Summer Isles

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Summer Isles

I dropped the lines from the mooring buoy in Ullapool late morning, having replenished Coral’s water and fuel and topped up my supply of food. It was a bright day with a northerly wind, so I took Coral down Loch Broom in a series of short tacks from shore to shore. Once out in the broader waters of the bay making longer tacks, I began to study the islands to the northwest and work out out my route through them.

I was making for the Summer Isles of Tanera Mor and Tanera Beg–known as the ‘summer’ isles because this was where cattle were taken for summer grazing, just like Somerset in the south of England. Tanera is also derived from the Norse for ‘anchorage’ or ‘haven”–and of course these islands that appear so remote to a southerner have been the centre of much activity, both peaceful and violent, for thousands of years.

As I took Coral in now longer tacks across the bay, from the steep cliffs of Ben Mor Coigach to the north to the cone of Beinn Ghoblach in the south, I watched the islands changing shape, seeming to merge, then separating as the passage between them opened up. At the north end of each tack I could see south of Priest Island all the way to the headland Rubhar Reidh which I rounded in strong winds a week ago. Beyond the headland a long line of fair weather cloud marked the position of the Outer Hebrides–I remembered how it is said that the Vikings use the position of clouds to show where land lay. Underneath the cloud, misty blue in the far distance, I could make out the mountains of Lewis.

But more important was to learn the shapes of the islands in the bay and their relation to each other. Isle Martin was much more tucked into the mainland than I had imagined; I was confused for a while as Priest Island, Eilean Dubh and the skerries between them merged into one long mass of land; but that surely must be Horse Island on the starboard bow? I took the passage outside Horse Island but inside the Carn Skerries, tacking up the latter close enough to see the golden sands that join two of the skerries to each other. Once past Horse Island, I would be in the bay called The Anchorage on the east side of Tamera Mor…. but no, on the final approach the wind headed Coral and as I tacked to avoid the north end of the Horse Island I found Coral sailing now due west along the south side of Tamera Mor.

I was reminded of my theme of meandering; it suggested I might chose a different anchorage. Through the passage between Tamera Mor and Tamera Beg? Round the west of Tamera Beg and into the pool to its north and west? But the southern passage into the pool was on the port bow. It is shoal, with only half a metre of charted water, but at nearly high tide and a rise of over four metres there should be plenty of depth. Cautiously, with chart and sailing directions close to hand, I motored Coral toward what seemed like a very narrow gap. The leading line was clear–two headlands just touching–but it took us very close to the little peninsula of rock on the starboard side into order to clear the sunken rock to port. We crept forward, my eye flicking between the leading line and the depth sounder, but the passage was actually straightforward: never less than fifteen feet of water. After exploring several options I dropped the anchor just inside the pool in a little bay to the south of Eilean Fada Mor.

This islands are low, Torridonean sandstone showing pinkish in places, covered in peat with heather and bracken. It is their lowness that makes this a good anchorage–there is no danger of wind gusting dangerously down the side of a mountain. It is almost silent in this quiet weather, although there is a background hum from time to time which I assume comes from the fish farms nearby.

Is this wilderness? Of course not. These islands are visited frequently by fishermen and yachts; there is a regular tourist service on the Summer Queen from Ullapool; and just this morning two RIBs landed on the beach across from Coral. On the other hand, it is a place without facilities: no marker buoys, no moorings, nothing but the chart and the sailing directions. But it is not a place that is handed to you without skill, effort, and attention on your part. This is a place that needs to be learned, that one has to meet physically to learn the contours.

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