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Summer Sailings
Chapter III A Yacht Cruise to the Head of Loch Etive


Among the many arms of the sea which indent the western coast of Scotland between the Mull of Cantire and Cape Wrath, there is none that will better reward the adventurous yachtsman than Loch Etive, which stretches from its entrance, marked out by the noble ruins of Dunstaffnage Castle, first in an easterly, and then in a northeasterly direction, for more than twenty miles, and affords in the course of that extent a remarkable variety of grand and beautiful scenery. There are wooded headlands, winding bays, and valleys full of cultivated beauty, as well as frowning rocks, and lofty mountains with scarred and rugged sides, opening into deep corries,—the favourite haunts of the red-deer. In some places the gently-sloping shores let in the sunshine upon the broad bosom of the lake, while in others vast mountains cast an almost perpetual shadow over its narrow waters. The lower loch, between Dunstaffnage and Bunawe, forms a striking contrast to the upper, between Bunawe and Glen Etive ; the former, picturesque and sylvan, with low rounded hills, undulating promontories, sequestered with fertile valleys, excites only pleasing emotions; the latter, dark and narrow, with precipitous shores given up to the sheep and the red-deer, arouses feelings of awe and admiration ; while both united combine to form a whole which cannot be surpassed by any other sea-loch in Great Britain.

At its entrance, a short distance above Dunstaffnage, are the dangerous rapids of Connel Ferry, where the tide runs more than eight miles an hour, and, at ebb, breaks right across the narrow and rocky channel in one sheet of white foam ; while, to add to the risk, a rock, covered at high water, shoots up almost in the centre of the passage. It is therefore advisable for those yachtsmen who wish to explore Loch Etive to secure the services of a pilot at Oban, in order to guard against the dangers and difficulties of its navigation.

The best winds for ascending Loch Etive are south or south-westerly, the most favourable for descending north-easterly. The Narrows must be passed with a leading wind and the first of flood ascending, and with slack water flood or the first of ebb in descending.

Having made these preliminary remarks with regard to a loch, of whose very existence some of our readers may possibly be ignorant, we shall now proceed to the narrative of our cruise. At eleven o’clock on a fine July morning we sailed from Oban Bay in a cutter yacht of twelve tons, passing between the ivy-clad keep of Dunollie Castle, the ancient seat of the MacDougalls of Lorn, and the Maiden Isle, shaving the latter as close as possible in order to keep the deep-water channel. The tides at Connel, though only four miles distant, are two hours later than at Oban ; and when a vessel arrives too soon, or when the wind is unfavourable for passing the Rapids, she ought to anchor in the bay on the south side of Dunstaffnage Castle, where she will be perfectly sheltered, and may wait for a suitable wind and tide. The channel between Dunstaffnage and the larger of the two islands from which it takes its name is in some places very shallow; but, by keeping near the centre, and somewhat closer to the island than the castle, all danger will be avoided. There is no passage between the two islands, but there is a practicable channel on the northern side of the little isle. The view of the entrance to Loch Etive, shortly before arriving at Dunstaffnage, is exceedingly picturesque, and the sketcher would do well to draw it from this point; the grand old castle forms an admirable foreground, the contours of the deep Bay of Lochnell, with its wooded heights and silvery beach, are full of grace and variety, while the distance is nobly filled up by Ben Durinish and the twin peaks of the lofty Ben Cruaclian. In Lochnell Bay we observed the ruins of the castle of the same name accidentally burnt down some years ago, and the green mound which is supposed to mark the site of Beregonium, the ancient capital of the Picts.

