Saturday 30 March 2013

Roaring surf and a wall of tombstones - don't underestimate Muck!

Having arrived on the Isle of Muck, our plan was to paddle anticlockwise around the north and west coasts to arrive at Port Mor, where we'd phoned ahead to book beds at the bunkhouse.   It was low water, two days after Springs and vast Laminaria weed forests were exposed by the tide.

We looked at passing through the gap between Eilean nan Each and Muck, but although the Ordnance Survey 1:50K and 1:25K maps both show water in this channel at low water, there is most definitely not.  It seems that a boulder beach has been thrown up and Eilean nan Each is now a tidal island.

Overhead, a graceful arc of cloud marked the edge of a weather front; we estimated we could see the cloud front reaching away for over two hundred miles in a single sweep.

Paddling around the outside of Eilean nan Each (Horse Island) was a special experience.  The sea was calm but a low and powerful groundswell was roaring over shallow reefs.  We had to carefully time our passage inside the smaller islet of Eagamol as the swell compressed and propelled us through at a most satisfactory rate.  The 50 metre cliffs on Eilean nan Each aren't even shown on the maps - and this underestimation seems to be something associated with Muck.

I admit that I hadn't expected Muck to be as dramatic or interesting in a paddling sense as the other Small Isles, perhaps because it is low lying and outwardly unassuming.  I'm happy to report that I was utterly wrong!

The "fingers" which are such a feature of the island when seen on the map are reefs reaching from the shore at just the right angle to magnify swell and cause it to race up the exposed rock in a welter of surf and noise.  Added to this, the west coast is absolutely and totally exposed to Atlantic weather.  There is no VHF reception, no habitation and nothing on the horizon except the low shape of Coll - beyond; nothing but ocean.

On the west coast, at the back of Camas Mor (Big Bay) is this set of cliffs.  Their name translates, ominously as "The wall of tombstones" !  The height to which big swells have cleaned the rock can clearly be seen.  There is a large cave at one end of the cliff and a collapsed cave system at the other which has formed a cicular inlet known locally as the Witches Cauldron.  We felt disinclined to investigate either more closely!

A large raft of Fulmars (Fulmarus glacialis) took off from the water in Camas Mor to make close inspection flights past us - it's a real characteristic of these super birds, it seems to be pure curiosity on their part.

Over the low central portion of Muck, the Rum Cuillin could be seen; they had been our near constant companions on this journey.

All too soon we rounded a final point, squeezed through a narrow channel and entered the bay of Port Mor.  This would mark the end of the paddling on our journey in the Small Isles, but not quite end the trip itself.  We slowed our paddling speed, not really wanting to finish the paddling......

Friday 29 March 2013

On a mirror to Muck

We paddled out from Galmisdale and on past the Sgurr of Eigg.

Ahead lay the low-lying Isle of Muck, our destination for the day and the final island of our Small Isles journey.  Although the sky was cloudy the air was very mild and we were quite warm in our drysuits.

We paddled on a silver mirror, the sky and sea seeming to draw together at the horizon in a subtle but beautiful effect.

Away to the south was the Ardnamurchan peninsula; it seemed such a long time since we paddled that stretch of coast, but it was less than two weeks previously.

We expected to feel a considerable tidal stream between Eigg and Muck, the tidal information suggested a flow of around 3 knots.  In fact we felt very little movement at all and were able to adjust our transit to paddle straight towards.......

.......yet another fine beach!   We arrived on the Isle of Muck at Camas na Cairidh, a small bay with a narrow beach and signs of a former fish trap created by building an arc of boulders to trap fish on a falling tide.  We enjoyed first luncheon of soup and bread on the turf above the beach, but we didn't linger too long as we had no desire to be human captives of the fish trap!

The view towards Rum was sublime, with Glen Dibidil clearly visible between the prominent hills.

There were smaller sight to see too; this piece of dried seaweed stem had curled itself into the shape of a Celtic knot.

Eggs for breakfast, Eigg after breakfast!

The view from Lageorna in the morning, over the Sound of Rum to the Rum Cuillin was very encouraging; the weather seemed to be set fine.

We tucked into a cracking breakfast featuring local produce (and Eigg Eggs!) and then got ready to walk back to Galmisdale.  It's a 5 kilometre walk over the spine of the island; Sue kindly offered us a lift but we wanted to explore a little on foot.  The opportunity to explore on land as well as from the water was really enjoyable and added greatly to the trip.

