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TOPIC: Ghosts in a West Highland seascape

Ghosts in a West Highland seascape 03 May 2008 21:01 #1

  • mike sheridan
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Ghosts in a West Highland seascape

The narration below is the story of my first day afloat this season. It is all on UK Admiralty Chart 2326 centred on 56.2 north 5.6 west. It may be a bit long for this site but as I have considered submitting a few articles to the fishing / boating publications any comments – however critical would be much appreciated.

My boat “Percentage” a Trophy 2052 is kept at our holiday home at Kilmelford in the West Highlands of Scotland, almost 400 mile north of our main residence. The first real trip out any year is always special; this year doubly so as for various reasons the boat and holiday home had to be winterised in late August last year, also I am now retired so my time is my own.

Spring comes late there, so on our arrival on Sunday in mid April, it was no surprise to see very few signs of spring. Although we were blessed with clear blue skies, the stiff east wind kept the temperature down to the mid 40’s. Two days passed spring-cleaning, servicing and recommissioning the boat, always a pleasant task with the prospect of the summer to come. On Wednesday the boat yard tractor eased us down the slip and we were afloat, but too late in the day for more than a brief run to check the engine and electronics. All was well until I refuelled, £285 for 300 litres of petrol was a shock, but the big tank gives a good range.

Next morning it was still blowing dust devils across the yard and rattling the rigging of the few moored yachts. The inshore forecast said “east 5 to 6, gusting 7, sea state - slight to moderate” but, with a bright and cloudless blue sky and no prospect of any change for several days, I could wait no longer. My wife only comes on the boat if it is warm and flat calm so around 8.30 I walked down the dock alone. Meeting Ross, one of the boat yard staff, is always a pleasure but I could have done without his cheery “you’re brave, going out this morning”. Once onboard the wind seemed to ease and I made busy stowing the covers and checking round while the engine slowly warmed up.

With no one else in sight, I slipped the mooring lines and motored quietly through the other boats out on their swinging moorings. Clearing the moorings but still close to the shore, I passed the partially converted redundant chapel and the stone pillar engraved “Height of the 1862 flood”. I slowly built up the revs, checked that all was well with the instruments and settled to a steady cruise heading due west, 4000revs giving about 22 knots.

The scenery on Loch Melford is spectacular at any time of the year. It is a steep valley with a mixture of commercial pine forest and natural deciduous woodland with a few sheep pastures on the less steep areas of shore and moor land above the tree line. The trees were mainly bare, the hillside bracken still brown and the grass blue, with little sign of any new growth. The only signs of spring were the first of the lambs in the low pastures and daffodils in the gardens of the sparsely scattered houses; most of them now second homes and few yet in use. An occasional clump of pale yellow primroses brightened up the woodland floor as I passed Kilchoan Farm.

The engine sounded good and the boat was running well over the short chop, I realised that I was smiling as I glanced in the mirror at the long white wake. It was great to be out alone just pleasing myself. As I turned north around Degnish Point into Siel Sound the chop increased and wisps of spray over the screen suggested warmer and waterproof clothing were needed. There is a small bay here with a pattern of derelict stonewalls on the shoreline, all that now remains of a gunpowder works built during the Crimea wars. A good spot to anchor for coffee, the trill of a curlew seemed to emphasize the emptiness of the area. I slipped into a bright red survival / floatation suit that I carry, its warmth can make even a chilly or damp day pleasant.


Continuing north, I arrived at the salmon farm cages just off of Ardmaddy Castle. The farm is mainly automated now but the solitary worker waved, pleased to see another soul. Mackerel congregate around the cages, picking up any feed pellets the salmon miss. Half an hour spent fishing feather lures produced sufficient mackerel for the boatyard owner and us. A quick check of the tide suggested that a passage through the dogleg of Cuan Sound would be comfortable and so it proved, the current down to 3 knots with a few swirling eddies. At full tidal flow it reaches 8 knots with spectacular overfalls and rips. The small car ferry, which crosses the sound, was moored up on the Siel slip with no cars waiting at either side.

