Taming The Wild?—Tips For Cruising The Western Isles of Scotland

Canna in sight

Canna in sight

More years ago than I care to admit, I made my first foray into my favourite cruising ground, the western isles of Scotland. Not only did it have a special resonance for me as a Scot living in exile, but it also offered a vastly different experience from my usual haunts in the western Channel.

At that time it was a very solitary area for cruising yachts—during my first voyage in charge of an old sailing trawler up there I saw one other yacht in a fortnight. Now in fairness, that was during April when all sensible people are staying in the warm, but even during the height of the season it wasn’t that busy, which made for some spectacularly lovely, lonely anchorages. I thought it was paradise.

There was even a (possibly apocryphal) rule that said that if you entered a small anchorage and someone else was already at anchor there, you moved on. Nowadays you’d be hard pressed to find a deserted anchorage, although we did have Wizard Pool in Loch Skipport to ourselves one night this year.

Lots of other people now also think (with good reason) that it is paradise, but fortunately good manners prevail, and local cruisers tend to be mindful of others when at anchor in a way that has all but disappeared in busier areas down south.

I’ve never had someone anchor right on top of me or play their wretched noise-making machine at full blast all night yet in Scotland, and hope I never do—if it does happen it will be, yet again, proof of the old adage that ‘the minute you call somewhere paradise, that’s the end of it.’

Gentrifying the neighbourhood

But overall, the western isles are a very different place these days in many ways, not least in terms of facilities. For example, back in the early nineties there were very few moorings available for visitors to use, whereas now there are many.

Click on charts t o enlarge

Click on charts to enlarge

And there has been a steady increase in alongside berths for those who prefer to step ashore, and plug in to the mains (shore power). From Tobermory to Mallaig and beyond these facilities appear to have been a spectacular success, and they always seem to be full whenever I’m there.

By encouraging more people to visit, businesses ashore, shops, pubs and restaurants have all benefitted greatly, all of which makes them far more enjoyable and useful places to visit.

And in such remote places where other traditional industries such as fishing have drastically declined, the yachting visitor provides a real lifeline, helping to stem the flow of young people leaving through there being no prospects closer to home.

After many years of decline, there has been an upsurge in new moorings out in the islands. Loch Eatharna on Coll once again has a substantial array of twelve, and even my old favourite anchor dragging spot, Canna, now has ten.

Accompanying the moorings there have been major improvements ashore, with excellent new visitor facilities on Coll (including showers), and a much improved shop. On Canna, the tea rooms have been rejuvenated and are now really good and the shop is far better stocked, and is even open on an unmanned ‘honesty box’ basis out of hours.

This is a far cry from the old days, when a shop in the islands might have perhaps three items on display that could include a loaf of processed white bread, a can of pesticide and a part worn tyre! Or to be told that the can of engine oil you so desperately need could be here by Friday—and today’s Monday. Things are so much better on that front.

Moorings in Canna Harbour

Moorings in Canna Harbour

Hasn’t installing moorings ruined many good anchorages?

Often that’s the case, but happily the moorings in Canna have been sensibly placed around the periphery of the harbour, leaving the main part of the pool clear for those who like to anchor. And that includes those that like to go dancing when it’s breezy—it’s still a good idea to put out a couple of fenders on such nights. (Any harbour masters out there looking to install moorings in traditional anchorages please take a leaf out of Canna’s book.)

Like them or not, moorings provide a good reason for less adventurous crews to dip their toes into a more challenging sailing environment. And they definitely contribute to the economy onshore, which, in the case of Canna, needs all the help it can get if it’s to sustain the tiny community.

Visiting boats tend to stay longer and spend more, which in turn helps to make it worthwhile for shops to stay open and stock more, restaurants improve and pubs stay open. As long as there is room left to anchor, what’s the problem?

There are only two concerns that I have, and they’re both related. The first is the honesty system that operates (for example) at both Coll and Canna. Even though the buoys are clearly marked with the details of the cost, and where to pay, some skippers appear to be very short-sighted and ‘pay with the mainsheet’, although I’m sure that no readers here at AAC would do such a dastardly thing.

For those others who consider such antics fair, we should all do our best to help them mend their ways. You use the facilities, you pay for their use—that’s the law. Failure to do so means that the moorings may not remain in place, or fail through lack of maintenance (as has happened before), which is my second concern.

