Ian McNee’s Grand Voyage – Week 9 (part 2)

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Having decided to not stay a second night in Loch na Culce, I fired up the engine and negotiated my way back out past the lurking menace of hidden rocks. My next destination was the small island of Soay, only 3 miles away. I stuck quite close in to the base of the mountains on my way there, and seeing as there was virtually no wind, there were no violent squalls to contend with. There was also no reason to raise sail so I motored the whole way. I spotted a couple of sea eagles perched on the rocks quite low down, and struggled to take a photo of them, not easy when you’re holding a phone to a pair of binoculars bouncing around on a little boat, so I won’t be winning any wildlife photography contests.

White-tailed eagle.

Soay is an interesting place, with another tricky entrance into the natural harbour over a small bar which dries at low spring tides. Helpfully there are some leading line makers to allow for the perfect entry. Safely inside, I dropped anchor and relaxed in the knowledge that the boat was safe in here.

Soay Harbour.

One reason I chose to come here was due to the derelict shark factory set up here in the 1940s by Gavin Maxwell, of aforementioned Ring of Bright Water fame. This guy has a reputation as a hero of wildlife, but apparently back in the day when he tried to turn the hunting of basking sharks into a commercial industry; the waters in this harbour used to turn red and the place stank with the corpses of festering sharks. It sounded pretty brutal, not least because basking sharks are supposed to be pretty hard to kill and he tried out all sorts of “techniques” including opening up on them with a WW2 machine gun. Fortunately for the sharks, the business failed and he moved away to go play with otters, but there is still some of the old equipment lying around to see, and the ruins of the former HQ. It was pretty strange picturing the place back when there was hustle and bustle, but it feels kind of eerie today. Apparently the bar across the entrance to the harbour was part of the reason the enterprise failed due to the restrictions on when boats could enter.

Ancient boiler.

I was surprised to hear some voices nearby, and at first I thought they were in my head, but then suddenly 4 gore-tex clad old ladies emerged from the bracken. Turns out they had come from one of the small “adventure” cruise ships that are based in the Hebrides, which I think only take 12 passengers and which was anchored on the other side of the island. We got to talking, and it turned out they had been out to St Kilda, where I used to work, and they were outraged by the large cruise ships that visit there, depositing boat loads of tourists onto the island. They didn’t seem to recognise the irony in that they were doing exactly the same thing, but on a much smaller, more exclusive and presumably much more expensive basis.

I was up early the next morning to catch the tide out over the harbour bar. My destination was the island of Canna, but I wanted to make a quick stop at an interesting archaeology site, called Rubh an Dunain, also known as the “Viking canal”. This is a small freshwater loch which is connected to the sea by a small man-made canal which is potentially very old indeed. If the tide had been all the way in, I could have just about rowed my dinghy all the way to the loch.

The “Viking” Canal.

As I was leaving here the wind was just starting to appear, so I decided to sail off the anchor. I ended up on the wrong tack, headed straight into the shore. The wind was very light, and tried tacking before I had much speed on, which failed, and instead of putting the engine on, I held course straight for the rocks ahead to build up enough speed to get through the tack and then sail away out of the bay. It was still a little early and I was a bit groggy, but the little hit of adrenaline got me going. I set course for Canna, but it was pretty slow going, and frustrating at times as the wind never really got going and I eventually resorted to using the engine. It was pretty grey throughout and the visibility was down to about 2 miles so I couldn’t admire the scenery. As I drew closer, it started to lift and I could see Canna ahead.

Making full use of autopilot.

Canna has a great anchorage in a nice natural harbour with good holding in sand, so as usual I ignored the mooring buoys. Just as I dropped the anchor the heavens opened up and I thought myself lucky as I retreated down below just in time. A couple of hours later it was suddenly nice and sunny so I went ashore for a look about. There is this pretty cool old castle type structure on a little rocky hill that may have been built as a sort of prison by some old noble guy back in the day for his wife, who he was very….protective of.

Canna Harbour.
The castle/prison thing.

The whole thing is starting to look pretty precarious perched up there and some of the masonry has clearly dislodged and rolled down the slope, and the path leading up to it is not for the faint hearted. I wondered if I should have gone up, when it was time to come back down.

The jailbird view.

The next day was sunny and windless so I went for a walk up in the hills. It’s steep, but the ground is easy to walk on due to all the grazing. There used to be a lot of rats on Canna, which had decimated the seabird population but a few years ago they brought in some experts from New Zealand to clear them all out (the rats, not the birds). One side effect of this was an explosion in the rabbit population, which now have to be controlled. But it makes for nice short grass which is pretty easy underfoot. The views from up top were of course stunning, especially on a day like this. There was a pair of Golden Eagles hanging around as well, I think they sent most of the day grounded seeing as there was very little wind.

Looking towards the Isle of Rum.
Golden Eagle (honest!).
The rare Goth Highland Cow.

In the evening I rowed over to the island of Sanday which forms the other half of the harbour, and strolled over to the cliffs to see if there were any puffins about. There were a few, but most had left the colony it seems. There were, however, plenty of Great Skuas aka Bonxies about, and I remember these guys well from my time on St Kilda. There must be no other animal in the UK more brazen than these birds. The defence of their territory is unrelenting, and if you wander anywhere near one, you are in for an onslaught of aerial terror. They are pretty big, and when they come tearing down from above in a steep dive like a stuka divebomber, you really feel like maybe we aren’t the top of the food chain after all. That being said, they generally don’t make contact, especially if you maintain eye contact with them on the final approach. Although I have been thumped pretty good in the past. Best just make sure you’re not stood near a cliff edge when they attack.

The Luftwaffe reincarnated.

All in all, it had been a pretty exceptional week, but it was time to put in some miles southwards. I would have liked to explore some of the other small isles of Muck, Eigg and Rum, but I thought I’d better give myself a big margin for error in case I end up getting weatherbound.

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