There are some incredible hidden harbours along the west coast of Scotland, many offering 360° shelter, although some may be rather challenging to enter

When I was age 12 , we went on a family holiday on the island of Barra in the Outer Hebrides off Scotland’s west coast. I was pottering around the jetty at Eoligarry on the north end of Barra when local men, boys and dogs suddenly appeared. They asked me if I wanted to help with the sheep shearing on a nearby uninhabited island. I ran to the holiday house where we were staying to get my parents’ permission.

It was a strange flat-bottomed craft which chugged its way across the Sound of Barra on a glorious day towards an island I later discovered was Gighay.

As we approached the island I became alarmed that the boat speed was not being reduced for landing, but who was I as a 12-year-old visitor from the mainland to question local wisdom, so I braced myself for impact with the rocks ahead. Instead of the looming disaster something quite magical happened. The island suddenly split in two and we entered a very narrow channel into a totally hidden harbour known locally as the Blue Lagoon.

It was a Hebridean Swallows and Amazons experience. The dogs rounded up the sheep and the local lads showed me how to hold the sheep by their horns with their neck clamped between knees as the men quickly set to work with their scissors.

When the job was done a local man parted some ferns growing out of a rock and plunged an old billy can into a hole beneath the rock. Another man lit a paraffin stove which brought the fresh water to the boil. Tea and sandwiches were served. The men puffed on their pipes and blethered away in Gaelic. A small flask was passed among them which I assume contained uisge beatha, Gaelic for ‘water of life’ or whisky.

Westbound Adventurer anchored off the Viking Canal on the southwest coast of Skye, with Rum in the background

Who needs the fiction of Arthur Ransome when the west coast of Scotland offers us real-life adventure with every challenge and reward?

Martin Lawrence describes this lagoon as a tidal pool between Gighay and Hellisay in his Yachtsman’s Pilot for the Western Isles and gives detailed instructions for attempting its two challenging entrances. The Clyde Cruising Club (CCC) Outer Hebrides Sailing Directions, published by Imray, also gives details, as does Bob Bradfield in his Antares Charts. However, in recent years I have noticed an increasing number of visiting yachts.

This tidal pool is a hidden Hebridean harbour no longer.

One harbour I am fond of that is not charted is Acarsaid Fallach just south of Loch Skipport on the island of South Uist. Although it is mentioned in the CCC Sailing Directions, the entrance is difficult to spot. There is a submerged rock just before the pool opens up so a visit in the dinghy with lead-line might be best before entering this pool which has swinging room for only one yacht.

There are rings ashore hidden in the undergrowth so perhaps it was a smuggler’s den in years gone by.

The southeast entrance to the Vacsay pool off the Atlantic coast of the island of Lewis

Another Hebridean harbour is on the Atlantic side of Lewis. There, Loch Roag has many harbours, only some of which are charted. One is the little tidal pool inside Vacsay in West Loch Roag.

Don’t attempt the west entrance astern of Westbound Adventurer as it is choked with rocks. A much cleaner but narrow entrance is from the southeast and some tidal calculations will be required for most yachts.

One last hidden anchorage to mention is on the southwest coast of the Isle of Skye, off the fascinating Viking fort settlement Rubha an Dùnain where a Viking canal leads inland to Loch na h-Airde.

Should I keep my secret harbours to myself? Firstly, they are not my harbours, and secondly they’ve not been a secret for some time now – we can all open devices and inspect them from the comfort of home.

Perhaps the real challenge is finding a harbour without VHF or a mobile signal. I know several. Should I tell you? Perhaps if you extend a hand with uisge beatha I might point you in their direction…

Best for beginners

Western Scotland offers every challenge and every reward for the cruising yachtsman at each stage of adventure. For those relatively new to cruising try the sheltered waters of the Clyde where there are no fearsome tidal gates to worry you.

Sail round the Kyles of Bute or circumnavigate Arran. If it blows up you are never more than a couple of hours from a safe haven.

Best for seasoned sailors

For those with more experience the great tidal gates of the Mull of Kintyre, Sound of Islay, Sound of Luing, Cuan Sound and more will test your passage planning. For the small boat or trailer-sailer, perhaps a circumnavigation of Mull. The rest of the Inner Hebrides and mainland west coast offer much adventure.

Further afield

For the self-sufficient yachtsman with the luxury of time, the Outer Hebrides will take you to another level but don’t take my word for it! Wherever you go take the CCC Sailing Directions with you. New editions are published every five years, with corrections every year.

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