We have sub-divided our annotated pictures into the following categories for Scotland: Shetland, Orkney, Outer Hebrides, Inner Hebrides, Islay, and Southwest Scotland.
The red line shows Pilgrims track from the UK border to the Clyde Marina
We anchored in an all-weather anchorage on the northern-most island of the Shetlands (Unst). As we approached the island we were greeted by gannets and gulls. The northern tip of the western arm of Unst is a cliff with gannet, fulmar, kittiwake, guillemot, razorbill and puffins. The sound in which we are anchored is protected from all winds … a great natural harbour. It has about four fish farms along the shore. We are anchored between a manor house and a large quay. There are tenant farms around the manor house and cows and sheep on the hills: a prime example of the class structure inherent in British society.
Balta Sound manor house
Balta Sound crofter’s cottage Fish farm fallen into disrepair
This is the capital city of the Shetland Islands. We left the anchorage on Unst, the northern-most island of the Shetlands around 7AM and as soon as we were in the channel to the Sound we realized the waves had built considerably during the night. Especially in the shallows of the channel we were slammed about by 12-16 foot rollers, thankfully without breaking waves on top. The wind was 15 knots, but right on the stern, so the waves caused the sails to flog and loose power. After an hour of an easterly track, we turned southwest, and then could sail on a reach, surfing down the waves, and reaching 10 knots on some waves. The gannets soared around the boat, probably sensing the different wind pressure caused by our sails. The wind died to 5 knots by noon, alas the waves had not, and we had to motor most of the way to Lerwick.
Lerwick cottage with a 2 boat parking spot
We docked, checked in with the Port Authority, and filled out customs forms. We asked, “What courtesy flag should we fly?” The answer: you can fly the ensign (UK), but Shetland has its own flag … We hastily bought a Shetland flag. (The key to getting along with Islanders is to recognize their distinct culture and flying THEIR national flag goes a long way)
We took a walk around the downtown/historic village. There are narrow winding streets and Closes … sidewalks with steps, but considered a “street” for postal service. There is a Cromwellian fort, the only one in Scotland, a new museum, and yarn and fishing shops.
Eastern border of Lerwick
Some days the traffic in Lerwick is for the birds
We left the quay at Lerwick in the rain. Fortunately the rain stopped and the visibility improved as we passed the island Noss which has steep cliffs with natural ledges for nesting gannets, puffins, guillemots, and fulmars. The wind was SW, the direction we were traveling, so we motored about 25 miles to our next anchorage. We made several attempts to anchor a bit further north, but discovered we were trying to get an anchor to bite into a thick bed of kelp. We have a combination of blue sky and rain … typically British.
Voe, Mainland, Shetland Islands
Tuesday morning we woke to fresh S/SE winds, which were unsuitable for our anchorage, so we moved a bit further south, to a bay on the southern tip of Mainland and stayed there for the day. It gave us an opportunity to do repairs, cleaning, and plan the next few stops. The airport was right on the bay … a far cry from being anchored off City Island in Long Island Sound near LaGuardia Airport. There were less than half a dozen flights, including helicopter landings.
A less than peaceful anchorage at the south end of Mainland
Wednesday we left early to ride the tidal currents to Fair Isle, about 22 miles SW of Mainland, the southern-most of the Shetland Islands. We arrived at Fair Isle just after noon.
This is “Britain’s most remote populated island.” Remote, because there is nothing but sea for 20 miles in any direction. There are about 70 inhabitants, mainly crofters. They share pasture-land on the north end of the island (where the harbour is), and divide the arable land into small plots with stone fences for growing silage, grain and vegetable gardens. There is a store / post office, and one public phone booth. The island is known for its birds, especially seabirds. The shoreline is mainly steep cliffs topped by tabletop-like green pastures that look like golf courses. We could see fulmars with their young chicks (white fluff with a head and beak) at fairly close range. Needless to say sheep abound. There were a few cows, a horse, a Shetland pony, some chickens and ducks being raised. It took only an hour to walk the entire length of the island.
Unfortunately the FIBO (Fair Isle Bird Observatory) was closed because it is undergoing expansion, so we could not enjoy one of their guided bird walks or buy anything from the shop.
The harbour is small: a quay that holds 2 boats plus the island mail boat, the Good Shepherd, and a pier that holds 1 or 2 boats. We rafted against a 50-foot English boat. There were a Dutch, a German, and 3 other English boats rafting 3-deep.
Fair Isle has a well protected but tiny harbour … hard to get into and out of in a North to East wind
Sheep Rock … the only way to get sheep on is to use a rope and tackle from boats in calm weather
A fifty foot drop on one side and a dumb tourist on the other … what’s a poor lamb to do?
