Wednesday, 21 December 2011

The magical Isle of Gigha, nice memories for horrid winter days

My log for 1979 contains the following entries for the Glasgow Fair Weekend:-

"Self and PS

Saturday July 14 HW Oban 09.42 BST, pressure 1030, cloudy, rainy wind S force 2

Departed Ardfern 09.00 wind increased to SW 4/5 had quick beat down to Craighouse. Becalmed off Nine Foot Rock and had slow sail through Small Isles Bay. Got anchor down at 18.00.

Sunday 15 July, pressure 1035, bright, light W wind

Departed Craighouse 08.45 wind backed SW force 3 had pleasant reach across to Gigha, anchored in 11/2 fathoms in Ardminish Bay (white sandy bottom) at 12.20.

Monday 16 July HW Oban 11.21 BST North going stream in Sound of Gigha starts 02.44.

Departed Ardminish 05.20, visibility very bad, pouring rain. Wind SW 5/6. Tied in one reef as didn't know what seas would be like outside.

At McCormaig Isles wind moderated, day cleared, shook out reef. Had very fast reach and kept tide till past Crinan. On mooring Ardfern 13.20."

In a typical Fair Weekend (i.e. rain and wind) we had sailed about 80 sea miles, allowing for tacking, in just over 20 hours.

Peter sent me this post card to celebrate our trip, he does this sort of thing.

My memories of Gigha were of a fairy tale island blessed with exotic plants, incredible white sand and a tide that moved fast but didn't seem to go in or out. It was also an incredibly quiet place with the large old-fashioned hotel the only place to visit and no other facilities.

Since 1979 the island had suffered under various somewhat colourful owners before being taken into community ownership. By 2009 I was keen to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the trip, but the attempt ended when we were becalmed in thick fog and it became dangerous to go on. After an anxious hour or so the weather cleared enough for us to feel our way into Crinan.

Stroma and Peigi
 Just before midsummer 2010 we had better luck. Peter couldn't make the trip, but his son Ken (not born in 1979) came with me and our old friend Ken Campbell, who often sailed with us in the 1970s. The only lesson from the trip was that if you don't want everything done twice don't sail with two men of the same name.

The problem with this trip is that you have much less tide going South, as it turns progressively earlier the further you go, for example Gigha is three and a half hours ahead of Oban. Coming back North the opposite is true, so timing doesn't matter so much.

To avoid an unseemly early start we set off from Kilmelford on the Friday evening, June, and sailed round to  Toberonochy.

Kilchattan Bay is a favourite spot of mine, soaked in history. King Alexander II anchored his fleet there on the  night of 7 July 1249 on his way to meet with Ewen of Argyll, who controlled the inner isles at that time. Ewen had been pursuing a diplomatic balancing act between the Scottish and Norwegian crowns for some years  and had been trying to persuade Alexander that it was possible to owe allegiance to two masters. The King was not buying this and set off with his fleet.
Alexander's trip was not a great success, as he was stood up. Ewen of Argyll had gone to Stornoway, taking with him the ten year old prince of the Isle of Man, for the boy's protection and also no doubt as a bargaining counter. The following day Alexander died at Horsehoe Bay on Kerrera, leaving his kingdom to his own ten year old son, who became Alexander III. I have read a lot about this period and have never come across any suggestion of foul play, so it seems likely that Alexander II was already stricken with some deadly illness and made his trip in an attempt to obtain some control for his successors over this part of what he claimed as his realm. His son was crowned just a week or so later at Perth, which suggests that the Court had the arrangements already in hand. Of course the Western Isles weren't to come under the control of the Scottish kings for many years after that.

The walls of the old kirk at Kilchattan bear graffiti that may have been done by Alexander's marines during their visit. We can tell that the graffiti depicts Scottish ships as they have rudders. The graffiti doesn't photograph well, so here is an image from a tomb slab showing the typical shape of a Scottish vessel.


She has short ends and a centrally hung rudder, as opposed to the Viking ships, which had the long ends suited to open water passages, but required a steering oar, slung of course over the starboard side. This difference would have given the Scots an advantage in our narrow inshore passages subject to strong tides and the Vikings an advantage offshore.

Luing is full of haunting reminders of an industrious and sometimes turbulent past, when the islands were the centres of all sorts of activity. Visitors will find everything apart from shops, including prehistoric duns, an old water mill haunted by elves, who demand a hair as a tribute, curious religious messages carved by a madman whose hobby was making his own gravestones, and the scars left behind by the unremitting slog of the slate industry. They will also find a population of more hares (the other type) than humans, a special herd of cattle and a landscape like that of the Outer Hebrides.

We set off from Kilchattan Bay the following morning with about three hours of tide against us, to get the best use out of the South-going ebb later, carrying one reef in the main, destination Ardminish if the wind held and Craighouse if it didn't. We were lucky that a Westerly Force 3 to 4 held all day with bright sun. For hour after hour Stroma reached along, as always light on the helm, at maximum hull speed. Passing Skerryvore we decided to go for Gigha as we still had a few hours of tide with us. We were anchored in Ardminish by late afternoon, about seven and a half hours after setting off.

The following day there was a yachtsman's gale from the North, so we had a day to explore Gigha and for the older Ken to re-discover his childhood haunts from holidays in John McMillan's cottage more than fifty years ago.

The Isle of Gigha today, after several years of community ownership, has to be the finest example of what wonders can be achieved once the iron grip of the traditional Highland landowner is broken.

For a start the visitor moorings were all occupied, mainly by visiting Irish boats, for whom Gigha is an easy destination, but also at least one by a crew from across the Atlantic.

On shore there is a welcoming quayside restaurant, the hotel is jumping (well, not lierally, but we were by 3 am) and there are various craft and other attractions to be added to the famous Achamore gardens.

There is a lot of building activity, in an attractive style that respects our traditions, while maximising solar gain and modern materials. There is an element of uniformity that I found pleasing.

In summary, what was virtually an economic basket case has become a vibrant, self-sustaining community with a great sense of purpose. The Isle of Gigha Heritage Trust website can be viewed here:-

We left early on the Sunday morning with the wind still a strong Northerly and after a few hours of being flung around in the lumpy seas thrown up by wind against tide we decided not to go on and settled for a fast, bumpy reach across to Craighouse, where it was a relief to hook up to a visitor mooring.

We didn't see much of Craighouse, as we had an early start next day, but there seems to be a big contrast between Gigha and Jura, the latter not having moved on very much in thirty years and still belonging to a few rich owners.

The next morning we got away very early, in very little wind, with the younger Ken towing us out behind the trusty Peigi, which went with us everywhere this Summer. You won't see yachts being towed by their crews very much these days, but it was common a hundred years ago and is much more reliable than having an engine.

Outside the Small Isles we picked up a gentle Westerly, which came and went all day, part sailing, part drifting on the tide, until we just got past Crinan. As the tide started to turn against us we picked up a new wind from the North west, which gave us a fetch to Asknish Point and then a reach home.

We had covered about 90 sea miles in about 28 hours under sail, a slightly slower average speed than I managed in the same boat over thirty years earlier, but then we're both getting older.

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The Wherrymen

The Wherrymen
Two old friends on the water