Monday 24 August 2020

10-16th August 2020 - A small isles adventure



The date had been set for a month or so, based solely on a period of neap tides, the location to be set nearer the time to make the most of the weather. With a couple of weeks to go our chosen dates seemed to coincide with a spell of settled weather, but the confidence in the forecast was low. A week to go 10 days of low winds were still being predicted, no matter how many times I refreshed my browser. With a day or so to go the lull was stubbornly holding on and a dream trip to the Small Isles was on.

A number of years ago we had motored a yacht around this area while a group of Dutch paddlers kept pace with us having a trip of a lifetime. Ever since we had wanted to return for a paddling trip and the time had finally come.

Day 1 - Arisaig to Camas Sgiotaig, NW Eigg.

Just after 8am we left Kendal and headed up the M6. After just a couple of very brief stops (I need to reduce my morning coffee intake) we arrived in Arisaig for a late lunch, Eigg beckoning from over the glistening sea with both the Red and the Black Cuillin providing  a stunning backdrop.

As we loaded a week's supplies into the boats we made use of day trippers leaving and slowly shunted the van into ever better spots in the small lay-by so that she would be cosy for the next week. 

It would be nice to say that we then paddled off into the distance, but the tide had rendered the water we launched into a small pool, separated from the sea by a small bar. So after just a brief time afloat we were carrying again, the boats heavier than they have ever been.

The sea reached, we pointed our bows towards the northern tip of Eigg and began our crossing. There was slightly more wind than we were expecting and along with the heavy boats and occasional breaking waves it was difficult to get into a flow. The amazing scenery and flocks of Manx Shearwater proved welcome distractions and as we paddled the wind eased, the sea calmed and we could concentrate solely on the incredible surroundings.

Paddling closer to the Eigg shore, it became apparent we were pushing the current, but rounding the point and turning in a more southerly direction we had that with us too and we're whisked towards our campsite for the night.

The guide book had mentioned possible surf on the beach but fortunately it sounded worse than it was and we were soon safely on the beautiful, sandy beach. With camp made and enjoying tea while the sun set over Rum, it was hard to believe that we had been at home that morning.

The sunset behind the Cuillin of Rum was spectacular and I went to bed eagerly anticipating our next crossing the following morning.

Day 2 -Camas Sgiotaig, Eigg to Harris, Rum.

Faffing with my spray deck meant my timing through the surf was less than perfect, the resulting cold shower though bringing the day sharply into focus. Ahead of us lay just over 10 kilometres of glassy sea to the southern end of Rum. The only distraction on the crossing being to visit a floating 'object' with a number of seabirds standing on it. On not too closer inspection it appeared to be a cow that had been in the water a little while, it's smell hitting us long before we could identify it visually.

Having followed the southern coast, catching the occasional glance of the feral goats that inhabit the island, we turned into the bay where we hoped to be able to spend the night. Suddenly my heart missed a beat. Ahead a large black dorsal fin moved slowly but purposefully through the water. In the blink of an eye it seemed to be joined by two others. Finally my brain caught up, though my heart kept racing. A lone basking shark's impressive fin had been joined, first by its tail and then by its nose. Knowing that these impressive fish, the second largest in the world, are vegetarians did little to calm me, it was still a very big fish. We watched for a few minutes as it continued to graze before slipping down into the depths.

The guide book mentioned that Harris bay makes for a good landing due to its sandy beach and even has a photo of a kayak on said sand. It's worth noting that there are no longer any traces of sand on the now small boulder beach and it would make for an interesting landing in bigger seas. Fortunately for us the little wind that was blowing came from the north and so the bay was extremely well sheltered. 

The boats safely on the shore we found a lovely piece of flat grass for our tents and went off to explore.  Our first stop was at the edifice that dominates the bay, the Burlough mausoleum. I'm not sure what the internments were actually like, but you imagine a stormy night, the hills brooding over the torch carrying mourners with the rain and wind battering them as they made their way along the winding track to their final destination. 

As well as a couple of more modern, but abandoned, farm buildings there are a large number of much older ruined walls and enclosures.  One of the most impressive made from the rounded stones of the raised beaches found here. This must have been a gargantuan task and you wonder how effective the resulting enclosure would have been.

While man has worked hard to produce walls from the stones, the power of nature is clearly on view in the number of raised boulder beaches, remnants from the island's glaciated past.

Eating our tea on the shore the basking shark returned with a friend and continued their long slow circling of the bay. Sometimes just their dorsal fins visible, at others their tails and bulbous noses too. 

