The Last of the Island Hops – Part 4

‘Onwards to Eriskay: we head straight to the ferry. Loch Alainn looks full, but fortunately our car is booked on’

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.

Part 4 finds them continuing their 2010 trip as they head through the Uists to Tiree.

Stuart Craig

Stuart Craig

Day Three — Thursday  3 June 2010

Hebrides tied up at Lochmaddy pier last night. She departs at 0730 just as I am awakening. Before I have even raised a curtain her echoing horn alerts me that it must be misty out there. I get showered and dressed and step outside to see. Ian and Gibbie are outside, Gibbie still clutching his handkerchief. It turns out he has a streaming cold and is feeling distinctly under the weather.

“Nothing to do with baby deer or wee lambs, then?”

“No,” he snuffles. “Have you got any paracetamol?”

From his bedroom above us Andy has the window open and appears to be manipulating the dressing-table mirror.

“What are you doing?” Ian shouts up.

“I’m signaling to submarines.”

Hebrides leaving Lochmaddy

“You’ve not taken your tablets this morning, have you?” returns Ian.

There is indeed a curtain of early morning fog but this is patchy and bits of blue sky already peek through the low cloud.

At the breakfast table Andy is almost apoplectic because three trendy fishermen just outside the window, with all their gadgetry, are leaning, yes leaning, on his car as they discuss their angling plans. Two are leaning on the side and one is sitting on the bonnet.

“He’s sitting on the bonnet! Gibbie, you sneak out unseen and let the handbrake off. My God, look! They’ve got cigarette ash on the door. If the pub was open they’d have pint glasses on the roof!”

The lady behind our table eating her Rice Crispies thinks all this hilarious and can’t finish her bowlful for giggling. In order to let her complete her breakfast Gibbie is sent out to load our bags into the boot — this act chases the anglers off.

At 0930 we are packed up and on the road again, this time heading south to Eriskay via the chain link of causeways that join the Uists, Benbecula and Eriskay itself. Yes, we’ve driven this many times before but the second of todays’s sailings is the real target of Island Hop 2010. After having sailed between Eriskay and Barra we will join Clansman for the direct sailing from Castlebay to Tiree. I am so looking forward to this crossing, and to having a decent look at Tiree for the first time in a dozen years.

It is a leisurely drive down through North Uist — so leisurely that we miss the turning to Ballevallich village on Benbecula and overshoot into South Uist by five miles. We turn back, not because Ballevallich is our favourite spot but because we really have lots of time to kill. I want to do a quick bit of research in the library, but cannot find it. So I do the sensible thing and pop into the police station.

Andy and Stuart on deck

“Hi. Can you tell me where the library is please?”

The lady behind the desk smiles. In fact she laughs.

“It’s that very large building right beside us that says ‘library’ on it. Would your guide dog like a biscuit?”

She doesn’t actually say that last bit, but I could see from her expression she was barely suppressing it.

So we visit the local library, watch a plane land, then indulge in a roller coaster ride back down the main Benbecula highway to our favourite little cafe.

The coffee is good and the cafe busy. A foursome of Land Rover trendies come in, order cake and coffee as a carry-out and then stand in front of the counter consuming it.

Onwards to Eriskay. No time to see if Sparky is here on his holidays, we head straight to the ferry. Loch Alainn looks full, but fortunately our car is booked on. Eighteen cars are crammed in and we are away on time across the Sound of Barra to Ardmhor.

Around the ferry the sky is well populated with seabirds keeping busy. Razorbills dominate, but there are guillemots, red-throated divers and a lone great skua to keep us entertained on the half hour crossing.

Our Clansman sailing is at 1530 and we are at Castlebay in plenty time; which is more than can be said for the ship – she is 15 minutes late.

The weather is now glorious and there is a happy atmosphere among the passengers waiting to board. It could be that everyone else is as excited about this unusual crossing as I am.

Gibbie nearest the camera

I try to call home to tell everyone I know how excited I am but cannot get a signal on my mobile.

“It’s a Celtic island,” says Andy. “You’ll not get an Orange signal here!”

We get chatting to two engineers who are servicing the linkspan.

“Is it working okay?” I ask.

“Yes it’s fine.” These chaps have to travel around the linkspans of the Western Isles, greasing a cog here and tweaking a bolt or two there. Now that’s the kind of job I would like.

Clansman is still a tad late on departing but who cares? The sky is now dappled with high cirrocumulus cloud and looks clearer the further east we sail. Tiree is not yet visible on the horizon, but then it is over 40 miles away. We assemble out on deck and relax in the sun.

After five minutes I get fed up with this and set off to explore the ship. This is a problem I have on sea crossings. I want to be in different parts of the ship at the same time. I want to be on deck, in the observation lounge looking out the front windows. I want to be stretched out in a comfy chair trying to snooze. I want to be having a bowl of soup in the cafeteria or a beer in the bar. I cannot be in two places at the same time, but within the first hour of being at sea I manage all these things, but not necessarily in that order.

In one of the lounges I spot a young couple with two unusual-looking dogs and go off on a search to find dog-lover Andy so that he can get excited over them. He does indeed get excited and drools over them for half an hour — so that makes three droolers. The dogs are Ridgebacks (the same make as my bicycle) and originate from South Africa. Their coats are a deep tan with a ridge of longer hair running down the centre of their backs, looking as if it has been combed the wrong way. They are only five months old but already look big enough to eat Gibbie. Now this is beginning to sound like Crufts so let’s get back on deck.

Tiree is now on the horizon, so are lots of other ‘Hebrides’. We steam towards Gunna Sound, that kilometre-wide strip of water between Coll and Tiree. Despite the reefs around us the ship does not drop so much as a knot as she weaves between the islands, passing a huge basking shark to starboard on the way. Terns and kittiwakes voice their annoyance at us but we wheel away to starboard to head for the pier at Scarinish. It certainly has been the highlight of the trip so far, and all the ship’s passengers seem to be having happy attacks.

Scarinish Pier, Tiree

I get chatting to a blond-haired chap in leathers who turns out to be one of the aforementioned moped riders. They have a van aboard with all their bikes and gear inside.

“So it was you who drunk all the ale at Uig?”

He is amazed at this and apologetic.

“I’m only joking,” I reassure, “as long as you are not staying at our hotel tonight”

It is fun to be staying on Tiree this time, instead of jumping off and on the ship. We check-in to our accommodation and Ian, Andy and I have a stroll around Scarinish Bay. Gibbie is feeling off-colour on account of his cold and disappears to his room for an hour.

Tiree is famous for its wind but there is not a breath of it here today — just as well we are not surfers. It is one of those still, muggy, hazy-sunshine evenings that I love. I just didn’t expect to find it on Tiree.

We wander among the haphazardly positioned crofts. Houses, gardens and pastures are all jumbled up on Tiree and one can follow the sheep and wander freely from one garden wall to the next. However we wander just a little too far and on rounding a corner find ourselves staring into the long eyelashes of a huge cow; and an angry one at that. She stomps towards us and gives Andy such a fright that I cannot stop laughing. He is convinced it’s a bull despite the obvious anatomical differences.

The sun is dipping very slowly behind a small hillock and signals it must be time for dinner. This is lavishly fishy, langoustines, monkfish, halibut, scallops and salmon. Ian says it’s the best Island Hop dinner we’ve ever had, but then he doesn’t get out much.

‘The Last of the Island Hops’: read Part 1 here, Part 2 here and Part 3 here. Part 5 will be published soon.
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Published on 18 April 2020