Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The shell mounds, skerries and swells of SE Oronsay

From the sea we got a fine view of the coast of Oronsay with the cliffs of Colonsay behind. We spotted an occasional mound, covered with lush green grass. Remarkably, these are the rubbish tips of our ancestors. They date from prior to 4000BC in the Mesolithic period. The sandy beaches, exposed at low tide, were full of shell fish and our ancestors had crossed to these isles in search of food 6,000 years ago! It kind of put our "crossing" into some perspective.

Away to the south, the Paps of Jura were still wreathed in mist but the sun was beginning to break through on the northern slopes of Islay.

We now entered the incredible channels within the skerries of Oronsay. In the distance, we could just see the mountains of Donegal.

Depending on the state of the tide, you might end up in a dead end but...

...we broke out of the shelter of the skerries and felt the gentle...

...lift of Atlantic swells, before they ended their long journey on the skerries of Oronsay.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A pineapple and a bottle of malt, on Oronsay!

David had been working right up until 7pm on the evening before we left for this trip. He had shopped, packed and arrived at my house at 630am the next morning, such is his dedication in attending outings. On top of that lack of sleep, his night on Oronsay had not been good either. So it was no surprise that he was last to rise. Being a habitual slow packer myself, it was with some smugness that I now leisurely watched him pack.

His varied rations included: lo sugar beans, fresh raspberries, smoked salmon slices, an exceedingly ripe Brie (that just about packed itself), a pineapple and finally, a bottle of a particularly fine malt whisky, a 12 year old Highland Park from Orkney.

Finally, we were all packed and shipshape. We were now ready for an exploration of the seas surrounding Oronsay!

Monday, September 28, 2009

The First Breakfast ®

After the Luing cattle moved on, the sun broke through and we had the little beach on Oronsay to ourselves. Behind the dunes, the higher ground of Beinn Eibhne on nearby Colonsay was still in the shade.

It was now time for first breakfast.

The staff, here at, are often asked what sustains us on our long and prodigious voyages amongst the far flung isles of the Hebrides. Obviously Guinness and malt whisky form an important part of our rations but our staple is the First Breakfast ®.

Let's take a closer look.

For this tasty little morsel you will need:

- 1 tortilla wrap (this form of bread is long lasting and all but uncrushable)
- 2 rashers of traditionally dry cured bacon (preferably from Little's, the specialist pork butcher)
- 6 cherry tomatoes, preferably home grown
- 1 potato scone (previously bought or made)
- 1 thin slice of Gruyere cheese
- a little olive oil

Fry the bacon, tomatoes and potato scone in a little olive oil. Once cooked, transfer to a plate and put the tortilla wrap in the bottom of the frying pan, then place the bacon, tomatoes and potato scone in the middle of the wrap. Top with the slice of Gruyere cheese and heat gently, gradually fold the edges of the wrap over to close over the melting cheese. Flip it over and continue heating for a moment. This will leave the pan remarkably clean. Now eat!

Although I am no expert on nutrition or calories, I do know that the First Breakfast ® has enough goodness in it to keep even a Hobbit going, at least till second breakfast*.

*Second breakfast:
Aragorn: Gentlemen, we do not stop till nightfall.
Pippin: What about breakfast?
Aragorn: You've already had it.
Pippin: We've had one, yes. What about second breakfast?
[Aragorn turns and walks off in disgust]
Merry: I don't think he knows about second breakfast, Pip.
Pippin: What about elevenses? Luncheon? Afternoon tea? Dinner? Supper? He knows about them, doesn't he?
Merry: I wouldn't count on it.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Enough crank to give flexible action!

On our first morning on Oronsay, we were awoken by the lowing of Luing cattle as they ambled along the strand, picking at tasty morsels of sea weed. In the distance we could just make out the distant hills of Donegal in Ireland.

One by one the whole herd, including the bull and the calves, scratched their heads on the bows and sterns of our kayaks. The breed guidelines have some interesting criteria. Bulls should have a "minimum 38cm scrotal circumference" and "enough crank to give flexible action". I decided not to investigate if this bull was a prime example of the breed and kept a very respectable distance! David, despite his professional interest as's staff vet, stayed firmly in his sleeping bag.

It was not just the fine red Luing cattle that gave the beach a reddish tinge...

... it was covered in red periwinkles, which despite their lack of girth, seemed to have enjoyed considerable breeding success.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

To Oronsay in the sunset.

It was hard to leave, but we now turned our backs to Islay...

...and set off to distant Oronsay, which lay to the north west. Fishing boat CN7 was lifting her pots. We had seen her earlier in Port Askaig harbour.

We were soon leaving Ruvall lighthouse and the distant Paps of Jura far behind.

We felt very small out on the open Atlantic as the darkness slowly gathered round us. To our port side, there was no landfall until distant Newfoundland. It was humbling to think that our ancestors had been making this crossing for over 7,000 years! Very slowly the hills and dunes of Oronsay and Colonsay began to take shape.

The sun was setting as we made our final approach to Oronsay. We slipped into a little bay, which seemed to be entirely composed of pink periwinkle shells. It was dark by the time we unloaded the boats and we put the tents up with the aid of head torches. The tussocky dunes were full of humps and it was nearly impossible to find a flat spot. Poor David had a very disturbed sleep as he was struggling with a hump all night.

Friday, September 25, 2009

End of the day on Islay.

From the cave system, we made our way back down to the sands of the great Bagh an Da Dhoruis on the north shore of Islay. The islands of Oronsay and Colonsay beckoned on the horizon.

The feelings of space, wildness and isolation washed over us as the sun...

