There are 162 islands is this part of the world. I know this because we carry on board a book written by Hamish Haswell-Smith who describes them all in wonderful detail. He defines an island as something over 100 acres which is not connected to the mainland by bridge or causeway, even at low water. This is a definition that excludes some pretty large and significant land masses, like Skye for instance, but clearly you have to make some choices if you set out on a task such as his.
Rather than try to visit everything we too are being selective, our choice being governed by the wind and the weather as much as anything else.
But unlike Hamish we recognise that there are some bits of mainland that are equally worth seeing so our compass is even larger than his. We make a return visit to Loch Drumbuie on the Morvern peninsula, its narrow entrance widening into a natural safe haven for yachts but with no facilities to offer except a bottom of silt into which an anchor can plunge. A high pressure system is centred over us bringing morning fogs which can linger and make navigation difficult. Fortunately our GPS system operates regardless of the visibility so we don’t get lost in the
Stripes of mist hover about us as we motor out of the Sound of Mull towards the island of Coll, a windswept hummock of rock and heather with a human population of only a hundred or so, more when the holiday cottages are full. In the centre of the eastern shore is a bay where the main settlement lies and the ferry pauses briefly each day, as do a few yachts like ours since the island boasts a hotel, shop and café in addition to its many sheep.
The islanders wave hello as you pass by whilst the sheep stand and gaze or scratch themselves thoughtfully (or maybe this was an obscene gesture).
A northerly wind arrived overnight, a fair wind for just about anywhere except Coll where it brought a sudden temperature drop which prompts most of the boaties to up anchor and leave. I may have mentioned before that downwind sailing is our thing, so naturally we were headed south, across the Passage of Tiree to find shelter behind the twin peaks on the Isle of Ulva, an island off the west coast of Mull whose name means wolf island in old Norse. The southern shore is dotted about with rocky skerries through which we weave our way until we can drop anchor in Cragaig Bay, as safe an anchorage as one can find. A ‘cleared’ village, now only walls and doorways remaining, stands onshore as a sad reminder of what took place all over the highlands and wild goats gaze down on us from the mountain slopes above. Although sheltered from the northerly wind, strong gusts sweep down on us buffeting
Cirrus this way and that but we suffer this as the view is stunning, mountains (on Mull) to the left and islands to the right, as far as the eye can see, some sharp in the clear air and others faded with greater distance. Even three photos stitched side by side cannot do justice to what we are seeing from our companionway door. Every piece of land we see is another island and they stretch from ear to ear. The clarity of the air makes everything as sharp as a pin but although the sun shines we huddle inside out of the cold wind. All this and not a human soul to be seen.
What makes this place feel even more remote is that we have no mobile phone reception, no access to the internet and no broadcast radio reception either. We are alone with the seals, the goats, the gulls and the terns plus the cuckoo singing away nearby.
After two nights at anchor we move on south passing through the Sound of Iona, early enough in the day to miss most of the trip boats taking tourists to see the monastery and the cathedral there, then turn east to pass along the south coast of Mull. Sailing at more than seven knots we are joined by a solitary dolphin who ‘plays’ around us for thirty minutes or so. Easily two and a half metres long he keeps just in front of our bow, close to the surface, sometimes showing us his white belly, just for fun, then flipping over and surfacing, blowing a sardine-scented breath before drawing another lung-full and diving. He comes alongside, tilting his head to look up at our deck where we stand spellbound then races ahead again between our twin hulls. He seems to like the speed we are going or the shape and colour of our boat, has no difficulty keeping pace, and is as curious about us as we are about him. Finally he has enough and we wave farewell.
Later the northerly wind deserts us, making it feel much warmer but Cirrus slows down so miss our tide in the Sound of Luing. We press on anyway and arrive at this constricted passage between the isles of Luing and Lunga just when the sea is rushing northwards at over five knots. Our short passage south, engine at full speed, starts very slowly as current tries to hold us back, boiling and churning past us, but eventually we gain on it and escape round the south end of Luing to safer waters and into Craobh Marina. Our return to mainland Britain is complete.