Busy Day

It was a promising start to the day. I woke after a peaceful night at anchor in Sandaig Bay off the Sound of Sleat to blue sky and quite gentle northerly winds. Since I had to wait for the tide to turn before I could pass through the narrow Kyle Rhea between Skye and the mainland, I spent the morning on domestic chores. I stripped off and washed from head to foot, including all the intimate places that need special attention–I am always proud that I can do a full body wash in two inches of water in a small bowl. Then I shaved my month old beard–it was quite respectable, but very grey, and made me look like my father in a way I found disturbing. I washed some socks and pinned them to the guard rail to dry. And generally tidied the cabin.

After lunch I hauled up the anchor and continued north. I was pleased to find I had got the calculations right so I entered Kyle Rhea just as the tide was turning, and carried the tide on through the Kyle of Localsh and under the Skye bridge. And then things got a bit challenging.

Out in the wider waters of the Inner Sound the north wind was sharper and colder, and now was blowing against the tide I had used so favourably. It had also backed from northeast to north and so was dead on the nose for the course I had planned round the north of Longay and Scalpay to an anchorage in the south of the Sound of Raasay. Biggish waves were rolling toward Coral, and I realized how lucky I had been with the calm waters of the trip so far.

I could have turned back, but of course, I didn’t. It was a bit of a scramble in the rough waters to set Coral as close to the wind as she would go, but with Aries looking after the steering we charged into the waves at around 5 knots while I hunkered down under the sprayhood. A quick tack north took us clear of Longay, and maybe clear of the reefs beyond: should I carry on, put in another tack if I needed, and leave them to leeward, or reach downwind past the green buoy and leave them to windward? I decided to take the shorter route, past the green buoy.

I had avoided reefing while closehauled in order to keep as much power through the waves as possible. As soon as I turned off the wind and we hurtled toward the buoy at over 7 knots, I realized we would be messing about close to a lee shore with too much sail up. Wrong decision, maybe, but too late now. Aries couldn’t cope, so I took over and steered as cleanly as I could toward the buoy. We cleared it successfully, then again had a bit of a scramble, with the rocks rather close, to get Coral back on the wind and sailing more stably. Am I frightened at such moments? I confess my heart was in my mouth for a second or two as Coral surged toward the rocks rather than clawing away from them; but it is later, in the middle of the night, that the “what ifs?” really arise! At the moment of action one is too busy.

But the day was by no means over. I reached the shelter of the southern end of the Sound of Raasay and tried a couple of places to anchor, both of which were unsatisfactory–still too exposed and uncomfortable–so I had the anchor up and down twice. The two lochs nearby didn’t seem very good alternatives so I decided to press on north the extra three miles to the shelter of Portree.

Three miles didn’t seem very much, really, even into the wind. But the Sound is completely open to the north, and not only had the wind increased but it was sending rollers down the sound, some of which were breaking. With the engine at full revs we moved forward well enough, but pitching quite spectacularly. Many of the waves Coral was able to shoulder aside with just a bit of spray. But the bigger ones seem to come in pairs: the first would lift her bows high in the air, so she came crashing down into the next one. Sometimes she hit it foursquare, sending huge sheets of spray to each side; other times she seemed to plough into the second wave, so that a mass of solid spray would hurtle over the deck, onto and over the sprayhood. The cockpit sole was awash with water, the sprayhood started leaking, the crockery was crashing around in its racks below so I was sure that everything would be broken. Yet on and on we went, wave after unrelenting wave until we could turn into the wide entrance of the inlet which leads to Portree harbour–although, of course, this meant turning across the waves, setting Coral rolling as well as pitching. All this time I stood in the cockpit looking over the sprayhood, watching each wave and watching Coral’s response. My face was covered in salt, my glasses thick with spray, but I didn’t feel it right to crouch in the cockpit while she was doing all this hard work. It was then I noticed how cold my face was without a beard!

Then the sudden bliss of calm water, the visitors’ moorings under the wooded promontory on the north side of the harbour well out of the wind, the long pick up line that was easy to catch with the boathook, and the substantial mooring line that I could just drop over the cleat.

And then it all seemed worth it: the world had offered a series of challenges and Coral and I had risen to them. My arms ached, my shoulders were stiff, my neck seemed to have a crick in it; and I was so very tired. And while there were mistakes along the way, and while others might have made different choices, I was pleased to be in a truly sheltered place for the night.

