Between the Grey Dog and Breacan’s Cauldron

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The small Hebridean isle of Scarba measures a mere 5km east to west by 4.5km south to north, its highest point is the summit of Cruach Scarba at 449 metres. The island lies barely a kilometre to the north of Jura across the Gulf of Corryvreckan, which is home to the northern hemisphere’s second largest whirlpool after Norway’s Maelstrom. For good measure, the island is separated from Lunga, it’s northerly neighbour, by one of the most notorious tidal races in the Hebrides – the Bealach a’ Choin Ghlais, the Grey Dog.

My previous visit to Scarba was just over a year ago; along with TLF and Dougal, we spent a memorable 48 hours on the island having been delivered from the mainland by the estimable Duncan Philips, skipper of the Farsain.

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Last weekend, I returned to Scarba in the company of James, Rich and Rob along with Dougal (Labrador) and Reuben (Staffie); the premise for our trip was James’ stag do – Mr Boulter will be marrying Corrina after a 20-year courtship later this month.

Having driven from Glasgow in an intermittent downpour, we were delighted to see a break in the clouds as we boarded the Farsain at Croabh Haven. Duncan is some years beyond retirement age, but he seems to have little inclination of calling time on his business of taxiing folk around the waters of the Inner Hebrides. Good job too as there are few people with Duncan’s knowledge of these waters or his capability in handling a small craft in often challenging conditions. Furthermore, Duncan is a real mine of information on island life and he has a deep knowledge of and keen eye for the sea creatures and birds encountered on his patch.

En route to the small jetty below Kilmory, Duncan pointed out the nest of a pair of white-tailed eagles; we trained our binoculars, but no-one was home. Duncan had obviously fallen out of bed the right side that morning as he then took us on a jolly through the Grey Dog. This was really quite exciting and of course the picture below doesn’t capture the sinuous, twisting currents and overfalls racing through the narrow gap.

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Duncan is adept at throwing the Farsain around such bodies of water like a teenage joyrider executing handbrake turns in a car park; I wouldn’t have wanted to be in the Grey dog with anyone else.

Eventually, we made for the jetty; I had to hold firmly onto Dougal as he looked like he was thinking of bailing out and swimming the last few hundred metres. Once ashore we hoisted our extra heavy rucksacks (lots of food, some booze) and walked up along the track, past Kilmory Lodge (mostly used during the stalking season) and thence above the east coast before descending into Gleann a’ Mhaoil to arrive at the bothy.

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After having a bite to eat then pitching our tents on the only flattish dryish patch of ground near the bothy, we set off for a walk/scramble westwards along the coast, looking onto the Corryvreckan. This is a fine coastal landscape adorned with caves, natural arches and basalt dikes. The evening sun further enhanced our outing.

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Across the narrow strait, the wild west coast of Jura went about its business.

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We returned to the bothy to cook dinner, get a fire going and have a wee dram/rum tea, before retiring to our tents. The night sky was clear and enclosed us under a canopy of stars; it was also brass monkeys. In such circumstances a warm Labrador is almost as good as a warm wife.

Next morning dawned dry and fine, so we set off reasonably early to climb Cruach Scarba. A fairly taxing cross country yomp from the bothy brought us to the head of Loch Airigh a’ Chruidh where we picked up the old pony path which loops around two thirds of the island between 100m-300m.

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A few hundred metres along the path beyond the outflow of the loch, the view opened up onto the north of Jura.

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Once we’d thoroughly enjoyed the views, we continued on our way along the pony path. At the point where the path disappears and the ground falls steeply away to the north, we climbed first to a bealach…

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…and then continued more steeply northwards along rocky ridges to gain the summit, which is a Marilyn. This particular Marilyn is furnished with a Vanessa OS triangulation pillar.

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Near the summit, there is a large-ish roofless structure with two dry-stone walls built against a low rock face (sorry no pic); perhaps it was once used as a shelter for man and/or beasts. I wondered if the neat graffiti cut into the rock at the summit was left by the shelter’s builders.

