Thursday, May 12, 2022

The Adventures of Hjalmar Bjorge - Season 5, Episode 1

The Continuing Adventures of Hjalmar Bjorge
Season 5 - Episode 1 - Oban to Isay
Exploring the Isles of the West Cruise    April 18-May 2, 2022

After being cancelled for two years, Season 5 has finally arrived. The cancellations were publicly blamed on COVID, but the true story is that the guide had demanded an exorbitant raise, free beer, and a total ban on fish pie. He finally relented when the skipper discovered the guide had an overdue four-figure bar bill and threatened legal action. 

And so, after a 30-month absence, I was back aboard Hjalmar Bjorge for my fifth guide trip. We were very fortunate - the sun was shining and the sea calm - as we set out from Oban. Aboard were seven guests, which made for a small, intimate group, as my previous guide trips have had up to 12 guests. Four of the group, Clare, Debbie, Wolfgang, and Nigel, were frequent flyers. New to Hjalmar Bjorge were Peter, Liz, and Anne, and the crew consisted of skipper Charlie McLeish, First Mate Mel, and chef Steve Milne.

We had a smooth three-hour sail up the Sound of Mull to settle in for the night in Glenmore Bay on the south side of Ardnamurachan. The next morning, Skipper Charlie took us up the Sea of the Hebrides to take a look at the Sanday Stacks (by Canna). Puffins are usually found there, but nary a one was in sight. A bit of a disappointment, but the massive number of puffins we'd see on Mingulay in a few days would make up for that.

The sea was slightly choppy as we motored up the west of Skye past the iconic Neist Point lighthouse. Along the way, several puffins, Manx shearwaters, and razorbills paid us a visit.

Our first island destination was Isay in Skye's Loch Dunvegan. Isay (Ìosaigh, Old Norse for House Island) appeared as we rounded the Vaternish Peninsula. We took a look at the conditions near Isay, but it was too rough to anchor, so Charlie motored us towards the Skye shore to anchor for the night off the village of Stein.

After breakfast the following morning we headed over to Isay. There are two reasons Isay is well known to those who love Scottish islands. The first is because of the following passage from Boswell’s journal of his trip to the Hebrides in 1773:

There is a beautiful little island in the Loch of Dunvegan, called Isay. MacLeod said he would give it to Mr. Johnson, on condition of his residing on it three months in the year, nay, one month. Mr. Johnson was highly pleased with the fancy… He talked a great deal of this island—how he would build a house, how he would fortify it, how he would have cannon, how he would plant, how he would sally out and take the isle of Muck.

The second reason this little island is fairly well known is that it was owned, for a short time, by the singer Donovan.  Donovan bought Isay, the two neighbouring isles of Mingay and Clett, and some nearby land on Skye in the late 1960s. A lot of what you read says he established a commune on Isay itself, which is not true. He did establish a commune in the area, but he pretty much glosses over it in his autobiography, The Hurdy Gurdy Man. In a chapter entitled Lord of the Isles, Donovan describes how he met MacDonald of the Isles in Stein to discuss buying land, including the island of Isay. The chapter opens with the following:

My thoughts were drifting to the wild and windy land of my birth. I had some crazy notion of starting a commune with my artist friends, to pick up the threads of an early dream, to be a poet and painter. I felt that musical fame had led me astray.

We anchored off Isay in a spot sheltered by the smaller islands of Mingay and Clett. In the one song (that I know of) where Donovan mentions Isay, he also mentions these two small islands. The song, which was never formally released, is And Clett Makes Three, which you can listen to at this link:

We attempted to get ashore via the landing ladder used by the boats that make day trips from Dunvegan. I'd used this steep ladder the last time I landed on Isay, but ten years had passed, and time has taken its toll - the ladder was bent, slippy with seaweed, and looked scary - so we made an easy landing at the small beach just to the north.

Once ashore, we hiked through the abandoned village, passing, one by one, a dozen ruined houses. Upwards of ninety people called Isay home in the nineteenth century when it had been a fishing station with a general store. The community came in 1830, made up of people evicted from Bracadale, fifteen miles away on Skye. But life on the island came to an end in 1860 when it was cleared for sheep.

Here and there nettles and blue iris, but no people, greeted us as we explored the village. At the south end of the village we came to another string of houses, and below them stone fish traps could be seen on the foreshore.

A bit past the end of the village we came to Isay House. It is an eerie-looking structure. The roof is missing, and the jagged and split gable ends looked like pincers pointing to the sky, lying in wait to clutch one of the gulls that soared overhead. Access to the first floor is via a grand, stone-balustered staircase. (The balusters have long since gone with the wind.) The staircase is ten feet across at the ground, gradually tapering as it rises to the threshold of what had been the reception room. No door blocks the entrance these days, and if you step through you will fall ten feet down into the rocky ground floor, as the house is now just a shell.

We took turns climbing to the top of the staircase to look out over the hollow interior. If he had taken MacLeod up on his offer this could have been Samuel Johnson’s holiday home, from where he could have sallied forth to take Muck. But there was someone who stood here about fifty years ago that did decide to make Isay a holiday home of sorts, and that was Donovan. In his autobiography, he describes landing on Isay and sitting on tussocks of sea grass inside the ruin of Isay House when he decided to buy the property.  He goes on to tell about establishing the commune in the winter of 1968 by buying ‘a few old gypsy caravans’. Gardens were planted, and ‘my friends and I had probably experienced the last wilderness of Europe before the coming tide of development’. He then writes briefly about the end of the commune. It was turning out to be expensive, and so he ‘sold the Isles to a Dutchman’.

Something less picturesque happened in Isay House 400 years before Donovan's time. It was in 1592, when Ruairaidh MacAilein MacLeod, known as Nimheach (the venomous) lived here. MacLeod wanted his son to inherit Raasay and the lands of Gairloch, but his family was third in line for the inheritance. So Ruairaidh decided to host a banquet, and the families that stood in the way were invited. During dinner each attendee was invited to have a private word with him and, one by one, each was quietly murdered.

Tour of the island complete, I took a group photo, then everyone dispersed to wander for the remaining hour ashore. Pictured are: Top row - Clare, Peter, Ann and Debbie.  Bottom row: Anne, Wolfgang, and Nigel. Over the coming week we'd get to know each other, and what a week it would be. Sitting there on Isay we had no idea of what marvelous weather awaited us - the sun shining down as we'd explore five more islands. 

Our next stop would be Scarp, where Hjalmar Bjorge, a former rescue boat, would be called upon to rescue an injured bride from the white sands of Traigh Mheilein.

I see, you see, we’ll all be free,
Isay, Mingay, and Clett makes three.

‘Isay, Mingay, and Clett Makes Three’, Donovan (1970)

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