Wet morning off Eigg

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A slight swell from the south east sets Coral pitching, gently at first, then more violently as her own rhythm entrains with the waves: halliards rattle a bit, crockery moving uneasily in its racks. Then the entrainment fades and the movement is quieter again. All through the morning this sequence repeats: now more energetic, with the winch handle knocking as it moves with each pitch; now the waves splash up as the stern smacks into the water; now the movement slows and it is quiet again.

Around Coral the rocks are emerging with the dropping tide, their columnar basalt structure showing clearly, the weed that was floating on the surface now lying flattened on the tops. The swell moves past Coral and breaks ever so gently on the rockfaces, sending out the hollow sound of breaking water.

Behind that there is that silence again, the silence through which each pinprick of rain landing on the sprayhood seems to stand out distinctly; in which the twittering of shorebirds and (of course) the cry of the oystercatchers are distinct entities to themselves.

It is still very wet, but now the clouds have lifted somewhat and some individual cloud shapes can be seen. The horizon is clear, and I can see a yacht well out in the sound, although the mainland is obscured. Toward the land the new ferry pier makes its mark, I can’t make out any detail, but the strong horizontal line is marked by thin vertical slashes of lights and masts, with the wide sloping slipway running down to the water. Houses, a bit of roadway, then the wilder, rougher hillside of Eigg.

Steve has gone off on his own to explore the caves and buy some milk. I am on my own for a few hours. After the companionable discussions over first cups of tea and what to have for breakfast (boiled egg, baked beans, pitta bread and orange juice) my attention moves out to the more than human world around me. This process of writing itself feels like a kind of conversation in the world.

Maybe it also gives the reader something about a dull, damp morning, anchored off Eigg. I might say, “what a horrid day”; or I might take the opportunity to look more closely.

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Canna

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Canna is low and quite fertile compared with Rum, and lying to the west escapes much of the rainfall. Walking through a wet meadow full of buttercups and clover it is the silence that I find so remarkable: it has depth and spaciousness through which the cry of a lamb, the call of an oystercatcher, the twittering of woodland birds, even the sense of my own heartbeat, are all thrillingly clear.

Steve’s call, “Peter!” is almost shocking as it cuts through. I turn to see him pointing high up in the crags. Following his pointing arm I see an eagle, flapping hard to gain height and avoid the mobbing crows. It then soars across toward Compass Hill, circles for a while, then seems to swoop down so we lose sight of it against the hillside.

Later, we walk across the machair on Sanday among a profusion of wildflowers to look across the Sound of Canna to the steep cliffs at the west side of Rum. The rain has blown through and the air is marvelously clear, and looking back we have a clear view of the basalt terraces of Canna and beyond the west coast of Skye

Among basalt outcrops
Spotted orchid, ragged robin–
Mind the heavy footfall!

Blogs posted courtesy of Cafe Canna–most thoroughly recommended!

Loch Scavaig again

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“Aye, and to think I have to spend an hour and a half every day just sitting here,” said the boatman with a laugh, gesturing at the scenery in Loch Scavaig in response to our greeting as we tied the dinghy to the steps.

The weather forecast had offered ‘sunny intervals’ but it was dull and overcast as we left the anchorage at Loch Scresort on Rum that morning. With Steve now on board I was revisiting the Small Ises again and having the benefit of a second look. We had spent the previous day with Trudi, the Ranger on Rum, walking into the interior in search of eagles. Unfortunately the clouds had descended, and we got cold and wet in the penetrating light rain and, as Trudi told us, eagles don’t like flying in the rain and cloud. So we decided to cruise around the sound between Rum and Skye in the hope that we might catch sight of eagles from the sea, and maybe dolphins and minke whales as well.

As we cleared the island and picked up the northwesterly breeze the cloud hung low over Rum and gathered ominously over the Cuillin. As we hauled in the sheets and set off toward Skye, a patch of blue sky developed on the horizon and for the next hour or so expanded, so that in time both the mountains of Rum and the Cuillin were clear of cloud, standing sharply against the sky. As we passed the north side of Rum Steve pointed high in the sky: unmistakably an eagle flying down the valley and out of the sound. We followed it for just a few moments until it was lost it in the high cloud.

