Late July 2007– North & South Uist, Eiskay and Barra
The islands in the southern half of the chain of the Outer Hebrides have a very different feel to those in the north. The northern islands have the high rocky hills of Harris, and the miles upon miles of peat moorland of Lewis. Both North and South Uist are made up of a ridge of mountains on the east side, and the west side is unbroken white sandy beaches. On a sunny day they sparkle, and the sea is a beautiful turquoise blue, though unfortunately not the temperature of the Caribbean! The houses are usually a mile or so back from the sea, and in between is the fertile crofting land of hay meadows and crops of oats and barley. Because the west coast is so flat, you get the real "big sky" feeling which for some reason you don't notice so much when out on the sea in a boat.We only heard one corncrake in our rambles, but then it is a bit late in the year for them to be calling, in May and June they are apparently noisy enough you keep you awake at night. Between the Uists is Benbecular which is so flat it looks like a big storm would wash it away, and south of them is the more mountainous Barra and the smaller uninhabited islands.
After leaving Lewis on 15th July, we returned south to Scalpay for a couple of nights to shelter from some strong north easterly winds. On arrival, we had some fun and games anchoring, we were the third yacht into the (smallish) anchorage, and settled down between the other two yachts with 30m of chain out in 7m of water and we also put our anchor chum out (a weight that hangs on the chain to act as a shock absorber). However as the wind got up after dinner, we notice that we had started to drag the anchor - something that we have not done before despite having been anchored in much stronger winds. Tim hauled it all aboard, and we found the anchor hooked onto some abandoned cable, which explained the dragging - it was not buried in the ground at all! We moved to another location in the anchorage, but after letting out the chain again, we settled too close to one of the other boats, so it all had to be pulled up again. Thankfully it all went right the third time, which was a good thing because Tim was exhausted by then.
After an early start from Scalpay on 17th July, and stopped off in Grosebay on the way south. This was to visit the Harris tweed and knitwear shop in the village. The tweed industry is going through a bit of a crisis at the moment. After the tweed has been woven (by hand in the homes of the islanders) it has to go through a finishing process at the mill in Stornoway. However, the mill has recently been bought by a Yorkshire business man who plans to use the mill to solely produce five tweed patterns for making into jackets in his factory in the far east. He does not appear to be interested in doing the finishing work of the independent weavers so there is a big backlog of tweed sitting at the mill waiting to be finished and a shortage of product in all the shops and tailors. Needless to say there has been a lot of angry articles in the local press.
From Grosebay we continued on to Lochmaddy in North Uist, and here tied up to a visitors mooring tucked in behind the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry terminal. The ferry which comes across from Uig, on Skye, stays overnight every other day, and it is quite alarming to see it so close through our port hole, though it was a good wind break.
We really liked Lochmaddy village. It is quite small, but has several substantial buildings which makes a change from the usual grey rendered houses that you see all over the islands. It has several hotels, but we especially liked the yacht friendly Tigh Dearg where they have showers, laundry, and also free Wifi in their well stocked bar.
Fortunately, we had timed our visit to Lochmaddy at the same time as the North Uist Highland games. These had the atmosphere of a relaxed and friendly village festival. They were held in a recently mown field on the west side of the island. The games included not only track and field events, but also traditional Scottish dancing and junior/senior bagpipe competitions. All these events were going on simultaneously in various parts of the field. This sounds fine, but early on in the day the two piping competitions and the pipes accompaniment to the dancing were all happening at once, it was quite a din!
Apparently, this was the first year that they have included 'tossing the caber' in the games on North Uist. The event was one of the last in the day, and the caber lay innocently in the middle of the field all day. When they came to start the event, only one of the competitors could lift it, let alone toss it. So someone was dispatched to find a saw, and they removed a few feet off the end! Even then only one competitor managed to get the caber to roll end over end.
There were a few other unusual events, one was the hill race where they ran up and back down the hill shown in the caber pictures above, and then there was a pillow fight competition for the children, where they sat on a pole and had to knock off their opponent by hitting them with a pillow - this was the event with the most competitor entries..... But what really got us giggling was an Alsatian which accompanied one of the visitors to the show. It was being bothered by a fly, and tried to swat it away from its face with a paw. After several unsuccessful attempts, it snapped at it, swallowed, and then licked it's lips - we just cracked up with laughter.
We had traveled to the games by bus and on the way back to Lochmaddy we were the only ones on board. The driver was really friendly and very happy to talk about his life on the island and associated local history. He effectively gave us a guided tour of the island, slowing down to talk about the various places of interest, or stopping to point out a particularly fine view, we couldn't have asked for a better end to the day.
Our next stop was a few miles down the coast in Loch Eport, from where we walked up Eaval the highest peak on North Uist. Here there is a breath taking 360º view from Harris to the north, over the flat, lake filled moorland of North Uist and Benbecular, then southwards to South Uist, and over to Skye and Rum in the east. The walk itself was also most enjoyable, starting on a narrow track around the shore of the loch, before walking cross country up the ridge of Eaval over heather, moss and rock.