And you can still anchor

As we do, although we’ll sometimes pick up a mooring if it’s more convenient, or if we all want to go ashore to eat, as long as we can be assured that the mooring is of a suitable size and has been properly maintained. It also enables us to contribute a little to the local economy, which we’re keen to support.

But 99% of the time we’ll anchor, and why would we not when there are so many beautiful, tranquil spots to choose from?

Going back to an old generation anchor is always interesting after so many years being spoiled with our big Rocna. The good old charter boat we’ve used for the last three years of our surveys is equipped with a 20Kg Bruce copy, which is fine for general use, and winds of up to 30 knots—maybe even more if it’s well dug in where the mud is good and sticky.

But it does require delving in to the old memory bank to remember long-forgotten techniques, such as taking great care to set the anchor gently, then gradually putting on the power to ensure it’s well dug in.

With big modern anchors, getting the anchor to set is much more of a ‘plug and play’ activity, so you tend to forget. Oddly enough, it’s a good reminder not to be complacent, however good your ground tackle—I’ll carry that mental note back with me to Pèlerin this autumn.

Beneath the benign (?) bulk of Hecla

Beneath the benign (?) bulk of Hecla

But when it’s windy

I’d want to have our massive anchor and pile of heavy chain that we carry on our boat every time. Whenever I’m anchored in Wizard pool, below the imposing bulk of Hecla, I’m reminded of a night early on in my charter career when I dropped the hook here with a strong southerly wind forecast. Naively I thought that with all that shelter between us and the wind we’d have a nice, quiet night. Looking around, I was pleased to see that there was no-one else there to spoil the peaceful ambience either—it did seem a little odd that we were the only ones to take advantage of such an opportunity, but I put it down to our good fortune.

IMG_0065

Wrong! By midnight Aeolus was throwing grenades down the slopes at us, and I learned first hand what katabatic gusts were in practice. With the boat charging around like a tethered bull, it was a good thing no-one else was near us.

Lying to a massive antique fisherman that was prone to drag slowly but surely in such winds meant that there was going to be no warm bed time for us crew that night and anchor watch in the torrential rain and vicious blasts of wind was no fun at all.

But that’s how you learn the value of serious and appropriate ground tackle. Average sized stuff is all well and good in average conditions, but when it’s really blowing you want the very best anchor you can afford, oversized and with plenty of chain to back it up. Modern anchors have made a huge contribution to safe cruising in wild places.

Oh, and like this skipper, develop the common sense to look around you in future, and wonder if there might just be another reason why you’re all alone in this lovely place.

Finding your way around

The excellent people at Skye Yachts, who provide us with our charter boat each year, supply a full folio of paper charts for the southern sector of the area as standard, and an additional folio if you’ve informed them that you also plan to visit the Outer Hebrides and farther north.

These are great for passage planning and I still like to use them when entering unfamiliar or seldom visited boltholes. All necessary pilot books are also provided, plus a Raymarine plotter, but the charts are not the best, lacking detail and large-scale options.

This is all you’ll need to basically find your way around, but for more challenging entrances and navigation, additional information is always helpful. So Skye Yachts also supply an iPad in a waterproof case, with Navionics charts installed, all of which has been most useful.

For this year, the iPad also had Antares WGS 84 charts and Memory-Map software installed, providing ‘unofficial’ very large-scale electronic charts of many of the best anchorages in the Hebrides. These places have been surveyed individually by boat since 2009, and, judging by what we saw, the charts derived from those surveys offer a far better vision of the anchorages and the presence of hazards than anything seen before. They also confirmed my belief that some anchorages have been very poorly charted in the past, with depth detail that sometimes bordered on fantasy.

The narrow entrance and bar at Soay Harbour

The narrow entrance and bar at Soay Harbour

A classic example of this being Soay Harbour, where for years all the available information suggested the bar was shingle (it’s actually made up of boulders) and had far more water over it than there actually is, and the charted depths in the anchorages have been seriously over-optimistic.

IMG_0066

Having clipped the bar one time on entry, when I should have had over a metre of water under the keel, I had long suspected as much, especially when we struggled to find enough water for our 2.2 m (7 ft) draft at low water once in.

Half of me worries about the development of this amazing gizmology, but the other half welcomes it as a valuable adjunct to all other navigational media, both halves stressing the essential need for caution, experience and Mark-One-Eyeball navigation. But when most of us use some form of plotting software already, often with charts of questionable accuracy and detail (“Not to be used for navigation”, indeed!), this local, detailed and (as far as I’ve seen) accurate electronic charting is as good, if not better, than all the other options I’ve tried before. And one thing’s for certain—it’s a long way from the RDFs (radio direction finders) and leadlines of my youth.