Then the light shifted again. Clouds gathered, the mountains of Rum covered, and the Cuillin turned into a dark and brooding mass. We tacked back over toward Rum and beyond to Canna, enjoying the sailing and the wildlife: maybe there had been no encounter with a pod of dolphins but we did see some in the distance, lots of guillemots and shearwater, a puffin and a skua.

Toward lunchtime we turned back toward Skye and made our way north of the flat island of Soay into the anchorage at Lock Scavaig. On our way in Steve was sure he saw a whale breeching in the outer loch, and of course we passed close by the seals basking on the rocks, including one or two babies still covered in fur. Now at high water neaps it felt there was much more room to anchor close to the waterfall and well clear of the rocks. Just as we settled, Steve followed a large bird with white markings across the huge rockface to the south and east of the anchorage–surely a sea eagle. So we felt well content with our wildlife watching.

After lunch in the cockpit we motored ashore for our brief and friendly encounter with the boatman, and walked past the rapids that drain the freshwater Loch Coruisk into the sea. “Cross the stepping stones for the best view of the loch,” the boatman advised us, so we clambered over the rough crossing until we came to a small shingle beach from where we could see over the water toward the jagged mountains at the far end. We sat separately for a while in the deep silence until the midges drove us to move. I walked over to where he was sitting; he looked up and simply said, “This is it, isn’t it?”

Loch Coruisk

Loch Scavaig

IMG_2752High pressure and light winds make it possible, almost obligatory, to visit Loch Scavaig, a celebrated dramatic anchorage. From Sandaig Bay, where I spent the night, it was a quick reach across to the Point of Sleat, then a long beat to windward, at first with a fresh wind, but as I approached the Cuillins from the south the wind dropped and I set the big No.1 genoa for the last few tacks. With a dry northerly wind, there were no clouds on the mountains of Rum nor on the Cuillin. From a distance I could see little white dots, the sails of yachts, creeping along the bottom of the towering rock faces. The mountains themselves are dark, occasionally lit with fragments of sunshine.

The entrance to the anchorage is rock-strewn and requires care to identify the features that guide you in. It is low water springs, so nothing looks at all like the description in the Sailing Directions; what should be islands are attached to the land, and rocks that are usually hidden rise clear out of the water. Slowly and carefully I made my way as directed, finally passing the tip of the last island, leaving that rock that is usually underwater to port, into the pool and with some difficulty anchored Coral securely.

The anchorage is surrounded on three sides by mountains, rising directly from the shore in terraces; the fourth side is sheltered by a rocky island. Opposite the entrance is a waterfall, falling past boulders down a crack in the cliff; in places the water tumbles over the rock face, in others buries itself being fallen debris face. The air is filled with the soft sound of tumbling water–more than a trickle, less than a downpour. Behind the waterfall I catch sight of a line of jagged peaks that must be Meall na Cuillice, while to the east, behind the rock climbers’ boffy, rises what appears to me as much more lumpy rock, curiously patterned with fissures and gullies. I think it rises to Squrr na Stri (and I am not sure if the names really matter, but they did seem to want to be included).

My geology book, The Hidden Landscape, tells me that these rocks are gabbro, “black or darkly green with crystals as coarse as granite, but dominated by rather dark minerals.” These are ignatius rocks that poured out of volcanos and have resisted weathering ever since. It is a dark, brooding place, made ever more so by the gusts of wind that, even in calm conditions like today, suddenly channel without warning down through the gullies, blow patterns of disturbed water across the anchorage, and swing the yachts around on their anchor chains.

For even though this place is remote, in a sense truly wild, it is also strangely busy. Six yachts have visited, four appear to be staying the night; several tourist launches have come and gone, dropping off passengers at the metal landing stage, and collecting those that are waiting. And a party of young rock climbers are making themselves at home in the bothy; I watch them collecting driftwood and now can see blue smoke rising from their fire.

Early evening, having decided Coral was safe, and feeling happier now the tide had risen and there seemed more space between the rocks, I took the dinghy ashore and walked to the freshwater Loch Coruisk. Surrounded by huge boulders, their crystalline structure easier to see close up, the loch’s still water reflects the darkness of the mountains; a burn tumbles from it south end down the rock face into the sea.

