Words and pictures by Keith Redhead
We have just returned from the 11-day Atlantic West Coast Voyager aboard the Halmar Bjorge. The wildlife was awe inspiring and spectacular. There were great opportunities for photography. The history of the islands was very fascinating. It was, for me, a holiday of a lifetime.
As passengers on cruises in the western isles we must accept that we are very weather dependant. So, we were incredibly lucky with near perfect weather, the seas were calm, so we were able to follow the planned itinerary. The beautiful western islands seemed like paradise. We crossed the Minch and sailed up the western coast of the Outer Hebrides and to visit the Monach islands with their lovely sandy beaches and machair, the Flannans and the extraordinary rocky gannetry. In addition, we took in the Shiants, gaelic for the enchanted islands with its rafts of Auks. We also visited Lunga, where we were stunned by the nesting Puffins and thousands of Guillemots on Dun Cruit or Harp Rock.
The crew on the Halmar Bjorge (HB) were very attentive. They were all interested in the natural history of the islands, and they inspired confidence. Tony, the skipper is very experienced having been a harbour master and worked on lifeboats. He found peaceful anchorages and sleeping on board was pleasant. He has a good sense of humour and some great stories. He invited passengers to join him in the Wheelhouse if they wished. Hamish, the first mate has lived in Scotland for many years and worked as a fisherman and undertakes ecological surveys and stalking work. He ran the RIB and ensured our journeys to land on the islands were safe and no wet feet! The highlight was his RIB tour amongst the Auks on the Shiants. As well as being the chef, Luke is also a great naturalist, having lived for many years on Islay associated with the RSPB reserve. From his small Galley kitchen, he produced some very tasty meals, always with a smile. Our wildlife guide, Irene was very attentive. She has worked and volunteered for many years as a wildlife surveyor for conservation organizations, such as the RSPB, Natural England and the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, as well as ecology consultancies and local farm estates. She has a special interest in raptors and is an all-round naturalist, interested in all aspects of the natural world. She was always to be found on the bow, constantly on the lookout for cetaceans and birds and was keen to engage with all the passengers to ensure that they did not miss anything. Each evening, after supper she briefly went through what wildlife had been seen that day and encouraged everyone to contribute and kept an on-going list of species. I learnt a great deal and as a result consider a wildlife guide on the Halmar Bjorge an essential ingredient. All the other passengers had previously sailed on the HB two had specialist knowledge of lighthouses adding to our experience.
The HB is a fine-looking boat. There are plenty of places from which to see wildlife. It has been fitted with stabilizers and this reduces the chance of seasickness. Its draft is 4 metres which allows it to get close to the island shores. Landing on the islands is generally just a short journey by the RIB. It is well stocked with books such as the superb, Scottish Islands by Dick Haswell Smith. It’s a small boat and therefore cabins are cosy, and the facilities are shared. There is 1 shower and 2 toilets between all the passengers and the guide. Consequently, it is quite an adventure to share the small space, but all the passengers were considerate and seemed to adapt to it!
Day 1 12.6.23 Oban – Loch na Droma Buidhe
We joined the HB on a beautiful afternoon in Oban where it was moored at the pontoons. After a briefing from the skipper and meeting the crew and the 7 other passengers we departed up the Sound of Mull. After 3 hours we arrived in a perfect sheltered anchorage and later a gorgeous sunset at Loch na Droma Buidhe at the head of Loch Sunart on the Morvern peninsula opposite Tobermory.