After passing Dunstaffnage we shaped our course for Connel,1 keeping the point of the larger island and the ferry-house in a line, passed the long gravelly spit of Lidiack Point, and shortly afterwards the Rapids; where, as we had nicely calculated our time, and had a favourable breeze, we encountered neither difficulty nor danger. In passing, we kept the rock in the centre of the Narrows on our port hand, which is the best plan, though there is also a clear channel on the other side of it. The ferry at Connel, narrow in itself, is still further contracted by a reef of rocks which runs partly across it, and the roaring of this great salt-water cataract, during ebb tide, may often be heard ten miles off, though the fall is only about six feet. Owing to this inequality of the waters without and within, there is seven hours’ flood and five hours’ ebb at Connel; and it takes two hours for the tide without to equalise the waters pressing down from within. Soon after getting through the Narrows we passed the beautifully situated mansion house of Ardchattan, standing amidst thick woods and fertile fields. Near it are the ruins of the ancient priory of the same name, built by John MacDougall in the thirteenth century, and where Robert the Bruce once held a parliament. It was burnt by Colkitto during the wars of Montrose. The next point of interest was the village of Bunawe, about twelve miles from Oban, where Loch Etive receives its principal feeder, the river Awe, which issues from the side of the lake of the same name, and traverses the romantic pass of Brander on the flanks of Ben Cruaclian, the scene of the defeat of John of Lorn by Bobert the Bruce.

At Bunawe the bolder features of the scenery around Loch Etive begin to develop themselves ; between it and Glen Etive there is no road, and the pedestrian must be content to scramble along mountain sides, cross gullies and watercourses, wind round bays, and wade through bogs, before lie can reach the head of the upper loch; and even then he will have fifteen miles farther to walk before he gains Kingshouse, the nearest inn, a day’s work sufficient to knock up any but the stoutest mountaineer. Above Bunawe the dangers of the navigation of the loch, with the exception of those arising from sudden squalls, may be said to be over; there are no rocks or shoals, and, on both sides, there is deep water to within a cable’s length of the shore. The huge base of Cruachan on one side, and the copse-clad crags of Ben Durinish on the other, confine its waters; and farther up, Cruachan is succeeded by Ben Starav, opposed by the dark buttresses of Ben Trilleachan ; while at the head of the lake rise the sharp peaks of the three Buchails, the giant watchers of Glen Etive. On the sides of Cruachan open up the wild Glen Noe and the green and smiling Glen Kinglass, a beautiful pastoral valley watered by the Armaddie river, in which the fishing is first-rate, but most strictly preserved. The whole of the district around Little or Upper Loch Etive forms the Marquis of Breadalbane’s deer forest; his shooting-lodge is situated some distance up Glen Kinglass; red deer and gamekeepers are the lords of the mountains and streams, and any attempt to cast a fly either in the Etive or Kinglass will at once be stopped.

Loch Ness generally enjoys the reputation of being the deepest lake in Scotland, but our Highland Palinurus assured us that this was a popular error, and asserted the superior claims of Loch Etive. There had been, he said, a tradition of long standing that, near Strono (as a bluff projecting boldly into the lake is called), its waters were fathomless, and this he, and some Oban fishermen, determined a few years ago to test. They accordingly procured 230 fathoms of line, fastened an anchor to the end of it, commenced sounding, and found the greatest depth off Strono to be 20G fathoms, or some hundred feet deeper than the deepest part of Loch Ness. In reality there is a considerable depression here, but only to the extent of about 200 feet.

When about five miles from the head of the loch, and seven above Bunawe, the wind, which had all day been light and baffling, at last headed us, and we therefore anchored for the night close to the shore, a little below the granite quarries of Barr. There was a quantity of natural birch-wood all along the sloping banks above our anchorage, among which charcoal-burners were busily engaged in preparing charcoal for the use of the iron furnaces at Bunawe; and wreaths of blue smoke were curling up through the light green foliage, marking where the heaps were smouldering, carefully watched day and night to prevent their setting fire to the surrounding trees. Loch Etive is very subject to sudden and violent squalls of wind from the high lands around, which require to be carefully guarded against. We were not, however, disturbed in our somewhat exposed anchorage, the rain which poured incessantly during the whole night being sufficient to damp the spirits of the most boisterous squall that ever roared across a Highland loch.

