Monday, May 31, 2021

2021 Virtual Cruise - Island #6 - Jura

After leaving Scarba we head south into the open maw of Corryvreakan. Sounds pretty dramatic, terrifying, and death defying, doesn't it! Actually, the whirlpool is usually asleep. And that's how we find it as we stop off at the little island of Eilean Beag, on the south side of the whirlpool, at the entrance to Jura's Bagh Gleann nam Muc.

I'd marooned Wolfgang on Eilean Beag the day before, after he complained about my driving  skills (something not allowed on my ship). He should have felt honored, as it is a historic island. (Or is it an historic, I can never remember.) It is historic because George Orwell and his adopted son Richard, along with Orwell's niece and nephew, were stranded on this islet in 1947. Their boat had lost its motor while they were braving the waters of the whirlpool, and it is fortunate that they all survived, as no one was wearing a life jacket.

We rescue Wolfgang, then motor into the bay, where we can see our destination: a dark hole in the cliff-face: Breackan's Cave, where Prince Breacan, the whirlpool’s namesake, was supposedly buried.

We land on the beach east of the cave, then make the lumpy quarter-mile hike out to it. When we reach it we find the remnants of lichen-dotted stone walls that once guarded the approach to the cave, and as a last line of defense a fortification wall that spans the cave's dark opening. The cave extends 200 feet into the rock, and its mouth, pointed at one end, blunt at the other, is twelve feet high, and forty across. The final protective wall retains three feet of its height, and at its centre a narrow gap allows entrance to the interior of the cave.

As the story goes, Corryvreckan (Coire Bhreacain) is named after Breacan, a fifth century prince said to have drowned when his fleet of galleys came to grief in the whirlpool. Martin Martin wrote this of Corryvreckan and the cave: This gulf hath its name from Brekan, said to be son to the King of Denmark, who was drowned here, cast ashore in the north of Jura, and buried in a cave, as appears from the stone, tomb, and altar there.

The floor of the cave is carpeted with deer and goat droppings. There is no sign of an altar, although a thick stone slab lies at the far back of the cave. About four feet long, it may be all that’s left of the tomb mentioned by Martin.

After exploring the cave our hardy group returns to the ship, where I surprise them with one more stop on Jura. We had just seen a historic cave. (Or is it an historic, I can never remember.) Now we would be seeing another: Maclean's Skull Cave at Glengarrisdale.

Glengarrisdale is only three miles to the southwest, and so in short order we land on its broad shingle beach. Just above the shore we come to a red-roofed bothy, which the guide quickly enters on a mysterious mission, leaving us to explore the glen on our own.

On a small hillock above the bothy we find the site of Aros Castle, the Jura base of the Macleans of Lochbuie. They once held this end of the island, which was the location of the battle where the Maclean was slain whose skull lay here until 1976. No one knows for certain exactly which battle the skull was a relic of, as several skirmishes occurred here over the years. The most well known was a fight between the Campbells of Craignish and the Macleans in 1647. In Donald Budge’s Jura; an Island of Argyll, there is a transcript of an act of Parliament description of the battle:

Johne Mcallaster Roy alias Campbell, Neill Mcallaster alias Campbell, and others did … with guns, swords, bows, pistols and other weapons, came under silence and cloud of night to the lands of Glengarisdale, and there most cruelly and barbarously murdered John Mcgilliechallum, John Mccharles, Donald Mcangus, and servants to Murdoch McLean, all living quietly and peaceably at their own homes.

After looking around the glen we enter the bothy, where we find the guide fast asleep, and all the whisky bottles empty.

After sobering up the guide we follow him out of the bothy and up to a small cave in the ridge to the north. In it we discover a skull some mad-man left there in 2005, as a memorial to the slain Maclean whose skull lay here for so many years. 

Everyone is in fine spirits (especially the guide) as we return to Hjalmar Bjorge after our two Jura cave explorations. Then disaster strikes, once again. Earlier in the day I'd pardoned Nigel from his banishment to the engine room (for good behavior and some cash). I still did not trust his cooking, so I'd commissioned Nigel's wife, Clare, to the position of Chief Chef. The main course this evening is beef Wellington, and my mouth starts to water in anticipation. But when the starter arrives I blow my top. Kale salad!  Good grief!  On the Skipper's preference sheet I'd specifically stated the only kale allowed aboard is the kind with a silent 'k'. And so Clare is banished to the engine room. Nigel is happy with that, as it means he'll have a whole cabin to himself.

