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Late July 2008 - Lochinver, Lewis and North Harris

Lifeboat + Coastguard helicopter winching demonstrationLochinver until recently used to be a busy fishing harbour, and still retains much of the supporting infrastructure of which now only a fraction is used. This means that the pontoons which are between the breakwater and the fish quays are not in a particularly atmospheric location. However, it was useful to have easy access to the fishmongers (and plenty of ice for our cool box) and the Fishermen's Mission for laundry. But saying that, directly behind the harbour area is a woodland nature reserve which is reputed to have pine martin and wild cat but these remained elusive on our rambles.

Our stay coincided with the RNLI open day. They teamed up with the coastguard and put on an excellent display, cruising at speed just outside the harbour and winching people down onto the lifeboat and back up again. It looked tricky in the flat seas of the harbour, so how much more so it must be trying to control the helicopter in a gale while the lifeboat is being thrown around in the rough seas of the Minch. It really brought it home to us how much these brave volunteers risk every time they are called out - real modern day heros.

Another day we walked over the hills to a beautiful white sandy beach at Achmelvich. En route we had excellent views (below) of Lochinver harbour with Suilven and Canisp in the background. The whole area is a "Geological National Park", where the ice age glaciers ground away most of the Torridon sandstone leaving low hills of harder Lewisian gneiss but left these dramatic mountains which are sandstone topped with quartzite. Unfortunately we did not get to climb Suilven, it is a long walk inland to the base of the mountain and there is no public transport from the village to the start of the walk - not surprisingly the views from the top are said to be spectacular on a clear day.

Lochinver harbour and Suilven

A rare sight of our cruising shuteAfter six days in Lochinver we set off across the Minch to Stornoway on a a bright and breezing morning. It started off as an excellent sail, zipping along at over 6 knots (fast for us). But typically it did not last, the wind gradually got lighter while we added more sail - even getting out our cruising chute (right) for the first time this season. But eventually even this would not stay filled, and the trusty engine took us the rest of the way.

Then followed three scorching hot days. It was so calm that we were plagued by flies for the whole ten miles of the walk from Tolsta to Ness. This is across part of the cliff top moorland on Lewis where the huge wind farm was being proposed (planning permission has recently been turned down) - there wouldn't have been much electricity generation on that day! The people of Ness were busy collecting peats that had been cut earlier in the season. There were many more people hard at work than we noticed last year. Whether that is because we are slightly later in the season, or because of the huge rise in fuel prices this year (these are considerable higher than on the mainland). Peat cutting is a skilled and backbreaking job, but then so is stacking the trailers... these seemed to have as much above the sides as below, but none seemed to fall off as they bounced along the rough tracks, pulled by antique tractors that would not have been out of place in a vintage rally!

Calman freight ferry runs into the shore - oopsWhile waiting for the bus to take us to Tolsta, we watch the 'Muirhead', the CalMac lorry ferry come into the harbour at Stornoway. The harbour is all on one side of the river, and the distance to the opposite bank gets quite narrow the further up you go. The Muirhead appeared to be crawling (not good as a boat needs to maintain a certain speed to be able to steer) and rather than turn so that she could reverse onto her berth she gently continued ahead and ran aground on the beach under the far bank. We think it was a mechanical problem rather than pilotage. Before she hit the bank an anchor was released (to slow it down?), but the engines kept going even as the bow was rising up the rocks, as if they could not be turned off. Our bus arrived at that point so we could not stay to watch the developments, but as we drove out of town, the coastguard and RNLI Great Skuawere hurrying to the scene. By the time we returned from our walk the ferry was on its berth. She resumed her trips to Ullapool the next day so she could not have sustained any serious damage.

After Stornoway we spent a couple of days in Loch Erisort. Following the bustle and noise of the metropolis it was good to be in the middle of nowhere again - peace and quiet. It was such an isolated spot that when we had not seen anyone for over a day, we thought a full modesty curtain for cockpit showers was unnecessary. But just as Judith was emerging outside ready for her shower, an engine was heard, and she dash back down below as a small Rib (Rigid Inflatable Boat) cruised passed with three interested men on board! Needless to say, the full curtain was erected, but we saw no one after that.

The bird to the left is a Great Skua (also know as a Bonxie). These are the bullies of the seas. They are large chunky birds that attack smaller birds forcing them the give up their catch. But they also join the gulls in following the fishing boats. This one must have mistaken us or a fishing boat as we motored along in calm seas. It followed us for over an hour, circling around before landing some way in front. Then as we passed, circling again. It was an excellent opportunity for taking photos (see also more pictures).

After a couple of days in Loch Erisort our next stop was in Scalpay (Harris). Here we walked over the hills to the village of Rhenigidale on the shores of Loch Seaforth. It was a walk with excellent views over East Loch Tarbert to as far as the Cuillins of Skye (see more pictures), and then across Loch Seaforth to the Shiants (below). At times the path was very steep, with a series of zigzags down to the shore. What made this more impressive, was that this path was the main land route to the village until 1989, when a road was finally built across the moorland from Maaruig.

The Scalpay village shop had closed since last year. Chatting to the locals on the bus, it was an apparent victim of the free bus passes for pensioners. They can now get to the shops in Tarbert, or to the supermarket Stornoway so the local village shop was no longer viable. The 12 seater minibus was completely full for our trip to Tarbert, but the ever resourceful bus driver called his wife who followed behind picking up the overflow passengers in her MPV. Unlike Scalpay, Tarbert appears to be thriving, a new Harris Tweed warehouse has opened in the last couple of months, and Judith was hard pressed not to buy more than we could carry back to the boat.

Our plan is to continue down through Harris and onto Lochmaddy (North Uist) or Dunvegan (Skye). The Highland games in Portree (Skye) are on 6 August and we can get there by Bus from Dunvegan.