SKYE & THE NORTH WEST
The coastal waters around Skye, the Outer Hebrides and the North West of Scotland provide a range of cruising grounds with some of the most spectacular landscapes in the world. As with Argyll and the Islands there are plenty of options available, and an almost infinite combination of routes and destinations are possible. Whilst the nature of the sailing has itself not changed, the recent addition of pontoon facilities at a number of locations has made life more straightforward for some visitors.
Rounding Ardnamurchan Point the visiting sailor is rewarded with a rapidly changing vista as first the Small Isles of Muck, Eigg, Canna and Rum come into view, and then the even more dramatic skyline of the Cuillins on Skye begin to dominate the horizon. Whilst en route to these areas from the south a diversion into Loch Moidart is well worthwhile, with another alternative being to take a mooring at the excellent and well equipped boat yard at Arisaig a short distance to the north. If conditions are settled it is also possible to anchor just north of Ardnamurchan in Sanna Bay which makes an excellent lunchtime stop; however, its exposed location does not make it suitable for an overnight stay.
The Small Isles form a compact cruising ground of their own. Rum is the largest island of the group and is owned by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) who run the island as a National Nature Reserve. The island is formed from an old volcanic plug, and has its own Cuillin (rocky ridge) which is often confused with that on Skye when viewed from a distance. SNH offer guided day walks around the island in the summer looking at the nature and wildlife of the island. Visitors are also able to follow two small nature trails laid out around the village of Kinloch where there is also a village shop that is usually open in the evening. A guided tour of Kinloch Castle is a must - the castle almost exactly as it was left in the 1950’s by the former owners, the wealthy but eccentric Bullough family.
Eigg is the second largest island of the group, and is owned by a Community Trust which purchased the island in 1997, the most recent of inhabitants in the 8,000 plus years that the island has been inhabited. The community trust organise many musical events during the year to which visitors are invited. As with Rum the island is rich in wildlife and geology, whilst for a spot of ‘sun and surf’ Laig Beach and the Singing Sands are recommended.
Canna is the most westerly of the Small Isles and is owned by the National Trust for Scotland who have farmed it since 1981. Like the rest of the island group Canna has many sites of archaeological interest and has links to the Neolithic, Columban and Viking eras. It has been a bird sanctuary since 1938, and over 150 species of birds have been monitored in the last 40 years. There are now ten moorings in Canna harbour.
Whilst it may be the smallest of the Small Isles, Muck is also the most fertile, and has been owned by the same family for more than a century. Although small it is also very welcoming to visiting yachts. There are the two anchorages on the island, Gallanach and Port Mor. Of the two, Port Mor is much easier to navigate with a clearly buoyed channel, perches at the entrance and a sectored light. The holding in port is also good with a sandy bottom.
To the north of the Small Isles the ‘usual’ circuit would be to continue north eastwards up the Sound of Sleat, visiting the fishing port of Mallaig to the east or Armadale to the west – the latter has traditionally been favoured by yachts and offers moorings and other yacht services at Isle of Skye Yachts. However, as part of the Malin Waters Sail West project a step-ashore pontoon facility for up to 40 boats has now been built at Mallaig. Mallaig offers an excellent opportunity to fully re-provision the boat, and is also a useful point for crew changes with good train connections on what was recently voted one of the best railway journeys in the world, and ferry connections to Armadale, Inverie and the Small Isles. A visit into Loch Nevis forms part of the itinerary for many visitors, with the Old Forge at Inverie offering an enticing combination of free moorings, a landing pier, excellent food, drink and entertainment, whilst others will head for Isle Ornsay on the west side of the Sound where the Duisdale Hotel has five moorings.
