Whether you’ve just got a few days to explore the West Coast, or the open North Atlantic is calling, Scotland’s sea routes offer almost endless options says Brian Black
Sailing Scotland is a highlight of UK cruising not to be missed.
There is a good reason that around one third of all Scottish yachts are based in and around the Clyde – it’s the gateway to some of the most wonderful sailing grounds in the world.
My sailing career began in these waters and over the years I have left Ireland and gone north, hopping from port to port to reach Stornoway before heading off towards the high latitudes.
On each voyage I kept asking myself, ‘Why leave here when, despite the weather, there is so much beauty to enjoy?’
And that’s the point; the weather is changeable but there are plenty of good days to more than offset the soggy ones.
Scotland lies in the track of Atlantic weather systems that do not respect the seasons.
The good news is that they generally go through quickly and as the damp and windy air departs, crystal clear mountains, sea and sky take your breath away as high pressure becomes established.
There is an opinion that May and June are the better months for sailing Scotland with wonderful long days and short nights.
The meteorological statistics suggest that July and August are the wetter months with occasional gales, and they can be real howlers.
There are noticeably fewer yachts around in September so there is less pressure on anchorages but then the more disturbed autumn weather is approaching.
In planning a cruise in these waters I make a rough decision about my preferences with plenty of wriggle room built in.
This approach breaks the west coast of Scotland into several distinct areas.
For a time-limited Scottish cruise, what could be better than concentrating on Mull and its off-lying islands with Tobermory as a goal along with Loch Sunart and Salen at its head?
With more time on hand, a circumnavigation of Skye might beckon and the west mainland coast has unbelievable delights such as Torridon and Loch Gairloch.
For remoteness and wild landscape, the Outer Hebrides have it all.
Orkney and Shetland are achievable for a longer cruise that could start on the west coast then head on round the islands before returning by way of the Caledonian Canal.
And if your taste is for something more adventurous why not go ‘foreign’ to the Faroe Islands?
Boats heading south for Ireland, Wales and the English coast must also be considered in this picture.
Sailing Scotland: Clyde to Skye
There are more than a dozen step-ashore or mooring associations in the Clyde area and for planning purposes, a skipper thinking of a Scottish season in the Hebrides and beyond, the route from there can be split in two.
For yachts based in and around the northern part of the Clyde the shortest and most convenient passage is through the Crinan Canal.
The entrance is at Ardrishaig near Lochgilphead and with warps and fenders at the ready, a full day of negotiating locks brings a boat to the Crinan Basin.
After that, the choice is yours.
Assuming a two-week holiday, a reasonably well-sheltered but time-pressured cruise around the Inner Hebrides would begin on the flood by taking the tight tide-swept passage through the Dorus Mor and the Sound of Luing with the possibility of an overnight at Easdale on Seil Island where the slate quarry workings of the 19th century have been turned into a fascinating visitor attraction.
A stopover at Puilladobhrain is almost obligatory although the anchorage can get crowded at times.
From here, the marinas at Oban, Kerrera and Dunstaffanage are within a few hours’ sailing.
Most boats however will be pushing on towards the Sound of Mull to refresh at Tobermory then on round Ardnamurchan with the Small Isles of Canna, Eigg, Muck and Rum in mind.
After that the Sound of Sleat leads to Skye.
By now, time will have become an issue for the two weeks allocated to the cruise and decisions will have to be made either to head back or press on round the top of Skye to complete the loop.
However, the island’s west coast is exposed to weather and if shelter is needed, a boat would head for Dunvegan, which could cause delays as the port is a little off track, or Loch Harport where a visit to the distillery may delay you even further.
To complete the circuit the ideal passage is to sail down the west coast of Mull which is also exposed to the vagaries of Atlantic weather systems.
If this happens, there are useful bunk-holes at Rum, Canna or Bunessan on Mull itself.
After that it’s back to Crinan and home.
Boats based nearer the mouth of the Clyde might consider circumnavigating Skye in reverse.
This passage starts by rounding the Mull of Kintyre as an alternative to the Crinan Canal.
Strong tides sweep the North Channel and a contrary wind can make this an uncomfortable choice.
