Tuesday, 18 July 2017
As we paddled out from Glengarrisdale towards the north tip of Jura and the Gulf of Corryvreckan, a narrow strip of clear sky broke the uniform grey of the cloud cover; and seemed to point the way to the Corryvreckan.
The island of Scarba gradually emerged as we neared the strait, the sky continued to clear and the temperature soared. Most of us found tiny bays to land in to remove layers of clothing!
The scale of the west coast of Jura is impressive, and certainly this northern section doesn't disappoint - our kayaks were dwarfed by the outcrops of tilted rock layers.
We had timed our arrival at this critical point of our journey to take advantage of the brief period of slack water at the end of the flood, then the start of the east-going ebb. The previous night's full moon was an obvious reminder that we were right on spring tides, and that such slack as there was would be fleeting.
We reached a point where we could see into the narrow strait and it was immediately obvious that the last of the flood was pushing through from the east and encountering a larger body of water on the seaward side. A standing wave was breaking almost from shore to shore on an otherwise flat calm stretch of water marked only by the swirls of tidal offshoots.
Neither Maurice or Sam had been here before, and when Maurice saw the rolling wave, his only comment was "Tell me we're not going through that?!". His apprehension was well-founded, the Corryvreckan is a very active piece of water, and also features one of the world's most violent tidal whirlpools.
We reassured Maurice that the wave would drop away as slack water occurred, and sure enough it slowly split into two sections and dissipated, peeling back to the shore on each side of the strait. I think Sam was actually a little disappointed that we weren't hammering through at peak flow with huge seas......maybe some other time!
The narrowest part of the channel is less than 2km long, but takes a huge volume of water through on each tide. We reckoned that the actual slack water was less than five minutes before we began to feel the insistent pull of the ebb drawing us into the narrows. A few swirls and hydraulic cushions began to appear as the ebb started to establish but in the absence of swell things were very gentle.
Our timing had been good - we drifted through with little drama under a clearing blue sky. Just before we entered the channel Douglas had stopped at a small bay on the Jura shore where he met some Dutch sea kayakers who'd passed through in the opposite direction at the last part of the flood tide. Remarkably, they didn't seem to realise where they'd been paddling.....or the state of the tide.
Emerging from the narrowest part of the Gulf, we felt a small breeze at our backs and hoisted our sails. Just ten or so minutes after slack water, and we were being propelled into the Sound of Jura at 8kph without paddling.....it was what we hoped would be the start of a fast ride down to our finishing point at Carsaig Bay.
Friday, 23 June 2017
After three days of cloudless blue skies and warm conditions it was a slight surprise to wake to a grey, cool and breezy morning - even though it had been forecast.
Our plan for the day was to head up the west coast of Jura and position ourselves ready to transit the Gulf of Corryvreckan at slack water. As slack water wasn't until late afternoon and we only had 23 km to paddle, we had plenty of time in hand. Unfortunately, on the one morning that we could have lingered over breakfast the weather had other ideas!
We struck camp and packed relatively quickly, dressing much more warmly than we'd done on the journey thus far. The forecast was for an improvement in the afternoon, but right now it didn't feel much like a late Spring day!
The Jura coast north of Shian Bay is a wild and rugged place. Landing options aren't that plentiful and there's a lot of crags falling straight to the sea; the bones of the land are laid bare here. Ahead we could see the dark shape of the island of Scarba; the Gulf of Corryvreckan lies between Jura and Scarba.
We paddled past a couple of bays, at one headland we were treated to a marvellous view of a Sea Eagle soaring off the cliffs above us. We stopped for second breakfast at Corpach (place of the dead), so named because it's one of the places where bodies were kept in caves awaiting passage to Oronsay or Iona for interment. It was quite cold on the beach so we decided to make it a brief stop and to head on to Glengarrisdale where we could utilise the bothy whilst we waited for the flood tide to slacken in the Corryvreckan.
We paddled steadily north from Corpach and after an hour or so arrived in Glengarrisdale Bay, the bothy here is one of the very few buildings on the west of Jura - and none of those that do exist are permanently inhabited.
