Saturday, July 8, 2017

NEW - 2018 Guided Cruise

The itinerary has now been set for the June 2018 guided cruise on Hjalmar Bjorge. Our voyage will focus on islands to the south and west of Oban, including the Isles of the Sea. And if conditions permit, we'll head as far south as Càra. For more information see the 2018 Guided Cruise tab. To book see the Northern Lights website.

PS: I will be offline for a few weeks. It's back to the isles for some extended hiking on Lewis to Kinlochresort, Ardmore, Ardveg, and Fidigidh. I also hope to visit some of the lost villages on the south coast of Pairc; such as Bhalamus, Thinngartsaidh, and the infamous Bàgh Ciarach.

Monastic ruins on Eileach an Naoimh of the Garvellachs (The Isles of the Sea)

Monday, July 3, 2017

Small Isles - Ardtornish - Oban

Final Episode (for 2017, anyway) in the Continuing Adventures of Hjalmar Bjorge
Hebridean Cruise - May 20 to 29, 2017

May 27: It was the day after our Flannan landing, and in the morning we started off on the six-hour cruise from Scarista down to Canna. It is a fascinating passage, one that starts with transitioning past the myriad isles in the Sound of Harris. Once past Rodal, a straight as an arrow course of 160 degrees took us across the Little Minch to the high cliffs near Neist Point on Skye, and then on down through The Sea of the Hebrides to Canna.

As you can tell from the photos, the sky was a bit overcast as we passed Canna's prison rock. Five minutes later the engines throttled down to a stop in Canna Harbour.

Once ashore we started with a look at the exhibition on Canna history in the Rocket Church; its bell-tower a small scale version of an Irish round tower. It is Church of Scotland, and was built in 1911 for use by visiting fishermen. But it's rarely used as such these days.

Inside the bell tower
Then a walk in the woods near Canna House took us past the grave of John Lorne Campbell, who died in Italy in 1996. He was originally buried there, but they reinterred him on Canna in 2006. For the story of Campbell's life see The Man Who Gave Away His Island, by Ray Perman.

Just beyond Campbell's grave is a hidden meadow called A' Chill, the site of St Columba's monastery. Aside from a large, intricately carved cross (8th century), there's nothing left of the monastery. The cross is missing one arm and its head. The story is that soldiers used it for target practice a few hundred years ago.

Canna Cross - bottom panel shows Mary holding Jesus, to the right is one of the Magi 
Leaving the site of the monastery we had to tip-toe past a massive black bull – fortunately no one was wearing red. (You can see him sitting contentedly near the gate in the next photo.)

We still had time for a longer walk, and so it was off to another island - via a handy bridge - the island of Sanday. Our destination was St Edward’s Church.

St Edward's, built in 1860, is quite impressive from the outside. A lot of money was spent to renovate it for use as a Gaelic study centre using the Canna House Archives. But I doubt if it will ever be used as one because the interior is heavily damaged by water ingress. The story of the chapel's renovation, which is both inspiring and depressing, is told in Restoring Canna's Chapel by Alasdair Ross McKerlich (2007); a fascinating book that details the work done on the church from 1998 to 2001. (See the October 12, 2015 post for more.)

After looking in the church we made our way back to Canna and went in search of the Prison. (I have posted several times on The Prison - see the Nov 14, 2014 and April 3, 2017 posts). Some 200 years ago it caught the eye of Sir Walter Scott, and he included it in his epic poem The Lord of the Isles:

From Canna’s tower that, steep and grey,
Like falcon-nest o’erhangs the bay.
Seek not the giddy crag to climb
To view the turret scathed by time:
It is a task of doubt and fear
To aught but goat or mountain deer

Built into the top of the 80-foot stack is a fortified building, ‘the turret scathed by time’. This turret is a mini-castle called The Prison; a name stemming from a tale that the wife of a chief had once been imprisoned there. When we reached the base of the stack it looked like the castle at its top could tumble down at any moment. I also noticed that the tiny sign put up by the National Trust 20 years ago to discourage climbers has been replaced by a larger one, along with a length of rope blocking (sort of) the access point. (We did not climb the stack.) 

The Prison depicted as 'The Witches' Home' by Richard Doyle
Once back at Canna Harbour we had time to enjoy a few drinks at the Canna Café, which I was glad to see is back in business.