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Sitting atop the summit, we ate our sandwiches and enjoyed the spectacle of three golden eagles and a solitary white-tailed eagle circling lazily to the north-west with the Garvellachs and Mull as a backdrop.

Lunch over, we split into two parties; Rob, James and Reuben would descend to the north then continue back round to the bothy on the track, while myself, Rich and Dougal would attempt to descend to the west coast to see if it would then be possible to return to the bothy following the  coastline around to the south along the Gulf of Corryvreckan.

We retraced our steps to the bealach and then descended steeply west across marshy and heather-clad ground. After reaching a small plateau we descended again and came to the edge of an impressive steep-sided gorge; there were grand views north-west onto the Garvellachs and Mull.

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It looked like it would be possible to descend to the coast alongside the gorge and so it proved, but it was a little hairy.

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I was a little elated at the prospect of tackling a new piece of Hebridean coastline; would we be able to get around to the bothy along the shore or would the terrain force us back up to higher ground? Arriving on the rock platform beneath the west coast’s cliffs, this small island presented us with a landscape too grand in scale to capture in a single image.

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Initially, our progress southwards was relatively easy along the raised shore platform beneath the glacial cliffs, however, we were soon scrambling along narrow ledges between oblique shelves of rock.

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As we turned the corner, so to speak, to gain Scarba’s south coast, we scrambled over a field of boulders before reaching another broad section of raised shore platform where the going became somewhat easier. Briefly.

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It was now 3pm; we had a good two and a half hours daylight to tackle the remaining 5km of coastline back to Bagh Gleann a’Mhaoil and the bothy. A fabulous natural arch seemed to be a portal providing access to the Gulf of Corryvreckan.

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The views opened up across the narrow strait to the rugged west coast of Jura; offshore the catalysed currents of the Corryvreckan – Breacan’s Cauldron – roiled around the submarine pinnacle known as the Caillach – or Hag .

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There now began a pattern where we would scramble over obliquely shelved rocks into a bay then clamber along narrow rock ledges before hauling ourselves – and a 35kg Labrador – up through gaps or chimneys in huge dikes walling-in the next bay. It has to be said that this was mostly very entertaining, but we soon realised that our progress along the coast was very slow. Judging by our position in relation to Eilean Mor off Jura’s north coast, we still had a long way to go. I began to wonder if we would in fact make it around to the bothy in daylight; a waxing quarter moon and gathering clouds meant we’d likely struggle to see our way on the difficult terrain in the dark.

Eventually we reached a dike that we may have been able to scramble over from a narrow ledge maybe 10 metres above the large-pebbled bay, but there was no way we were going to heave Dougal over the same; a slip and it would be a helicopter back to Glasgow. Furthermore, we couldn’t know if we’d be able to descend the other side. Our decision made for us, we climbed steeply to higher ground. At around 100m we found a deer path that contoured nicely along and afforded us fine views.

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My phone rang: it was Duncan warning us that the weather was going to deteriorate from the following afternoon; he could still pick us up Monday as planned, but we were in for gale force winds on Sunday night and he thought we might want to bale out. It turns out he’d been down the Corryvreckan that morning and had seen our tents perched above the shore – he obviously didn’t fancy our chances!

Progress was good along the higher ground so when we looked down to a large bay that seemed familiar from the previous afternoon’s sortie, we decided to descend steeply back to the shore. It soon became apparent that we weren’t where we thought we were but, hey-ho, we carried on regardless, resuming the pattern of scrambling and clambering once again. Progress was slow and time was running out; the light had begun to fade and I began to feel a wee bit concerned. Helpfully, Rich was very pragmatic about our situation; there’s nothing like a nervous companion to increase your own anxiety. Dougal, however, was tiring and I felt a bit bad about having hauled the poor mite over rugged terrain all day. Somewhere in there I slipped and seemed to be about to plummet headlong down a rocky chute into a narrow inlet. Somehow I contrived to swing round and bang into the rocks beside me, clinging on like a good ‘un. We began to see how this could all go wrong.