The northern head of the Sound of Sleat is formed by the tidal gate of Kyle Rhea where the mountains literally meet the sea. To the north lies Loch Alsh, with pontoon facilities for visiting yachts available at both Kyle of Lochalsh on the mainland shore and at Kyleakin on Skye - both maintained by the Highland Council. The former offers train connections to Inverness and a good range of shops. The eastern end of the Loch is home to the castle Eilean Donan, whilst the western end is crossed by the more recent Skye Bridge, under which all but the very largest of yachts can safely navigate (clearance 29m at H.A.T.).
Immediately to the north of Loch Alsh is Loch Carron; many cruising boats will visit the picturesque village of Plockton in the south east of the loch, which has pontoon facilities for visiting boats as well as a large number of serviced moorings - pontoons are available for daytime embarkation only.
Venturing still further north the busy port of Portree on the north east of Skye is often visited (now with upgraded daytime pontoon facilities and sixteen visitor moorings). Portree offers a good selection of shore-side facilities but some people will favour the remote island of Rona. Here the most popular anchorage is Acairseid Mhor (Big Harbour) which has one mooring available and a dinghy pontoon. Ashore there are modest facilities and some interesting walks.
Some sailors will choose to head for the eastern (mainland) side of the Inner Sound and perhaps visit Loch Torridon – dinghy pontoon at Shieldaig, Loch Gairloch - pontoons available in Flowerdale Bay - or the sheltered anchorage at Badachro. From here the choice is to either continue north along the mainland shore, perhaps as far as Cape Wrath, passing places such as Ullapool (moorings), Lochinver (upgraded pontoons) and Kinlochbervie (pontoons) or visit some of the remote lochs on this part of the coast en route to the Cape, and then perhaps seeking the shelter provided by Loch Erribol to the east, or to venture west once more. Some may choose to cross the Minch to the Outer Isles, possibly heading for Stornoway on Lewis, whilst others will continue down the west coast of Skye.
The west coast of Skye is deeply incised and as a result has a number of lochs that are worthy of exploration. The scenery is spectacular, with cliffs that rival those of St Kilda and every loch offering views of the Cuillin and wildlife spotting opportunities. The ferry port of Uig lies at the North West end of the island; south of this there are limited harbours and facilities. Although this areas should be approached cautiously in unsettled weather, Lochs Dunvegan, Loch Bay (moorings), Harport (moorings) and Scavaig are all worthy of exploration, as is the island of Soay.
At the head of Loch Dunvegan is Dunvegan Castle, ancestral home of the Clan Macleod. Further south lies Loch Bracadale, guarded to the west by the spectacular pinnacles known as MacLeod’s Maidens; Loch Harport extends to the south east of this and is home to the Talisker Distillery, the only one on Skye. Finally, sailing inside the island of Soay brings the visitor to Loch Scavaig, considered to be one of the most spectacular anchorages in the world.
The Outer Hebrides are well worth a visit if time and weather conditions allow. They are home to some of the finest beaches in the world, although many of these are located on the exposed west coast. The east coast of the islands is where most ports and anchorages are to be found, and is the area most commonly visited by cruising yachtsmen. The island chain runs approximately north to south for some 120 miles, and consists of five major islands and numerous smaller ones. The northernmost islands of Lewis and Harris form the same land mass divided by a narrow isthmus; to the south of the Sound of Harris lies North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist, Eriskay and Barra respectively.
All of the islands share many common characteristics - stunning scenery, a strong island community and the cleanest air in Europe. Full provisioning services can be found at Stornoway although many facilities will be closed on Sundays. Tarbert, (Harris) and Castle Bay, (Barra) have a selection of shops with some provisions usually available at Lochmaddy, Lochboisdale and Eriskay. Be prepared to find that bread and newspapers are not available every day! Moorings are available at Rodel (Harris), Berneray (North Uist), Lochmaddy (North Uist), Lochboisdale (South Uist), Acairseid (Eriskay) and Castlebay (Barra).