The following morning we head out to set a record: five islands in one day. Three of the Garvelllachs, and then Belnahua and Fladda of the Slate Isles.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

2021 Virtual Cruise - Island #5 - Scarba

Sunday morning, after leaving Eilean Righ, we motor down to the Dorus Mor to set course to the northwest. Our destination: The Gulf of Corryvreakan. After rounding Carrig Mhor, the north tip of Jura, we enter the Gulf itself where, a mile in we enter a vast area of turbulent sea. There is not just one large whirlpool, but dozens of small ones; each thirty to forty feet in diameter, with seabirds feasting on all the fish pushed to the surface by the strong currents. 

After a few orbits around the whirlpool I attempt to steer us out of the maelstrom. It seems we're stuck, being drawn inexorably to the fatal center, like a starship to a black hole. Even after maxing out the throttles we barely move. I make an urgent call down to the engine room.

"Scotty, I need more power"
"Captain, I cannae, me poor lovelies are doing their best"
"More power, Scotty!"
"Captain, engine temperature is 8000 degrees over limit!"
"Scotty, is that Fahrenheit or Centigrade?"

Just then we break loose, and the ship spurts out of the whirlpool. As we do Wolfgang, one of our frequent flyers, complains about nearly dying. He tells me he'll be writing a zero-star Yelp review. That just won't do, so I maroon him on Eilean Beag, a small island on the southern fringe of the whirlpool. George Orwell and his son were stranded on this island for a while in 1946, when they braved Corry in a small boat that came to grief.

Leaving the whirlpool behind we motor up the east coast of Scarba. Our view from sea level shows that Scarba's higher terrain is rocky, dotted with swaths of heather and grass, but its northeast corner at Kilmory is covered with lush forest. As we approach Kilmory the white painted Kilmory Lodge comes into view.

At the top of the track from the pier we find Kilmory Lodge, a sprawling house with a fantastic view over the Slate Islands. From there we follow a meagre path down to a historic ruin. The path soon disappears, and after bushwhacking for a few minutes the sight of several gaunt tombstones poking through the grass tells us we've found Cille Mhòire an Caibeal; St Mary’s (or possibly St Maelrubha’s) chapel and burial ground. The chapel was a place of pilgrimage centuries ago, first noted in writing by John of Fordon in the 14th century, when he wrote that on Scarba is the chapel of the Blessed Virgin, where many miracles occur.

A single doorway opening in one wall is the only discernible feature left of this chapel of miracles, and we step through it to reach the centre of the church to enjoy the peace of the holy ground. From where we stand we can see over the tumbled walls to the black tombstones in the burial ground. There are a half-dozen leaning stones, most with the name McLean carved into them: a cadet branch of the Maclaine family of Lochbuie (Mull).

The mercury is on the rise as we climb back to the lodge, and then start up the rough pony track that climbs the shoulder of Cruach Scarba. Our next destination is a viewpoint over to Jura and Corryvreakan.

Although the distance to the viewpoint is only two miles, it seems much longer; both on account of the elevation gain (1000 feet), and the temperature. After two hours we reach Carn a' Chibir, the keeper's cair, a pyramid of stones that marks the high point of the path. Here we take a seat to enjoy some fantastic views across the Gulf of Corryvreakan. We can also see Eilean Beag, where we stranded Wolfgang earlier in the day.

From the viewpoint we start the final stretch of our climb to reach the 1472-foot summit of Cruach Scarba, the island's highest point. 

At the 1200-foot level the clouds start to move in as we reach a beautiful, but un-named, mountain loch.

Then, and not too soon, we're huffing and puffing up to the summit cairn on its rocky knoll. 

At the summit your fearless guide violates Commandment #1 of the GGGGG (Good Guide's Guide to Good Guiding) by drinking on the job. 

Once the guide sobers up he leads us back down the way we came. The clouds have blown away and the views are completely different when going in the opposite direction, including this one north to the island of Lunga.

