Saturday 24 June 2017

A dash of Knoydart enroute the Small Isles

The Small Isles

Small Isles, that's the collective name for the four islands of the Inner Hebrides on Scotland's west coast.
Rum, Eigg, Muck and Canna, though grouped together as such, don't have much in common apart from their close proximity to each other, and a ferry service. Anyone visiting Mallaig and the Inner Hebrides are unquestionably drawn in by the distinct silhouette of the Cuillin range on Rum and the Sgurr on Eigg. Though Muck and Canna do not stand out visually as their more famous (and bigger) siblings, they too have much to offer and definitely deserve a visit to be truly appreciated.

I had visited Rum and Canna a couple of years ago, an incredible experience which I wrote about in my blog. Honestly, I did not think much of Canna before my visit and kept only half a day on the island just to satiate my curiosity. But the visit had only left me wanting for more and a yearning to return. Though a second visit is yet to happen, I had been craving to complete the other half of the Small Isles after that experience. But the planning was a challenge.
Canna - the smallest of the Small Isles
On the isle of Rum

Rum, Scotland
The Rum Cuillins

Eigg, Scotland
The Sgurr on Eigg
As I had observed during my visit to Rum and Canna, the biggest hurdle for visiting the Small isles is the infrequent ferry service. The Caledonian Macbrayne (or Calmac) ferry, MV Loch Nevis, starts from Mallaig, stopping at the four isles following a very complicated timetable which varies through the week. During the winter months, the service gets even more sparse with the ferry reaching the isles only on alternate days. In the summer months, the MV Shearwater runs from Arisaig, not very far from Mallaig, giving an additional option.

The other challenge in planning is the very unpredictable Scottish west coast weather, but I am going to ignore that since it is beyond any logistics to overcome this hurdle. It is a pity Calmac provides such good food on board. With a bumpy ride inevitable, and with inexperienced sea legs, keeping it light on the tummy is always advisable.

So, after delving on my prospective visit for months, eventually I had a window at work and I managed to get a whole week off!
I was ready to take on the ferry timetable.

View of Skye from Rum
Canna, Scotland
Sea stacks on Canna

The plan

Being the last week of March, it was still officially winter.
I worked out I could take the Monday morning ferry to Muck, stay there for a couple of days till the next ferry arrived on Wednesday to take me to Eigg. On Friday, the timetable changed to summer and I could get the additional service to Eigg in the morning to get back to Mallaig. After lunch I would take the ferry to Armadale in Skye and spend a couple of days with my friend who was working in Broadford.

Though the ferry service changed to summer timetable, the local bus timetables doesn't till much later in the year; not that I needed any public transport on the small isles and neither do they have any. Vehicular access is restricted here and walking or cycling (or kayaking for the more adventurous) is the only way around. I would need the bus on Skye, but more on that later.

On the positive side of the 'off-season' visit, finding accommodation was not an issue and everywhere I called up, was greeted with, "No need to book, just come over. Plenty of space".
The only problem I now had, was a storm brewing which was to get worse through the week.

The trip begins

For the early morning ferry on Monday, I had to reach Mallaig by the previous night. But why waste a good weekend?
Saturday morning, after a very late Friday night, I was dozing on the train, trying to keep myself awake guzzling on coffee. The train slowly pulled out of Glasgow Queen Street making its way towards Mallaig, a visually enthralling journey through the heart of Scottish highland. The Jacobite train (or the Harry Potter train as it is more popularly known as now), runs this route between Fort William and Mallaig during summer and is considered as one of the most scenic train journeys in the world (Here is a post I wrote about visiting Glenfinnan and a glimpse of the famous train 'Potter'ing around Glenfinnan). As the train rolled through the beautiful landscape, the views were remarkable with blue skies and dazzling sunshine. The grim weather forecast for the next week seemed too unreal.


