Category: Clyde

Sunshine and Gales

Weather in the area of Scotland where we are now floating tends to follow a fairly typical pattern during the months of May or June in most years; in a typical year there will be a long period of dry, sunny days. This is just the way things tend to turn out and this year has been absolutely true to form with almost continuous daily sunshine, hardly a break, throughout the whole of June. Even May, looking back, was sunny even though a little too cool to encourage sunbathing. As if to prove the accuracy of this rule, on the evening of the last day of June this year the clouds began to form. Overnight some light rain fell and by early morning on the first day of July we were getting the first gusts of a full blown gale driving horizontal rain before it. Gone is the sultry heat; we are now in a different pattern, depressions forming over the Atlantic which follow time-honoured north-easterly tracks over Northern Ireland and Scotland. These are important facts when your life is governed by the wind, its strength and direction, as ours is. Our intended direction of travel now is southwards – we are bound for Ireland – and from Troon this means we must wait for winds with a northerly component or else push on, against common sense, into headwinds.

Troon being on mainland Scotland, we berthed there for the express purpose of leaving Cirrus for a week so that we could journey the length of a very hot Britain to visit our English home in Yeovil, a brief visit to celebrate switching on our new central heating boiler. Such was the temperature there that we took no more than a few minutes to decide that we had a working system; we just didn’t want the house to be any hotter than the sun was already making it, over twenty-five degrees Celsius. But this is an important milestone in the house renovation project we have set ourselves to complete before the end of this year (a target now driven by the scheduled increase in VAT due in January next year).

Even after dragging our hired car back to Scotland our heads are still full of construction plans and colour schemes – we have become avid readers of newspaper Lifestyle supplements – but back on Cirrus we must turn our minds to assessing the weather and making the mental adjustment to life on board again. Fortunately Troon Marina provides a spectacular shower room where we can stand and soak away to our hearts’ content whilst contemplating isobars and thermal gradients.

Today the forecast gave us an opportunity to move very slightly closer to Ireland and we seized the day and sailed west for Campbeltown on the Mull of Kintyre. It was a wild and uncomfortable sail, six hours of being tossed and shaken about although we sailed as fast as our salt-drenched decks could take us. But Cirrus didn’t complain as twenty-five knots of wind screamed through her rigging and pushed against her tight sails. She just bashed her way through every wave making spray-rainbows in the sunshine. No gale this, but more wind than we like to be out sailing in. Cambeltown will have to put up with us for some days now while we wait for something better than this to come along.

Holy Lowlands

Despite having walked, climbed and now sailed in and around Scotland I had always assumed that the term ‘Highlands’ was a man-made construct conceived purely for administrative or political convenience. Until, that is, we came across this sign just outside Rothesay on the Isle of Bute which lies on the Highland Boundary Fault. This is a geological phenomenon which divides the ‘Old Red Sandstone from the Metamorphic and Archaean deposits’ [Thank you Wikipedia]. Aligned southwest to northeast, from Lochranza on the Isle of Arran the fault bisects Bute, continues up the Firth of Clyde, coming ashore near Helensburgh. It then passes through Loch Lomond and eventually reaches the North Sea close to Stonehaven. Without realising it, we find that on our travels we have visited both the landward ends of a vast geological statement on the earth’s crust.

None of which would have had much significance to the first inhabitants of Holy Island, a small mountainous lump just off the east coast of Arran, nor even to Saint Molaise who in the 6th century dispensed justice from a well-appointed cave on its western shore. Since 1992 this place has been inhabited by Buddhist monks and now boasts the Tibetan Buddhist Centre for World Peace and Health. ‘Respect life and refrain from killing; respect other’s property and refrain from stealing; encourage health and refrain from intoxicants; speak only the truth; refrain from sexual activity that causes harm’ are the five rules that Lama Yeshe Losal Rinpoche asks the island’s visitors to observe. So swiftly running down the list and deciding that none of these would cause us any problems, we tossed Cirrus’ anchor overboard just a stone’s throw from the island’s west flank and watched it bury itself into the bottom three metres below.

To be honest, all we rather desperately wanted was a good night’s sleep as for the previous two we had been on a mooring in Arran’s Lamlash Bay where the sea had thrown us about all night. We had been out of bed countless times adjusting our mooring ropes, to suit the sudden north-easterly wind which brought long swells into the bay. Our bodies were shaken continuously as we lay trying to sleep, shuffled forward and back as our boat plunged headfirst into the waves then from side to side when she turned edge on to the rollers. After clear days spent fending off sunburn and long evenings admiring stunning sunsets until well after 10 ‘o clock we had rather taken it for granted that a peaceful night’s sleep would follow. But no such luck. Had we known, of course, that just across the bay we could snuggle up to Holy Island’s stony beach and find relative calm then we would have been there like a shot but it takes time to acquire such local knowledge and we are still strangers here.

