DAY 1. CRINAN to DRUM-na-BUIE
Crinan 6.30 am, 2 hours before the north going flood. Barometer steady at 1011 millibars. Wind force 3. Lazy Beaver and I move out across the loch under jib and main, heading for the Dorus Mhor, that narrow gap between Craighnish Point and Garbh Reisa. Here the waters swirl and roll, torn first south and then north by mother natures mighty hand.......This Then, is the gateway to the Hebrides.
I swing to starboard and begin to move north, past the small island which contains the rotting timbers of Donald Ross's boat 'Jason', driven on the rocks one summer whilst ferrying shepherds to tend their sheep. All were saved, including the dogs, but when 'Jason' struck on the rocks Donald's head connected with the wheelhouse door, leaving him with a painful reminder of the sea.
On my port side I can see the great gap between Jura and Scarba and hear the roar of the overfalls and whirlpool in the Gulf of Corryvreckan. No skipper of a small boat will venture near this maelstrom. Some have and lived to tell the tale, but others, either through drink or daring, have simply disappeared. I give it a wide offing, not wishing the tide to draw me into it's mighty mouth. In the lea of Scarba the wind dies away, and wishing to make good time to the north, I start the engine. I motor until the Grey Dogs are abeam and then the wind from the south west fills in and I can sail again.
Under these circumstances, one can but ponder on the old seamen, under sail with no motor and in the lea of the mountains, slowly drifting, hoping the tide would take them on their way and not onto the nearby shore.
I'm now well into the Sound of Luing and can see in the distance, Fladda lighthouse with its whitewashed cottages. No keepers here to give a cheery wave from their gardens. All is quiet except for the sound of gulls feeding on the disturbed water of the over falls. I can feel it too, pulling at my tiller and I struggle to keep the boat on course. Soon I'm through and into the Firth of Lorn, spat out like a cherry stone, between the lighthouse and the Luing shore.
Before me is Inch Island and to my east I see a sail beating out from Easdale. Is he going north or south I wonder? I pass close under the rocky shore of Inch Island, and go below to set the way point for Duart on the Decca, then light my paraffin stove for a pot of tea.
Returning to the cockpit, and after setting the Haslar self steering and streaming the Walker log, I observe the beating sail from Easdale is heading south west: must be on its way to Erraid, on the Ross of Mull...... Watch the Torran Rocks, my friend. They guard it's entrance well.
Astern, I hear a commotion in the water and turn to look. There, not half a mile away, the sea is snorting and boiling, seagulls wheeling and screaming overhead. I get my glasses (binoculars) and soon see what all the fuss is about. Porpoises, dozens of them cavorting among a shoal of fish, and having the time of their lives. I wait and watch. Yes, they are approaching. Then I hear the whistle of my kettle, calling me below for tea.
The tea is made and in the food locker I find a packet of chocolate digestive biscuits. Quickly back into the cockpit. All is quiet, and then swoosh, splash. They're here! The Porpoises. I run forward and look over the bows. Sure enough there they are, darting this way and that. There's one, smaller than the rest, rushing straight at the boat. At the last second he dives under the keel and soon appears on the other side, quite safe. Lazy Beaver and I are sailing in a sea of Porpoises. Alongside us, they swim on their sides and look up, as if to have a conversation. It's a funny thing, but every time I've been visited by porpoises, I get the feeling that everything is safe, and they've just come to say hello. I hear myself shouting, don't go don't go; but suddenly they're gone, as quickly as they came. I watch and watch to see them rise again, but no, they have had their fill of fish and man, and quietly disappear to the north.
I feel lonely, as though a friend has left, but console myself by looking around. To the west, the great Island of Mull, its dark towering cliffs at Malcolm's Point dropping straight down to the sea. Further north the narrow entrance to Loch Spelve at Port nan Crullach, and the oddly named Frank Lockwood's Island. Who was Frank Lockwood I ask myself? A seaman no doubt, drowned in some long forgotten drama.
I turn to look at the mainland shore, and in the distance I can see the entrance to the Sound of Kerrera. This narrow sea loch, between the Island of Kerrera and the mainland, is the southern gateway to Oban - Oban, the tourists' gateway to the Western Isles. From here, ferries run to the islands of Colonsay, Mull, Coll and Tiree, and on across the Minch to Barra and Lochboisdale.
