A few days back it was TLF’s birthday. What do you get for the woman who has everything (including a handsome Labrador and a top of the range bald middle-aged husband)? Well, get this, I bought her a chain of small islands in the Southern Hebrides known as the Garvellachs. Generous, huh? Well, there was a catch – she would own them for a mere 24 hours before they would once again become the property of a member of the landed gentry (yawn) in absentia. TLF was thrilled.
We set off from Glasgow early on Monday and were sat aboard the Farsain at Croabh Haven by 10am. The Farsain is skippered by the evergreen Duncan Philips who has been plying the waters of the Southern Hebs from Croabh (on the Argyll coast south of Oban) for 25 years. He knows the territory intimately and his enthusiasm for the islands and their wildlife is still of the wide-eyed-wonder variety even after all these years.
Duncan had two other passengers for the journey out to the Garvellachs though they would be staying on-board. Every year for the last 20 our fellow passengers had made a pilgrimage out to the islands with Duncan to remember their son who had been killed shortly after his 18th birthday. That birthday had been spent diving around the Garvellachs – from the Farsain. Duncan had presented the young man with a cake – he was, says Duncan a ‘smashing boy’.
The wind was a-blowing and once Duncan steered the Farsain into the Grey Dog tidal race between the isles of Scarba and Lunga, we were in for a very bumpy ride. Duncan had given myself, James, Rich and Rob a supplementary visit to the Grey Dog when delivering us to Scarba in February. We thought it was exciting enough then, but on this windy morning it was verging on the positively scary. At a speed of 10 knots, we were standing still…
Once through the Grey Dog our ride became even bumpier as we were buffeted broadside by sizeable wind-driven waves. Were it not for the fact that we were in Duncan’s competent hands I mightt have felt a little unrelaxed… By this point it’s fair to say that Dougal had probably had enough; his ears drooped pitifully and his eyes were closed in a please-make-it-stop fashion. Still, his reward would be along shortly. After one and a half hours, Duncan put the fenders over the side and brought us alongside the small stone jetty in a little bay on the south-eastern coast of Garbh Eilach (pronounced Garvellach, geddit?) – Gaelic for Rough Island – and we scrambled ashore with our considerable load of supplies.
Garbh Eilach is the largest of the Garvellachs – An Garbh Eileaicha in Gaelic (Rough Islands or Isles of the Sea) – though the best known of the island group is Eilach an Naomih (pronounced Neve) or Isle of the Saints, for reasons I’ll elaborate on later.
A short walk from the jetty there stands a small house of a very bothy-like disposition, but it is kept locked for use only by those on estate business. This was fine by us as there is a great spot for pitching a tent in front of the house, with a wee burn running by, and no-one was home. The island was TLF’s.
The house is the only habitation on Garbh Eilach, which is a mere 2km east to west and 1km north to south. Should be a doddle tootling around the island in its entirety in an afternoon, no? Well, Garbh Eilach somehow looked bigger in the flesh than the map suggested. Anyway, after pitching the tent the obvious choice for an initial mini-expedition was to head north-ish through the Bealach an Tarabairt, a declivity which descends to the north coast through steep cliffs.
Looking back from the bealach
Down through the gap
Looking across to Mull
Steep cliffs on the north coast
We had a go at seeing how far we could scramble westwards along the coast and came up with the answer ‘not very’. We backtracked, climbed up back through the gap and headed east climbing to the higher ground.
The cliffs rise to 110 metres at the highest point – impressive for such a small island. We tottered along, warning the ever-curious Dougal back from the edge.
Once over the highest point, the easternmost island, Dun Chonnuill, came into view.
A closer view from the birch woods at the eastern end of Garbh Eilach:
We knew there were red deer on the island because there was plenty of poo around, but we had to wait until now to catch a first sight of around eight animals sneaking off through woods below us. The poor brutes spent the next few hours fleeing from us in a clockwise direction.
We decided to drop down to the coast and attempt to work our way back around to the wee hoose as close to the shore as possible. This presented no real problems and provided an entertaining route back to base camp.
TLF and Dougal enjoy a small cave full of wild garlic
We hauled some dead wood back to camp for a fire that evening and after a cup of tea, we set off west around the coast. We were soon hopping around on the sandstone and granite rocks along the shore, staying below the dense growth of small birch trees higher up.
We were soon at the western tip of the island, receiving a good buffeting from the very fresh breeze; it looked like heading east along the north coast wouldn’t work so we took to the higher ground.
This gave us a grand view west across the islands of A’ Chuli and Eilach an Naoimh.