Around 6 pm we are back aboard Hjalmar Bjorge. After a very full day we sit down to the skipper's favourite meal, a traditional Sunday roast. Being skipper, he has the right to as many Yorkshire puddings as he wants, which leaves some having to go without. But their complaints stop when the skipper brings out the ship's cat (o-nine-tails, that is).

The next morning the generator wake-up call happens, as always, at 7am. After the previous day's walkabout, sore legs made it harder than usual to get out of the bunk. But the coffee calls, and after a few cups, and a full breakfast, the anchor is raised and we set a course back into Corryvreakan. We'll rescue Wolfgang from Eilean Beag, then go ashore on Jura to seek out Breackan's Cave.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

2021 Virtual Cruise - Island #4 - Eilean Righ

After our Luing leaving we motor south to enter the Dorus Mor, the sea passage between Crinan and the Inner Hebrides. A turn to port then takes us up into Loch Craignish. After passing Island Macaskin we find a sheltered anchorage off the west side of Eilean Righ, the King's Island. 

Eilean Righ was once part of an amazing ritual landscape; just five miles away stands the hill of Dunadd, where the early kings of Dalriada were inaugurated; and two miles to the east is Kilmartin Glen, with its vast number of neolithic and bronze age sites. And then there's Ormaig, a very special place on the mainland opposite Eilean Righ. Before landing on the island we make a quick sortie to Ormaig, where we hike a quarter-mile to see the best examples of rock-art in the country: cups, rings, and rosettes carved in stone for still unknown reasons. 

The site consists of a couple hundred carvings spread out over several slabs. The most interesting are rosette carvings often referred to as 'telephone dials', as they resemble the dials of old rotary phones. Something totally alien to the current generation.

Back in the RIB we speed across the loch to make landfall on Eilean Righ. The island does not make a good first impression, as we're greeted with a Not Welcome sign. There is no such thing as a private island in Scotland, although I've come across a few over the years where the owners don't want any uninvited visitors. But as long as you are respectful to the owners privacy, property, and activities, you can explore an island.

Luckily for us the tall, spiky steel gate with the 'Private Island' sign is open, as all other access to the island requires scrambling over rocks or heavy bushwacking. From the gate we gain access to a track that leads up to two houses. Trying to be respectful, we stay as far from them as possible, and follow a road that leads past a helicopter hanger and an observatory. The island is someone's luxury island getaway, and we are probably fortunate no one is home at the moment.

As we approach the helo-hanger we follow a sidewalk that has embedded lights (marked with arrows in the next photo). The owner wants to be able to fly in anytime, day or night, so the lights mark a night-time flight path approach to the hanger. 


Regarding Eilean Righ's name, it had two duns (forts), one at the south end, another at the north end, so it was well defended; add to that its nearness to Dunadd; its easy access to the sea and sheltered anchorage; it is possible Eilean Righ was used by the early kings as an island residence. There was also a royal connection in the 1930s, when the island was owned by Sir Reginald Fleming Johnston, who was tutor to the young Dragon Emperor Puyi from 1919 to 1924. When I first posted on Eilean Righ five years ago it became one of my most-read posts, with hundreds of readers from China, many asking how to get to the island.

As we explore the south end of the island we find that 'manicured' would be a good term to describe it. The interior consists of swaths of mowed grass that makes for easy going as we make our way to the site of the south dun. 

After exploring the south end we set out to the north. The only way to access that part of the island (without a machete) means walking through the grounds of the two houses. Going as discretely as possible we make our way down a pebble-covered walkway between the houses to reach the north side of the island - we're expecting alarms to go off at any minute, but none do. More fine amenities greet us at the north end, including vast mowed lawns and a rifle range with distance markers.

Eilean Righ was on the market a few years ago for $3M. If you want to learn more about the island the sales brochure is still available at this link: Eilean Righ.

Back aboard Hjalmar Bjorge we gather in the saloon for a sumptuous supper of salmon and roast potatoes, followed by sticky toffee pudding. While eating we discuss the agenda. One guest wants to head to Crinan for some 'retail therapy'. I make a note in the ship's log about this, one more outrageous suggestion like that and the Baize Bag' will come out, which holds the cat-o-nine-tails. (I've always wanted to let the 'cat out of the bag', a dream of every skipper who has had unruly passengers). 

