Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Into the Minch: Eilean a'Cleireach (& other small isles)

Travelling up to the far north west on Saturday 9.8.14 we drove into areas forecast 'exceptionally severe weather for August'. Monday-Wednesday would be three days of storms: near-constant rain and NW winds up to 80mph. Even moments of respite from this derangement of elements would look like this:

This was the tail-end of hurricane Bertha. By Monday, conditions would be too hairy even to leave the kayaks on the car, nevermind put them on the water. The forecast's dire warnings were leavened, however, by the promise of one fine(ish) day: Sunday. 

This was our opportunity to finally attempt the crossing (26km round trip) to the fabled Eilean a' Chleireach, the subject of an excellent outdoors book, Frank Fraser Darling's Island Years (1940).  

We arrived at our favourite wee bothy in Badentarbet Bay late on Saturday night. To call this a 'bothy by the sea' wouldn't do justice to the immediacy of that relationship: at high tide the waves reach past the door and this is a 'bothy almost in the sea'. I'd had the fortune to experience a fierce storm here in March: let's just say I needed to clean salt from the windows when I wanted to see outside; but with thick stone walls, storm door and underfloor heating you're cosy in all conditions.
Throughout the year, the waders chasing waves within metres of the door, like 'so many little clockwork toys', are a great reminder how far from urbanity you've come:
Here's our route from front door to Cleireach: 
The outlook for Sunday was complex: by cross-referencing forecasts we came up with a composite we hoped we could trust. The morning would be sunny, clouding over by lunchtime, rain arriving sometime around 2. The significant concern was that force 4 winds at 7 am would drop to force 3 by 10 and force 2 by midday; they'd then climb steadily to (and far beyond) gale force around dusk. We decided to brave the morning winds in the hope of reaching home before the evening's storm. Cleireach is usually surrounded by substantial swell which makes landing difficult, but today's winds promised something flatter. In the morning all did indeed seem idyllic, with eider floating on a becalmed bay:
Only halfway through the first crossing to Tanera Mor, did the anticipated force 4 arrive. Its direction was such that it seriously impeded movement. Once we'd disembarked on Tanera Mor we sat it out rather than expend our energies in futile battle with the elements. Stopping for an hour, we somehow got through a whole book: Damian Walford Davies's poetic sequence Witch. This was a suitably atmospheric read for our temporary condition of what Walford-Davies calls 'enislement'. (Much of his writing is about the geographical imaginations of Welsh poets and novelists, so islands loom large).

Sure enough, the wind soon fell and we rounded our first islands. Slowly, we gained views of the string of skerries we'd be weaving through on our way to Cleireach. 
By now the light was glorious - utterly ethereal. Our first crossing was to Eilean Dubh, on an increasingly glassy sea where numerous auk chicks were settling. 

Here's a guillemot chick in the morning's magical blue light. 
Before getting too far from the Taneras we dropped our new toy: a crab trap we hoped would bring spinies (squat lobster) - the most delectable creature in these delicacy-laden seas.
(The animal we've actually caught most of is the velvet swimming crab - a delicacy, but a tricky catch because they're aggressive little warriors with quite some arsenal of claws - for a recipe see p.16 of this wonderful guide to crabs from the shellfish association).

With delightfully benign conditions, we were soon under the fulmar-covered cliffs of Eilean Dubh. Superb views of the Assynt hills had opened up: 
In the other direction were islands through which we'd wend our way before taking a sharp west into the Minch. 

Two islands after Eilean Dubh - Carn Lar and Carn Deas - are linked by sandy beaches and boulder fields. We pulled into one for elevenses. 
These were covered in seals (every disturbance on the sea in these pics is a seal-wake). This being a little visited spot in the middle of nowhere, the seals hadn't taken up their usual vantage points. We'd normally avoid scaring a colony into the sea, but here we had no idea seals were present until almost upon them. They covered every side of the island, so we made our stay brief. Here are views from the top. It's amazing how many flowering plants there are on this tiny isolated island (makes you feel for the intrepid bees that brave crossings to pollinate).