I don’t quite know what to make of this place. It is spectacular, dramatic, sublime rather than picturesque. And yet I feel that its being-for-itself, its sense of its own presence, is overshadowed by the use we humans have put it to as a tourist and recreation destination. I am reminded of my experience of the Blaskett Islands off the west coast of Ireland. When I first visited them in April four years ago I experienced them as astonishing and overawing; I wrote in Spindrift that “these islands have an integrity of their own beyond the grasp of human comprehension”. But when I visited again last year, in the high holiday season, they were busy with visitors whose presence seemed to overshadow that sense of integrity. I am also reminded of the controversies surrounding the large numbers of people who now climb Mount Everest. What happens to the sacredness of a place when it becomes a destination?

It is clearly ridiculous and snobby to want to have the place to myself; and it is clearly contradictory to rely on the well-researched directions in the Sailing Directions but nevertheless expect unadulterated wildness. I have no answers, but the puzzle perturbs me.

Early next morning when I step out into the cockpit everything is completely still. It is high tide, the pool is full to the brim. The yachts’ anchor chains hang vertically into undisturbed water; their flags flop listlessly. The water surface reflects the rock faces that rise steeply all around. As I look up I see that the sun is just catching the peaks, and clouds drift almost imperceptibly across the sky. The sound of the waterfall fills the air, save for the occasional call of an oystercatcher–those birds seem determined you know of their presence. Then a noise somewhere between a cough and a sneeze alerts me, and I scan the surface for signs of a seal. There are none for a while until I notice a pattern of concentric ripples on the surface, and through my binoculars see the smooth head, black eyes, and whiskers just above the surface.

A figure wearing a bright red top emerges from the bothy–the tiny dot of red both complementing and contradicting the natural greens, browns and greys. My attention is drawn to the other bright human artefacts–a couple of buoys and the life-ring by the landing stage. Smoke rises momentarily from the fireplace near the bothy, then vanishes.

Somehow the busy-ness of yesterday evening has retreated, and the place seems to be asserting its own identity again; or is it that I am more open to it? Then the neighbouring yacht starts its engine and gets its anchor up, the crew on the bows calling instructions back to the skipper and making quite a fuss about getting all the mud of the chain. We exchange greetings as the pass Coral and as the leave through the narrow entrance an orange RIB enters and drops off more walkers or climbers at the landing stage. The human day has begun.

And this blog posting was going to end there, but on the way out I passed a dozen or more seals lying around on the flat top of the rock called Sgeir Doigich. Ahead of Coral two or three more seals were swimming around: they dived under the water when they saw her coming in a lazy, almost slow motion, downward arc. One might say that they all thought the loch still belonged to them.

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All this must pass

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I set out from Mallaig late in the morning, making for Canna, the most westerly of the Small Isles. It was a lovely day, sunny intervals, with the sea smooth and the wind just strong enough to push Coral along pleasantly. I looked back up Loch Nevis, across to the Sleat Peninsular, and ahead to the island of Rum–actually at the cloud which enveloped it right down to sea level so that the island itself was hidden. “This isn’t going to last,” I told myself, “there is going to be rain soon.” And then the wider thought popped into my mind, “All this must pass”.

I am reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s book The Sixth Extinction. This is a first-rate journalist’s account of the many ways in which the human impact on the planet is directly or indirectly brining about the disappearance of other species and ecosystems. Frogs are disappearing because international travel is spreading a fungus around; coral reefs are threatened by ocean acidification and warming; many creatures are threatened by climate change; and more still by the destruction and fragmentation of habitats. Most megafauna, as well as our Neanderthal cousins, were wiped out shortly (in evolutionary terms) after humans arrival in their territory. The book is engaging and deeply alarming.

