at Ardban were very relaxing - beers in the Applecross Inn, the best hot fresh fish and chip lunch from the mobile food van across from the pub and massive bacon rolls one morning on our way to the Heritage Museum. 

We love the little local museums we find along the way as they always offer a fascinating insight into the local community and it’s history. 

This one was no exception, in addition once we got chatting to Margaret we got some local gossip too and Lynne had some spinning lessons. 

First carding to straighten and separate the fibres.

Then a delicate coordination of fine finger work and feet on the treadle. 

Onto Gairloch for petrol for the stove and another fantastic museum. A big step up in quality and quantity from Applecross, winning a Museum of the Year Award in 2020. The building a nuclear bomb proof bunker from the 1950’s very cleverly and attractively adapted to display an extensive range of the local history. 

The dominating centre piece on the ground floor was the complete light array from Rubha Reidh (pro. Rube Ray) lighthouse. The massive construction of bronze and glass the largest the Chance Bros. ever made.

We discovered we had missed an exhibition, ‘The Spirit of Beyond : The Shiant Isles’ by local artist Alison Dunlop of drawings, watercolours and photographs. 

Amazing pieces of work. 

Graphite drawing of the Eilean Garbh cliffs, 100cm x 152cm, £8,000.

Slightly more within our price range was the book published to accompany the exhibition which will sit on our bookshelves at home as a tangible memory of our visit to that magical place. 

In the tent that night looking at the map it dawned on us that our lily dipping way to Ullapool may not be quite so straightforward and relaxing. The point of Rubha Reidh sticks well out into The Minch and could easily have some tidal considerations. Sure enough it did, 3kns at springs and we weren’t far from springs. 

Suddenly all attention was on the Tidelines sea kayak ‘pilot’ and the Tidal Atlas. Easy, we just have to be there as the north-easterly stream drops off around 1230. 

Easy, though, it certainly wasn’t.  

We were moving fast sailing on the westerly breeze and northerly tide, but the seas were the roughest most uncomfortable seas of the whole trip. A large north-westerly swell was thrown up in confusion as it rebounded off the cliffs and clashed with the northernly current. 

We corkscrewed and lurched north with trepidation, if it’s like this here what’s it going to be like off Rubh Reidh?

The nervousness increased as a couple of dark and threatening squalls appeared north and west of us adding to the undercurrent of menace the sea always seems to exude on grey overcast days. We lurched onwards with little choice. 

The first squall passed well in front of us but the second showed itself with a few pattering rain drops then heavy drizzle and poor visibility that added to the murkiness of the day. Thankfully though there were no accompanying squally blasts of wind.

Rubh Reidh lighhouse came into view and a fringe of white water around its surrounding rocks but the seas off the point didn’t look any worse than those of the last couple of hours. 

Rubh Reidh lighthouse.

As we followed the coast eastwards away from the tide and lee shore the seas abated and we were able for the first time today to paddle with some semblance of rhythm. There was nowhere to land for lunch and a cuppa around Greenstone Point or the nearby islands so on across the mouth of Loch Ewe to Slaggan Bay. Despite only 26km to our camp here we we both felt knackered from being thrown around by the unruly seas for most of the morning.

The following day couldn’t have been more of a contrast, a very civilised south-west wind blew us speedily over smooth water across Gruinard Bay around Cailleach Head and into Annat Bay. Slabby rocks provided a reasonable landing a couple of hours after high tide. Perfect, we had to launch the following morning a couple of hours before high tide for the last couple hours paddling of this trip. 

Ullapool high tide at 1040 and the beachside campground. The sea though didn’t want us to leave giving us a headwind all the way and despite double checking the tide times an ebbing flow from Loch Broom. 


Monday, July 17, 2023

The Magical Shiant Islands

The welcoming door of the cosy bothy.

As best we could, we tried to replicate the cover of Adam Nicholson’s book ’Sea Room’.

Sentinel puffin viewing its domain.

The scree slopes of Garbh Eilean the home to hundreds of thousands of nesting guillemots and puffins.
Eilean an Tighe from Garbh Eilean.

 Map of Settlement Patterns on the Shiants, from  ‘Sea Room’, by Adam Nicholson.

Bahg, the natural harbour (in settled conditions) on the northern shore of Garbh Eilean.

Note the extensive ‘lazy beds’ developed by 18th century occupants of the Shiants.

To the west of Bagh, a steep valley on Garbh Eilean runs from north to south separating the western third of the island.  
This valley, Annat, was also well-settled, possibly since Neolithic times, and remains of a rock wall runs from the cliffs at the north to the tiny harbour and sheep pens in the south, still used today. 

The Sound of Shiant

The massive basalt columns of Garbh Eilean.

Remains of Iron Age house on Garbh Eilean.

Looking west to the offshore rocks of Galta Mor and Galta Beag. 

With Great Skuas patrolling ….And swooping at us!

Eilean na Tighe from Garbh Eilean. The bothy is clearly visible, our kayak on the beach beyond the bothy not so visible.

From Eilean na Tighe

The precipitous path from the landing beach up onto Garbh Eilean. It is much more precipitous than it looks!
Eilean Mhuire from the precipitous route up Garbh Eilean. 

Landing beach between Garbh Eilean and Eilean na Tighe.

The view west from the landing beach to Galta rocks.

The arch, Toll á Roimh, through the eastern peninsular of Garbh Eilean.

Paddling through Toll á Roimh. 

The Blue Green men like us so much that they made an offering of a full jar of peanut butter.

The Shiants far behind us as we cross The Minch back to Skye.