Charmian Entwistle discovers ancient ruins, remote lochs and challenging headlands on a four-week Scottish cruise from Isle of Skye to Orkney in a 42ft yacht.
The year started off badly with the UK once again in lockdown, so planning a long sailing trip was done in rather uncertain circumstances.
Having considered other attractive options like Ireland, which were ruled out by Brexit and the pandemic, we recalled enjoying a previous cruise to Orkney in 1995, so decided that it was time for another visit.
The best time to head north would be June where we’d get the benefit of almost continuous daylight.
With everything loaded up, including our black Labrador, Islay, we left the Isle of Skye aboard our Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 419 Discoverer of Sleat and headed north through Kylerhea.
It was a great relief to get away after the lockdown and nice to see that the turntable ferry from Skye to the mainland was back in service after a year’s inactivity.
The weather was calm and quite warm and it was necessary to motor all the way to Poll Creadha for the first night.
We started the holiday with the anchor dragging overnight as the wind increased.
Not a mistake which was ever repeated!
The journey north was fairly uneventful with a stunning sunset at Flowerdale Bay, Gairloch, the following evening.
This was surpassed by an even better sunset at Camas Glas at Inverewe Gardens – a handy anchorage for touring the world-famous gardens where the rhododendrons and azaleas were at their best.
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The next stop was Isle Ristol, the most northerly of the Summer Isles, where we anchored off the beach for lunch and walked the dog before heading to a pontoon at Lochinver.
It’s quite a long way into the village of Lochinver but the pontoons are well equipped with power and water and there are good walks nearby.
After leaving Lochinver the landscape grew more remote and we had a good sail round Stoer Lighthouse, before anchoring at Scourie for lunch in lovely sunshine.
Entering Loch Laxford, we ventured deeper on into Loch a’ Chadh-Fi, which is the home of John Ridgeway’s adventure centre, which he founded shortly after retiring from the 1968/9 Sunday Times Golden Globe race, and is now run by daughter Rebecca.
There were no other yachts around apart from Ridgeway’s famous yacht English Rose VI, which is still stored ashore there.
We originally intended to stop at Kinlochbervie but we were surprised when the harbourmaster said Discoverer would need to raft alongside another boat.
This wouldn’t be so easy, what with having to get the dog ashore, so we opted to anchor in Loch Clash, which was very pleasant and fortunately lacked any swell coming in which the pilot book threatens.
It was close enough to row to the beach and very handy for the local shop.
The following morning with the weather still calm but not so bright, we were up early to get the tide round Cape Wrath.
The lighthouse at Cape Wrath is 10 miles from the entrance to Loch Inchard.
It was a calm day and possible to motor quite close to the shore and to the headland with very little swell for such an iconic location.
The lighthouse was smaller than I’d remembered but high up on a cliff and there was a huge number of seabirds flying all around us.
Once round this Viking ‘hvarf’ or turning point we then had a good sail the rest of the way to Kyle of Tongue, anchoring off the sandy beach at Talmine to enjoy a pleasant afternoon and evening exploring the area.
Crossing to Orkney
It was time for the longer crossing to Orkney.
We left Kyle of Tongue at 1000 to time the arrival at Stromness with the tide starting to flow eastwards in Hoy Sound.
The winds were light and it ended up being a motor-sail most of the way.
The wind did eventually increase as we passed the Old Man of Hoy and it was a good sail for the last few miles.
During the crossing we were excited to see a couple of rather distant orcas and anticipated seeing a lot of sea life during the trip.
However, although there were enough birds to satisfy a twitcher’s dream, we barely saw any other sea mammals (even seals) until the return trip when
we saw a minke whale at more or less the same spot.
Arriving at Stromness Marina, we proceeded to the allocated visitor’s berth but our usual arrival routine was interrupted when we found that some of the pontoon fingers don’t actually have cleats but closed hoops, meaning we couldn’t use our usual technique of lassoing a midships spring onto a cleat.
However, it was pretty calm and sheltered in the marina so stopping wasn’t a problem.
Stromness Marina is in the centre of the town and handy for shops and marine services.
The ferry terminal offers shower and laundry facilities, as well as chandlery and an option for crew changes.
Pubs and restaurants are also close by but due to the coronavirus restrictions at the time only one of them was actually open – the Ferry Boat Inn.
Stocking up in Stromness
Having made it to Orkney, it seemed sensible to stay in Stromness for the following day and explore the town as well as have a good tidy and stock up on food.
It was an attractive town with very traditional houses.
Although the streets are very narrow, don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s a pedestrian precinct; cars do travel down it quite fast!
It was a pleasant day so we walked on to Battery Point, which was one of the main World War II defensive points at the entrance to Scapa Flow.
There were the remains of several wartime buildings, and though the museum was closed, it did look very interesting.
The following morning, in spite of the forecast for strong winds, we set off in the pouring rain for Longhope, intending to visit the lifeboat museum.
The rain soon stopped but the wind strengthened to a steady Force 6, meaning a brisk and enjoyable downwind sail to the entrance of Longhope.