As a budget traveller, I always stay at the Mission Bunkhouse in Mallaig. The location cannot be better for any odd train and ferry timings, the hosts - friendly, the price - very reasonable, and if you have ear plugs, you get a grand night's sleep too. It is very impressive how these guys had sorted me out for the night, at their own cost, when the booking site had messed up during my earlier visit to Rum (you can read about that in my blog on visiting Rum). The Mission Cafe below the bunkhouse serves 'finger licking good' fish and chips, and my favourite - haggis fritters. Beside the cafe in the same building, is a charity bookshop. The place is crammed with books, taking up every available space and all priced at a quid. I normally pick up a few whenever I am in Mallaig and put them back in the shop on my next visit.

Mallaig was quiet this time of the year.
It was late afternoon when the train pulled in. The blue sky of the glorious day was gradually being taken over by the dark clouds, in preparation of the upcoming storm. The sun rays were making a desperate attempt to break through the clouds and a few streaks of light brightened up the sea between Eigg and Rum. But the heavenly view disappeared before I could grab my camera. I managed to capture the moment through the train window on my mobile phone camera.

Mallaig, Scotland
Sun beams between Eigg and Rum
I checked into my room and after a brief chat with the host family, picked up a fish and chips from the station chippie shop, and walked over to the coast. The sun had already set by then, but the sky was still golden. The sea breeze was strong, but warm. I sat on the rocks for a peaceful dinner. I seemed to be the only visitor in Mallaig that evening. A couple of elderly locals said hello as they passed.
I was also the only boarder in the bunkhouse that night and didn't need ear plugs for a sound sleep.

Mallaig, Scotland
Mallaig after sunset

I had always used Mallaig for transit, never spending enough time in and around this port town. I thought of spending the morning walking in the area and then visit Arisaig and Morar in the afternoon, but unfortunately there was no bus service on a Sunday and the winter train times were not helpful. Neither did I fancy a walk on the road on my own, without a path, and vehicles jetting past.

While still in bed, I made up my mind to head for Knoydart - the joys of solo travel!

Located to the north of Mallaig, Knoydart is considered as Scotland's true wilderness, a remote peninsula sandwiched between the Loch of Hell (Loch Hourn) and the Loch of Heaven (Loch Nevis). The ferry times on a winter Sunday were not enough, but it would allow me about three hours for a wander, though obviously not to the true wilderness it is known for. This would be my first visit to the peninsula, a teaser I hoped.

The sun was still out when I woke up. The sea was unusually calm, giving some beautiful reflections of the life around the sea. By late morning the weather had started to decline. The ferry to Knoydart was leaving around eleven. I got my ticket from the friendly boatman, making sure he did not leave Knoydart without picking me up on the last ferry. I needed to be on Muck the next day!

The boat didn't have many passengers, just a couple with their dog and myself.

Mallaig, Scotland
The different levels of Mallaig
Mallaig, Scotland
Mallaig, Scotland
Mallaig - a port town
Mallaig, Scotland
Approaching storm in Mallaig
Knoydart, Scotland
Ready for Knoydart

Inverie, Knoydart

The tiny boat sped through the dark waters of Loch Nevis. I tried to balance on the deck as the fast boat bumped on the waves. The weather had finally given in and I was getting drenched in sprays both from the sky and the sea loch. The scenery started changing through the thirty minutes boat-ride, as rugged hills rose through the mist. The dull and dreary day somehow suited the remoteness of the territory we were heading into.

Knoydart ferry, Scotland
To Knoydart 
Knoydart, Scotland
The 'plastic Madonna'
Knoydart, Scotland
Ferry to Knoydart

A white statue with arms seemingly held up appeared on the cliffs to the left. It was difficult to see through the rain, but I zoomed in and clicked a couple of photographs. Later I came to know this was a fibre glass statue of Madonna, also called the unflattering 'Plastic Madonna' for the material used. It was tempting to walk up to the statue when I reached Inverie but knew I didn't have enough time. This trip was anyway going to be a less active one for me. Only four months ago I had ruptured a knee ligament in a silly cycling accident and was sweating it out at the gym to get the strength back. My physiotherapist had given me permission to take a break but made me promise I won't venture up any hills, would stick to level ground and foremost, not try doing anything stupid. The knee was still wobbly, progress was slow, but I was getting there.

