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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Comments

  1. Melanie says:

    I watched you sail out of Mallaig this morning and felt envious, not just of the sailing but the freedom of being at sea and leaving the busyness of the port behind. But there was also something very enjoyable about seeing you and Steve disappearing off into this dramatic scenery and trying to work out which sails were yours. My walk along the silver sands was alternately isolated and populated, each little beach bringing something different. I hadn’t taken enough water with me and Merlin and I were both thirsty for the last hour of our walk, and that made me think a lot about this moving in and out of what we regard as humdrum. In one bay, a young couple were up to their waists in the still cold water fishing for something to cook for their supper. Back at the campsite I’ve been reading about Samuel Johnson’s account of his trip to the Highlands and Islands with Boswell and he talks about food more than anything, constantly amazed at the way the highlanders are able to fill their tables! A young couple were playing reggae at their tent and the bass beat annoyed me until I saw that they were dancing with their tiny children in pure joy at the beauty of this place. Young seals perhaps. Love to you both.Mx

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