John Ridgway described the sea as his magic carpet, which perhaps encapsulates the wonderment it has always held for me. Some 70% of the Earth's surface is seawater, and with melting ice caps it is getting even bigger. The sea can, literally, take you almost anywhere, and is full of exotic oceanic travellers and mysterious species of which our knowledge is surprisingly small.
I have little desire to cross oceans in a small boat, and certainly none to paddle across the Atlantic in a dory, as Ridgway and Chay Blyth did. I enjoy coastal sailing and am fascinated by where the land meets the sea. Coastline may be the nearest thing we have to infinity on the planet, and, with all its indents and islands, Scotland's is notably large given its landmass.
My ambitions for a COVID-curtailed sailing season were modest: to sail to the Isle of Canna. It is one of the Small Isles, an archipelago in the Sea of the Hebrides to the south of Skye. Until the end of August, the islands mostly did not want any visitors at all, but then opened up to a limited extent. Warm August weather had been utilised to do some work on my boat on its seasonal mooring at Arisaig. Come September, with hope of a sailing trip almost gone, several days of sunshine and southerly winds were forecast for the middle of the month. Time to run away to sea!
A day and a half spent travelling over from my native Aberdeenshire to Arisaig and sorting out loose ends allowed me to take off to where there is no mobile phone signal: (almost) bliss. Boats under sail or with small engines need to work with the tides and the long channel out of Loch nan Ceall takes most of an hour. Once through it in clear weather, a magnificent 360-degree vista opens up with Moidart, Ardnamurchan, Mull, and a great many mainland mountains to the south and east. It is a dramatic arena, with the exquisite profiles of Eigg and Rum to the west, and the Skye Cuillin forming a spectacular serrated rock wall to the north.
Canna is the most northerly and remote of the Small Isles, hidden behind Rum when approaching from the east. Shorter September days meant an overnight anchorage in mountainous Rum's one proper inlet, Loch Scresort. It is shallow and open to the east, so of limited used, but sunset over Kinloch glen and the gloaming glow off the mainland makes for a pleasant, midge-free evening there in settled weather. A large fish farm has recently been developed in a bay just to the north and visitor moorings installed along with better landing provision, but the islanders didn't want any outsiders coming ashore. It had been an exhilarating sail and making a brief landfall held little attraction.
On the Friday morning, I headed off to Canna without enough wind to fill the sails, so the 'iron topsail' was in constant use. Approaching Canna's excellent natural harbour, a halloo from a passing yacht alerted me to the pod of porpoises that were coming my way after visiting them. One sideways glance from these amazing animals tells you it is the crew that attracts their interest. You can sense the intelligence, companionship and pure joie de vivre. Entering the harbour, I turned down the engine to hear a couple of seals having what sounded like a somewhat rancorous conversation. There was little else disturbing the peace when I got moored and silenced the engine.
I have been to Canna several times. It is a relatively safe haven on a treacherous coast and one where fishing boats often anchor up. I think the resident population may currently be below 20, so it is a quiet place anyway, but it is more than that which creates the sense of peace that pervades. The island has a long history of monastic settlement and the harbour is dominated by its three extant churches. There is impressive looking St Edward's on the bridge-linked tidal island of Sanday which encloses the harbour to the south and west; a smaller, mock Celtic, Church of Scotland to the east; and the tiny, but most regularly used, Catholic St Columba's Chapel amidst a small cluster of buildings to the north. Sea stack Coroghon Castle close by on the eastern shore is quite simply Tolkienesque. Canna House looks benignly upon the bay and to the south from its sheltering policies.
I have never seen the ancient Celtic cross that's up the hill behind the chapel, which has a missing arm. That was shot off by the Royal Navy using it for target practice a couple of hundred years or so ago. My quest was to visit the ruins of what I understood to have been a monastery below the cliffs on the northern shore, seen when we sailed round the island several years previously. I had a good walk to the uninhabited west end in trying to find it.
There are Tarberts all over the West Coast. These are necks of land between two bodies of water over which boats could be dragged from one to the other. Canna has one too, forming a waist at the centre of the island. Walking (widely) past grazing broad-horned black Highland cattle there added to the feeling of timelessness.
I never found the ruins I sought, but had been warned that reaching them required a descent using a fixed rope, which could have been a mite dangerous on a solo expedition. Facing the Isle of Harris from a clifftop at the north-west end, I got a mobile phone signal which allowed me to make a promised call. On returning to Canna Harbour, I thoroughly enjoyed downing a pint of real ale at Cafe Canna, my first in over six months. Sitting outside chatting, leaves from the trees behind settled gently beside us and it turned cold as soon as we lost the sun. Time to get back to the compact comfort and warmth of my small yacht, Nine-to-Five
Yacht names are like those of racehorses, best when they are a play on words. The only previous owner of my 40-year-old one was an agent for the builder, Seamaster, and the design was named 925. She was about to convey me homewards over a sun-blessed weekend via the majestic west coast of Rum with an overnight stop in a delightful anchorage at Eigg. Sunday afternoon saw me taking down the sails and preparing the rigging for removal of the mast, with the boat taken ashore by the yard at Arisaig the following day to overwinter.
I enjoyed a glorious feast for the soul over my three-day sojourn, an antidote to the famine of effective political leadership currently blighting us all. I know one thing for sure amidst all this uncertainty: l'll be back.
Photo at top of page by Bryan Stuart
: Sunrise at Loch Scresort, Rum