Having scattered the ashes of his friend Roger Chisholm in the waters of Loch Coruisk, Howard Steen continues sailing his circuit of Skye

The Hebrides is where I was introduced to cruising following the encouragement of long-time friend, Roger Chisholm. He first sparked my interest in 1988 by taking me on a cruise to the Isle of Skye, writes Howard Steen.

As a keen mountaineer, I immediately saw the attractions of using a small boat to reach out-of-the-way Scottish mountain summits accessible from Hebridean waters.

It is where my Vancouver 27, Martha Maria has been based for the last six seasons.

Sadly, my friend succumbed to an aggressive brain tumour in the spring of 2018.

His wish was that his ashes be scattered in Loch Scavaig in the heart of Skye’s Cuillin mountains so in June I found myself leaving Oban aboard Martha Maria accompanied by another of Roger’s friends, Peter Davies.

Martha Maria, since 2008, and has sailed her in the Baltic, the Norwegian coast, the Arctic and west Scotland including Skye

Howard has owned Martha Maria, since 2008, and has sailed her in the Baltic, the Norwegian coast, the Arctic and west Scotland. Credit: Peter Davies

Our route involved passing around Ardnamurchan Point, the most westerly point of the British mainland which seems to brew its own weather.

Experience has taught me not to assume it can always be passed so we’d allowed a good couple of weeks to be sure we could discharge our sacred duty.

After leaving Oban it was a five-hour, 22 mile slog up the Sound of Mull, mostly against wind and tide and in rather unpleasant wet and cold conditions.

We got into sheltered Tobermory harbour before midday which gave us a three-hour pause to assess conditions around the corner at Ardnamurchan Point.

Further motorsailing was required to round the point but now, with a tidal assist, we could finally lay a nice sailing course in south to southwesterly winds towards Muck.

We anchored at Gallanach Bay on the north side of the island for perfect shelter.

Lining up the approach into this beautiful sandy bay seems a little tricky because there are submerged reefs on either side but once you have done it for the first time it feels a lot less daunting.

Using Bob Bradfield’s excellent Antares charts is certainly a great help here.

Loch Moidart, Isle of Skye

Careful pilotage is needed at the entrance to Loch Moidart, with rocks to the north and south of Eilean Shona. Credit: Howard Steen

Having reached the anchorage by early evening and in rapidly clearing conditions we simply enjoyed the excellent views out to the north, encompassing the ‘Small Isles’ of Rum, Eigg and Canna and even as far as our prime goal, the Cuillin mountains of Skye.

With a continuing moderate wind from the south there was now no doubt that we would reach Loch Scavaig, and rather than go directly there we decided to call at Soay to visit friends.

Anyone sailing past this rather inconspicuous and fairly low-lying island for the first time might be forgiven for assuming it is a part of Skye because it blends in so well with the lower slopes of the Cuillin mountains.

However, it is separated from the latter by the narrow Sound of Soay to the north.

Via this, one enters the north harbour over a tidal bar. This should not be attempted at anything much less than half tide.

The harbour itself is one of the best protected for miles around.

As we would be approaching on a falling tide I wanted to leave plenty of depth so we were again off early, and it was mostly motoring for the 16 mile passage to keep us on schedule for crossing the bar.

Continues below…

Soay is an island with no ferry, roads or services other than a solar-powered telephone exchange.

In 1953 an evacuation of all the islanders, except the family which owned Soay, took place.

Today there are only three permanent residents.

Having caught up with our friends, we left late the following morning and motored the short distance from Soay into Loch Scavaig, anchoring under the shadow of the Cuillin mountains.

So far it was a fine sunny day, but as the weather can change rapidly here we decided to row ashore immediately to take Roger’s ashes up into Loch Coruisk.

In typical Skye fashion we had not walked far when squally rain showers started to blow in ensuring that his ashes were well and truly scattered.

Much of the walking in the Cuillin is very rough but one of the best views of the whole range can be had from making the relatively short and easy ascent from the anchorage to the summit of Sgurr na Stri.

This we did the next day.

Onwards around Skye

By now, we were a week into our voyage; the weather was looking good for heading further north and perhaps even completing a circumnavigation of Skye.

An overnight stop on the pontoons in Mallaig harbour was made both to provision and give the domestic battery a good overnight boost on shore power.

Then we were heading north again, catching the tide through Kyle Rhea and out under the Skye Bridge into the more open waters of the Inner Sound.

In a good southerly breeze we sped along navigating up the east side of Scalpay and, looking for a suitable anchorage for the night, headed into Loch Sligachan.

Predictably, the wind was funnelling strongly out of this steep sided loch, but it was quite reasonably sheltered at its head where we anchored.

We were now looking directly at the Cuillin mountains again, but from the other side, and had a fine view of the northern part of the ridge.

Skye is the largest and northernmost of the Inner Hebridean islands and its deeply indented nature gives it 400 miles of scenic coastline.

South Ascrib

South Ascrib can only be visited in settled weather. Credit: Peter Davies

Heading on up the wide Sound of Raasay we were now passing one of the dramatic landmarks on this part of Skye, a rock pinnacle known as The Old Man of Storr.

We briefly called in at the beautifully sheltered anchorage of Acairseid Mhòr on the island of South Rona.