I have also been reading Charles Eistenstein’s The More Beautiful World our Hearts Know is Possible. In some considerable contrast, is an argument that we humans need to move away from a story of separation to a story of interbeing. In many ways this is a new take on the arguments for a participatory worldview that I and others have made for many years. Nothing wrong with that, and he does pay tribute to old hippies toward the end. One of his most important points is that many of our actions to ‘save the world’ derive from the story of separation, and in that sense can be seen as contribution to the problem they attempt to address. I suspect Eistenstein would see Kolbert as still coming from a story of separation

But the idea that a more beautiful world is possible needs to be set against the reality of the extinction spasm. Because Kolbert’s point, as she clearly articulates at the end of her book, is that that we are part of an extinction event that began early in human prehistory, is caused by human presence and is accelerated by modernity. The very things that make us humans–our use of symbol and language, “our restlessness, our creativity, our ability to cooperate to solve problems and complete complicated tasks”, changes the world. And it changes the world in a way that pushes beyond the limits of the current ecological order, just as surely as an asteroid does.

I find myself wondering what quality of interbeing we can have on a catastrophically impoverished planet.

All this will pass:
This moment of insight
This calm sea and gentle winds
This sunshine and showers, these patterns of clouds
These homely houses with their gardens and fields
These towns, harbours, ships
These waters and all that live in them
And this human man.

Even the mountains come and go.

As I worked Coral past the Point of Sleat and round the west of Rum we were blown around by squally rain showers. For half an hour or so my attention was taken with the needs of sailing. Then the squalls passed and Coral settled down again to a comfortable amble. In the clear air that so often follows rain, the sea turned the colour of lead, the sky a washed out blue, separated by the sharp, hard, razor slash of the horizon.

All this must pass, this moment and these mountains. And yet there remains this instant of awareness and beauty.

Sailing North

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I spent a couple of day on Ulva, off the west coast of Mull, walking, resting and watching eagles. Ulva is a lovely island but tinged with human sadness, as this was one of the places where there was a truly brutal clearance of the crofters, and signs of their life here remain, including a beautiful and substantial church designed by the celebrated Thomas Telford.

After a night in Craigaig Bay, a remote anchorage among rocks and islets right underneath where the eagles are said to rest (and one glided overhead just as the evening closed) I had to move on rather abruptly: gusty winds from the east plucked the anchor from its holding. For half an hour or so I was busy retrieving the anchor, avoiding rocks, heaving the dinghy on board and securing it, and piloting safely into the deep waters of Loch an Neal. But once I was safe and had got my breath back, I realised that the conditions were excellent for moving north, so I set course for Ardnamurchan Point and beyond. After a wet night at Arisaig, still with a fresh wind but in wonderful sunshine, I decided to take a long route on to the fishing port of Mallaig by going round the island of Eigg.

Eigg is one of the ‘small isles’–Muck, Rum, Eigg and Carna–none of which are actually particularly small. I sailed between Muck and Eigg, turned north between Eigg and Rum, anchored for lunch in a sandy bay, and continued on to Mallaig by evening. This must have been among the most beautiful sailing days in my experience: Fresh wind, calm seas, glorious scenery: the cliffs of Eigg, the mountains of Rum, the Cuillin on Skye in the distance, with wonderfully changing cloud patterns as the day warmed up and clouds gathered around the peaks.

This is picturesque scenery in the fullest sense of that word: It has been written about, painted, photographed, been the context of historical horrors and heroism, and so it feels quite difficult to take it in afresh, for itself, so to speak. Whatever I write feels cliched. And yet surely our human ability to appreciate such spectacular beauty is also part of the way “wilderness treats me as a human being”.

Just to make sure I wasn’t complacent, late that afternoon as I approached Mallaig, dark clouds from the south brought winds gusting round the mountains. After a struggle to keep Coral into the wind while I got the sails down, the port entrance was closed to allow a ferry passage through. I was relieved to find the visitors buoys unoccupied and easy to moor to, and enjoyed a really good fish and chips in the pub that evening.

I do like to gaze at the Cuillins
I do like to sail on the Minch
But I got very cross
At the ferry boat’s wash
And now I just want fish and chips!

Inch Kenneth

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Mood swings. I am upset and furious that the outboard doesn’t work again, but then pleased with myself when I see how to mend the broken rowlock on the dinghy. Tired and grumpy, I wonder again what on earth I am doing here all on my own. One of the challenges is to keep in mind that, just because it is a great privilege to be away like this, I do not have to be happy, or enjoying myself, or certainly not having transcendental experiences ALL THE TIME. Getting tired and grumpy is part of being human and so part of the human pilgrimage.