On our way out, we discovered a young seal who'd stayed, unnoticed, on the rocks nearby and was toying with the idea of joining the others in the sea. As Llinos skirted us round its rock I couldn't resist a photo:
Minutes later we discovered why the seals favour this spot. The water's glassy surface was broken by hundreds of leaping fish forced to the surface by predation from below. Some of this was seals, but there were other mammals too. We sat for half an hour in the last of the sun watching a pod of porpoises with calf pass close to us. Obligingly, there were particularly shapely skerries behind. This was a test to see if I could get fast enough shutter speeds and deep enough fields for both porpoise-foreground and rocky-backdrop to be in focus. The answer, sometimes, was 'nearly'. 

As we, reluctantly, decided to paddle on, the promised cloud arrived. This was something of a relief now the sun had reached midday intensity. We could soon look down to the mountains of the great wilderness, Torridon and the Fannichs, with flotillas of tysties (black guillemots) as foreground.
We explored the complex coast of Bottle Island for a while, before turning to our target: Eilean An Cleireach. One last crossing and we'd be on its legendary shores.
Eliean An Cleireach means Priest Island. It's thought to have gained this name because a hermit from the monastic institution of Isle Martin in Loch Broom once made the island his home but there's no evidence that this is more than speculation. The island does, however, boast three prehistoric stone circles. In the late 18thC, Cleireach received its first modern inhabitant: a notorious local outlaw exiled here under old clan laws for stealing sheep. The punishment is said to have worked; a rehabilitated individual, he was joined by a wife from a nearby crofting/fishing community. For three generations their descendants lived on this remote rock, only leaving c.1850. There are, apparently, still those who trace their lineage to Priest's outlaw, and the site of the island's one tiny ruin is known as Outlaw's Shielling. The only other people to live here in modern times were the family of Frank Fraser Darling who arrived in 1936 and stayed two years.  

Darling was a researcher, who invented for himself a project analysing bird behaviour (and later seal life-cycles) on the island. He moved from Dundonnell (at the base of An Teallach and the head of Little Loch Broom) where he had conducted the first ever deer population survey. Darling, his wife Bobbie and 8 y.o. son Alisdair lived in two large bell tents (these can be seen on the book cover near the start of this post). Perhaps the best way to give a sense of this island is to intersperse some of Darling's account of life here with my photos. He'll be in italics.

Darling waited days at Dundonnell, using a telescope each morning to look - in the days before really detailed weather forecasts - for flat seas in Little Loch Broom. The storemaster at Scoraig was to ferry the family, goats, hens, a canary and gear in a small wooden boat with outboard motor. Even the 'good day' they eventually found proved unmanagable:

The swell was more evident when we came to the mouth of the Loch and it was considerable by the time we were out past Cailleach Head. We looked forward and backward until Eilean a'Chleirich looked nearer than the mainland. Then we looked back no more. The sky became leaden, and when we turned in to the east bay of the island, Acairseid Eliean a'Chleirch [where we landed today], the swell was beating up white on the rocky coastline. The cliffs are sheer below Aird Glas and there are spiry stacks of red rock standing off from the land...
...They looked threatening today and the thud of the swell echoed between the stark walls of the bay. On the northern side there is a hole running into the cliff and with this heave on the sea, and in this state of the tide, the hole filled with air as the swell dropped. Then the air was greatly compressed as the sea rose, so that a cloud of spray was shot out each time with a tortured scream of sound. An otter ran down the tiny shingle beach into the sea. Who were these strange people coming into his world at this season of the year? Beds of tangle appeared and disappeared in the water in an oily, secret way in the rise and fall of the swell. It seemed alive, and once I saw a long tail come out of the water and return, slimy and silent. A catfish. The swell was as much as ten feet; far too much to think of landing.