Our colourful cruising chute came out for the second time this season on our sail from Loch Eport to Lochboisdale. We had light winds behind us for most of the distance, before they died away to nothing. But they came back with avengence later on when we were tied to a mooring buoy in Lochboisdale, reading books while the wind and rain lashed down outside. All of a sudden, the boat was suddenly and violently heeled over first one way then the other. Looking outside we saw a mini waterspout moving away up the loch. As we were not on passage, nothing was put away so things went flying in the cabin, though thankfully nothing was damaged.
Next in the line of the Outer Hebrides is Eriskay, made famous by Compton Mackenzie and Ealing Studios in "Whisky Galore!". In 1941 the SS Politician (SS Cabinet Minister in the story) ran aground on it's way from Liverpool to Jamaica. Amongst it's diverse cargo was 264,000 bottles of whisky. There is a pub on the island that is not surprisingly called Am Politician and it has an interesting collection of memorabilia including a bottle or two of now unpalatable whisky (see left). The film itself was actually shot on Barra, with both Kisimul Castle and Castlebay high street (right) featured prominently, though without the modern cars, petrol pumps and wheely-bins.
Thankfully, we were able to obtain a copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in the Co-op in Dalabrog (3 miles from Lochboisdale) shortly after it was published. We had both finished it with a couple of days before we left Eriskay. After Eriskay, we had a couple of nice days in Castlebay and walked up Heaval the highest peak on Barra. Again there were magnificent views in all directions, the picture below is looking south. Barra is connected to Vatersay by a causeway and they are the southern most inhabited islands in the Outer Hebrides. The anchorages in the islands south of Barra are very exposed and not suitable except in very settled weather. Even Castlebay, where there are visitors moorings is exposed to the south, so when the wind turned southerly we nipped across to Cornaig bay, off Vatersay, for a night. Our walk around Vatersay was very brief, curtailed by the worsening weather, but was most notable for the meadows of pale blue harebells which we have not seen elsewhere in the islands.
Even in Cornaig bay it was not very comfortable in the strong southerly winds as they gusted over the protecting hills and down into the bay. The following morning (1st August), back in Castlebay, the 5 day weather on the internet (available for free in the library) was for continued strong southerly winds and building rough seas. The choice was to stay for a week and ride out the weather in the not-too-comfortable anchorages, or head back to the mainland. It would have been nice to have had the time to go up to the north of Barra to watch the commercial airplanes landing on the beach at low tide, or to have a cruise around the southern islands, but we decided it was better to head back towards Tobermory on the Isle of Mull that day.
Tobermory was our target for two reasons, firstly we would escape the forecast rough seas, and secondly it has a well lit approach which was important as our ETA was just before midnight. The sailing was excellent, with south westerly force 5 winds on our back quarter, so giving us a comfortable fast passage all the way until just after Coll, when the wind died as the sun went down. While off Coll, we were discussing the distinct lack of marine mammals sightings this year compared with our trip around Ireland last year. Just then, a basking shark slid along the boat going the in opposite direction - not a mammal but a welcome sighting none the less.
Normally Tobermory is fairly quiet mid week as it is a short days sail from the Oban region so is more popular as the first or last stop for people enjoying a weeks holiday from Oban. However just our luck, it as "West Highland Yachting Week", and that night was the day the fleet were converging on Tobermory. So instead of there being lots of free buoys, each one had three or more yachts tied to it. The normal alternative anchorages in the bay were all full, and there were even boats anchored in 26m of water! It was pitch dark when we were motoring around trying to understand the chaos, and decided it better to get out and head on for Oban. The idea being it would be light by the time we arrived, so have a better chance of safely finding somewhere to moor. It was eerie motoring down the Sound of Mull, piloting by the navigation buoys and lights, and just able to make out the surrounding hills. As planned, we arrived in Oban just after 4.30am when it was starting to get light, so enabling us to find one of the visitors moorings where we gratefully fell into our bunks.
As of 2nd August ,we are now in Oban marina (right) which is off Kerrera opposite Oban town itself. It has been so dry up here in Scotland that the spring that supplies the marina has not been able to keep up with the demands of the 100+ yachts that arrived earlier in the week for the "West Highland Yachting Week", so there are currently no showers, no laundry, and no water for filling tanks or washing decks, there is only just enough water to keep the toilets going. It is a minor irritation compared with the recent troubles in England where our family in Gloucester have no water because of too much rain. But for us it will soon be resolved by the downpours predicted for the next few days!
Our plan is to stay in the marina for a few days because Innisfree needs to be lifted out so we can replace the anode on the propeller (it stops electrolytic corrosion), investigate why it fell off in the first place, and also to have a much needed scrub of the hull. It is also a good place for wet weather options with free electricity, free Wifi, short walks around Kerrera, and the courtesy ferry to Oban town - we haven't seen the latest Harry Porter film yet and there is a cinema in Oban.....