The stag weekend got off to a fine start with a curry lunch at Nottingham’s Indian community centre. A thali dish filled with curry, daal, rice, salad, chapati and desert all for £3.70. An essential lunch time treat. The Bongo was loaded with a mountain of gear alongside Rob, Rich and Reuben for the long trundle north to Glasgow. The destination was chez Peter Edwards where the journey was broken up for some fine hospitality and fish pie.
Early the following morning the Bongo was full to bursting point with even more gear, four blokes and two dogs. Reuben being joined by his close buddy Dougal the giant chocolate labrador. We made a quick exit out of the city against the grain of the rush hour traffic. Good time was made on the quiet roads, finally parking at the marina of Craobh Haven two and a half hours later.
For the previous week I had been nervously watching the weather forecast as gales swept across the country, hoping that the boat would get us across to the island. A final heavy squally shower passed just as we parked, leaving us entering the marina under clear skies and light winds. It was the first time that I had been on a charter boat and I have to say that I was rather excited. Our skipper of the Farsain was Duncan Philips who Pete has used on several occasions now to get to Jura and a previous trip to Scarba. We were definitely in capable and experienced hands.
It was great to stand on the open deck and feel the sea breeze on my face as we motored along the southern coasts of Shuna and Luing. The sea was glassy smooth and it was a relaxing half hour or so until we reached the eastern coast of Scarba.
Duncan had a treat in store, showing us where a pair of white tailed sea eagles were nesting, unfortunately they did not grace us with their presence. An unexpected bonus was a trip through the Grey Dogs tidal race between Scarba and Lunga. Here the sea rushes through a narrow channel, Duncan saying that it was running at eight and a half knots. It was great fun watching him wrestle a small boat through the turbulent waters, spinning the wheel madly. The light was in the wrong direction and photos never really show things to the full effect so this was the best I could come up with.
However the look on Pete’s face pretty much summed up how we all felt.
The tide was low when we arrived at the jetty on Scarba to unload our rather large and heavy rucksacks and the dogs. The only way to get to the island is either under your own steam (i.e. kayak) or by chartering a boat, there is no public ferry. The Farsain will take you for £60 each way which is an absolute bargain considering that Duncan has to do the crossing twice for this. With four of us it was £30 each for a round trip. Contact Farsain Cruises on 07880 714165.
I have to say that it was a fantastic feeling when Duncan sailed away with plans to return for us three days later. With our sole mode of transport disappearing over the horizon, Scarba suddenly felt very remote. Geographically the island appears as a single mountain rising out of the sea. The high point is Cruach Scarba at 449 metres, a substantial hill when rising steeply from sea level. The south and west coast is wild and rocky whilst the east is much more gentle with patches of woodland. Overall its a rugged little island.
From the jetty it was a steep climb up a track to Kilmory lodge, mostly used by stalking parties. We were glad that we were not met by a welcoming party as we passed its white washed walls. This was not a lightweight expedition and we were all carrying as many luxuries as possible, including large volumes of food and some alcohol. My legs were groaning under the weight by the time we reached the highest section of track. The view to the east towards the mainland more than made up for this though.
A steady downhill and we were at the head of Gleann a’ Mhaoil, the bothy that would be our base for the next three nights coming into view.
The bothy door, which had seen better days was closed with a complicated system of ropes connected to a nearby fence post. Either the wind gets really strong or the sheep are very keen to seek shelter. We finally gained entry to have a good look around inside. Although a sturdy building with a solid roof it is not particularly inviting inside. Its last use was as an outward bounds centre and it had the feeling of the Mary Celeste about it. More abandoned dwelling than bona fide bothy. After turning our noses up at the rooms upstairs we all decided to camp outside so set off down the steep slopes in front of the bothy in search of a pitch. The short-cropped grass was still at a bit of a jaunty angle but we all managed to get reasonable pitches. However it was the location that was a winner, being a few short metres from the shore. A coastal camp beats a mountain camp in my book.
A quick scout around the immediate coast resulted in piles of driftwood being dragged back to the bothy. With the island being relatively infrequently visited there was very rich pickings to be had.
After a spot of lunch we all decided to make the most of the fine weather and headed off along the south coast to see how far we could get towards the Corryvreckan whirlpool. It was a fine scenic wander full of geographical wonders, the first of which was an arch in the cliffs.
The landscape was very reminiscent of the West Coast of Jura which is located a few short kilometres away. Wide boggy wanders were interspersed with some rocky scrambling, some of which was a bit of a challenge for Reuben. Staffies are not renowned for their rock climbing abilities.
One of the more challenging sections involved a rocky scramble followed by a narrow ledge above the sea. Not too bad in the dry but I would imagine that it would be much harder when wet.
After an hour or so I was absolutely knackered, the last couple of days of driving had caught up with me. We had reached a high point and to continue involved a steep descent followed by re-ascent. I really could not be arsed! As the others continued I retraced my steps along a high narrow ledge. There was a horrible stomach churning moment when Reuben who was in front of me disappeared over the edge. He had walked though an overhanging section of heather, mistaking it for solid ground. Thankfully there was a small ledge below and I spent a frantic few seconds climbing down to retrieve him. Back on terra firma I found some rocks to sit on and enjoyed being still for a while, a truly wonderful spot.
My reverie was soon shattered by thirty five kilos of labrador bounding down the slopes towards me. One thing that I learnt this weekend is that you need to side step when Dougal runs up to greet you. One day Reuben failed to do this and was knocked from all four paws. The others had only gone a short distance along the coast before retreating, so as to get back to the bothy before darkness fell. The fading Hebridean light was rather special.
We retraced our steps, Reuben having a little panic on one of the rocky scrambles. After that I decided to avoid anything too challenging with him as an accident could have tragic consequences being so far from help. A football washed ashore provided a fun diversion for both of the dogs.
Although we had camped, the bothy was still our main base for the weekend. Somewhere where we could socialise, cook and warm ourselves around the fire. The kitchen table accommodated us so we could all cook at the same time, somewhere to sit and work our way through the mountains of food that we had lugged across from the mainland. One of my top bothy tips is to take along a pair of old slippers. There is no better feeling that removing wet footwear (inevitable on the west coast) and padding around like Noel Coward. The dressing gown was left at home though.
The fire was soon roaring giving us the aroma of wood smoke as initially much of it failed to go up the chimney. An enjoyable bothy evening followed, although being a stag weekend we were all tucked up in our tents by 9.00pm.
It was a surprisingly cold night and I was woken rather brutally by Dougal doing a belly flop on the front of the tent in his effort to come and say hello to Reuben. Thankfully I was in a sturdy Voyager rather than a lightweight silnylon number. There was frost on the grass when I got up, probably unusual on the west coast. Being early February, dawn was late coming and the sun had yet to rise above the horizon.
A perfect winters morning in the Hebrides.
With everyone up and about early we all spent a couple of hours around the bothy, taking photos and enjoying the environment. I took the opportunity to take a few of the bothy itself inbetween numerous cups of coffee.
Not exactly a palace but it soon began to feel familiar. It was nice knowing that we would almost certainly be having it all to ourselves for the weekend, other visitors being highly unlikely.
With the sun shining we all had our day sacks quickly packed, it was time to explore some more of treasure island.
Pete has been a bit quicker off the mark in typing up his account: Between the Grey Dog and Breacan’s Cauldron