The Last of the Island Hops – Part 3

The first ferry of our 2020 odyssey: Isle of Lewis heading up Loch Broom towards Ullapool

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.  Stuart’s friends were the usual suspects: Gibbie Anderson, Ian McLaren and newcomer Andy Anderson.

Stuart Craig

Stuart Craig

In Part 1 (June 2009), they travelled from Ardrossan to Mallaig via Arran, Kintyre, Islay, Colonsay, Oban, Mull and the Ardnamurchan peninsula. Continuing on the same trip in Part 2, the intrepid four visited the Small Isles on Lochnevis, crossed to Skye on Coruisk, took Hebrides to the Outer Hebrides, and notched up sailings on Loch Portain and Loch Alainn before finishing off on Clansman for the return to Oban.

In Part 3 we advance to 2010. The lads are off across the Minch — several times! How did Day One go?

Day One — Tuesday 1 June 2010

Mirror and probe are hurriedly chucked aside as my dental nurse announces that the last patient has been seen and ‘your shipping pals are here’. In 10 minutes I am being whisked away speedily to our first overnight destination — Ullapool.

It has been a nervous morning, dealing with the needs of just a few patients and trying hard not to look at the clock. But by 1130 Mrs Smith has had her new dentures inserted the right way round and I am in my usual place in Andy’s Jag, alongside Ian. Gibbie is in front and his wee brother Andy is doing the driving, issuing his usual warnings and instructions.

“I hope you’re not going to eat that banana in my car. Don’t open that packet of biscuits, you’ll get crumbs on the seat. Put that fag away Gibbie you’ll have to wait till we get to Blair Atholl.”

He fails to see the look of disgust from the two in the back when he tells us, on starting off, that he gave the back seat a “good rub down” with his dog’s favourite towel!

Isle of Lewis open-mouthed at Ullapool

None of us can remember heading up the A9 at the start of a trip before, but then none of us can recall very much about any past Island Hop nowadays as this is the 22nd and a lot of ships have passed under the bridge, so to speak. Being the archivist of our little team I am frequently flying off questions (to Ian in particular because his memory is next to useless) such as:

“What year did we do such-and-such? Where did we sail to on Pioneer in 2003? How many different routes have we sailed on Loch Linnhe? Despite our collective amnesia, incurred by too many years of doing this nonsense, I am certain we have never driven up the A9 before.

Blair Atholl has been chosen as our lunch stop. ‘Soup and a Sandwich’ is the order of the day and is highlighted by the young, female waitress who returns to our table with the words “Who wanted the tongue sandwich?”

We reach Ullapool just after 1700. The leaden skies were left behind around Inverness, and it is a surprisingly mild evening in this picturesque and peaceful promontory town.

Our hotel is fine — nothing more — but we locate a nice restaurant where we can drizzle fishy sauces down our chins and compliment ourselves on having chosen a week where the weather forecast looks promising. After a visit to the hotel bar this will go down as the longest ever ‘Island Hop’ day where we never actually sailed on a ship.

Day Two — Wednesday 2 June 2010

Andy is late down to breakfast on account of his chewing-the-fat with a local fisherman in the bar last night, after the rest of us had called it a day.

Over breakfast I announce that there is no rush to be down at the pier because Isle of Lewis is not due in till 1000. By the time we amble down she is already tied up, because yet again I’ve misread the timetable. At least I get her departure time right — very important because we are supposed to be on her! And on her we are, as she sails away down Loch Broom at 1025.

The captain introduces himself and informs us that there is a swell out on the Minch, and we are to use the ship’s handrails to steady ourselves as we make our way around the ship. But he exaggerates. Once out on the open sea, a good 45 minutes into our voyage, there are a few wee bumpy bits but nothing that would make you grab a sick bag.

Isle of Lewis is a very comfortable ship’

It is a few years since we last sailed on Isle of Lewis, which is why we have gone out of our way to do just that. It would be nice if she popped up serving other routes. Then we wouldn’t have to go quite so far out our way. There are rumours that she may serve Arran one day — now that would be nice. She is a very, and I mean very, comfortable ship. I give myself a tour to reacquaint myself. On the main deck there is a huge cafeteria, with some comfy seating on the starboard side and a lorry-drivers’ lounge on the port side. The central atrium aft of this gives way to a shop, purser’s office and bar.

Up top, there is a large spacious observation lounge, with its own little cafe tucked away in a corner. Serving there we find Sandra MacKinnon. She and I look at each other with mutual recognition. I know she has poured me many a cup of tea on various vessels over the years, and she recognises a regular ‘steamer’ nutter when she sees one.

“Give me a mention in your next book.” Done, Sandra.

Sandra has worked on the Ullapool-Stornoway route for 10 years now. She is on day 17 of a 14-day shift — work that one out!

