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!

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