It does, however, open the possibilities of a swinging mooring at Gigha or the neat and welcoming marina at Port Ellen on Islay.
The ‘logical’ route from this starting point would be to go through the Sound of Islay and along the west coast of Mull.
The preferred anchorage on this route for me is Tinker’s Hole at the southern tip of the Ross of Mull.
It is shallow but navigable with care and once at anchor, a boat can lie in perfect peace, remote from the rest of the world.
The Treshnish Isles lie on this track and are well worth a stopover in settled weather.
Exploring Skye and beyond
There is a new community-run marina at Ulva and although small, gives good shelter and access to some pleasant walking on the island.
Anyone thinking of this route will have to make tough decisions about time versus places to see.
The Small Isles of Muck, Eigg, Rum and Canna all have much to offer but the big attraction for me is a visit to Soay where careful pilotage is needed to reach the inner harbour with the mountains of Skye forming a superb backdrop.
A few miles away is the lovely anchorage in Loch Scavaig where a short walk takes you to Loch Coruisk at the start of the Cuillin Ridge.
At this point, time may be a consideration and an extra week would be ideal before heading further north.
Loch Harport offers shelter in pleasant surroundings then it’s on round to Dunvegan and from there heading for the top end of Skye.
Two suggestions here – the first is to anchor in Staffin Bay for a walk ashore and enjoy the magnificence of the Trotternish Peninsula, the next is a visit to the environmentally sensitive Arcarsaid Mor on South Rona or nip across to the mainland shore for a visit to Sheildaig – a delightful spot in Loch Torridon with good food at the pub and provisions at the local store.
Further south on Skye itself is Portree, with swinging moorings and a lovely village.
From there the route takes you under the Skye bridge, past the Kyle of Lochalsh through the narrows with the tide at Kyle Rhea and on down to Mallaig.
If time allows, a stopover at Arisaig is recommended.
Careful pilotage on the way in opens into a sheltered bay, visitors’ moorings and a helpful boatyard, a fine café and toilet block and a well stocked village store.
It is also an ideal spot to leave a boat as it has easy transport connections.
The tides in the Firth of Clyde do not present any serious challenge, but as always it pays dividends to go with the flow.
The situation changes once through the Crinan Canal.
Careful study of the tidal atlas is required but going north, a boat will take the flood tide with calculations based on Oban.
A spring flood will set you through the Dorus Mor at an alarming rate and on through the Sound of Luing, passing cardinal marks and the Fladda Light.
The flow eases as you approach Oban but the golden rule applies – stick with the favourable tide to take you up the Sound of Mull and round Ardnamurchan.
The shipping forecast divides here as well.
Until this point the sea area has been Clyde to Ardnamurchan then it becomes Ardnamurchan to Cape Wrath where a boat will be exposed to the prevailing westerlies.
Sailing Scotland: The Outer Hebrides
Make your way to a suitable jump-off for this route.
I suggest Canna with visitors moorings and good shelter.
When conditions suit, the 60-mile leg to Barra puts a yacht in a good place for onward travel although many skippers prefer to make landfall further north at Loch Boisdale.
The village is regarded as the port of entry for the Outer Hebrides and has a marina with all facilities.
Anchorages abound, although getting the hook to take can be tricky as kelp often clogs the flukes.
Even when the anchor appears to be set, give it another hard pull with the engine in astern gear just to make sure.
By the time you reach the marina at Loch Maddy you will have had a good sense of the Outer Hebrides and their special magic but many more deep inlets and anchorages lie to the north and if isolation appeals, an entire cruise could be based between there and Stornoway.
Once again it is decision time – to press on for Stornoway on Lewis or back-track towards Skye and home.
The ‘Sail Hebrides’ website has some useful information – www.visitouterhebrides.co.uk/see-and-do/activities/sail-hebrides
Tides and weather
The tides in the southern area are not strong except in narrow channels and off headlands.
However the rocky seabed of the Little Minch can create confused seas and can be nasty in bad weather.
From the Sound of Harris northwards a boat enters the North Minch where seas can be rough, especially in the vicinity of the Shiant Isles where the tide runs stronger.
The Outer Hebrides bear the brunt of Atlantic depressions so it’s prudent to be prepared for bad days as well as good.