Leaving Cleadale we passed this letter box.  The letters "GR" indicate that it was put in place during the reign of King George VI.  He died in 1952, making the letter box at least sixty years old.  Unusually, the collection times don't state actual times, rather that collection will be made "one hour prior to departure of the ferry".

After a steady climb out of Cleadale we followed the road as it traversed the higher ground in the centre of the island.  It was a beautiful morning and we were in no rush.  Our distinctive luggage (one IKEA bag each) was nice and light  too!

 A little farther along and we walked back into one of the banks of mist still hanging on the slopes of Eigg.  It gave tremendous atmosphere to this standing stone, which is placed near the road and would have been visible across a wide area.  This stone was re-erected in the 1990's, and is originally thought to have been part of a line of stones crossing the island.

 As we started our descent to Galmisdale we came back out of the mist into bright sunshine.  The fresh colours of the church against the blue sky looked very spring-like.

 Above us, Eigg's most ditinctive feature reared into the clear air.  An Sgurr, known also as the Sgurr of Eigg is a landmark visible for many miles.  The 393 metre high summit is the culmination of the largest pitchstone ridge in Europe, and is vertical on three sides.  Unfortunately we didn't have time to walk to the summit, but we will undoubtedly be back to do so!

Light mist was gradually being burned away as we sorted out our kit and dried damp items in the sun.  We'd left our boats near the top of the slipway fully packed without any fear that they would be disturbed - another lovely feature of the islands.

The names of the two main settlements (Galmisale and Cleadale) hint at part of Eigg's Viking history.  There is a strong Norse influence and 8th century artefacts including a sword handle and parts of a longboat have been uncovered locally.  Certainly the two shelterd beaches near Galmisdale would have been perfect to operate longships, and had good agricultural ground nearby.

At the top of the old slipway is the Pier Centre, a community centre with a shop, restaurant, toilets, information centre and bike hire facilities.There is a tap at the far side of the building for replenishing water too.

We'd very much enjoyed our visit to Eigg, a dramatic, beautiful and friendly place.  As we didn't manage to paddle the east coast of the island on this trip, we have a perfect reason to return soon!  For now, our eyes were set to the southwest; to the Isle of Muck which would be the final island to visit on our journey.

Thursday 28 March 2013

Big beds, big views and a big meal on Eigg

We soon arrived at "Lageorna", the former croft house which Sue and Alastair have converted to provide Bed and Breakfast accommodation, plus a restaurant.  The conversion is of a really high standard, and the whole place both luxurious and comfortable.

Alastair is a native of Eigg with roots which go deep into the soil of the place.  There's a photograph of one of his forebears in the dining room, sat outside the croft.  In front of the croft house is a tiny Sycamore sapling; the same tree which shelters Lageorna today.  It's a lovely connection, and illustrates why land ownership and the security which that brings matters so much.  Eigg is now owned by the community which live here, indeed this was the first successful community purchase of land in Scotland under the Land Reform Act.  It has led to a blossoming of community enterprise, such as a completely renewable powered electricity grid and the development of the successful "Hebnet" wireless broadband data service.

We each had a room which featured one of Sandy Fraser's beautifully made beds from Rum....

.....and a superb view from the bedroom window of the Sgurr of Eigg.  Douglas' room had a similarly jaw-dropping view to the Rum Cuillin.  Seriously, what bland chain hotel could match this?!

We took a walk up the road to a viewpoint before dinner.  Below Cleadale, the Bay of Laig was calm and the banks of mist seemed to be retreating out to sea.  We would almost certainly have been able to launch from Camas Sgiotaig in the morning without difficulty, but there were no regrets about having pushed on to paddle the superb west coast of the island that afternoon.

The evening light was fading as we returned to Lageorna for dinner.  And what a dinner....  When Alastair claimed that Sue is a good cook, he'd understated things by a considerable amount!  We had a three course dinner featuring local produce cooked superbly.  Our main course of Beef stew and dumplings left us in serious peril of not being able to tackle dessert; but somehow we battled through to a home made fruit pudding.....

We sat into the evening, browsing a selection of the books in the dining room and reflecting on the trip so far and the days to come.  If this post reads like a bit of an advert for Lageorna - it is meant to be!  If you visit Eigg, you could do no better than staying here, or at least to enjoy a meal - Douglas and I can guarantee you'll not be disappointed.

A dance of the veils on the west coast of Eigg

 We took second luncheon on the beach at Camas Sgiotaig - home-made butternut squash, coconut and chilli soup with home-made wholemeal bread accompained (to celebrate our arrival on Eigg) with a small measure of "The Singleton".