I have moved north to an interesting anchorage, set between Inch Kenneth, which is a low and grassy island, and the huge cliffs at the entrance Loch na Keal on the west coast of Mull. The island is sedimentary rock (“triassic conglomerates and limestone outcrops broken down to give good soil”, according to the book Scottish Islands); while the cliffs on Mull are volcanic in origin, Triassic basalt weathered into terraces.

Between these two, the hard and the friable, is this sheltered anchorage, quite a large pool, although guarded by reefs that make entry challenging (especially with an inaccurate hand bearing compass!)

Anchor down, I look toward the cliffs and the three tiny white cottages that lie by the road along the shore. Three white rectangles, in some ways quite insignificant, but in other ways a testament to human abilities to create living space in the most unlikely places.

I decided to stay put for a day, to do nothing. I need to take time to settle into this pilgrimage now I am really into it. I don’t have to justify myself by ‘going somewhere’ or by having wonderful experiences I can blog about. Take it gently, John Crook used to say about solo retreats. So I allowed myself to wake late and have a leisurely morning–strip off for full body wash, breakfast, wash up and tidy, half hour formal meditation. Then I rowed ashore and explored the grassy island, enjoying the wildflowers and the views–for a moment I thought I saw a pair of eagles, but realized that they were (only!) ravens.

Thursday was wet and windy, I saw no point in getting wet and uncomfortable, so I stayed another day. I meditated longer, opening myself to the cliffs. With the rain spitting and fresher winds rocking the boat concentration is difficult, to say nothing of the stream of my thoughts demanding attention. But I do get glimpses of a time scale at the limits of human imagination. These cliffs, according to my book, are geologically quite recent. Sequential volcanic eruptions laid down the layers that over time have eroded into terraces stepping down the hillsides. These rocks have been here since before humans evolved. And yet those little cottages and houses look so permanent, so part of the scene. My sense of impatience at wanting to be getting along, wanting to do something, while these cliffs just stay present. “Thinking like a mountain”, indeed!

“Wilderness treats me like a human being”. So goes the koan. This meditation gives me a sense of our human impatience, our restlessness, our wanting things to be the way we want them to be. And the mountains and the weather just keep doing their thing, Meandering is just that, going with what is. I had intended to move, but I will stay here until the rain stops.

I do have thoughts about quitting, about saying this is all to uncomfortable, too challenging. I occasional have a sense of such loneliness that I can imagine how a person might go quite crazy. The pilgrimage is a confrontation with the self, with the skin encapsulated ego, with the project-driven and achievement-oriented modern human. Every project that comes to mind is a diversion from the challenges of the moment: Let’s go further up the Loch, let’s go to Tiree, let’s make sure we see an eagle by going on a nature tour, let’s get the outboard fixed…. But if needed I could stay here a week with all the food and water available.

So the engagement with the larger world, even in a few minutes of meditation on the cliffs, or with the cliffs, puts the self into a perspective, helps quieten the thrusting ego.

I am also writing haiku that I am sharing with my friend David

Eocine basalt cliffs
pattering rain on sprayhood
one modern man

Fresh Nor’easterlies
cold hard rain
I wait

I am finding there is a discipline in writing haiku that is itself meditative. Haiku (forget the five/seven/five format) I take as a distillation of a moment, removing all that is not essential in an intimate focusing. It is a little like a koan in reverse: instead of having to crack the koan, one has to crack the present experience into haiku.

By staying here these couple of days I have been able to really attend to these basalt cliffs: watching them through the day as the sun moves from shadowing them in the morning to lighting their peaks with orange in the evening; noticing the details of the streams tumbling down and glimmering where the light catches the falling water; seeing the contrast between the cottages and farm buildings at the foot and the enormity of their 200-300 metres drop; understanding their origin by reading the geology book. I have also been developing a sense of time: these rocks are geologically quite young, yet they were here long before human evolution can be said to have begun, have weathered and reduced in size.

All this attention provides me with a tiny sense of intimacy, of being in place rather than of watching scenery.

Sound of Iona

A ketch, Corryvrecken, joined me overnight in the anchorage. At breakfast time, with a fresh southerly wind, the swell was coming into the anchorage and we were both rolling around rather a lot. I watched Corryvrecken leave and decided to follow her. After some turbulence on the way out, Coral settled down westward, close hauled, Aries in charge, following in her wake. I was surprised how easy it was to pass them, for even though they had a reef in the main they were still much bigger than Coral. Coral romped past all the rocks at the south west corner of Mull and was into the Sound of Iona quicker than I expected. It was murky, but I was able to line up the cathedral tower on the leading line, but then, looking around to see where Corryvrecken was, I realized that fog was blowing up from the south.

