In between the wind and the rain, Scotland’s Hebrides Islands offer some truly spectacular cruising. Pictured here is the magnificent Eilean Donan castle
The warnings are ubiquitous. On the plaque in the Tobermory distillery that declares: “Today’s rain is tomorrow’s whiskey.” From the mouth of a local fisherman who told us: “This is a Presbyterian country. We need five days of rain to pay for a day of sunshine.” In the pages of a sailing magazine, where I read: “In Scotland there is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.”
The foulness of the weather on Scotland’s west coast is legendary. At 56 to 58 degrees north latitude, the region is directly downwind of the Icelandic low pressure zone, the Northern Hemisphere’s principal weather maker. In August of 2013, at what was supposed to be the height of the summer, we had three gales in two weeks, a force 8, a 9 and a 10.
A rare sunny day in Plockton
In May of that same year we had rain pretty much every day, both outside and inside the boat. (The porthole and hatch rims all dripped with condensation, and mildew was an ever-present problem.) A succession of hailstorms left our decks covered in ice. We got lucky in June with two weeks of settled weather in which to explore the Outer Hebrides, but then paid for it with what the Met Office called “an unusually vigorous low.” In the first half of July, while the rest of the UK basked in a heat wave, we rarely saw the sun.
Terrie, my wife, and I now have the luxury of being free to cruise pretty much anywhere we choose and of having the perfect boat with which to do it. But there we were in Scotland, somewhat bemused by the fact we were planning to lay up our boat on the River Clyde for the winter so that we could return next year. The Scottish isles have sunk their teeth deep into us and so far refuse to let go. What is it that is drawing us back?
The answer is the incredible rugged natural beauty of the place. It’s the spectacular wild landscapes, with islands on every side and not a house to be seen. It’s the play of light and shadow on the towering cliffs and mountains as shafts of sunlight pierce the clouds and rain showers, sweeping across the countryside like a giant searchlight. It’s being in both sunlight and rain at the same time with a glorious double rainbow stretching across the horizon. It’s having the clouds and mist lift for a few minutes, an hour or two, and sometimes a day or more, to reveal majestic 3,000-foot peaks all around, dusted with snow in the early summer. It’s the fleeting and astonishingly beautiful sunsets on those evenings when the sun drops free of the clouds minutes before sinking over the horizon.
Look a little closer and you will also find a fascinating record of human habitation stretching back as much as 8,000 years, but abruptly terminated in the “clearances” of the 18th and 19th centuries, when the highlanders were forced off the land to make way for sheep. The prehistoric standing stones at Callinish are second only to Stonehenge. An impressive double-walled 2,000-year-old defensive “broch” on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides testifies to a long history of strife. The Vikings rampaged and settled here. The region is littered with ruined castles, the occasional one magnificently restored, and none more impressive than Eilean Donan.
The haunting beauty of St. Kilda
For thousands of years right up to the clearances, the common people lived in rock-walled hovels with heather-thatched roofs, a peat fire in the center and a hole in the roof to vent the smoke. The remains of these primitive dwellings, “black houses,” are everywhere. Then there is St. Kilda, 50 miles out in the inhospitable Atlantic, with no all-weather anchorage and a near perpetual swell, inhabited by a primitive peasant community until the 1930s, the Holy Grail of Hebrides cruising. We were lucky enough to get the spell of settled weather and flat seas necessary to visit, albeit at the cost of having to motor there and back. The low clouds lifted halfway up the mountains as we anchored, with the sun breaking through and lighting up the ruined village long enough to dash ashore and capture the magical scene before us. By the following morning a fog had closed us in.
Traditional Highland games are a serious business in this part of the world!
The sea life throughout the western isles is phenomenal. As the tide recedes clusters of seals wiggle their way onto the rocks. On a beach on Mingulay in the Outer Hebrides—another exposed anchorage that can only be contemplated in settled weather—we watched upwards of 40 young ones surfing onto the beach and then swimming back out to do it over and over again. Later that evening we were escorted by a school of dolphins up the channel into Castlebay on the island of Barra, where we went to find a sheltered anchorage for the night. On any passage of more than a few miles porpoises are likely to be seen. Giant basking sharks occasionally ripple the surface. We have drifted on a placid sea between the “Small Islands” of Eigg and Rum (there is nothing small about the deer-stalking mountains on Rum) while a pod of Minke whales fed on schools of mackerel around us. When the mackerel are running the fishing is extraordinary—we have cast a string of six hooks over the side and immediately pulled in six fish. In many anchorages there are mussels for the taking at every low tide.
The tides and tidal currents are impressive. Terrie mutinied when I proposed sailing through the Gulf of Corryvreckan. Unfortunately, she had done her homework and read about the 10-knot currents, whirlpools and 10- to 15-foot standing waves. This is nature at its most elemental. We have several times run through Kyle Rhea in the Sound of Sleat with 5-knot currents driving us forward. A set of tide and current tables and knowledge of how to use them is essential. Allowing for the 10- to 14-foot rise and fall is a critical aspect of anchoring, and there is no substitute for first-class ground tackle.
