Monday, August 27, 2007

The Oyster Brewery Bar, Seil

Tony and I are just back from a two day trip through the tide races of the Grey Dogs, Sound of Luing and Cuan Sound. It was incredibly thirsty work and our palates were dry as a bone by the time we reached sanctuary in one of the flooded slate quarries of the village of Ellenabeich on the Island of Seil. High above us, we spotted what could be an oasis of refreshment.

We scrambled out of our boats, leaving them moored as there was no beach, and made our way up to street level through a nice old lady's back garden (there are easier ways!). We came across not only a pub but The Oyster Brewery Bar which has an attached brewery; no wonder Tony is licking his lips!

The staff did not bat an eye lid as they took an order from two salty sea dogs dripping brine on the floor. We usually ask for Guinness but given that the brewery was next door, we thought it would be churlish not to order a pint of their finest. Our chosen brew was "Grey Dogs strong ale" in celebration of our recent passage through said tidal race. This race is very accurately depicted on the beer tap label.

We supped this delicious brew on the beer terrace which overlooks the Sound of Luing and brooding Scarba (to the north of which lies the Grey Dogs.) At this point I should issue a sea kayaking health warning. Grey Dogs is a highly intoxicating substance which only just avoids classification under the Dangerous Drugs Act. Our delicate constitutions are used to the mild effects of Guinness and I am not surprised that the establishment displays a safety notice about climbing on the balcony. Tony and I had visions of packs, of those driven barking mad by overindulgence, throwing themselves over the edge.

We decided to forego a hair of the dog and limit ourselves to one pint. So after a most enjoyable visit to this fine sea kayaking pub, we made our way very carefully back to the boats.

The water on the approach to the Cuan Sound was particularly rough and Tony and I were glad that we enjoyed our "Grey Dogs strong ale" in such moderation.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

MacKinnon's Cave

Continuing our voyage of discovery up the Wilderness coast of Mull, we came upon MacKinnon's Cave, the deepest in the whole of the Hebrides.

By happen chance the low summer evening sun was shining directly into the depths of the cave which reach over 180 meters into the heart of the mountain. When Boswell and Johnson visited in 1773 they suffered "a penury of light" provided by a single candle. How would they have written about the wondrous cave light we saw?

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Alien shower in the Wilderness of Mull

Paddling NE up the alien features of the Wilderness coast of Mull, it was getting hot and airless. We came upon this refreshing shower complete with mini rainbow.

As the others paddled round the next headland I was left alone. I tarried under the shower and water ran through my hair. I looked up then closed my eyes and let the drips run down my nose into my open mouth. As I felt the boat moving gently beneath me, a sudden vision of slowly swaying, clanking chains and alien jaws dripping saliva started me out of my day dream!

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The fossil tree of Mull.

Approaching the Wilderness coast of Mull from Staffa, we landed at a natural recess in the rocks.

The Mull volcanic eruption of 50 million years ago did not just spill out over a barren landscape, it buried a land of verdant forests. At the back of the beach, to the left of distorted basalt columns, you can see the vertical impression of a tree trunk that managed to stay upright after it was engulfed by lava.

When it was first discovered by McCulloch, there was still a charcoal like deposit round the trunk where the bark had been. Despite its inaccessibility on foot, this has been hacked away by souvenir hunters who have since started chipping away the remains of the rocky stump. It has now been capped with concrete.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Thunder clouds over Staffa

As we completed our circumnavigation of Staffa, thunderclouds gathered over the mountains of Gometra, Ulva and Mull. Despite the geological splendours of this stunning little island, we found no sea kayaking pubs to delay our progress. Despite our thirst, we decided it would be prudent to return to the mainland of Mull. We headed for the Wilderness coast of the Ardmeanach peninsula, to see if we could find McCulloch's fossil tree....

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Boat Cave, Staffa

Just round the corner from Fingal's Cave on Staffa is the Boat Cave. We call it the Pharoh's Cave as its entrance looks a bit like the entrance to an Egyptian tomb.