We continued along the cliff tops of the north coast until we were above the gap of the Bealach an Tarabairt once again. We started up two groups of half a dozen deer at close quarters, which was quite spectacular. The evening light was greatly enhancing the experience as well.
And so back to camp for elaborate birthday dinner preparations (venison burgers, rice, veg, a bottle of Chateau-Poop du Naff and a wee hip flask of Bunnahabhain in case of emergencies).
Unfortunately, a late evening shower put paid to our plans to get a fire going, but Dougal at least didn’t seem to mind.
I was woken by the light at quarter to six in the morning. This seemed a reasonable time to be up and at ‘em in the circumstances, so I fired up the trangia (old-fashioned, slow but lovely stove) and made the first of several cups of tea. It was a crystal clear morning, but I was still a little surprised to find a light frost on and around the tent. I got a wee fire going in the handily arranged waist-level hearth on a rock in front of the house. TLF extricated herself from her sleeping bag, donned appropriate attire and joined myself and Dougal for a brew by the hearth and to watch the sun hove into view.
After a gallon of tea we were ready to skip back up the high ground to the west in order to see what the world looked like in that direction this morning. The cool, buffeting wind of the day before had blown itself out and the early morning had a wonderful, soft, clear sparkly feel to it. We crested the high ground and were presented with a fine view of Eilach an Naoimh and A’ Chuli once again.
And northwards to the isle of Mull
We hung about absorbing the views for a while before tottering off back down the hill to pack up in time for our rendezvous with Duncan who was due to pick us up at 10am. As we were breaking the tent down the thrumming sound of an engine took shape and a small boat soon appeared in the bay. A rowing boat that was being towed was brought alongside and a crewman rowed two other men and a whole load of kit ashore. I went down to the jetty to help them carry their stuff; it turns out that they were geologists come to update research one of the men had done for his phd back in the 1960s. Both chaps had a slightly crusty, ageing Oxbridge don air about them; if you’d asked Central Casting to supply a pair of actors to play geologists in a Mike Leigh film – ‘Plutons in May’, for example – then they’d look pretty much like these gentlemen. I mean no disrespect.
I was interested that they were here to undertake geological research and said so. One of the chaps asked if I knew about the Snowball Earth theory, I said that I didn’t and so he began to speak to me with a slightly raised voice, clearly enunciating his words in the manner of the Brit abroad talking at Johnny Foreigner. I tried cracking a geological joke about glacio-isostatic uplift to show that, while obviously stoopid, I knew a little about geology and was interested in the subject. To no avail; the gentleman was an imparter of information and not a listener, so my feeble joke fell on stony ground. If you’ll forgive the pun.
The gentlemen were staying in the wee hoose as guests of the laird; when TLF asked them whether the hoose was available as a holiday let, the slightly pompous chap scoffed at her ridiculous suggestion, making it clear that one was only afforded such a privilege by being cosy-wosy with Lord Sandys.
The gentlemen were slightly taken aback when they discovered that we’d arrived the day before in strong winds; it became clear that their own boat charter hadn’t been prepared to come out because of the conditions. Obviously not made of the same stuff as Duncan. By this point we were glad they hadn’t turned up the previous day – being patronised to within an inch of our lives would have taken the edge off our experience
We took ourselves off for a final walk back through the bealach to the north coast, returning in time to see Duncan approaching the bay. As we headed for the jetty with our stuff, we were presented with the slightly comic scene of the venerable geologists standing by the low-lying shore, investigating the rocks while wearing rock climbing helmets.
Once aboard, we chugged our way west in the lee of the islands; a much smoother ride than the previous day.
Our short cruise over, we had to jump ashore onto an outcrop of sea-smoothed basalt rock. We had two hours for an exploration of the island and its remarkable ancient bee hive cell and 6th century Celtic monastery. Very impressive, I can tell you. Somewhat incongruously in this wild spot these ancient monuments have wire fences around them and information panels installed by Historic Scotland. However, HS have a tough job to maintain sites such as these in remote locales and I’m certainly not knocking them.
Bee hive cell
TLF lends a sense of proportion
6th century Celtic monastery
And seen from above with Farsain bobbing around off shore
Having completed our reverential historical tourism duties, we embarked on a brief inspection of some of the island’s nooks and crannies.
Landscape with Labrador
Landscape without Labrador
Well that’s about it folks, except that the journey home was lovely. We got to see two white-tailed eagles, one perched on the branch of a Douglas fir and the other incubating on the nest. We also watched four dolphins swimming in the bow-wake of a small yacht, occasionally breaching but staying with the boat as if they were piloting it back to harbour. Beautiful.
No more islands until June. Next one’s a biggy, mind.