Every anchorage in the Western Isles is different, giving the sailor the experience of a new world, as Dick Durham discovers

There aren’t many places where you can anchor so close to a mountain it breathes on you. In heavy weather the draughts of exhaled tempest that rush down the sheer face of Sgùrr Dubh Mòr will sail your boat, under bare poles, around her ground tackle.

Many sailors down the years have experienced violent katabatic winds in the Isle of Skye’s Loch Scavaig and yet it continues to lure yachtsmen into its deceptively pond-like embrace.

When Republican gun-runner Conor O’Brien’s 26-ton cutter, Kelpie, anchored next to the 3,000ft Big Black Peak in 1921, seven years after delivering a shipment of rifles to the Irish Volunteers, he was astonished to witness sea spray ‘streaming up a perpendicular cliff’ as a gale created a giant vacuum through the Cuillins.

In 1938 Eric Hiscock, the famed world-girdling Royal Cruising Club (RCC) member, feared his 24ft cutter Wanderer II, would part her anchor chain as ‘the squalls tore round and round in that devil’s cauldron, whipping the spray from the sea and whirling it away overhead to be lost in the low mist which made a roof for the dark pit in which we lay.’]

As for the giant’s proximity, even the 19th-century Admiralty Sailing Directions report: ‘the rocky precipitous sides of the mountain […] are altogether so steep that a stone loosened from its summit finds no resting place until it plunges into the sea.’

Now it was our turn to visit ‘one of the most dramatic and awe-inspiring anchorages in Europe’ as the pilot book describes it.

Like those who had sailed there before us we hailed from very different ports and professions, with one common aim: to anchor in a sea-filled mountain pool. Peter Haworth, a semi-retired judge and deputy bailiff of Guernsey, had driven from his home in Skipworth, Yorkshire.

Leaving the sheltered harbour of Puilladobhrain (Pool of the Otter). Photo: Dick Durham

I had taken the night train from London to Glasgow and an early connection to Oban. And our skipper Martin Thomas, a retired vascular surgeon, had sailed his boat Charm of Rhu, a classic 40ft Fife, from Bosham in West Sussex, to our departure port of Kerrera island, the natural breakwater for the port of Oban.

In the shadow of giants

Under a light northwesterly breeze and fluffy grey cloud drifting over the Big Black Peak’s summit, we gingerly motor-sailed Charm of Rhu into our destination Loch Na Cuilice (Gaelic for recess), the inner sanctum of Loch Scavaig, with Peter on his laptop, Martin steering and myself gawping.

Photo: Dick Durham

For reassurance we had spotted two masts over the entry rock, En Glas, which almost blocks the black-surfaced pond like Christ’s resurrection stone. I helmed as Martin went forward and dropped his Rocna anchor in 4.5m giving her 20m of chain, mindful of Hiscock’s Wanderer II being ‘pinned down’, her lee rail awash from squalls coming vertically down the Big Black Peak from ‘all points of the compass.’

The other yachts in our anchorage were Aurora III, a GRP sloop, sailed by Forth Yacht Club member Oliver Ludlow and his wife, and a French Ovni 36 whose skipper asked if we had a spare rivet gun aboard as his was malfunctioning!

Charm of Rhu lay beneath black-brown boulders which climbed at all angles almost vertically up into the sky, shining with wet patches of water oozing from a crazy paving of green peat. A waterfall could be plainly heard and gushed a white slash down a black rock gorge as a cuckoo fluted somewhere from an impossible perch.

Vertiginous surroundings

The wind came in gentle puffs down the mountain, but each time it did so we were chilled to the bone, and even the strong May sunshine, when eventually it broke free of cloud, warmed us only momentarily.

Peter and I took the inflatable across the loch to a steel ladder, the only landing place available. He is a man of taciturn expression – as you would expect from someone who has spent their life weighing things up – and I found myself wondering if this RORC (Royal Ocean Racing Club) racing skipper, Atlantic yachtsman and hot-air balloonist approved of my boat handling, as I skewed the electric outboard handle this way and that. So, I tried to make him laugh. When I succeeded, I thought: ‘I’m not guilty, Sir? Are you sure?’

In Loch Scavaig. Photo: Dick Durham

Peter struck off on foot for Loch Coruisk, a fresh water lake above which the Cuillins cut their spiky teeth on glacial ice, some 50 million years ago. I, instead, climbed a steep gully and panted out onto a flat rock to aim my camera at Charm of Rhu, 800 feet below me. Much to my irritation another yacht had anchored in the loch between my lens and Charm. So, I climbed higher to get a clear view of the boat.

As boat selfies go, Loch Scavaig seemed worth the effort. The boat that spoiled my photo opportunity turned out to be Pixie, a very smartly kept Rustler 36, whose skipper rowed across to us to say that his father was a member of the RCC, too.

‘Oh, who is your father then?’ asked Martin.

‘Charles Warlow.’

‘Ah, Charles Warlow, consultant neurologist at Edinburgh Hospital,’ said Martin.

The world of sailing is small, the world of medicine is smaller, and membership of the RCC smaller still. It seems the more exclusive the union the tighter the knit. Add to that anchoring in Loch Scavaig and you could start a new elite.

