We leave Lochmaddy harbour and continue northwards. The wind is coming from the north-east, so we have to sail as close-hauled as we can. We get to Rodel, with its 16th century Church of St Clements and Roineabhal, the anorthosite mountain, towering behind, and need to take a tack to pull away from the shore. We had visited Rodel in 2015 in our small boat and moored in the pool that can only be entered and exited at high tide. However, we had heard that the hotel at Rodel has now closed, that the three visitors moorings there are not maintained, and that there is ground tackle that has been left, making it difficult to anchor. It was good that we saw it when it was still a delightful place to stay.
As we prepare to tack again, the wind shifts around to the east more and we continue on a close reach parallel to the shore.
As we approach Scalpay, we radio ahead to see if we can buy fuel from the fuel berth before we tie up. We are told that ‘Captain Bob’ will be waiting at the Fisherman’s Pier for us. Sure enough, as we get closer, we see a gentleman with a luxuriant white beard at the fuel pump. He helps us to tie up to the pier and we fill up.
Clive and Bardi are already there before us. Clive has gone off shopping, and Gracie, their dog, is waiting plaintively on the foredeck for his return. She isn’t too happy when he is away. When he gets back, we invite them over for a drink.
The next day, it is foggy, and we decide to stay one more day. Just next to the harbour, there is a small restaurant called The Bistro. Unprepossessing as it looks from the outside, it has quite an enviable reputation internationally, so we ring them to see if we can reserve a table for dinner. Unfortunately, they are completely booked out for the evening, but at least lunch is possible. We go for that. The coronation chicken with fresh home-baked bread is excellent – their reputation is well-deserved.
“Come on”, says the First Mate after lunch. “Let’s go for a walk to work that off. There’s a good one in this little book I picked up in the Tourist Office. The Scalpay Heritage Trail. It goes out to the lighthouse.”
It is misty, but we set off hoping it will clear. At least it isn’t raining. The path starts at a group of three houses just off the road to Tarbert, where we pass through a gate and take the gravelled track to the left up to a small loch. From there we follow the shoreline around to the left. It is boggy and from time to time we need to cross streams swollen with the recent rains. We stop and admire the reeds growing in the water at the side of the loch.
Soon we are out of sight of the houses and feel the full desolation of the landscape. The clouds hang heavy and ponderous. The ancient rocks loom over the water and vegetation, ignoring us as we clamber over them like flies. The dark greens of the heather and the russets and beiges of the grasses give the impression of an old sepia photograph, emphasising the timelessness of the scene. Not a sign of another human anywhere. We could be the only people on earth. Or even on an earth before people existed.
We come to a flock of sheep grazing on the slopes.
“I hear you are getting a new Prime Minister soon”, says one. I think that it is just my luck to find a talking sheep, and one that follows politics at that.
“Yes”, I say wearily. “And it is not that the whole country wants him either – only the party membership of 160,000 are allowed to vote for him. Whoever it is, both candidates have pledged to take the country out of the European Union by the end of October. Disaster.”
“Ah well, you have us to partly blame for that”, says the sheep, with a smile.
“You?”, I say.
“Well, the flock, I mean”, she continues. “We figured out that it is only EU subsidies that keep sheep farming going in this part of the world, so that our young ones are born and bred only to be taken away to be slaughtered just for you lot to be able to have a nice Sunday lunch.”
“Oh yes, we know all about that,”, she says, seeing the look of incredulity on my face. “Anyway, we managed to convince our farmer to vote for Brexit so that those damned subsidies would stop, he wouldn’t be able to continue farming, and us sheep would be free to roam this land as we wish.”
“But how did you manage to convince the farmer to vote against the very thing that is keeping his business sustainable?”, I ask.
“Ah, that was our master stroke”, answers the sheep. “We managed to convince him that all the paperwork he had to do with the EU was dragging him down, and that he would be better off free from such encumbrances. It worked a treat, I have to say. Off he went down to the polling station and voted to Leave.”
“And what does he think now, three years later?”, I ask.
“Well, I think it has dawned on him slowly that we managed to put one across him”, she continues. “He doesn’t know if the UK government will continue to subside him for much longer, and more to the point, how he will be able to compete against all the cheap imports of meat from countries that don’t have such stringent regulations. So he thinks he will probably go out of business. Anyway, if you don’t mind, I have to get back to the flock now. Good luck with Boris or what’s-his-name!”
She runs off down the hillside, leaving me to marvel at the cunningness of their plan. It might even work. And I had always thought that sheep weren’t very bright.
We eventually reach the cloud layer and the visibility drops to a few metres. It is difficult to see the next waymark and we lose the path several times. The mist feels clammy and penetrating, and to top it all, it starts to rain. Before long we feel wet, cold and miserable.
“I don’t like this too much”, says the First Mate. “We can’t see anything and my feet are freezing.”
We trudge on further. I am glad that the walk was the First Mate’s idea as it means that I don’t get the blame. After what seems like ages, the lighthouse emerges from the gloom and we see the road leading to it. There is a van parked in a small layby. At least we are now back with other humans.
“Let’s get on to the road,” says the First Mate. “It will be easier to walk on.”
We take a short cut across some boggy area to reach it and sink to our knees in water.
“Why on earth did you choose this way?”, says the First Mate.
“You wanted to get to the road”, I say.
“I didn’t mean to get my feet completely wet”, she complains.
As it is so miserable, we decide not to walk down to the lighthouse itself, but follow the road back towards the village. Eventually the rain stops. On the way, a mobile fish van passes us bringing fish to the remoter reaches of Scalpay. My first thought is that bringing fish to a fishing community is a bit like carrying coals to Newcastle, but I quickly realise that there are other occupations on the island besides fishing. Midge-disposal, for one …
We leave Scalpay the next day, heading for Stornoway. Two cormorants on sentry duty mournfully watch us go. The fog is low, and we can’t see much of the land we are passing, but at least at sea level we can see enough to avoid other boats. We motor out to the Eilean Glas lighthouse that we were aiming at on our walk yesterday, switch off the engine, pull the sails out, and turn north.
We are pleasantly surprised at the amount of bird life on this part of the coast. Lots of guillemots, razorbills, puffins, gannets, and of course, the ubiquitous seagulls. We even see a minke whale at one point.
As we approach Stornoway, we see a fisheries patrol vessel appearing out of the mist heading in the opposite direction. We relax; the only fish we have on board are the special offer ones that the First Mate had bought in the Coop in Lochmaddy and are now secure in their packaging in the freezer compartment. They’ll never think of looking in there if they board us.
We have been to Stornoway before, so we don’t intend to stay long. Just enough to have a look at what’s new in the town and do a few essential jobs.
We pop into the exhibition on the 100th anniversary of Iolaire disaster in the Town Hall put on by the Stornoway Historical Society. When we were here last, in 2015, we had stopped at the Iolaire monument on the outskirts of Stornoway, a memorial to the men from Lewis who had drowned on returning home in 1919 after having survived the trenches of the First World War. They were within sight of Stornoway when the ship, the Iolaire (G: Sea Eagle), had struck a group of rocks called the ‘Beasts of Holm’ and sank. One man had managed to get a line across from the stricken ship to the shore, and had saved many of the men, but in all 205 drowned in view of the lights of home. The cruel tragedy is burned deep into the psyche of the Lewis people, as most families on the island lost at least one man in the disaster.
I shudder. We had passed the Beasts of Holm on the way in to the marina yesterday. It is a vivid reminder of the risks involving in going to sea, and a warning to take care on our own voyages ahead.