Monday, June 12, 2017

Destination Eigg

On May 20th, under clear skies, the good ship Hjalmar Bjorge left the busy port of Oban to head up the Sound of Mull. Aboard were twelve guests looking forward to a ten day cruise around the Hebrides: Alan & Jacky, Janet & Tom, Adam & Margaret, Alan & Katherine, Hazel, Liz, Michael, and William. The crew consisted of Skipper Mark, Anna, Cook Mark, and Guide Marc (a lot of Marks). This was my second guide-trip, and I was looking forward to sharing some of my favorite island walks.

Hjalmar Bjorge and sister ship Elizabeth G at Oban
We did not know it at the time, but over the coming days we’d visit eleven islands. Thirty miles out of Oban we tied up to the pontoon dock in Tobermory, where several guests enjoyed a stroll in town before settling in for the first night. My stroll was with Michael, and we went as far as the old ferry terminal at the west end of Tobermory. There I saw something I'd not seen before, a dredger unloading its vast haul of scallops. We saw several giant bags of scallops being lifted by crane off the rusting boat and into a waiting truck. The damage these dredgers do to the seabed is terrible.

In the morning the forecast confirmed what was suspected the day before, conditions would not allow us to head over to Mingulay as planned. So we decided to head north towards the Small Isles with hopes that conditions would improve later in the week to allow us to get out west. It's always exciting to pass Ardnamurchan point, the westernmost part of mainland UK. Our destination was Eigg, and as Mull receded behind us the Small Isles came into view; Rum off to the left, and Eigg to the right; reminding me of that line from the Skye Boat Song:

Mull was astern, Rum on the port, Eigg on the starboard bow.

In the past, all my visits to Eigg involved landing at Glamisdale on the southeast corner of the island. But this time was different. We made an exciting beach landing in Laig Bay on the west side.

Laig Bay (on a sunnier day)
Once life-vests were stowed above the beach in a waterproof bag we paid a visit to the beautiful St Donnan’s Church. St Donnan was the island’s saint who was martyred in the 5th century. I did notice something significant had changed since my last visit. Another of Scotland's 'buildings at risk' no longer existed, as there was no sign of the large rectory that once stood next to the church. When I saw it ten years ago some of the upper floors had pancaked down, and it was filled with nesting birds.

St Donnan's - rectory gone

Rectory to the left of St Donnan's in 2006

Inside St Donnan's
The church looked the same on the inside as before, with the exception that the ancient carved stones that used to be on the porch of Eigg Lodge are now on display in the church. That's a good thing, as they are no longer exposed to the elements. The bad thing is that the gem of the collection, the dual-carved cross-shrine slab, is mounted such that it is hard to see its older side. The newer side, with the beautiful Celtic cross, faces the interior of the church. While the noble, and much older, hunting scene is only a foot away from the wall, making it nearly impossible to see the carving. For a description of the cross-shrine see the April 15, 2015 post.

Cross-shrine now in St Donnan's - St Donnan pictured at upper left
The two sides of the cross-shrine (photographed when it was at Eigg Lodge)
From St Donnan's we followed the shore path north to Camus Sgiotaig: the scattering (or squeaking) bay, better known as the Singing Sands. Apparently the sands can disappear in the winter, hence the scattering name, but they never fail to return. A well trod foot track led to the head of the bay, where a large stile made it easy to cross the fence that divides the sandy grazing grounds from the shore. Once on the sand we slid our feet across the sand. It took some effort, and you had to scuff your boots at just the right angle, but when you did the sound was immediate, a squeaky (almost musical) squeal. The geologist Hugh Miller described the sands in The Cruise of the Betsey. He had not heard of them before, so his description (in 1844) is one of discovery.

I walked over it, striking it obliquely at each step, and with every blow the shrill note was repeat-ed. My companions joined me; and we performed a concert, in which, if we could boast of but little variety in the tones produced, we might at least challenge all Europe for an instrument of the kind which produced them.

Making music on the Singing Sands

The Singing Sands on a sunnier day
Once our legs tired of making music (of a sort) we hiked up the hill pass Bealach Thuilm to enjoy a windy view north to a fog covered Skye.

The view from Bealach Thuilm
On our way back to the shore we passed the house known as Howlin, which has a fantastic view of the jagged mountains of Rum. J.R. Tolkien stayed in the house for a while, and it’s said the dramatic skyline of Rum (which you can see in Singing Sands photo) was inspiration for the Mountains of Mordor.

An easy road walk took us back to Laig Bay, where we donned our lifejackets. Soon Mark and Anna motored in on the inflatable to take us back to Hjalmar Bjorge. It was getting late in the day as the engines were fired up, and we set off on a northwesterly course. An hour's cruising took us to the shelter of Rum’s Loch Scresort, where the anchor was dropped and we settled in for a delicious Sunday Roast, followed by nightfall over Rum.

Loch Scresort - Rum
The forecast the next morning indicated things were improving. So we motored out of Loch Scresort to head for the Sound of Harris: the gateway to the outer isles.

To be continued...

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