Looking up at the roof of the cave as you enter gives this simply stunning view.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Fingal's Cave

I have posted on Fingal's Cave before but as it is truly one of the wonders of the sea kayaking world, I hope you will forgive another visit.

Fingal’s Cave on the island of Staffa is the largest columnar basalt cave in the world. Even the roof is composed of end on hexagonal and pentagonal columns. The cave has a height of 20m above sea level but the depth below the water is also 20m! The cave stretches back for 69m and at its mouth is 13m wide. The vaulted ceiling and columns, like organ pipes, give the impression of a great natural cathedral.

Some say its name refers to the Celtic hero Finn MacCool, others to the Gaelic words for “fair stranger” which refers to the Norsemen. Whatever, this name first appeared in the 18th century. The old Gaelic name is An Uamh Bhin; “the Melodious Cave”.

The noise of a gentle swell in the back of the cave is particularly melodious but only God would know what it would sound like in the midst of an Atlantic storm.

The tourists on the “Island Lass” had come from Ulva Ferry on Mull. We provided part of their entertainment.

Of course Fingal's Cave is not the only cave on Staffa....

Friday, August 10, 2007


After leaving Little Colonsay our first landfall was on the island of Staffa. It is composed of vertical basalt columns and the Vikings named it Stave island. There are few places to land and tourist boats can only do so in fair weather. It is the location of the famous Fingal's Cave.

The island is the eroded remains of a huge lava flow that spilt out from Ben More on Mull.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Little Colonsay

Loch na Keal and Ulva from Little Colonsay.

After leaving the succour of Cragaig cottage, we were a sorry bunch. Tony’s ankle was the size of a melon and Mike had not been paddling since February as he had been bitten on the hand by a venomous snake in South Africa. My arthritis was bothering me and David’s back was playing up. The Treshnish isles had been our intended destination but Mike’s forearm was suffering badly after the slog up Loch Tuath to Ulva Ferry the day before. He decided to have a short day and head for a camp on Inch Kenneth while we decided to make do with a little tour of Loch na Keal, visiting Staffa and the Wilderness instead...

Our fiirst stop was Little Colonsay.

There is a large 3 storey house on this island. In the 1930’s, the last resident moved to Cragaig cottage (which we had just left). He was driven out, after 40 years on the island, by a plague of rats. After our recent encounter with the Giant Bothy Rat of Ratatallain, Tony and I have a clear policy when it comes to rodents. We did not land.

We paddled on to Staffa.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Dog eat dog

The seas off Ulva were teeming with fish. Tony caught this mackerel which was still in the process of swallowing a sand eel in a feeding frenzy. We had them filleted and fried only a few minutes after they were caught. Simply delicious.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Cragaig Cottage, Ulva

When we left the welcoming warmth of the Boathouse into the chill of a thundery Scottish evening, we were not wholly without an accommodation plan. Tony had previously fallen while carrying a loaded kayak down a steep slippery shore and his paddling clothes were soaked. We had noticed the locked cottage at Cragaig and asked the ferry man about it. He phoned the estate manager, Mr Jamie Howard, and it was ours for the night for £30.

We dried out in the warmth of a coal fire. The back burner heated water for a hot shower and there was a working WC! There was also gas for the oven and stove. What a fabulous find Cragaig was on such a wet day!

(We have never pretended to be truly hardened sea kayakers, able to survive in the open with only a tartan plaid of rough wool and a bag of oats.)

To make things even more perfect, as we dried out, so did the weather and there was a late blink of sun on the Wilderness coast.

The township of Cragaig on the southern shore of Ulva had flourished in the 19th century until the kelp harvesting industry collapsed and the potato famine struck. Its last resident was a lobster fisherman who moved here in the 1930’s after having lived for 40 years on nearby Little Colonsay. Behind the cottage, two standing stones, dating from 1500 BC, are testament to this now deserted valley having a long history of habitation. A little further away, a human infant’s bones, dating from prior to 5500BC, were discovered in L ivingstone’s cave.