On we soldiered, startling up deer and feral goats along the way – they had every right to be entirely surprised by our presence as I don’t think this stretch of coast gets too many visitors. Still we’d not reached familiar ground; we turned into another bay on the far side of which a huge dike blocked the way. This was a bit dispiriting. In the failing light we could make out a vertical chimney that looked to be around 4 metres high between a ledge and a notch in the dike; could we do it? We scurried around the bay and edged along the ledge, coaxing Dougal along. Rich jammed his way up the chimney then hung his arms down to receive Dougal – who’d managed the first 2 metres but was now stuck. I wedged myself beneath the poor dug, pushing him upwards as Rich grasped his collar, and we heaved and hauled him up through the notch. We all stood at the top wagging our tails in relief.

It was now actually dark; how far did we have to go? A little further on I recognised a quartz x on a large boulder and we saw that we must have reached known territory without realising it in the gloaming. It would be another hour back to the bothy; there was still some scrambling to tackle, but at least we now knew what to expect. However, now was not the time to relax…

Candle light and wood smoke issued from the bothy as we emerged into Bagh Gleann a’ Mhaoil – a very welcome prospect.

Next morning we all managed to wake up without a hangover between us for the second morning in a row – some stag weekend this was proving to be! I set off early to walk around the gentler east coast with just Dougal for company. The day was overcast and the route along the eastern shore was unremarkable, though this was fine with us after the previous day’s scrambl-a-thon. Feral goats and fallow deer scooted off at our approach as we sauntered along, crossing marshy ground and weaving through lichen-festooned birch woods. A cave formed from what appeared to be a buckled dike had a rather man-made look about it.

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We passed through a level area of open ground with a few mature trees and a burn running through; this would make a good campsite. A waterfall added to the charm.

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We soon found what we’d been looking for: the scant remnants of the ancient chapel of Cille Mhoire an Caibel – the Virgin Mary’s chapel of the burial ground.

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There is indeed a burial ground by the ruins, the few headstones dating from the late 18th and early 19th centuries. At its peak the population of Scarba amounted to some 14 families around the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries. There are no permanent inhabitants today, which in a way is part of the appeal of visiting such a place. But therein is the price paid for the ‘wild’ places that many of us love to visit these days, to get away from the noise, hassle and stresses of our urban existences. Places such as Scarba were once populated; people went about the business of ekeing a living from the land and sea in many parts of Scotland that are now depopulated – by and large the legacy of the Clearances and industrialisation. I happened to be reading Kathleen Jamie’s excellent book Findings during this trip and in one essay she takes issue with the too-frequent references that are thrown around about Scotland’s ‘wild’ places and ‘wilderness’ – something I do all the time; to do so, she says, is to pay a disservice to the people who once lived and worked on the land, the traces of whose existence are there for us to see should we seek them out. And here they were, the former inhabitants of Scarba interred here in this hidden, seldom-visited burial ground.

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Once we were back in Glasgow, Dougal and Reuben enjoyed a good nights rest by taking advantage of the soft furnishings:

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In the next few days you’ll be able to read far more interesting accounts of this trip written by Jamesand Rich; I’ll update the links once they enter the blogosphere.  You want to go to Scarba too?

There is no ferry link to the island so unless you sail or kayak yourself, private boat charter is the only means of getting to Scarba. Duncan Philips operates Farsain Cruises out of Craobh Haven Marina, north of Lochgilphead on the Argyll coast ; the crossing takes 45 minutes and at the time of writing (2013) costs £60 one-way regardless of the size of the group (up to 12 people). Contact Farsain Cruises on 07880 714165.