Through Cuan I continued north to Easdale Island, picked my way between the poles marking the narrow channel of Siel Sound and past the derelict jetty where roof slates were loaded years ago. The island was a major slate quarry but this ended when in 1881, a sea storm broke through the workings, flooding the quarry and displacing the workers. The rows of minute single storey quarrymen’s houses remain and many are restored as holiday or retirement homes. Slowing to give priority to the foot passenger ferry, a small open boat with an outboard motor, and return the ferryman’s wave of acknomlegment, I left the sound. It was a pleasant surprise to find the open water of the Firth of Lorne relatively calm with a clear view of the snow-capped hills of Mull as a bonus.

With the throttle wide I headed for the red buoy marking the Bono Rocks, a favourite spot for Pollack later in the summer. Today non were to be found, probably due to the water being a cold 45 degrees with no sign of any new kelp growth. Deeper water was needed so I turned south to fish the wreck of the Helena Faulbaum, which lies in 200 feet of water just off the island of Belnahua. Belnahua is another abandoned slate quarrying island now uninhabited. The Helena Faulbaum was lost along with 16 of her crew on a wild October night in 1936; it now provides a home to some good-sized fish. Managing to drift the boat close enough to the wreck to catch fish but not snag the tackle in the wreckage is never easy, without modern electronics it would be near hopeless. After two attempts the wreck showed on the sounder with a good scatter of fish symbols on the up tide side of it. An hour later and ten drifts later, I had four double figure Pollack for the loss of two sets of tackle, a score I was well pleased with.

Although the sun was still bright, the wind was building and a flurry of snow made more sheltered water a good option. A southerly heading took me past the Fladda lighthouse, now automated with the light keepers cottages still sound but uninhabited. The current had built to 3 ½ knots in the Sound of Luing, so a fast tick over gave 9 knots. The anchorage in the shallows off the abandoned farm on Lunga was too exposed to be a comfortable lunch stop today. Last summer we moored there and walked across the Island seeing wild flowers so rare that even after a lifetime in the countryside, I had to use a book to identify them. Today, the only signs of life were the feral goats left by the last occupants.

The current was now causing a foot high standing wave in the Grey Dogs area making that a definite no, so I followed the coast of Scarba anchoring in the bay below the white house where George Orwell wrote his classic“1984”. The high ground and near vertical coast gave excellent shelter to enjoy my sandwiches and watch the deer. There are reputed to be more deer on Scarba and Jura than there are people. Sitting on the warm engine cover, all was well until I glanced down and noticed a clump of pale cream hair trapped in the engine hatch hinge. This was the favourite place for Willow, the golden retriever we lost two years ago, to curl up when underway. She was the best boating pall a man could ask for, always eager and never complaining. Whether it was the cold wind, the onion in the sandwiches or whatever, I found my eyes starting to water. It was time to head closer to home.

There was a lot of disturbed water and huge overfalls as I passed the entrance to the Gulf of Corryvreckan with its huge whirlpool, the third largest in the world. Turning east I steered for the green Ardluing buoy marking the southern tip of Luing and on to Shuna point. The wind over tide in these exposed waters was producing short white-topped waves and I had to cross several miles of this to reach shelter. When I stood up to look over the screen the cold spray made me gasp involuntarily, it looked like an uncomfortable ride home. The Trophy is a great hull giving confidence beyond its size; also I have had plenty of training and experience in these conditions. I adjusted the trim to raise the bow well up, set the throttle to give a low planning speed of around 15 knots then steered slightly southeast. This gave me a slight angle on the waves which were now on the port bow and their spray was thrown well clear of the boat. Eventually this course brought me to the shelter of the mainland coast, which I followed north. I had a more pleasant run up Loch Shuna under the shadows of the Victorian replica castle, built by the islands absentee, wealthy but eccentric owners as a summer retreat and used until the 1980’s.