The one and only call box on Fair Isle
The trip to the most NE island in the Orkneys was pleasant, but a motor-sail since the wind was light and from the SW. We anchored in a large bay on the SE side of North Ronaldsay Island. We wanted to see the seaweed-eating sheep, evidently the only ones in the world. The farmers actually have built a sheep dyke to keep the sheep from the grazing land for “normal” sheep and cows. Only lambing ewes are allowed on the pastureland. It is said that the meat of these lambs is “tangy.” We never did find a store that sold this special lamb. The stone dyke is quite visible, and stone fences are used to separate pasture lands from gardens as well. It was near high tide when we were on the island, so perhaps the seaweed the sheep eat was under water, but all the sheep we saw seemed very happy eating grass, which was available to them. Perhaps the sheep’s’ diet use to be seaweed, but now we think this is more marketing myth than reality.
The famous North Ronaldsay seaweed-eating sheep having a snack
Did you say seaweed ? Not really … we prefer grass … the seaweed bit is just marketing hype
The bay is home to many seals, mainly common harbour seals. Their heads pop out of the water like misshapen balloons with two big eyes. They look you over, and then when you look back at them, they dive under. We saw about 6 or 7 of them basking on their backs on the rocks and emitting contented grunts. When we were out in the dinghy, the waterborne seals followed us, sometimes a little closer than we found comfortable. Seals are large, and although we do not think they attack humans, if we encroached on their space, we are not sure what they would do. We landed the dinghy at a crumbling pier and walked around. There were a few folks on the farms, but not much activity. Evidently there is a bi-weekly ferry to this island and unscheduled air service.
As this seal kept getting closer and closer we wondered if he was planning to jump into the dinghy
The island is very flat, unlike the Shetlands and Fair Isle. The island is mainly red sandstone with sandy beaches and lots of limpets on the rocks and piers for the Oystercatchers.
The waters are full of Saithe (Boston Bluefish) of various sizes, and are so stupid Brian thinks they would chomp down on a crowbar if it was used as bait. Most of his catch is being released due to size and an over-full freezer of cod and whiting.
The wind was light, so we motored through the passage between North Ronaldsay and Sanday islands. It is shallow (30 – 50 feet) and the chart indicated “turbulent water.” This is not unusual in the Orkneys. The passages are often shallow and relatively narrow, giving rise to very strong currents (4-6 knots) which change with the tide. We noticed the water was “boiling” around us … overfalls. The wind and current were with us, and we surged forward at over 8 knots. Steering the boat was not simple in such strong currents, but the channel was not so narrow as to cause alarm. However, we changed our plan and took outside passages bypassing docking at Kirkwall, which is right in the middle of the strong current arrows.
We love some of the names on the chart. In a country with more sheep than people, the “Baa of Trevan” on the NW tip of Sanday Island sounds perfect
The shallow passage between Westray and Papa Westray (islands) was much easier than expected. We must have lucked out on the tidal currents. With a north wind between 12 and 15 knots, the SW passage outside the western edge of the Orkneys was delightful. We were going fast enough that two pods of dolphins joined us and swam in our bow wave. It is so extraordinary to have these companions for a brief time.
A pod of dolphins joining in on the fun
Jim (Jane’s brother) gave us a wonderful book on the Scottish Isles that was very helpful in finding anchorages and describing the geology, flora, fauna and history. We learned that there are airfields on both Westray and Papa Westray Islands, and that there is even a scheduled flight between them. It is (Guinness Book of Records confirms) the shortest scheduled flight in the world. It takes 2 minutes, and the record flight time is 58 seconds. The distance between the two airfields’ runways is less than the longest runway at Heathrow.
With great wind and an early start to the day, we arrived at Stromness earlier than expected… an hour before low tide. The tidal current information was not specific enough to tell us when slack current happened, so we just proceeded into the channel with main and Genoa flying. The water started “boiling” since the ebb current was against the northwest wind. Our speed (GPS … over the ground) dropped from 7 knots to 5 knots to 3 knots in a matter of minutes. We hit the “brick wall” of the tidal current. All we could do was furl and drop sails, turn tail and head back to sea. An hour later, we turned around and only encountered a 1 knot current against us, which was relatively calm.