The sea outside is as grey as the sky. The occasional fluffy clouds scampering past are mirrored by the ridges of ‘white horses’ which pop out of nowhere and thump against the side of the hull. Aboard the ship the atmosphere is very relaxed. Over a tea Andy presents Ian with a Waverley badge in recognition of 20 years of ‘Island Hops’. Just why Gibbie and I don’t get one is not fully explained.

Stornoway approaches and when we drive off at 1315 Andy has his marching music blaring out, Big Band style, to everyone on the car deck.

Andy tree-hugging at Callanish

We have a bit of time before our next sailing, so head west instead of south across the flat, boggy plain that is the central core of Lewis. I’ve never actually been here before, I’m ashamed to say, and stare out of the car window in amazement at what seems like a continuous brown plateau of marshland and rough pasture.

There are very few features, man-made or otherwise. But the appearance of the Lewis landscape belies natural treasures which are not immediately apparent. Huge numbers of wading birds breed here, in numbers that are of international importance. Dunlin, redshank, greenshank and golden plover exist here in greater numbers and concentrations than anywhere else. The habitat that holds them is fundamental to their survival and is thus precious and delicate, which is why planning permission for a huge windfarm was recently refused.

We reach Callanish, famous for its standing stones. Having been to Ring of Brodgar in Orkney I am afraid to say I find the Lewis collection of stones a wee bit disappointing. A bus load of English tourists is, however, finding them fascinating and wander aimlessly around them, shaking their heads disapprovingly of Andy who has chosen to run up and cuddle some of them.

“He’s ruining my photograph,” one old grump moans to me. Andy then starts to dance around them — fortunately with his clothes on. At this Mr Grumpy heads back to his coach.

We grab a quick sandwich from the excellent cafe and continue our circuit of southern Lewis. We are on our way to Tarbert on Harris now, but haven’t a lot of time to spare. So when we get held up by roadworks at Cirbhig, Gibbie is shaking his watch to make sure it is still working. We wait patiently at the head of a queue of cars until an escort vehicle appears which will lead the little convoy across the repaired carriageway. Gibbie, every watchful of our time, can relax again as we are soon swiftly on the move. So swiftly, in fact, that we are even overtaking a peregrine which pops up over a ridge and flies parallel with us for while.

We pass cottage after cottage; croft after croft. Many with washing dancing energetically on washing lines.

“I hope that’s well pegged down or their undies will end up on St Kilda,” remarks Gibbie.

We are supposed to be at the check-in for the Tarbert-Uig ferry for 1530. We pull up at the end of the queue at 1529.

Hebrides at Uig

Our next ship is Hebrides and she will take us back across the Minch to Uig on Skye, with an 80-minute stay there before heading back across the same sea to Lochmaddy on North Uist. This route is known as the Uig Triangle and has featured on many an ‘Island Hop’.

Hebrides is a sister ship of Clansman (which we will meet later on the trip) and is fairly busy this afternoon. There are a lot of cyclists aboard — mainly German. She sails on time at 1600 and turns around on a sixpence within the confines of the narrow Loch Tarbert. On board we split up and seem to wander aimlessly round the decks and lounges for a while. Some of us even manage a snooze, which is why I can’t remember much about this particular sailing!

At Uig we assemble on the aft deck to watch her pirouette at the pier. A fascinating piece of ship-parking if ever I saw one.

We remove the car, with us inside it, and head up the hill a bit to a favourite inn, where we have stayed on a few occasions. Real ale is on tap but only a couple of us can indulge.

“A party of 10 moped riders were in earlier and almost emptied the barrel,” the landlady reports. “It took me half an hour to pour 10 pints.”

The sun is out at Uig and the final leg of today’s journey promises to be a treat. And it is. We spend half of the 100-minute crossing to Lochmaddy sunning ourselves out on deck. As there are few passengers around now, Andy takes to marching up and down to his own brand of hummed ‘brass band’ music.

“You were too long in the BB,” observes Ian, probably correctly.

The other half of the voyage is spent tucking into steak pie in the cafeteria — except me. I get the last plate of mince and tatties, much to the envy of my cohorts.

We glide on to Lochmaddy and find our accommodation. In the hotel bar we are ably attended to by Kathleen. She is bright and cheery and so attentive that we end up buying more beer than we should. This brings out our lugubrious side as we recount in turn the movie scenes that make us cry.

Hebrides at Lochmaddy: a more recent photograph showing the pier side pontoon

Gibbie wins hands down with Bambi but it is a close run thing, and I almost force extra time with my favourite scene from A Town Called Alice.

Kathleen brings us down to earth again.

“Pull yourselves together, boys!”

“Tell us about your croft,” I suggest.

“Oh it’s small, a couple of cows and some sheep. We’ve some pet lambs.”

“That’s nice,” says Andy.

“They’re cute. They baaa at me every morning. The sooner they go to slaughter the better!”

Gibbie has his hankie out again.

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‘The Last of the Island Hops’: read Part 1 here and Part 2 here. Part 4 will be published soon.

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Published on 7 April 2020