Cuckoo! Cuckoo! The sound comes from somewhere in the small wood coming down to the water’s edge. The early morning sun’s rays are catching the trees and teasing out hidden shades of green and brown. Over on the left hand shore, a flock of geese angrily honk at each other for a moment before settling down self-consciously, almost as if they realise they are disturbing the beauty of the place.
Another solitary goose begins to honk as it flies over the boat and glides in to land feet first near the shoreline, shakes its wins and begins to swim along it. I follow it with the binoculars and see that it is rejoining its mate in a nest on the shore with several small goslings. An oystercatcher speeds over the rocks, shrieking piercingly, while a pair of hooded crows pick aggressively at something on the foreshore. Out in the loch, two seals frolic noisily, their splashes causing ever-widening ripples on the surface. They seem to be having fun. A jelly-fish floats languidly past underneath the boat, its delicate body, almost transparent with its internal organs visible, pulsing like a heart. Overhead, I can see the contrails of an aircraft heading for America or somewhere.
We are anchored in the top end of Loch Spelve on Mull. I am sitting on deck slowly sipping my coffee. It is utterly tranquil, the water as smooth as a mirror, hardly a ripple on its surface. I have an intensity of awareness of what is happening around me, making me feel that I am at one with nature. Even the contrails don’t seem to be out of place, although I know they are man-made. Nevertheless, the incongruity of the situation is not lost on me – I am only here because of a technological wonder – the boat, a man-made survival capsule that allows us to explore an environment that is not ours.
The day before, we had set off from Crinan at around midday exiting the sea-lock out into the Sound of Jura, aiming for the far coast of the Isle of Jura. There was a fresh breeze blowing from the west, and Ruby Tuesday leapt forward on a close reach.
Near the northern tip of the island, we could see Barnhill, the farmhouse that Eric Blair, perhaps better known as George Orwell, had written his masterpiece, 1984.
My mind had gone back to our last visit. We had been in our previous smaller boat, and had anchored in Kinuachdrach Harbour just north of Barnhill. ‘Harbour’ was a slight exaggeration – there had been nothing else there apart from a derelict pier and a few scraggly looking Highland cattle. There had been a lot of kelp and the holding wasn’t good, and we had been worried about stray currents from the roaring Corryvrechan catching the boat and whisking her away. We had walked briskly up the farm track leading from the harbour and eventually arrived at the rear of the Barnhill house nestled in a shallow glen overlooking the Sound of Jura. It had been a kind of Mecca for me – I had read Animal Farm and 1984 at school and had been deeply impressed with them, and being here where the latter was actually written was magical. I had found the story rather disturbing – what on earth could it be like to live in a society where everything you did was monitored by the state? We had seen the tiny attic window where Blair had sat and typed his manuscript, interrupted every so often by the hacking cough caused by his tuberculosis. What was it about this remote yet beautiful place that had conjured up his vision of a dystopic world? I had concluded that it wasn’t necessarily the place that had done that – the vision was already in his head, and Jura had just provided a location free from distractions where he could put words to paper.
And yet, those words had been prophetic – already we were living in surveillance society monitored by CCTV, and where all our actions online are recorded on vast computer networks somewhere. And we are complicit in all this – in return for the convenience provided by the apps and algorithms we use, we don’t mind that the data collected on everything we do is used to further manipulate us on how to vote, what to buy, what to believe, and so on.
Leaving Barnhill to recede into the distance, we had crossed the Ruadh Sgeir Ledges in the middle of the Sound with their strong overfalls and whirlpools. Even though Ruby Tuesday weighs nearly eight tonnes, we had been surprised by the ease with which the currents had nonchalantly pushed her around.
We had followed the Jura shoreline down, passing Lussa Bay and Tarbert, with the awe-inspiring Paps of Jura looming in the background.
Eventually we had arrived in the tiny Drum an Dunan bay, at the southern end of the much larger Lowlandman’s Bay, just north of Craighouse. Three other boats had been anchored at the top end of Lowlandman’s Bay, but we had been the only ones in our little spot. Perched on the promontory at the top end of the bay was the house and associated buildings that had been built for the keepers that maintained the Skervuile lighthouse further out in the Sound. The original plan had been to stop at Drum an Dunan for a cup of tea, but it was so peaceful and calm that we had decided to stay the night. We had sat on deck with the binoculars watching two families of geese – the parents and several young goslings – fossicking along the sandy beach for their evening meal, and the seals basking on the rocks on the eastern shore. Shags had flown over and landed noisily on the water between ourselves and the shore.
