I have lain down in the long grass while the raven honked and flicked above me and the skuas cruised in a milk-blue sky. I have felt at times, and perhaps this is a kind of delirium, no gap between me and the place. I have absorbed it and been absorbed by it, as if I have no existence apart from it. I have been shaped by those island times, and find it difficult now to achieve any kind of distance from them. The place has entered me. It has coloured my life like a stain.
Having visited all the large islands of the Inner and Outer Hebrides, the Boon Companion and I recently set off to sample some of its smaller delights. We were travelling aboard the Proud Seahorse, a fairly small boat (seven passengers and four crew), and going ashore in an even smaller boat—a Rigid Inflatable Boat, to be exact, of the kind familiar to us from previous trips, like the one to Wrangel Island I wrote about previously.
Our trip took us to three of the Small Isles, to a couple of the eastern outliers of Skye, and to the Shiants between Skye and Lewis.
It also took us through seas rich in birdlife, dolphins and whales. One day, off Eigg, we found ourselves in the middle of a feeding frenzy of gannets and Manx shearwaters (the gannets folding themselves like paper darts and diving into the sea all around us), with a minke whale cruising calmly through the midst of it all.
And east of Skye we attracted a little pod of common dolphins, who sported in the bow-wave for five minutes, on occasion flinging themselves into the air to flop down sideways into the water—it was impossible to think anything other than that they were having fun. The Boon Companion hung precariously over the bow, trying to capture some of these chaotic high jinks on camera, but it was a near-impossible task.
On Eigg, we landed beside the spiffy new ferry terminal at Glamisdale, in the south, but without enough time to walk over to the main settlement of Cleadale, let alone to fulfil my ambition of nipping up Eigg’s improbable highest point, The Sgurr. (This proved to be a recurring theme of the trip—enough time for a pleasant shore walk, but my hillwalking ambitions thwarted at every turn.) Some of our party set of to look for the infamous Massacre Cave (where MacLeods from Skye killed close to 400 MacDonalds, in revenge for the MacDonalds castrating some MacLeods, in revenge for the MacLeods raping some MacDonalds—so it went, in sixteenth-century Scotland.) We chose instead to wander in the opposite direction, exploring the old harbour area near Poll nam Partan.
Canna was perhaps the biggest revelation of the trip—we had absolutely no idea what to expect there. We found an island of tilted basalt terraces, producing spectacular bird cliffs along the north coast and layered green farmland in the south. The beautiful harbour nestles between Canna and the smaller island of Sanday—the two islands are connected by a bridge, though you can walk (or drive!) across the beach between them at low tide. So we did what was in effect a “two churches” tour—walking from the Presbyterian church on Canna, with its odd bell tower, to the Catholic church on Sanday, with its odd bell tower. Halfway between the two, the Café Canna was doing a roaring trade from ferry passengers and yacht-folk, and behind it a golden eagle hovered on the rising air along the cliff line behind the village.
Rum afforded a stroll along the south shore of Loch Scresort. The Harvey’s map indicated an “otter hide” near the jetty, so we walked through the woods to take a look at it. A minute after walking in the door, what should we see messing about on the rocks outside but an otter. Blimey. That was unexpected, otters not being entirely cooperative with the aspirations of people who build otter hides. From the hide we walked up to the madness that is Kinloch Castle, passing signs that seemed to indicated “otters in all directions”, a selection of interesting visitor accommodation (including a faux gypsy caravan), and a small herd of the world’s calmest deer.
Raasay seems like a nice place, but not in the hammering rain. We landed at the ferry slipway, and made a slow circuit through woodland and then back along the shoreline. The rain got heavier, and the camera never came out of its waterproof bag. Which is a shame, because we were treated to the spectacle of a swimming mink, which forged resolutely across the bay towards us, and then crossed the path about three metres in front of our small group. I’m not a big fan of the American mink in the abstract, being an invasive species that works slaughter on native small mammals and birds, but it’s nevertheless always nice to see a fierce little predator going about its business.
We made two landings on Rona, to the north of Raasay. The first was at the north end, at Loch a’ Bhraige, which promised an anchorage sheltered from the southerly wind. Here we found ourselves staging a landing at MoD Rona, which Hamish Haswell-Smith describes as a “deep-sea listening post” in his book The Scottish Islands. It’s actually part of the British Underwater Test and Evaluation Centre. We rather expected the worst when our little party was met at the jetty by two stern men in a Land Rover Defender—but they quickly assessed us as being no threat to national security, and let us amble up past their helicopter pad to the lighthouse that crowns the point.
In the afternoon we slipped into Acairseid Mhor (the Big Anchorage), which was also nicely sheltered. At the jetty we found a noticeboard, which announced that there was a landing fee, but which also featured a couple of dog-leads hanging from hooks, to be conveniently borrowed by anyone who had landed with a dog but without a lead. Disappointingly, Rona Lodge with its bunkhouse, shop and “Rona Island stamps” was closed, and appeared to be the focus of some major building works, with dumper trucks rumbling up and down the main track. So we explored the shoreline, and then walked far enough inland to find a view that didn’t have a piece of JCB machinery in it.
At the Shiants (pronounced shants), we anchored overnight in the Bay of Shiant, off Mol Mor, the “big shingle beach”, which is a narrow neck of shingle that connects two of the three main islands. In the afternoon, we made a landing on the beach next to the natural archway of Toll a’ Roimh, and climbed steeply over boulders and grass to sit next to the huge puffin colony among the rocks here. Higher up the slope, the ground is divided into curiously regular ridges, each a couple of metres wide—the remains of old lazy-bed cultivation, and a sign that these islands were once inhabited by people who had to use every square metre of flat land they could find, in a generally precipitous landscape. I walked farther, to sit at the highest point of the natural archway, which put my head just about right in the middle of a puffin flyway. They whirred past madly on either side of me, and every now and then one would drop panicky little orange feet like dive brakes, to decelerate and make a swerve around my head.
The topography of our landing site then presented an interesting problem, as well as an opportunity.
As a glance at the map shows, it’s protected by a drying reef at low tide—so our little RIB had become trapped by the receding tide in what was effectively a large tidal pool. Expect that this pool is connected to the sea through the natural arch. So we motored out through arch into the bouncy swell of the Minch, around the point, and back into the bay to our anchored ship.
The following morning we went ashore on the shingle neck, and walked round to the islands’ only habitation—a bothy to which Compton Mackenzie would sometimes resort, when he owned these islands, to get a bit of peace and quiet for his writings. There, we found Adam Nicolson and his wife Sarah Raven in residence (they stay on the islands for a few days each year). Nicolson is the author of (among many other things), a memoir entitled Sea Room, in which he describes what it was like to find himself the owner of these islands, at the age of 21, when he inherited them from his father. (I quote an evocative passage from Sea Room at the head of this post.) He was kind enough, on a drizzly day, to give us a small archaeological tour of the old settlement remains above his house.
And that was our whirlwind tour of minor Hebrides. Not nearly enough time ashore on any of them, I’d say, but compensated by time spent at sea, spotting birds and mammals and watching the scenery go by.