20 knot winds against 4 knot currents can build up large waves that stop Pilgrim dead in her wake
The Old Man of Hoy, a rock formation on the west coast of Hoy, with the rest of the island enshrouded in fog
Monday we took the bus into Kirkwall, the capital of the Orkneys. It was raining all day. Our first stop was the Highland Park Distillery where we did the tour (production facilities were undergoing maintenance, so there was little activity to see) and then spent time in St. Magnus Church, a Norman / Gothic cathedral that has been very well maintained.
Highland Park guide showing us a turning shovel that is used on the barley malting floor
St. Magnus Church
We had to time our departure from the Orkneys with the ebb tide. We had less than 5 knots of wind from the S / SW all day … a motor trip around Cape Wrath. Even though we were plodding along at 6 knots by motor, several pods of dolphins swam in our bow wave. We also encountered a puffin directly in front of the boat. As we approached, it tried to swim ahead of us, feet making a great flutter of activity, but it was unable to swim faster than us. Finally it simply dived, and we lost track of it. Puffins are priceless treasures.
Cape Wrath on the NW tip of Scotland lives up to its name. No matter how benign the weather, the waves are fierce on the NW tip of Scotland. We managed to get by in what we consider a moderate sea (but the forecast said was “slight.”) For the first 6 hours of our trip, the current was with us and we made much better time than expected. We rounded Cape Wrath at 11:30 PM, and only had another 15 miles to go to our first anchorage.
Cape Wrath in unusually calm conditions
The moon was new (non-existent), the cloud bank deepening, and the “midnight sun” was totally gone: we were too far south and it was too late in the year. Sun sets at 9:20PM and rises at 5:30AM. In short, it was DARK. We decided that we would try to anchor in a large bay at the mouth of the first Loch, which had lit navigation aids. It was 1AM, the tide was almost at low, and it was DARK with a slight mist. We headed into Loch Inchard with the lighthouse and the cardinal buoy guiding us. All was going well until we passed the buoy and lost our last visual point of reference. The seas were still strong enough that steering a straight course without visual reference was difficult. On went the Radar. Out came the spot light (FYI: strong spot lights in a mist don’t work very well in fact visibility is less than 10 feet with our spotlight … the mist reflects back the light so all you see is bright mist). We headed into the anchorage bay. Radar said (displayed a return echo) that “there is something in this bay that is not on the chart.” We continued on with Brian on the bow with the spot light. Suddenly the order came, “REVERSE.” An uncharted fish farm was in the middle of the bay ... the outer marker buoy was right on the bow. Flying blind, we reversed, steered away from the fish farm, and then deployed the CQR anchor. Good news: the wind was still light, Bad news: the anchor did not bite on the sandy bottom. We decided to bring in the CQR and deploy the Danforth, our sand anchor. The anchors (of course) fouled in the process, but eventually we got the Danforth down and it held well. Then the current shifted (there was no wind) and we were 180 degrees from how we set the anchor, but all still seemed to be OK, except we were getting extremely close to the shoreline rocks which we could not see visually but could see their radar echo and chart plotter location. By now it was 2:30, low tide. We had nowhere to go but up. Brian sat on anchor watch; Jane caught a few fitful winks. At sunrise, 5:30, the wind had finally filled in from the NW at 10 knots (18 by the time we were out of the loch), we raised anchor and headed for the next loch south which had a good mud anchorage in more protected waters. More uncharted fish farms almost caused a change of plan, but we finally anchored in Loch Laxford at high tide. Once we were sure we were securely anchored, we fell into our bunk and slept. You cannot imagine our amazement when we woke at low tide and saw the islets that were lurking below the surface when we entered the bay. All were on the chart and therefore avoided, but it was surprising to see land where none existed when we anchored. It rained all day on Wednesday and the wind continued to be strong from the north.
Mussel farm in Loch Laxford
We had a great 50-mile sail from Loch Laxford to Stornoway. However, the small marina was full, so we ended up being the third boat of a raft off the quay (not a floating pontoon), there is a 16-foot tide, so at low tide it is a long climb from the deck of boat #1 up a barnacle encrusted steel ladder to get ashore.
The city is relatively small, so exploring it hardly required a map. This city is famous for Harris Tweed cloth. Harris is the island south of Lewis, but Stornoway is the major city of the two islands and became the hub of the Tweed manufacture in the early twentieth century. We had a good chat with an old spinner/weaver who ran a shop of eclectic items from the Outer Hebrides. We also bought some of the famous black (blood) pudding, which is like a thick sausage made from oats and other ingredients including pig’s blood. We did not dislike it, but did not go back for seconds. All the signs are in Gaelic first, then English.
Pilgrim on the outside of the raft in high tide … you can’t see her at low tide (16 foot drop)
Stornoway, Isle of Lewis … a pleasant place especially if you like Harris Tweed.
