Hebridean Cruise

Bruce Grant

The BoatVaris is a Rival 32. Her home mooring is at Ardoran Marine, in Loch Feochan, a mainland loch, lying to the south of Kerrera Sound near Oban, Argyllshire.

The Crew: Skipper, Ed Chester; Crew, Bruce Grant both of Royal Northumberland YC.


Moorings at Ardoran Marine, Loch Feochan, Argyllshire


The cruise started on Saturday 24 August when we made a 06.00 start by car from Ed’s home in Burnmouth, stopping only for stores in Oban. We loaded the vessel by dinghy, and escaped from Loch Feochan on a sluicing spring ebb with barely 0.3 m under the keel. Ardoran Marine maintain buoys to mark the rather tortuous channel, and without local knowledge the entrance to the loch should not be attempted except within two hours of HW. We tried to sail for a while, but eventually gave up in light airs and engined it to Tobermory to pick up a mooring in the harbour. Visitors moorings are charged at £10 a night for boats over 25 ft. The fee is either collected by the Tobermory Harbour Association’s Moorings Officer, or you can pay at Seafare, (Chandlers on the sea front).

We outboarded the dinghy ashore to the pontoon, and went for beers at MacGochan’s, shopping (the chocolate shop is recommended, the very embodiment of the shop in the French film, Chocolat) followed by a sumptuous meal in a restaurant.

Tobermory Harbour, Mull

Tobermory Harbour, Mull


We left Tobermory early. The sun was just rising over the hills on the Morvern shore of the Sound of Mull. Varis picked her way between the moored boats at minimum engine revs and leaving scarcely a ripple in her wake. We turned north and then north west bound for Castlebay on Barra. Although the sun shone warmly, Glengorm Castle on the north of Mull was in shadow. The name Glengorm sounds as if it should have been invented for Mervyn Peake’s novel,Gormenghast, but in fact it means the blue glen. According to Hamish Haswell-Smith, in his book, The Scottish Islands, it was named, unwittingly, from the bluish haze of smoke from crofts burning during the Highland clearances.


Kisimul Castle

We were able to make sail in a freshening Northerly, and cleared the Cairns of Coll, at the north end of that island, around coffee time. A dark bank of cloud rolled over from the northwest, saving us the need for protection from sunburn. We were able to lay a course for Castlebay on the outer Hebridean island of Bara, which was reached by late afternoon. We picked up a vacant mooring closest to the ferry pier, and dinghied ashore for an early supper in the Castlebay Hotel. On the way back to Varis in the dinghy, we circumnavigated the 15th century Kisimul Castle, ancestral home of the Chiefs of the Clan MacNeil.



Whisky Galore!

Whisky Galore!

The day was cloudy but bright, with the sun attempting to get through. With around 10 knots of wind from the southwest, we were able to set sail, and turned north under the stern of the in-coming ferry, eventually hoisting the spinnaker for the short passage past Eriskay towards Loch Boisdale on South Uist. The gybe we were on suited a passage to seaward of the Hartamul Rocks. Reefs extend for several cables to the southeast of Hartamul, whereas the inshore passage, judging by the chart, looks clean. Avoiding Hartamul started the chain of events that led to the stranding of the SS. Politician in 1941, and the salvage of its cargo of whisky bound for the USA, so entertainingly re-told in Sir Compton MacKenzie’s book Whisky Galore!and the film of the same name. Galore is from the Gaelic word for enough.

We dropped the spinnaker and turned into Loch Boisdale. There is a small fort on the island of Calvay at the entrance to the loch which is said to have been an overnight resting place for the Bonnie Prince. The moorings lie in a pool to the north of the ferrry terminal. Ed dinghied ashore for stores, and we ate on board, the stillness of the place only interrupted by the arrival of the ferry, MV Clansman, which tied up at the pier and stayed for the night.


