Late May 2008, Islay, Oronsay and Corryvreckan
The weather for our stay on Islay was mostly sunny with strong easterly winds. Several of the other boats in the little marina in Port Ellen had a longer stay than originally intended which they claimed was due to the strong winds creating uncomfortably lumpy seas, but there seemed to be few complaints as their crews took advantage of the entertainment provided by the annual Islay Malt and Music Festival. There are eight distilleries on Islay and one on Jura, so for the eight days of the festival there was a different open day visit, with Jura doubling up with Kilchoman on one of the days. But it is definitely possible to have too much of a good thing, so we only went to Laphroaig and Kilchoman. These were very different, Laphroaig disappointingly did not seem to make much of an effort, there was free whisky tasting, but no music or other entertainments. This was in contrast to Kilchoman which put on a very good show. The distillery has only been going since 2005 so they have no whisky yet though are selling New Spirit (spirit only becomes whisky after it has matured for 3 years). Kilchoman is basically a farm where they run the whole process, their slogan is "100% Islay from Barley to Bottling". There is also good farm shop along side the well stocked distillery shop and tea room. In addition to this for the open day the "Maverick Angels" provided traditional music while the BBQ wafted enticing aromas next to a sea food buffet of fresh mussels or shrimps.
As well as the distilleries, other business on the island joined in the festival. We booked onto the Port Ellen Maltings tour one day. This is owned by Diagio and provides malted barley predominantly to Lagavulin and Caol Ila the two Diagio distilleries, but also to the other distilleries. It was a most interesting tour, ending with the peat fires that smokes the barley. The peat kilns are quite deep with large grates (~4ftx6ft) where the peat is piled to make as steep a slope as possible from front to back. The fire is well smothered so that the smoke pours up the chimney to the barley floor. Thankfully when offered the shovel our firing skills had not been forgotten and we did not disgrace ourselves! The kilns are normally mechanically fired so there are no longer any openings for budding peat stokers.
Typically the run of sunny weather changed and the rain arrived as we met up with Steve and Sus at the Islay Ales open day on the first day of their short break. We were glad that it cleared up before they left, as Islay is very pretty under blue skies with the sun glinting off the sea.
One evening we were invited to dinner with John and Jo who own Ansa (Vancouver 28 hull number 55 - Innisfree is hull number 53). They live in Caol Ila with fantastic views of the three Paps of Jura and keep Ansa on a swing mooring in the Sound of Islay so know the local waters very well. We passed an agreeable evening over a curry discussing enhancements we've made to our respective boats, and picked their brains on local anchorages and places to visit.
Throughout our stay we bumped into many of the same people, but none were as memorable as Ron and Rocket (above). They traveled around the island on a BMW motor bike where Rocket sat on the fuel tank. We were disappointed to discover that Ron changed into trousers when riding, a kilted biker would have been quite a sight! Rocket had a little denim jacket with the "Biker Dogs MC" motif matching Ron's leather jacket, while Ron had a Jack Russel tattoo on his leg.
The day we left Islay was sunny and calm with smooth seas so we let the the autopilot take control while we watched the world go by on the journey to the island of Oronsay off the south end of Colonsay. This is where St. Columba is said to have established his first monastic community in Scotland before moving on to Iona. However the present ruines are what remains of the priory established by John I, Lord of the Isles sometime between 1325, and 1353 when he was head of Clan Donald. The walls of the church and several other buildings are clustered near the island farm and includes these cloisters (left) where some of the pillars are decorated with intricate celtic carvings. In the surrounding grounds were a couple of celtic crosses and these too were decorated with celtic patterns. The tallest is shown right with the Paps of Jura in the distance.
In one restored building is a collection of 30 decorated grave slabs (left). These individually rival any we have seen this summer, and when seen together they are overwhelming (see more pictures for some of the other slabs). We felt that this was a much more inspiring place than Iona. It is beautifully kept, and we had the place to ourselves so the atmosphere was very special. The island of Oronsay is owned by the RSPB and is farmed sympathetically to the bird life, as a result birds are everywhere enhancing the special atmosphere. We have never seen so many Skylarks in one place, a Corncrake was calling from the field beside the Priory, and the hill behind the Priory was closed to walkers to protect the nesting Choughs.
To end a most memorable visit to Oronsay; as we left a Minke Whale surfaced several times just beside the boat. It was another windless day with a smooth sea so the photographs were better than the usual unidentifiable small dots.
Our next stop was the "Bay of Pigs" (below) which is at the western end of Corryvreckan at the north end of Jura. For yachtsmen this is an infamous stretch of water. It is very deep, but has a tall underwater pinnacle which causes a whirlpool to develop as the strong tides flow past, and creates the "Great Race"; a stretch of several miles of rough water as the flood tide meets the relatively still sea beyond. The description in the pilot book is that "it is best avoided, and should never be attempted by small craft except at slack water and in calm conditions". Calm conditions were exactly what we had so we decided to take up the challenge. To get into the Bay of Pigs most of the Great Race can be avoided by hugging the Jura coast and arriving at slack water. Inside it was very sheltered and out of the tidal streams. We spent two days here, and enjoyed a walk around the headland to view the channel from the hills above (see more pictures). Here we watched several yachts pass through at the fastest point of the tide, purposefully aiming for the whirlpool to enjoy the thrill - none of them had any problems in the calm conditions which raised our confidence for our passage. So as the ebb tide (east going) was just ending, we tentatively made our way out into the tidal stream. Even approaching slack water at the turn of the tide we still experienced streams of 5kts so Innisfree was speeding along at 10.5 kts over the ground. At this rate we were through in very little time indeed. However, our passage through Corryvreckan was a little devalued by the two seas kayaks that came through with us at the same time! In fact, during our stay we even saw open sailing dinghies playing in the overfalls of the Great Race, being sucked backwards before they trimmed their sails to fight their way out. It is certainly not a place we would like to be near in rough weather though, as its fearsome reputation is certainly deserved.
Then followed two days in Oban where we restocked our larder, did the laundry and went to see the new Indiana Jones film. While there we noticed a couple of our fender covers were getting rather tired. These are a ridiculous price in a chandlery, and are only made from fleece material so Judith went on a hunt for some reasonably priced fleece blankets that she could convert. However the most conservative material she could find is still rather loud though in keeping with our present cruising grounds!
We are now enjoying a couple of days in Tobermory (Isle of Mull), listening to the cricket, dodging the rain showers and making sure that the fish and chips on the pier are as good as last year!
The plan is to spend a few days in the area north or Ardnamurchan before heading off to Skye to meet up with Ian and Jan who have bravely decided to spend a week with us in our small boat.