We left Stornoway with a lazy south wind, so motored the 18 miles to Loch Shell halfway down the coast of Lewis. For a change we did not mind the motoring, since there was no electrical plug-in in Stornoway and we needed to charge our batteries.
We anchored at the head of this 6-mile long loch and there is NOTHING here. Well, a derelict boat abandoned on the tidal shore, and evidence that sheep (or cows) graze here since there are some fences. There is a lazy waterfall trickle coming down one hill. The heather is about to bloom. There are no birds or evidence of sea life other than the fish farms midway up the loch. While at sea we saw gannets, puffins, guillemots, skua and shags. In Stornoway harbour there were half a dozen seals, but we did not encounter the approximately 20 dolphins that now make the outer harbour their home.
Loch Shell, Isle of Lewis … most interesting thing here was watching the wreck being covered and uncovered by the tide.
When away from cities (which is most of the time cruising in northern Scotland) we cannot find a mobile phone signal. FM radio is sporadic and wireless Internet access points are unknown. Sheep do not listen to the radio, talk on mobile phones or surf the net.
For Harry Potter fans, we anchored near a tiny community with a name that sounds like a game played on broomsticks. It was foggy leaving the anchorage on Lewis. The Shaint Isles off the east coast of Lewis were enshrouded in mist, so we did not see the many seabirds that nest on the steep cliffs of these islands. In addition, we were battling wind on the nose and a current against us. For that reason the fabled Blue Men of the Minch who live on the Shiants probably cut us some slack. It is generally believed that the Blue Men on Shiant were storm kelpies who were bad-tempered angels who fell into the sea when they were expelled from Heaven. There is only one remedy if you are accosted by the Blue Men: Sing to them in rhyming couplets in Gaelic!
As we approached the entrance to our anchorage, the fog and drizzle descended. The combination of chart plotter, radar and Brian’s excellent eyesight got us in the channel. The fog dissipated briefly to allow us to enter, and then the rain began in earnest.
Quidnish, Loch Finsbay, Isle of Harris remains of a crofter’s cottage
The wind, as predicted, switched from S to NW at 2AM. Both of us were up with the wind shift, and Brian sat anchor watch in the cockpit for a couple of hours as the boat swung into the new wind, the anchor and chain dug up gobs of kelp as the anchor reset with the NW wind. At 6AM we were both up, so had a quick breakfast and left the anchorage to take advantage of the favorable winds. We had a great sail for a couple of hours, then a leisurely sail for a couple of hours, and finally turned on the motor at noon as the wind totally petered out. The rain overnight gave way to a mix of bright blue patches, white fluffy clouds, deep menacing grey clouds, and a few sprinkles of rain. A typical fair day in Scotland.
After a 45 mile sail we moored on the west coast of the Isle of Skye. The coastline is spectacular. Steep cliffs, plateaus of coarse pastureland, waterfalls tumbling down the cliffs, often stained light brown with peat, and stark columns rising out of the sea. The MacLeod clan has been the power on the island since 1200, and MacLeod’s Maidens are three columns at the entrance to Loch Bracadale, of which Loch Harport is a tributary.
MacLeod’s Maidens are three columns at the entrance to Loch Bracadale
We had been listening to Mendelssohn: the Scottish Symphony and Finegan’s Cave. While reading the excellent book Jim gave us on Scottish Islands, we learned that fairies have been part of the lore of Skye. They are said to live in the rounded grassy mounds called sithean and enjoy many mischievous pranks. This has reminded us of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream (and Mendelssohn’s incidental music). Skye was ensconced in mist as we approached, and helped us believe that fairies could have been an influence in this beautiful island.
The rugged Cuillin Hills on the SW side of the Isle of Skye, as seen from Loch Harport
We took a mooring put out by Talisker Distilleries (use at your own risk and btw we were told later … the one you have taken is unsafe), went on the Talisker Distillery tour and were underwhelmed. Our guide knew the script, but could not handle any questions (if fact she was visibly irritated whenever anyone asked ... which just spurred us on to ask as many questions as possible). Talisker’s mainstay is a 10-year old, and they have recently introduced an 18, 25 and 30-year old. The 10 is worse than a good blend to our palates. The only production activities that are done on Skye are: fermentation, distilling, and providing the spring water. We agree that the quality of the water is important, but the other important tasks/ingredients such as barley, the malting, storing the casks and bottling are done on mainland. We did get a special bottle called 57N, since the distillery is located at 57 degrees (and a bit) north. It is a blend, but has 57 percent alcohol rather than the usual 45 percent. It is a very good bottle, with an explosion of tastes and very long finish. We are glad we bought it. Forget the tour just buy the bottle of 57N since it is hard to find.
