The ferry journey from Mallaig to Canna was a bit of a rollercoaster to say the least. It was a blowy old day and the ride was a bit bumpy, not least on the Sound of Eigg. The skipper of the CalMac ferry MV Loch Nevis took one look at the approach to the harbour at Port Mor on the isle of Muck and decided that this one port of call that wouldn’t be made today. Unfortunately there were a fair few folk aboard who were intending to visit the island including several families with young children. The ferry heaved around and bumped and rolled its way back towards Eigg. It was a bank holiday weekend in Scotland and the half term school holiday in England, so the ferry was teeming with children many of whom were compounding their own misery – and that of their parents – by throwing up all over the ship’s carpets and soft furnishings. Oh well, nothing for it but to tuck into a large plateful of CalMac fishcakes and chips. I fear that the smell of my dinner and the enthusiasm with which I was consuming it proved too much for the queasy-looking lady on the next table who lay prone on her seat retching pitifully into a sick bag. Apologies.
Anyway, full and contented I enjoyed the rest of the journey around the east coast of Rum and before you knew it we were easing into the calmer waters of Canna’s deep water harbour. As we disembarked, there were plenty of folk ready to board the ferry, many of whom had been attending a Gaelic festival on the island. Canna House was formerly home to the island’s previous owners John Lorne Campbell and Margaret Fay Shaw who had amassed an archive of traditional songs, stories and folklore gleaned during their extensive peregrinations around the Hebrides. They left the island to the nation and Canna and Sanday are now maintained by the National Trust for Scotland. The deconsecrated St Edwards church on Sanday was converted into a hostel and study centre linked to the archive in the 1990s, but has been left locked and unused ever since – perhaps there are moves afoot to move the project forward?
Anyway, the departing festival-goers looked full of vim and good cheer and as we walked up the track road from the pier we were hailed by Stewart Connor, the island’s NTS warden and a very fine fellow to boot – he pointed us in the direction of the island’s camping ground and that’s where we headed.
It was a wee bit blowy, but we found a good pitch in the lee of Coroghon Mor, a large rock stack standing sentinel by the shore and crowned by a rather structurally unsound-looking stone turret of ancient origin that looked just like it might make a suitable prison for a wicked witch – which as it happens is what it once was…
I was accompanied on this trip by The Lovely Fiona, Dougal the dog and our friends Clare and Sarah – teachers both, who had decided to let themselves in for a bit of Hebridean weather rather than going to Spain… Dinner cooked and consumed, we retired to our tents; this was Dougal’s first night in a tent and I’m glad to say he made an excellent foot warmer and didn’t snore nearly as much as The Lovely Fiona.
The night had been a bit blowy – though nothing to write home about – and the morning dawned with conditions much the same You can’t be letting a bit of weather stop your outdoor activities in Scotland, so we set off to scale Compass Hill as the first way station on our intended circumperambulation of Canna. We got all of 300 yards from the tent before we were hit by a torrential downpour. We put our backs against it and waited for it to pass, which it did gratifyingly swiftly. So, on and up over Compass Hill, a large lump of volcanic tuff that distorts the compasses of passing ships – perhaps this was why a french trawler captain ran aground on Rum in January
Anyway, we continued along to the north coast cliffs and it was a little while before it was safe enough to get the camera out without fear of drowning it.
We followed a narrow path – part sheep path part footpath I reckon – that does a pretty good job of forging the best route along the towering cliff tops; the heather cover is kept short because of the exposed position, so apart from a bit of bogginess here and there, the going is quite good.
We continued on our way, crossing the odd stock fence by way of handy step stiles and crossing an occasional wee burn. Suddenly there was a large feathery kerfuffle off the cliffs below and to our west – not one, but two sea eagles! We stood on our lofty vantage point taking turns with the binoculars to enjoy this fine avian spectacle – the birds were to-ing and fro-ing along the cliffs for so long we almost got bored watching them! They eventually drifted off, irritated by the attentions of some hooded crows that were gamely mobbing them – a bit like Charles Hawtrey taking on Mike Tyson in his pomp, I feel.
The weather was improving, it was still a bit blowy and an occasional shower would sweep in, but there were also some welcome outbreaks of sunshine to enjoy. We continued on our way, marvelling at the fine views along the cliffs to the west.
Somewhere in there, Clare slipped and bashed her knee on a piece of wood, causing a sore-looking raised bump on her patella, which made her limp. Luckily we weren’t far off the narrow, low-lying isthmus at Canna’s wasp-waist, which meant that Clare would be able to bail out and return to A’Chill by crossing over to Tarbert on the southern side of the isthmus and following a well-maintained track along the raised shore platform along the south coast.
Once we had descended to the beach on the north side of the isthmus, a heavy shower swept in and gave us a bit of a pummeling as we huddled beneath a low cliff. Our drenching was over before w’d actually drowned and blue skies appeared once more. With glad hearts we found a suitable picnic spot and tucked into some sarnies, fortifying ourselves for the next leg of our circumperambulation. Lunch over, we said goodbye to Clare who limped off to A’Chill. Our depleted team continued on its way, climbing back to the cliff tops.