But this is not for me. Ahead I see the island of Lismore at the entrance to Loch Linnhe. This island, was in the past, a haven for illicit whisky distilling. A man by the name of Macculloch has left a vivid description of an illicit still on Lismore. He writes:
'Beneath a rock, close by the edge of the water was burning a bright and clear fire, near which sat an old man and a young girl, with two or three casks scattered about. An iron crook suspended on some rude poles supported a still, and the worm passed into a tall cask which cooled from a small stream from the summit of a rock. Two or three sturdy fellows were lounging about, while the alchemist in chief sat over the fire, in the attitude of Geber or Paracelsus waiting for the moment of projection. A rough shed erected under another rock seemed to contain some tubs and casks; Nothing could be more picturesque than this primitive laboratory or romantic than the whole scene'.
I have just passed Grass Point at the entrance to Loch Don and before me lies Duart Point with its great castle sitting atop the cliffs.
Duart Castle, guarding the entrance to the Sound of Mull. Built in 1390, it's the ancient seat of the chiefs of the Maclean's. Massive walls, 10 feet thick and tiny windows - an impregnable barrier to those who would seek to injure The Maclean.
I have run down my way point and must set another. This time Ardtornosh Point light, a little before the entrance to Loch Aline. The wind is fluky. It always is at Duart Point and I must safely pass The Lady Rock, so named because of a deadly deed in times gone by. To be precise, it's the tale of a Maclain Chief called, Lachlan Cattanach Maclean. He married Lady Catherine Campbell sister of Campbell of Argyll. As she did not provide him children he soon became bored. In retaliation, he took her to a rock that he knew would be covered by the sea at high tide, and left her to drown. To this day the rock is known as Lady Rock.
Fortunately for Catherine, some passing fisherman came to the rescue and took her home to Campbell of Argyll, her brother. Revenge was not long in coming, as when later, one of her brothers caught up with Maclean in Edinburgh, he 'dirked him in his bed'.
It appears that the Maclean's lived well. The first recorded foreign visitor to the Hebrides. a Frenchman called Barthelemy Faujus de Saint Fond, the son of a wealthy family, visited the Maclean's in 1741 and was so impressed by the food offered that he noted in his Journal:
'Breakfast was taken at ten in the morning. In front of a peat and coal fire was a table laid with slices of smoked beef, cheese on mahogany trays, fresh eggs, salted herrings, butter milk and cream, currant jelly, blackberry jam, tea, coffee and Jamaica rum. Also, egg yolks beaten with sugar, rum and milk. This singular mixture is drunk cold and without having been cooked'.
Dinner was taken at four o'clock in the afternoon. He continues.
'A large dish of Scottish soup, composed of broth of beef and mutton, mixed with a little fine oatmeal flour, onions, parsley and plenty of peas. Black pudding made with bullocks blood, seasoned with plenty of pepper and ginger. Slices of beef; excellent and roasted mutton of the best quality. Potatoes done in the juice of the meat. Wood-cocks and water-fowl. Cucumbers and ginger pickled with vinegar. Cream with Madeira wine and pudding made of barley-meal, cream and currants, cooked in dripping. After dinner the shining mahogany tables were covered with decanters filled with port, sherry, Madeira and large bowls of punch. After many toasts, the ladies withdrew to order tea!'.
After all this there was a supper! he continues:
'At midnight a supper of nearly the same kind as the dinner, and in no less abundance, followed by coffee, slices of buttered bread, milk and tea. Followed by music and conversation!'.
Phew! After verbally consuming all that I now find I have safely passed Lady Rock and am now off the entrance to Loch Aline. There is a forestry village here, where in 1920, many of the inhabitants of the Islands of St Kilda settled, after deciding to leave their lonely Atlantic outpost.
I sail on. A gentle breeze sends Lazy Beaver north-westing up the Sound of Mull, Morvern to the north-east and Mull to the south-west. The great Ben More on Mull rising high above Salen - Aros castle, a ruin now, no doubt it can tell a tale. I'm approaching Calve Island at the entrance to Tobermory, but not for me the flesh pots. I swing north-east past Auliston Point and soon find the narrow entrance to Loch Drum na Buie and sail in on a dying breeze.
Loch Drum na Buie, a perfect anchorage. Small and deep-set between Morvern's wooded shore and Isle Oronsay. I flake out 10 fathoms of chain and drop the anchor, motoring gently astern to pull it in. The engine off and sails down, I can feel the silence, broken only by the occasional sound of gulls sitting atop fish cages, in the far corner of the loch.