Piper from Ontario, Canada at the Talisker Distillery
We met a couple from Bristol on holidays. They had two rigid nesting sea kayaks on the roof of their car. We talked with them about the boats, and later, while rowing back to Pilgrim after our land adventures, encountered them again returning from their kayak voyage. We invited them aboard Pilgrim and had a great visit. He plays jazz saxophone and teaches. We do meet interesting folks.
A severe gale warning for our area was broadcast… South Force 9 (45 knots) in the fishing banks, and up to South F8 (40 knots) in coastal waters. The usual way to convert “Beaufort force” to knots is multiply the Force by 5 and subtract 5. That works up to Force 8, after that don’t bother subtracting the 5. So Force 7 (near gale) would be 7*5-5=30 knots. Severe Gale Force 9 is simply 9*5=45 knots. We decided to anchor in the eastern loch on Rhum, one of the “Little Isles” south of Skye. The harbour is open to the east, but protected from the South and Southwest. We deployed both the Danforth and CQR anchors and waited for the wind. The forecast changed from Gale F8 and Severe Gale F9 to Violent Storm F11 (11*5=55 knots) in the area just west of our anchorage. We were battered by wind for 36 hours, but did not encounter any gusts higher than 40 knots. We did keep anchor watch the entire 36 hours. It is worse than keeping watch during an overnight passage, as there is little to do other than check bearing and distance off to ensure the anchors are holding.
Loch Scresort, Rhum, The Little Isles … red sky at night … sailors delight … the calm before Force 11 winds
Our neighbor in 40 knots of wind … so much for the “red sky at night” bit
Forecast NW winds made us decide to travel south toward the Isle of Mull. However, after an hour the wind died, then freshened from the SE and we were going right into the wind under motor. We decided to go down the Sunart Loch to anchor rather than go into Tobermory on Mull in the pelting rain.
Brian, the ever optimistic fisherman, was on deck in the rain and caught a saithe. We should have known… a seal poked its head up just after we anchored to give us the “Anchored OK” look. No seals without fish.
New pontoon docks were installed in 2008, and we were docked with shore power, internet and a tenuous mobile signal. We did the Tobermory Distillery tour and went to the local grocery store for fresh supplies. The town is very colourful for a Scottish village. The city has done a good job of making itself a tourist-friendly site. There are a number of interesting (eclectic) shops and a chandlery.
We took a bus that took us to a ferry port on the SE side of Mull, where we picked up a second bus that took us to the ferry terminal on the SW side of the island. From there we took the ferry to Iona. The bus trips were heart-stopping. Most of the road was single track with turnoffs every 500-1000 feet so that oncoming traffic and we could pull to one side for passing. We were sitting right behind the driver, so we could feel the narrowness of the road, especially when passing oncoming traffic. The sheep seem to have right-of-way; several times the bus driver had to wait for a straggler sheep to cross to his brothers/sisters on the other side of the road. There were also beautiful waterfalls along the way.
Sheep may safely graze anywhere they want … even on the main road
Iona is a small island that St. Columba landed on in the fifth century and founded an abbey. A nunnery followed, and both were part of the St. Augustine order. When the reformation arrived in Britain, both were abandoned and they went to partial ruin. Early in the twentieth century efforts began for restoration. The nunnery is still a well maintained partial ruin, but the abbey is fully restored and functioning as an ecumenical, social-justice center. Our friend and professor of theology at University of Toronto, takes students on pilgrimages to Iona frequently. The island was not what we expected, however. It was buzzing with tourists, including passengers from a cruise liner anchored off the Iona shoreline. There are working farms on the island, mainly with sheep and some long-haired, long-horned cattle.
We were fortunate that the day was … well, not rainy, and sometimes even sunny. We had a great walk, and hiked to the highest point of land which gave a good view of the west coast of Mull. We met a woman from Toronto on the bus who is a budding theatrical director / screen writer. She joined us for dinner on Pilgrim when we returned to Tobermory.
We had to time our departure from Tobermory to go down the Sound of Mull because of the tidal current that causes turbulence in the water. The current boost was welcomed, and as we approached Oban, the overfalls were quite dramatic. From the Sound of Mull to the Clyde there are a number of turbulent stretches of water. For example, The Race has currents that can run up to 9 knots, and there are some overfalls that are 6-9 feet high. Hitting these is like shooting the rapids without the issue of hitting bottom; however it is easy to lose control of the boat, especially if there is strong wind against the current.
