Island hopping around the Hebrides
SAILING, WALKING, WILDLIFE AND BIRDS IN THE WESTERN ISLES OF SCOTLAND
A small group of nature lovers are sailing on a comfortable, safe ocean-going yacht through the ancient territory of the Hebrides in north-west Scotland. We are made up of both crew and an expedition team. With binoculars always at the ready, we are on the lookout for highlights showcasing the area’s natural history.
“The anchor is holding,” shouts our man on the bow to the skipper. It doesn’t half feel good, at the end of an eventful day, to be lying at anchor safely and peacefully in a sheltered bay. The sailing yacht rocks back and forth gently in the peaceful swell and we’re all sitting their contented, hugging a cup of hot tea in our hands on deck. The warm, yellow-red sun is disappearing on the horizon as we cast our thoughts back to the events and impressions we have experienced during the last few hours and days. What have we not seen? Was the trip actually only for nine days?
We set sail from the small port town of Oban (in north-west Scotland) in search of the loveliest and most deserted corners, bays, and beaches on the Hebrides. Every day was packed with great experiences of observing wildlife, as well as with impressive landscapes and brief sailing adventures.
Dolphins (and once, also a basking shark) were continually crossing our path and played with the bow wave. It seemed on numerous occasions as if they wanted to lead us very deliberately to the secret rocks far out where birds were hatching. We were rewarded with such fantastic pictures when we got there, the likes of which we had otherwise only seen in the media:
Gannets plunge like torpedoes head first into the cold water of the Inner and Outer Minch hunting for fish. The air is full of foam, the screeching of the seagulls, and the deep rolling of the massive Atlantic waves, which batter with primeval force against the islands’ basalt rocks. The wind is howling in the shrouds of our yacht. After a short trip in the dinghy, we land on the side of the island sheltered from the wind. What a pleasant feeling to put our feet on solid ground again. How wonderful it is to brush our way past unspoiled, green forests of ferns, almost as tall as a man.
“How often have people already been on this island? Am I the first? Certainly not. After all, we are at the edge of the densely populated continent of Europe. But who were the people who already left their tracks on the seashore’s sand before us? Perhaps the Picts in the era before Christ, the Normans, Anglo-Saxons...?” These and other similar thoughts go through our minds as we wander around the small, uninhabited island. We get a growing sense of being intruders here and must be careful not to violate the integrity of this habitat. Filled with great respect for raw nature, we cross grassland where dainty orange, blue, and white blossoms are shaken in the wind and can draw sufficient heat and water from this northern habitat to be able to provide swathes of bright color once again every year against the crystal-clear sky.
And suddenly a view is displayed before us as we look down onto a small, section of beach made up of dunes. Mounds of sand, partially overrun with junipers, offer resting wading birds both protection from the elements and also food. Not even the peregrine circling the area furtively has any chance of grabbing one of the resting sandpipers among the juniper bushes. This speed record-holder from the bird world needs too much free space to be able to hunt successfully in the undergrowth on the sandy beach.
And just then, silhouettes appear on the horizon of the island, which we can hardly make out against the light from the sun. Now, we have a better view: we can clearly recognize some fine specimens of red deer, grazing peacefully and enjoying the northern heat in the late afternoon. As the hereditary owners of the islands, they stare right in our direction. As we stand down there on the shore, the small people that we are, we are unable to unsettle them. They strut majestically along the ridges on these green islands and slowly disappear from our field of view.
Back onboard the yacht, we are warmed up by the cup of tea we are holding. The drop of rum added gives our eyes some sparkle. Or is this from our memories recalling the last few days, the sense of pride and delight at the adventures and experiences we have gone through?
We discuss together the unforgettable arrival at Loch Maddy port. Our skipper was called upon in this sheltered bay on the Outer Hebrides to tackle gusts of wind blowing at 40 knots. Using his lengthy experience and skill, he grabbed the last empty berth on the jetty and securely moored the vessel. How great it was to feel the international sailing community helping each other. The crew on the neighboring boat, wearing nothing but T-shirts and sandals in the pouring rain, rushed to our aid from their boat, assisting us as best they could with our jetty maneuver. This was a great help! When it comes to it, sailors help each other, especially in such ancient areas like the Hebrides. Here outside, faced with forces of nature, everyone is reduced to operating at a human level, helping each other, and focusing on what is important.
Then, as we are talking, we cast our thoughts back to our visit to the quaint Anchor Inn. This was after a long, intense day’s sailing in the waters off Ardnamurchan Point near Tobermory. After mooring in the port, the crew were in a rush to get their oilskins off and do nothing more than head for the picturesque water front in the small town. The signs of the small guesthouses and shops in the entrance to the port were attractively lit up. Once we reached the pub and opened the heavy oak door, a different, special world was revealed, just as typical of the Highlands as the giant ferns we saw, the still lakes, and dark forests. How good it felt to be in the cozy warmth, soft lighting, sitting on the comfortable bench. The shelves behind the bar were almost overflowing with a host of local makes of beer and whisky, while the aroma of fish and chips with coleslaw wafted from the kitchen.
Scottish whisky, according to the connoisseurs, reflects the people and nature of the Highlands. This national drink is authentic, boggy, smoky, warming, and full of character. You can detect in the taste of whisky the reflection of the unending expanse of the wilderness, the calm peacefulness of the moorland lake, and the robustness of the fauna and flora that brave the northern climate. Just let yourself go, close your eyes, and enjoy!
We can hardly believe that it’s our last evening on board. Is the time we’ve spent together really over? Are the adventures, observations of wildlife, and intense experiences we have had here on the Hebrides soon to be something of the past? Is tomorrow really the last day of our expedition? Are we really heading for Oban for just one last time, enjoying one more look at the intensive green shade of the grasslands on the Isle of Mull? Are we going to watch for just one last time seals and water birds engaging with the elements and enjoy the sense of getting the better of the elements and nature during a wonderful day’s sailing before reaching the safe, protective port? Yes, indeed – our wonderful experience is soon coming to an end for now. However, once you’ve had a taste of this and have been bitten by the bug for the Scottish islands, you will be back again. Sooner or later...
10 days, July 2017
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Languages: English and German
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