Anchorage at Loch na Droma Buidhe
Day 2 13.6.23 Loch na Droma Buidhe - Vatersay
Before the boat generators were switched at 07.00 am we went on the upper deck and heard, from the shore, Common Sandpiper, Cuckoo, Blackcap and saw Red Throated Diver in the Loch. It was a perfect day, calm conditions and after breakfast we set off across the South Minch to Mingulay. En route we saw Minke Whale, harbour Porpoise, Bottlenose Dolphin but the highlight was the appearance of a pod of 50 Common Dolphin which we watched approaching from the west. They then proceeded to swim in the Bow wave of the HB for half an hour. This was a stunning sight as the Dolphins appeared to look up at the watching passengers who were all entranced! As we reached the eastern side of Mingulay we turned south to round the Barra Head with its magnificently situated lighthouse. As we passed the huge cliffs of the western side of Mingulay there were large rafts of Guillemot, Razorbill and Puffin on the sea. In the cliffs above there were nesting Kittiwake, Fulmar and Guillemot. The scenery was spectacular. We passed through the sound of Mingulay to the east of Pabbay, Sandray to anchor at Vatersay. After a fine supper of mackerel pate, Roast Duck and Sticky toffee pudding we went ashore on the RIB. It was a lovely evening and we walked over the dune of the isthmus of this island. We heard Corncrake, Crex crex...its scientific name as well as its call, my first time. We had a brief glimpse of the Great Yellow Bumblebee Bombus distinguendos which Irene encouraged us to look out for in amongst the Kidney Vetch, Birds foot trefoil, Wild Thyme and Milkwort.
Common Dolphins which swam in our Bow wave
Day 3 14.6.23 Vatersay – Taransay.
A bright sunny day with a Southeast wind meant the skipper was happy to sail up the west of the Outer Hebrides. We sailed to the Monach islands passing the 50-metre-tall lighthouse on the most westerly of these flat treeless islands and anchored in the Sound of Shillay. We went ashore onto Ceann lar. It was glorious weather. There were rounded rocks and golden sands, Arctic Terns, Redshanks, Oystercatchers, Turnstones, Dunlin were abundant. The island consists of a machair, a windswept flower rich low-lying grassland which was in flower with Red Clover, Common Birdsfoot Trefoil, Daisy, Yarrow and Hebridean Spotted Orchid - stunning. It was amazing to think that it had been inhabited, the people having left in the 1930’s. After a really inspiring island walk we returned to the HB and sailed on the flat Atlantic to anchor at Taransay.
The Halmar bjorge at Anchor in the Sound of Shillay the Monach islands.
Day 4 15.6.23 Taransay - Loch Tamanavay
Taransay lies almost 2 miles from Harris and has been uninhabited since the 1970s. It is the largest island without population. The following day we were dropped at the lovely sands of this island where Otter prints were seen and walked with Irene and 2 other guests up the hill though the machair reaching the ridge. There were at least 3 pairs of Golden Plover piping at us as we walked up the grassy ridge as well as calling Artic Tern, and Wheatear, flashing their white rumps. There were marshy areas in which we found Bog Asphodel, Sundew, Bog Cotton, Bog Bean and 2 species of Dragonfly and Damselfly and high up the sky a Golden Eagle. A friend had challenged me to find an old Nordic Mill on the island. Evidently the Vikings designed these horizontal mills and this design continued to be used until the 18th century. We found the old mill on Allt a’ Mhuillinn (the stream of the Mill) between 2 lochans. One can see the race leading water to the mill but no millstone. The island was very dry following the dry spell of weather so there would have been no water to have driven the mill on our visit. From here we climbed Ben Ra, 276 m which rewarded us with superb views of Red Deer, Harris and neighbouring islands. We met a crofter and his brother at the top. They were both from Harris. They pointed out their croft across the water. They were my age, in their 60’s, and curiously had never been to Taransay before. We walked down amongst more Golden Plover and after a refreshing brief dip in the Atlantic we returned to the HB. We sailed north and anchored at Loch Tamanavay.