The next morning we had been up bright and early, and had left at 0530 to catch the southward flowing tidal current in the Sound of Jura to carry us to the south of the island, from where we would catch the current starting to change and flowing northwards at 0630 into the Sound of Islay. The wind had gone around to the south east, so we had had to motor a little at the start. As soon as we were around the south-east corner of Jura, however, we had hoisted the sails, cut the engine, and continued in peace and quiet along the southern coast of Jura.
Our timing had been spot on, and at 0630 we were just passing Am Fraoch Eiliean (G: Island of Heather) at the entrance to the Sound. The wind was now almost directly behind us, so we had hauled in the main sail and coasted along with just the genoa. With the northward current now running quite strongly, we had scudded along at almost 10 knots. Port Askaig and the Caol Isla and Bunnahabhain distilleries had sped past us on the left, while to the right we could see the Paps of Jura again, this time from their other side. Within a short while, we had arrived at the northern end of the Sound of Islay, passing the Rubha a Mhail lighthouse to our port side. Off to our left, not far away, lay Colonsay.
“What shall we do, then?”, I had called down into the cabin. “That’s Colonsay over there. Shall we give it a miss or swing past it?”
Emerging, the First Mate had looked surprised.
“Is it that close? That’s not very far! It looks pretty smooth between here and there. We might as well go and see what it is like now that we are here.” Gone was the nervousness of the night before after talking to the Salty Sea-Dog!
With the wind now from our port quarter and gusting to 22 knots, we had trimmed the genoa and sped towards the low-lying island ahead of us. While in the lee of Islay, the sea had been indeed quite smooth, but gradually it had picked up so that by the time we were approaching Colonsay, there was a short swell from the south-east. We had read that the Caolas Mohr anchorage on the smaller island of Oronsay at the south was better than Scalasaig, the main port of the island, but with the wind directly from the southeast it had been too exposed and rough to anchor, even for a quick cuppa! Reluctantly, we had circled around and left, heading northwards along the coast towards Scalasaig, keeping an eye out for a glimpse of the Augustinian Priory ruins on the way. Unfortunately, they were on the other side of the island and we couldn’t spot them.
We had carried on up the coast, passing Loch Staosnaig, which if anything had been even more affected by the swell. Eventually, we had reached Scalasaig, where the ferry came in, but this too had been quite rough. We had stopped for a minute or so and watched a moored yacht there wallowing from side to side, its mast describing huge arcs like an inverted pendulum, but had decided this wasn’t for us.
Looking at the chart, it had seemed that on the north-west coast of the island, there was an anchorage in Kiloran Bay sheltered from south-east swells, although susceptible to western swells from the Atlantic. There might be a slight chance we could find some protected water there. However, as we rounded the northern tip of Colonsay, it was apparent that the long Atlantic swells were still coming in, despite it now being two days since the westerly winds had ceased. Through the binoculars we had seen the white foam of the swells crashing onto the rocks and the beach at Kiloran. It had been the worst of all worlds – the Atlantic swells on the west of the island hadn’t had time to die down, and new swells had been whipped up by the wind from the south-east.
Turning around, we had set a course for the south-east corner of Mull with the sails trimmed for a easy broad reach, and had settled back to enjoy the sunshine.
Getting into Loch Spelve takes a bit of care – there is a shoal that comes out a long way from the southern shore into the entrance, with only a narrow channel close to the northern shore. Previously there used to be a series of white marks painted on rocks on the shore and a green perch marking an underwater obstruction, but the rocks are now largely overgrown with bracken and the perch has disappeared. We navigated carefully in with chart-plotter, keeping a close lookout from the bow for any unmarked rocks. In the end, we made it with no less than 8 m of water under the keel, and anchored in the north-west arm of the loch.
Cuckoo! Cuckoo! Another cuckoo has joined the first, and they call to each other, sometimes in step, other times out of phase. Over on the brown kelp-covered rocks on the seashore, I hear the snort and expiration of air from something big, probably a seal, although I can’t see it. A whisper of a breeze springs up, causing a slight ripple on the previous mirror-like surface. I lie back and contemplate the shapes of the few puffy clouds hanging motionless in the sky. All is well with the world.