A raised shore platform is visible beneath these north-western cliffs from some distance; on the map it looks as if you might just be able to get right along to Garrisdale Point – Canna’s westernmost point – although it looks tenuous in a couple of places. Still, I was here to test the bounds of the possible – even if my trusting companions were oblivious of this fact. So, down we went with great ease to gain the shore platform. We got all of about 500 metres along the platform before a steep-sided gully dropping a cascading burn precipitously into the sea cut short our promenade. A scramble back up to the cliff tops, along a bit more and try again. We had to pass under a wee waterfall and zig-zag down to the platform this time, but it was a lot of fun.
This time we didn’t get very far at all. Sometimes I just refuse to believe what the map is strongly suggesting, but in truth I wasn’t that surprised to encounter the sheer cliffs that meant we would have to return to the cliff tops yet again.
It was worth it just to enjoy the waterfall being blown back up the cliff:
Back on the cliff tops, I was convinced our third attempt would bear fruit. Amazingly, my companions didn’t object. Perhaps it was the view down to the lovely sandy beach that we’d glimpsed from afar that did it.
The route down was easy and we were soon in an undercliff world that time had forgot. Here there were the vestiges of shielings and stone enclosures and what might have been grave markers. The greensward was corrugated by the undulations of ancient lazy beds, testament to Canna’s earlier inhabitants’ battle to eke a living from the land. After exploring a while, we continued on our way and were indeed able to walk as far as Garrisdale Point. Here there were fine views over the agitated seas around the island and, nearby, the once-fortified rock stack of Dun Channa. Ten kilometres to the south-west, Hyskeir – or Oigh-Sgeir – lighthouse stood proud upon its rocky domain.
We retraced oor steps a few hundred yards to take the easiest route back to the cliff tops and once up we continued climbing gently to arrive at the cliff top summit of Sron Ruail (129m) with its commanding views over the southern cliffs and far and wide beyond. After admiring the vista of islands around the Sea of the Hebrides, we continued along the cliff tops. The going was that much easier along the springy turf of the southern cliffs and we were glad of this as we were all beginning to feel a wee bit tired – not least Dougal who had already walked further than ever before in his furry young life and there were still a few kilometeres to go.
Below and east of Am Beannan lie the remains of what is believed to have been an Early-Christian monastic hermitage – possibly a nunnery, which gives the site its name: Sgorr nam Ban-naomha (cliff of the holy women). A fixed rope facilitates access to the site from the cliff tops, but today we’d give it a miss as there was still a way to go and getting down with the dog wasn’t feasible. Another reason – as if any were needed – to come back to the wondeful isle of Canna!
We continued on our way and soon enough we were heading into the wasp-waist of the island at Tarbert. From here we picked up the track and sauntered along enjoying the views across Sanday.
We were glad to arrive back at A’Chill with tired legs, having had a fantastic day’s walk. The girls took advantage of the facilities near the farm buildings and I was just wondering where we’d find Clare when she came bursting out of a nearby house accompanied by Julie, the wife/partner? of Stewart the NTS warden. Clare was fine, she said, but when she’d got back to our campsite she had encountered Julie who had discovered that mine and Fiona’s tent had blown into the sea. Boo. Hoo.
Julie and Clare had rescued most of our stuff and were drying our sleeping bags and down jackets on the washing line. They thought the tent might be salvageable. Julie kindly made tea for everyone, but I felt the need to go and check the damage.
Clare and Julie had indeed saved almost everything, but after an initial inspection of the salvaged tent it was clearly a write-off. It’s only stuff, but it was expensive stuff and it had let us down and now we had no shelter. Fear not though, for soon enough Stewart, Julie and a couple of their friends turned up with a tent and sleeping bags for us and we were soon having a right old laugh pitching a Eurohike tent.
Say what you like about Eurohike tents, this one would have cost a tenth of what we paid for our Terra Nova Voyager XL, but at least it stayed up that night, which was also rather inclement on the weather front. Sarah and Clare were pitched next to us in my Voyager, which was entirely unaffected; our lovely neighbours from Teeside, David and Moira, were in a Crux tent that was also unmoved by the conditions.
I’ve emailed a comprehensive account to Terra Nova and have offered them the chance to make redress. Three days later, I’ve not heard anything; I suspect I may not, given past experience of complaining to them about poor quality tent bags. I’ve always loved Terra Nova’s Voyager tents, but you need to be able to trust a manufacturer if you’re going to give them repeat custom. I’ll let you know how I get on.
Anyway, our mishap was made up for by the generosity and all-round thoroughly decent behaviour of Stewart , Julie and friends; David and Moira popped by with some wine for us too, which took the edge off matters – it made cooking in the rain quite enjoyable!
It was quite late by the time we turned in – 10pm maybe! Tomorrow we’d be visiting Sanday, come what may…
For a far superior account of an excellent walk around the coast of Canna, see Alex and Bob’s posts at blueskyscotland.