On previous visits there had been good shore facilities here including a shop selling excellent venison products, but this time everything was closed for the season, so we sailed on to the next suitable anchorage at Staffin Bay.

This gave us the ideal opportunity to explore the Quiraing the next morning.

The Quiraing is a fascinating landslip feature on the eastern face of the most northern summit of the Trotternish peninsula, and the walk up to it starts right from Staffin village.

You certainly need a bit of a head for heights to explore all around the various pinnacles which can only be accessed by steep paths.

We continued to head up the Skye coast, motoring into a bit of wind and tide as we turned west to pass south of Eilean Trodday and around the point of Rubha Hunish to reach the anchorage at Duntulm Bay.

Here we anchored behind a long island which effectively sheltered the bay from the west and spent a pleasant night.

Ahead of us, and separating the two long northwest-pointing arms of the Trotternish and Waternish Peninsulas of Skye, lay the six-mile wide mouth of Loch Snizort.

Just inside this and towards the west side is a small group of islands, the Ascribs, which can only be landed upon in settled weather.

Loch Scavaig, the Cuillin mountains and Loch Coruisk

Loch Scavaig provides total shelter from the sea; the best anchorage can be found in the bight north-west of Eileen Reamhar on the west side. Credit: Howard Steen

With the aid of Antares charts, we crept into the narrow channel that led to a pleasant anchorage beside a large house on South Ascrib, the largest of the seven islands.

Bought in 1985 by Baron Palumbo, the island is now designated a Special Area of Conservation, with a large part of Skye’s common seal population breeding there.

We did not see many seals but the air was thick with Arctic terns.

We were fascinated by these islands but puzzled as to why Baron Palumbo might want to build a house here, particularly as there was no obvious water source.

Equally strange was the bronze statue of a dog standing guard over the boarded-up house.

Leaving the Ascribs after a couple of hours ashore we motored on, passing Waternish Point where we turned due south towards Loch Dunvegan.

Disused house at South Ascrib

A lone bronze dog guards the abandoned house on South Ascrib. Credit: Howard Steen

The approach to the anchorage at Dunvegan Castle afforded another breathtaking view of the Cuillin Ridge.

We were seeing the same summits of the northern Cuillin that we’d admired from Loch Sligachan but from quite a different angle.

It felt like we’d been doing a long circumnavigation of the Cuillins themselves!

The anchorage itself, right beside the castle, was a magically peaceful place, full of wildlife and very well sheltered.

We passed a very comfortable night there among the sounds of nature.

The southgoing stream in the Minch started at 1040 the next morning and we timed our arrival at Dunvegan Head to catch it.

The weather was holding and we had a bright, clear and warm morning with light and variable winds.

Dunvegan Castle, Skye

Dunvegan Castle is the seat of the MacLeod of MacLeod, and is the only Highland fortress to have been continuously occupied by the same family for 800 years. Credit: Howard Steen

Canna harbour seemed an obvious destination; a highlight of the passage was when a large pod of dolphins passed us heading north.

Peter was quick to get his camera out and record them leaping out of the water.

By late afternoon we were anchored in the sheltered bay of Canna harbour.

It was a fine settled evening so after eating at Café Canna we walked up the hill behind the café for great views in every direction.

Crossing our track

The fine and calm conditions continued and we motored on a flat sea along impressive cliff scenery on the west side of Rum, passing Harris bay.

Leaving Rum behind, we continued towards the Sound of Eigg where we crossed our northgoing track to complete our circumnavigation of Skye.

Arctic Tern at Dunvegan

Arctic terns have formed colonies around Skye. Credit: Howard Steen

We could have pressed on back around Ardnamurchan Point but we still had a day in hand as well as a settled weather outlook, so headed into the North Channel of Loch Moidart.

Another fine evening was spent and a short hike ashore in the evening got us enough elevation for some wonderful views to the west and our final view of the Cuillin mountains before returning to Oban.

A sailing visit to the Cuillin had been the reason for this cruise and it seemed appropriate that different views of this great mountain range kept appearing throughout our circumnavigation of Skye to remind us of our dear departed friend.

Howard Steen

Howard Steen, a married father of three grown-up daughters, began cruising during a managerial career in research and development.

Early retirement brought the opportunity to acquire Martha Maria, his Vancouver 27, in 2008.

Howard sailed her in the Baltic and on the Norwegian coast to the Arctic before bringing her over to the west coast of Scotland in 2013.

Sailor and filmaker Howard Steen

Credit: Howard Steen

He produced an award winning film, Revisiting the Dubhs Ridge, in 2017, which tells the story of Roger Chisholm’s unfailing spirit of adventure, despite progressive disability.

It can be viewed free here: vimeo.com/215021897

A voyage around the Cuillin won the Cruising Association’s Love Cup for best log of a short cruise.

The CA’s Log Competition

The Cruising Association’s annual Log Competition is one of the most important events in its calendar and dates back to the 1920s, awarding members with trophies for the best log of a cruise carried out in the most recent season.

Cruising Association logoPrizes are awarded at the annual Hanson Lecture.

In total there are now nine trophies covering various categories of cruising log.

In 2019 the CA added The osCA, sponsored by MS Amlin Boat Insurance.

This is awarded for the best VLOG or video log created on a blog or website or channel on YouTube, Vimeo etc.