Dick Durham joined Charm of Rhu at Oban for the voyage out to Skye. Photo: Dick Durham

That night I stood on deck. There were just two lights in that dark amphitheatre: a reflection of a new moon on the black water and the riding light of the Danish-built gaffer, Eda Fransden, which had crept in at dusk.

A seal marked the last of the submerged rocks, giving us a point to miss as we motored out the following morning.

Our next island, Rum, appeared to be on fire as its massive bulk soared up into the sky forcing the cloud to smoke along its flanks. We picked up a mooring and went ashore, landing at an ancient stone pier and walking along a lonely track beneath drooping trees, passing the sandstone bulk of an abandoned stately home, Kinloch Castle.

‘The castle’s no longer open then?’ I asked the proprietor of a nearby convenience store.

‘No, too dangerous. The roof’s falling in,’ the young mother answered rather wistfully, as she had once worked there. This came as a disappointment to Charm of Rhu’s crew. I had visited the place some 20-odd years before and had enthused to my companions about its strangeness. ‘There has been a move afoot to repair it,’ she said, ‘but many feel it would be a waste of money,’ she added dejectedly.

Rum appeared to be on fire as its massive bulk forced cloud to smoke along its flanks. Photo: Dick Durham

Eccentric opulence

Kinloch Castle was built for Sir George Bullough, who inherited a fortune from his father, John, a Lancashire textile magnate. Finished in 1900, it was used as a ‘lodge’ by Bullough and pals to shoot red deer, which still run wild on Rum.

The rooms are stuffed with stags’ heads and rather tacky ashtrays made from their hooves. He bestowed the castle with all sorts of exotic creatures including alligators, which escaped from their compound, and humming birds which he had stuffed after they died when the heating failed in the conservatory.

Bullough’s bizarre zoo was also legendary for its salacious parties. The butler never saw anything, however, as drinks were served through a one-way hatch into the ballroom.

Kinloch Castle on Rum has fallen into disrepair. Photo: Dick Durham

We peered through the leaded windows of the fenced-off castle and were astonished by the opulence: a grand piano, huge and expensively upholstered chaise longues, oil paintings, weird and violent statuettes, including a stuffed eagle clawing a dead lamb and two Inuit biting each other, all left to rot under the leaky roof.

On our way back to the tender we passed a burly young man. He told us there had been a billionaire ready to spend £8m on the castle. ‘But he lost interest and pulled out because he’d been accused by some of wanting to control the island,’ he said, disgusted.

Peter Haworth at the helm, gathering speed. Photo: Dick Durham

Inspiring a literary classic

Our next anchorage was Poll nam Partan, on the south-eastern corner of Eigg. The island appeared like a giant green submarine, its conning tower the sugarloaf crag (An Sgùrr) the largest volcanic column in Britain. It partly inspired former resident, JRR Tolkien, when he was writing The Lord of the Rings.

The bay was shoal and yet calm. However, winds from south round to east would make the place untenable. Ashore, we found a stunning new restaurant right at the landing place, with a plate glass window that made you feel you were dining in a living picture of the Sea of the Hebrides. Every male on the island sported a beard, noted Peter, and they were all very large: perhaps the descendants of clansmen? It was as though Netflix was making a biopic of the Highland Clearances.

After spending the night it was time to head for the Isle of Muck for breakfast. Port Mor is a tight anchorage, but enjoys a well-marked entrance with perches like street lamps either side of the rocky channel and good shelter in anything other than south or south-east winds.

Charm of Rhu anchored in the dramatic Loch Scavaig. Photo: Dick Durham

Ashore we passed no living creature apart from three cows and a sheep. Even the ubiquitous craft shop selling boxed toy puffins at £20 a pop was manned only by an honesty box. It’s hardly surprising that Lawrence and Ewen MacEwen, owners of Muck, advertise sporadically for new inhabitants with children so that the primary school remains viable. But then we found the bakery. It seemed as though all the island’s 27 citizens were in there. I can recommend the steak pies, which quickly sold out.

At last, we had a good stiff breeze and Charm of Rhu sent spray flying as we rounded the lighthouse at Ardnamurchan Point and sailed into Tobermory on the Isle of Mull. Perfect shelter and moorings aplenty we moored up opposite the pink, yellow and blue habitats on the promenade and made ready for dinner ashore.

Clouds gathering over the island of Rum. Photo: Dick Durham

Sublime anchorage

A dead-run in sunshine down the Sound of Mull and round into the Firth of Lorn saw us heading for our penultimate anchorage: Puilladobhrain, described by the aforementioned Hiscock as the most perfect anchorage in the world, which is why we had to share it with six other yachts. Perhaps Hiscock kept his booze locker filled and had no need to leave his boat, because the crew of Charm, seeking a hostelry, stumbled over weed and rock to get a footing ashore: one thing that’s not perfect about Puilladobhrain is the landing.

However, an arcadia awaits the sailor who does manage to land: we walked over wooded hills covered in bluebells to the Tigh An Truish pub which I couldn’t spell on the way in and certainly couldn’t pronounce on the way out.

Looking back, my lasting impression of these beautiful Scottish cruising grounds was one of yearning: I cannot wait to go back.

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