On arrival it became clear that the westerly wind was blasting the length of the aptly named Hope and there was no shelter available at the two visitor moorings.
Getting back to Stromness wasn’t an option so we unfurled the genoa again and continued past Flotta towards St Margaret’s Hope, which was the only anchorage in Scapa Flow which might be sheltered in the wind direction.
We dropped the anchor at St Margaret’s, which is a very pretty traditional village. Although the sea was calm, there was still a strong wind blasting across the bay.
Discoverer was yawing from side to side, which wasn’t particularly pleasant.
As the wind wasn’t forecast to drop for 36 hours, it seemed sensible to lay a second anchor for security and stability.
We spent a couple of hours amusing ourselves by taking the kedge anchor out of the locker and out of its bag – probably for the first time – and laying it.
It did work well though, making things more comfortable and we felt secure during our two-day stay there.
Because of the dog we made regular trips ashore and enjoyed several walks around the village, as well as watching the Pentland ferry come and go on the service to Gills Bay, John O’Groats.
On the second evening we enjoyed an excellent seafood meal at the Murray Arms Hotel.
The next day brought lighter winds in the morning but with a forecast for more strong wind in the afternoon.
We raised the kedge anchor, which was easier than laying it, and set off promptly to sail the 6 miles around to St Mary’s where there are visitor moorings.
St Mary’s is a pretty village but the main reason for stopping there is because it is within about 20 minutes’ walk of the iconic Italian Chapel built on Lamb Holm by Italian prisoners-of-war.
To get there on foot you also have to walk across one of the historic Churchill Barriers which were not built for modern traffic or dog walking but fortunately the traffic was quite light that day.
The lack of tourists to the area at the time also meant that there was no-one else inside the chapel during our visit and it was possible to admire the painstaking work which had gone into it by ourselves.
We returned to Discoverer before the wind increased and set off again on a 14-mile motor back to Stromness.
It came as rather an unpleasant surprise when the forecast Westerly Force 4 became winds of 25 knots gusting over 35 knots!
Accompanied by rain and spray this became one of the most miserable passages of the trip, taking four and a half hours.
It was a great relief to get back to Stromness that evening.
The strong winds continued for the following day but there was plenty to do in Stromness so we enjoyed the local scenery and managed to secure a table at the Ferry Boat Inn.
A wealth of ancient history
We were determined to get to Kirkwall when the wind abated and so calculated the tides to give us the best passage over the 33 miles.
An 0700 start was required to catch the tide out through Hoy Sound and round the mainland to Kirkwall.
It was a pretty lumpy motorsail for the first three hours as heavy seas had built up after two days of strong winds.
Things improved once round Brough Head and into Eynhallow Sound, where a speed over the ground of 11 knots suggested that the tidal calculations had been correct!
We arrived in time for lunch and had our choice of visitor berths in Kirkwall Marina, although there were a good number of local boats in the water.
Kirkwall Marina is very handy for the town centre but not as handy as Stromness for food shopping, laundry and recycling without a car.
In the afternoon we visited St Magnus’ Cathedral and the Orkney Museum, which were both very interesting, and picked up a hire car for a trip to visit historic sites the following day.
Orkney has a wealth of ancient history, as well as 20th Century war defences, which are visible on every headland you pass in, and around, Scapa Flow.
During a single day out, I felt I’d covered 5,000 years of history, calling at the Brough of Birsay, Earl’s Palace, Marwick Head, Skara Brae and Ring of Brodgar, all well worth a visit should you get the opportunity.
Back in Kirkwall the car was handy for collecting shopping from Tesco in a retail park then we went to the Storehouse Restaurant for dinner.
The walk back to the marina after dinner gave us a wonderful view of what was probably the best sunset of the trip.
It was tempting to stay in the comfort of Kirkwall Marina for another night but our holiday time was limited so we planned a visit to Eday the following day.
As always, it was necessary to work the tides to move between the northern islands but departure was at a civilised 1030, after dog walking and refuelling.
It was a pleasant, calm day with light winds and we passed down the east side of Stronsay under gennaker to Backland Bay, Eday, and picked up a visitor mooring for lunch, waiting until 1600 for the correct tide round the top of the island into Calf Sound.
We had a good sail in the afternoon and picked up another visitor mooring in the Bay of Carrick off Eday.
It was a lovely spot and extremely quiet but although the mooring was secure and it was relatively easy to get ashore it wasn’t very sheltered.
Despite the lack of civilisation, surprisingly there was a 4G mobile phone signal there which we enjoyed throughout the visit to Orkney, unlike parts of the west coast of Scotland.
The next day we had an exciting sail to Papa Westray where we anchored in the lovely Moclett Bay.
It was a stunning, if not warm, day and Moclett Bay has a fantastic coral beach, which Islay and I enjoyed a walk on.
While eating lunch on deck the twice-weekly ferry from Kirkwall arrived.
It was interesting to note that they were still slinging cars and other goods on and off the boat using a crane!
