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The Small Isles, Sea of the Hebrides, the Minch and Isle of Lewis.

Rounding the high cliffs of Rhum in the approach to Canna.

Canna is a small, long, thin stretch of an island and the northernmost island in the Small Isles group. As is often the case in my limited experience the end of the trip is the windiest. We blew into Canna harbour on a squally westerly squeezing through the gap between the islands of Rhum and Canna. Anchoring rather than picking up a mooring, we settled in and looked forward to a couple of days exploring and looking for puffins.

There is a very small resident population and a ferry service to the mainland. The community consists of a cafe/restaurant and small shop a little along from the ferry pier. The island was gifted to the Scottish National Trust by its owner some years back and the modest 'big house' is the site of a community garden and archive. The garden produce is sold at the shop on an honesty box system. The nearby farmhouse has a shower facility for boat people, campers and trampers. The camping options looked really good, note to self: return some day during the puffin nesting season.

Canna and the old church

Fun repurposing of washed up fishing buoys

The weather continued squally but not too wet, misty rather than wet rain if any. I went for a walk to the outer coast to try and see puffins but their burrows were all deserted. I managed to stray into a paddock with a bull and his brood but thankfully he mostly ignored me when I realised my mistake and climbed over the nearest fence. Not many trees on this island but stately cliffs and hills with rushing burns cleaving the hillsides. Many birds among which I identified a flock of eider ducks that populated the harbour, showy black and white males and drab brown females.

Empty puffin burrows and a view to the isle of Rhum

After availing myself of the shower facility, I noticed a poster advertising a Gaelic music and sing-along workshop for the next day. The main attraction of sailing and spending time in Scotland is to get to know the culture and so far I had seen little. The next day we went for a walk and then later to the farm for the workshop. Katie and James Mackenzie had come over from Lewis for a week with Katies mother (the island archivist) to do some filming and added this workshop to their programme. We sat in a circle and went through some simple songs in Gaelic with Katie who has a lovely singing voice. James, a piper of international renown played a few songs on the pipes for us. I do have a soft spot for bag pipes but his tune was somehow softer and more melodic than I had heard before. Bagpipes can be harsh, militaristic and hectic, this was a softer, a more Hebridean style I am told. We progressed onto trying the tin whistle, a simple instrument and a lot of fun. There was much bumbling and I'm pretty sure I saw James wince a few times out of the corner of my eye when I squeaked my notes. It was a very relaxed and non-threatening atmosphere with lots of laughing. Lastly we did some line singing, a waulking song, complete with hand movements and a length of beautiful Harris tweed. We were a small group of about ten people, some islanders and 4-5 tourists, we all came away invigorated and full of fun. I don't know if my stiff feeling facial muscles was from the Gaelic pronunciation or all the laughing. Later we turned up at the restaurant for pre-ordered seafood feast. I had been eyeing the fishing boat wondering what he was bringing in but then saw the sharing platter on the menu.

Delicious bounty from the sea of the Hebrides

Having finished my design project I decided to treat Trevor to a slap up meal—to be honest I was a little tired of my cooking. The food arrived and it was amazing, a huge platter with a whole lobster, a huge whole crab (dressed) and half a dozen or more large scampi. It was served mostly cold where I would have preferred it warmer, but the flavours were divine, so fresh and sweet, you can't beat the simplicity of the freshness and quality of seafood from such pristine waters. Here I had found another island community that I thoroughly enjoyed, and left with still so much to explore... needed to continue pressing on north.

The church

We weighed anchor in a light to moderate breeze and sailed for Skye where we intended to ride out the next gales in an all weather anchorage. By now, the sailing conditions were starting to deteriorate with "weather windows" getting shorter and further apart as the equinox approached. I was keen to see Skye, it intrigued me from photos I had seen. From a distance to the skyline is a jagged jumble of steep mountains reaching much further than it seems possible. Sailing past I was able to appreciate the sheer rugged coast from MacCleods Maidens (pinnacles rising sheer off the coast) to Dunvegan Head, all waterfalls plummeting to the sea and sheep grazing what looked like impossible cliff pastures.

The lighthouse at Point Neist

Steep grazing

Loch Dunvegan is a rugged, pretty place, it has a castle, a couple of shops and a large camp ground/motor camp that was full. The fruit and veg shop being the best of the lot with an unexpected treasure trove of specialty items, and a friendly, long haired apple cheeked proprietor.

Loch Dunvegan

Skye is connected to the mainland by a bridge and because people can drive there it is full of tourists, especially now with staycation and covid. Trevor wasn't so keen to go to Skye but he chose the anchorage and it suited us until we got a weather window in which to cross the Minch. I went on an outing to Portree but I can't say I was all that impressed with Skye, in comparison to the other islands I had visited, it was crowded and poorly serviced.

Portree harbour
Portree quay

I know I didn't see best parts of Skye so that will have to be another time, preferably with less tourists. The wind blew hard for a couple of days and we stayed on the boat working on our respective projects. With an ever-changing weather forecast it was difficult to know how things were going to play out in the Minch.

The Minch is a stretch of water between the mainland, inner Hebrides and the outer Hebrides. The bottom in the Minch is wildly uneven in places with banks that shoal and big tide rips that can cause standing waves in certain conditions. These localised hazards can be avoided, and of course you need to pick your weather. Having waited out some gales we saw an opportunity and went for it one morning, not knowing if we would be turning back or not.

Squalls and dodging banks to avoid rough water

We did know we had a fair wind and the tide in our favour for most of the way across and if we threaded our way through the two banks it should be ok. It was more fog and misty rain with squalls moving through for most of the way across but as we neared the shores of the isles of Harris and Lewis, the sun came out and brought with it fresher wind.

Eilean Glas and the approach to loch Seaforth isle of Lewis, outer Hebrides

We neared Eilean Glas lighthouse and I admired the gaily painted red and white stripes thinking at the same time that this building could be the most colourful on Lewis from what Trevor said about the island. Rounding the point we battled a strong breeze going up Loch Seaforth with gannets diving all around, puffins, shearwaters, guillemots... all kinds of birds. We even had a dolphin or two. We passed a fish farm and at close quarters I could see the frenetically jumping fish—a disturbing sight.

I was in position on the bow as we entered Loch Maaruig a small loch off the main loch Seaforth, when at once there was a spiky little head right in front, working at a shell in its paws. Looking up he gave a visibly comic start on seeing me and and the big yellow boat bearing down on him and he promptly disappeared. I looked and looked but did not see the otter reappear, he was a thrilling and rare sight.

Approaching loch Maaruig

Above, another reasonably rare sight of two white tail eagles soaring high on the winds spilling over the high hills bordering our anchorage. The next three or so days were spent more or less inside with the heater going, as outside it howled with wind and rain. The anchorage was good holding so we were safe and snug.

Loch Maaruig, a wee bolthole to wait out a gale

The scenery at Loch Maaruig is majestic but we didn't launch the dinghy and didn't get ashore though I would have liked to if we had had more time. With an eye on the weather forecasts we needed to get more north still with the sound of Shiant yet to navigate with it's particularities. When the weather window came, the day started wet and miserable but was forecast to improve. The tide runs hard in the sound of Shiant so we were glad to have it behind us in favourable conditions. After a rather damp start we had some pleasant sailing up to Loch Grimshader with the sun coming through at times. We did get a thorough soaking on the way into the anchorage. Additionally we had the Border Force come and board us as soon as we had anchored. Once they had satisfied themselves we were not hiding any refugees in the heads or my cabin, they took our details and left. Being the only yacht for miles around, I can't imagine they have much to do.

The Shiants
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