This trip aborted, it was days until a second attempt could be made. Even then,

the little launch would rise over the crest of a wave and come down with a terrific slap into the trough. She was not a heavy craft, and the force with which she struck the water each time made the water spurt up through the seams. One or other of us was bailing all the time...I began to feel my responsibility heavy upon me. There were those who thought I was wrong to take a wife and child to an uninhabited island, and to live in a tent at that. Were they right and I wrong? I looked at these two and these animals under my care, and all looked unhappy. I asked Scoraig to turn back if he could and try later. Scoraig said he was not wishing to turn the boat just now and would rather keep her nose into it. Obviously he was right and we kept going for the shelter of Bottle Island. The slap in the trough of each wave was momentous and we dared not go fast.

I decided to spend some time on the island and release Llinos into her element: the exploration of sea caves. Here she is heading off round the headland. 
Being on this island is an unusual experience. With barely a human visitor and no mammals but pygmy shrew and otters, the foliage is never worn down: there's not so much as a sheep track to follow. Instead, it's a case of wading knee deep in island grass and flowers. I was glad it was past nesting season or every step would have been a lottery. The island's flanks are covered with evidence of birdlife, including FFD's favourite, the tiny storm petrel:

I never cease from wonder at the storm petrel. How does it manage to survive and increase? Think of a bird of such small size and slender build living from October to June on the face of the mighty ocean, never coming to land. Perhaps the very smallness of its bulk saves it from being buffeted, so that it walks the waves in freedom or sits on them as lightly as a cork. One of these mites nested in an accessible place in the outlaw's shieling, so that we were able to take an occasional look at her and her egg. One large white egg, an egg often cold and taking five weeks to hatch; then a helpless chick taking three months to fledge, a chick which receives no aftercare from its parents, but which is just left in the dark and bare cavern where it was hatched. It must come forth into the world of its own initiative and face the stormy ocean in autumn. What a tenuous thread is this for the survival of the species! Often have I lain out of a summer night by the outlaw's shieling to hear and see the stormies. It is a fleeting glimpse, for the birds are black and they do not fly until the night is at its darkest. It will be a grey day for me when I know that never again will I go to sleep to the churring sound of the stormies. It, like many other bird sounds, dwells deep in the mind.

The stormies are fewer in number than when Darling was here, in part because the island has since been colonised by a fiercesome predator, the Great Skua or Bonxie. Within minutes of arriving I could sympathise with the tiny stormie: I was under attack myself. Presumably because they're so unused to human intrusion , the skuas here were the most aggressive, persistent and numerous I've met. They would set a fast, steep collision course and only lift from their stoop when I swung the camera bag high. As they lifted they would flail forward with their clawed feet, not far from my scalp. Dealing with this constant aerial assault (at one point from nine skuas at once) required sticking in the middle of valleys, never near higher rocks or ridges where they'd have the advantage of surprise. I - eventually - made it to the top of the island, with superb seaboard views. 

Here's FFD again. I wish I could have done photographic justice to his wonderful description (would have needed better light, skills, and safety from plummeting bonxies):

The climb from the cave to the summit cairn on the ridge at 252 ft is a steep one whichever way you take it, but it is always worth the effort. The character of the island can be best seen from there and the distant view is the finest I know. This is an easy thing to say - the finest I know - but I have now lived on other islands with magnificent views and the West Highlands are very well known to me. The view from the summit cairn of Cleirich is the finest I know. As you cannot see all ways at once, it would be better to say there are two main views - to the east and to the west, the mainland and the Hebrides. Seven o'clock of a fine June evening is the best time to see the mainland, for the sun is behind you and still high enough to shine into the corries of the high hills. The whole range from Reay Deer Forest to Torridon is visible...
...and those hills nearest are among the best - Quinag, Suilven and Stac Pollaidh, with the rough coastal foothills of Archaean Gneiss in the foreground...
...Ben More Coigeach... 
 ...and the magnificent range of An Teallach; you can see the summits of that great country round Mullach Coire Mhic Fearchair, Ruadh Stac and the Maiden; and continuing southwards Slioch and Beinn Airidh Charr. It is a fine picture, but better still when you happen to know the individual corries and slopes. I have lain on the summit cairn of Chleirich and lived earlier years over again.

