Sunday, July 31, 2016

All Four of the Smalls

On May 27th, after a few hours ashore on the Shiants, we headed south down the west coast of Skye. This is always a scenic run; the cliffs of the Skye headlands to the left, and the low coast of the Uists to the right. The Neist Point lighthouse marks the westernmost point of Skye. And just north of the light is an unusual pyramid shaped headland; one of the landmarks of the Skye coast. I have passed by many times in the past, and have never seen anyone climbing it. But this time we saw what appeared to be a rescue in progress.

Neist Point
Neist Point peak
Another three hours of steaming took us to our next overnight anchorage in Canna Harbour. The following morning we went ashore to see the Rocket church, the grounds of Canna House, and to see the Celtic cross that is all that's left of the monastery of Keils. Although there was a sign in front of Canna House saying there were tours of the house, the resident warden told us there were no tours. Very frustrating. (Dear NTS, why do you put up signs describing tours that are non-existent?) We'd find an even more flagrant example of such disregard for visitors when we'd arrive on Rum the next day (see below).

Canna House
Canna Harbour
My primary goal on Canna was to lead some of the guests to Sgorr nam Ban-naomha, a 7th century monastic enclosure (sometimes called a nunnery), that lies at the base of 300-foot-high cliffs on the west side of the island. It is a seven-mile round-trip hike, and so I only had two takers, Nigel and Clare. The three of us set out to follow the track to Tarbert Farm, from where a mile of cross country hiking took us to the cliffs high above Sgorr nam Ban-naomha.

Cliffs above the Sgorr
I have only been down to the Sgorr once, that was way back in 2002, and was looking forward to seeing it again. But it was not to be. The steep sheep track that give access down the cliffs had been severely eroded by rabbits, and look unsafe, so we had to settle for the view from above.

The eroded path down to the Sgorr
The Sgorr
On the way back to the harbour we made a detour to crawl into the souterrians that lie in the lonely interior of the island. (See this CANMORE page for more on the souterrains of Canna.)

The souterrains
Clare explores the souterrian
Once back aboard Hjalmar Bjorge we decided to head over to Rum for the night, and under brilliant sunshine we motored around the north side of Rum to find an anchorage in Loch Scresort. At the head of the loch we could see the red sandstone Kinloch Castle, built by the Bulloughs in 1902.

The ferry Loch Nevis arriving at Rum
Kinloch Castle
We went ashore on Rum the next morning. At the pier there was an info-board listing castle tours. I wanted the guests to see inside the castle, and even though it was a Sunday, there was a tour listed for 9:30. And so we all headed over to the castle. 9:30 came, and went, as did 10:00. We asked the few folks we could find about the tour, but no one knew anything. (We got the definite feeling they just didn't care.) I wandered over to the shop/pub to find it open, but vacant, its outdoor tables littered with empty beer and wine bottles. It looked like we'd missed quite a party. 

Kinloch Castle
We missed the party
I won't dwell (much longer) on the complete disregard whoever runs Rum has for visitors. But if you are not going to offer tours, why in the world do you put up signs saying you do. And I know for a fact that our experience that day was not just a one time mixup - it happens all the time. If you ever go to Rum, don't plan on seeing the castle, get as far away from it as you can and spend your time in the hills.

The sun was shining bright as we left Rum and made the journey over to Eigg. Rounding the north end we motored down its east coast below the high cliffs of Striudh. It was at Striudh that Hugh Miller met a lass "who was more than merely good looking" (see book 1, chapter 26).

Striudh - Eigg cliffs
We were soon ashore on Eigg, where we arranged for a taxi to take us the five miles across the island to the Singing Sands. It was the only taxi on the Small Isles, an old London cab, that had somehow made its way to Eigg via Dundee.

Eigg taxi
We had a bumpy, but fun, ride up Eigg's M-1 to road's end at Howlin, where a short walk took us to Camus Sgiotaig, the Squeaking Bay (usually known as the Singing Sands).

To the Singing Sands
The Singing Sands - the mountains of Mordor in the distance
East of the Singing Sands, and just under the high cliffs of Cleadale, we could see the house at Howlin. It's said the JR Tolkien stayed here, and that the view he had of Rum from the house was the inspiration for the Mountains of Mordor.

Howlin House (at left)
Could this be Mordor?
After an hour or so making the sands sing and wading in the sea we headed back to the road-end to find our chauffeur patiently waiting to take us to Glamisdale. (Listen to the April 19, 2013 post for a recording of the singing sands.)

Our taxi awaits
Back in Glamisdale we still had an hour, and so Nigel and I set out to see Massacre Cave. There was a sign in the shop that said due to a rock-fall you could not get into the cave, but we decided to take a look for ourselves. It is an easy half-mile walk to the cave, and when we reached it there was no sign of a rockfall, and with flashlights in hand we crawled in. In the late 1500s several hundred people perished here - see chapter 24 of book 2 for the story.

