Travel Articles

A Tale of Tall Ships and Lochs of Water

December 17th 2021. Published by TNT.

Although I’m surrounded by the sea loch of Drumbuie I barely notice the golden seaweed covered rocks that give it its name. I am more worried about falling off the bow sprit, the long thin ‘nose’ that extends from the bow of the tall ship we’re travelling on which the front sails – the jibs – can attach to.

It’s precarious. There’s a clutter of ropes, sails and wires. I climb over the bow onto the ratlins, the ropes that connect to the bow sprit meant for walking on, not looking at the water beneath my feet or even worse imagining what would happen if I fall in and get mown down by a 100 foot ketch.

I have to straddle the bow sprit along with one of the crew and one of my fellow guests. We reach over and start folding the sails into their creases before wrapping them up into a sausage and then tie them to the sprit with the gaskells (ropes).

Once we’ve done one it’s onto the next two. For the last one at the end the ratlins runout and Taylor, one of the crew, and I are sitting only on the whiskers, the bendy bouncy wires that run along the outside of the sprit. My legs are more hesitant each time I take a step. There’s a whisker to sit on and a whisker to stand on while you pull and fold and push and wrap.

Yet it’s incredibly exhilarating. A mixture of adrenaline, workmanship, teamwork and the realisation that we’re in the middle of nowhere holding onto the very tip of an old boat makes me smile and then laugh.

This is the penultimate day of a ten day voyage around the Hebrides aboard the Bessie Ellen, a west of England cargo ketch from 1904. In the strange summer of 2021 when foreign travel still seemed alien, this would be one of the best homegrown adventures I could hope for.

Bessie Ellen has been refitted and looked after. She is one hundred and twenty feet long with two masts and eight sails. Her gunwales are freshly painted black and green. The brass fittings such as the compass and clock shine with burnished brilliance. Everything about her is immaculate.

Whilst aboard this great reminder of Britain’s maritime past, we have had the opportunity to crew the boat as people once would. That includes steering, keeping lookout (for buoys, other vessels and wildlife), charting our course and hoisting the gear to carry the sails or the sails themselves. In between times there is a lot of time to look at the ever changing surface of the sea and think or read or chat to our fellow passengers and crew.

One of my fellow passengers was Penny. It was her third time aboard Bessie Ellen.

‘When I turned sixty I really wanted to experience something new and coming on here it opened a new world to me. These trips are unique because you leave the whole of the rest of the world behind. Considering everything we’ve been through with the pandemic, nobody has talked about Covid. It’s more about if the weather is going to be OK and if we can make it to our next destination.’

Hebrides Wildlife

From the start it became clear what an abundance of wildlife there is in the Hebrides and how this is probably one of the best ways to experience it. Within an hour of leaving Oban on our first day a grey seal had popped up close by to have a look at us. This would happen several more times over the trip.

On the way to the St Kilda archipelago we could see the sleak arched backs of dolphins breaking the surface of the sea a few hundred metres ahead of the bow. All of a sudden two of them were heading like torpedoes directly for our bow. I was rooted to the spot wondering what would happen next.

In the second before it looked like they would collide with us they turned themselves over underwater and started to swim alongside the bow, rising, falling sometimes jumping, sometimes turning upside down so that their bellies appeared a beautiful bottle green in the water with one eye turned up to look at us. It was all a bit much for the skipper’s border terrier, Bracken, who ran up and down the deck barking incessantly. I suppose it must beat barking at squirrels.

Later that day we saw the long grey back of a minke whale. The skipper turned the engine off. Everything was still. The silence was like a held in breath. We could see its white patch slowly coming back across our bow, turquoise blue in the water and then swim astern. It broke the surface once more and was gone.

Nikki the skipper told us: ‘That’s as good a sighting as you’ll get. The best thing to do when seeing a whale is to switch the engine off and wait. Often they want to come and see who you are.’

Hebridean Island Hopping

Not only is this a holiday that embraces life at sea. We also had the added joy of landing on a different island everyday so that each day there was a new land to explore. To my childlike imagination there is something of a great adventure story to this.

Travelling west from Oban we moored a night outside Tobermory. On a still evening we listened to the sound of rushing water hidden in the trees and admired the multi coloured houses of the little port.
At the southern end of the Outer Hebrides chain lies the island of Vatersay. We moored in a bay with sparkling white sand and sea the colour of a sapphire. It looked Caribbean but felt more like the Arctic when I braved the waters for a dip. From here it is only a few hundred metres to the other side of the island and the huge mass of the Atlantic Ocean spreading towards the Americas.