I very much enjoyed imitating FFD's approach to whiling away an afternoon. After a while the bonxies lost interest, especially when the first vessel of the day - a beautiful old sailing ship - passed close. Here's the boat in front of the An Teallach massif...
...and then with Skua convoy.   
At this point the sea was still flat and there was blue sky to the north, beyond the skerries that marked our route home.  
FFD describes the other direction:
When the sun has at last fallen on this same evening it is well to turn about and look upon the long, purple line of the Outer Hebrides. It is hard to tell where Lewis disappears into the sea where the sun has gone already, but after the thin line of that northern peninsula the Forest of Harris rises a bold shape, topped by Clisham. Farther south again, North Uist is just visible beyond Rhudha Hunish, which is the northern point of Skye. Here is none of the detail lately seen in the mainland hills; just the remote, violet swelling and fading line with which the imagination can run riot.

Most striking today were the two Shiant Islands foregrounded against the length of the Outer Hebrides. Not quite so obvious in these photos as in 'real life' (they're just left of centre - they can be seen better if you click on the picture), the Shiants are the setting for another wonderful account of island life, Adam Nicholson's Sea Room.

The distant land on the left here is Rubha Hunish on Skye (my absolute favourite place to watch minke whales and basking sharks - an idyllic night there with Matt Pritchard and Luke Taylor over a decade ago lives long in the memory). I'd love to go on quoting Frank Fraser Darling for ever - recounting his descriptions of his negotiations with the challenges thrown up by land, sea and sky - but this part of the post is overlong already.

After further exploration and more Skua confrontations I was half-an-hour late for my lift, which was waiting in a sheltered bay. When I saw that Llinos was wearing her head torch, I knew this boded well for what was round the corner:
We began the circumnavigation, determined to explore every nook and cranny along the way. Here, one final quote from Darling is called for:

Eilean a' Chleirich repels from the sea but invites from within. Six miles of coastline round half a square mile of island seems impossible at first thought, but there it is, and exploration of every cleft and sea cave has taken a long time. Some of these caves can never have been entered before by man, for alpine rope is a relatively modern production and the men of past times left the cold reaches of dark sea caves severely alone.

Some caves were wonderfully deep and intricate. Here's the first hole.
We went deep into this small passageway, which soon opened into chambers. After a while exploring we noticed a huge seal on a high shelf, a good 6ft above the water (this was low tide). At first we thought this was a washed up body, but soon saw it was breathing. The first question was whether we could turn the boat without waking it. The more perturbing question was whether, if the seal panicked and dived into the water, our boat would remain intact and upright. Glancing up as we turned I saw the bright golden reflection of my headtorch in a wide, round seal eye. The creature was awake, but - so far - showing no desire to leap into the sea. We moved slowly out. With Llinos propelling us, I took the above photo of the exit. We made certain to hug the right-hand wall, leaving a gap to our left should the seal decide to flee. Suddenly, seconds after this photo was taken, there was a booming crash behind: the enormous bull seal flashed beneath us, taking a huge wave with it and sending the boat rocking from side to side. We made a quick exit, before moving onto the next cave. Our experience there was less dramatic - no more seals in caves today - but the cavern was even more intricate. Here's the entrance:
This was full of life that could be watched beneath the water: crabs, prawns, urchins, giant sea stars, and lots of fish and jellies.
Many of these caves felt like epic journeys into the heart of the island:

As we passed round to the north of Priest, the wind picked up. On the right here there's a keyhole through the cliffs:
But the most famous of Priest's caves is one that passes right through the island. This can only be navigated at high tide, but we rockhopped our way a good distance in. 

This island boasts some of the best sea caves I've explored - perhaps second only to Shetland in British waters. Minutes later, wind continuing to increase, the rain arrived.

