Highland Archives


By Donald Carmichael : Edited by Stephen Cashmore

One fine July day sometime during the 1930’s, three young men were savouring the delights of a sailing holiday at Kyle of Lochalsh. Their vessel was the Miranda, a craft that had formerly earned its keep fishing for prawns in Morecombe Bay. Two of the young sailors were at Edinburgh University; Orcadian James Drever who skippered the boat, and Donald Carmichael, son of the Minister of Reay. The other was Donald’s younger brother, Lorne. In company with Lorne’s friend, John Giles, they had spent a pleasant week exploring the sea lochs and creeks around Kyle, visiting small islands, climbing hills, swimming, sunbathing and sailing. And now John Giles having just gone away south by train, a letter arrived from the Minister of Reay. "You have spent a long time dodging about Kyle. Are you afraid to come north?"

At once, the Miranda’s skipper made up his mind to set sail the very next day and, at 4.30 p.m. the following afternoon, the old Morecombe Bay prawner left Kyle bound for Sandside Bay in Caithness. Fortunately for posterity, Donald Carmichael kept a record of the Miranda’s voyage. Now, after a lapse of almost 70 years, that record can be made public.

"As we passed through the narrows under power an evil omen filled us with dismay. A sail-lashing fell through the open cabin hatch and, with extremely expensive noises, wrapped itself lovingly round the engine – sprockets and the magneto-chain. Lorne had the presence of mind to switch off immediately; we unwound the remains and started up again gingerly to discover the worst. But 6/8 horsepower Kelvins seemed foolproof. The deep furrows left in the soft teeth of the larger sprocket gave out some new but not unpleasing noises; otherwise all seemed well. We switched off again and turned northwards in a great silence. It was a perfect summer afternoon. The wind, which, though variable, had on the whole been southerly, headed us for a time and made us take the innermost passage – between Crowlin More and the mainland. It finally came away light but steady, and Miranda, with a good tide under her, seemed glad to escape from the confinement of lochs and kyles.

We ran up the inner sound between the mainland and the long islands of Raasay and South Rona. At 7.35 p.m. the lonely village of Applecross bore distant about 3 miles. The evening was one of extraordinary beauty and peace. The sun sank slowly behind the hills of Skye and burnt itself out on the weird peaks of Torridon. We passed the north end of Rona at 10.20 p.m.; its lighthouse began to flash shortly before we were abreast of it. Setting a course to pass 2 miles west of Rudha Reidh we soon picked up its brilliant light.

During the night the skipper gave each man two hours at the helm, two hours dozing below ready to be called and two hours in his bunk. Lorne and I had a delightful introduction to night sailing. The air was just cold enough to make a pair of flannel trousers preferable to shorts; the sea was smooth and the wind dead aft. This last was not wholly an advantage. Miranda would have sailed faster and more quietly on a broad reach with her headsails properly filled. As it was, the frequent banging of their sheet-blocks on the foredeck put an end to all serious attempts to sleep. When I came on deck at 2 a.m. we seemed quite near the lighthouse on Rudha Reidh – the smooth promontory. Its smoothness proved deceptive. The tide had set against us and in the absence of prominent landmarks it was impossible to tell what progress we were making; so much so that when Drever would pop his head out of the cabin hatch, gaze intently at the lighthouse and mutter "Good", I could neither agree nor disagree with him.

We set a course for Rudha Stoor and in a fine low dawn we passed quickly across the mouth of Loch Broom. Far in towards the land, the faint blue of the Summer Isles grew more definite as the light increased. It was just as well that they lay so far off our course or we might have been tempted to linger. The mist rose slowly off the hills of Sutherland, Cul Mor; Suilven, the 'Pillar Hill'; Canisp; Cuinneag and Ben More Assynt. In the high mountain groups of Ross-shire no hill of less than 3000 feet is of much account; but in the undulating moorlands of Sutherland smaller distinctively-shaped mountains stand up prominent and unmistakable.