Cafe Canna
When time came to rejoin Hjalmar Bjorge the cafe had filled up, doing a good business feeding (and slaking the thirst) of visitors from the dozen or so sailboats at anchor in the harbour. But they would have to do without our custom. We had our own excellent chef, and soon settled into another sumptuous three course meal. Canna Harbour is almost always a calm anchorage, and during the night the dead calm of the sea was only interrupted a few times when we'd roll in the wake of an arriving boat.

May 28: The twenty-eighth would be the last full day of the cruise, and after breakfast we made a smooth crossing 20 miles to the southeast to anchor off Port Mor in Muck Harbour. Along the way we traversed the south coast of Rum. The island looked eerie, as the high tops of the Rum Cullins were shrouded in thick clouds.

The mouth of Harris Glen and cloud-capped Ruinsival (Rum)
Adding to the eeriness was the sight of the Bullough's Grecian temple mausoleum, which you can see in the next photo. It is truly the oddest grave-site in the Hebrides.

The mausoleum (from a walk in 1997)
Once we anchored at Muck it took two trips in the RIB to get us all ashore.

Muck Landing
Once ashore, I led most of the guests on an easy stroll across the island to the white sands of Gallanach. And from there out to Aird nan Uain, the headland of the Lamb, to see the unusual MacEwan burial ground. (The MacEwens have owned Muck since 1896). Aird nan Uain is one of the most beautiful places in the Small Isles; a gentle, flat, grassy headland surrounded by blue sea and uninterrupted views to Horse Island, the cliffs of Eigg, and the mountains of Rum.

Gallanach Bay - Rum in the Distance (2016)

MacEwen Graves  (2016)
The trek to Aird nan Uain is one of my favourite island walks; one I love to take others on. I will never forget the first time I went there, back in 2006, when I was shown the way by a local guide. Her name was Amy, and she was in the habit of adopting day-trippers on their walks around Muck. Sadly, Amy is no longer with us.

Amy leads the way - Horse Island in the distance

Amy of Muck
Back aboard Hjalmar Bjorge, and under sunny skies, we crossed to the Sound of Mull, where a peaceful anchorage was found in the lee of Ardtornish Point. It is a beautiful anchorage: high cliffs to the east, with waterfalls that stream 600 feet down to the sea; to the north solitary Inninbeg House stands at the head of the bay; atop the headland to the west rises the dramatic ruin of Ardtornish Castle, once a stronghold of the Lords of the Isles; and to the south the Sound of Mull.

Ardtornish Castle
Inninbeg House
At Ardtornish the drone was launched for its final flight, and sent off to soar around the castle to capture some brilliant footage of Hjalmar Bjorge floating on the sparkling blue water of the bay.

Drone launch
Drone comes in for a landing

May 29: In the morning we motored across to Oban to tie up to the North Pier. A gigantic breakfast filled everyone to the brim as we said our goodbyes, and then Anna and Mark began prepping Hjalmar Bjorge for her next set of lucky guests.

Many thanks to Mark, Anna, and Chef Mark for a wonderful trip to eleven amazing islands: Mull, Eigg, Harris, Scarp, Lewis, Pabay Mor, Little Bernera, Great Bernera, Flannans, Canna, and Muck. To William, Alan & Jacky, Alan & Kathrin, Janet & Tom, Adam & Margaret, Hazel, Liz, Michael, and William; thanks for being such good company. I hope to see you all again.

Pictured (left to right): William, Adam, Jacky, Alan, Hazel, Liz, Tom, and Janet.
Not pictured: Kathrin, Alan, Michael, and Margaret.

Note: Next year's Hjalmar Bjorge guide-trip will run from June 2-11. The itinerary will shortly appear on the Northern Lights website, and will be posted here July 8.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Destination Flannan

Episode 6 in the Continuing Adventures of Hjalmar Bjorge
Hebridean cruise - May 20 to 29, 2017

May 26: The morning forecast showed little improvement. The wind had calmed from the day before, but it can take days for ocean swell to subside. After some discussion we decided it would be worth motoring out west to see how the sea was acting. Even if we could not land, we might get a close look at the Flannans.

The Flannan lies 40 miles due west of Carloway, and after five hours of steaming we nosed into the fairly sheltered bay between Eilean Mor (the island with the lighthouse) and Eilean Tighe. 