...steadily dipped towards the horizon and the rocks of the cliffs began to redden.

Although the day was now slipping away, we decided to relaunch the kayaks. Oronsay, here we come!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The great caves of Bagh an Da Dhoruis, Islay

At the top of the existing beach at Bagh an Da Dhoruis there is a raised beach with a long dry marine cave system. It was probably 10,000 years ago that the sea last surged through these subterranean channels.

We were staggered by the scale of the place as we soon lost sight of each other... the maze of interconnecting caverns. In some, prehistoric shell mounds reveal the eating habits of our ancestors.

Unfortunately for our further exploration, the sun was now dipping fast to the western horizon. We still had an open crossing of 11km to reach our destination. We returned to the shore through yet another cave system on this incredible north shore of Islay.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Just a couple of doors away, on Islay.

From Ruvall we paddled west along the remote north coast of Islay.

The cliffs became considerably higher... we approached Bagh an Da Dhoruis (Bay of the Two Doors).

The only footprints on the sands of this huge beach were our own.

The islands of Oronsay and Colonsay could just be seen, far on the northern horizon.

We made our way to the back of the beach...

...where we had spotted what looked like a "door" through the cliffs.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Navigation and spice in the Sound of Islay.

Proceeding up the Sound of Islay we soon came across yet another distillery. What a wondrous isle Islay is! Sea kayak navigation is so easy here. Even we (without a single navigation qualification between us) knew we had arrived at Bunnahabhain. There has been a distillery here since 1881. The fine malt whisky produced here is lighter and less peaty than the whiskies produced by distilleries elsewhere on Islay. This is because the water rises from a limestone spring and is piped directly to the distillery, without gathering peat in surface rivers and lochs. The 18 year old bottling has been described as follows: "The voyage ends with dry notes that are interspersed with mixed spices fading magnificently into a light salt and sherry finale."

Despite its spicy name and overtones, I do not think this whisky distillery has Indian owners.

Bunnahabhain marks the end of the road and we now paddled past one of the wildest and most remote corners of Islay.

To the east, the modesty of the heaving Paps of Jura was covered by a decent layer of cloud.

Our destination was Ruvall lighthouse which is perched on the end of Rubh a' Mhail. An electricity supply was put in to the lighthouse in 1981. The poles and cables were flown in by helicopter but the pilot had a lucky escape when his rotor hit one of the poles that had already been erected.

A basalt dyke runs through the headland to the north of the lighthouse. Its continuation can be seen on the other side of the Sound of Islay, marching up the hillside of the Paps.

The lighthouse was built in 1859 by David and Thomas Stephenson. The tower is 34m high. Every 15 seconds there are 3 quick flashes. The light is white with the exception of the NW quadrant which is red. The lighthouse has been automated since 1983.

Rounding the point, we now left the Sound of Islay and headed west along the most remote part of Islay's incredibly varied coastline.

What would we find next?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Better Days in the Sound of Islay!

We thought we were super fit kayakers, flying along as the coast of Islay slipped astern at 14km/hr. It was only when the lobster boat Calon Mor zipped past us that we realised that the tide was doing almost all the work. PE91, Calon Mor was built in Poole in 1983. She is a wooden boat 11.8m long and she used to have a forward wheelhouse when used as a trawler in England then Wales. She is currently owned by Kenneth Woodrow from Bruichladdich, Islay.

Then, beyond the shipshape Calon Mor, we noticed something lying at an odd angle on the shore of Rubha a'Mhill, just south of Bunnahabhain.

It was the wreck of the 328 ton Fleetwood trawler Wyre Majestic. On the night of October the 18th 1974 she was steaming in the company of her sister ship the Wyre Defence to Fleetwood. There was no berth to offload their fish at Oban and they were obviously in a hurry to get their catch to a market.

She was making 10 knots and with a spring tide of 8 knots, she hit the rocks at a combined speed of 18 knots. Fortunately there was no loss of life. At the time of the collision her skipper was below decks and her bosun who was at the wheel admitted he was under the influence of drink. Her skipper and two crew stayed aboard for 10 days, until the next spring tides, in an attempt to refloat her. She stayed firmly stuck on the rocks despite attempts by her sister ship, a tug and the Port Askaig lifeboat to tow her off.

Her bow and bridge have now broken away, leaving only the sad and rusting remains of her stern and midships. She serves as a warning to all mariners to treat the Sound of Islay with the greatest of respect.

An interesting footnote is that the Wyre Majestic was built by Cochranes of Selby in Yorkshire, the same yard, which built the main Islay ferry, the MV Hebridean Isles.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Caol Isla: whisky, puffers and paps!

Leaving Port Askaig, the flood tide was racing north up the Sound of Islay at 16km/hr so there was really little choice involved in deciding where to go. Just round the corner from Port Askaig, the NW wind proved to be one of the sweetest winds on the west coast. It was carrying the "Angels' Share" over the water from the Caol Ila distillery. The name means Kyles of Islay (or Narrows of Islay).

The distillery was founded in 1846. From the 1920's until 1972 the distillery was served by its own puffer service, the first, Pibroch was built in 1922, her successor, also called Pibroch, was built in 1957. They sailed from the distillery pier to Glasgow via the Mull of Kintyre. The distillery was expanded and rebuilt in 1974 but now barley comes in and whisky goes out via lorries and the Calmac ferry.

From out in the Sound of Islay we caught sight of the Rhuvaal lighthouse, still some 9km distant.

Although the water of the Sound was calm, we were still proceeding at 14km/hr with little paddling effort.

The summits of the Paps of Jura were decently wreathed in puffs of light cloud.