At 10 a.m. we were about one mile east of the lighthouse on Rudha Stoor. Since leaving the shelter of Skye we had been aware of a gradually increasing north-west swell. It was now running in unhindered from the Atlantic past the butt of Lewis and breaking in white foam at the feet of the Old Man of Stoor. It is this rock pinnacle called by the Norsemen the Staur, or "Stake" which gives the headland its name. We were talking hopefully of rounding Cape Wrath in a few hours time when a thick ‘haar’ rolled in from the west and the wind fell very light. It may have been good seamanship, or it may have been just self-deception but the thought of the comfort of Badcall Bay and the hospitality of a certain Colonel proved too much for us. It was left to Lorne to pilot us in among the numerous islands of Eddrachillis Bay. Starting the engine he took us in between Meall Beg and the Sword, close by Eilean Rainich to avoid the shoal to the south east, and so into Badcall Bay where we brought up at 12.30 p.m. in perfect shelter below Eddrachillis Church.

We were now almost half way up the western seaboard of Sutherland. Although as I know few boats of small tonnage go north of the Point of Storr, the coast which lies between it and Loch Inchard is well worth visiting. Its loneliness, its magnificent cliff scenery, the opportunities that it offers for open-water sailing, its sandy bays and numerous islands, make it extraordinarily attractive. Inland there are wild moors, fine mountains and hundreds of fresh water lochs. One should never be at a loss for a good anchorage, behind a group of islands or in one of the sea lochs. Many of these fjords are accessible only by sea; in Lochs Glendhu and Glencoul for example, the mountains rise sheer from the water and no road can be built. A fishing rod, a small rifle and a splash net should be carried just in case one runs out of stores!

As the coast is unlit from Rudha Storr to Cape Wrath a wise man will pay heed to the advice of the Wick fishermen "Let it be daylight when you run in among yon rocks, shoals and islands!" The islands, generally heather clad, with low, dark cliffs tend to merge into the colouring of the mainland so that in thick weather or a failing light it is often difficult to distinguish one from the other. Another fisherman, a Kirtomy man, when new to the coast swore that he had seen a Buckie boat sail into the land and sail out again! But on the whole, if one has good charts, pays a reasonable regard to weather conditions, and avoids night sailing no great difficulty should be encountered.

The further North one goes, the more common do Norse place names become. Cape Wrath itself, in spite of its English dress, is in Gaelic ‘Am Parbh’ from the Norse ‘hrarf’ – a turning point. We are told, too, that the first Vikings found in what is now Easter Sutherland and Caithness a fierce tribe who called themselves ‘Catti’ – wild-cats, and whom the invaders regarded as Picts – whence the Pentland or Pictland Firth, and the hybrid noun Katanes – Cat- promontory, now Caithness. The Province of Cat remained under the dominion of the Norsemen until about 1200 AD Their influence is most marked in the people and place names of the north east corner of Caithness where the occupation must have been most thorough. In Sutherland Norse place names are strong only on the north coast and in the names of principal hills and dales. Sea rovers, making a strange landfall, would naturally give their own names to prominent landmarks and to the valleys, which, as invaders, they would first occupy. But the ‘Wildcats’ of Sutherland, retiring to the remoter fastnesses, Braigh-Chat and Dithreabh-Chat, the uplands and the wilderness that still bears their name, were never tamed. The men of Sutherland to this day call themselves ‘Cataich’ and speak somewhat disparagingly of their Caithness neighbours as ‘Gallach’ – the Aliens.

The Norseman, in his naming of places, shows a genius quite distinct from that of the Celt, whose imagination discovers everywhere strange and subtle analogies. The Norseman is downright, irresistibly direct. The translation of both types of name is fascinating and in many ways valuable and requires no apology. Nor will those who have sailed round Cape Wrath ask for one if I quote from an ‘Oran nan Eilean’, or Song of the Islands. It seems that one Fearchur Leighich, physician to the Mackays of Farr, first won by his skill the favour of the notorious ‘Wolf of Badenoch’, fourth son of Robert II of Scotland and then that of the King himself. In 1386 he was rewarded by a Royal Charter giving him sole right of possession of certain lands in Hope and Melness and of all the islands and sea-girt rocks between Rudha Storr in Assynt and Rudha Armidale in Farr. The author of the Song of the Islands seems to have been some sailor trading between Loch Inver and the Caithness ports. He imagines himself sailing west from the Pentland Firth to Cape Wrath, and south to Rudha Storr and he recites as he passes them the name of each of Fearchur’s possessions. His catalogue has some interesting comments on rocks, ports and anchorages.