Lots of info about Scarba, including its history, geology, flora and fauna, as well as a cracking route around the island, taking in Cruach Scarba, will be included in the second edition of Walking on Jura, Islay and Colonsay to be published by Cicerone Press in August 2013.

18 responses

  1. Some sentences really need to be read in context, such as “a warm Labrador is almost as good as a warm wife”.

    Anyway as you were having your jolly along the west coast I was having a debate about what time would be appropriate for the call to mountain rescue. In the end I had settled on waiting till dawn…………….. Sounded like a bit of an epic afternoon in comparison to Rob and myself gentle amble off to the north.

  2. Yes, Mr B, context is everything! I look forward to your impending post immensely; hopefully there’ll actually be some people in your pictures!

      • So often I ‘have to’ take pics these days for inclusion in guidebooks, I find that at other times I hardly take pics of people at all. I’ll often say to Fiona ‘walk towards the camera, look at me, keep going, look into the distance’ etc. It’s annoying for both of us – especially Fiona! I’ve added a pic of D & R to put that one straight.
        The yellow jacket is my special photobombing outfit!

  3. Great pictures, Pete, as ever. The south coast of Scarba sounds like a tough tough walk! But what a great island it is. We had a trip there a few years ago, courtesy of Lindsay ‘Craignish Cruises’ Johnston and his catamaran the Sea Leopard. He picked us up at Ardlussa and dropped us off on Scarba for the day. Did the east coast and the bothy, and got half way up Cruach Scarba when we realised we’d run out of time, and had a mad dash back down to the jetty. A great day.

    • Thanks, Dave. Next time you get a chance to visit Scarba, once you’re done with Cruach Scarba pop down to visit the west coast, it really is spectacular; great views of the Garvellachs too.

  4. When I quoted the warm-labrador-versus-warm-wife statement to Geoff, I think he came very close to swapping the words ‘almost as good as’ to ‘better than’…..

    Wonderful photos though of a wonderful looking trip. Your journey around the coastline reminds me of a backpacking trip we once did on the shores of Lake Superior, where the rocks, ledges etc etc were so awkward at one point, that it actually took us 2 hours to do a one mile stretch!

    Love the look of that old graveyard too – very atmospheric.

    Can’t wait now for our Easter trip! I know it’s a different island, but I’m sure there’ll be mega scenery and sunsets galore still!

  5. Thanks Chrissie, it was an excellent trip and you’ll hear more from James and Rich on the subject. They – and Rob – were good company, very easy going chaps indeed.

    I really hope you get a decent share of good weather when you hit the Hebs – a bit of sunshine on those west coast beaches…

    • Hey Rich, it was great to have your company on a grand trip; especially during our scrambletastic scarba coast adventure! How’s Kilmory the Stag hanging?

      • I’ve invested in two bottles of hydrogen peroxide and a bag of cotton wool balls, hoping to have a gleaming white skull by Sunday. I’ll keep you posted. Have a great time on Lewis and thanks again for your hospitality. X

  6. I’ve had more than enough of those near dark experiences to last me a lifetime. I can normally enjoy most of them in hindsight – eventually.
    Great write up, let’s see what Mr Boulter has come up with….

    • At least we knew roughly where we were and following the shoreline you can’t get too lost… It was a bit worrying though just because the terrain was so unrelentingly tough; your chances of taking a fall increase exponentially as the light fails. All’s well that ends well.

  7. I have the fortunate good luck to be going to Scarba in the spring, I didn’t know of the bothy there, I will be taking my tent but I was wondering what the condition of the bothy you mentioned was in in case the weather decided to be silly.
    Cheers Paul.

    • Hello Paul; lucky you! The bothy is fine for hanging out in, cooking and getting a fire going (should be plenty driftwood along the beach in the bay); not so good for sleeping as v dirty and dusty. Take that tent! Have a great trip.

    • Thanks, Andrew. Scarba is a wee gem; I hope you get to visit in the not too distant. We’re off to the Garvellachs end of next month; there’s something about wee uninhabited islands…

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