I sit for a moment in contemplation. Drum na Buie, this small but perfect anchorage at the entrance to Loch Sunart. The village of Strontian lies at the head of Loch Sunart, where in the 1840's, the local population were forced to build a floating church. It was reported at the time that:
'for every hundred hearers, the vessel sinks one inch within the water. Nothing therefore can be easier than keeping the register, and the popularity of every minister can easily be told'
At this point, perhaps I should clarify the position of the Kirk in the 1840's, and why there was a floating church in Loch Sunart.
As far as the Scottish church was concerned, far-reaching and radical events took place in the 1840's, which were to produce a religious schism that became known at the 'Disruption'.
During the famine years, there had been a growing conflict between the ordinary people and the landowners. When the ministers of the Established Church began to align themselves on the side of the landowners, their congregations began to question the right of the landowners to foist their ministers upon them. Many of these ministers aligned themselves with the landlords during the Highland Clearances, and in a new wave of earnestness and piety, actively condoned the worst excesses of forcible eviction.
After congregations were denied the right to choose their own minister, the people, and some of their ministers, considered the church had failed them. In 1843, taking their congregations with them, 474 members of the clergy seeded and formed the Free Church. The old parish kirks soon stood empty as the new congregations gathered in whatever places they could find, sometimes in buildings but mainly in the open air.
Many landlords refused these congregations permission to build new kirks on their land and therefore, many extraordinary measures were taken by the people. The floating church, at Strontian in Loch Sunart, was one of these. It is recorded that the congregation of the area raised 1,400 Pounds Sterling, an enormous sum in 1843, to build their floating kirk.
Before returning to the matters in hand, I must tell you about 'Betsey', a thirty foot yawl, that after the Disruption was used by a Mr Swanson, a Free Church minister.
Swanson, based in Tobermory, preached to the congregations of the Small Isles, and his yacht was used not only for travel but also as a pulpit. On the Island of Eigg in particular, the people were denied permission to build a kirk by its owner, a staunch upholder of the Established Church. In 1844, Minister Swanson, on his preaching rounds to the Small Isles, had a passenger - no doubt fare paying - who has left us a record of his trip, including a description of the boat. I will quote. He writes:
'A well-thumbed chart of the Western Highlands lay across an equally well-thumbed volume of Henry's 'Commentary'; there was a Polyglot and a spy-glass in one corner, and a copy of Calvin's 'Institutes', with the latest edition of 'The Coaster Sailing Directions', in another; while in an adjoining stateroom, nearly large enough to accommodate an arm-chair, if the chair could have been contrived to get into it, I caught a glimpse of my friend's printing press and his case of types. Canopied overhead, under a blue sky, the ancient vessel bears, in stately six-inch letters on white bunting, the legend - 'FREE CHURCH YACHT'.
On arriving at Eigg the passenger continues:
'We were now at home - the only home which the proprietor of the island permits to the island's minister; and, after getting warm and comfortable over the stove and a cup of tea, we did what all sensible men do in their own homes when the night wears late - go to bed'.
My contemplation over, we must now return to the present day and the matters in hand. I go below - food. I light my stove and soon a Madras curry is cooked and eaten, followed by rice pudding with strawberry jam, oat cakes, cheese, and mugs of sweet tea. I wash up and return aloft. It's getting dark and as I sit and smoke a pipe of tobacco, I hear an almighty splash followed by a bark like a dog. But this is no dog, just a seal hunting, frustrated no doubt by the smell of fish in the cages. I wonder if he will feed as well as I tonight?
It is now quite dark with only the red glow of my pipe for company. But wait. Whats that noise coming from the wooded shoreline. I stare into the blackness. My eyes growing accustomed to the dark, and there they are. Three deer, gently making their way onto the little pebble beach. Pausing for a moment they lift their heads to scent, and satisfied that all is well continue on their nocturnal walk eventually disappearing into the gloom.
Time for bed. I knock out my pipe, sending the hot ash hissing into the water. One final check on the anchor chain and the ties on the halyards and then below. I light the oil lamp, switch on the radio and at thirty three minutes past midnight listen to the shipping forecast. The forecast for Malin and Hebrides is a slowly dropping barometer with winds 3 to 4. That will suit me. I switch off, snuggle into my bunk, turn out the lamp, and soon I'm asleep.
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