Early next morning we got under weigh, and with a favourable breeze made sail for the head of the loch. After passing the granite quarries we entered upon the wildest and most rugged part of the scenery, a narrow reach of dark water blackened by the long shadows of Ben Starav and Ben Trilleachan. As the mists gradually cleared away from the mountain-sides and summits, we saw the effects of the heavy rains which had for some days been falling. Every gully and rift on the precipitous hill-sides was swept by a torrent pouring down in white foam, and the air was filled with the hollow sound of innumerable waterfalls ; the weather too was in admirable keeping with the stern character of the landscape around us ; wreaths of gray mist were drifting along the mountain sides, now hiding their sharp peaks and deep ravines, and now floating aside and revealing them, while occasional gleams of sunshine gilded the rocks above us, and lighted up the sullen waters of the loch. The sides of Ben Starav bear deep scars of the ravages of the winter torrents, which have in many places torn up the soil to a great breadth, and replaced it by a perfect chaos of stones and debris. On the opposite side, the vast mass of Ben Trilleachan rises almost perpendicularly, presenting a sue-cession of huge rocky buttresses towering up like the walls of some castle of Titans. Many of the crags are broken into singular and fantastic forms, and would afford Mr. Kuskin most curious examples of “rock fracture.” There is a striking resemblance between this mountain and the hill of Meall Mor which rises above Loch Triochtan in Glencoe; indeed the mountains around this upper reach of Loch Etive are very similar to those of Glencoe, which, however, cannot, in like manner, boast of a fine arm of the sea winding among their recesses. The distance between the two glens is not great, and there is a mountain pass near the head of Loch Etive well worth exploring, which after about three hours’ rough walking will lead the pedestrian into Glencoe.

The river Etive runs into the head of the loch through the glen of the same name ; it is an excellent fishing stream, but, like all those in this neighbourhood, strictly preserved. Although, however, river-fishing is prohibited, there is capital fishing for whiting in Upper Loch Etive, and those yachtsmen who are fond of it would do well to provide themselves with a store of bait from the mussel-bank off Bunawe. It is no uncommon thing—at least so wre were told—for a party of four fishermen (each working two hand-lines) to catch from two thousand to four thousand whitings in a single day. Besides whitings there are other fish, denizens of Loch Etive, of a less attractive character, namely conger eels, which (according to our pilot) grow to between seven and eight feet long, and are almost as carnivorous as sharks; indeed he tried to prevent us from bathing at Bunawe in case we should become food for eels.

After remaining some hours at the head of the loch and walking a short distance up Glen Etive, dominated by its three Buchails, we retraced our steps to the yacht, and at two o’clock set out on our return voyage. The wind unfortunately was southerly, and we had the tide against us, so that we had to beat down the whole way, and were at last obliged about seven o’clock to come to anchor, a cable’s length from the shore, in a beautiful little bay just above the embouchure of the river Awe. There is a store at Bunawe for the use of the workmen engaged in the granite quarries and foundry, at which biscuits, grocery, and occasionally butcher’s meat may be procured; but the yachtsmen exploring Loch Etive ought not to trust to this, but should provide themselves with stores at Oban; for as the Narrows at Connel can only be passed either way with a leading wind, they may possibly be detained several days within the loch. Above Bunawe nothing can be got; and at the farmhouses below, the eggs, butter, and milk are all bespoke by the public coaches which pass daily, so that they do not find it worth their while to sell anything to such birds of passage as yachtsmen. There is a fine view, ooking up the loch from the spot where we lay, taking in Ben Starav and the glens between it and Cruaelmn, while the copse-clad crags of Ben Durinish come well in in the foreground; we sketched the scene, and would beg to recommend it to our brother amateurs.

Next morning was bright and warm with a light breeze, so we got early under weigh, and passed safely the dangerous bank off the mouth of the Awe which is not laid down in the charts. Keep it on the port hand going down, but do not shave the opposite shore too closely, as there are large stones off it; below this the loch is deep and spacious. In the afternoon the wind failed us, and we were obliged to give up all hopes of getting through Connel until the following day. We therefore anchored in Stonefield Bay, between the south shore and Macnab’s Island, marked by a few plane trees and some traces of ruined buildings. This anchorage is more out of the tides than any other in Loch Etive. There was a glorious sunset; the sun, sinking behind the Sound of Mull, threw a bright column of golden flame across the quiet bay where we were moored, and the near hills in deep purple shadow brought out the warm tones of the sunset, while the eastern sky was of the deepest azure and without a cloud.