We carried our boats a good way up the beach because the flood still had three hours to run and, as the previous evening's full moon had reminded us, it was right on Spring tides.
Maintained by the Mountain Bothies Association, Glengarrisdale is a gem of a bothy; there often seems to be a correlation between the degree of remoteness and the quality of a bothy. I had really good memories of the last time we visited, it was good to find the place still in excellent condition. We had a good two hours to wait before setting out for the Corryvreckan and so lit a fire with the last of our firewood to help dry damp kit while we enjoyed first luncheon in comfort.
One of the alternative names for Glengarrisdale is "MacLean's Skull Bay"; a skull and femurs reputedly belonging to a MacLean slain in a clan skirmish sat in a prominent place on the shore until they disappeared in the 1970's. There may no longer be human bones here, but there are plenty of others.....we called David from the bothy to seek his Veterinary surgeon's opinion.......
.....on these bones,a pair of metre and a half long blades with curious marks and channels on and through them. David confirmed our amateur guess that they were likely to be the jaw bones of a Minke Whale - unfortunately his professional opinion was that this particular specimen was beyond help!
There were plenty more skulls and bones in an old fish box outside the bothy and we spent a while identifying which species they were - mainly deer and goats. Some folk may think of a skull collection as macabre, but I just find them interesting from a naturalist's perspective - though I doubt if such a collection would be that welcome at home!
And speaking of macabre, an inventive bothy dweller had modified one of the skulls to make one of the most remarkable candle holders I've yet seen......
......but which, it has to be admitted, has a certain style! We lit the candle to gauge the effect; on a dark night with just candlelight inside the bothy this centrepiece above the fire would be doubly effective.....
As our two hour stop at the bothy drew to a close we extinguished the fire, cleared and secured the bothy and headed back down to the boats. It was time to head for the Corryvreckan - a passage with a fearsome reputation....so all thoughts of skulls and bones were very firmly left behind us.
Monday, 19 June 2017
After amusing ourselves playing boules with fishing floats we cooked and ate dinner then reconvened to light our campfire. Our fires are usually built on the shore below the spring high water mark but at Shian we found a long-established and properly constructed fire pit (rather than a series of ugly scars on the turf).
For those without chairs a couple of fish boxes and two planks served as a bench. David and Sam were forced to sit ever closer together as the evening progressed; not because it was cold but because we gradually shortened the planks to feed the fire by sawing the ends off them! Gathered around a camp fire on a remote shore with good food, good company and the odd sports recovery drink is one of life's real pleasures and a real enhancement to sea kayaking journeys for me. On journeys such as this one time seems extended somehow and the distractions of regular life are replaced by a more simple rhythm - life in the "now", and a chance to spend a little time in a "quiet centre"
As the sun dipped towards the horizon later in the evening we left the fire for a while and drifted over to the top of the beach to take our front row seats for what we hoped would be another great Hebridean sunset......
.....and we certainly weren't disappointed! As the sun began to set beyond Colonsay, from where we'd paddled that afternoon, the sky began to colour up to rich, warm shades. But the special feature of this sunset was to be found on the beach in front of us, where wet sand left by the ebbing tide began to shine as it reflected the low sunlight beaming across the surface of the sea and continuing onto the beach.
Douglas and I walked down onto the shore to try and capture the the effect......
...but my photographs really don't do justice to the gorgeous light beaming, it seemed, from the sand itself. We stood and watched as the beam of light slowly darkened and then, almost instantaneously, disappeared. In these northern latitudes sunsets are long affairs, especially in summer when the sun only dips below the horizon, so this sudden change was all the more remarkable.
We walked back up to join the others around the fire, below a full moon and a sky of the most delicate pink shade. A line of pale mist was forming around the hills as the warmth of the day dissipated, it was a truly beautiful evening and a wonderful quality of ethereal light.
Almost a full hour after the sun set beyond Colonsay we stood in the long Hebridean dusk with a full moon at our backs.......
