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.’
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.
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.