Secure anchorages abound in the Hebrides
Our principal anchor is a 73lb Rocna (or Manson) with an all-chain rode. Other than my misjudging where to drop it, we have only had to reset it a handful of times, such as when we picked up an abandoned lobster pot, and when I set it too aggressively in heavy kelp, ripping out a clump by the roots, which then prevented the anchor from digging in. We have found it to be a phenomenal anchor in everything from soft mud to rock (far better than the CQR, Delta, Bruce and Danforth-style anchors we have used in the past; I suspect the Spade and Ultra anchors have similar properties to the Rocna and Manson).
It is the plethora of all-weather anchorages scattered strategically throughout the region that makes cruising a practical reality. No matter where you are, other than at St. Kilda and on some stretches of the western shores of the Outer Hebrides, there is an anchorage within a few hours sail with sufficient protection to ride out the worst gale. However, negotiating the entries to many of these requires a fair bit of rock dodging (notably Loch Moidart, with its romantically ruined castle and great beach, and Arisaig). One will greatly benefit from good charts and a knowledge of how to use them.
We have been running Nobeltec electronic charts on the laptop and Navionics on the chart plotter (and iPad) and have found both to be remarkably accurate, even when grossly overzoomed. Beyond where the charts have run out of detail, we have crept into many anchorages with a bow lookout watching for rocks and only bumped once (attempting to pass between the slate islands of Seil and Easedale). We have recently been told the Antares charts (antarescharts.co.uk) provide highly accurate details for many popular anchorages.
Terrie does not like this rock dodging; it is the bird life that draws her. Circling the Isle of Mull we saw both white-tailed and golden eagles. In the Shiant Islands we drifted in the dinghy into a mat of razorbills and guillemots, watching the birds swim under us in the crystal clear water. Ashore were a quarter million nesting razorbills, guillemots and puffins. We thought it could not get any better than this until we went to Boreray off of St. Kilda, where we circled close inshore, gazing up at a million birds: including tens of thousands of magnificent gannets, perched on ledges on the face of massive vertical cliffs that disappeared into the mist and low clouds above us, with a constant cacophony and the ever present smell of guano adding a dimension that no photograph can capture. Even this could not top the thrill of being able to wander close to nesting puffins on the Treshnish Islands, with the birds clumsily flying on and off the cliff tops and hopping into their burrows, unconcerned at the human presence a few feet away.
A pair of puffins in the Trenish Islands
The only protection of any sort close to Boreray is the open roadstead at St. Kilda. The Shiants and Treshnish have exposed anchorages subject to ocean swells. But at least for the Shiants you can beat an overnight retreat to Scalpay and for the Treshnish to the South Harbour on Gometra, both just a few miles away. We found Scalpay to be testimony to the strength of Protestantism in these parts: the local store does not sell Sunday newspapers and the children are not allowed to use the playground on this day!
Between the Treshnish Islands and Mull lies Staffa. It is the epitome of the dramatic geology of the region, with hexagonal basalt columns topped by a thick icing of lava and pierced by Fingal’s Cave (the inspiration for Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides” overture). The mountains of Mull and Skye have been thrown up by massive volcanic eruptions and carved by ice a mile thick. In contrast, there are the low islands such as Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides with miles of sandy beaches on the western shores and not a footprint or person to be seen. We have sailed in many parts of the world and have not seen landscapes to rival these.
The local seal population visits Nada at anchor in Lock Finsbay
Finally, there are the people. Whatever happened to the legendary “dour” Scot? We have been greeted with helpful friendliness in the pubs and on the roads, where people have stopped to offer us rides and always seem interested in what we were doing. There is music in the bars, ceilidhs, or traditional Scottish dancing, in the village halls, highland games with bagpipe competitions and hammer throwing, and haggis and oatcakes. Life ashore, with the ongoing Gaelic revival and a strong sense of community, adds a delightful dimension to the cruising experience. And of course, there are the distilleries and whiskey tastings…
Even the weather has its good side. The corollary to the frequent low pressure systems and gales is that there is generally plenty of wind for sailing, and over the course of a week the wind is likely to box most points of the compass. So long as you are flexible as to your destination, and so long as you have the time to sit out the gales in some protected anchorage, it is generally possible to sail with a favorable wind to somewhere delightful. I typically do not make a firm decision on where to go on any given day until the night before or the morning in question. Sometimes we change destinations in mid stream. As a result, we have had numerous fast and exciting passages and have rarely had to beat to windward in anything particularly unpleasant. On the backside of our current gale, I expect a fast reach to our next port of call. For me, this has been some of the most enjoyable sailing we have ever done.
I have come to the conclusion that the fundamental keys to cruising in this part of the world are first, to give yourself sufficient time to be able to sit out the nasty stuff, and second, to avoid sailing to any kind of a schedule (so you are not driven to undertake unpleasant passages).
And so it is we find ourselves looking forward to another season in this often miserable climate. After that, it is definitely south to sunnier climes.
Photos by Nigel Calder