Knoydart, Scotland
Inverie, Knoydart

The boat stopped at Inverie, the main village of Knoydart. It was under dark clouds but looked sheltered and very calm. I stood on the pier, taking in the view as people and material were loaded off and on the boat. A few white houses were lined up by the path leading from the pier. And there were hills, lots of them, rugged ones, and I was sure there were many more hiding in the mist and low cloud. Under the dark clouds, it was a painting in monochrome tinged by hues of orange, brown and yellow of the tree leaves and grass recovering from the harsh winter weather.

Knoydart, Scotland
Inverie - calm and sheltered

Knoydart, Scotland
A gleam of sunshine

I had ended up in Knoydart with no plans and no map.
A few people were waiting at the pier when we arrived, and left with the ferry. The couple accompanying me had walked on as well and I was the only one still hanging about. By the pier a map was pinned to a board which I hoped would be helpful, so walked up for a closer look. It had a brief summary about Knoydart,  and along with a list of a few ranger-accompanied walks it mentioned 'Knoydart in a Knutshell', a short waymarked trail which looked doable. I could always include some detours to add interest if I had more time.

I started the trail with a short detour. From the pier I headed straight for the hill behind the village, my objective, to see if I could find a view. It was on a proper track so I was not quite breaking my promise. However, the path started to become rough  and I soon figured out there wasn't much to see in the mist and low cloud. The track wound through vast areas of deforestation and the gaping stumps were not a happy sight. I decided to turn back.

Knoydart, Scotland
Knoydart view - through some forest clearing

Knoydart, Scotland
When fallen trees have a purpose

Back on level ground, this time I tried to follow the way-marked trail more diligently and I succeeded for most of the walk. Only once, I tried to take a detour to investigate a possible view, but with no luck took a short-cut to get back on the trail. I lost my way and had to climb down a sharp incline, jump over a ditch and scramble up barbed wired fences to find a path. Some amused horses looked on as I accomplished my goal and was back on track, with my backpack and camera and knee intact.

The trail had its share of walking through woodland, river paths and waterfalls, which on a better day would probably be a pretty sight. But it was dark and drizzly today and I was craving for some warmth and shelter. It wasn't the best day for outdoors and photographs. I took my time by the sea, picking up sea shells and photographing the birds. Eventually I gave up and was back in the village, with still a considerable time left for the ferry.

Mossy path

Knoydart in a Knutshell
Knoydart in a Knutshell
Inverie Knoydart Scotland
Knoydart in a Knutshell

Knoydart in a Knutshell
Knoydart in a Knutshell

Knoydart in a Knutshell
Knoydart in a Knutshell

Knoydart in a Knutshell
Knoydart in a Knutshell

Knoydart in a Knutshell
Knoydart in a Knutshell

Knoydart in a Knutshell

Knoydart in a Knutshell
Knoydart in a Knutshell

Inverie Knoydart Scotland
Inverie - not a church anymore

Inverie Knoydart Scotland
Inverie houses

I was thinking of waiting at the pier when while walking past the pub saw it opening. I walked in. The signage inside told me I had just arrived at 'The Old Forge', the remotest pub in mainland Britain. Got clicked for some obligatory memento pictures. The pub owner was friendly and we chatted about my day in the village and my upcoming visits. Some warm, sugar drizzled waffles were laid out on the counter and I had to give in to a couple as I sat by the window looking out for the ferry.

The Old Forge
Waffles at The Old Forge
The ferry was on time and finding me waiting, the boatman beamed at me and jokingly reassured that he was not leaving without me. We were back on our journey soon. This time the views had completely disappeared in the clouds.

Next morning, I was heading for Muck and it didn't look very promising.

