To Sea Again - by John Noorani
Some of my favourite sights...
There’s a rattle at the letterbox and a thump as a large white plasticised envelope hits the floor. It has a Skipton postmark, it can mean only one thing – a ‘fat lady’ beckons.
How to get to her – Queen Street tunnel is closed for electrification works with diversions via the Low Level and routes not normally served by passenger trains, I have got to make use of this opportunity.It is Monday night, platform 1 at Euston, the 23:55 Sleeper to Edinburgh awaits the ‘Off’. I am comfortably tucked up in bed, there’s a slight lurch as the brakes release and the locomotive takes the strain. We’re off. We slow as we round the canted curve at Watford and stop at the station, then under way and into Watford Tunnel. It seems like only moments later we slow again, but it is daylight, a glance out of the window reveals distinctive buildings on the skyline, we are approaching Carstairs Junction. Now on the line to Edinburgh, breakfast arrives, next stop is Edinburgh Waverley, it is good to be back in Scotland. But I have an appointment in Oban, so a train via Falkirk High to Glasgow Queen Street Low Level, via the Annisland diversion is next.
The indicator board on the platform at Queen Street shows the next train is for Oban and Mallaig, that’s for me. We head east through Bellgrove to Cowlairs, then west, to Westerton, shortly the Clyde comes into view; at Craigendoran it’s north as we climb alongside Gare Loch, then Loch Long. There’s a puffer on the loch trailing black smoke – have we gone back in time?
We are past the stone signals in the Pass of Brander, no sign of the ospreys, now Loch Awe is on the right, I am almost there. As we run into Oban the view is blocked by lorries waiting for the Outer Isles – is she there? Walking across the ferry marshalling area, relief – there she is, one of Hall Russell’s three 1963 built ‘fat ladies’. Hebridean Princess has come to take me away from this ordinary world, what sights will she show me this time?
The formalities are complete, I have been summoned, it is time to walk up the gangway, and at the top familiar faces, Louise, Caz, Iain, Sergejs, Louis, Deniss, Doreen, too many to name, and not forgetting Angus playing the bagpipes. They welcome me back like an old friend and I am shown to my home for the duration.
It is 19:15, all the drills are complete. The Captain is on the Bridge Wing taking one last look at the pier, the crew are by the winches, the linesmen at the bollards. Captain rings ‘Slow Ahead’ on the Engine Room telegraph, and calls ‘Let Go For’ard’ then ‘Let Go Aft’. There is a roar, the Crossleys come to life, with a churning of water we’re off. We move sedately through Oban Bay, NLB vessel Pole Star is waiting close by, anxious for us to clear so she can berth. We pass the Hutcheson Memorial at the tip of Kerrera, Captain rings ‘Full Ahead’ on both engines, which immediately respond, followed shortly after by ‘Full Away’ and the engine tachometer goes up to 400 rpm – we’re cruising.
It is time for dinner in the Columba Restaurant; I am shown to my table and introduced to fellow guests, some of whom are old acquaintances. After an excellent meal we adjourn to the Tiree Lounge to discover what the programme is for tomorrow, will it be as scheduled, or changed because of weather?
We are in Bloody Bay to the north of Mull, the anchor is down, the land of nod calls, it is the end of the day and I fall asleep dreaming of what delights await.
I awake as it is getting light, a glance out of the porthole suggests it is going to be a sunny morning, but not yet, I can stay in bed another hour, it is only 4 o’clock, but it is not to be. The telephone rings, it is 1st Officer Caz from the Bridge, there is a large pod of dolphins around the ship. Within five minutes I am dressed and there, with camera at the ready, but there is not enough light and they are moving away so I watch them for half an hour. They are jumping clear of the water, and beating the surface with their tails, no doubt fishing. It is an excellent start but no pictures. Eventually they move off towards the open sea, it is time for a cup of tea.
Returning to the deck, the sun has just cleared the hills of Ardnamurchan and illuminating the detail of the cliffs of Mull. Time for photographs, but the quietness of the morning is disturbed by croaking ravens as they mob a buzzard on the moors – they are closer now, that is no buzzard, it is a golden eagle, and I haven’t got my telephoto lens. A couple of quick shots then a dash to the cabin for it. They are still there, and getting closer. The eagle is flying along the cliff, and lands amongst some bushes. We have anchored opposite the nest site!
