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The Isle of Skye: round the island on a private cruise
Sally Coffey takes a private cruise round the Isle of Skye to discover secret anchorages, undisturbed wildlife, and to hear tales of long ago
Our skippers spot it first: a dark lump on the horizon. There’s a scramble as a second pair of binoculars is found and shared around, each of us careful not to take our eyes off the distant point while we wait our turn. Silence as we stand on the ship’s foredeck staring determinedly at the sea, hoping it wasn’t an illusion. And then we see it – the sleek arc of a minke whale’s back and a hint of its dorsal fin.
It’s a humbling experience that elicits gasps from my three friends and I – even our skippers, Mary and Scott, seem awe struck.
Gradually, Scott steers the boat a little further out in the Inner Sound, before cutting the engine and letting us bob on the water, waiting to see if the whale breaks the surface again, and then it does, but this time much closer. We are in the company of one of the giants of the sea, which are often spotted off the coast of the Isle of Skye and its neighbouring Inner Hebridean isles, and over the next half an hour or more, we watch as it crosses the Sound, trying to anticipate where it will come up for air next.
This sighting, off the coast of the Isle of Raasay, is the culmination of an incredible four-day cruise in the waters around the Isle of Skye, which has brought us closer to more wildlife than I could have hoped for – otters, seals, sea birds (including a solitary puffin), and porpoises. These are not the sightings you’re likely to get on an afternoon’s cruise, but spend several days at sea, I’m learning, and wildlife will be oblivious of your presence, as you sit at anchor in their natural habitat.
Our cruise had begun a few days earlier as we boarded the small but luxurious boat Red Moon from the main pontoon in Plockton, a tranquil and pretty Highlands village that sits on a finger of the Scottish mainland’s northwest coastline overlooking Loch Carron. Couple Mary and Scott, who own the boat, had welcomed us on board, shown us into our cosy cabins – a double forward and two singles to port and starboard – before running through a safety briefing and overview of our itinerary over a cooling drink.
Mary and Scott live on the boat year-round – in winter the boat is moored in Dunstaffnage Marina in Argyll – and from April to October they run private cruises for up to four passengers. Though they are both experienced skippers, on their cruises Scott does the bulk of helming, while Mary hosts and prepares delicious meals from morning through night as “it just works better when we do it that way”.
Built in 1944 and launched the following year, Red Moon is a wooden boat with teak decks and port holes that was once used as an auxiliary boat with a stint on the Clyde. It has also been a fishing boat in Orkney and the Shetland Islands.
Since then, she’s been sumptuously kitted out, with very comfortable beds, an excellent power shower and lots of modern Scottish touches, including woollen tartan throws, Highland Soap Company toiletries, and an expertly curated library of books to sit and leaf through when you are underway.
Doing an intimate cruise like this means you get to know your crew well, and so we soon discover that Mary and Scott had their first date on a night of a red moon, hence the boat’s name.
By the time we anchor on our first night, deep into Loch Hourn, in a pool so far in that Scott must steer through a narrow channel, we’ve already spotted an otter, several seals and two groups of porpoises. At the helm, New Zealand-born Scott is constantly on the lookout for wildlife. I ask him if he ever feels complacent about the wildlife here, “not at all, I actively seek it out,” he tells me. “It makes the landscape seem more wild to me [when I see it].”
Loch Hourn is a sea loch that sits between Glenelg and the remote Knoydart peninsula. At the loch’s head, at Kinloch Hourn, there’s a small café, B&B, and parking, but from there it’s a long walk to reach anywhere else resembling civilisation on Knoydart.
However, civilisation is far from our minds. The fjord-like loch is peaceful, flanked by green hills either side, whose peaks disappear behind the clouds at intervals, and the water is so clear we can see hundreds of moon jelly fish just below the surface, which Mary and Scott assure us are not poisonous.
We toast our first night at anchor with pink champagne and prawn-toast canapés in the wheelhouse (we soon come to learn that an aperitif is a daily ritual aboard Red Moon) before going through to the salon for a dinner of sea trout with sweet potatoes, asparagus, and cherry tomatoes, drizzled with coconut sauce, followed by that most decadent of Scottish deserts: cranachan.
Mary is a skilled chef and uses the freshest ingredients she can source. As we’d passed by Kyle of Lochalsh earlier that day, she had pointed to a hut in a huddle of buildings and said, “that’s where I get all my fish”. Now, over dinner, she tells us that her bread all comes from Manuela’s Wee Bakery, also in Kyle, while all her meat comes from a butcher in Gairloch.
The following morning after an uninterrupted night’s sleep, I go for a swim with one of my friends before breakfast. It feels special swimming in our own deserted loch – the water is silken, and the mosaic of greens and blues of this natural landscape are equally cleansing. After a few minutes, we haul ourselves out of the water, wrap ourselves in the big soft towels provided and have a sip of coffee before taking it in turns to have hot showers.
After breakfast we jump in the small tender and Scott motors us over to the shore where we walk down a path that was once the original road to the Isle of Skye. The path is patchy and boggy in places and at one point we lose it entirely and end up taking a lengthy detour up and over a headland. But it gives us a sense of the vastness of this landscape, considered one of the last true wildernesses in Scotland.
It’s certainly a place that sings of nature and life, with huge rocks covered in moss, damp ground carpeted with soft grasses and wildflowers, and trees and ferns dripping in moisture, with the silence broken only by the occasional splash of a diving otter or a playful seal.
Today the Knoydart Peninsula is looked after by the Knoydart Foundation, a charity that effectively puts the land back in the hands of the community. It’s not always been this democratic – during the Highland Clearances of the 19th century The Sillery ship transported hundreds of crofters from here to Canada – life for the locals who refused to leave was made unbearable. In 1948 the ‘Seven Men of Knoydart’ attempted to claim back some of the land as their own, but their plans were unsuccessful. It wasn’t until many years later, in 1999, that the lands of Knoydart were finally set free.
We arrive back on board to a lunch of hot and cold smoked salmon with salad and seeded brown bread, prepared by Mary, which we heartily enjoy before embarking to our next port of call, Totaig Bay, where we have an enviable view of Eilean Donan castle.
Eilean Donan is the shortbread tin view of Scotland, and yet I’ve only ever seen it from the relatively busy A87 road before, which does dampen the romance a little.
From the water, it’s like seeing it for the first time, and though the present building is a Victorian reconstruction of the original medieval building, you can see what wannabe invaders would have been confronted with – castle walls along which canons could be aimed and fired, and lookout points that would make you feel closely monitored.
When the sun sets and the castle is illuminated, the scene becomes more magical than impenetrable, and the castle appears dwarfed by the huge hill behind it.
This is an extract. Read the full feature in the November/December 2022 issue of Scotland, available to buy from Friday 14 October.
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