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Sailing Scotland – the land of islands, lochs, and whiskies

The Hebrides, especially the Inner Hebrides, are ideal for coastal cruising and chartering. The islands and lochs (bays or sea lakes) are spaced close together so short jaunts between harbors are easily made.  There is shelter in marinas and snug harbors, and the navigation is fairly straightforward. The major challenges in sailing these waters are the currents, the weather, and the midges.  Fortunately for us, we picked a year when the weather for the entire month of July was warm, dry and settled, and there were no midges!  All we had to figure out were the tidal currents.  We were on neap tides so the currents were running less strong than they might during spring tides. In places they still topped 10 knots!

With Reed’s Almanac in hand, we were soon arguing about which route to take and what time to leave to catch the favorable current.  In fact, just about every pub we visited had groups of sailors “discussing” the next day’s tides and currents. Get it wrong and you might face a hellish current, whirlpools, or standing waves. Get it right and you’ll have a nice sleigh ride to your next destination.

What I didn’t expect was the diversity of topography and wildlife. Some of the islands are flat and sandy, others are mountainous and volcanic. It’s all very interesting geologically. Add to that wild deer, cattle and goats, along with seals, otters, whales, dolphins and basking sharks, and huge bird populations, and you’ve got a natural environment that never fails to entertain. The waters are pristine, the beaches have no footprints, and the forests offer trails for hiking into the wild. All this interspersed with charming villages, castles and archaeological remains of ancient civilizations. 

Natural splendor and plenty of whisky (not whiskey) [1]

We started our trip in Islay (pronounced Iy-la), the home of nine whisky distilleries. There is a small community run marina at Port Ellen and a huge ferry pier where grain is brought in and whisky taken out. The anchorage just outside Port Ellen is vast with good holding in hard sand. It is easy to get in under just about any conditions.  We anchored Aleria and took our folding bicycles ashore.  We walked the village and found a Scottish courtesy flag at the general store (not the Union Jack), re-provisioned at the co-op supermarket and Spar, and checked out the restaurant and the charming pub where the beer is still pulled not forced. We asked if one beer was local, and were told “No, it’s from Scotland.” So we sampled the local Islay brew instead.

We wanted to get to Laphraoig and learned it was the closest distillery to town. Years ago we had signed up for a special promotion that awarded Friends of Laphroaig a square foot of Islay, enough to stand on in your wellies. When you came to visit in person, you could collect a dram of whisky as rent.  As this was more than 15 years ago on another continent, our certificate was long lost. Not to worry, the young lady tapped our details into her trusty computer and there we were, still friends. LIKE.  She handed us our GPS coordinates and a dram each. We found our plot with our handheld GPS, planted our American and Irish flags on our square foot, and drank a toast to our sister.  She had introduced us to Laphroaig but left this world ten years ago. Later during the tour, we learned about “the angels’ share” which is the amount of whisky that “evaporates” during the ageing. Yep, perpetual whisky sampling would be heaven for sis.

Several more tastings later, we were off to the next distillery. Many of the brands are now Diageo owned. Nothing compared to the Laphraoig experience.

From Islay we sailed to the mainland and up Loch Sween past the castle ruins to the charming village of Tayvallich (pronounced Tay-vee-al-ich). We anchored in soft mud just outside the harbor in a deep inlet.  The high banks were densely wooded and scented the air with pine. The sheltered inner harbour was full of small boats, and holiday homes lined the shore, but we had the remarkable anchorage to ourselves.  There were a few guest moorings and a marina, but everything was full at the height of the season.  We shared refreshing pints of local ale at the Tayvallich Inn and had a nice dinner outdoors overlooking Loch a' Bhealaich.  It doesn’t get dark until about 11 pm this time of year so we enjoyed the soft evening light that painted the waters in delicate hues.  In the morning, we pulled up scores of brittle stars on our anchor chain and made our way back down the loch on the receding tide to the Sound of Jura.