I caught sight of the first green buoy, but soon fog closed around Coral and I could see nothing ahead of me except the blur of a ferry boat crossing the sound. Then the two buoys that mark the south side of the sandbank emerged, and I set a compass course for the entrance to the next landmark at Bull Hole. The fog cleared for a few moments, but before I could properly rejoice it closed in again. No way was I going to cross back across the sound to my planned anchorage, so I went up Bull Hole. With the fresh wind against tide it was a horrible place, stream rushing through making standing waves. Nowhere, it seemed, to anchor, rocks and moorings everywhere. I turned back and managed to drop the anchor amongst the fishing buoys at the ruined peer.

With wind against tide, Coral would not settle, and I had an uncomfortable long wait. Then the fog suddenly lifted. I was relieved that the anchor was not fouled on a fishing buoy and soon was across the sound by the beach north of the village on Iona. It took several attempts to find the right depth, then to find a place where the anchor would hold in sand rather than drag through weed. By the time I was settled I had hauled the anchor up and down five times that day.

That evening I took the dinghy ashore and walked along the beach. It is bliss! pink pebbles, a field of buttercups, Jacobs sheep. The gulls and oystercatchers screeching their objection to my presence on their beach. I walked right to the end, where there is a sound between Iona and the north rocks, looking along the coast of Mull, to Staffa and the Treshish Isles. Yellow sand, turquoise water. Silence except for birdsong. What could be better?

Iona in June
Buttercup meadow
Six oystercatchers screeching

Anchorage at Rubh’ Ardalanish

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It is straightforward, coming from the east, to find the point of Rubh’ Ardalanish from Carsaig Bay–I set a waypoint and the GPS directed me there–although today with a short swell and no wind to steady the boat, it is a rather uncomfortable little journey. The pilot book instructions seem pretty straightforward too: do not cross the 20 metre line until you have identified the rock Sgeir an Fheidh–which at most states of tide appears as two rocks. Then line up the western edge of the rock with the bottom of the valley on Mull until the opening to the anchorage on the east side opens clear.

But it is quite a performance, with Coral rolling around in the swell, to get the mainsail down and stowed, to lift the anchor onto the bow roller ready for dropping, to make sure the chain is running free. All that done, I approach the bay cautiously, keeping an eye on the depth sounder (I decide to take 20 meters as ten fathoms). Coral rolls in the cross swell extravagantly as I brace my feet each side of the cockpit, holding the pilot book in one hand and the tiller in the other. Which rock is that Sgeir an Fheidh? That one? It looks much bigger than I imagined. Ah, there is the stream tumbling down a little valley, yes, that all makes sense with the chartlet. There are rocks all around so I take her in steady, but if I throttle back too much she won’t have enough steerage way. Is that the opening to starboard, it looks very narrow!

But the way into the anchorage opens up as I approach the shore, a wider entrance than I imagined–indeed, the whole bay is bigger than I imagined–and I steer Coral through the passage between the rocks. Plenty of depth, the water is suddenly quite smooth and plenty of room for a little boat like Coral to swing. I circle round to check depths and soon have her anchored in 25 feet of water.

Then I look around. The anchorage is landlocked in all directions except due west, and that is protected by the rocks and reefs outside. The shoreline all around is a tumble of granite boulders, most of them showing clearly in the pink tint they carry at this westerly end of the Ross of Mull.

This is the kind of place that immediately feels like a blessing: safe, quite cosy, and even in the drizzle that starts to fall as soon as we are settled, breathtakingly beautiful. Just astern of Coral on the shore, a line of boulders, their pink faces crisscrossed with fissures in a way presumably set by the stresses created when the granite spewed molten out of the earth. They show no identifiable pattern, but I remember how my old friend Brian Goodwin used to describe these as following a mathematically chaotic form. As I watch this chaotic fissured tumbling I feel my mind come into a sense of peace and quiet.

Is that the right rock
To line up with the stream ashore?
Safe anchorage.

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