Behind the beach, the rocky peak of Beinn Bhuidhe (yellow hill) occasionally emerged from the swirling mist into bright sunshine.  This hill is the northern end of a pitchstone ridge running down the length of Eigg and culminating in An Sgurr in the south.

 We now had a small dilemma.  Our accommodation for the night lay at Cleadale, not far from the beach where we'd landed.  We decided that our plan would be to paddle to Galmisdale, the ferry terminal at the south of the island, leave our boats there and walk the 5 kilometres back over the spine of the island to our B & B.  This may seem a complicated plan, but there were a couple of factors which swung it for us.

 Firstly, Camas Sgiotaig and the nearby Laig Beach are prone to surf.  We'd had to time our landing carefully and a haze of suspended spray told of the peridic sets of big dumping surf here.  If the swell increased overnight due to weather systems far from land, we'd have a difficult launch in the morning.  Secondly, we intended to paddle down to Galmisdale anyway before crossing to Muck, so this would, in paddling terms, get us ahead of the game.

And thirdly, the coast of Eigg is simply fantastic to paddle!  All we now needed to decide was which side of Eigg to paddle; which is a great problem to have to deal with!  Really, the decision was very easy.  The west and south coasts are by far the most exposed to the prevailing weather and swell.  To be in position, with very light winds and a fairly benign swell was too good to miss - the west coast it would be.

At first it seemed that the mist would be burned off by the afternoon sunshine as we crossed the Bay of Laig

 But it soon rolled back in, shrouding the cliffs above us.  You might think that the mist would have detracted from paddling this wild coast, but in fact it added tremendously to the experience.

The cliff tops would sometimes be visible, sometimnes hidden.  All the time there was constant noise and energy from the low swell washing the bases of the rocks.

It is 12 kilomteres from the Bay of Laig to Galmisdale and there are absolutely no viable landing places.  This is a wild and utterly majestic stretch of coast and we were entranced by the sense of place and the shifting quality of light........ the mist created a "Dance of the Veils" effect along the cliffs.

Turning the corner to paddle along the south coast, we expected to feel some tidal movement against us but in fact felt almost nothing though we could see the tide moving further out.  We knew that Eigg's most prominent landmark, the mountain spur of An Sgurr was above us, but the mist kept it hidden for the time being.

Too soon, we paddled through the narrow channel between Eilean Chatasteil and Eigg to arrive at the old ferry slip at Galmisdale (no longer used for the ferry itself).  It had been one of the most remarkable and rewarding 12 kilometres either of us have ever paddled.  When added to the tour of Kinloch Castle in the morning and then the crossing from Rum to Eigg it all added up to a cracker of a day!

We were sorting out our boats at the top of the slip when a young lady came out and asked where we "the kayakers who are staying at Sue's"?  Word of our arrival had been passed, though there was uncertainty whether we'd arrive given the thick mist.  It turned out that Sue, the owner of the B & B, was working nearby in the community shop and would wait on to give us a lift up to Cleadale.  This was a kind gesture, and typical of the welcome we received on all the islands, and of the genuine interest in our journey.

We walked up to meet Sue and were soon driving over the hill to Cleadale.

Wednesday 27 March 2013

An misty crossing from Rum to Eigg

 It was mid morning by the time we were preparing to get back on the water after our brief look at Kinloch Castle.  We also chatted briefly to Sandy, who with his wife Fliss runs a small craft shop.  Sandy is also a master furniture maker, designing and constructing beautiful pieces from wood sourced on the island.  When we mentioned the Eigg B & B we'd be staying in he was able to tell us that he'd made the beds we'd be sleeping in - another nice coincidence!

The morning was very misty and calm as we paddled out of Loch Scresort and turned south down the coast of Rum.  Our timing was good - the ebb tide would be running our way and would give some assistance, though we'd need to take account of it during our crossing to Eigg later.

Near the mouth of Loch Scresort are some of the remains of a settlement at Port-na-Caranean; Rum was subject to Clearances as many parts of the Highlands and Islands were.  The population of the island in 1795 was recorded as 443 people; in 1800 the island was leased to one Lachlan MacLean of Coll who wanted to use the land to graze sheep.  By 1826 the population had been reduced to 50 people by forced clearance and the majority of these were removed by 1828.  MacLean diverted a couple of families of MacLeans who were themselves being cleared from Skye to act as shepherds.  The ruins here are the remains of the houses they built on the shore.