We slipped away early in poor visibility. The forecast had strong south westerlies in it, so the decision was to make for the shelter of Loch Harport, an arm of Loch Bracadale, the large indentation on the west coast of Skye. The Minch was its usual lumpy self, and with visibility of only 2 cables, and moisture condensing and dripping off every part of Varis the autohelm was allowed to do the steering while the crew kept lookout, mainly lurking under the spray hood, and fortified themselves with cups of tea and Mars bars. The early part of the passage was made under power, interrupted briefly when a puff of smoke was spotted from the mast foot. As a precaution we immediately closed down the vessel’s electrical circuits. The problem was traced to a failure of insulation on an exposed run of cable.

Macleod's Maidens

Macleod’s Maidens, Skye

The wind began to fill in from the north and the visibility cleared to reveal the grey outline of the hills of North Uist. Although there was clear air behind us there was still thick murk ahead, and according the the GPS we were within a mile of Skye before first cliffs and then green fields appeared on our port bow. Eventually a thin outline of land appeared to starboard too. As we entered Loch Bracadale, looking northwest we could see Macleod’s Maidens, three rock stacks off the shore. Sometime later we picked up the Island of Wiay, notable for its sea caves and natural rock arches, and proceeded to Carbost towards the south end of Loch Harport. Carbost is the home of Talisker whisky. There is an anchorage to the north of the distillery burn, but we skirted the shallows at the mouth of the burn and picked up a vacant mooring off the Old Inn pub a cable south of the burn.


Varis on Old Inn’s mooring

We dinghied ashore, and after lunch at the Old Inn went to visit the distillery. The guided tours commence with a wee dram in the visitor centre, continue through each stage of the process and end in the distillery shop. We bought a few bottles, one for immediate use, but others as Christmas gifts. Back on board for tea, then ashore again for a pub supper. The evening was calm. All traces of mist having vanished, we had a splendid view of the sharp-edged Cuillin ridge away to the south.


We rose around 07.00. As usual I took a early peek through the forecabin portholes just to get my bearings. Nothing but greyness could been seen through either. At first I thought it could be condensation on the insides, but a glance astern through the open hatch revealed the same grey blanket of fog, so thick at times we couldn’t even see the shore. Clearly we were going nowhere until the fog lifted. Through the morning it tantalised us with an occasional thinning, giving a glimpse of a large French flagged gaff ketch anchored to the north of us. We busied ourselves with jobs around the vessel, but when they ran out, we read books. I tried for the 12.00 shipping forecast on long wave, but reception was very poor. We made a further sortie ashore for more food at the Old Inn, and turned in early, having sampled the Talisker. I firmly believe whisky was invented for just such weather as we were experiencing.


Visibility had improved overnight, but ominously the low clouds were streaming over the hills at quite a lick. Although we were in perfect shelter, without doubt there was plenty of wind outside. We prepared Varis for sea, pulling down two reefs in the main. There was a short debate over the dinghy. Normally it is towed astern, as is common in these waters. The alternative is to partially deflate it and carry it on deck. In the event we decided to tow it as usual. We sailed to the entrance of Loch Harport, under-canvassed, but wary of what we should find when we met the open sea. The first sight of the entrance to Loch Bracadale confirmed the wisdom of the chosen sail plan. It was blowing Force 6 gusting 7 from the southwest and as we beat towards the entrance the seas built to 6′ – 8′ with breaking crests. Varis was fine, but the dinghy decided this was the time for an acrobatic display and started jumping in the air, spinning violently and dumping itself upside down. Still in that position it couldn’t fill with water.

From time to time squalls ran through with stinging horizontal rain which blotted out all visibility to windward. The French ketch followed us out, but we lost sight of her in one of the squalls. When it cleared, we saw she had dropped all sail and was making her way out under power. She was taking things slowly, but even so buried her bowsprit from time to time. After an hour and a half Varis had made sufficient offing to head south down the Skye shore. Plan A had been to make for Loch Scavaig on the south of Skye under the Cuillin Hills, but in the conditions prevailing that was nonsense, so Plan B became to head for the shelter of Canna Harbour. Canna lay to windward of our course, but was the nearest safe anchorage.