Oban harbour at night
We took the Oban Distillery tour, walked around the downtown area, picked up some brochures from the Tourist Information Office, and determined there was nothing much of interest to us in Oban.
Oban downtown … a large centre with a disappointing distillery tour
We left Oban in strong NW winds 25-30 knots. Since our course took us SW and S, and we had figured out the currents and how to avoid the overfalls on the way, we left Oban at 9:30. The wind stayed with us all day, and we sailed the 39 miles under Genoa (often partially furled). This is one of the first passages this year that the engine was used less than 30 minutes, for getting off the dock and setting the anchor. There were few boats out, and we heard some cancel their plans to leave port on the VHF radio. The waves were sizable (6 feet, with the occasional 10-footer) but since we were broadreaching most of the way, we could handle them.
Wind and current going the same way but 30 knot winds can still kick up a fuss
The Isle of Jura is barely inhabited. There is one distillery on the east coast where the only village is. We anchored on the west coast in a loch that almost bisects the island. There were warnings about wandering around on shore in late August. Stag hunting season is underway. In addition, one must be careful not to step on adders, which are prolific. The shore is unique. There are large elevated pebble beaches further inland than the shoreline. These are glacial deposits from thousands of years ago. We saw boulder beaches like these when we were in Finland’s Turku archipelago and also on the northeast shore of Lake Superior. We continue to see some of our favorite seabirds, but today brought a new sight: a basking shark floating on the surface of the water about a boat length from us.
Raised beaches on Isle of Jura
The wind died by bedtime, but the swell in the anchorage continued as the tide rose and fell, sometimes rocking us quite violently. However, the anchor held in what we think was a solid rock bottom with a bit of red seaweed. The high pressure, whose front caused the strong wind, settled over us and put us into calm. We motored down the Sound of Islay, passing the Paps of Jura, two hills that resemble breasts. A couple of hills with similar shape on the north shore of Lake Superior were called Paps by the French Canadian fur traders, so we think pap is French slang (from centuries ago perhaps) for breasts.
The Paps of Jura
We had planned to take a mooring at Lagavulin Distillery, but both of them were occupied and the anchoring space was very limited as well as being very shallow. We motored a bit further to Port Ellen where there is a guest pontoon. As we entered the harbour, trying to get the lay of the docks and what was open, something was floating in front of us. It was the resident begging seal. S/he just would not move. After we docked and a fishing boat arrived, the fisherpersons were hand feeding the seal.
Feed time for the local Port Ellen mooch, Islay
Port Ellen is not the major city, but is the main port for the ferry service. There is a grocery store, but not much in the way of tourist information.
We had a fantastic time on Islay. Of the 8 distilleries on the island, we visited 6 and had tours of 5. One of our favorites, Lagavulin, was in its quiet period (2-3 weeks shut down for maintenance each year), and were not doing tours. We had standard tours at Bowmore, Ardbeg, and Bunnahabhain. We had a special tasting at Caol Ila, which started with the spirit directly from the still, a barrel tasting of 8 year old, then their standard products (10 and 18 year olds) and a cask-strength. The tour guide was very good; her father works at Bowmore, her grandfather worked at Laphroaig, and her boyfriend works at Lagavaulin. We had a fascinating visit to “the source” at Laphroaig. We went to the loch that supplies the very peaty water to the spirit, and then went to the peat field where we learned about peat and got to dig some with the traditional tools. We had no idea that peat coming from the ground was the consistency of butter at about 65 degrees F. Soft, but heavy. The peat is dug up in a systematic manner and left on the field to dry. In the drying process it forms a skin and shrinks. Then it is picked up in a cart and taken to the distillery for use in the malting process. We also got to see the malting room with so much peat smoke it was hard to see the opposite wall. It was a fascinating tour. We were not able to get to two distilleries that were further away: Bruichladdich and the newest distillery on the island, Kilchoman that is just doing its first bottling this year. Perhaps we will be back next May, and also get to the Woolen Mill in Bridgend.
The waters and the peat
The barley malting floor and barley grinder
The washbacks and stills
The Spirit Safe and final warehouse storage
We managed to see our first curlew of the year, and an eagle. Evidently there are adders on Islay, but we did not encounter any. In the peat bogs there were plenty of midges, which have a powerful bite that stays with you for weeks. We have seen an amazing array of single malt products, from soaps and shampoos to fudge to lip balm.
