I got up at 5am with the plan of being afloat at 0600. Pascal, the ‘Frog in a kilt’ that manages the Flodigarry (very well) insisted on driving me to Port Gobhlaig under the Aird. The kindness of these guys considering it is early season and they could’ve fleeced me was nothing short of remarkable. I will go back for a family stay where I can enjoy the comfort and warmth of this hotel as a proper client rather than some sort of smelly aloof freeloader.
Pascal helped me lift the boat into the water and I hopped in and got the deck secured. Now it was 0615 and there was still a noticeable movement in the air offshore. What would the sea be like round the corner? It was, after all, only a few hours ago that a gale was thrashing its way across the island.
My plans, in order of likelihood in my mind were;
Plan A – I paddle round the corner, attempt a short tidal passage to Eilean Trodday, decide enough is enough and run back to Skye before I’ve missed breakfast time.
Plan B – I get to Trodday, attempt a passage to the Shiants but it’s too much and I run back to Skye before its lunchtime.
Plan C – I get to the Shiants but I am a physical and emotional wreck who goes native and starts running round naked and mental with the black rats.
So I nosed out from under the shelter of Skye, I could see Trodday’s low windswept profile and as I got closer I could feel more and more of the tide. The sea state was never desperate though. I don’t know if the high pressure weather system acted like a damper reducing the rebound of the sea from the previous days of stormy weather but it wasn’t like I expected.
I crossed the eddy line of the tidal stream and I was there, under the south coast of Trodday and cruising under its eastern cliffs. I needed a tinkle and there was nowhere to land. There was still a remnant of swell and these cliffs offered no easy out for the call of nature. I got round to the northern shore where I found the tidal stream just offshore looked a whole lot more manly than the one I’d just dealt with. If I go for the Shiants, I need to pee, I can’t hold this for another 3 plus hours and I don’t fancy trying to be uncouth and fumbling with a pee zip in my cockpit in the middle of the Minch, alone.
My only option was to attempt landing on some pretty big boulders that formed the only notion of a beach. The only problem was the surging swell. Not massively surging, but a couple of feet splashing on big round boulders is going to create the sound I hate most if I go for it. Gelcoat on rock.
I somehow managed to get out and lift the fully laden ends up bit by bit, did my bladders bidding and then tried to work out how to get back in the water. This actually went better than the egress a few minutes before, there were a few nasty noises that upset me but I appeared to be floating.
Next I strategised – punch the tidal stream, try to use the waves to surf out on a fairly acute angle to the flow, get clear of the white water and then set on a course of about 330 degrees to carry me to the Shiants. The plan worked. Now all I had to do was follow the course till the weather or the sea state caught me out and I had to turn tail and skidaddle.
Not even two hours later and I am past the point of no return, I am going to the Shiants, this was not in the plan.
Three hours arrives and I am past a transit with the Galtas that suggests I am 30 minutes ahead of schedule. This tells me one of two things, either my passage planning is total mince or I really was in the middle of a vast expanse of water with nobody near me and I’d shat it and paddled like a demon. The bearing was good so I consider the anxiety issue to be more realistic.
As you approach the Shiants the cliffs get big, very big.
A cluster of three small islands in the middle of a big chunk of tidal water is a welcoming sight. The sensation of either opposing tide or wind on approach is not. Then again I was early so it wasn’t quite slack water yet but I’d done the big chunk, I was here, all I had to do was get in under the cliffs and pootle along to the beach between Eilean an Taighe and Garbh Eilean.
I was on the Shiants and it wasn’t even elevenses, now that wasn’t the plan. I needed a new plan. Either I pitched up the tent, stayed in the salubrious accommodation that is the house (Adam the owner had assured me it’d be open) or continued off the island. I took a break to take stock and explored the immediate area including the house. The house wasn’t locked but I had to tap at the rusted bolt with a rock to free it up. Inside it is a bit of a one room affair split into two halves. The rats had obviously been busy throughout the winter, nibbling at the bedding, the guest book, in fact anything they could. There was poop everywhere. I’d read Adam’s book Sea Room and found it spellbinding. I really wanted to stay here and explore but I also knew I wanted to get the Minch done before the weather deteriorated. I left the house and closed it up with the idea of making a passage plan.
There was a nice rock shaped like an armchair on the west facing portion of the beach. The breeze was light and cool, not cold and the sun was warm for the first time this entire trip. I stripped my dry suit to my waist and sat down, went through my tidal information on my maps and chart and pondered. I could go for Scalpay right now, but that was into the breeze and not where I should be headed. I could wait for the tide to turn and may just make it to Lemreway for sunset. So I hung out on the Shiants for the day, I’d started before sunrise and may finish after sunset, if the weather holds I can go for it.
I climbed to the top of Garbh Eilean with my camera, straight up its steep south flank, which didn’t feel safe in the slightest. If you go there, walk around to the west a little, there is a gully that offers a safer route up the hill. I discovered this at the top.
The views up here are stunning, Skye looks very far away. I think because it is. I couldn’t see Lemreway though, so I had to walk the length of Garbh Eilean to the north to see where I should be headed. En route I saw a lump of black sheep poo move. Maybe it was a rat, but I didn’t get a chance to focus and all the other black objects were definitely poo.
At the north end of Garbh Eilean I looked down on Lewis and the sea and watched the overfalls in the stream of the blue men run to the south west. I remembered what I’d read about these guys. I’d better think of a good song to sing to them. I love music, I love a good song. All I could think of was ‘Gold’ by Spandau Ballet. I’d be drowning with the blue men for sure.
I walked around the top of Garbh Eilean, in an approximately clockwise direction, just to see how the shepherds bring their flock down from these giddy heights. The thing I can’t understand is how they get any of them down the steep slopes and off the island alive for market.
After my wander around the Minch’s pasture in the sky I returned to the beach and reclined on my sun lounger for a while.
This must have been the first day of spring-proper, it was certainly the first day of spring I’ve felt this year.
The day flew by and before I could practise with my vocal range it was time to get ready. I cooked up a quick dinner from my freeze dried range, Beef Bolognase, repacked my boat closer to the water (the tide was at the opposite end of the beach from when I landed) and got on the water.
I had about two hours till sunset and I’d need most of it to cross the tidal stream of the Sound of Shiant and then to find a camp spot in Lemreway. The passage was straight forward enough even though it was an equinoctal spring tide and my bearing was good for the entrance. I found a suitable camp spot at the second attempt, got pitched, climbed in and ate a snack. I thought I’d have a wee lie down before cooking a proper meal.
A voice outside my tent asked if I was awake, (it was 2230 and I was half asleep) instantly I thought I was being rumbled in the dark by a land owner for inappropriate pitching of a tent. So I replied ‘Yes’ and opened the tent door. The voice introduced himself as Mark and I replied, ‘Hi, I’m Bruce, is this your land?’. Mark’s response was ‘No I’m from the canoe club’. I never imagined a welcoming committee, never mind a house call.
I’ll leave you with more pictures from the Shiants, they really are a stunning place.