Between 1989 and 2013 Stuart Craig and friends undertook 25 extended ferry trips around the west coast of Scotland. The first 20 of the ‘Island Hops’ have been chronicled in Stuart’s books Away with the Ferries and Still Away with the Ferries. But what of the last five trips? The answer lies in this eight-part series – ‘The Final Island Hops’, starting in June 2009.
Stuart’s friends were the usual suspects: Gibbie Anderson, Ian McLaren and newcomer Andy Anderson. In Part 1 they travelled from Ardrossan to Mallaig via Arran, Kintyre, Islay, Colonsay, Oban, Mull and the Ardnamurchan peninsula. In Part 2 we learn where the intrepid pals sailed next on their island odyssey.
Day Three — Thursday 4 June 2009
Our Mallaig hotel is being refurbished and as the kitchen is closed we are directed across the street to the Seamen’s Mission for breakfast. Unbelievably it’s also being refurbished. This double whammy has the effect of throwing me into a bad mood — so early in the morning, as well. So Ian and I grab the makings of a continental breakfast from the Spar shop next door, while the Brothers Grimm cheekily head off to find a hotel which will serve breakfast to non-residents. In this they are successful, and when Ian and I locate them half an hour later we find an egg-yoked Gibbie giving a seminar on island hopping to an audience of 10 senior citizens in the hotel foyer.
Lochnevis is our first ship of the day. Andy is particularly excited about this as he has never sailed on her. Today she leaves Mallaig at 1015 for Eigg, Muck, back to Eigg, then Mallaig again. The itinerary throws me into a quandary. I’ve never set foot on Muck (to date it is still the only inhabited Hebridean island that I’ve never visited) but am tempted by the prospect of 90 minutes on the lovely island of Eigg. If I stay aboard as far as Muck I will only have five minutes ashore! As we set off across a windswept sea I have a little over an hour to make up my mind. The others have no such decisions to contemplate – they all want to stay aboard for the longest possible sail.
Ian and I head down to the ship’s cafeteria for a real breakfast — all freshly cooked for us — then it’s up to the front to watch the islands approach. Lochnevis is surrounded by a roving flock of over 100 manx shearwaters, and while watching this spectacle I get chatting to the delightful lady next to me about sea birds, eagles, kites, pine martens and other such wildlife. She is very knowledgeable about local wildlife and has some interesting stories. She tells me about the Perthshire red kite which carried a teddy bear to its nest, believing it ideal prey for the nestlings. She suppresses a smile when she relates the tale of the Welsh red kite which carried off a walker’s unsuspecting Yorkshire terrier! Better not tell dog-loving Andy that one.
When the ship docks at the slipway on Eigg, the weather is still superb and so influences me into making my mind up: I stride ashore. Giving my pals my customary wave (a perfunctory, economical one that only requires the use of one hand, and not even all the fingers on it at that), I head off across the bracken on a three mile circuitous route which will end up at the café, above the old pier.
Today I am one of two dozen day trippers and most of them look like they have some serious walking ahead of them. I’ve got some serious walking to do as well and soon find I’m way over-dressed for it. It quickly becomes hot work and I end up carrying most of my clothes instead of wearing them. A rough path guides me uphill towards a farm where, my map informs me, I’ll meet the island’s main highway. When I get up to the farmhouse I discover that it is derelict, which seems a shame. It is, however, the only sign of decline I see. Eigg is now owned by its community and otherwise seems to be doing very well, thank you very much.
On the main road down to the pier I am passed by several Land Rovers, each going about its business with a smiling, friendly face at the wheel. I give them all a more traditional wave. Down at the waterfront the café is doing a roaring trade. A party of schoolchildren, heavily laden with sleeping bags and rucksacks, are doing their best at emptying the shelves. I find an empty bench outside from where I can enjoy my coffee and carrot cake, and keep watch on Lochnevis’s progress back towards me.
I fall into conversation (I’m obviously in chatty mood today) with Jan and Jennifer, two ladies of a certain age, who are cycling their way around Scotland at the rate of 10 miles a day. I immediately endear myself to them by chasing after their completed postcards which get caught by a sudden gust of wind. A few seconds later and they would have been blown across to Canna. The ladies stay most nights in bothies or hostels, which makes me embarrassed when they ask about my travels, to admit to enjoying more sophisticated comforts. Still, they seem genuinely interested in our travels and I promise to introduce them to the others — at their peril — when we board the ferry.
Back on Lochnevis I meet up with my shipmates in the lounge downstairs where we swap stories over bowls of ‘Poor Man’s Soup’. This turns out to be an excellent broth of rib-sticking consistency. Gibbie manages to get his spoon to sit vertically in it. He and Ian get introduced to the cycling ladies (I considered it too risky to include Andy) and the four of them remain locked in deep conversation for the rest of the sail back to Mallaig. I think they may even be swapping phone numbers.
I pluck up the courage to tell Andy the red kite/Yorkie story. He takes it rather well but brings the conversation round to his beloved Dachshund ‘Bertie’.
“Bertie hates Gibbie, you know.” Gibbie, within earshot, nods wistfully. Andy elaborates. “It’s because Gibbie gets down on his hands and knees and shouts at him in German.”