We donned our shore-going coats and called on the Colonel at 7 p.m. "How long have you been at sea?" he asked. "A week? A fortnight? More? Phew! Hot baths, soap, towels, razors!" When he had renewed us outwardly, he proceeded, with the same rare understanding and directness of purpose to refresh us inwardly. It was nearly midnight when we rowed back to the Miranda. The Colonel’s voice followed us over the quiet waters:

"Rocked in the cradle of the deep

I lay me down and gently sleep"

And his unique rendering of the song remained with us for the rest of the cruise.

Lorne and I were ‘dead of sleep’ when, at 6 a.m. next morning the skipper once more showed his remarkable capacity for wakening at will. He tempted us out of our bunks with the smell of fried bacon and the promise of a fine day. The glass had gone up two points overnight and was still rising, an encouraging sign reinforced by the recollection of a favourable shipping forecast on the Colonel’s wireless. At 7 a.m. we were nosing our way out between Eilean Garbh and Eilean Reabhach. The channel leading directly west through the islands from Badcall Bay were none too clearly indicated on our small-scale chart. We chose the only one where the heavy ‘land seas’ were not breaking. The mist had gone; the wind was scarcely a moderate breeze. Setting the mainsail, staysail and big jib we headed north west for 6 miles. This took us clear of the popple near the cliffs and enabled us the make full use of the strong north going stream. Turning north east we had the wind on the port quarter; with the help of that 2/3 knot tide, it sent us, as they say in Caithness, ‘fair flechan’ up the coast – past Scourie of the hundred lochs; past Laxford, the salmon fjord

"Where anchorages lie in numbers

Between the Inver and the Roost"

Past Inchard, the firth of the meadows, beyond which there is no harbour until you sail the 25 miles round Cape Wrath to Eriboll.

It was in a little bay on the north coast of Inchard that Haakon, King of Norway, anchored with his fleet when he sailed to Largs in 1263. At 9.24 a.m. Am Balg – ‘the Blister’, bore distant about 4 miles. Its low cliffs showed up red against the long white beach of Sandwood Bay. Sandvatn or ‘sand water’, the Vikings called it, from its large fresh water loch. Changed course to north east at 10.15 a.m. we passed Am Bodach and A’Cailleach, the Old Man and the Old Wife, two rocks which huddle together at the foot of the cliffs, as if for comfort in the turmoil of waters. "Less than a mile now", said Lorne," and we’ll see the North coast."

At 10.23 Cape Wrath bore southeast. We recognised, far beyond it, the low point of Strathy, and as we slowly opened the whole coast we were thrilled to look once more along its bold succession of headlands. In the moist, clear atmosphere the huge perpendicular wall of Whiten Head looked surprisingly near. Keeping our 4 mile offing, we worked round gradually until, at 11.33 a.m., Cape Wrath closed Am Balg. We set a course to pass close by Whiten Head, and the tide bore us swiftly eastwards. So we rounded the Cape, without incident but in some discomfort. "Next time round," exclaimed Drever, "I’ll be 10 miles out."

Off the Cape, a smart Scandinavian three-masted schooner, steel built and evidently fitted with some sort of diesel engine, passed us to port, heading south west and close enough for us to read her name Jupiter and to see the smile of the man who hailed us. Astronomical names were common that day; a little later the Pole Star, the Northern Lighthouse steamer, gave us a more distant greeting as she also headed south-west across the Minch. The horizon was streaked with the smoke of trawlers and we occasionally saw their small riding-sails. Yet these things accentuated rather than relieved our loneliness, while the sight of miles of those pitiless cliffs and the consciousness that behind them lay a vast hinterland, isolated, bare and uninhabited, made it at times almost oppressive. "I think I prefer the lighthouse in a north-wester," said Drever. To which profound remark we could add nothing.

We carried the flood to Faraid Head, 9 miles east. A ketch, with only her mizzenmast set, passed us to starboard going west under power. She was far in towards the land, probably to take advantage of an inshore eddy. Astern Cape Wrath appeared as the author of the 'Song of the Islands' saw it on his way west from the Pentland Firth. It is rather remarkable that he never speaks of it as 'Am Parb' but only as the "Dunan, with its caves in plenty." Its north-west extremity (the triangular point into which the hunters used to drive the red deer) is surmounted by a long, low hill rising about 500 feet above sea level. The whole is called in Gaelic 'Dunan Mor' - probably just the Big Mound.