This put an end to photos, and made the return journey one of the most dramatic trips we've taken, with white horses breaking over the boat and every ounce of strength required to paddle into the wind for the 10km, via isolated skerries, back to the mainland. This felt as dangerous as anything we've done (especially because we knew the wind was forecast to build and build until conditions would be entirely unamanagable) but it was wonderfully entertaining and a test of our brawn in an open boat not made for this kind of crossing. The return journey took much longer than the smooth trip out, but we made it into the relative shelter of the larger islands - Taneras Beg and Mor - after a couple of hours solid graft. We found the crab trap - no spinies, but several fry-able fish - before watching more porpoises play the sheltered seas between Tanera Mor and the mainland. We were back in time for a well-earned seafood meal with a bottle of wine. We'll be back to Priest before too long, to see what it's like at high tide and spend a few more hours exploring its coastal complexities.

(A few days later I was sat in the wonderful Achiltibuie Piping School Cafe reading and drinking coffee with distant views of Priest. From that window, white surf could be seen hitting the Northern cliffs of the island and reaching enormous heights - as high as the cliffs themselves. It seems the rumours of Priest's rough seas are not exaggerated after all...)

During the storms of the next day, we watched an otter feeding in Loch an Eisg-Brachaidh and ate langoustines and pies in Lochinver. We spent the evening at the Am Fuaran bar listening to stories of people at the nearby campsite whose tents had all been shredded in the overnight onslaught. The weather had caused landslides on the roads and rail that had led Ullapool to be cut off from the south. The weather does seem to have had other effects: there've been sightings of humpback whales just a few miles up the coast - now that'd be a kayak encounter worth writing about...

We were out again, in the high winds and foul weather of Tues, for a very exciting circumnavigation of Horse Island - far too rough for us to get the camera out while we actually sat on the waves: 
Wednesday was the first day on which we could eat the sea's provender back at the bothy. Here they are alive and wriggling:

And here after a few minutes in the pot (with a fish in the middle of the table): 
Over the next few days, the sea continued to serve up feasts. On Thurs, the crab trap was empty...
...but we did happen across this:

We'd landed on a tiny island called Fraochlan with extraordinary rockpools. Some of these were filled with wall-to-wall mussels. Here they are a little later...

...making half a meal alongside 12 scallops freshly plucked from the seabed by Andy Diver who we'd met last time we were here:

This was the view from the window by the time we finished eating:

The mussels were found part way through another kayaking trip that was chosen partly for its literary connections. This was from a bay near Inverkirkaig, home of the wonderfully idiosyncratic poet Norman MacCaig. In poems like 'Off Coigach Point' and 'A Man in Assynt', MacCaig wrote a great deal of astutely observed verse about this region. It's all very simple - even childlike - but always masterfully crafted: poetry that fits this grandiose landscape-in-miniature.

We set off on a journey from MacCaig's home to Pollaidh Bay, at the foot of one of his favourite hills. We'd paddle the coast on the way out, and the islands on the return. This was a journey he often did in a rowing boat. His affection for this stretch of sea is recorded in a poem that isn't among his best-known, but still contains lines to raise a smile from anyone who likes messing about in boats [sorry about the odd formatting - I can't persuade it to behave]: 

Praise of a Boat

The Bateau Ivre and the Marie Celeste,
The Flying Dutchman hurdling latitudes
You could make a list (sad ones like the Lusitania
And brave puffed-up ones like Mayflower).
Mine's called the boat. It's a quiet, anonymous one
That needs my two arms to drag it through the water.
It takes me huge distances of a few miles
From its lair in Loch Roe to fishy Soya.
It prances on the spot in its watery stable.
It butts the running tide with a bull's head.
It skims downwind, planing like a shearwater.
In crossrips it's awkward as a piano.

And what a coffin it is for haddocks
And bomb shaped lythe and tigerish mackerel -
Though it once met a basking shark with a bump
And sailed for a while looking over its shoulder.

When salmon are about it goes glib in the dark,
Whispering a net over the sternsheets -
How it crabs the tide-rush, the cunning thing,
While arms plunge down for the wrestling silver.

Boat of no dreams, you open spaces
The mind can't think of till it's in them,
Where the world is so easy and dangerous and
Who can distinguish saints and sinners?

Sometimes that space reaches out

Till I'm enclosed in it in stony Edinburgh

And I hear you like a barrel thumping on head waves

Or in still water gurgling like a baby.

