Thursday 25 June 2015

The Small Isles - Canna

Eigg and Rum, from the ferry

On a clear day, the first sight to greet the traveler taking the ferry to Skye from Mallaig, are the distinctive outlines of the Isles of Eigg and Rum. Tucked between their much more prominent neighbours - Skye and Mull, this group of four islands Rum, Eigg, Muck and Canna form what is known as the Small Isles. Even though they are grouped together, the islands are just as distinct from each other, as they are and all others, from every other island around Scotland and I was out there to sample some of it last month.
The small isles in perspective of the much larger islands
The islands are reachable by the Caledonian Macbrayne ferries from Mallaig or by the Smaill Isles ferry from Arisaig. My plan was to travel from Mallaig and take in the whole group in a span of three days. However, I soon realised this was not feasible given the odd ferry timings, but that was only after I had managed to read the much confusing Calmac timetable for the Small Isles ferry. I had to actually make the trip to figure out how the timetable worked. The boat to the Small Isles, the MV Loch Nevis, continues to all four islands touching back at Mallaig from various points. The route and timings vary throughout the week. The timetable goes to and fro between two pages trying to capture these routes and the times - making it definitely not the easiest to read. Here is the link to the timetable page Calmac - Small Isles Summer ferry timetable

My plan was to take the Saturday morning ferry from Mallaig to go to Canna, spend the day there and then turn back to Rum on the evening ferry. Only the Saturday sailing would let me have a full day in Canna. I would be staying in Rum for a couple of days and return to Mallaig on Monday afternoon. Since I could manage an extra day off this time, I decided to stop for a day in Glenfinnan on my way to Mallaig - for a glimpse of the Jacobite train. I had written about the trip here "Potter"ing around Glenfinnan

Travelling onward from Glenfinnan...

The rain had ceased by the time I reached Mallaig. It took me about an hour on the train, a very gloomy journey on one of world's most scenic train routes. If only Scotland had less atmospheric weather. The wind was still strong as I walked out of the train station to the Mission Bunkhouse, located conveniently just opposite. I had booked a bed here, or so I thought. As the duty manager let me in she quickly explained the situation I was in. Apparently there had been a problem with my booking and the hostel being full I did not have anywhere to sleep. She made me comfortable in the living area as she frantically talked over the phone trying to find a bed for the night. She apologised profusely for the trouble and promised she will find me a place. I was really feeling sorry for her. I even offered to sleep on the couch since I would be taking the early morning ferry and only had a few hours. But she wouldn't agree to that. Eventually she did manage to find me a place. At £60, the Cornerstone B&B was way expensive than my £20 dorm bed, but she handed me a couple of twenty pound notes as she showed me where to go. It was their mistake, she said, not my fault. For the price of a dorm bed, I now had a room to myself, with double bed and overlooking the harbour. It indeed was my lucky day, bumping into nice people!
After being out on a cold and wet day, a long, warm shower was more than welcome. Feeling refreshed, I went down to the restaurant and spent a fortune on fresh scallops for dinner.
A short post dinner stroll by the harbour and I was in for an early night. The rain was beating on the window panes as I drifted off. The forecast wasn't at all good for the weekend, and I could only hope.
View from room window
Woke up to a glint of sunshine through the dark clouds, and my hopes were raised - probably the storm would pass. However, my hopes were dashed to smithereens as I went to get my ferry tickets. 'Are you sure you want to go to Canna? The ferries may be cancelled at short notice. You may be better getting off at Rum if you want to stay there'. The girl at the counter said. If what she said came true, I would be stuck in Canna for two days. Was in a dilemma but anyway got the tickets to Canna. At about £11 for Rum and about £14 for Canna, I thought I would take the decision once on board. As we were waiting to get on board, sleet and rain hit us with vengeance, the wind was brutal. The glimmer of  sunshine had long disappeared and all I could see was dark clouds and mist over a very choppy sea. It was going to be a rough ride.