Atlantic weather systems are the determining feature for this trip.
The St Kilda group of islands are exposed to swell and strong winds and the only anchorage is in Village Bay where swell can make life intolerable in the wrong conditions – in other words, pick your passage with care.
The rewards however are significant.
St Kilda is the ‘Holy Grail’ of Scottish sailing and many skippers I know tell me they are going to do it ‘someday’.
The village is maintained by Scottish Natural Heritage and is a step back in time to when the inhabitants were evacuated after an outbreak of influenza in 1930.
In each hearth is a stone bearing the name of the family that once lived there, adding reality to the atmosphere of a place locked in time.
Another less attractive feature of the island is the military listening post, bristling with antenna, radar domes and a noisy generator block.
For this passage, you have a choice of routes.
In settled conditions leave from Castle Bay on Barra near the southern tip of the Outer Hebrides and exit through one of several sounds, all requiring careful pilotage with hazards and tidal considerations along with possible breaking seas at the outer end.
From there, the direct rhumb line is around 60 miles of open sea without prospect of shelter.
The alternative is to go up the leeward side of the islands where there are plenty of bunk holes and a fine marina at Loch Maddy.
When the time is right, exit with the tide through the Sound of Harris and lay your course for St Kilda about 40 miles away.
Instead of a direct return to your point of departure, a couple of days exploring Loch Roag, with its splendid views, golden sands and azure waters would be rewarding.
Tides and sea state
Once through to the open sea there are no serious tidal considerations to bear in mind until close inshore off St Kilda.
A word of caution though – this is ocean sailing and you, your crew and boat must be ready for whatever happens.
The Orkney Islands
This is an attractive and worthwhile destination, different in character to the Scottish islands with its history, archaeology and scenery.
My preferred route is to head up the Sound of Mull on the tide, round Ardnamurchan and take a break in Arisaig, Isle Ornsay or Mallaig.
Plocton in Loch Carron offers a convenient spot for an overnight.
There are several stopping off places heading north and it is really a matter of choice and how much distance you want for a day’s run.
An attractive diversion could be a visit to the Summer Isles at the mouth of Loch Broom.
There is no secure anchorage around the islands but Ullapool is further into the loch with limited provision for docking at the visitors’ pontoon and some swinging moorings.
If passage making is your priority, then press on for Kinlochbervie, 15 miles south of Cape Wrath.
The name is intimidating but in fact it was called that by the Vikings as they headed for the ripe pluckings in the Hebrides and means ‘turning point’.
There is a live-firing military base on the mainland so be on the lookout for incoming rounds!
Once again, weather is the determining factor.
If conditions are suitable lay a course for Orkney, intending a landfall at Hoy Mouth.
Prepare your timing carefully as you will need to enter the sound with a fair tide before making the turn for Stromness.
If in doubt, finding a suitable spot to drop the anchor in Loch Eriboll can provide shelter while awaiting favourable conditions.
The leg to mainland Scotland offers a satisfying round trip by returning through the Caledonian Canal.
This requires crossing the Moray Firth before making for the entrance at Inverness marina.
The transit of the canal and Loch Ness takes three days before exiting at Fort William then onwards to Oban.
Tides and directions
The nearpoint of the Orkney Islands – Hoy Sound – is around 60 miles from Cape Wrath.
Tides around and through the island passages are complex and require careful study of the sailing directions.
Birdlife, scenery and archaeology abound – prior research will pay dividends and add value to your stay in this fascinating area.
The Shetland Islands
The Shetlands, like the Orkneys, their more southerly neighbours, are a place apart with a distinctive culture, fascinating archaeology along with numerous islands and passages.
Assuming a departure from the Scottish mainland, the most direct route is to leave from Wick where there is a recently built marina close to the town.
A 30-mile passage takes you to Kirkwall on the Orkneys and from there another 45 miles offers a pleasant rest at Fair Isle.
Lerwick, the main town on Shetland, is about 45 miles from Fair Isle.
Islands abound and while there are several villages with pontoon facilities, frequently it will be a case of anchoring off.
Tides run strong across The Hole, the name given to the stretch of water between Fair Isle and Shetland, and tend to increase in velocity towards Sumburgh Head.