We passed Lochs Eynort and Brittle, both untenable in this wind, and tacked to the west. During the afternoon, the wind eased slightly but the gusts became even more ferocious. We motorsailed the last few miles, getting into flat water close under the cliffs of Canna to drop the main. We delayed entering the harbour while another squall came through, because it was impossible to open our eyes and see ahead. Reminder, ski goggles are essential kit for summer cruising in the Hebrides. Once in, we dropped the hook on plenty of scope and went hard astern to dig it in.

Canna Harbour is a natural anchorage formed between the islands of Canna and Sanday, but has a reputation for poor holding in kelp patches. It is a beautiful place. To the south is an ornate Catholic Church, now converted to a Gaelic Study centre, and swathed in scaffolding while we were there. To the north a small Scots Kirk caters for those of that persuasion. There is a pier, with a small cliff covered with grafitti behind it. Smooth slopes of grass run up to Compass Hill so named for its compass bending properties. The most remarkable feature to my mind is a single rock stack on top of which there is an old prison. Legend has it one of the Clanranald Chiefs imprisoned his wife there to prevent her eloping with her lover, a Macleod from over the water in Skye.


The Scots Kirk and Compass Hill, Canna Harbour


Friday was grey and very wet. We weighed anchor and motored past the drying reef, Sgeir a’ Phuirt, which lies a couple of cables north of Sanday and then turned southeast past the light beacon on the east end of Sanday. To the east, clouds covered the hills of Rhum, but there was insufficient wind to sail. As we cleared Sanday, Varis felt the left-over swell from yesterday’s wind, and started rolling. So we rolled our way south, bound for Tobermory on the island of Mull, taking turns to stand on watch in the pouring rain, but allowing the autohelm to steer. To start with, our course lay roughly parallel with the coast of Rhum. Eigg was picked up in the distance and we passed less than a mile off the small island of Muck, from which we could steer on the distinct shape of the headland of Ardamurchan in the distance. Varis brought Ardnamurchan abeam around lunch time, and by early afternoon we were lying to a mooring buoy in Tobermory Harbour. The rain eased off to a drizzle, and we went ashore for beers at MacGochan’s, the nearest pub to the landing stage. The proprietor apparently doesn’t mind if customers are dripping wet; there were several diving parties gently steaming in the welcome warmth of the bar.


Saturday was a better sort of day. The wind had veered into the northwest and there was plenty of it, as we could see from the whitecaps in the Sound of Mull. Tobermory harbour provided perfect shelter but we decided to go over for look at the entrance to Loch Drumbuie (that’s the phoentic, not the Gaelic spelling) in Loch Sunart. Loch Drumbuie is a popular anchorage, well sheltered between the island of Oronsay to the north and the mainland shore. Several yachts were beating out of the entrance, but we turned Varis onto the wind soon enough to lay Auliston Point, the southern entrance to Loch Sunart, in just a couple of tacks. From there we bore away south down the Sound of Mull. With spume blowing of the wave tops astern we made fast progress.

Sound of Mull

Sound of Mull

The ferry, MV Lord of the Isles, powered north throwing up clouds of spray and we waved to the passengers. A gybe or two later and we errupted into the Firth of Lorne, passing the picturesque Duart Castle, seat of the Chiefs of the Clan MacLean since the 13th century.

The wind died as Varis crossed the Firth, and we had to put in a rapid gybe to avoid being set onto Bach Island as we attempted to pass between it and the island of Kerrera, but it held long enough to carry us into the entrance to Loch Feochan, where we dropped all sail and motored to our mooring. That night we ate a mighty meal ashore at The Barn, the nearest pub to Ardoran Marine, and on return to Varis found we were (almost) too full for a whisky nightcap.

There ended our 2002 cruise. The weather wasn’t too good, but Varis supported her crew and we enjoyed ourselves.