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Friday 23 June 2017

A scary story for the night

Moray Firth is an area I had not visited for a long time during my stay in Scotland. On this particular weekend a storm was battering Scotland and the west coast was taking a nasty hit. So I re-planned and decided to visit this sunny part of Scotland instead. My base would be Cullen. Called up the Harbour Hostel for booking a bed, but there seemed to be no problem with availability. They told me to just turn up.

If you have been to Cullen Harbour Hostel, you will know that this is an independent hostel with an open door policy. You check in yourself. There are no locks and it’s open 24x7. However, when I reached, the front door seemed to be jammed and I had to wait for the staff. Eventually, someone turned up and I was let in. I don't know if he was the manager as he didn't give me a straight reply, just mumbled something about staff unavailability. He was fidgety and felt very creepy.

After handing me a wrap-around ‘sleeping bag’ and showing me around, he disappeared.

The dorm was set out in two rooms, one leading into the other, with a connecting door between them. For the sake of privacy (it's a mixed dorm) each bed had its own personal curtain. There were about 10 beds in the first room. The inner room was also set up similarly. But it was completely dark, probably no windows in there if I remember right, and I couldn't see. The common bathroom was located outside by the hall. With no one else in the dorm, I was spoilt for choice and selected one of the beds in the outer room by the window. I kept my backpack and went for a walk around the coast. Was hoping to get some decent shots of the Bow and Fiddle rock in Portknockie, about a couple of miles away.

After a brilliant day by the coast, I returned in the late afternoon. The place was still quiet. No one had turned up it seemed. I made a quick pasta supper in the kitchen. The place was warm and smelled nice from the wood burning stoves. Someone had lit them up while I was away. The lounge had a piano which I tinkered with for a while. I looked around at the odd pieces of decoration in the lounge and finally relaxed with a book on the couch. There wasn't another soul around. About ten I decided it was time for bed. I had the whole, massive place to myself, or so I thought. As I walked through the door of the dormitory, I realised something. It was quiet. Very quiet. The only sound I could hear was of the raging sea. It had been a dry but windy day and the wind was getting stronger.

The dorm was not as warm as the lounge and it was pitch dark when I came in. I switched on the lights, a couple of low voltage incandescent lamps came on, trying their best to diffuse their faint glow through the rows of textile hanging around the beds. It was difficult not to imagine someone lurking behind them. I stopped my brain from going into an imagination overdose. The inner room was dark. I didn't feel the urge to look inside so quietly went up and shut the connecting door. 

Picking up my night clothes, I closed the dorm door behind me to get washed and changed. After five minutes I was back from the bathroom. I opened the door and stood there, unable to move, frozen. There, right in front of me, the connecting door was wide open! Maybe there was a boarder who had arrived quietly, unnoticed. After all, there weren’t any locks to keep people away.

'Hello' I could only manage a feeble whisper, but got no response. With shaky hands I started pulling back the curtains, first my dorm. It was clear. Then gathering courage stepped into the second one, fumbled, but managed to switch on the lights. The glow from the incandescent lamps wasn't enough to cut through the darkness. I took a deep breath, then walked in, gingerly starting to move the curtains.

I switched off the lights and closed the door again behind me, this time making sure it was tight. The inner dorm was empty as well. I was confused, trying to convince myself that I had never closed the door. I couldn't get myself to switch off the light in my dorm for the night. I was still shaking. Keeping one lamp on I crawled under the covers. By now the storm was raging outside. A vision of Norman Bates doing a curtain rip-through kept playing in my head. Eventually, I fell asleep.

The sun was out and the sky was blue when I woke up, though it still looked windy. The connecting door was tightly shut as I had left it. Last night felt unreal in the safety of day light. I was to walk to Portsoy, about six miles from Cullen and get the bus from there to Aberdeen, then the train back to Edinburgh. An early start was on the cards. I started to go to the bathroom but at the dorm door realised I had forgotten my toothbrush. Starting to return to my bed, I released the door behind me. As the dorm door closed sharply with the spring pulling it back, the air was sucked out of the room. With that, the connecting door was opening slowly.

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