Against the west-going stream we made very slow progress past Loch Eriboll, and became almost stationary off Whiten Head. Its 500-foot cliffs, curving fully five miles east and west fall perpendicularly into the sea, but their foot, like the foot of many headlands on the north coast, is set with shoals. One Thurso man, not noted for his prudence, received disturbing proof of this. On one of the few days when there is no swell, he set his lobster creels close inshore, anchored and went below to sleep. When he awoke the tide had gone back and he could see no way out through the reefs that surrounded him!

We were becoming tired of looking forever into the same geo when a rain squall worked in from the west. We did not expect it to last long for the wind came before the rain. We ran before it; as the wind increased the swell grew rapidly steeper, until Miranda, even with the drag of the dinghy, began to travel before it so fast that steering became difficult. The dinghy itself sat on its tail, its transom dragging a wave, which seemed ready to topple inboard at any moment. Shortly afterwards, the squall passed and we rolled our way slowly into the Kyle of Tongue. It was Lorne's suggestion that we spend the night there rather than in Loch Eriboll. At 5.30 p.m. we brought up in 3 fathoms, where the white sand showed clear through the green water, about 150 yards south east of the little strip of sand, awash at high tide, which connects the two Rabbit Islands. This strip of land is fortified on its north-west side by a barrier of low rocks. On these the sea broke noisily all night; but where we lay the motion was just sufficient to put us quickly to sleep.

A strong north-easter would make the anchorage untenable, for the Islands, two low mounds covered with sand, moss and bent-grass, lie roughly north east and south west across the mouth of the Kyle, and the wide north east channel receives little protection from Eilean nan Ron. In a gale from any point between east and southwest it would at least be very uncomfortable. A boat of small tonnage would do best under such conditions to copy the lobster fishermen and seek shelter in the little harbour of Skerray, 3 miles east along the coast, under the lee of Eilean nan Naiomh. Or, if you know the Kyle well, you could follow the main channel to the 5-fathom pool east of Tongue Ferry, where Sandy Gow moors his trading smack.

In the evening we shot a couple of rabbits, and watched the cormorants and the flight of the eider duck. The Kyle of Tongue possesses, in addition to the peculiar spacious beauty of these northern shores, much of the charm and softness of the west. It was particularly fine that evening. To the north Eilean nan Ron, red in the sunset, and the black rocks of Talmine; at our feet the wide sands stretching fully 5 miles to the south, with the winding channels and delicate colouring of a Benbecula 'ford'. The terns, too, were there, screaming after the sand eel, as they do when the tide flows into the Hebridean sea-pools, and the big sea trout begin to move. On the east, Cnoc an Freiceadain standing guard over the trees and green fields of Tongue and the ruins of Castle Varrich; on the colder western shore the grey houses of Melness and the long brown slopes sweeping up to the shoulder of Ben Hope, the whole scene dominated by the bold, triangular front of Ben Loyal. It was good to lie back on the soft moss and think of Cape Wrath behind us, and a short sail home next day along a coast that we knew so well. Yet in many ways our sense of achievement was a curiously qualified one. We had crept round softly, while the wind slept. Am Bodach and A'Cailleach might gossip next day about the dark blue boat with its old bag of a mainsail, but the Cape would not remember us. It had seen those mysterious voyagers who took possession of the Islands of Scotland and of its treeless northern shores and built there, before history began, grey cairns and duns, brochs and great stone circles. It had seen the Viking ships turn south and the galleys of the Highland chiefs. It had seen the storm-driven remnants of the Spanish Armada, struggling vainly to beat home against a never-ending succession of south-west gales. It had seen the glory of the days of sail. What were we among so many? Young, inexperienced, a little surprised that our impertinence should go unpunished! But that is to personify, whereas my strongest impression was of something impersonal, strange and alien, inscrutable and imperturbable.