Golden Plover Taransay
Day 5 16.6.23 Loch Tamanavay - Loch Charlabhaigh
Another beautiful day. From the shore we heard Redshank, Common Sandpiper, and Cuckoo before sailing Northwest to the Flannans. En route I spent some time in the wheelhouse with the skipper, learning about the HB. He told me it’s a good boat to sail, a twin-engine Detroit motor and Perkins generator. It has a desalination plant producing the water which we were drinking. (It tasted fine!) The optimum cruising speed is 9 knots. I was told it has enough diesel to go across the Atlantic and halfway back! It had been recently refitted with a new engine and updated computerized controls including Satnav with digitalised charts.The Flannans lie 21 miles west of Lewis in 3 small clusters. There is a lighthouse situated on Eilean Mor (Big island) and it is situated dramatically 101 metres above sea level. Like all the lighthouses in Britain it is automatic and has been since 1971. We anchored on the southern aspect of this island. The skipper decided that the Atlantic swell would render landing on the base of the steps were very difficult, so we watched the nesting Puffins, Kittiwakes, Guillemots, Razorbills and Gannets from the boat. High up on the cliffs we could see a young White-tailed Eagle. After a light lunch on board, we sailed to Roaiream. This is a huge gannetry. Massive stacks with arches create a watery cathedral nave like appearance which is home to thousands of gannets which, from a distance, paint the top white. The sight of these huge birds with an almost 2 metre wingspan, standing or flying was truly one of the most inspiring sights I have ever seen, humbling and unforgettable. From here we sailed north to Loch Charlabhaigh on Lewis with views of Red Throated Divers, Ravens, Arctic Terns as we arrived to anchor.
The Huge stacks of the Gannetry of Roaiream the Flannans
Day 6 17.6.23 Loch Charlabhaigh-Stornaway
Before we set sail we caught a brief glimpse of an Otter in the Loch. Once again, another sunny day with a Northeast 2-4 variable wind. This was the day that we would sail round the Butt of Lewis. There was quite a swell associated with the wind and the 2 of us felt a bit seasick. However, once we turned south and sailed with the swell the nausea abated and we were able to happily eat Luke’s excellent Quiche! We obtained great views of Risso’s Dolphin. These are impressive large robust Dolphins which reach 3.8 m in length. We think there were 3-4 of them, they are blunt nosed and pale and appear to have lost of scratches from skirmishes. Indeed, as we watched them breach they did appear to be fighting each other. At times a Bonxie (Great Skua) followed the boat closely at times and provided great opportunities for close inspection! The harbour at Stornoway is dominated by Lews Castle. We had a good walk in its grounds after mooring. It was built in 1847 by Sir James Matheson who had bought the whole island with his fortune from the Opium wars. It is an impressive parkland now and the trees contrasted with the treeless islands we had previously visited. Returning to boat, Luke had made a sweet potato soup followed by Balmoral Chicken.
Great Skua or Bonxie following the boat
Risso’s Dolphin East of Lewis
Day 7 18.6.23 Stornoway - Loch Dunvegan
The following day we set sail, southeast for the Shiant islands, the enchanted islands. En route we encountered Minke Whale which surfaced several times as well as more Risso’s Dolphin. Gradually the islands appeared through the haze. This northern approach revealed huge stacks created by 120- metre-high basalt colonnades. The skipper anchored the boat in the lee of Garbh Eilean (Rough island) which was very sheltered. The easterly view of this island consisted of steep grassy slopes peppered with burrows and beside which stood Puffins. Lower down huge boulders were piled up. In every nook and cranny birds, viz. Shags, Razorbills, Guillemots and Puffins were nesting. In addition, there were rafts of Auks on the sea. At this stage the RIB was lowered, and we quietly made our way in amongst these rafts. The birds seemed unperturbed and allowed us to float between them in this calm beautiful reflective bay. In the afternoon we were dropped off on the island onto the narrow isthmus which joins Eilean an Tigh (Church Island) to Rough Island. The island is owned by the Nicholson family. We walked past the unoccupied bothy and followed a path through the grassland. The grassland was carpeted by Flowering Silverweed, Self-Heal, Flag Iris, Louse Wort, Wild Thyme, White Clover, Orchids and Fairy Flax. There were Rock Pipit, Wheatear, Snipe, Eider and pair of breeding Great Skua. The Shiants really did seem enchanted and on our way out the skipper took us round the Northern colonnades to see nesting Kittiwakes and Guillemots high in the cliffs before setting out for Loch Dunvegan on Skye where we anchored for the night.