MacCaig's phrase 'huge distances of a few miles' is particularly apt: the small scale and variety of this area's peaks and headlands means you can paddle for half an hour and feel like you've passed across several different landscapes (unlike further south where, paddling for two hours you're still by the slopes of the same hulking, cloud-bound mountain). The whole of our 'huge distance' today was accompanied by messy seas - these weren't big enough to prevent photography, but there was plenty of 'thumping on headwaves', and even more 'butting the running tide' as we made our way down this astoundingly beautiful coastline:

Before long we'd found mazy caves to delve deep into, exploring the hearts of headlands:

These were the kind of caves where you think you've reached the end, just to notice a small gap that leads into new chambers.

We stopped at Pollaidh Bay where, after the storms of the last few days, the river Pollaidh had well and truly burst its banks. 
Llinos tested the Rockhopper's surfing potential on some pretty hefty breakers (I kept out of the way, investigating other bits of coast) before we swapped boats again to head back. 

We began the return journey in similar conditions, but as we passed the biggest island in the area (Eilean Mor - big island - naturally) the wind more or less stopped for an hour or two. And the sun came out. We carried on north to Fraochlan, the next island along from MacCaig's 'fishy Soya', where we found a magical world of rockpools full of hermit crabs, huge anemones and lots of shellfish. There were also views north to Stoer and out to more islands:

We picked our mussels and headed back to the bothy. We'd somehow skipped lunch so could afford to eat several meals in one. (I hope this space will reach out to engulf me when back in stony Birmingham...)

Still no basking sharks for us this year, but here's Norman MacCaig's description of an encounter with one on this coastline:

To stub an oar on a rock where none should be,

To have it rise with a slounge out of the sea

Is a thing that happened once (too often) to me.

But not too often - though enough. I count as gain

That once I met, on a sea tin-tacked with rain,

That roomsized monster with a matchbox brain.

He displaced more than water. He shoggled me
Centuries back - this decadent townee
Shook on a wrong branch of his family tree.

Swish up the dirt and, when it settles, a spring
Is all the clearer. I saw me, in one fling,
Emerging from the slime of everything.

So who's the monster? The thought made me grow pale
For twenty seconds while, sail after sail,
The tall fin slid away and then the tail.

That last line, with the delightful 'and then the tail', both inevitable and surprising, is utterly symptomatic of MacCaig's playfulness. I'd very heartily recommend his Collected Poems which - like the landscape of Assynt - can be explored for years, yet still reveal something fresh and unexpected every time it's opened up. I've included a link to this short film - Norman MacCaig: A Man in my Position - in a post before, but can't resist repeating it here. One of my favourite ever features about a poet.

The next trip was no cultural pilgrimage. It was a quest to get amongst the grandest landscapes possible. Llinos had never seen one of my favourite places in the North West Highlands: Glen Torridon. To put this right we decided to kayak from a spot nestled between Beinn Alligin and Liathach in Upper Loch Torridon, down through Loch Shieldaig, Lower Loch Torridon and on into the Minch. The idea was to set out amidst spectacular mountains and end the outward journey with hundred-mile views across a host of equally spectacular islands. Beyond that, there's not too much that needs narrating in words (other, perhaps, than all the hillariously ungainly razorbill chicks), so here's the journey as a story in pictures with minimal annotation:

Leaving Torridon village behind:
Through the narrow gap between Lochs: 
Passing Shieldaig village:
And out to sea - back towards Beinn Alligin (Liathach's northern pinnacles peering over the cliffs):
One of those stubby-winged, balloon-bellied razorbill chicks, still a few days from its first flight:
View across Skye from our lunch spot...
...which was complete with idyllic waterfall:
Setting off into the Minch and looking the length of Skye; only the southern corner (the cuillin) is missing at the moment:
Getting closer. North Skye, Trodday and Fladda with Scalpay distant on the right:
Closer still. Rona (in front of the towering Quiraing on the Skye coast):
Harris coming into view with our next target, Sgeir Na Trian in the foreground:
Finally getting far enough into the Minch for views of the Skye Cuillin (a particularly fine moment):

By the time we stopped to turn we were miles from any coast: in the middle of nowhere, with vast island vistas on three sides. With Skye to the south, the western isles to the west and north and the mountains of Torridon to the East, spectacular landforms made the silhouettes against most of our 360 degrees of distance.