Seeing the amount of plastic debris left by the winter Atlantic storms along the strand line of the mainland coast was quite worrying. It is usually cleared by local volunteers before the summer, but on a global scale the problem must be immense. As I passed the yacht marina at Croabh Haven, the lack of any boat activity was more than compensated for by the spectacle of a golden eagle quartering the scrub for rabbits. I still have to use binoculars to distinguish the rarer eagle from the more common buzzard. Today it was the real thing. After a quiet run north along the mainland coast I turned east, back into my home loch (Melford) and more wind over tide. This was less severe than earlier gradually easing as the boatyard at the head of the loch became nearer.

Running the last mile at no wake speed allows the engine to cool gradually and is a courtesy to the moored boats. It also gave me opportunity to look for our resident otter. They are supposed to be a shy and retiring animal but no one has told this one. Sure enough, there he was, floating on his back head above the water and eating a bootlace eel held in his front paws. He looked so relaxed I half expected him to wave a paw but as yet he has not. Mooring up to the floating dock requires a positive approach with a touch of reverse for breaking with any powerboat. The swirling wind caused by the hills on three sides of the harbour can blow you about like a pudding basin. Today I manage it quite neatly and give an impression of knowing what I am doing, a pity there is no one to watch!

By the time that I had secured the mooring lines, shut down the electronics and stowed the fishing gear, my wife had walked down the dock to help fix the cockpit cover. So ended the first trip of the season, 7 hours, 53 miles, some great scenery and some interesting if rather wild water. Although I had the radio on “scan” all day the only voice I heard was the Coastguard reading the inshore water forecast. I saw no other pleasure boats, only one creel boat, one ferry and two people in the distance. In a few weeks the area will not be crowded, it never is, but the ferries will be busy, the holiday home occupied and there will be a fair traffic of yachts, boats for fishing, diving and wildlife watching. Years ago it was an area where people lived, worked and died, had hopes, worries and triumphs but never travelled far. Today I had it to myself, a great privilege.

Mike Sheridan

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Ghosts in a West Highland seascape 04 May 2008 00:30 #2

  • JohnL
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Great read Mike! I'm heading for my plotter to see just where that was. We've spent some great vacation time on Kintyre, also near Lochinver, and way up North near Betty Hill. No boating tho!

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Ghosts in a West Highland seascape 04 May 2008 13:15 #3

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Thanks John, Kilmelford is about 15 miles south of Oban. Pleased you enjoyed the notes, let us know if you are over again and if I am around, I can soon fix the "no boating"
Regards Mike

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Ghosts in a West Highland seascape 04 May 2008 18:51 #4

  • JohnL
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Mike... Will do that! In your article you need to correct the longitude to 5.6West, not East! Unless you boat in the North Sea!

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Ghosts in a West Highland seascape 05 May 2008 18:21 #5

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Thanks John, I have fixed the error, a common problem with the UK being on the meridian. I actually typed that introduction after I had written the main notes and must have got a bit tired and careless. Did you find the area on your plotter? The area is very interesting with a mass of islands, narrow passages, rocks and sea lochs.Other than reefs the water is fairly deep with some powerfull tidal currents.
Regards Mike

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Ghosts in a West Highland seascape 07 May 2008 17:38 #6

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That was a very nice piece of writing. I have never been in that part of the world but your descriptions kept my mind busy envisioning what it must be like. If I am ever fortunate enough to travel abroad, Scotland is the first place on my list.

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Ghosts in a West Highland seascape 08 May 2008 19:36 #7

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Thanks Robyn, glad you enjoyed it. It was really nice to have time to just sit and write something for no real purpose other than to share a day with others and put a little more than one line notes in the log book.
I do hope you get to see Scotland some day, if you get the weather right and stay clear of the "tartan tat" tourist spots, it is great. We have only this year started to travel outside the UK ourselves, as we now have more time (good) but sadly no dog to consider.
Regards Mike

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Ghosts in a West Highland seascape 09 May 2008 17:25 #8

  • Greg
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Very nice.
Greg

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