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Summer Sailings
Chapter IV A Yacht Cruise to Loch Hourn


The majority of tourists are like sheep, always following a leader and adhering closely to the beaten track; and so it happens that some of the finest scenery, even in our own island, is still almost untrodden and unknown — without roads, inns, guides, coaches, or steamboats. Yet a little time and toil is well spent in visiting such spots; and indifferent living and rough lodging are amply repaid by the freshness and magnificence of an almost virgin nature. There is more scenery of this description on the western

coasts of the counties of Inverness, Ross, and Sutherland than in any other part of Great Britain. There, the shores are indented by a succession of sea-lochs running far up into the land; some wide and spacious, others narrow and winding; some with undulating banks green with rich pasture, or thickly clothed with natural wood; some laving the feet of steep mountains, with bold gray crags breaking through the purple bloom of the heather, or the golden glow of the deer-grass and bracken. Between Cape Wrath and the Sound of Mull there are more than twenty such lochs, many of which are never visited by steamers, with but footpaths or rough bridle-tracks along their shores, and with no token of human habitation, except, at long intervals, the house of a sheep farmer, a shepherd’s shieling, the hut of a charcoal-burner, or a gamekeepers cottage. Yet the scenery around some of these arms of the western sea is unequalled elsewhere in Great Britain, and not surpassed even in Switzerland or the Tyrol. At different periods during the last ten years, we have visited most of them; and we now propose to offer some description of Loch Hourn—one of the most beautiful and inaccessible—which we were induced to visit in autumn, by hearing an animated description of the grandeur of its scenery from a Highland gentleman resident in the neighbourhood, whose debtor we have ever since considered ourselves.

If our readers will refer to a good map of Scotland, they will observe a long narrow channel called the Sound of Sleat, separating the island of Skye from the mainland of Inverness-shire; and, about half-way up, and on the east side of the Sound, a deep indentation in the mainland, wide at the entrance but contracting at its upper extremity, and confined on each side by a barrier of lofty mountains :—this is Loch Hourn, or the Loch of Hell, easily distinguished from Loch Nevis (the Loch of Heaven), a few miles to the south of it, by the noble outlines of the lofty Ben Sgriol, which sweeps down in grand curves to the water’s edge, and seems to guard the entrance of the loch.

We started on our voyage to Loch Hourn from the little town of Tobermory, in the island of Mull, in a small cutter yacht, built by Fyfe, of Fairlie, and the winner of several cups at the Clyde regattas; having previously taken on board as pilot an ancient Celt, yclept Hector McKinnon, who had been for forty years a sailor, and who undertook to bring us in safety to the anchorage of Barrisdale, half-way up the loch. A strong-adverse tide detained us for a long time in passing the lofty promontory of Ardnamurchan, which marks the northern entrance of the Sound of Mull. At the foot of this promontory lies a small rocky island, of which our pilot related the following legend, which, so far as we know, has not yet found its way into any guide-book :— “In days of yore, the owner of this islet was a handsome young fellow, with no fortune but his good looks and this fragment of sea-beaten rock. However, he contrived to win the heart of a fair lady in a distant part of the country, but her relations were opposed to the match until they had ascertained what settlement the lover was able to make. Accordingly, they asked him what dowry he would give his bride; to which he replied that, in his own country, he possessed an island which seven ploughs could not till, although they ploughed for a whole year, and that this he was willing to bestow on his bride. Nothing could be more satisfactory, and the young pair were happily married. On reaching her husband’s country, the lady was naturally anxious to see the fertile island which he had so generously bestowed upon her. On which he showed her the barren crag at the foot of Ardna-murchan Point, and asked whether she thought that seven ploughs could cultivate it although they ploughed for a whole year.”