I remember most of the time I was up on the deck in the freezing, wet weather, trying to keep my breakfast roll  in its proper place. Sea sickness is for real. And I was not alone as most of the people on the ferry were on the deck as well. I had almost decided to get off at Rum while I was talking to a group who were heading for Rum and staying at the Bunkhouse as well. I thought I had more to do in Rum than in Canna, so would be a waste of my holidays if I was stuck in Canna. As the ferry docked at Rum pier, I went up to speak to the Chief Officer. 'We make it 90% of the times between Rum and Canna even though the ferries are normally cancelled. Now it's up to you what you want to do'. I weighed the options and well, I decided to continue. I returned to the deck where I bumped into Martin. He works for NTS and is a regular on this route. When I told him about my dilemma, he thought the ferries between Rum and Canna went 100% of the times. Moreover, Canna has the better weather due to its lower height, he said. As a bonus, I also got a crash course in identifying the sea birds, especially the Manx Shearwaters which inhabit the islands here.

The ferry takes about an hour and a half to reach Rum and almost another hour to Canna. The sea was much calmer in this second stretch in the shelter of the islands. And as the clouds cleared, the sea reflected the azure blue in the glorious sunlight. Martin was right.
Bloodstone hill on Rum with the capsized fishing boat lying for years now 
Approaching Canna
St Edwards church on Sanday
Sanday is a smaller island connected to Canna by a footbridge. As we approached Canna the lighthouse on Sanday first came into view. This was followed by the prominent St Edwards church still on Sanday. At only 11 sq kms, Canna is the smallest in the group of the Small Isles. Its fertile land, the sheltered location from the harsh winds and the warmth from the Gulf stream means the island has extensive stretches of green meadows and an abundance of wildlife, which rightfully earns it the name 'The Garden of the Hebrides'. It is surprising how much it stands out from its closest neighbour of Rum, one rugged and mountainous, while the other with low, rolling hills covered in green carpet. The island changed hands a few times and came into the possession of the Campbell family who eventually handed over Canna and Sanday to the National Trust of Scotland. The island now has a population of 27 - a closely knit community.