After more discussion the skipper makes a command decision: we'll take a whirl around Corryvreakan, then land on Scarba, whose tortured shore rings to Corryvreakan's roar.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

2021 Virtual Cruise - Island #3 - Luing

From Seil we set a course through Cuan Sound to steam down the coast of Luing. It happens to be a Friday, and for fish Fridays I installed a deep fryer in the galley so we can have fish & chips. The chef complained that if the ship pitched and rolled he'd get splashed with hot oil. But since calm seas have been guaranteed on this cruise I told him to buck up and get with the program. He then pleaded we do fish pie instead, so I made him walk the plank. He now feeds the fishes (and not in the usual sense).

Halfway down Luing we enter the narrow Shuna Sound. Off to port is the island of Shuna, which has a reputation of not welcoming day-trippers, so we give it a pass and drop the anchor off the sleepy village of Toberonochy. I always think of it as sleepy because the first time I visited Toberonochy was on a Sunday afternoon in 1997. Not a soul was to be seen as I walked through the village. But I did see a few curtains being pulled aside, curious eyes peeking out to see who was violating the sabbath. If anyone had challenged me (none did, though I've heard of it happening) I'd have stoked the fire by asking directions to the nearest pub.

Luing is one of the Slate Isles, and next to the village is a flooded quarry pit. In the coming days we'll be visiting the other Slate Isles of Belnahua and Fladda. From Toberonochy a five minute walk takes us up to Kilchattan church, which has not been used for 300 years.

The floor of the old church is paved solid with a hundred worn tombstones, and lying in the adjacent cemetery is the famous grave of Alexander Campbell. Campbell died in 1829, and his self-carved tombstones stand near the road. There are three slabs to read, and I have to confess that when I first saw them in 1997 I stopped reading halfway through the second stone. On the first is his well known protestation:

I protest that none be buried after me in this grave which I have dug for myself . . . having adhered till death to the whole work of the second reformation in Scotland  . . .  and died in full assurance of the heavenly inheritance. 

Campbell's Grave (at centre against the wall)
I’m glad Campbell had full assurance of his heavenly inheritance, and it looked like no one has dug him up to take over his little plot. His essay continues on another slab standing against the cemetery wall, and then ran on to a third stone facing the road on the other side of the wall. These stones ranted against “…popish prelacy…popish Erastianism…popish monuments…” I won’t go on, you get the hatefull gist. They also condemned anyone who dared to meddle with his stones. Although humans may have not meddled with them, two centuries of Hebridean weather has worn out much of the carved text. And in the two-decades since my last visit rampant vegetation has grown around, into the stones, causing one to crack and fall to the side. The following photo shows how the grave looked in 1997 (left) and how it looks today.

Kilchattan Church has a much better attraction than Campbell's grave, for there are carvings of West Highland galleys on three of its walls. The carvings on the north and west walls are very faint. But on a stone in the south wall you can still make out the hulls of four galleys, including one where you can clearly make out timber planking, mast, and riggings.

These carving may date to the last week in the life of King Alexander II. In early July of 1249 AD, Alexander's fleet passed through the area seeking a meeting with Eoghan MacDhonnchaidh MhicDhugaill. This ‘Ewen’ was the son of the Lord of Argyll, and Alexander wanted him to renounce his allegiance to Haakon of Norway. Alexander died of fever on July 8, 1249, at Horseshoe Bay on the isle of Kerrera, fifteen miles to the north. These petroglyphs may have been made by residents of Luing at the time, or by crewman ashore from the passing fleet.

Our group's fearless guide then leads us to the end of the road at Blackmill Bay. Blackmill is a shadow of its former self. It was once a busy port, but all we find there today are the crumbling remains of its old pier and ticket office. (The ticket office is on the buildings at risk website, which means it’s doomed.) It would be interesting to see Blackmill Bay in its heyday, when livestock, slate, passengers, and goods passed through on the way to and from Oban and Glasgow.