Along with the other changes mentioned above, I’m left almost scratching my head, and wondering what effect they will collectively have on the number of boats visiting. While they’re all positive in their own way, and I wouldn’t want to see the clock turned back, too many boats would change the face of cruising in the Highlands and Islands dramatically, and not necessarily entirely for the better.

Leave me room to anchor, won’t you?

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Meet the Author

Colin

Colin, European Correspondent here at AAC, is a deeply experienced offshore sailor who holds a Yachtmaster licence, and a gifted photographer and talented writer who has added a whole new dimension to Attainable Adventure Cruising. In addition, since Colin and Louise are from England and had their OVNI 435, Pèlerin built in France, they bring a European perspective to our site. You can read more about Colin and Louise and their business at their website.

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16 comments … add one
  • Daria Blackwell Sep 5, 2014, 2:47 pm

    Hey Colin,
    Come down to the west of Ireland. There are still no moorings or marinas in most places and for us to see a boat while cruising the NW is always a shock. But no matter how many moorings, unless climate change gives us fair summers permanently (2 years so far), I’m afraid there will continue to be reason why one can still have an anchorage to oneself!

    • Colin Speedie Sep 6, 2014, 7:00 am

      Hi Daria

      the west of Ireland is a wonderful cursing ground with some glorious anchorages. When you have high pressure and easterlies, that is! But when the wind shifts back into the west, and the swell gets up, it’s really only for the bold or barmy.

      So I guess you’ll be able to relish the peace and quiet for a while yet.

      Best wishes

      Colin

  • Dick Stevenson Sep 5, 2014, 3:43 pm

    Dear Colin,
    Nice piece. Brings back some very good memories.
    Funny you should mention the honor system, or, as you would write, the honour system. I just sent out a report on our time in Norway which includes:
    “—In our life on the waterways of Norway, we regularly are using facilities where there is no supervision. Sometimes this is a bother as when un-attended fuel depots only work with Norwegian credit cards. For some transactions, there is an honor system for paying. Leave the appropriate sum in an envelope. No need for a paid attendant who is largely bored stiff by lack of activity (marina fees for example where there may be only 5 boats per day). I find this just brilliant in its simplicity and its expectation of personal integrity. What a concept: expect personal integrity. I fear that we (the US) may have slipped to a point of no return in this regard, but it is a concept worth reviving.”
    I may have not been entirely fair to my home country, the US. A responder reminded me that in rural areas, there is often produce left on the side of the road and you are expected to leave the appropriate amount.
    It is in the little details and interactions of everyday life such as these that generates a lovely feeling of community.
    Thanks for the public reminder of a tradition worth supporting.
    Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

    • Colin Speedie Sep 6, 2014, 7:10 am

      Hi Dick

      I’m sure we’d all like to turn the clock back to a time when honesty prevailed, but there’s still evidently a hard core of people who will do anything to avoid paying. In some places on the south coast of the UK where the charges are extortionate I can almost understand why, but nonetheless, if you use the facilities, then you should pay – always.

      The little community in Canna got a grant from the Village SOS fund of the Big Lottery to put in the moorings, with the specific idea of encouraging yachts to visit, stay and use the shop/tea room, and make life more sustainable in such a remote place. The very least we can do is support that goal, and if all the moorings are taken, well, they’ve still (very decently) left plenty of room to anchor. They trust us to pay, and if we want to get back to a situation where honesty pays, then we must lead the way in showing it can be achieved. And perhaps make a tiny step back towards a better time?

      Kindest regards

      Colin

  • Viv Sep 6, 2014, 12:33 pm

    Colin:
    Reading your article reminds me that I have a uniquely beautiful cruising area within three hours drive from my East coast home (Fife) – now to get a boat!
    There will always be people who take advantage, not only the ones with the cheapest boat either! but things have a habit of coming back to bite, so they say, if not least – their own conscience.

    Viv

    • Colin Speedie Sep 7, 2014, 7:11 am

      Hi Viv

      The east coast is lovely, but the west is better in my view. I have a great friend who lives in Fife, but keeps his boat at Arisaig – the cruising opportunities are greater.

      And no, it isn’t always the little guys that avoid paying – as often as not it’s people with bigger boats, who can certainly afford to pay!