Our departure from Islay was carefully timed to sail (motor-sail) around the Mull of Kintyre. It is a mainland peninsula that extends southward about 40 miles to the mouth of the Firth of Clyde. The currents around the end of the peninsula are strong. This was our last “tidal gate” to go through on our way to the Clyde Marina, winter home for Pilgrim. We could predict the currents, but we could not control the wind. Our route was mainly SE to get around the Mull of Kintyre, and the wind was SE. We motor-sailed with the mizzen and staysail, and managed to go 50 miles to an anchorage on the NW side of Sanda Island, near the mouth of the Firth of Clyde. We were drenched with salt spray when the favorable current met the opposing winds. The most rewarding moments came when gannets found the wind streaming off our mizzen and soared behind us without moving a wing muscle. It was as glorious has having dolphins in the bow wave.
The overfalls caused by wind against current A Gannet using our sail against wind lift to soar without effort
Sailing around the Mull of Kintyre we had strong SE wind and we were going SE, but when we turned the corner at the Mull of Kintyre, the wind lightened and when we anchored in the lee of Sanda Island, there was practically no wind. The boat was controlled by the direction of the current, which is strong between Sanda and the mainland. In fact, there were overfalls visible from our anchorage. At 1:00AM the wind piped up and was strong and gusty. Brian went on anchor watch in the cockpit, and Jane stayed in the aft cabin, but sleep was impossible. The island is high and steep enough that the SE wind climbed the SE hills, then scooted over the top ridge and descended on us. The wind could go from 7 to 30 knots in less than a second, and lay the boat over on its side. Fortunately, the CQR anchor was deeply dug into the muddy sand, and the more the wind pounded us, the deeper the anchor went. Getting it out was a challenge.
Sunrise at Sanda Island
We stayed at anchor until 12:30 PM so that we would not battle a current going up Sanda Sound. The winds were still SE, and were 10-15 knots (once we got out from under the island), so we had a great reach up the sound to Campbeltown. There was much haze and mist, and eventually some showers. The coastline reminded us of Ireland: steep cliffs topped by green fields. Once in the protection of the natural harbour outside Campbeltown, we called the harbour master, who said there was plenty of room at the visitors’ pontoon.
Campbeltown pontoon … a safe refuge for the pending gales
The strong SE winds kept us docked in Campbeltown for 4 days. The village used to be larger and prosperous during the distillery heyday (30 of them on the Kintyre Peninsula), but now there is one in semi-production and one quiet. We took the Springbank Distillery Tour and were astounded. There have been no capital improvements and there is no modern instrumentation / computerization of the distillery. Its output is the lowest by far of any distillery we have toured. The product is barely acceptable to our palates.
The whiskey and fishing business made Campbeltown a thriving community in the nineteenth century, but it is in the doldrums now. Unlike the Islay distilleries, the large conglomerates or foreign owners did not buy Springbank or Glen Scotia distilleries, or the others that have completely fallen off the map. All that is left on the Kintyre peninsula is farming and tourism, and the farming is not that great.
Campbeltown a not so thriving community
We managed to find the Linda McCartney Memorial Garden. Linda and Paul purchased a farm on the Kintyre Peninsula about the time the Beatles were breaking up. They needed a place for themselves and their 4 children to get away from the pop music rat-race, and this is where they settled. Linda, in particular, integrated herself into the community, and was admired. Her vegetarian and pro-animal stance hit a chord with the locals, and they are the ones who instigated the memorial, not Paul.
Linda McCartney Memorial Garden
When we left Campbeltown we had a delightful sail NE to the northern tip of the Isle of Arran. We only used the Genoa, but were able to keep the speed around 6 knots since we were going with the wind and the current. We were in sun most of the day, but there were threatening clouds both east and west of us.
Lochranza is a small bay with soft mud. Our documentation indicated there were 5 visitor moorings, but we found at least 20, which meant there was little room to anchor. Since the wind was light, we picked up a mooring and took the dinghy into shore. Lochranza Castle (13-16 century ruin) was about the only tourist sight. There are about 2000 wild red deer on the island, and one of them was grazing at the ruin totally oblivious to the tourists. An elegant fishing boat transformed into a small cruise liner anchored outside the mooring field, and we met some of the passengers at the castle ruin. Three were from Canada (Toronto and Ottawa).
Lochranza Castle (13-16 century ruin) and a semi-wild red deer
We went on the Arran Distillery tour. This is a new operation, begun in 1995 by the retired general manager of Chivas Regal. Everything is modern, including the shop and visitor’s centre. The products they make are quite good, but lack the peaty flavours we both like.
In the afternoon we were on the boat, and watched a wedding complete with bagpipes and a ram’s horn fanfare at the castle ruin. Fortunately it did not rain.