Lewis is the largest and most populous of the islands; the main port of Stornoway plays a most important role in the lives of islanders, and has a number of pontoons in the inner harbour at which visiting boats can berth. In addition to a rugged coastal landscape and beautiful beaches Lewis also has many world famous archaeological sites including the Iron Age Carloway Broch and Neolithic Callanish Stones.
The Shiant Islands lie approximately 5 miles south east of Lewis and are well worth a stop-over enroute from Skye to the outer islands. They are one of the great bird-stations of the northern hemisphere, with some 250,000 seabirds, including puffins, guillemots, razorbills, shags and great skuas, arriving there in the summer to breed.
Harris has the most mountainous landscape of the Outer Hebrides, its name deriving from the old Norse for ‘High Land’. The east coast of the island is typically rugged whilst the exposed west coast has numerous sandy beaches, bordered by the machair lands - best seen in the spring months. A short distance of the west coast of Harris lies Taransay, made famous by the Castaway television series.
Harris and the Uist are separated by the Sound of Harris, which provides one of only two remaining breaks in the main body of the Outer Hebrides through which boats can reach the west side of the islands. Although the Sound is almost five miles wide in places it is also shallow and littered with many islands. Extremely careful pilotage is therefore required, together with the detailed Admiralty chart of the Sound. For those prepared to make the effort some of the islands within the Sound are themselves worthy of a visit - most notably Pabbay and Berneray.
North Uist, Benbecula and South Uist all lie between the Sound of Harris and the Sound of Barra, and are connected by a series of causeways. The islands each have a distinctive feel, with North Uist being best known for its stunning beaches, rich birdlife and the ferry port at Lochmaddy. Although the smallest island of the three, Benbecula is the second most built up area of the Outer Hebrides. South Uist is the second largest island in the chain; its western coastline is an unbroken white shell beach which is almost 20 miles long. The eastern coast is broken by two large inlets, the most significant of which is Loch Boisdale in which visiting yachts can usually find a sheltered safe haven if weather conditions should deteriorate. South Uist is connected to the Isle of Eriskay by a causeway - Eriskay is the island on which the SS Politician was wrecked, leading to the novel ‘Whisky Galore’.
Barra is the southernmost of the major islands which form the Outer Hebrides, and is perhaps the most representative of the whole group. The island is particularly well known for its ceilidh dances and legendary social gatherings. Visitors who wish to get a sample of island life and landscape can take a ‘round the island’ bus trip from the main town of Castlebay after leaving their boat on one of the heavy duty moorings in the bay. The trip takes an anti-clockwise direction around the island, stopping at the island airport which, due to its beach runway, can only operate at low tide!
To the south of Barra lies Vatersay, whose beaches provide a wonderful backdrop to sheltered anchorages on either side of the island. This is the last of the ‘connected islands’; although the island chain continues further to the south with Sandray, Pabbay(s), Mingulay and Berneray (s). Although previously populated, these islands are now a haven for birdlife and each has its own particular story to tell in the ruins that are to be seen. Many of the skippers rank these amongst their favourite destinations and for good reason.
Finally, the World Heritage Site of the archipelago of St Kilda is undoubtedly worth special mention. Lying some 40 miles to the west of the Outer Hebrides they are for many sailors their ultimate aim. They may be approached through the Sound of Harris (between South Harris and North Uist), the Sound of Barra (between Barra and South Uist) or the Sounds of Sandray, Mingulay or Pabbay (all to the south of Barra). The southern three sounds offer the most straightforward route but the longest offshore passage to St Kilda, whilst the northern duo offer a more complex, but well marked, route followed by a shorter passage, with the option to call in at the Monarch Isles en route. Settled weather is needed to venture beyond the shelter of the Outer Hebrides but, as with the whole of this area, the potential rewards are well worth the effort - the highest cliffs in Britain, truly spectacular birdlife and the museum on the main island of Hirta. The island is a Dual World Heritage Site, and is managed by the National Trust for Scotland, SNH and the Ministry of Defence, all of which have a presence on Hirta during the summer months.