Category: Kerrera

Homecoming Scotland

We are back in Scotland. And before going any further I must repeat the words we have heard now from two separate sources about last winter here in Oban. I quote word for word and they both said, ‘It’s been a great winter’. This might sound a strange way to describe a long period of intense cold, plenty of fierce gales and more rain than runs off the back of your average duck in a year. But then this is the Western Isles, a place where many people live through choice and without any illusions about what the weather can do. The ferryman taking us across Oban Bay to the Isle of Kerrera put it best when he said ‘It’s just weather, after all’.

So what was last winter’s qualification for being ‘great’? Apparently it was the frequent sunny days, short though they were, and relative absence of cloud. It has been very cold here and when the mercury hangs around minus eight for too long then the sea starts to freeze over – we have heard tales of boats crunching though a skin of ice on their way to the island – but this sort of thing does not make for a bad winter up here. Our friends Tony and Joyce, who lived all winter in the marina on board their lovely wooden yacht, told us they wandered ashore for the New Year barbeque festivities but once the New Year was in and the echoes of ships’ sirens had faded away they scuttled back below decks again. It was minus ten degrees after all and the chill from the light breeze that had spring up made it just too cold to hang around. But still it was ‘great’.

Our first slice of the glory of the place came as we journeyed north from Glasgow on the bus. This three hour trip must qualify as the best way to spend £5 known to civilised man, especially when the sun is casting its longest shadows across the hills and valleys. Setting off at 6pm we travelled the whole journey in what the Scots call the gloaming, that extended period of twilight found in these higher latitudes, across a landscape that although predominantly brown, was full of many shades and textures of the hue. There was last year’s bracken (tan coloured) lying amongst tussocks of grass (straw coloured) all barely recovered from the crush of snow. There were brown trees just beginning to think about making leaves and there were acres of heather which hasn’t even started at all. The water in the lochs was a deep brown too although it was the splashes of silver and gold reflected from the low sun that most caught the eye. The amazing roadside scenery from Loch Lomond to Mull gave us the most spectacular ‘Welcome Home’ we could have wished for. And this was just the start.

We have been fortunate indeed to bring high pressure with us to Scotland, sunny skies and light winds which have raised the temperature far above its seasonal norm. As I write the Western Isles are the warmest part of the UK, hotter even than what we left behind on the Italian Riviera! And the sun has brought the gorse bursting into flower, filling the air with its exotic coconut fragrance. Yes, coconut.

Over in the marina, Cirrus Cat has been well looked after in our absence. Our belongings are all safe and dry and the new genoa, ordered last September and sewn impeccably together during the coldest months of the year, fits the boat snugly, an excellent example of the sailmaker’s skill.

We can hardly believe our fortune as we gaze about us.

Isle of Kerrera

The island on which we now reside is about 9 miles long and 4 across, just about the right size for an energetic day’s walk on decent footpaths but sadly with a hernia nagging at me this sort of walking is well out of bounds. Curiously, however, sitting astride a bicycle and pushing the pedals deploys muscles that are not affected by my condition and I am able to ride comfortably for many miles in complete comfort. So it was with this in mind that Kate and I set off on our foldies to try to reach the southern end of the island where Gylen Castle hangs precipitously over the bay to which it gives its name.
Kerrera is a fertile place but the steep hillsides speak of a violent volcanic past and a land sculpted by glaciers which retreated to leave ancient beaches raised many metres above the current sea level. Ancient sea cliffs jut out from the landscape and goats roam wild sharing the rough grazing with sheep, cattle, grouse, even a flock of pink-footed geese. The forty or so human residents are widely scattered around the island and in the past would have used boats to move about. Today there are connecting roads, if this word can be used, which twist their way across the landscape, but motorised vehicles are few; the rocks and potholes they encounter probably ensure that cars have a short lifespan here and quad bikes seem to be the most popular things to get around on. The absence of proper roads means that Kerrera is one of the few places in the UK where vehicles can still be driven unlicensed and untaxed, always assuming you can get past the local regulations which prevent you bringing your vehicle here in the first place.