The thing to do in Scotland is to stop en route for a visit or lunch while awaiting the change of tide.  We anchored in the little harbour of Kiells and walked up to the preserved Medieval church that now houses an amazing collection of early Christian carved grave slabs and high crosses.  We had the place to ourselves and felt the intense aura of history in that room. 

When the currents changed, we flew up the Sound of Jura.  Loch Craignish lies between Oban (great for crew changes) and the Crinan Canal and has a thriving yachting center in Ardfern.  The harbor is chock full of boats and much of the anchorage is occupied by moorings, but we managed to tuck ourselves into a sheltered spot.  The dinghy dock was not easy to find inside a convoluted arrangement of floating docks. The marina is first class, the chandlery is perhaps the best in the isles, the pub is the center of village life, and the shop has gourmet and basic provisions. Once again we found ourselves doing laundry and fixing things in an exotic place.  At least we finally had wifi at both the marina and the pub.  It was our first since leaving Ireland. 

In Croabh (pronounced Croove), we met up with an Ocean Cruising Club rally.  We took on fuel and water and tucked ourselves into a slip in the marina.  The marina has a tiny chandlery, a restaurant, and a pantry-sized food store attached to the restaurant which opens on demand. It is a good location for meeting up with friends but there’s not much else.  It’s a great place from which to plan a passage through the Gulf of Corryvreckan, a narrow channel between the islands Jura and Scarba. In this channel, the current rushes from a depth of 219 meters to 30 meters creating one of the world’s largest whirlpools. It is a tidal race with enormous standing waves that continue outwards for several miles. Even at ‘slack water’, our boat speed through the Corryvreckan was more than 10 knots.  George Orwell, who wrote 1984 while living on Jura, almost drowned there when his boat was wrecked on Eilean Mor, the island at the entrance to Pig Bay on Jura. 

It was in Pig Bay that we learned that the tidal range can be quite small despite the ferocious currents nearby. This is a beautiful crescent shaped anchorage with crystal clear waters and sand beaches, surrounded by high hills from which you can safely watch the Race as it builds and spills out beyond the Gulf.  The downside are the ticks. We returned from a hike covered in ticks from head to toe. The ticks are spread by the island’s deer population and are said to carry Lyme Disease.

Our next stop was the magnificent Loch Tarbert on wild Jura. The loch has three sections. The first section is wide open with an anchorage behind a rocky outcropping by a fishing lodge.  It has a spectacular view of the two dramatic peaks called the Paps of Jura.  The inner anchorage, which is very protected, involves tricky navigation. GPS/chartplotter cannot be relied upon. Navigation aligning range markers has to be followed precisely or you’ll end up on the rocks.

From Loch Tarbert, we headed north to Iona, with a stop at Tinker’s Hole on the Isle of Mull, where we spent two beautiful days at anchor. It’s a remarkable chasm between a small island called Erraid and Mull, with red cliffs, aqua crystal waters, and breathtaking 360 degree views from the tops of the rocks. 

Iona proved to be the most memorable stop of the trip. The anchorage is untenable in all but settled weather.  There was no wind so we felt quite comfortable leaving Aleria on her trusty Ultra anchor despite the strong, reversing current.  We thought we’d be there an hour, see some crosses and move on. Six hours later we were still there.  Iona is considered the “cradle of Christianity” in Europe.  It’s where St. Columba (Colm Cille in Gaelic), the Irish monk, established his monastery.  It’s where the Celtic cross was invented and where the monks preserved ancient books, including the Book of Kells. It’s where kings and rulers of foreign lands retired and came to be buried. It’s the most powerful spiritual place we’ve ever been. Its sectarian cathedral encourages services by all religions. There is a ruined nunnery with a courtyard where people come to pray in their native tongues. It is fascinating. We were fortunate to arrive between ferry loads and cruise ships; we had the place just about to ourselves.