Nigel at Massacre Cave
In the cave
Thirsty, and ready for a beer, Nigel and I returned to Glamisdale only to find that the pub had just closed. The rest of our group had been more fortunate, making their way to the pub in time to get a drink. And so we spent a leisurely (and beer-less) half hour sitting in the sun until it was time to depart. Our next destination, and the last island of the trip, would be nearby Muck.

Glamisdale Harbour - Eigg
We dropped anchor at Muck around 7pm. And after another excellent dinner prepared by Lynda we settled down for the night. The next day dawned without a cloud in the sky, and we went ashore for a few hours. As we stepped ashore we set a record for a Hjalmar Bjorge cruise, as we'd visited all four of the Small Isles. I led the guests across the island to beautiful Gallanach Bay, and then several of us continued on to the MacEwen graves on Aird nan Uan, the headland of the lambs, on the far west tip of the island. (The MacEwens own Muck.)

Gallanach - Mordor in the distance
MacEwen Graves
Then in the mood for a climb, Nigel and I decided to make our way up Beinn Airein, at 450 feet, the highpoint of Muck. At the base of the hill, just before we started to climb, we came across an amazing stone cottage. Its turf roof was intact and the house still appeared to be used. It is a listed building that was restored in the 1960s (you can read more about it on this CANMORE page).

Someone's home sweet home
Nigel atop Beinn Airein
Looking to Eigg from the top of Muck
Unlike our experience on Eigg the day before, when we returned to the harbour the tearoom/pub was open, and so we were able to quench our thirst before returning to the boat.

Muck Tea Room/Pub/Shop
While talking to the folks who run the tearoom I was sad to learn that Amy had passed away. Amy was a little dog that had followed me all around the island on my two previous visits (see the October 13, 2013 post for more on Amy). But I was happy to learn that Amy's daughter, Mattie, still greeted visitors, as I found out when I stepped out of the tearoom.

Mattie of Muck
Amy of Muck - RIP
We said goodbye to our last island and set a course east to the Sound of Mull, where we motored into Lochaline harbour for a short visit ashore. Lochaline is where many of the St Kildans were sent, some to do forestry work, when they left their far off (and treeless) island in 1930. Most of the guests went for a long walk up the lochside road. But I decided to get a beer at the Lochaline Hotel, and then take a look at the houses where the Kildans had lived.

Lochaline Marina
Lochaline Houses - near where the Kildans lived
We spent the last night of the cruise at anchor in nearby Ardtornish Bay. The house at the head of the bay is the sometimes residence of Adam Nicolson, the author of the best book about the Shiants (Sea Room).

Ardtornish House
In the morning we had a short sail to Oban where we had a gigantic breakfast that would keep everyone going for a day or two and, in short order, everyone went their own way. It had been an interesting trip, one that visited quite a few islands not normally seen on these cruises. I would like to thank Nigel and Clare, Janet and John, Joey, Patricia, Francis, and Elaine for being such good company. I hope you all had a good time. And many thanks to Mark, Anna, and Lynda, for making my first trip as a guide go smoothly. We will be doing another trip next year, from May 20th to 29th. Check the Northern Lights website (and this blog) in the next few weeks for details.

Hjalmar Bjorge at Oban


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  2. David & Margaret GartsideAugust 2, 2016 at 12:26 AM

    Thanks Marc. Always enjoy your blog

  3. Hi Marc - re. our frustrating experience at Kinloch Castle, I actually sent a letter to The Oban Times making similar points to your blog but they declined to publish - I've pasted the text of my letter below. It's been great reading your blog of our cruise (great photos by the way !) - look forward to your future postings. Cheers, Nigel.


    It comes as no surprise that Scottish National Heritage (SNH) "constantly complains it has no funds to maintain Kinloch Castle" (Morvern lines, 30 June 2016). On a recent visit to Rum, and on seeing the poster advertising tours around the castle, we called the telephone number only to be advised to consult the website for details - this is not the easiest thing to do on Rum. There was no one at the castle at the advertised time of the tour (despite a warning by the main door to be there promptly !) and after inquiring at the shop and with helpful islanders, we were informed that it was the usual warden's day off but that cover had been arranged. After wasting over an hour searching for this person our party gave up - a loss in revenue to SNH of around £90 in addition to valuable word-of-mouth publicity. If there are no tours on certain days or times, then it should not be difficult to amend the poster at the pier; if a tour is scheduled, then perhaps SNH staff should turn-up and receive much needed cash to help with the restoration ?

    1. Nigel, thanks for writing to the Times. Too bad they did not publish it. In hindsight I should have taken everyone up into Coire Dubh. A short climb for some amazing views. I hope to see you and Clare again someday - maybe consider joining our cruise next year (May 20-29). It will be a bit different, as we;ll be starting at Mingulay, and then head up to the islands in Loch Roag (and hopefully, get out to the Flannans).