Venture Cruises To Iceland - Part Two
In the last blog we had just arrived at the Island of Jura
Jura was the first specific destination on this personal voyage of discovery rather than simply being a transit stop on the way to somewhere else. It was on this island that my great, grandfather, Donald McKechnie was born in 1836 and spent his early years. He later became famous as the Bard of Jura for his poetry in the Gaelic language. It was in his honour that VENTURE II has the Isle of Jura as a hailing port on her transom so it was fitting that our first port of call in Scotland be Jura - sometimes described as the wildest island in the Inner Hebrides with a population of just under 200 people and 5,000 deer.
We pulled into Small Isles Bay on which Craighouse, the only village of any significant size, is situated. Although a number of moorings have been laid in the bay for visiting yachts we had to drop the hook because our size made us too heavy for the moorings. Apart from a few houses, Craighouse consists of a hotel with pub, a store, small restaurant and the distillery. We were met here by David Miles who represents Fleming Yachts in Europe and who had been one of the wistful witnesses to our departure from the dock in Southampton sixteen days earlier. Craighouse now has a new, dinghy pontoon which made getting ashore much easier than previously. We walked past the store and the distillery, all within a few feet of one another, to the pub which overlooks the bay. Its windows framed a view of VENTURE swinging at her anchor with some unlikely palms in the foreground and the misty mountains of the Scottish mainland in the distance.
Although created and constructed a world away in distant Taiwan, I felt that in some sense VENTURE had finally come home and I had something of that same emotion for myself even though I have never lived here and only visited a few times. Maybe there is something in one's genes that tugs you back to your roots as you get older. I was impatient to take VENTURE through the infamous Gulf of Corryvreckan to Glengarrisdale Bay in the remote, northwest corner of Jura and to go ashore to the dwelling which had been home to my ancestor.
For the second occasion on this trip I was surprised hear someone address me by name when I had just arrived in some remote spot. This time it is a gentleman I had met last September at the Southampton boat show who had been curious as to why we had Isle of Jura as a hailing port on the transom. He is building a new house on Jura and I am happy to see other signs of regeneration on the island since my last visit several years ago.
The hotel in Craighouse is well established and nicely appointed. The previous proprietors ran it for over thirty years and it has recently changed hands. In fact, Andy and Cath McCallum had only taken over a couple of days before our visit and were still coming to grips with the usual mysteries of a new business such as where is the key to the wine cellar and what's in there anyway. We enjoyed a nice meal on two successive evenings in a relaxed atmosphere.
The main geographic features on the island are the three breast-shaped peaks called the Paps of Jura. When we arrived they had been discreetly veiled by low cloud, but at first light the following morning this was gently drawn aside and the view of the island was breathtaking. Across the still water floated the flute-like call of a cuckoo and the coarser cry of a pheasant.
We went ashore in the tender for a pre-arranged tour of the distillery. Starting off in the shop we were asked to turn off our cell phones to avoid risk of any electrical devices setting off explosive vapours. Our knowledgeable guide took us through the whole process starting with barley, which is held at constant temperature until it germinates. Germination is stopped at a specific point and, for strong tasting whiskies, the "malted" barley is smoked over a peat fire which gives it distinctive flavour. It is put into big fermenters with yeast to make a form of beer but minus the hops. This "beer" is then fed into steam-heated, beautifully shaped, copper stills to make a form of wine, which is further distilled into the liquid that becomes whisky. The shape of the stills, unique to every distillery, has an effect on the taste and strength of the finished product as does the water used and the treatment of the barley and the smoking of it. For single malts, the raw spirit is then stored in barrels for ten years or more to be aged. The Jura distillery has 28,000 barrels going through this maturing process.
After the tour we went back into the little shop where we were offered a range of whiskies first to sniff and then to taste. They had been subject to varying treatments and stored in different kinds of barrels including some from Spain, which had previously contained wine. The variations were considerable and potent! The distillery had been closed down at one time, had all equipment removed and even had the roof taken off. It reopened for business in 1962.
Jura just has one single road which runs from the ferry terminal at Feolin up the east coast to just north of Ardlussa where it turns into a track and ceases to be a public road. In common with most of the roads on the islands, it is single lane with passing places marked with black and white poles. At Feolin there is an information board which briefly mentions my great grandfather, Donald McKechnie, and quotes a stanza from his poetry.
While we were on Jura, runners were completing the super marathon, which had started five days earlier on the adjacent island of Islay and then followed the rugged and remote west coast of Jura. They had run 50 kilometers the previous day and 38 on the current day mostly over tussock grass and boggy ground so the event was very tough. However the survivors all seemed to be in good enough shape to celebrate their achievement in the hotel bar!
We remained off Craighouse for three days and, when we came to leave, the anchor came up encumbered with a huge bundle of seaweed which had to be cut away. As we motored slowly up the Sound of Jura in perfect weather, the Paps dominated the island to port while, to starboard, the Scottish mainland drew ever closer. In the far distance we caught glimpses of snow-capped peaks. At the north end of the island we passed the house called Barnhill where George Orwell wrote his famous book 1984 - a date now well into the past - but whose message seems all too familiar in today's over-regulated society.
The channel which separates Jura from the adjacent island of Scarba is named the Gulf of Corryvreckan. Its description in the sailing directions for the area makes it sound as though it should be avoided at costs. There is no doubt that certain combinations of wind and tide create truly ferocious conditions when it would be extremely foolish to attempt to navigate the Gulf but, provided one is sensible and makes the passage at the right state of the tide, it can be perfectly safe. Several tour companies offer trips through the Corryvreckan and there is an interesting DVD available from www.whirlpool-scotland.co.uk.