In the dunes there were tents pitched at random. In Scotland the Land Reform Act of 2003 established the ‘right to use land for recreational purposes’ and ‘the right to roam’ if the land is privately owned. It would be great to see something similar enacted in the rest of the UK.

St Kilda
The highlight of this trip was the remote and once inhabited island of St Kilda. Often impossible to get to because of bad weather, we were able to motor across from Vatersay in twelve hours in gentle seas to the main island of Hirta. When we woke up there the next day it was a perfect summer’s day. Although it has become a popular destination for day trips from Skye or Harris, the day we got there we had the place to ourselves.

I wander along The Street, the one line of simple two room cottages that once was the only dwellings for St Kildans. Outside each one is a slate with the names of those families that lived here including the name of the resident that was living here up to the date that the last thirty six islanders were evacuated in 1930.

From here I walked through the walled enclosures behind the houses where they had a few animals and farmed crops. Yet it’s the small dry stone structures dotted all over the island that reveal how the St Kildans were able to survive so long here. The St Kildans survived from harvesting hundreds of fulmars, the seabirds who nest on the cliffs. They would eat these and store them in these little houses where the sea air would preserve the meat.

I climbed to the cliffs of Conachair, at 427 metres, the highest in the UK. I sensed that dizzying sense of height as I crept close to the edge. I can’t help what it’d be like to fall off. And look at the black eyed fulmars, nesting on a tiny little bit of rock. I climb Conachair and feel like I am on the edge of the known world.

We stopped off at the tiny island of Canna in the Inner Hebrides, population 15, with no proper roads, two churches, a café, a post office which is actually a green shed, a farm which is at once local museum, campsite and the local lifeguard. The sense of peace and timelessness here is unlike anywhere else I have been.

Our last day was spent in Loch Drumbuie, a sea loch on the mainland near Oban. Above Drumbuie the sea loch winds its way between tree and heather lined slopes. In midstream an almost island (Oronsay) splatters across the middle of the loch. Around the edge the grey rock has a black line – the high tide mark – then it’s beige. Below this the honey coloured seaweed ribbons its way round the bays and inlets. Drumbuie means ‘loch of the yellow hill’.
The loch gets narrower like the upper Thames or Tay and disappears behind a craggy headland. Behind that a ridge rises up into the sky, the top lost in cloud. On the side of the ridge below the cloud, pale sunlight briefly lights the wall. It’s the only sunlight for all the miles and miles I can see.

The next morning when we wake we watch sea otters playing. It’s a fitting end to this most wild and magical of adventures.

The Sublime Beauty of St Kilda.

December 1st 2021. Published by Intrepid Times.

A traveler explores a remote Scottish island known for its beauty and sense of isolation.

The mist-covered silence of the Atlantic was interrupted by a shout from the stern of the boat:  

A jagged edge, like a torn edge of paper, traveled from the mist and dropped into the sea off the port bow. It didn’t seem real: a cliff edge that seemed to float in mid air. Dark, igneous rock, formed by a volcano 55 million years ago, broke the sea line. Then, it disappeared into nothingness.

Foam frothed at the rocks’ base. The gray of the cliff edge rose steeply and was part covered with the green of grass and moss. Loose stones seemed to teeter impossibly on the bottom of the slopes. The pure white forms of sea birds dropped from vast cliff tops somewhere up in the gloom and then melted away into the mass of low cloud.

It was the first land we had seen for twelve hours.

Everything was silent. The ketch idled while waves lapped at the bow. There was a gentle creaking of the timbers underfoot. The masts seesawed from side to side like a slow metronome. My eyes looked to the rocks, straining for any clues as to what these islands held in store.

This was my first sight of Hirta, the largest and only ever inhabited island of the St Kilda archipelago. St Kilda lies 40 miles or 64 km from the next nearest land of the UK, North Uist. 40 miles on land doesn’t sound or seem like much. Yet 40 miles of the Atlantic Ocean between two places can make somewhere feel worlds away.

This small group of islands is the only dual UNESCO world heritage site in the UK. This reflects its significance both for its history and its wildlife. For more than two thousand, years a community survived on this outpost, the most remote community in the UK. The population was never more than two hundred people, and when the final inhabitants were evacuated in 1930, the community numbered just 36.

St Kilda is also home to the second largest colony of gannets in the world and has the largest population of Atlantic puffins in the UK. It also has two species of animal that are unique, the St Kilda wren and door mouse.

I have arrived as part of a voyage aboard a tall ship along with eleven other guests and a crew of six. It is a ten day trip from Oban around the Outer Hebrides, with St Kilda being the main goal of the voyage.