To book the cottage or to wild camp on Ulva contact Estate Manager Mr Jamie Howard Tel: 01688 500264.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Ulva lobster and prawn boat.

The Sound of Ulva nestles between Mull and Ulva and joins Loch na Keal in the south to Loch Tuath in the north. It is a sheltered anchorage for both pleasure and work boats. Some work boats ferry tourists to the Treshnish Isles and Staffa and others reap the local sea food which was a highlight of our visit to the Boathouse. I just loved the curve of this boats stem as it lay at anchor below the bold outline of Ben More.

Friday, August 03, 2007

The Boathouse, Ulva

It has to be said that an increasing number of complaints have been arriving here at headquarters. A general theme is succinctly expressed by “Thirsty Paddler” who writes “Wot’s happened to sea kayaking pubs?” Well reviews are renowned for their in depth analysis. Not for us, spotting a pub from the cockpit and writing a “review” from afar. No! All our sea kayaking pubs reviews depend on thirsty paddlers being served while dripping water and leaving a trail of sandy footprints from whence they came. This attention to detail takes time and our staff are not to be hurried in their task. Indeed our reviewers are renowned for their dedication to duty, even under the most adverse of conditions.

On our recent tour of the west coast of Mull we awoke on the isle of Ulva with the express intention of heading out to the Treshnish Isles, a mere 11 km to our west. However, on reaching the eastern tip of Gometra, a 4/5 easterly wind with the forecast of a 5/6 easterly in the morn convinced us that a change of direction was required. We decided to complete a circumnavigation of Ulva.

Tony doing some serious preparation for a seakayaking pubs review.

Quite unexpectedly we came across a pub. The Boathouse has a convenient beach which leads up to the very door of the establishment.

Initially we were disappointed that there were no draught ales on sale as casks of ale are too difficult to deliver to the island. (There is no vehicular access, only a ferry for foot passenger plies the waters of the Sound of Ulva.) We were cheered however, to find ourselves seated beside the chilled drinks cabinet, which contained a fine selection of our favoured libations in both bottles and cans. (Note the spreading puddle on the floor!)

The Boathouse also serves an excellent selection of cold and hot soft drinks for those of more delicate constitution and balance. They also have a fine purvey of home baking including scones and carrot cake. What really took our fancy was the range of seafood, including oysters, scallops and Norwegian Prawns (langoustines). On enquiring if food was still available, (it was just before closing time at 5pm, the last ferry runs at 5 which explains the early closing) we were told it had been busy because of the rain and that the sea food was now finished. Sensing our disappointment, the girl said she could manage some prawns if we were willing to wait a little. I asked “how long?”, fully expecting that the ping of a microwave at the end of its defrost cycle would announce the crustaceans’ arrival. The girl pointed to the prawn boat edging into the jetty outside.

Well these prawns were simply superb they were served with home grown watercress, a delicate garlic butter and freshly baked brown bread. The meal was quite outstanding and deserved to be quaffed down with several more cans of Guinness (it would be imprudent to say how many). The Boathouse at Ulva is a marvellous institution that goes out of its way to welcome thirsty and hungry sea kayakers. It is highly recommended.

Well after closing time, we wended our way back to the boats and set off again into the rain and wind. Under the angry skies of a Scottish summer evening we were in search of dry lodging for the night…

Health warning.
Reviewing sea kayaking pubs is an acknowledged risk activity. Participants should do so in a responsible manner so that they neither compromise their own nor others’ safety.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Ben More sunset

From the shores of the island of Ulva, the setting sun casts a red glow on the now cold basalt rocks of Ben More on Mull. Once it spouted red molten magma from deep within the Earth and was the largest volcano in Europe. Today its lava fields cover 840 square kilometres and are up to 1.8 kilometres thick. The islands round Loch na Keal bear testament to this fiery past and are an irresistable magnet to any sea kayaker.