After passing Ardnamurchan, the wind fell to a very moderate breeze, and we had a pleasant, though somewhat tedious sail, passing close to the islands of Muck and Eigg, and in sight of the purple mountains of Rum, and the steep summits of the Coolin hills in Skye. We had made an early start from Tobermory, but it was evening before we came to anchor opposite the farmhouse of Barrisdale, which occupies a picturesque situation among a group of old trees at the foot of a mountain that slopes steeply upwards above a bay at the head of outer Loch Hourn. The outer loch is a spacious sheet of water about twelve miles in length, overshadowed by dark mountain masses; but, fine as it is, it serves only as the vestibule to the exquisite scenery of Little, or Upper, Loch Hourn, which branches off from it in an easterly direction. On the morning succeeding our arrival, we rowed ashore and called on Mr. McDonell, whose ancestors, for several generations, have occupied the farm of Barrisdale. He himself is a hale, handsome old gentleman, descended from those Macdonells of Glengarry whose domains once extended from Loch Hourn to Fort Augustus, but are now divided between Mr. Ellice and Mr. Baird, a rich ironmaster, who possesses the whole country around Loch Hourn and between it and Loch Nevis.

From our anchorage the loch seemed entirely landlocked, and divided into three bays, surrounded by mountains. To the seaward stretched a wide expanse of water, overshadowed on one side by the lofty Ben Sgriol, whose lower slopes are thickly clothed with natural wood, which adorns, without enervating, the grand curves of the mountain; and on the other by green hills, broken by gray crags, and furrowed by ravines, beyond which tower sharp rocky pinnacles rising from wild corries, the haunts of the red-deer and the eagle. Such a green hill-side with a deep corrie behind it, over which frowns a steep serrated ridge, rose immediately above our anchorage. Ladhar bheinn, the highest point of this ridge, is 3343 feet above the sea, or nearly as high as Snowdon. To the south-east, we looked into the deep bay of Barrisdale, at the head of which—rare sight in these wild Highlands—the mountains separate, and leave room for a considerable tract of level meadow-land, where rows of tall poplars, clumps of ancient ash and plane trees and thriving crops of corn and turnips, gave a sylvan and almost lowland aspect to the landscape, offering a striking contrast to the rugged grandeur of the surrounding scenery. Beyond this strip of meadow-land rises a noble mountain, varied and picturesque in outline, with its lower slopes and ravines richly wooded. The whole aspect and character of the scenery around Barrisdale is more Tyrolese than Scotch.

Our venerable pilot proved exceedingly communicative of his nautical experiences, especially under the exhilarating influence of a glass of whisky, and this morning he spun us the following extraordinary, and not very credible, yarn:—

“Many years ago, he was at Riga with his ship, and he, along with several of his comrades, went ashore, where—sailor-like—they got very drunk. Hector was the worst of the lot; and as his shipmates could not induce him to follow them, they allowed him to shift for himself, and returned to their ship. Left to himself, he staggered along for some distance, and at length fell insensible in the street. At this time cholera was raging in Riga; and just as Hector fell, the dead cart was making its daily rounds, when, seeing him lying speechless and motionless in the street, its conductor at once concluded that he had fallen a victim to the 23lague, threw a rope round his body, and tossed him into the cart. He was restored to consciousness by being pitched out of the dead cart into a large pit nearly filled with bodies in various stages of decomposition, and with difficulty managed to writhe himself clear of the lime which was thrown over them in considerable quantities. Fully recalled to his senses, but almost paralysed by the horrors of his position, he at last, after many efforts, contrived to struggle put of the pit, and make his way back to the town; where his appearance—pale, ghastly, and sprinkled over with the lime which he had not been able wholly to avoid—struck terror into every one, so that he had clear streets as—literally risen from the dead—he tottered along, and with difficulty regained his ship, where it was some time before he recovered from the effects of the drunken frolic so nearly brought to a horrible termination.”

We think that this anecdote of Hectors might be admirably worked by temperance lecturers, to whom we beg most respectfully to present it.