We left the Isle of Arran to seek a safe anchorage up around the north end of the Isle of Bute. We ACTUALLY SAILED all morning with a strong south wind, and dropped anchor between mainland and the Isle of Bute in the Kyles of Bute. Kyles is the Scottish word for Caol in Gaelic, which means narrow water passage or strait. The Kyles of Bute are the two water passages around the north end of the island.
We tried to get into the “end of season” frame of mind during two peaceful days at anchor. Brian caught 9 mackerel. We smoked them, and they were really good.
The gold at the end of a fisherman’s rainbow is fish for dinner … even if it is only mackerel
We had another great sail with wind 15-20 knots from the west and northwest. We had time to lower the dinghy so that Jane could wash the waterline / topsides before getting to the marina where access to both sides of the boat is not possible. Then we hoisted the dinghy to the foredeck, planning to sail the short distance (8 miles) to the marina the next day.
Little Cumbrae is privately owned, with many “no trespassing” signs along the shoreline. There is the ruin of an old castle (17 century), and a large manor house that is inhabited. There are no sheep, but the island’s claim to fame is evidently over 5000 rabbits.
Little Cumbrae Island’s castle bedecked with keep out signs … a most unwelcoming place
The anchorage was a poor choice. The forecast was for winds from the SW or W, and we were in an anchorage well protected from the west, but not from the south or southeast. The wind seemed to funnel up the south tip of Little Cumbrae and turn south, even southeast. The waves also curled around the point and hammered us. After dinner we had 3-foot waves, and by morning they were 4-5 foot waves with the occasional 6-8 footer. Sleep was impossible, and although we had two anchors out and were very securely anchored, the motion and noise of the waves made sleep difficult. When sleep did overtake us, the dreams were really weird. At 8AM with 19 knot of wind from the SE (and our marina was southeast), we decided we could not stay in the Little Cumbrae anchorage, and did not want to attempt the somewhat tricky entrance to the Clyde Marina (traffic signals, storm gates and a ferry to the Isle of Arran in a narrow channel… I don’t think so). We scoured the cruising guides and charts and found Rothesay the only option. Fortunately, it was north, so with the wind. Unfortunately, it puts us about 8 miles further away from the marina.
The anchorage at Rothesay was very good for SW and W winds, which were forecast to be gale force for the following 2 days. The highest wind speed we experienced was 30 knots and that only in gusts.
One bit of excitement did happen on Tuesday midday. A very sudden gust of wind loaded with rain hit us broadside from a dead calm. The boat heeled over, but immediately righted. When we took stock, we discovered our CQR anchor was no longer set. Brian started bringing it in to reset it, but our Danforth anchor rode was twisted around the CQR chain, and up came the Danforth, and the two rodes were fouled. All of this in strong wind and rain! Brian got the anchors untangled and back on deck. The CQR was totally covered with kelp, notorious for poor holding. We spent the next two hours trying to get both anchors back down. It took 3 tries to get the Danforth to bite, then four attempts to get the CQR to bite. Both have held us secure through some pretty unsettled weather since then.
Rothesay Sailing Club
After 3 days at anchor in Rothesay, with the weather forecasts calling for continuing strong winds for 2 more days, we woke up to what we thought were moderate winds(no more than 20 knots). We called the marina to ensure the storm gate was open and the conditions “reasonable” for docking Pilgrim. We were assured that all was well. We recovered our two anchors with no difficulty. Both were well dug in to sand and clay, but did bring up a fair bit of kelp as well. We hoisted main and mizzen, thinking they would be full of water, but they were dry! Despite the torrents of rain on Monday and Tuesday, the wind had blown away all puddles of moisture. We practically flew SE between the Isle of Bute on the west and the Cumbrae islands on the east, with wind and current working together to keep our speed at 8 knots most of the way. Just before we left the lee of the Isle of Bute, about 4 miles before we got to the mainland and the marina, we lowered the sails. We were concerned that the waves would be very large and bringing down the sails could be difficult. The wind subsided to 16 knots as we entered the harbour area. We had lines and all fenders / fender balls out for a starboard-to docking, which the marina had assured us was available just after we entered the storm gate. A work boat was obstructing our entrance to the storm gate, but moved just enough to let us squeeze by. Once inside the gate, with low tide, the wind was blanketed enough by the sea walls, that docking was … well, we docked without doing any damage to us or other boats.
A quiet marina in which to winterize Pilgrim
We spent a week getting Pilgrim ready for haul out.
Pilgrim on the way to the shed for winter storage