Sailing Scotland's West Coast
“Set your course for the lighthouse,” the skipper of the yacht tells me. The clouds are hanging low, it’s raining hard and I can just make out Lismore Lighthouse across the bay so I steer towards it.
We’re sailing in Scotland’s Western Highlands, and there’s a brisk wind powering us through the water. Visibility is low as we pass Duart Castle, which sits on a cliff under an ominous black cloud. It’s the perfect time for our skipper, Colin, to tell us spooky stories about the castle, the former seat of the Maclean clan of Duart. In the 1500s, a clan chief attempted to murder his wife by leaving her on Lady’s Rock, only for her to be rescued by passing fishermen. As we pass the rock, we see an old-fashioned schooner, the Spirit of Fairbridge, on the horizon. It’s all very atmospheric.
We’ve set sail for the weekend from Oban Marina on the island of Kerrara to explore the waters of the Western Highlands. The marina is reached by water taxi from Oban, the main town of the area and home of Oban Distillery, one of the oldest licensed whisky distilleries in Scotland – perfect for a pre-sailing warmer before we head to the marina.
Our home for the weekend is the sailing yacht Moonshadow of Lorne, an Oyster 68 which, at 68 feet long, has plenty of comfort on deck and below. With both the mainsail and jib up, even in 22 knots of wind, it’s a smooth and powerful ride through the water and when waves break over her bow, she doesn’t rock or bounce and we don’t feel a drop of water back in the cockpit, unlike smaller boats which sometimes send waves crashing over the crew.
Enjoying the relaxing cruising, the sea stories and the sightseeing, when a tray of coffee and homemade biscuits arrives up on deck, I start working out a lottery-winning plan so that I can buy my own Oyster 68.
After a brisk sail across the Firth of Lorne, we enter the Sound of Mull, the narrow stretch between the Island of Mull and the Morvern Peninsula. The rain clears and as the wind eases, we hear the cries of guillemots as they dive for food. There are more stories, and when the book Shipwrecks of the West of Scotland is produced – an unbelievably big tome – it’s a reminder that sailing in these waters is not as easy as it seems.
With this in mind, Colin carefully checks the tides before we turn into the shallower, sheltered waters of Loch Aline and tie up at the brand new pontoon – just built thanks to funding from Sail West. We have an hour and a half until the tide turns. It’s a short walk through the trees to the Whitehouse Restaurant where we lunch on fish caught in the sound, matched with produce from the restaurant garden.
When we return to the boat, the day is calmer and brighter and the rain has cleared. We escape Loch Aline as the instruments warn us there is just 3m of water underneath the keel. Back in the sound, we set a course for Tobermory, on the Isle of Mull. This was the setting for the children’s TV series Balamory and as we arrive in the early evening, we admire the row of red, pink, blue and green houses lining the seafront.
Just beside the marina, there’s a Visitors Centre, home to Sea Life Surveys. From here, you can book trips to see minke whales, dolphins, porpoises, basking sharks, seals and birds all common to the area. Visitors can also help with research on the marine life and Sea Life Surveys has a Responsible Visitor Charter for visitors to the island, to minimise their environmental impact.
Dinner is more fresh seafood in Café Fish beside the harbour, before we sample some Mishnish ale from the Mishnish Bar nearby. It’s quiet, but we soon find out why – the entire town is down near the harbour at MacGochans bar celebrating a 21st birthday. The highlight of the evening is when the skipper of another yacht takes out his bagpipes and joins in with the band – just another evening on an island in the highlands…
Next morning, all is quiet on the marina except for the sound of birdsong from the trees as the sun rises over the village and the visiting yachts leave to head on to the next stop, one by one. We set sail back down the Sound of Mull and back to Oban for the train home, relaxed, refreshed, full of sea air and fascinating stories.
For more information on Sailing in Scotland, contact Sail Scotland at 0044 154 660 3500 or see Sail Scotland. A fully-catered sailing holiday on Moonshadow starts from £430pp for a 4 day/3 night cruise, to £1,300 for a ten-day cruise to the Western Isles and St Kilda. Call 0044 163 171 0444 or see Moonshadow. Chartering your own yacht, from 32’ to 45’, costs from £500 per weekend to £2,800 per week, see Portway Yacht Charters or Argyll Yacht Charters. For more information about visiting Scotland, see Visit Scotland.
This article was written by Yvonne Gordon