To-day our invaluable pilot—who is evidently impressed with the idea that we have not an adequate conception of the dangers of Connel Ferry, a place which, he told us, he never passed “without every hair of his head standing on end”—has been amusing us by relating appalling stories of the dangers of descending, which, he will have it, is much more hazardous than ascending Connel. Three vessels, according to his story, are at this moment grating their ribs on the rocks at the bottom of the Narrows, having attempted to pass them at an improper time; in one of these were two brothers ; their sloop struck upon the rock in the centre of the channel; one tried to escape in the boat which was instantly swamped, and the other, while attempting to let go an anchor, was washed overboard and drowned. In the other two cases the vessels perished, but the crews were saved. He also told us that he remembered of twenty-three lives having been lost upon Loch Etive, chiefly from the oversetting of boats in the violent gusts that rush down from the mountains; and (awful to relate) none of the bodies were ever found, having fallen a prey to the carnivorous congers which infest the loch. The worthy pilot, however, draws a very long bow in everything that relates to the Highlands, and his stories require a large grain of salt to be swallowed along with them.

According to him the crops in some places on the wild shores of Loch Etive are as early as in the Lothians; the Hebrides are as fertile as the Isle of Wight; and the cliffs of Staffa higher than those of the Giant’s Causeway. His stories, however, of the difficulty and danger of descending Connel Ferry had their effect, and we began to be troubled with uneasy visions of a fortnight’s detention in Loch Etive, of supplies running short, and of being reduced to eat the boy without pickles. These somewhat interfered with our tranquillity, though moored for the night in as quiet an anchorage as ever received a wearied sailor. Fortunately these presentiments of evil were soon dispelled, for next morning we started at six o’clock, passed Little Connel, where we were a good deal tossed about in the tide race, reached the Rapids just at the slack water on the top of flood, found everything almost as smooth as a mill-pond, and got through in perfect safety. Shortly afterwards we passed Ledaig Point, the channel between Dunstaffnage and the big island, and were snugly moored in Oban Bay by eleven o’clock.

It may be mentioned for the information of those who would wish to visit the magnificent scenery of Upper Loch Etive, but who have not the opportunity of doing so in a yacht, that this may be done either from Bunawe or Oban; the former is ten miles nearer to the head of the loch, and a boat may be hired for the day’s excursion for about the same number of shillings. A very early start will be advisable, as there is fully twenty miles sailing or rowing, and if in addition to this the tourist is desirous of walking some distance up Glen Etive, he will find the hours of the longest summer’s day well-nigh exhausted before lie gets back to Bunawe. If, on the other hand, lie prefers starting from Oban, he will have the advantage of a better boat and more experienced pilot than could be procured at Bunawe, but he will also have ten miles farther to go, and will require to remain all night at the head of Loch Etive in a cottar’s or gamekeeper’s house, unless he lias had the precaution to take a portable tent along with him. This latter plan, however, although more expensive and occupying longer time, undoubtedly affords the best opportunities of studying and enjoying that unrivalled combination of lake and mountain scenery; and we feel well assured that all those who may be induced to repair to the spot and there fill up for themselves the faint outline which we have endeavoured to sketch, will find themselves most amply rewarded for the time and trouble which the journey may cost. There are now regular steamers to the head of Loch Etive, which start from a sheltered bay a little above Connel Ferry.

We would beg to direct the special attention of landscape-painters to this most magnificent of the Scottish sea-loclis; the discomforts attendant upon a visit to its upper extremity, the fatigue, rude fare, and hard lodging, would be fully repaid by the images of wild and stern grandeur with which it would store their portfolios and enrich their minds; and we should rejoice to see its varied and almost unknown beauties presented to the public by the magic pencils of some of our great landscape-painters.


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