The Arch at the Shiants
Hjalmar Bjorge at Anchor at the Shiants
Shags and Razorbills - The Shiants
Puffin at the Shiants
Day 8 19.6.23 Loch Dunvegan-Rum
We woke to rain, the first shower of the trip. From Skye we set a course for Canna. However, the variable Southerly wind meant that the skipper felt it better not to anchor at Canna and so continued to Rum where we moored in Loch Scresant by Kinloch. It is considered an island of trees and midges; however we were not troubled too much. Kinloch Castle dominates the view of this approach and its history of is one of Edwardian extravagance in the extreme. We enjoyed a lovely walk, a loop up Kinloch glen. Common Redstart were heard, Dipper seen, and a Red breasted merganser and her 9 chicks were a lovely sight. Back on the boat we enjoyed a lovely vegetarian tagine with halloumi cheese and cous cous.
Red-breasted merganser Rum
Day 9 20.6.23 Rum-Tiree
The skipper had news that a pod of Orca possibly Aquarius and John Coe were thought to be in the area, so we sailed towards Mallaig to search of a sighting. Disappointingly we did not see them, so we turned south, passing the island of Eigg with its very impressive An Sgur (rocky Peak) and its nose. The lighthouse on Eilean Chathastail made a fine view with the nose behind it. We headed towards Tiree and stopped to anchor for lunch by Sanna Bay on the Ardnamurchan peninsula. This 55 mile journey on a very flat sea revealed little in the way of cetaceans. We had great views of Manx Shearwater gracefully flapping and then gliding over the waves. We passed the low-lying Coll before reaching Gunna sound where we found anchorage in Gott Bay on Tiree where we went ashore for a walk.
Day 10 21.6.23 Tiree-Gometra
After a sharp rain shower, we set off eastwards towards the Mull. Gradually the Treshnish islands became clear. We passed Bac Mor the splendidly named the Dutchman’s cap, caused by a volcano creating a central dome and a flat lava flow. We turned Northeast to reach the island of Lunga. It is 200 acres in size. In 1800 it had a population of 20. It is uninhabited, by people, now. It is owned by the Hebridean Trust. Its shore is rocky and much of the island is grassland. Bladder Campion and Sea Mayweed were both in flower, growing from crevices. A climb from the beach onto a plateau revealed scores of Puffins standing the ledges and the edges. They were so close to us and to the day visitors who had arrived from Mull. The Puffins seemed oblivious to our presence. They were busy delivering beakfulls of Sand Eels to the chicks in the burrows. A narrow footpath led us round the north side of the island to reveal Dun cruit (the Harp Rock). It is a sharply angled cliff which is the breeding sight of thousands of Guillemots, Kittiwakes, Shags and puffins. The noise is incredible, and the sight blows your mind! Lunga is a popular tourist destination. No wonder, it is extraordinary! Back in the boat to set off once again rounding Staffa with its basalt colonnades and views of Fingal’s cave before arriving to anchor in Gometra harbour. We were dropped ashore by Hamish and walked along the eastern bank of Gometra and crossed a bridge to walk a little on Ulva.
Dun Cruit or the Harp Rock at Lunga
Puffin carrying Sand Eels to its burrow Lunga
Hjalmar Bjorge at Anchor at Gometra
Day 11 22.6.23 Gometra-Loch Spelve
We sailed from Gometra past Staffa on a quiet sea to Iona. We were joined briefly by a pod of Dolphins and anchored in the Sound of Iona. Hamish dropped us off on a beach on Iona. As we walked up to road we heard the loud ‘Crex crex’ of the Corncrake. The grass of the meadow was long so we failed to catch site of it. We walked the 101 metres up Dun I where we had magnificent views of Mull and the surrounding islands before walking down to Abbey to encounter another loud but invisible Corncrake next to the Abbey. We were collected on the RIB and returned to the HB. We sailed round the southern side of Mull to Loch Spelve a delightful anchorage. On the way a pod of Bottlenosed Dolphins joined us to swim in our bow wave. A fitting end to great trip.
The View from Dun I on Iona
The Sound of Iona
Day 12 23.6.23 Loch Spelve-Oban
The crew set sail early and we arrived at Oban at 08.00. After a breakfast we said farewell to the HB and its amazing crew.