Approaching the Flannans

The East Landing

East Landing - arrows point to the damaged rungs and steps
A look at the landing showed a moderate swell of one to two feet.  Mark lowered the inflatable and went to take a a closer look.  He came back a bit discouraged. The iron rungs that once allowed you to climb 15 feet from the sea to the landing platform were too corroded to use safely.

Mark had also inspected the cement steps that descend to the sea next to the landing. These, too, looked unusable, as the sea has worn them flat and covered them with a slippy carpet of kelp. There appeared to be no safe way ashore. 

Mark and Anna head to check out the landing
But there was still hope. Once he was back aboard I heard Mark say he had a cunning plan. Next thing I knew Mark and Anna were zipping back to the landing, armed with a ladder and sturdy length of rope.

Through binoculars we saw Anna leap ashore with the rope, and Mark soon followed.

Anna goes ashore with the rope
We watched as they carefully attached the rope to several iron stanchions embedded in the rock, the only remnants of handrails that have long since rusted away. It looked like we'd be going ashore.

Securing the rope

All ashore that's going ashore
Even with the rope, it would be a steep scramble to land. Five of us volunteered (happily) for shore leave and, one by one, we used the rope to steady ourselves as we inched up to where the cement steps were still intact. From there, 70 steep steps led up to the base of the old tram trackway

The tram, which was in use for 60 years, was a cart winched up to the lighthouse via a cable, and had been used to haul supplies from the two landings. There was a speaking-tube (air pipe) that allowed someone at the landing to tell a keeper up at the lighthouse when to start the winch. I've often wondered if the speaking-tube was how the men in the lighthouse were alerted there was a problem at the west landing back on that fateful day in December of 1900.

Old gearwheels that once drove the tram
They removed the rails in the 1960s, when the tram was replaced by a motorized buggy known as a Gnat. You can see a photo of the Gnat in action here.

Afoot on the Flannans
Once up onto level ground several of us a crawled inside the chapel. It’s a beehive cell of indeterminate age that, at some point, was altered into a chapel. It was here that Peter May had the protagonist of his novel Coffin Road find a body. Fortunately there were no signs of foul play inside the chapel, but outside the fowl were playing, as the island is home to a large puffin colony. 

Before visiting the puffins some of us wandered up to the lighthouse. It's an eerie, windswept place, where three keepers disappeared in 1900. You can find the story of their disappearance here.

Liz at the Light
Even more remarkable than the exhilarating landing and climb was seeing the puffins. Their burrows surround a set of old beehive cells, known as Bothan Clan 'ic Phail (the bothies of the Clan of the sons of Paul). These beautiful little structures have survived for centuries, and you can read more about them here. Unlike the puffins on Lunga, the Flannan puffins are not accustomed to tourists, and we had to keep our distance or they'd fly away.

West end puffin city

The farthest Flannans seen from the west end - we'd be there shortly

Our hour ashore seemed to fly by, and all too soon it was time to start back to the landing. But I had yet to climb to the cairn at the summit, something that had to be done. So I hurried to the top to find that Liz was already there, admiring the incredible view.

I think the puffins were glad to see us go as we returned to the landing. Going down the steep steps, with no handrail, and the sea directly below, was more exciting than the climb up. Especially the final stretch where, with the rope in hand, we made our way down the slippy slope to the waiting RIB.

Down to the rope
Back aboard I discovered Alan had launched a drone to fly a few circuits around the islands. Looking at the stunning footage made me wish I had a drone. I think the same thought occurred to Skipper Mark (we may be seeing more drone video in future trip reports).

Drone footage screen capture - Alan Brook

Drone footage screen capture - Alan Brook
Leaving the anchorage we encountered a rolling swell as we motored out to circle around the farthest Flannans to take a look at the gannetry on the amazing stacks and arches of Roareim.

The farthest Flannans

It was with a true sense of accomplishment that we left the Flannans in our wake. They gradually disappeared astern as we motored 40 miles south to find an anchorage near Scarista Beach.

Scarista Beach
It had been a memorable day in the Hebrides; especially as the odds of landing on the Flannans are extremely low. The reason for our success was the hard work, timing, and quick thinking of Anna and Mark. Without their extra effort we would not have gotten ashore.

You can see Alan Brook's video of the Flannans at the link below.