.....and the ember glow of the sunset washing the sky - a scene which seemed to be straight out of a J.M.W. Turner painting. Once again we sat long into the evening, chatting and enjoying the warmth of the fire, the shining sands of Shian etched into our memories.
Wednesday, 14 June 2017
The 16 kilometre crossing from Colonsay back to the west coast of Jura took a little over two hours of steady paddling, assisted by a light breeze from astern. As ever on crossings like this the coast towards which we paddled didn't seem to get any nearer for long periods of time despite GPS showing that we were making steady progress.
Gradually the raised beach backing Shian Bay which we were using as an aiming point grew close enough to see the brilliant white streak of sand below it. Douglas and I had noted Shian as a good campsite on our visit a year previously and knew that we'd find flat ground for the tents, a good landing on sand and fresh water in a nearby burn.
We were pleased that our memory of the place was accurate! A sweep of brilliant white sand with cropped turf above it, a view out to Colonsay and in full sunshine made for a great place to camp. Added extras were that the nearby burn had a deep bathing pool with sun-warmed water and there was plenty of driftwood for a fire........
...which we collected while Douglas used his Japanese folding saw to create a satisfying pile of evenly sized logs. Normally we would light our fire well below the tideline, but at this beach we found a properly constructed fire pit which had clearly been in use for very many years.
We had arrived at Shian and set up camp in the late afternoon so we had plenty of time for relaxation before dinner. After we'd taken turns bathing in the pool we found all that we needed on the beach for.......
..... a few ends of Hebridean boules! There were more than enough creel buoys washed up on the beach to provide a jack and six quite evenly sized boules - great fun but a pity that there's so many of these plastic buoys littering the beaches around Scotland.
Douglas climbed up to the raised beach behind the bay and found that he could just about get enough elevation to pick up a mobile phone signal from the mast on Colonsay in order to get a weather forecast. The outlook was for a less settled period from the following day, but for now we knew we'd enjoy a fine evening in this wild and remote spot.
Saturday, 10 June 2017
It would have been easy to linger at Balnahard Bay but time was marching on and we had most of the length of Colonsay's east coast to travel, plus the crossing back to Jura before the end of the day.
Colonsay's east coast is something of a contrast to the wild and rugged sweeps of the west side of the island. There are natural woods of willow, birch, hazel and rowan above a low rocky shore for most of the way, and there seemed to be a cuckoo calling in every bay.
Maurice had just mentioned that the one Scottish wildlife "big tick" he'd love to see was a Sea Eagle.....
...when his wish was granted! "What, like that one over there?" we asked.......
..."or how about that one just behind it?". Two White Tailed Sea Eagles lifted off from a skerry close to us and moved a little way up the shore before settling again - bringing a furious response from a pair of Oystercatchers who were somewhat less impressed by the great birds than we were. Sea Eagles....Maurice had waited years to see one and then two came along at once!
We arrived at Scalasaig (the main village on Colonsay, but don't expect a busy built-up place...) by early afternoon. We were well overdue first luncheon, and so made our way up from the harbour.....
...to the Colonsay Pantry where we enjoyed coffee, cakes and other treats. We'd been disappointed to note that the island's brewery had a "Closed" sign on the outside, but this unfortunate situation was remedied when we spotted that the Pantry sells.....
...a selection of Colonsay Ales! I purchased a couple of examples of local produce for testing that evening. We also took the opportunity to top up our drinking water from a tap at the pier - a useful resupply as usable running water isn't easy to find around the island's coastline.
Our time on Colonsay was over - for now. An island of real contrast, interest and variety with history, wildlife, stunning beaches and super sea kayaking, it's a place I know I'll return to soon.
Pulling out of the harbour, we pointed our bows towards the distinctive outline of the Paps of Jura and hoisted sails to take advantage of a light breeze. Ahead lay a 16 kilometre crossing to Jura and our intended camp site.
You'll be able to follow the whole of our journey to Jura and Colonsay in "sea kayak stereovision" by reading Douglas' blog starting here