We left at high tide and rather cautiously picked our way through the rocks and reefs northward, which saved us from sailing all the way around the island. We sailed past Staffa, one of the more famous islands, having been the inspiration for Mendelsohn’s overture, The Hebrides.  Its hexagonal basalt columns form the faces of the island and walls of its caves.  It is possible to anchor off in settled weather for a quick trip into Fingal’s Cave, but there is no overnight anchorage.  We chose instead the secluded anchorage between the islands of Ulva and Gometra. There was one well-hidden homestead and otherwise we were alone on this beautiful night. 

Next we decided to head for Tobermory, but first we would stop in the unique Treshnish Isles where delightful little puffins congregate. If you stay still, they’ll walk right up to you. They cavorted all around Aleria in the harbor by the scores. The seals on the rocks spent the day in deep wailing conversations like old women at a funeral.  It was magnificent. The anchorage was too exposed to stay overnight so we moved on.  

Tobermory is a lively and colourful fishing village on Mull. The anchorage there is in 90 feet of water almost to the shore so it is advisable to pick up a mooring (£15 per night) or take a slip at the marina.  They have good facilities with a laundry, showers and toilets, and wifi.  The village has many restaurants, several pubs, a distillery right in town, a well-stocked supermarket, lots of shops, a bank, and a really cool hardware/chandlery/musical instruments/telescope/book/liquor store.  There is also a lovely walk high along a cliff face around the harbor to a waterfall.

After that we continued on to the Small Isles: Muck, Eigg, Rum and Canna.  We chose Rum, the largest, with ragged peaks formed by an extinct volcano covered in forest that was stocked with deer as a hunting estate. There is an Edwardian castle abandoned intact. It wasn’t open when we were there, but the true joy of Rum is nature. Wild deer, cattle, ponies, and goats roam the island.  Birds of all varieties, including eagles reintroduced here, soar high above.  Dragonflies flutter closer to earth. In this anchorage, we had plenty of company, including a boatload of Norwegians who all stripped down to bare bottoms and dove off their boat to the horror of neighboring Brits who kept their eyes peeled. 

The next day, we sailed to Skye, our northernmost destination.  Skye is most dramatic with jagged highland peaks reaching towards the heavens and catching clouds as they pass by. The anchorage in Loch Harport is vast and there are several guest moorings at the Talisker distillery. The village is small with a shop, a petrol station, and the Old Inn.  We made for Talisker first. 

The best thing about visiting the distilleries is the chance to taste all the whiskies on offer, many of which are not available elsewhere.  Here we tasted Talisker 10-year-old as well as Talisker 57° North, a cask strength bottling with no age specification, and Talisker Storm,  a new offering for 2013 which we loved.  It was fitting to have Storm aboard. We’d sailed in on a thunderstorm and sailed out on a katabatic wind storm.

We were now heading back south.  Loch Tuath, which separates Mull from Ulva and Gometra, was another beautiful anchorage which we shared with two other boats and many seals.  

After that was one of the most spectacular stops, but too exposed for an overnight stay. Colonsay and Oronsay across from Jura are flat and sandy without much elevation – more like the Outer Hebrides.  But the anchorage is spectacular, with views to the Paps of Jura. White sand beaches fringe machair landscape – a Gaelic term for low-lying, fertile grassy plains teeming with life.  Rare flowers and a diversity of endangered bird species make their homes there. 

We awaited a suitable time for the current to take us through the Sound of Islay between Islay and Jura. Though not as daunting as the Corryvreckan, timing can still make a big difference.  We passed through as the sun set, past distilleries and villages, and made our way to Port Ellen on Islay, completing our journey in a memorable loop.   We’d stopped in many places and missed more, leaving much to be explored another time.

Daria and Alex Blackwell are the authors of Happy Hooking - The Art of Anchoring and deliver seminars and webinars on anchors and anchoring.  More detailed accounts of sailing Scotland can be found in Aleria’s Great Adventures blog:

[1] Yes, it is spelled whisky in Scotland, Canada and Japan (plural whiskies) – countries without an “e” in their names, but whiskey in Ireland and the United States (plural whiskeys) – countries with an “e” in their names. 


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