As the evening drew on the colours of the surrounding hills transitioned through myriad colours, leaving a sim card full of photos, each with slightly more vibrant hues than the last. Unfortunately we weren't the only ones enjoying the evening. The horses and Highland cattle I didn't mind, but the midges were out in force. To use a word coined by youngest in an earlier trip to Scotland, it was 'midgerable'.

Day 3 - Harris, Rum to Camas Sgiotaig, Eigg.

The nearly two week long stretch of good weather over the West coast was marred by a single windy day. With forecasts predicting Force 6, we knew it wasn't going to be a paddling day and we needed to decide where we were going to be land bound. We were also now two long open crossings from the mainland, a new situation for both of us and we were feeling quite 'out there'. Erring on the side of cautio, we decided to abandon our plans to keep heading West and decided to turn tail and return to Eigg.

To make the most of the currents it was to be an early start, so it was early to bed with the benefit of escaping to midge free tents. The night was not a sleepful one. Most of the rest of the country was being battered by thunder storms and I first awoke to bright flashes of light.  I lay, counting, waiting for the thunder. 20, flash, flash, but no sound. 20, flash, flash, but again silence. On getting out of the tent to see whatwas going on I found Dick too was struggling to sleep. At least he can tell the difference between a thunder storm and the regular flashing of a lighthouse, the loam of the Ardnamurchan continuing its regular pattern. With neap tides, the sounds I kept hearing on the beach definitely weren't the tide as I initially thought, but probably the cows or horses going for midnight strolls. Finally my alarm signalled it was time to stop lying awake and I emerged to two surprises, Dick's tent had gone and midges, at this time in the morning?

I made out Dick sitting on the beach, he'd had a restless night too and had started packing early and then retreated from the midge ridden grass to the midge ridden beach for breakfast. In the bay, the sharks continued their feeding.

Our insect infested breakfast wasn't a relaxed affair and it was with some relief that we launched into he smooth waters of the bay. We seemed to have judged our timings perfectly and we were transported along the Rum coastline until once again we could make a bee line for Eigg. Long before we saw it our noses told us that the cow was near once again, being swept slowly first north and then south by each tide cycle.

The flatness of the sea was briefly broken by a pod of porpoises making their way to somewhere, but mostly we glided under grey skies towards the hazy outline of Eigg in the distance.

It was great to be back on our beach in Eigg and the tents were soon up again. A bit of a swim (I didn't get in very far - it was cold), a bit of a bath in a stream (not so cold), a catch up with home an time to reflect on what has to have been almost perfect conditions for our crossing.

Day 4 - exploring Eigg.

While it didn't look horrendous the forecast was still for high winds and having a bit of time to explore is no bad thing.

We headed north from our campsite to where we had seen a white tailed sea eagle the previous day before heading steeply up hill.

The views were simply stunning whether it was back to Rum, north to Skye, east to the mainland or south towards Muck and the Arnamurchan beyond. The heather in full flower smelled sweet too as we brushed through it on rarely walked trods.

For those into their trig points, our local summit boasted a 'Vanessa'.

The colours under cloudless blue skies were stunning.

Day 5 - Camas Sgiotaig, Eigg to *****, mainland.

The plan was to paddle down th west coast of Eigg, round its southern tip and then find somewhere to camp around Galmisdale. We would then be in a good position for returning to the mainland the following day. The se was quite lively around the headlands of the west coast and the waves were further confused by a fishing boat seeing to pots that seemed to lie exactly the same distance off shore as we were paddling.

Turning the corner onto the south coast though, the sea suddenly calmed and exchanged a few words with the fishermen on the boat, our first interaction with other people since the trip began. The sea to the east looked calm and inviting. Concerned about finding a remote campsite in this more inhabited area we simultaneously began to think, do we go for it now? As though to cement our thoughts the coastguard repeated the favourable weather forecast and the crossing was on.

My excuse is that we'd already been in the boats a couple of hours and I'd had quite a lot of coffee for breakfast, but for the second time on the trip I needed to perform the series of uncomfortable manoeuvres required to enjoy a comfort break. Thanks Dick for holding the boats steady.

Fed, watered and relieved we continued the crossing under brightening skies with the Arisaig shoreline slowly increasingin size while Eigg diminished. 

Leaving the main sound for Loch nan Uamh ***** a dolphin suddenly appeared suspended feet in the air, just in front of Dick's boat. Before I was fully able to comprehend what I was seeing it crashed into the water and was gone.

Features on the coastline became clearer and clearer and there we were rounding an island into the bay we had camped in a number of years before. It had been a superb crossing and I wanted to capture the moment Dick landed so I went on ahead to land on the stunning white sand, just in time to catch his boat sliding up the beach to a halt.

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