‘What a perfect day’ said Paul as we thundered away from the pier on Coll at 17 knots heading towards Small Isles: Eigg, Rum, Canna and Muck. He was rather precipitate in his evaluation as the day just got more and more perfect.
Our group of island adventurers were on John Fraser’s IsleGo rib (rigid inflatable boat), Stormbringer II. We had chartered the rib for a tour of islands and wildlife while we stayed for a week in the Bunkhouse on Coll.
As we reached 25 knots, some of us, sitting on the stern boards got a bit wet although most were well sheltered on this modern and comfortable craft.
We sped northwards towards Eigg, chased by petrels, gannets and overtaken by shearwaters. While we didn’t see the hoped for basking sharks or dolphins, there were seals aplenty. The excitement mounted however, when we spotted a submarine heading south. John throttled back explaining that we must always give way to naval craft.
Our visit to the Small Isles took us on a trip encompassing Eigg, Canna, Muck and Rum. Our stays on each island was limited but we took time to visit the little cafe and shop on Eigg pier. We lunched on Rum where the local hall doubles as a cafe and possibly a church too, given the pulpit. Two lovely ladies ex Livingston served excellent coffee and carrot cake. There was also an honesty shop selling a wide range of island crafts.
The island of Canna is run by the National Trust for Scotland and we were welcomed at the pier by the NTS officer, Donald Mackenzie who turned out to be an old colleague of mine. Canna was donated to the NTS by Gaelic scholar John Lorne Campbell and Margaret Fay Shaw, his wife. Together they collected a wealth of Gaelic and Celtic stories and songs.
While the boat trip was probably the highlight of our week, the main focus of the visit for us was Coll with one day on Tiree.
We reached Coll after a night in the Oban Backpackers hostel and an early morning departure. Once again everyone looked forward to the Calmac breakfast, itself an institution on Scotland’s own ferries and on this beautiful day, the 2.5 hour crossing westward to Coll was splendid
After depositing our gear at the Bunkhouse, we set off fairly quickly on our pre-planned short walks just to get started. We were dead keen to spot any kind of wildlife and simply take in the beauty of the islands as we walked along these beautiful and isolated beaches.
One thing that I always look for are the lonely graveyards, some of which are sorely neglected as people drift and communities change. Here on our first walk was just such a cemetery and within it standard stones that which you will find in virtually every Scottish coastal graveyard; memorials erected by the War Graves Commission to those young people whose bodies were washed ashore after the sinking of warships during the two great conflicts.
In this case there were four, two of them from the HMS Viknor which disappeared in heavy seas off Ireland in January 1915. She was lost with all hands, a crew of 291. She may have hit a German mine. There is also Stoker JS Gibson of HMS Racoon which was wrecked off the coast of Ireland in 1918 and ‘A sailor of the 1939-1945 war’. They all lie in peace among the islanders on this peaceful island.
A main attraction to us was the bird life. Coll is host to an RSPB reserve and we were hosted on our visit by Ben Jones, an enthusiastic supported of the corncrake, that elusive bird with the very recognisable song.
The corncrake comes up from West Africa to summer mostly in the Hebrides where it is heard but rarely seen. I had heard one on Islay and was extremely lucky this time to see one sitting on the edge of the road before swiftly hopping into the long scrub, its preferred habitat. It was supposed that the tired wee burd had just arrived from its winter stay in the south. It’s a long way from Burkina Faso.
While we didn’t see any more corncrakes, as we walked on the sandy dunes we did see plenty birds including barnacle geese, lapwings and redshank. It was a delight to be accompanied by Ben whose knowledge of the island and of birdlife brought the reserve to life. You might like to know that the Island also has a bird festival, this year 2018, in May. I don’t know if special birds fly in for the event but you are certainly guaranteed a varied selection of land and sea trecks as well as talks.
For quite a few years now our gallant band of island hoppers have been staying in backpacker’s hostels, particularly as the number of Youth Hostels has declined. The standard of hostel has varied enormously. What we found on Coll was the best of the best and worthy not just of praise but of broadcasting loudly as it not only benefits the traveller but the economy of this small island as accommodation is scarce.