It is 06:30, the anchor is being hauled, we’re off, past Ardnamurchan lighthouse and north. Through the Narrows at Kylerhea, with the last classic Scottish turntable ferry operated by the Glenelg Community, then on to the Skye Bridge.
Inverewe Garden holds a special treat, we are arriving at the pier in Loch Ewe, and the heron chicks are nearly half grown. With the telephoto I can get really close to them.
We are heading out into The Minch, there will be all the usual birds, but anything else? It is a flat sea, ideal for spotting Cetaceans. A quick word with Hotel Manager Iain, a Thermos flask of lunchtime soup is quickly arranged and I will stay up on the Bridge Wing. A black fin breaks the surface, then again, and again. It is a harbour porpoise. There are gannets diving ahead of us, must be a shoal of fish, but there is too much splashing.
Look closer, there are dolphins as well, breaching and twisting, thrashing the sea. We go within a hundred yards.
We are close to the Shiant Isles now, seabird numbers are huge. Then, as we cruise the cliffs there is a white-tailed sea-eagle, no two, three eventually four. The ship stops, we watch spellbound.
We arrive at Stornoway mid afternoon and a coach waits to take us to the Callanish Stones. We are virtually the only visitors. Why are these stones here, what were they for and who used them? Did they just serve the local inhabitants or did people travel over the sea, if so in what vessels? Even today The Minch can be treacherous, how much more so for the basic vessels they would have had? Where did they land – Loch Roag opens onto the Atlantic, did they walk across the island? We know the climate was milder then but even so it would have been a hazardous journey from the mainland – so many questions to speculate on. Now on to Dun Carloway Broch.
How was it used, without a water supply it could not withstand a siege, but it dominates the skyline and the stonework is exquisite. What did the inhabitants make of the Callanish Stones, two thousand years older than the Broch, or had the peat engulfed them by then? So much to think about.
Leaving Stornoway we head north, Orkney bound. There is more of a swell on the sea, nothing the ship cannot handle, after all she was built for these waters. One marvels at the judgement of fulmars and Manx shearwaters as they twist and turn, skimming but not touching, the ever changing surface of the sea. Off Cape Wrath the water appears to be boiling as the different currents meet, well named one thinks, then remember that Wrath has its origins in Norse for ‘Turning Point’, so a coincidence.
It is a misty day in Scapa Flow with intermittent drizzle. We are off Hoxa Head, the Pilot points and says ‘there’s a fin’. We look. There are more than one, and too big for a dolphin, could it be – yes it is, a pod of orca. We slow, they are unperturbed by us. There are five, two with distinctive fins. We watch for twenty minutes, and many pictures are taken.
The pod is later identified as regular travellers between Iceland and the west coast of Scotland, of the two with distinctive fins, one was first seen in 1999, the other is believed to be her offspring.
We are going ashore again. I have been travelling around the Highlands and Islands for the past 50 years, this is an important day as it is rare now that I set foot on an island I have not been to before. Although now uninhabited, unlike many Scottish islands this abandonment was relatively recent, in 1962. Although only 2 miles north of John O’Groats on the Scottish mainland, the strong currents of the Pentland Firth made this a very dangerous crossing, resulting in the islanders frequently being cut off. Welcome to Stroma. With great skill the ship is anchored, the Hardys are launched and we are off to explore this ‘time capsule’ and its wildlife.
We are back at sea, very misty with a disturbed surface. Is it worth staying outside - wait what is that grey shape, it is not a wave. The camera is on it. It’s a minke whale which launches itself into the air. Yes, I will stay outside.
And so our journey comes to an end. What sights I have seen, what memories I will take away. My lovely ‘fat lady’ has done me proud. But she is part of a bigger team, the Captain, the deck officers, the Chief Purser and team, the housekeeping and waiting staff and the boat crew. Equally important but unseen are the Chief Engineer and his officers and crew, the chefs and kitchen staff. Then there is Ken, Jonathan and the Skipton team, to whom all sorts of vital tasks fall. My thanks to you all.
I am now back home waiting for another plasticised envelope and the summons from my favourite ‘fat lady’ to come and join her on another adventure. Until then I will have to be content with my pictures and memories.
Note: Whilst all the events were recorded on Hebridean Princess cruises, they do not come from the same trip.
By John Noorani
All photographs by the author
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