But—to return from Eiga to Loch Hourn— beautiful as Barrisdale is, we had yet by far the finest part of the loch to explore; so, getting into our punt, we started, a little past eleven o’clock, to row to the head of it, a distance of more than six miles from our anchorage. Several small rocky islands lie across the entrance of the upper loch, above which it forms three reaches, connected by narrows, through which the tide runs with great violence. Little, or Upper Loch Hourn, runs nearly east and west, forming an obtuse angle with the outer and larger loch. Its northern shores are bounded by picturesque mountains, nearly 3000 feet high, covered for two-thirds of their height with the most lavish growth of natural wood—birch, ash, oak, and alder. The mountains on the opposite shore are about the same height, but more rugged and bare, though covered in many places with good pasturage, and dotted over with trees, singly or in groups. At various spots on both banks there are crags projecting boldly into the water, and, in some instances, rising precipitously for a couple of hundred feet. Some of these are masses of bare rock; some have tufts of heather, or bunches of fern, growing from their crevices; others are almost buried beneath luxuriant foliage ; and one —a most picturesque crag — bears a solitary old Scotch fir-tree on its topmost pinnacle. There is no monotony—the great fault of the scenery of most of our Scottish lochs—about Loch Hourn, but, on the contrary, an endless, inexhaustible variety and grandeur. There is the sublimity of the upper reach of Loch Etive, in Argyleshire, where its narrow waters are darkened by the huge bulk of Ben Cruachan and Ben Starav, combined with the quieter beauty of the Trossachs, Windermere, or the Lower Lake of Killarney. At several points there are waterfalls, tumbling over a face of bare rock, or sparkling through a thick fringe of foliage, and here and there, along the shore, the thatched cottage of a fisherman, with brown nets hung up to dry. After a long pull, we reached Loch Hourn-liead, where we left our boat, and walked for a couple of miles up the beautiful pass that leads to Tomdown Inn, and to the town of Inverness, the former sixteen, and the latter sixty-seven miles from Loch Hourn-liead. A bare precipitous mountain, called Buidhe Bheinn, towers above the head of the loch, and on its flanks, to the left of the road leading up the pass, is a deep ravine, into which falls a lofty and picturesque cascade; while, about a mile farther up, is a quiet little lake with a broad green margin of rushes, through which flows the stream that runs into Loch Hourn-head. From what we saw of this pass, we feel convinced that it would well repay the adventurous pedestrian. On our way back to the cutter, we were much detained by the strength of the flood tide, had to hug the shore to avoid its force, and had several desperate spurts against it in the Narrows, where it ran like a mill-race. We had kept along the south shore in ascending, and now, in returning, we kept close to the northern or wooded bank, and had again occasion to admire the profusion and bounty of nature, in clothing these steep mountain-slopes with such a close and graceful mantle of varied shades of green. It was past six o’clock when we reached our vessel, not at all sorry to rest, after a six hours’ pull against a strong tide. The waters of Upper Loch Hourn seem absolutely alive with fish. With a single line of small cord, lightly leaded, and a couple of salmon flies, we caught, during the short time we could spare for fishing, seven dozen of fish—lythe, sethe, and small cod—varying in weight from half a pound to two pounds and a half. On the rocks along the shore there is an inexhaustible supply of bait in the shape of mussels, so that to those fond of sea-fishing Loch Hourn offers great attractions, in addition to the charms of its unrivalled scenery.

We now request our readers to accompany us from Loch Hourn through the Sound of Sleat to Portree in Skye, and afterwards to Stornoway in the Lewis.

We left our anchorage at Barrisdale at the entrance of outer Loch Hourn, early on a fine autumn morning. There was but little wind, and that blowing right up the loch, so that we had a dead beat till we got into the Sound of Sleat, in the course of which we got occasional glimpses of the glorious scenery of the upper loch, and more thorough views of the fine mountains and corries that border the shores of the outer and wider arm. There is a rock nearly in the middle of the entrance to the loch, but always above water, to the westward of which the water is shallow for about a cable’s length. It will be avoided by bringing Ardnaslish Point on, or nearly on, the Point of Sleat. Once in the Sound of Sleat, the wind was fair, and freshened as the day advanced, so that we bowled along at a rapid rate with all sail set and everything drawing; passing on the mainland side the beautiful Bay of Glenelg with its ruined barrack, built to overawe the Highlands, the entrance to the picturesque but squally Loch Duich, and the fine scenery around Loch Alsh; and on the other side, the lofty mountains of Skye, towering above the narrow waters of the Strait. Near Kyleakin the wind became light and baffling, and for a time we were becalmed; but a brisk though adverse breeze springing up, we had a fine beat through the Narrows where the tide runs six miles an hour. But wind and weather are proverbially fickle in these narrow and landlocked waters, and you may have sun and shower, clear sky and dense mist, a calm, a breeze, and a gale of wind, all within the space of twenty-four hours. Scarcely had we got through the Narrows, when the breeze again fell, though as night darkened down it rose a little. But it was five o’clock on Friday morning before we reached Portree, though we had left Loch Hourn at ten on Thursday forenoon, and had carried a fine breeze with us from the mouth of the loch to Balmacara. In the course of the day we passed two ruined castles, one on the mainland, and the other in Skye, both most attractive in ruins, and offering admirable subjects to the sketcher. The one, Eilan Donan Castle, stands near the entrance of Loch Duich. It is by far the larger and more ancient building of the two, and was the chief stronghold of the Mackenzies of Kintail, built in the time of Alexander the Second, as a defence against the ravages of the Northmen.