Holy Island’s monks don’t have the place all to themselves as they share with flocks of Soay sheep, small brown things with long thin legs that make them look more like cartoon images of sheep than the real thing, and white-fleeced goats. Eriskay ponies also run wild wherever they please and in a small pond these tadpoles had clearly been spending their time in meditation instead of making themselves into frogs as mainland tadpoles would have done many weeks ago.

The monks indulge their artistic inclinations by carving and painting some of the larger exposed boulders that litter the landscape, creating brilliantly coloured images which peep out from the surrounding ferns in a cheeky sort of way. Visitors to the island are encouraged to respect all these things and such is the atmosphere of the place that, strangely enough, they do. A footpath leads to the island’s thousand foot summit where, on the top of the concrete trig point, many have left money, coins, exposed to the wind and rain. Some people might drop coins in a fountain as a misguided way to secure personal fortune but this is rather different, I feel, as this money is intended as a gift to the island’s inhabitants. Some magic has permeated this place and its spell infects those who come here. And long may it continue.

Two peaceful nights we spent in the lea of this place, quiet evenings where the whinny of a horse or the bleat of sheep carried across to us as the sun set. All the while our anchor chain quietly scooped up kelp from the bottom so that when we tried to bring it back on board a massive load of the stuff came up with it, pulling the bow down until we could reach over and ease each piece off. A brief sail across the Firth of Clyde has taken us to Troon where we shall leave Cirrus for a week to travel south by car so that we are on hand to supervise the first stage of our house renovation project.

Beautiful Bute

A hundred or so years ago when Clyde paddle steamers brought holiday-makers to Bute in their thousands, the masses were landed at the main quay in the little town of Rothesay. Waiting for them conveniently to hand then, just as it is today, is a squat building with a tiled roof topped with ornamental ironwork. Inside was a single room decorated in stunning ceramic tiles, a mosaic floor and fourteen impressive marble-topped urinal stalls, polished copper pipes leading from the glass-sided cisterns overhead. No expense has been spared to restore the Victorian toilets to their original remarkable condition, such that today they feature as one of Bute’s most visited tourist attractions. There is a website to visit and brochures are available in any of four languages full of useful information like ‘How to get there’ and (for those in a hurry) ‘Where is the nearest airport?’. The toilets may be both viewed and used, I might add, and unlike in Victorian times, today a Ladies has been added to make the experience complete. The only flaw I can detect is that in the publicity material there is no mention of the opening hours. To discover this you must stand right outside the building to read the sign, by which time you may be too late.

Bute seems to go out of its way to be as helpful as possible to tourists – footpaths are well sign-posted, information boards are dotted about the landscape and road signs like this one are not uncommon. Here you have a choice of travelling ten or four miles in opposite directions to get to the same place and I have no doubt that this makes perfect sense to someone living on the island.

A catamaran is a rare sight in many of the places we visit so we often find ourselves the centre of interest from other yachties, indeed something of a tourist attraction ourselves. Unlike many other boats the living space inside Cirrus is quite spacious and we frequently find ourselves inviting people aboard for a short tour below decks. In Rothesay harbour we were enchanted by Thomas and his sister Daisy, seen here with their mother, Susan, who explored every nook and cranny on board. Thomas insisted on taking our pictures for his school project so naturally his smiling face appears here as one of our favourite visitors. Hope you had a good holiday Thomas!

Whilst Cirrus is rarely the largest boat in a marina we felt like we were the mothership when a fleet of Cornish Shrimpers arrived for their annual rally (Shrimper Week), more than thirty identical boats all squeezed into the tiny harbour. These are small semi-open sailing boats, modelled on an old fishing boat and ruggedly built with varnished wooden masts and a long bowsprit, not your usual marina-fare at all. These boats can be trailed behind a car, which is how they arrived in Scotland from England, Holland, Germany, even Italy. As they came in they reminded us of ducklings, with their berthing antics providing Rothesay with much entertainment.

And finally…

Don’t you just hate it when this happens.

The Kyles of Bute

The arrival of the warmest weather this year has seen fit to bless us with has coincided with our floating around an idyllic natural playground apparently made just with the boating enthusiast in mind. We find ourselves asking ‘Where is everyone?’ because surely there is not a sailor in the world who would not yearn for such a vast area of deep yet sheltered water. Here there are islands to explore, places to drop the anchor, beautiful sunsets, clean sea breezes to breathe in and mile upon mile of water to sail in. There must be a catch or else every inch would be full to bursting with holiday-makers. It occurs to us that perhaps we are experiencing the brochure writers’ weather rather than the norm, but who are we to complain.

The deep channels, carved out long ago by glacial erosion, steep-sided with only slim stony beaches, are scattered with dwellings that have an apparent air of prosperity, something we find difficult to adjust to after so long in the Western Isles. Although the predominant colour scheme is still grey slates with whitewashed walls, houses dotted along the shoreline are taller and grander here, evidence of wealth speaking more plainly and ostentatiously. To understand the history of what we are seeing we have to go back to about 1820 when paddle steamers began making summer trips from Glasgow. With a fast train service from the city centre to the Clyde ports and regular scheduled steamers serving the whole of the Clyde estuary this area could almost be described as ‘commuter belt’. The heavily indented coastline makes travel by land convoluted and difficult but for over 100 years travel became possible for the masses and towns like Rothesay on Bute expanded into Victorian grandeur. For many years the wealthy built their holiday or weekend getaways here, grand palaces or more moderate hideaways, taking advantage of the relative peace and quiet. These houses still remain but as roads and cars proliferated the steamers became redundant and by the 1950s all had been replaced by inter-island ferries.