No roll on, roll off ferries here.
After lunch it was a 5-mile motor-sail to Pierowall, Westray, where we were the only visiting yacht.
Pierowall is set around a beautiful bay and the harbour is very sheltered but it’s a 15-minute walk to the village shop and slightly longer to the Pierowall Hotel.
We were fortunate enough to secure a table for dinner in the bar, where dogs were allowed, and tucked into their (justifiably) famous fish and chips.
Four weeks seems like a long time for a cruise when you set off but it is amazing how the time goes.
We’d been looking at the long-range weather forecast and decided we needed to get back around Cape Wrath while there was a good weather window.
We left the following day at 0715 to catch the tide through Papa Sound and, once clear, we had a lovely sail most of the way to Stromness.
The sea was much calmer on the return passage and it was possible to sail close to the shore and look at some of the sights which can also be seen by road – Skara Brae and Marwick Head as well as Birsay, which we hadn’t been able to get to.
Back through the now familiar Hoy Sound we returned to Stromness Marina, where we spent the afternoon walking, tidying up and provisioning.
Another early start was required to catch the tide through Hoy Sound, then we motorsailed towards Loch Eriboll in poor visibility.
We arrived eight hours later and dropped the anchor at Rispond Bay near the entrance to the loch. I rowed ashore with Islay for a short walk and then left the anchorage again an hour later.
The anchorage on the south side of Ard Neckie, which is 4 miles up the loch, was much more secure and it was possible to relax for the remainder of the evening.
Friends have told us many stories about Loch Eriboll (Horrible, Terrible, Eerie) but no-one mentioned that it is beautiful with the light on Ben Hope changing constantly.
It is very remote from a sailing point of view but the now famous NC500 road route runs right around the Loch and you can see and hear camper vans, motorbikes and other traffic passing from the anchorage so there are plenty of other people nearby!
Cape Wrath We were reminded just how remote we were the following morning when we tried to get the tide round Cape Wrath.
After an hour we turned back because the sea was too rough, heading west with wind against tide.
We tried again the following afternoon, and managed a cold and lumpy (but sunny) motor around Cape Wrath.
It got a little better once round the point, and we put out a bit of the genoa and motorsailed the rest of the way to Kinlochbervie, arriving at 2350.
Having put out warps and fenders we arrived in the harbour only to find there was no room.
We put it all away and motored back to Loch Clash where the anchor dug in at the second attempt. Fortunately, being the longest day of the year, it was still light enough at midnight to read the chain markings!
We were pleased to have made it round the most exposed headland of the trip, although there were still several more headlands to navigate.
Although the passage round Cape Wrath going south was not very pleasant, if we hadn’t gone that day it would have meant several days weatherbound in Loch Eriboll.
The next four days were, as forecast, fairly grey with strong winds from the north, as we picked our way south, first back to Loch a’ Chadh-Fi, followed by a misty sail to Lochinver and then a wet windy sail through the somehow inappropriately named Summer Isles to Ullapool.
Here, we spent two comfortable nights on a visitor mooring and enjoyed walks and food ashore among the land-based tourists.
The next day was sunny again, allowing us to sail most of the way to Badachro, Loch Gairloch, spotting our first dolphins while heading out of Loch Broom.
Badachro was busy but we managed to get a visitor mooring and have a drink at the Badachro Inn.
We stopped again at the beach at Red Point, then into Loch Torridon where we picked up a visitor mooring at Shieldaig and had dinner at Hotel Tigh an Eilean.
The final stages of the trip coincided with the weather becoming seriously warm.
For the last night of the holiday, we headed to Totaig in Loch Duich, which has stunning views of Eilean Donan Castle as well as interesting walks ashore.
The tide through Kylerhea did not turn south until 1130 on the final morning so we spent a bit of time clearing up before leaving Totaig at 1030.
It was a hot, clear day with variable winds and we mixed sailing and motorsailing.
Incredibly, just past Isle Ornsay, on the final leg of our four-week voyage, we saw around 40 dolphins heading towards us!
They didn’t linger, but it was a great welcome home.
By 1500 Discoverer was safely moored at Armadale, awaiting her next adventure.
Orkney has much to offer and we only managed to visit part of it so there are still several other options for visiting again on another trip.
The sailing distances are not big once you get to Orkney but you do need to be focussed on the tides and there are several long passages on the way there.
Our trip was planned on the basis of not having more than eight hours at sea for the sake of our canine crew so it took us eight days each way to get there and back from Skye.
Without a dog and with a bigger crew you could make the passage north much quicker but would still need to make time allowances for tides and weather.
There are also many beautiful anchorages on the North West Coast of Scotland which we didn’t visit because our requirement on that trip was for places where there was a path or road and preferably a pier for getting ashore.
Orkney was very quiet for visiting yachts when we were there because of the Covid-19 restrictions preventing visitors from Scandinavia.
Hopefully next year will be better for the marinas and facilities there but you can rest assured a warm welcome awaits if you do get there.
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