The bunkhouse is a part of a little complex which includes a community centre, An Cridhe, with a miniature library. As we were a bit early for entry to the bunkhouse in Arinagour, our host Alison Jones, took us into the community centre where we could leave our stuff. This proved to be a modern and comfortable gathering place. Being a Saturday, the hallway held a little market and here we availed ourselves of fruit loaves and other local produce. Delicious.
Both single storey buildings are architecturally attractive and when we got entry to the bunkhouse we found it both comfortable and extremely well appointed. The three dormitory bedrooms have two or three sets of bunk beds, one that can be taken for private/family use. The Bunkroom can be hired in its entirety as our group of 12 venturers did for our trip. There is also accommodation for less able visitors including an accessible wet room.
There is a standard set up for such places; bedrooms, separate showers and toilets and a largish living space. There was an adequate supply of showers (which all worked!) and toilets. The living and cooking space was modern, warm and comfortable. There is also a laundry and a drying room. It’s no wonder then that the tourist board has given the Bunkhouse 5 star status.
I am also glad to report that new for 2018 is the availability of 2 motorhome pitches at the Bunkhouses. Given the huge rise in use of motorhomes this is a good way to respond to the lack of pitches in the Highlands and Islands.
We were able to organise a good going ceilidh one evening during which we were entertained by a local fiddler Juliana and we responded adequately to the hospitality of our host Alison and of John Fraser of Stormbringer II . As we sang ‘Will ye no come back again’, I’m sure we thought that we just might.
While most nights, our dinner was taken in the nearby Coll Hotel and the Island Cafe, three of us dined in the bunkhouse. We also availed ourselves of the Island Stores and the ‘Delicatessen’ T.E.S. Co. (wonderful) attached to the Island Cafe.
Tiree is about one hour away on the same ferry that brought us to Coll, the MV Lord of the Isles, affectionately called ‘Loti’. The island is lovely and we walked on it on the best of days when the blue seas thundered up the pristine sands to meet the machair. Machair, a feature of many islands in the west is flat grassland on top of shell sand and makes for lovely walking, particularly from May when wild flowers bloom in profusion. You might see marsh marigold, daisies, buttercups and vetch and rarer plants such as orchid.
The island is more populated than Coll and is proud to be one of the sunniest places in Great Britain, but the downside is that it is also one of the windiest! Great for windsurfers though and this is a place you will find many of them. It is also an island of birdlife – oystercatchers, ringed plovers, sanderlings, lapwings and many more.
The highlight for me of our trip to Tiree was a visit to the Hynish Signal Tower and museum in the south west corner of the island.
Hynish was the base for the building of and the continued communications with the great Skerryvore Lighthouse 19k off the coast of Tiree. In the face of terrible seas the lighthouse was built over 15 years by Alan Stevenson. The light shone from 1844 until it was shut down by a fire in 1954. It was dark for five years until repaired and it was automated in 1994. In Hynish there is a fascinating museum dedicated to the lighthouse. The signal tower beside the museum can be confused with a lighthouse but was actually a tower used to communicate with Skerryvore.
If you are coming to Coll and Tiree, while they are small and sparsely populated you will find a range of yearly activities available for the visitor. These include a Bird Festival in May, the Coll Show, a half marathon and a basking shark festival as well as other musical and theatrical events. Coll has dark Skies status and while the cloud prohibited any astronomy on our trip, the night sky in this unpolluted corner of Great Britain is wonderful.
While we travelled from Oban on Caledonian MacBrayne ferries, Hebridean Air Services also flies from Oban to Coll. If you haven’t experienced flying on the Britten-Norman Islander this is your chance to do so. Calmac also calls at Tiree and the Small Isles.
While we stayed in the Coll Bunkhouse, the Coll Hotel is also available as are B & Bs. There is a small campsite and caravan park at the Garden House, which is surrounded by the bird reserve. The site is in a historic walled garden – ‘Due to the number of corncrakes in the area, free ear plugs can be provided’.