My transport and temporary home for this trip is Bessie Ellen. Built in Plymouth in 1904, she is a hundred and twenty feet long with two masts and a total of eight sails. She is painted black with bright green lines at the water line and along her gunwales. Her wood is newly varnished; the bronze of the fittings are polished to perfection. For her age she is immaculate.

The following day, the cloud has lifted and it is a bright, warm summer’s day. The sky is a uniform blue to the horizon.

From the sea, Village Bay is a horseshoe with two peaks at the end of each peninsula and a ridge forming the bottom of the U. I know behind the horseshoe is the rest of the island. It is less than 7 square kilometers and stretches roughly northwest, after which there is the smaller island of Soay.
The slopes of the ridge slope down to the U of the bay, and as the land flattens it becomes The Street, a line of sixteen cottages built in the 1830s where the last inhabitants of St Kilda resided until their evacuation on August 29, 1930.

The final residents here opted to leave after years of hardship exacerbated by the failure of their crops, increased illness, and the outbreak of World War I.

On arriving at the Village Bay jetty, we are greeted by Sue Loughran, the National Trust for Scotland ranger. She spends six months a year here either alone or with only one other. Various other people, some working for the MOD and others conducting scientific research, also live here temporarily.

She is emphatic about St Kilda’s appeal. “It’s an iconic, wild, and beautiful place.”

Sue hints that its remoteness is part of St Kilda’s magic. “Many tourists say this is on their bucket list because they’ve heard or read about it. I meet people for whom it is their eighth attempt, or they have been trying for years to get here.” Conditions in this part of the Atlantic can be notoriously harsh, and the only way to get here is by boat, mostly day trip boats that leave from Skye or Harris.

Sue tells me that many descendants of the original habitants like to visit. “Often, they make up our work parties.”

There is an obvious sense of the wildness of a place which is no longer uninhabited. The local Soay sheep wander here, and they’re oblivious to our party. Skuas are also nesting here and aren’t shy. Sue warns us, “If a skua flies towards your face, just put your hand up and at the last second it’ll fly over the top of your head.”

I start to explore. The street is a line of one-story, two-bedroom cottages that stretch in a line parallel to the bay but up the hillside. Outside each one is a piece of slate commemorating the names of the families who lived here, including the last person who lived here until the evacuation.

At the back of the street, a network of dry stone walls still marks the fields where the inhabitants farmed their crops.

Dotted all over the hillside are the dry stone cleits, neat piles of stones that look like ancient burial chambers where the St Kildans stored the fulmars, the sea birds that ensured their survival for so long. From the boat out to sea, there are so many cleits they look like polka dots on green cloth.

I climb up to the middle of the saddle at the back of the island behind the village. When I reach the top, I’m stopped in my tracks. The land falls away hundreds of meters to the sea. Conachair is the main peak on Hirta, its side creating the left upper curve of the U I’ve been walking towards. Yet, the entire north face is a sea cliff that drops vertically into the sea. At 427 meters it is the highest sea cliff in the UK.

I love that “air” at the end of the  name. That is what I am most aware of here: elevation, space, air. As I edge to the side, my legs and feet quiver.

Fulmars perch calmly in clefts in the cliffs or swoop and wheel away from it out over the ocean. Often, their intense black eyes fix unblinkingly on me. This is where the men and boys of Hirta would harvest these birds every year, lowering themselves down on ropes.

When I look out, there is flat blue sea in all directions. Vague outlines of the Outer Hebrides are just smoky blue apparitions on the horizon to the south east. The island of Boreray and its neighboring sea stack, Stac an Armin, sit four miles east. Stac an Armin is the rocky outcrop famous for being home to thousands of gannets.

There is only a tiny sheep track to the summit of Conachair. There are two bedraggled sheep at the top and a cairn. The sea stretches for miles in every direction. If a fulmar were to fly due west from here, it wouldn’t make landfall until it met Newfoundland. There is a sense of being on top of and on the edge of the world. A sense of excitement, fear, and wonder rolled into one.

I feel a sense of the sublime in the traditional sense. Edmund Burke described it as, “The passion caused by the great and the sublime in nature,” which he defined as “astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror.”

As if to emphasize this sense, the brown form of a skua rises out of the moor and clears my head by a couple of meters. Here, as the locals must have once felt, humans aren’t so obviously at the top of the pecking order.

The next day the world has changed again. The sky is gray, the air is cool. It’s like yesterday never happened. The motor of the Bessie Ellen has started up again. We leave as suddenly as we arrived. Village Bay, The Street, and Conachair recede into the gray just as they must have done to the final evacuees leaving in 1930. I think of Sue almost alone with the island, the wildlife, and the hundreds of miles of ocean for company, wondering if there is anywhere that has the same emotional impact as this strange, remote outcrop.