Sailing life: Sailing in the isles of Scotland

Photo on sailing trip
Stac an Armin photo by Ian Macpherson

I am not superstitious, but on several occasions in my sailing life I have been very aware of the past, and the hair on the back of my neck has bristled. Remote islands, ancient ruined buildings, and historical significance, undoubtedly played a part in affecting my mood.

Garvellach Islands and Celtic Saints

One such place is in the Garvellach Islands just to the north-west of the Sound of Luing, south of Oban. I visited it in my yacht Rum Runner in May 1997 with my brother Donald, and my sister Morag and her partner Guy. We anchored at the island of Eilach an Naoimh and rowed ashore. 

A Celtic monastery had been founded here in 542 A.D, by St Brendan, an Irish saint. It was destroyed by the Vikings, but St. Columba is said to have come here often for contemplation. His mother is thought to have been buried here. An ancient grave with a worn headstone marked by a faint cross may be her resting place.

We were immediately aware of the group of stone beehive monks’ cells, cared for by Historic Scotland. There was a sense of great peace here, and I could imagine the Celtic monks living their lives of religious serenity in this beautiful spot far from other men. 

St Kilda is now uninhabited

Another evocative place is Hirta, the main island of the St. Kilda archipelago, far off into the Atlantic to the west of Harris in the Outer Hebrides. I visited it in July 2000 on the Ocean Youth Trust Scotland ketch, Alba Venturer.

It had been inhabited for 5000 years, until 1930 when it became unviable to live there. There were no longer enough able-bodied men to harvest their staple food, seabirds, from the precipitous cliffs and sea stacks such as Stac an Armin pictured above.

Young gannets or gugas were particularly favoured. At their own request the St. Kildans were evacuated to the Scottish mainland.

Walking along the village street past silent ruined cottages we thought of the centuries of hard life of the St. Kildans. Children should have been learning in the the empty schoolroom. Cairn-shaped little food stores called cleits dotted the hillside.

Their emptiness testimony to the loss of people. The only remaining year-round inhabitants were the many little black Soay sheep. Once domesticated, they were now feral, fearless, and roamed everywhere.

There are some people there of course. Technicians service the radar tracking station on top of Hirta year-round. In the summer months National Trust of Scotland volunteers and personnel are active. Archeologists come to excavate, and yachtsmen and day trip boats bring summer visitors.

You cannot but be affected by St. Kilda – historical, wild, beautiful, and the domain of thousands of gannets. 

Yachtsmen from Kent

The west coast of Scotland has deep waters, and all our windfarms are ashore, so yachtsmen do not have the problems of fluky winds around wind farms that you can get in the North Sea. It is a glorious area for sailing, and yachtsmen from Kent, would really enjoy sailing in the Hebrides. 

Rather than sail north from the south of England I would recommend chartering a yacht from Oban or Skye. 

I have sailed to St. Kilda on a chartered yacht from Ardvasar on the south coast of Skye. To get there from Kent I would take the London to Fort William train first, then the popular West Highland train from Fort William to Mallaig (Hogworth Express).  A car ferry then takes you from Mallaig to Ardvasar on Skye, a good jumping off point for this spectacular sailing area.

 The long but very scenic road route to Skye is via Glasgow, Fort William, and up the Great Glen on the A82 to Invergarry. From there, the A87 leads to Kyle of Lochalsh where a road bridge crosses over to Skye.

You can read more about my wanderings in the Western Isles in my book

A Scotsman’s Odyssey (Conrad Press).