It was the current warm, dry spell, our long-awaited Indian Summer, that had tempted us out on our folding bicycles, Grace and Jet. Striking out along the rough track leading south from the marina we soon found this deteriorating from hard packed stone to, well whatever the highland cattle decided it ought to be. We found ourselves weaving from side to side dodging wheel-wrecking obstacles as well as the living obstructions who wandered casually out of our way as we came close. Despite their fierce looking horns these creatures have brains that seem to react slower than a retreating glacier giving the impression, at least, of a docile nature. They are, of course, very beautiful animals with shaggy coats the colour of sunlit teak and always the fringe which completely hides their large eyes.
Our route dips across to the west side of the island following the shore so as to circumvent the impassable heights of several steep-sided peaks and the track’s condition deteriorates sharply. We find ourselves fording streams flowing freely across the road as our wheels skid and jump over loose boulders. We have to divert on foot across soft ground on being confronted by a brown lake of uncertain depth into which the track dives innocently but soon we are moving inland steeply rising through fields full of sheep who stare and chew thoughtfully as we pass. Many years ago my first encounter with sheep whilst cycling (me that is, not the sheep) led me to the conclusion that a sheep may not be able to recognise the human form so long as it is astride a bike but the moment the rider steps to the ground, it becomes recognisable and they will run away. I was interested to test this hypothesis here in Scotland and can now reveal that on Kerrera at least, the sheep are of a much higher order of intelligence. They moved graciously to the side even whilst I was mounted on the bike, seemed to give a little nod and a wink then calmly went back to their lunch.

Of course by this time my leg muscles were burning from pumping the pedals up the steep slope so I may have imagined all this. The track improved as we crested a summit on the spine of the island and we began our descent towards the public ferry on the east side. Here the green clad hills rolled away from us as we picked up speed to bump and bounce our way towards the better roads that encircle the southern end of the island. There is a farm at Lower Gylen converted to a small café which sells soup with homemade bread and tempting carrot cake with a pot of tea of your choice, a refreshment treasure trove after our efforts and one of the few commercial enterprises on the entire island.

All day the sun shone powerfully giving us a memorable day out. Our legs and the foldie-bikes had held up well although now having sampled the roads here we are unlikely to repeat the adventure. This place is really a walker’s paradise with a landscape rich in history and natural beauty, views to die for on a clear day and a real sense of isolation despite its proximity to the mainland.

Island life

The evening clouds boil over distant Mull, all of which augers rain and wind for the days ahead. Well it is August, statistically the wettest month, and I guess the rain has to fall somewhere.

Oban marina is, as everyone should know, not in Oban itself but is attached to the island one looks out at from the Oban shore, across the bay – the Isle of Kerrera. Few marinas have such beautiful surroundings (unless of course they are also located in the Western Isles) but island life brings its complications. There was a time, for instance, when Kerrera was a transit station between the Island of Mull and the mainland and cattle made the final leg of their journey to the mainland from Rhu Cruidh (Cow Point) at Ardantrive – the place of the swimming. Oh for a good boat then! Many a cow would have been surprised to discover for the first time in its life that it had an innate ability to swim, something it shares with most other animals, although sadly not with humans.

Goods delivered to the marina today are placed in the blue box on the north pier in Oban. (I felt a picture was rather wasted but imagine a roadside sandbox in navy blue and you have it.) The ferryman picks up any package placed in or near the box then acts as postman, a system that relies on honesty and local knowledge and now having put it to the test, I can confirm that it does actually work. Since pulling on ropes of any sort is now forbidden to me, something I have in common, incidentally, with one seventh of the seamen in Nelson’s navy who would have been found wearing support trusses to provide comfort from their own hernias, I am engaged in some refurbishment work inside Cirrus, removing moribund plastic headlining and replacing with cork tiles. It was the tiles that found their way here via the blue box.

Marina life is endlessly fascinating, watching boats come and go – berthing attempts are always entertaining, newcomers staggering about on sea legs after many days on board, chatting with our new neighbours across the pontoon or else on the ferry to the shops on the mainland. We slowly come to be regarded as fixtures in a world of transients, something permanent, always there when you come by.

Just three boats along on our pontoon lies Shafa, Dave’s modest craft. Dave lives aboard with his cat, Sukie, and uses his cameras to take dramatic pictures of some of the boats sailing around these waters. This is one of his. He has a good eye for a shot as can be seen from the gallery of pictures on his own ScotA website.

When he insisted on pointing his lens my way, then suggested that a bucket of cold water thrown my way would add to the drama I felt things might have gone too far. Fortunately I managed to dissuade him.

Like our fellow marina dwellers, tonight we batten the hatches securely as there is a gale coming our way. The weather whisks in rapidly from the Atlantic, touches us briefly then moves on. When there is rain, which is often, it never seems to linger and no matter how heavy it falls it always runs away safely. The sea we float on never seems to overflow, which is nice.