“What’s wrong with that?” I ask.
“Bertie was born in Dagenham!”
Back at Mallaig we quickly swap ships — from Lochnevis to Coruisk. She takes us, and vehicle, the short ride over to Skye where an hour’s drive awaits us, northwards to Uig.
“Can we stop at Sligachan?” asks Ian.
“No Ian, that’s on Mull!”
So we whizz past Sligachan without stopping (Ian in the huff) taking in the spectacular scenery that for once is not obscured by cloud nor mist. It is Skye at its best — the Cuillins looking as clear and beautiful as I can ever recall seeing them.
As a result of Andy’s driving we are at Uig an hour earlier than anticipated — so there is plenty of time to watch Hebrides arriving.
Hebrides is full of Germans on a coach trip from Dresden. Gibbie is delighted by this and hopes to get into conversation with some of them. We are heading now for Tarbert on Harris — another crossing of the Minch for us. How many times have we done that on our island hops? Sailing into the narrow sound, on the approach to Tarbert, is always intriguing and we watch from the deck as the bleak, rocky hills of Harris close in around us. There almost seems no space for the ship.
Hebrides berths nose-in for the night and makes for an attractive photo-shot on this beautiful evening.
Day Four — Friday 5 June 2009
We have a huge distance to travel today, so let’s get on with it. There are three ferries to sail on, nine islands to cross and around 200 miles of road to traverse before we get home in the early hours. Fortunately we can do all this at a leisurely pace, and so Gibbie produces a brochure of “…..things to do in the Outer Hebrides”.
“Let’s visit each one and tick them off,” he suggests gleefully.
“Fine,” I agree, “we’ll head for Scalpay first.”
Scalpay is, of course, now linked to big brother Harris by a stylish bridge. We stop at the Harris side of the bridge to let me and my camera out of the car. I explain to the others how I want to capture the car driving off the island towards me. So away they drive and I set up the tripod and wait for them to turn around and come back over the hump of the bridge. And I wait. And wait.
Big dark clouds gather directly above me. I can see it’s going to pour very soon, but there’s still no sign of the car. What’s keeping them? Andy only had to turn the car round.
Fifteen minutes pass. Other vehicles pass in either direction and drivers wave at me as if I’m enjoying myself standing here, being enveloped in the gloom. Big splots of rain start to implode around me, when the blue Jag comes over the rise.
“What the hell kept you?”
“We went to see Scalpay!” announces Andy. So they took in the island without me!
“It looks just the same as the last time we were here,” says Gibbie cheerfully.
I slump moodily into the back seat.
Next there are the truly wonderful beaches of Harris to visit. Most of these are conveniently located close to the roadside on our way south. In my opinion Seilebost and Scarista beaches are the most stunning stretches of golden sand in Scotland. Today they look at their best. It is almost high tide and the shadows created by the dappled clouds and the shimmering from the bright June sunshine make the surface of the water seem alive. A light breeze occasionally stirs the surface of the sea and blows swirls of fine sand across the beach. I could stay here all day and watch this. Ian gets his sweeties out and the four of us stand and look out at the bay with our jaws rotating in unison.
We eventually drag ourselves away and head down to Rodel, where the quaint little church of St Clement’s beckons. I wander alone through this unique Western Isles sandstone church. It was built in the 16th century and has an unusual rectangular tower. I find a ladder leading up to the tower and climb up. I have an eye on the time as we have a ferry to catch at Leverburgh in 15 minutes. Timing my visit just long enough to start giving my colleagues a touch of anxiety, and thus pay them back for Scalpay this morning, I return to the car.
At Leverburgh Loch Portain is arriving on schedule and takes a fair load of vehicles on her 1135 sailing to Berneray. We are, of course, amongst them and set off on that infamous, tortuous course across the shallow Sound of Harris.
A reef, looking for all the world like a partially submerged stegosaurus, threatens on our port side, but we swing away from it — our skipper following carefully the conspicuously buoyed channel. Gibbie doesn’t like this route because of its latent treachery, and spends the entire journey trying to extricate a coffee and a Twix from the unsporting vending machine.
At the other end of the ‘safe passage’ is the island of Berneray. This is linked to North Uist by a causeway, this being the next link in the Long Isle chain.
Rain is threatening again so we do not linger, but cross the causeway and bear west down to Sollas. Here Gibbie and I have earmarked a spot where we can search the horizon for the cliffs of St Kilda. It all depends on the weather but with a very clear northerly airflow today we may be lucky, if the rain stays off.
“Let’s stop here,” says Gibbie. The clouds part in biblical fashion and sure enough there, far out to sea, are the cliff tops of Hirta and Boreray 45 miles away — faint but distinct lumps jutting imperiously above the horizon. They are visible to the naked eye but binoculars pick out the contours of this stunning, remote island group.
Next on Gibbie’s tick-list is the RSPB reserve at Balranald. But the heavens open just as Andy pulls up and we step out just long enough to ogle at a couple of incredibly tame lapwing chicks. Ian wants to keep them as pets, while Andy wonders what they would taste like.