Although sunset was still some time away there was colour in the sky when we began the journey home. Here's a gannet flying by the wonderful Rona lighthouse as we pass it for a second time. This was built in 1857 after the Northern Lighthouse Commission judged previous arrangements inadequate (a widow named Janet Mackenzie had been given a grant of £20 to show a light in her cottage window as frequently as she could manage): 
The return leg was very, very fast - only as we sped along with the wind at our backs did we realise how hard we'd been having to work against the weather so far. Passing the isolated village of Lower Diagbaig:
And back to Torridon, where Liathach meets the sea.

For the last few days we were joined by Ben (of whom many songs were sung). He'd integrated a break at the bothy into one of his epic cycle tours. Ben has joined us in boats on the River Severn before but had never been to sea.

I'd foolishly forgotten to bring him a paddle, but the very, very kind folks at Norwest Sea Kayaking agreed to lend us one. I just had to paddle to the pier at Old Dornie to pick it up. On the water by 6.30am, I took a glorious (cameraless) detour round Tanera Beg and across to Isle Ristol on the way. This early in the morning there was lots of life on the water: the seals were at play, leaping out of the water, and an otter was skirting skerries between the islands. By the time I'd got the paddle from Norwest's Tim Hamlet, Ben had arrived and was drinking coffee back in the bothy, waiting for his first sea trip. Over the next two days we covered several parts of the northern summer isles in very mixed weather. The highlight, on the second morning, was an exploration of the only island in the area we hadn't been to before: Mullagrach. This has some wonderful rock features, including tall sandstone spires and a spectacular arch which can be paddled through:

After this brief spell of morning calm, an offshore wind picked up, changing the sea's complexion:
Unfortunately, the wind arrived three hours earlier than we'd bargained for and it came from the NE, not the NW as forecast. Soon after the above pic was taken the sea was too choppy to get the camera out. For respite and a bite to eat we headed for the sandy bays on Ristol. As we approached, a surreal - apparently self-propelled - yellow object appeared in the water close by. It was the head of a wetsuited Tim Hamlet. He was swimming to the island from his home in Altandhu: suddenly we felt much less adventurous.

A little later, the wind was still increasing. We turned towards the main body of the islands with the breeze at our backs. I took a few kms detour into the swell to enjoy cruising the waves in the new Rockhopper (this little boat on a roughish sea is the most unbelievable amount of fun - I feel like I should build a shrine to Julian Patrick). This did mean paddling back to join the others against a stiff offshore breeze: c.3km of that and I was exhausted and soaked to the bone. All the return journey was an entertainingly bumpy ride - not a gentle way for Ben to be introduced to the ocean. He survived, only a little less recuperated than he'd hoped for the second half of his cycle tour...

So that's the trips. It just remains to say something of the storms. These are always worth savouring for their dramas of sea and sky:

Llinos about to get a drenching:
But there's an even better spectacle than that on this coast in strong winds: Gannets.

The storm-driven sea's pull and roll dredges fish into the surface foam, so gannets ride the wind before falling into hundred-foot plummets to smash into the fish-filled waves.

There are rumours of an old punishment (worse even than being tied naked to a stake for the delectation of midges and cleggs). It made use of this infamous headlong plunge:

Here's how the poet Robin Robertson tells the tale:

Law of the Island

They lashed him to old timbers
that would barely float,
with weights at the feet so
only his face was out of the water.
Over his mouth and eyes
they tied two live mackerel
with twine, and pushed him
out from the rocks.

They stood, then,
smoking cigarettes
and watching the sky,
waiting for a gannet
to read that flex of silver
from a hundred feet up,
close its wings
and plummet-dive.

Think on that as you look on these:

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