Log #16j More Fantastic Hebrides

September 11, 2000 in Log Series 11 - 19, Logs by Series, Series 16 Scotland, The Logs

Log #16j More Fantastic Hebrides

Written Sept. 11, 2000
At Hugh Town, St. Mary’s
Isles of Scilly
Covers the period July 10 – 11, 2000

The anchorage in Loch Mariveg (56 05.5N, 006 23.8W) was quite comfortable, well sheltered and easily accessed. The next day we dinghied over to the fish farm, and talked to a couple of the workers on shore before going over to the large tanks anchored in the loch. The tanks, three of them, were about 50 meters square, with a wooden walkway surrounding the net mesh, which extended about 1.5 meters above the water. The tank was supported by floatation barrels stretched off each side and anchored to the bottom of the loch. The fish were roiling around inside, hundreds of them, flat fish (halibut). I could readily see the temptation of fish poachers to sneak in at night and scoop up a few nets full of fish from the platforms. That is why we asked permission to look more closely at the tanks before going over to them. I understand the workers are quite protective.

When I asked about the problems associated with fish farming, such as the higher incidence of disease with fish in such concentrations, I was told that the Hebrides have “cleaner sea water” as opposed to the inshore waters of the mainland farms, and thus do not have such problems. There were fish farms with multiple tanks in many of the lochs we visited both in the Hebrides and the Highlands. This represents big business, but is a major contribution to a declining fishing industry. I personally think the jury is still out on the long term benefits or impact of fish farming.

After returning to Veleda we weighed anchor and left about noon hour to continue our southward journey with light winds that allowed us to motor sail for a few hours. We approached the Shiant Islands, and circled eastward around Eilean Mhuire. The Shiants are a group of three main islands with Eilean Mhuire the easternmost. It is separated from Garbh Eilean to the west by a channel only 200 yards (a cable) wide. This in turn is linked to Eilean An Tigh to the south by a narrow gravel bar. These islands have dramatic cliffs of towering columnar basalt prisms stretching to over 300 feet in height, with grass and heather strewn plateaus above, a few sheep grazing placidly on the  pastures and hillsides. (Staffa is also noted for its columnar basalt formations, but they are only about 150 feet high.) At sea level, large crevasses and caves worn by thousands of years of wave action caused hollow thundering booms as the surge moved in and out. We saw more bird life as we coasted around the islands; thousands of birds – cormorants, petrels, gannets, razor bills, guillemots, puffins, terns, oystercatchers, and the ubiquitous gulls – nesting on the rocky promontories, or idling on the surface in meandering fleets between flights. We watched squadrons of gannets dropping into the water like sticks of bombs. We could hear the staccato sharp thuds as they penetrated the water, diving after schools of small fish a few feet below the surface. We anchored precariously in the open Bay of Shiant on a gravelly rocky bottom for a few hours, to dinghy around this fantastic bird sanctuary. It was straight out of a National Geographic documentary on isolated island nesting grounds.

Once at anchor, we could hear the screeching of the thousands of birds on the cliffs, and smell the guano they deposited like milky chalk, topping the rocky outcroppings of their perches. As we slowly dinghied along the shoreline the swimming flotillas of birds would edge away from us, and if we moved too fast some would take off, triggering the remainder to follow, creating a speckled horizon of flapping wings trailing sparkling splashes from their running feet. They didn’t screech as they took off. Most of the screeching came from the birds on their perches. Others would dive under water to avoid us if we got too close. We shut off the engine and just drifted along, allowing us to float closer to them before they fled. It was fascinating to watch the puffins with their colourful stuffed-doll beaks quickly flap their wings to dive below the surface and then fly through the water using their wings for underwater propulsion. The guillimots also “flew” underwater. Both species were very swift and agile in their submerged mode of travel. On land the guillimots looked like small penguins, lined up on their nesting ledges with their white tuxedoes prominently displayed.

As we drifted along we also saw an extremely large jellyfish, its body a thick, mushy, ragged, scarlet mass, more than a foot in diameter, trailing purple streams of jellied tentacles ominously behind it.

Without a doubt, these islands were our second most spectacular anchorage, after Loch Scavaig in the Black Cuillin Mountains of Skye. It is unfortunate that the security of anchoring around these islands is so poor, as it would be enjoyable to stay there for longer periods of time to explore the islands, their caves, pastures, and shore lines, and to drift around in the dinghy to bird watch. However, we felt anxious about the hold of our anchor in the surging seas, and so left that aviary paradise after only a few hours to go ten miles, over to Loch Bhalamuis (also spelt Valamus) on the southern shores of North Harris. This was an easy entrance, a half mile up the narrow loch to a pool at the north east end. We dropped anchor in 15 feet of water, having the entire loch to ourselves, save for a curious seal and the ruins of a deserted croft.

I went ashore the next morning to wander around the lonely ruins of the early 19th century croft. Its stone walls were relatively solid, including those of the animal barn appended to an end wall. There were several stone walls for pens and enclosures around the main building, and others stretching hundreds of yards up the hills and down to the water’s edge. There was even the remains of a home-built rock pier stretching onto the tidal shore line. I climbed the hill behind the abandoned homestead and overlooked the grey desolate panorama of Loch Bhalamuis intruding into the heather and bracken clad hillsides with the rocky and seaweed strewn shoreline revealing the state of the low tide. The mist-shrouded summits still permitted me to see over a couple of valleys and into an adjacent loch a couple of miles away. Empty! Barren! No trace of civilization, no houses, no fish farms, no roads except the traces of the path leading to the ruined croft. Come to think of it, I didn’t even notice any sheep on the surrounding slopes. As I mentioned in my last log, I feel a sense of sadness when I see such ruins, as they represent the travails of the family who built it; their dreams, even the traces of their lives, abandoned, frustrated, destroyed, wasted, leaving nothing but this melancholy landscape seen only by the occasional hiker or boater seeking a secluded anchorage. I salute those intrepid crofters who eked out a marginal existence from this harsh land, and some of whom are still doing so.

On my return to Veleda we noticed our battery levels quite low. They shouldn’t have been, as we had only been at anchor less than 24 hours. When we checked with our hygrometer, sure enough the forward battery indicated discharged. Hmmm! Is the problem the batteries, or is the engine not charging properly? So far we have been happy with our electrical system. We have four six-volt golf cart batteries married up in pairs to give the equivalent of two twelve-volt batteries, hooked up in parallel, providing us a minimum of 440 ampere-hours of power. We will have to monitor them more closely.

We left in the afternoon for a short six mile motor sail under cold grey skies to Scalpay, where we almost lost Veleda on the rocks. More about that in my next log.