The other ruin, Castle Moil, is situated close to Kyleakin, and is most picturesquely perched on a beetling and sea-beat crag. If the wind happens to be off the Skye land when the yachtsman is passing this old fortalice, he may perchance have cause to remember it, for sudden squalls rush down like eagles from that wild highland, and while bowling along with a steady breeze he may suddenly catch a puff that will compel him to luff up sharp, and perhaps lower his peak and haul up his main-tack. With the wind either blowing; from the Skye land, or out of Loch Duich, the steersman had better keep his weather eye open.

Portree—the King’s Harbour—so called from James the Fifth having landed there when on a visit to the western islands, is well sheltered, and has good holding ground, the depth varying from five to fourteen fathoms. The entrance lies between two lofty headlands, and there is no danger, except a rock partly above water, about half a cables length from the point 011 your starboard hand on entering. The most interesting object in the neighbourhood of Portree,—which is in general very bleak and sombre,—is the Storr hill about seven miles distant in a northerly direction, which will be found fully described in the first cruise.

We remained only a single day in Portree, and at five o’clock on a stormy September morning, after the usual preliminary plunge over the side, started for Stornoway, the capital of the Lewis. Our course was about north and by east, and as the wind was blowing nearly from that direction we had the prospect of a long and stormy beat before us. With this wind, there is generally a heavy sea in the Minch, as the broad channel between Lewis and the mainland is called, especially when the tides which run pretty strong here happen to meet it. The distance from Portree to Stornoway is upwards of fifty miles, and the sail is a very interesting one, commanding fine and varied views of the bold cliffs and hills of Skye; the barren rocks of Raasay; the lochs and mountains of the mainland; the islands of Lewis and Harris; and the distant and mountainous group of North Uist, Benbecula, and South Uist, the last conspicuous by the bold conical peak of Hecla, which rises nearly 2000 feet above the sea.

After getting clear of Portree, we had a tedious beat through the Sound of Raasay, and had ample opportunities to study and admire the bold line of cliffs that stretches from Portree-heads all the way to the Point of Aird, the northernmost promontory of Skye. The Storr with its strange fantastic pinnacles and coronet of precipices, looked like some ruined castle of Titans; and farther to the north we got a glimpse of the rocks that encircle Quiraing, the greatest geological curiosity in Skye.

On leaving the Sound of Raasay, we made a long tack towards the Scottish coast in the direction of the peninsula between Gairloch and Loch Ewe, which seemed in the distance a long low line of land covered with the most beautiful pearly haze. The lofty mountains around Loch Maree, and in the district of Gairloch, were seen to great advantage, and looked more and more imposing as we drew gradually nearer to them. On the opposite tack we had to contend against both wind and tide, and took a long time to weather the Skye land. Off the Island of Trotta, to the north of the Point of Aird, so strong was the tide, that for some time we did little more than hold our own. Soon afterwards the wind began to freshen considerably, and towards evening it blew half a gale but we hove the little cutter to, double-reefed the mainsail, reefed the foresail, reefed the bowsprit, and shifted jibs, after which she behaved beautifully, going over the seas like a duck and shipping no heavy water. Not far from the mouth of Loch Seaforth in Lewis — a splendid harbour capable of containing the whole British Navy — lies a curious group of basaltic rocks called the Shi ant Islands, rejoicing in the unpronounceable names of Garivelan, Ilan Wirrey, and Ilanakilly. To the westward of the first-named islet there are three or four rocks above water, the highest of which is called Galti-more; and to it a good berth must be given when passing to the westward, as a quarter of a mile west of it lies a rock which dries at half-ebb.