In windy conditions, this can be a dangerous stretch of water with roosts forming off headlands.
Passages in and around these Scottish islands tend to be well sheltered but the flows are complex and need to be considered before setting off for the next destination.
My preferred departure for the Faroe Isles is Stornoway.
This is the main town for the Outer Hebrides and has just about everything a boat will need as well as being a lovely place to stay while waiting for a gap in the weather that will favour the onward passage.
The five-day weather forecasts available from various websites are reasonably accurate and provide much reassurance for a boat heading out into the Atlantic.
A passage of 30 miles will take you from Stornoway to the Butt of Lewis and from there another 180 miles gives you a landfall at Tvoroyri on Suduroy, the southermost of the Faroe Islands.
I prefer using this as a port of entry because it lies below the notorious tidal streams that flow in and around the islands.
After checking with the local fishermen, a boat can lie alongside the harbour pier.
After that, a call needs to be made alerting the customs office that you have arrived.
Formalities are generally conducted in a courteous manner and documents stamped that need to be produced whenever asked.
The tides are explained in the tidal atlas also known as the Red Scare Book and you need to be sure to get them right otherwise many hours can be spent going backwards.
Torshavn is the Faroese capital with a marina in the town centre; don’t forget to check with the harbour master in advance to arrange a berth is waiting on your arrival.
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Torshavn itself has much to offer – the old town, with its grass-roofed houses, is a must-see – but be warned, this is an expensive place so make sure your credit card is fully loaded.
The Faroese are a sea-faring people and each year there is a maritime festival with music, traditional boats and skiff racing – the ideal cruise would be organised to coincide with these events.
Sailing around the islands requires careful study of the Red Scare Book.
There are fine ‘winter’ ports, often lightly populated in summer as the residents will be away working elsewhere.
The usual approach when sailing around the islands is to dock at small fishing quays when you can if there is space but it is better to find a suitable spot to anchor.
When leaving for the return leg to Scotland it is important to get a fair tide and favourable wind to take you on your way.
On a couple of occasions I have got it wrong and paid the price of nasty seas and a slow start until well out to sea.
Leaving Stornoway with a little planning can have you arriving at a Faroese port in daylight after a full night at sea.
The important thing is to get a favourable forecast, as the last thing you want is a strong wind hitting adverse tides.
Similarly for the return leg when the Butt of Lewis can be a bad place in the wrong conditions.
Leaving the Clyde from Largs or Troon and bound south presents few problems.
An anchorage at The Wig behind a sandy spit in Loch Ryan provides a handy stopover well out of the way of busy cross-channel ferries.
From there, Carrickfergus and Bangor on the Northern Irish coast are around 30 miles away, Douglas and Peel on the Isle of Man around 60 and Holyhead on Anglesey another 60.
Alternatively you could head for Howth, north of Dublin which, at 80 miles from the Isle of Man, is a little further but gets you well down the coast and if the wind is favourable, in a good place for further southbound sailing.
Required reading for sailing Scotland
Sailing directions for all areas are published by Imray or the Clyde Cruising Club.
Cruising Scotland: The Clyde to Cape Wrath by Mike Balmforth & Edward Mason, 2nd edition (£25.50, Imray)
Ardnamurchen to Cape Wrath by Clyde Cruising Club/Edward Mason, 2nd edition (£32.50, Imray)
Kintyre to Ardnamurchan by Clyde Cruising Club/Edward Mason, 3rd edition (£35, Imray)
Firth of Clyde including Solway Firth and North Channel by Clyde Cruising Club/Geoff Crowley, 3rd edition (£35, Imray)
Outer Hebrides, covering the Western Isles from Lewis to Berneray by Clyde Cruising Club/Edward Mason, 2nd edition (£32.50, Imray)
Orkney and Shetland Islands including North and Northeast Scotland Clyde Cruising Club/Iain & Barbara MacLeod, 2nd edition (£35, Imray)
You should arm yourself with a full set of paper charts as well as up-to-date chart plotter cards and a current Antares download to superimpose on Memory Maps for out-of-the-way Scottish anchorages.
The Scottish Islands by Hamish Haswell-Smith (£40, Canongate Books Ltd)
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