I was on the island mainly to see the puffins which inhabit the sea stacks in Sanday between mid-April and mid-August. Martin showed me where to find them as the ferry approached the pier. It looked close enough, but he warned me it would take longer. My other interest was to walk up by the Coroghan castle (was once a prison but nor more a rock than a castle) and then on to Compass hill (a magnetic hill, and said to be able to deviate the compass and hence the name), both of which were not far from the pier. It all seemed possible. Martin asked me to be at the pier by half five so as not to miss the 6 pm ferry. It was only 10 am and I had the whole day.
My planned points of interest
Though Sanday jutted out to the sea on the east of Canna, quite close to the pier, getting to the footbridge to cross required a much longer traverse. There is a shortcut, but the path goes under water in high tide.
St Edward's with the Rum Cuillin in the background
St Edward's and Askival 
Crossing over from Canna to Sanday
Though the sun was out, it was still windy as I walked through the fields, avoiding the cows (they terrify me) and climbing over fences to avoid the bog. I walked almost the whole south coast of Sanday all the while the St Edwards church staying as a prominent landmark as the hills of Rum rose impressively behind it. Rum was under clouds.
Outline of Skye in the distance
The coast was dramatic in the wild weather and even though I kept my eyes peeled, could not spot any wildlife the islands are famous for apart from the common sea birds around. Maybe the weather was too rough. More than once I was hit by sharp hail storms.
An interesting rock formation
Spotted a Shelduck
I almost had to give up my quest for the puffins. The area by the sea stacks was walled up where a single gate served as the entrance. But this blocked by about ten cows all staring at me. I tried climbing over the wall, but it was not easy and I did not want to risk a fall or be buried under a stone pile. I was turning back when I found the door to the St Edwards church open so decided to take a look. The place is now used as the community hall for the island. It had a stage with benches in front of it set in a sort of amphitheatre feel. I found a man and a woman, clearing out the place. Asked them if there was another way through the wall with the cows blocking off the gate. The guy asked me to just go through the gate and push them away - 'they nae bother'. He also confirmed that he had seen hundreds of puffins earlier in the day on the stacks. The girl however warned me they may be out at the sea. As I walked back, the cows had fortunately moved away and I did not have to be brave. After that it was finding footholds in the extensive bog as I worked my way up the hills. The stacks soon appeared and they looked spectacular, more so with the waves crashing against them.
However, there were no puffins.
I waited as I looked out to the sea. Eventually a lone puffin hopped on to the stack top while a second stood at a distance. That was all and I was disappointed. I had hoped to find the place full of these colourful, comical birds, like at the Isle of May which I had visited back in 2009.
The lone puffin - blurry as well
With no further sightings of the birds, I decided to walk further down to the lighthouse at the extreme end of Sanday.
By now I had been around the Sanday coast, walking well over ten kilometres fighting the strong wind and ferocious hails, manoeuvered through bogs, climbed fences. I was tired and the rocking ferry ride at the start of the day had started to take its toll on my legs. I was struggling. The walk back to the pier felt much longer but at least I was walking on firm, flat ground. The sun was out, and the scenery was now breathtaking.
St Edwards church - now the community centre
Looking back from Sanday to Canna with the Compass hill
An Eider duck
I bumped into Martin again and he reminded me to be at the pier on time as he escaped to see a friend and have a cup of tea. He did invite me to join but realised I would be more inclined to walk around the couple of hours I had left. I still had time to go up the Compass hill, if only my legs would allow me. I thought of getting some refreshments from the local shop by the Canna cafe. The cafe is closed on Saturday, the only day the ferry allows a day trip to the island! The shop worked on an honesty policy. I picked up some chocolates, biscuits and crisps, made an entry in the log book, calculated and paid the money in the box and took my change. Even the money was left in the open. I was impressed that it worked so well. There are two shops on Canna and both work this same principle.However, as I write this am sad to say that last week the other shop by the pier was in the news for a very wrong reason. There had been a theft and now the volunteers have started locking it up when there is no one around. Was both shocked and saddened by the news.
Even though I still had a couple of hours before the ferry, I was too tired to walk up any hill, so decided to walk down to the pier and wait in the shelter. I was disappointed as I had hoped to see more of Canna, and a bit frustrated by my decision to go for the puffins on Sanday rather than the hills in Canna. I was almost hoping the ferry be cancelled so that I could see more of the island. Finding a place to sleep would have been a problem in this small island with 27 inhabitants. But I was sure the very friendly people would find me something. I popped into the Rocket church by the pier (thus named due to its shape). It had an exhibition about the island's natural and archaeological history. I was still inside when the rains came down and this time it was torrential and the wind blustery. I was thankful I was inside the thick walls of the church and not up in the hill.
The Rocket church
The exhibition
I walked down to the waiting room and decided to sit on the floor. My legs were begging to be stretched. The floor was cold and and I rebounded back to the bench before I froze. The walls of the waiting room were adorned with photographs from the last century. They documented the life of the Campbell family, mostly clicked by the lady of the house, and it gave a fascinating picture of their days on the island. It was still raining outside.
As the clock advanced towards six, more people started trickling in for the ferry. They were mostly locals and Martin was with them. The guy I met at the church appeared in reflective clothing, thick gloves and wellies. He asked if I had seen the puffins and was surprised as well as sorry when I told him about my experience. His job was to get the ferry in and they had radioed him about their arrival. As I asked about his job, he laughed as he explained - that's what the people in the island did, have multiple responsibilities to make it work. The clock went past six, but still there was no sign of the ferry. We waited as it poured down and the wind battered us. Everyone huddled under the shelter engaging in small talk, the dogs getting very impatient and nuzzling everyone.
Eventually the ferry appeared. It was quarter to eight - delayed by almost two hours. The ferry was coming from Muck and this open stretch of water between Muck and Canna is the roughest in the Small Isles ferry journey. The locals didn't think the ferry would have gone to Muck in this weather, but apparently, it had.
As we were embarking, the Chief Officer smiled at me and said 'See, we came back for you'.

I went up on back to the deck again as we set sail.
Finally we were on our way to Rum and for some like Martin, it was going back home to Mallaig.  
Sunrays on the sea

Keep following the story and follow me on Facebook Breaking out Solo

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