      Best wishes

      Colin

  • james Sep 6, 2014, 5:10 pm

    Reminds me of cruising in Norway when I asked a local if anybody did not pay /leave the money in the envelope I was greeted with a look of shock at the thought and the statement why on earth would you not pay, likewise shops closed but left open at lunchtime and unattended, just take what you want and leave the pennies.

    • Colin Speedie Sep 7, 2014, 7:12 am

      Hi James

      which is how it should be – and let’s hope it continues to thrive in Scotland.

      Best wishes

      Colin

  • Ron Sep 6, 2014, 11:43 pm

    Great article. We cruised the Cheasapeak Bay one winter not too long ago and found a fuel dock in Virginia that had a note stating that “No one was available and if we wanted fuel we were to pump it yourself and we could pay with a check. Or we could leave our name and address and they would send us a bill. (Crazy) In some ways it made me feel good that someone I didn’t even know had faith in my honesty. You would have to be lower than whale dung to take advantage of someone like that! I’d like to think that the majority of boaters are honest people, but times are difficult for some people.
    By the way, I was wondering what is the cost of those moorings (in US$) you were talking about?

    Fair Winds, S/V Golden Echo

    • Colin Speedie Sep 7, 2014, 7:17 am

      Hi Ron

      I had the same experience some years ago in Loch Maddy, where they would send you a bill if the office was closed and you left your name and address. A very convoluted way of doing it, so much easier just to put the money through the door instead.

      And as far as price goes, the moorings in Canna are a little over $16 a night at current rates, a sensible value that should allow for proper annual maintenance.

      Best wishes

      Colin

  • Bob Modrcin Sep 7, 2014, 1:25 am

    Lovely article, it makes one want to visit the area. Just this last weekend cruising on Lake Winnipeg in Canadian prairies we took a slip in a little fishing harbour at Hecla Village, yes on Hecla Island. The local harbour master come to collect the small fee and show us which slip to take. When he is not around visitors are expected to follow the same honour system. When we were leaving we were seen off by a family of four otters sunbathing on our dock. Priceless!

  • Colin Speedie Sep 7, 2014, 7:19 am

    Hi Bob

    sounds like a home from home – and you wonder where the people who named the village and island originated from…..

    And thanks for the kind comment re the article.

    Best wishes

    Colin

  • Tristan mortimer Sep 9, 2014, 3:07 pm

    Nice article, I share your experience of Canna being a favourite dragging spot, it’s one of the few places I’ve repeatedly dragged a seemingly well set anchor. Thanks for the Antares tip, I’ve never heard of them, but it’s duly on order.

    • Colin Speedie Sep 12, 2014, 3:08 pm

      Hi Tristan

      Canna and Loch Scresort (Rum) are the best ever for dragging – so much weed on the bottom, it can be a bit of a lottery, can’t it?

      And I hope you find the Antares charts useful – I was impressed with them.

      Best wishes

      Colin

  • Paul Mills Sep 11, 2014, 1:04 pm

    Hi Colin,

    Nice article and thought provoking.

    I ‘follow’ Canna on facebook, and they have been known to photo and shame offending yachts, and I believe now also have the facility to pay online if you are not planning on blowing your dinghy up on a windy wet night when stopping on passage.

    The increased alongside spaces in the ‘Outers’ is really noticeable this year; a large pontoon at Loch Maddy, smaller one on the East coast of Eriskay – and most significantly a massive marine going into Loch Boisdale – due to open next spring.

    As you know, we now live on the West coast and it is just fab – so many places to explore and even though my miles sailed are well down (no deliveries to and from) I have had a great seasons sailing, and the people really make it for me – invariably welcoming and friendly.

    Best wishes

    paul

    • Colin Speedie Sep 12, 2014, 3:13 pm

      Hi Paul

      that’s an interesting idea – I’ll check it out on Facebook – good for them!

      I think the pontoon in Eriskay has been there a while (at Acarseid Mhor anyway) and I had heard rumours of the marina at Loch Boisdale, but from your report it would seem it’s all happening. The Loch Maddy development I hadn’t heard of at all, presumably it’s in by the ferry terminal – not the quietest spot in my experience if it is there.

      And I totally agree re the people – wonderful, self-reliant, friendly folk – yet another reason to go there. Lucky you – I had a whole summer working there in 2006 and loved it for all the same reasons.

      Best wishes

      Colin

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