Passing over Grimsay and Benbecula we cross onto South Uist and find a welcoming café at Lochdar. This overlooks an empty bay of grey sand which is being gradually, but perceptively, covered by the wash of the incoming tide. The shower clouds hurrying by are reflected in the shallow waters, turning them alternately blue and grey.
Pushing on again, we cross the causeway onto Eriskay, and Andy strides out hoping to reacquaint himself with his canine pal Sparky, previously encountered on our island hops of 2007 and 2008.
Sadly Sparky has gone. Since our visit last year his owner has passed away, in his 90th year, and the house is closed up. Andy cannot quite take this in and so marches off to the post office for clarification. The rest of us settle for Am Politician (the world-famous Eriskay pub).
“This could be a blessing,” mutters Gibbie. “It means that from now on we don’t have to visit Eriskay on every single island hop.”
Andy takes 20 minutes to join us.
“It’s true,” he says, as if this was in any doubt. “The old chap’s niece has Sparky now, and they can’t tell me where.” His chin falls despondently.
“No clues?” — Ian at least tries to sound sympathetic.
Gibbie shakes his head. “Aye, Perthshire’s a big place.”
We lead Andy by the hand and point him in the direction of our next ferry.
This is Loch Alainn, a former Largs-Cumbrae ferry which now gives increased capacity on the Eriskay-Barra route. It is our first sail on her in these waters. She is not dissimilar to her predecessor Loch Bhrusda (which is now based on the Clyde as spare vessel) but somewhat quieter.
Presumably the waters off the Sound of Barra are deeper than the Sound of Harris, as we set off, at 1635, on a straight line.
Loch Alainn may be our ninth and penultimate ship but we still have two more islands to visit. The first is obviously Barra, where we are just about to make landfall. The other will be Vatersay, linked to Barra by another of these very useful causeways. The visit to Vatersay will be no idle trip, for Gibbie’s brochure has highlighted a stunning piece of local history, of which we were quite ignorant until breakfast time this morning.
A World War Two Catalina flying boat crashed on Vatersay in May 1944 and apparently the wreckage is still visible, and even accessible, from the island’s main road. Despite having cycled on the island I cannot recall having seen any evidence of an air crash. Gibbie is not confident that we will find it, especially as we don’t have a lot of time — Clansman will be in at Castlebay pier in just half an hour!
“Let’s give ourselves 15 minutes from driving through Castlebay to find it. Then we’ll have to turn back.”
Eight minutes have passed by the time we are crossing the short causeway onto Vatersay. Andy drives on a couple of miles more and we are at the point of giving up when I spot the memorial stone at the side of the road.
A surprisingly large amount of wreckage is indeed still visible, in particular a good-sized portion of wing, with red and blue painted markings in remarkably good condition despite having lain here for 65 years.
The plane had drifted off course on its last fateful flight. It crashed into the hillside just above this road. Of the nine aboard, three were killed.
“Time’s up!” cries Gibbie, jolting us out of our reverie. We head back to Castlebay, now with nearly all Gibbie’s brochure boxes ticked.
Ironically Clansman is running half an hour late, and when she does turn up takes a good 15 minutes to berth in what is now a fairly strong northerly wind.
We all get tucked up on board, but still the ship sits at the pier. The captain announces that there is a technical problem which is being addressed. Half an hour goes by, and just as I start wondering if we will all have to disembark and try again tomorrow, the skipper comes on again, more cheerfully this time, to assure us that all is well and we will be putting to sea very shortly.
The delay is annoying as our scheduled arrival time back at Oban is already very late. And then we have a two hour drive back to Glasgow.
Once underway the sea is lumpy, and we roll across the Minch for a couple of hours. The ship is actually very quiet and the restaurant wants to close up early, so it is a fairly rushed aperitif and evening meal. We then take off to different parts of the ship to choose our individual reclining corners.
I stretch out in the bar and sleep for an hour. On wakening I realise that Clansman is now steady. I wander sleepily around looking for the others. This takes a surprisingly long time — well, she is quite a big ship.
The sail from Castlebay takes five hours, and to be honest I am glad to reach Oban. We are an hour late. Sailing in the dark on such an empty ship isn’t as much fun as a daylight crossing. But we have crammed a lot into our day.
It’s a long drive home. Andy takes us the scenic route via Inveraray, singing cheerfully to himself nearly all the way. I say ‘to himself’, for the rest of us are back in the land of nod.
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Part 3 of ‘The Last of the Island Hops’ will be published soon.
Read Part 1 here.
ISLAND HOP 2009 — the full itinerary:
ARDROSSAN 0945 Caledonian Isles
LOCHRANZA 1200 Loch Tarbert
KENNACRAIG 1300 Isle of Arran
PORT ASKAIG 1500
PORT ASKAIG 1015
COLONSAY 1145 Hebridean Isles
OBAN 1600 Isle of Mull
TOBERMORY 1800 Loch Linnhe
MALLAIG 1015 Lochnevis
MALLAIG 1505 Coruisk
LEVERBURGH 1135 Loch Portain
ERISKAY 1635 Loch Alainn
CASTLEBAY 1950 Clansman
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Published on 20 October 2019