Initially these just looked like another "rickle o' stanes", but a closer look showed us that the site had been chosen with care.  Two sills of rock reached out from the shore and the beach between had been cleared of stones to make a boat "noust".  It's probable that this work predated the MacLean shepherds by hundreds, if not thousands of years and shows that sites were frequently re-used.  Heavy seas have moved stones back into the noust, but the site is clearly visible still.

The price of mutton fell dramatically in 1839 and MacLean sold the island to the Marquis of Salisbury in 1850, who reduced sheep numbers and vastly increased the numbers of deer in order to convert the island to a shooting estate.  Port-na-Caranean was abandoned in the same year, some of the people moved to Kinloch and others left the island altogether.  The population has ebbed and flowed since then with the fortunes of the sporting estate.  There was dramatic change after World War I, and under SNH ownership together with the Isle of Rum Community Trust the current population is a little less than 40.  The future seems good for the island and its people though - we mostly found folk optimistic about opportunities and the way forward for the community.

The east coast of Rum south of Loch Scresort has only a couple of landing opportunities.  We planned to land at the first of these, a small beach at Bagh na-h Uamh (bay of the caves) to have lunch prior to making the crossing to Eigg.

The sand on this beach was a warm buff colour from the underlying Torridonian sandstones.  Whilst we ate lunch, the mist came down further and we could no longer see the outline of Eigg across the 8 kilometre wide Sound of Rum.  We carefully watched two vessels of the Koninklikje Marine (Royal Netherlands Navy) which were moving south down the Sound at slow speed - we didn't wish to get in their way!

As the ships passed us we set out on the crossing, using a combination of compass bearings, GPS waypoints and observation to keep ourselves on track.  The beaches we were aiming for are the only landing places on the west side of Eigg - we wanted to make sure we arrived at the right spot.

As we crossed the Sound of Rum, the coast of Eigg slowly emerged from the mist.  It was very atmospheric and very quiet on the water, the only sounds really were our paddle strokes and conversation.  Once again we reflected on how fortunate we were to be able to make this journey.

Behind us, the island of Rum disappeared into the mist.  We'd had two fantastic days paddling some of the coast and exploring a little of the island - and we know that we'll return soon.

Up to the north, the tip of Eigg was catching some sunlight through a hole on the banks of mist.

Whilst ahead of us the line of surf showed that we were right on track to land at the beautiful silver sands of Camas Sgiotaig.  We had arrived on Eigg!

Tuesday 26 March 2013

Opulence, wealth, eccentricity and scandal - the amazing Kinloch Castle

 Douglas and I managed to contact Rachel, the manager of the Kinloch Castle Hostel, who we'd met by chance on the slipway the previous day.  Rachel showed us to our room and also the adjacent bathroom, featuring a bath which was over 2 metres long and nearly a metre deep!  It was to be the first of a series of superlatives at Kinloch.

Before dinner we wandered across to the community shop (which doubles as an unofficial gathering place) to buy a couple of items - specifically some sports recovery drinks.  These came in handy sized  containers and were Guiness flavoured :o)

We cooked our dinner in the self-catering kitchen and over our meal met up with Gordon, a contractor carrying out infrastructure works on the island.  The conversation flowed along with a couple of drinks; we were joined by Rachel and her assistant Abby later on and spent a really pleasant evening hearing some of the history of Kinloch and much about the more contemporary affairs of the Small Isles.

There was another fortuitous meeting too.  We'd asked about accommodation options on the next island we planned to visit, Eigg.  Alastair, one of the folks working with Gordon is a resident of Eigg and was happy to recommend a B & B.  We also enquired about eating options for an evening meal and were told that the proprietor of the B & B, Sue, did evening meals.  We were informed that Sue was an excellent cook and that we'd be well looked after.  Douglas asked if Alastair ate there often... to which he replied "Well, you could say that, Sue's my wife!".  So, our lodgings for the following night arranged, we retired for the evening having been offered a quick tour of the castle in the morning.

After a fine Hostel breakfast, Abby showed us some of the truly astonishing Kinloch Castle.  Started in 1897 and completed in 1900, it is a monument to opulence in every way, but in many ways was also at the cutting edge of the technology of the day.


Nothing is "ordinary" about Kinloch Castle.  At today's prices, the building would have cost £15 million to construct and decorate - and that's before the hundreds of art and collectible items are added in!

It's just as well that Sir George Bullough was an extremely wealthy man.  His grandfather had made a fortune in the spinning business in Lancashire, the family fortune was greatly expanded by his father; and essentially, Sir George spent it.  George's father bought Rum and built a shooting lodge on the island, but George wanted something altogether grander.