Decades ago Blackmill Bay, and Cullipool to the north, were the place to seek out a fisherman to take you to Scarba or the Garvellachs. These days a day trip to those islands can be hard to find (aside from an expensive private day-charter). Just north of the old pier they've constructed a modern stone breakwater. Behind it a solitary boat bobbed on the swells. It's just a thought, but maybe the owner would take you to Scarba or the Garvellachs if you ask. Better yet, sign on to a cruise on Hjalmar Bjorge.

Our exploration of south Luing complete we return to the ship. Back aboard we gather in the saloon to eagerly await our fish & chips. Our cook had walked the plank earlier in the day, so I'd promoted Nigel, one of our frequent flyers, to be chef. Soon plates of steaming fish and chips are set before us, and we dig in. But the skipper screams when he discovers Nigel fried the fish with the skin on. Skin-on fish & chips!  Egads, what's next? Marmite sandwiches? As punishment Nigel will have to sleep in the engine room for a week. 

The next morning we weigh anchor and set off for our next destination: Eilean Righ, the King's Isle of Loch Craignish.

Friday, May 7, 2021

2021 Virtual Cruise - Island #2 - Seil

Leaving Kerrera in our wake we set a course to the southwest. Our next island-fall is only four miles away, and so after a short half hour of motoring we drop the anchor near Puilladobhrain - the otter's pool - a sheltered spot on the northwest corner of Seil Island. Ships like Hjalmar Bjorge require deeper water than the Otter's Pool, so we have to drop anchor just west of Eilean Buidhe, which shelters the pool from the sea. Puilladobhrain itself is a popular anchorage for many reasons, but the main one is that a short path leads across the the island to Clachan Seil and the Tigh an Truish pub. As indicated in the following extract from the Pilot's Guide to the area, the anchorage at Puilladobhrain can be busy:

The name translates as Pool of the Otter, although any otters have long since been scared away by the yachts . . . this is one of the West Coast's most popular anchorages, and you will be lucky to find less than a dozen and a half yachts there on any evening in July.

And on those busy July evenings you can count on a steady stream of yotties braving the sometimes boggy half mile walk to the pub, then stumbling back in the dark after last call; all trying to remember where they stashed their tender, and which one of the forest of masts is their boat. Not that I've ever been in that exact situation, but I have had a few less-than-sober searches for a boat in the dark. Once, on a pitch-black rainy evening in Tobermory some 20 years ago, a group of us left the MacDonald Arms a bit inebriated. Our ship was 'double parked' at the ferry terminal; the Kilchoan RO-RO was moored directly to the pier, and ours was tied to its far side. Down the ladder into the slippy car deck we went, then back up the other side of the ferry to cross over to our boat. (I am lucky to be alive).

Once ashore on Seil we find the yottie's boat-boot-beaten path that leads to Clachan Bridge and Tigh an Truish. Clachan Bridge is often called the Bridge over the Atlantic, and dates to the 1790s. Its high arch rises 40 feet above the channel, and its single lane is a blind summit for drivers. In the summer those drivers need to be careful, as the bridge is often clogged with tourists who like to walk to the top.

The nexus of the village is Tigh an Truish, the house of trousers. As the story goes, in the 18th century cattle drovers on their way to the mainland stopped here to change out of the forbidden kilt and don a pair of pants. The Gaelic word for a pub is 'taigh-seinnse', which means change house. But instead of changing into trousers, the 'change' (in days or yore) was associated with changing out your tired nag for a fresh rental horse. (Would you like insurance? And please be sure to return it with a full bale of hay.)  Another translation of taigh-seinnse I've heard is 'house of singing', which makes more sense for an island pub.

After a pint (or two) our group stumbles back along the path to Puilladobhrain. There are a few boggy sections to tip-toe through where you can lose the path, but the fearless guide keeps them from going astray. He has all his wits about him, having faithfully followed the GGGGG (Good Guide's Guide to Good Guiding), which calls for abstaining from strong drink while on duty. (If you believe that I have a Bridge over the Atlantic for sale.)

The Otter's Pool is a beautiful sight, especially on a sunny May day before the summer onslaught of yachts arrive. After eating our packed lunches on its shore we board the tender and are soon back aboard Hjalmar Bjorge. The dual diesels are fired up and we set a course down the Sound of Insh to our next destination: the Isle of Luing. As we do the chef starts preparing the evening meal, and a cheer goes up from everyone aboard when they hear it's steak pie night.