The land is thickly wooded, both Scots pine and deciduous trees growing on equal terms, and everywhere there is the pale purple of rhododendron in flower, an invading plant that tries to choke the life out of much of the indigenous flora but adds startling colour to the landscape. Cirrus drifts about from place to place, light breezes dominating the early part of the day then wind arriving from any direction, least of all that forecasted. I assume my favourite spot at the bow, legs dangling just above the water as our auto-helm steers us between island and shore, although it is often difficult to remember which is which. At Kames on the Cowal peninsula we shop for provisions so we can continue our circuit of the Isle of Bute whose sides plunge steeply into the Kyles on each side. Once again we make use of moorings that are provided by the local hotel, which offers an impressive menu to attract its customers.

We stay only one night as we have a much quieter spot in mind. An Caladh is a tiny natural harbour tucked away behind Eilean Dubh, one of many islands of this name. On shore here there was once a very grand house, a veritable castle designed by Robert Stevenson no less, but after it was later abandoned, the building deteriorated to such an extent that it was eventually demolished by the army as a weekend training exercise. There remains little more than a pile of stones today but the view down the East Kyle, presumably what attracted the wealthy owner in the first place, is just as stunning as ever.

Passing by on the shore path was a young lady attempting to walk the entire British coastline, for charity, starting and ending in London, apparently a distance of over 7,000 miles. Her task is a formidable one and in this area where the land bends north and south every few miles this must be terribly frustrating. It occurred to me that our own journey by sea would be doing something similar if we ducked in and out of every watery wrinkle and slipped behind every island.

After two nights at anchor alone in An Caladh there is a change in the weather, 24 hours of solid rain and a brisk north-easterly whining through the rigging. Out come our woollen jumpers and socks again as we prepare ourselves to move on. Perhaps we have discovered for ourselves the reason this area remains so beautifully unspoilt.

Unfinished business

Around the middle of July last year Kate and I were still on a mission to sail around the British Isles, an entirely self-imposed target but one we felt we could achieve during that year, even given our rather leisurely attitude to sailing and a somewhat snail-like progress. So on 19th July 2009 Cirrus Cat arrived at an important milestone, the entrance to the Crinan Canal, and we entered this passageway fully expecting to leave the Western Isles behind us and to move on into an area of water commonly just referred to as The Clyde. This was to be our gateway to southern Scotland and the south of England. However for reasons explained in this blog back in August last year, we never made it further than Bellanoch, a small settlement only half a mile into the canal, where we moored for far too long awaiting medical attention for my hernia.

This time round I have a fully functioning set of body parts, although as we entered the Crinan Canal for the second time last week there was still a slight worry that history might repeat itself before we got beyond last year’s furthest point. Kate and I both held our breaths as Bellanoch Bridge was swung slowly aside for us to pass so we could continue motoring onwards to the flight of five locks which take boats up to the highest point of the canal. Such reminiscences were soon forgotten, however, as Kate began to open sluices and push the enormous lock gates aside so I could steer Cirrus into the next watery cavern. Nine locks later (five up and four down) we nudged gently alongside a pontoon and said ‘No more!’ having passed both our physical and mental watersheds. This time we knew we were moving on. We have unfinished business with this canal and with the west coast of Britain.

A couple of days on and we are attached to a mooring buoy in Upper Loch Fyne at a place called Otter Ferry. Rather disappointingly this place is not heavily populated with small furry mammals – the ‘otter’ in the name is a corruption of ‘an oitir’ which refers to a long sand spit extending out into the loch – but it is a quiet and unspoilt place, a few houses and a pub which tries to capture its trade by providing temptingly free moorings for passing yachts.

After two nights we move on to visit Portavadie where some thirty years ago a small bay was hollowed out and deepened for the construction of oil rigs. As it turned out nothing was ever built here and today the bay holds one of the newest marinas on the Clyde, a place where we had been told to expect shower facilities better than anything else in the area, perhaps in all Britain. Life afloat changes one’s priorities and somehow the thought of endless hot water achieved just by rotating a knob soon begins to take on a whole new significance. Fortunately we were not to be disappointed here so after a thorough sluicing I decided to give Cirrus’ decks a similar wash, to remove the accumulated grit and dirt deposited on us as we came though the canal. Not for the first time I discovered just how much deck there is on a catamaran.

Summer has finally arrived here in Scotland, just as it has throughout the UK so our sailing now needs to be tempered with caution. Although our faces and hands are deeply suntanned, the first outing for pale legs and arms can always be something to regret at this time of year. But we have found another island to explore, Arran, so nothing can keep us indoors for long.

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