The main hall is decorated with stags heads, stuffed game fish in cases line the halls and there are innumerable objets d'art.  The building is made of red Arran sandstone - not the best choice as Kinloch is sheltered from drying winds, has a moist microclimate and sandstone is very porous.  Right from the outset there were problems with damp in the building which continue to the present day.  Sir George imported Lancashire stonemasons to build the castle, paid them extra to wear kilts then paid extra again for the workmen to buy tobacco in order to deter the midges!  This was the typical Bullough solution to everything - just throw more money at a problem until it went away.

This rather tatty lion was shot by Sir George on an African safari.  He owned a 221 foot steam yacht, "Rhouma" on which he sailed around the world.  There is a portrait in the castle of his wife, Lady Monica Bullough, sitting naked on this very lion pelt.  George married Monica, a society beauty of French extraction in 1903.  She was a divorcee and Sir George was named in the divorce proceedings.  Theirs seems to have been a marriage of convenience in many ways; each had their own lives and (it is widely rumoured) lovers to stay at Kinloch - which was only ever used for a few weeks each year.

At the end of the Hall, one of the more jaw-dropping items is this bronze incense burner in the shape of a monkey-eating eagle.  It seems that Sir George outbid his friend, the Emperor of Japan, for this item......

The Dining Room has the finest panelling in the castle; both panelling and dining table came from the "Rhouma" and were fitted into this room precisely.  The chairs (also from the yacht) have swivelling bases to allow the ladies to sit and stand more easily.

The Billiards Room was one space where cutting edge technology was employed.  It had the first air conditioning in Scotland to remove tobacco smoke - the castle as a whole was the first private residence in Scotland to have an electricity supply; and this was generated by a hydro-electic scheme.

The castle also had one of the very first telephones in Great Britain, linked to the mainland by a specially laid submarine cable.

At the far end of the Hall is a musical device known as an "Orchestrion".  The Orchestrion at Kinloch is probably the best preserved example in existence and CD's of music can be purchased.

As part of the marriage "deal", Lady Monica essentially got half of Kinloch Castle to do with as she wished.  The result is an almost schizophrenic arrangement where one half of the building is resplendent in bold red and heavy wood panelling, while the other half is much lighter and has original silk wall coverings.  Lady Monica was canny enough to opt for the sunny side of the building and the difference in the auality of light is remarkable.

She also had the only en-suite bathroom adjoining her bedroom.  This is no ordinary shower, there are water jets absolutely everywhere!  It still works (the whole castle is still operating the original water heating and central heating arrangements) and we were assured that a shower here is an unforgettable experience!

Parts of the outside of the castle were glass colonnades containing tropical plants, hummingbirds and (amongst other exotic species), alligators in heated tanks.  After one of the glass panes broke the unfortunate hummingbirds died of cold - Lady Monica had them stuffed and placed in a glass case.  One of the Alligators also met an untimely end when it escaped and wreaked havoc among the guests.  Sir George promptly shot it.

Perhaps the most intriguing space in the castle is the Ballroom.  It has a sprung floor, silk wall hangings decorated to match the stars embellished on the ceilings and lighting designed to give an impression of being out in the open under the stars.

Colourful and salacious stories abound concerning the goings-on in the Ballroom; reputedly there was somewhat more than dancing indulged in by the Bulloughs and their wealthy guests.....  The windows are certainly arranged in such a way that the ballroom is not overlooked from any other part of the castle, and there is a unique serving hatch arrangement which prevented the Butler from seeing into the room!

Sir George died in 1939 whilst playing golf in France, Lady Monica lived until 1967.  She stayed in the castle on and off but in 1957 sold it to the Nature Conservancy Council along with the rest of the island.  Rum (or Rhum as the Bulloughs tried to have it renamed) was strictly off limits whilst they owned it.  The NCC (which later became Scottish Natural Heritage) initially sought to maintain the discouragement of visitors but the stance gradually chaged and altered completely with the passing of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act in February 2003.  Rum is still a nature reserve, there are studies of Red Deer population dynamics underway and the island has also been the focal point for the reintroduction of Sea Eagles to Scotland - which is probably the very best legacy possible.

Responsible access is now encouraged and the castle can be visited in summer - we were extremely grateful to both Rachel and Abby for their hospitality and for giving us a glimpse into the crazy, opulent world of the Bulloughs.  If you get chance to travel to Rum, do visit this amazing place.