The weather was almost too perfect for our passage because, having read all the dire warnings about the potential for disaster, the Gulf itself was something of an anticlimax with only occasional swirls and glassy patches such as you might find in any tidal estuary. However, the rugged scenery of Jura and Scarba was breathtaking, and the sun shone on a sea as blue as the Mediterranean.
The croft that was home to Donald McKechnie is situated in Glengarrisdale about three miles down the West Coast from Corryvreckan. The croft itself was now a bothy, which is the local name for a travelers hut. A bothy can be used free-of-charge by anyone and there are a few simple rules governing their use under the heading of the Bothy Code. These mainly cover common-sense behaviour such as respecting other users and the environment - including disposal of waste.
The croft is highly visible from afar because it stands very much alone and is painted white with a red roof. I could feel a growing sense of excitement as we approached it in VENTURE II - a boat created and owned by the great-grandson of a man for whom this humble dwelling had been home and who had become famous in his own right.
We tried to anchor in Glengarrisdale Bay but the holding was not good and the space too restricted for it to be safe. We stood off and launched the tender and I was ferried ashore and landed on the same rocky outcrop I had used during my visit here several years ago. I scrambled over the rocks with my camera bags and onto the beach before making my way the few hundred yards to the bothy.
The door was not locked and, nor indeed, was there any means of locking it. Bothies are intended for all to use on the honour system. I went inside and tried to imagine what it must have been like for an extended family with as many as ten children to have lived here so far from any other habitation. The nearest track was over three miles away and could only be reached by trekking through very rough country over the mountains to the other side of the island. A bothy is described as offering basic shelter and that pretty well fits the description of this one as the accompanying pictures show. I took many photos including some with Venture in the background before returning to my rock to be picked up in the tender.
We headed back north to anchor into a bay named Bagh Gleann nam Muc , just around the corner from Corryvreckan, which was running faster than when we passed through it. It was Chris and Christine's turn for a run ashore and I took them across to a rock in the tender. At this point I have to say that fancy RIB inflatables with a fixed console and deep-vee hard bottom are quite unsuitable for landings on remote beaches whether they be in Scotland or Mexico. They are too heavy and cannot be dragged up the beach. What is more practical is the type of inflatable more commonly found on sailboats which are smaller, flat-bottomed, lighter and with a motor around 3.5 hp. Folding wheels would also be useful. The problem is where to stow this second tender when not in use. It can of course always be deflated but that is a bit tedious when the tender is in daily use.
We spotted a handful of the 5,000 red deer who live on Jura as well as some of the mountain goats, which are big hairy animals with awesome, scimitar-like horns. This memorable day finished with a memorable sunset which lingered in the western sky until 10 pm.
The following morning we retraced our steps south, past Glenagarrisdale Bay, and continued down the remote and rugged West Coast of Jura to Loch Tarbert . This is a sea loch which almost divides the island in two. It has two sets of narrows and we were able to take Venture through the first set and anchor in Chunhain Mhor where we were completely surrounded by land with no outlet channels visible. From here we took the rib and penetrated to the very top of the loch through the second set of narrows which were hidden from view until you were right upon them. I was dropped off on another of those convenient rocks for a photo opportunity. We spotted a stag watching us from the top of a nearby ridge.
One feature of the area is the raised beaches. These are pebble beaches, which are now as much as 120 feet above the existing sea level. When the ice receded 10,000 years ago, sea levels rose and flooded many low-lying areas. Relieved of the immense weight of the ice, the land rose - stranding the original coastline well above the present levels. The raised beach near the first narrows is an especially good example. Once again, getting ashore involved a leap of faith onto seaweed-covered rocks, and Christine and myself scrambled over them to reach the raised beaches. These consist of smoothly rounded pebbles which have been naturally graded into different sizes so that all pebbles at one location are small while elsewhere they may be four or five inches across. Walking across them is hard work, like walking on scree, and the noise of your feet varies according to the size of the pebbles. On smaller pebbles the sound is crisper and higher pitched while, on the larger, the tone is deeper with a hollow ring to it. The stones have of course been polished to their present shape and smoothness by the action of the sea but the stones on these beaches have been well above sea level for 10,000 years. Food for thought as you hold one of these pebbles in your hand and feel its smoothness against your skin.
That evening a cold, northerly wind gusted up to 28 kts and the morning dawned bright and virtually cloudless but by the time we raised the anchor at 09:30, clouds had covered the sky. It was dead low tide when Chris took the boat out with extreme care through the narrows, and we were quite close to the rocks on either side. The Paps appeared from behind the nearby smaller peaks and, as we turned into the strait dividing Islay and Jura, we could see rain coming across the water behind us, hiding the islands of Colonsay and Oronsay. The squall enveloped the Paps and descended upon us as we passed the ferry terminal at Feolin from where the small ferry was leaving to make the short hop to Islay across the narrow channel. The current was against us so at one point our speed was down to 5 knots.
The rain squall was soon passed and the sun broke through the clouds. We headed up the Sound of Jura and we crossed our northbound path just after noon thereby completing our circumnavigation of Jura. Although it had been a little chilly, we had enjoyed the best of weather during our time in Jura.
I had allowed more than one month to cruise the inner and outer Hebrides and, although Jura had been of special significance, we had only just started our peregrination. There is a wonderful guidebook that should be in the hands of anyone who has an interest in this part of the world. It is The Scottish Islands by Hamish Haswell-Smith. In his book, he lists 162 islands and that does not even include the Isle of Skye because, by his definition Skye no longer qualifies as an island now that it is connected to mainland Scotland with a bridge. Presumably, under the same set of rules the British Isles are no longer islands because of the Channel Tunnel! His beautiful book covers every aspect of the islands including wildlife, geology and history plus maps and colour sketches.
My next blog will describe our adventures as we continue to make our way North through this archipelago of enchanted islands.