By the time we had passed the Shiant Islands, night had fallen and the weather was exceedingly bad, blowing a gale and raining heavily. AVe had two of the best harbours in the Hebrides under our lee — Loch Seaforth and East Loch Tarbert—and for a moment we thought of running into one of these for shelter, but soon—determined not to be beat—we made up our minds to hold on and thrash the little beauty through it. We had the guidance of the bright fixed light on the island of Scalpa, and when we lost that we sighted the Stornoway light; and at length, after twenty-three hours of a hard struggle against wind and sea, we had the satisfaction of dropping our anchor at six o’clock on Sunday morning in the sheltered waters of Stornoway Bay, wet through and thoroughly tired, but highly pleased at having made out our destination in spite of wind and weather.

Stornoway is a spacious and excellent harbour; and in beating in you have only to remember to give Arnish Point and also the Point of Holm a good berth. The best anchorage is above the little island near the town at the head of the bay. All hands being thoroughly tired, it was mid-day before we turned out of our berths. On getting on deck, the most prominent object that met our eyes was the Elizabethan mansion of the late Sir James Matheson, then proprietor of the Lewis, built on a green slope, and surrounded by slowly-rising but healthy-looking plantations. It stands close to the thriving town of Stornoway, from which it is separated only by a narrow creek almost dry at low water. The west side of the bay is occupied by the grounds belonging to Stornoway Castle. Nature has supplied a succession of rocky knolls of different heights, clothed with heather, grass, and ferns, and indented by a number of creeks and gravelly bays; while Art—at an expense of £15,000 or .£20,000—has clothed these knolls with a great variety of wood—pine, ash, elder, birch, elm, holly, etc.—and cut a profusion of winding walks, laid out with great taste, and kept in perfect order. Some of the creeks are highly picturesque, especially that formed by the estuary of the little river Creed, across the mouth of which lies a small rocky islet covered, like the rest of the shore, with heather, grass, and ferns. The wood which Sir James has planted on the pleasure-grounds attached to his castle has been reared in despite of nature, and, as before mentioned, at immense expense. It was of about thirteen years’ growth when we saw it, and yet none of the pines were above twelve feet high. But, though stunted in growth, most of the trees seemed healthy and thriving.

No stranger should visit Stornoway without ascending the highest of the knolls in the castle grounds, which rises just above the best anchorage in the bay. Perhaps with the exception of Killiney Hill near Kingston, and the Calton Hill in Edinburgh, no spot in the United Kingdom of equally easy ascent commands so extensive and varied a prospect; while the extreme clearness of the autumnal atmosphere in this northern locality lends remarkable distinctness even to the most distant objects. The afternoon on which we climbed this hill was calm and clear, so that we saw the view to the best advantage.

Close at hand, we commanded the fine bay of Stornoway; the residence and grounds of Sir James Matheson; the wild, brown, undulating, moorland region to the westward of the bay; the well-cultivated peninsula on which the town of Stornoway stands; Loch Tua or Broad Bay, on whose sandy shore a heavy surf was breaking ; and the flat bleak moor stretching away to the northward of it. To the south lay the mountains of Harris; and beyond, to the eastward and southward, a wide expanse of sea, bounded by that unrivalled range of mountains that stretches almost from Cape Wrath to the entrance of Loch Ewe. In the extreme distance, Cape Wrath itself was visible, low and blue, on the very verge of the horizon.

The second day after our arrival in Stornoway, I parted with much regret from my good friend A, with whom I had enjoyed a delightful three weeks’ cruise among the islands and lochs of the west coast of Scotland,—I going south in the good steamer Clansman, and he beginning his preparations for taking his little cutter round Cape Wrath and to the Orkney Islands, by procuring a pilot, getting his cockpit boarded over, and otherwise having everything made as snug as possible.

An amusing incident preceded our parting: A was anxious to provide himself with a warm pea-jacket, as the nights were getting cold, and I accompanied him in his search through various shops in Stornoway. But in none of them could he find a jacket large enough to cover his goodly proportions; so that he had to order one to be made, and the amazement of the tailor who measured him—a little shrivelled specimen of humanity—was ludicrous, when he looked at his measuring tape and read forty-three inches round the chest, and thirty-two round the waist—the Celts in these parts never running so large. However, he was loud in his admiration of A’s athletic proportions.


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