Before turning in Drever took down Mr Worth's 'Yacht Cruising' and read aloud - "Cape Wrath appeared to me to be the most formidable-looking headland in the British Isles. It is not nearly so high as Beachy Head. But it is much more imposing because it is so much more prominent, and its face is quite perpendicular, of a dark red colour, and in deep shadow with the sun behind it." Its waters, too, deserve their stormy reputation. A glance at the wind and current charts of the North Atlantic shows in midwinter a gale percentage of over 30%, and gives scientific corroboration to our poet's statement that "Scarce their like is found in Europe." It was not uncommon in the old days of the luggers for a skipper, on his way west to the herring fishing, to grow weary of being storm-bound in Eriboll, and to run back east through the Pentland Firth and south to Inverness, there to add to his loss of time the lock-dues of the Caledonian Canal.

Both Mr Worth and the poet of the Islands were attracted by Loch Eriboll, the 'loch of the gravel-beach-stead'. The one would fain have tarried in Rispond, a little bay on the north west shore of the loch, while the other considered Eriboll "A splendid harbour, with extremely grand scenery," and, "was strongly tempted to bring up for the night in Camus Bay." I have seen Eriboll only in dreary continuous rain so I am in no position to judge fairly of its scenery, and all my information about it as a harbour is second-hand. Every fisherman we talked to, from Kyle to Fraserburgh was emphatic in his dislike of it, although it is the only anchorage of its kind on the north coast. They look upon it, in the wintertime at least, as treacherous and therefore doubly dangerous. Some years ago a big fishing boat, sheltering in the loch, rode under while her crew strove vainly to cut her chains with an axe. The prevailing south west wind blows down the whole length of the loch, 9 miles from its head to its foot; while the shape and position of the surrounding mountains cause any wind to strike down on the water with increased velocity. As one Wick man put it feelingly, "The way the wind comes doon off yon hills is no' canny."

There stands back from the head of the loch, distant about 4 miles, a mountain called Foinaven. Its name may be pure Gaelic 'Foinnebheinn' - Wart Hill; on the other hand, as seems more likely, it may represent the Norse 'Vind-fjall' - Windy Fell. The Vikings would not be slow to note the peculiar disadvantages of the only fjord on the north coast of Scotland.

The Edinburgh University pennant, its point a little tattered, went briskly to the masthead at 8 a.m. The glass was still rising and the morning gave every proof of a glorious day. We ran out through Kyle Rannoch before a nice breeze, with Eilean nan Ron to port and Eilean nan Naiomh, the last of Fearchur's possessions, to starboard. Where the tide met the main east- going stream, we had a further taste of the previous day's discomfort, for the same old swell was still running. At length Drever, in exasperation, stood 6 miles straight out to sea and then turned sharply for Sandside Bay, so bringing the swell aft. At 10.25 a.m., with Strathy Point tantalisingly near, we found ourselves becalmed in bright sunshine. We sheeted all sails flat to minimise rolling and reluctantly started up the machinery. Our reluctance was due more to prudence than to pride, for the engine had begun to rock alarmingly on its base-bolts!

We passed Strathy Point at 10.42 a.m. and it gradually hid from view the last of the Sutherland mountains, Ben Hope and Ben Loyal, whose names, like Cape Wrath, have become deceptively 'naturalised'. East of the Point the swell lost its formidable dimensions and we slipped lazily past Portskerra, which last century almost became the chief fishing port in the North of Scotland. The sleepers were actually laid all the 18 miles from Forsinard, but Wick and Thurso grumbled and the railway was never completed. Two miles east of Melvich, the 'bay of the bent-grass', we crossed the line of the Caithness and Sutherland border which runs north and south along Drumholliston. The holy-stone (known locally as the Split Stone) which gives the ridge its name stands half a mile west of the march, beside the 'county road'. Ahead, we saw instead of steep stony outcrops, the fertile coastal strip of Caithness, with its large arable farms and shelving sandstone cliffs.

Alas for our hopes of storming into home waters! We chugged round the overhanging brow of Sandside Head at 12.30 p.m. and brought up quietly in the Bay, intending to go ashore to arrange for a berth in the little harbour tucked neatly away below the headland, and protected by outlying reefs. But the fishermen had seen us afar off. Scarcely had the clatter of our chain died away, when a motor boat shot out, and a high voice came thinly across the waters; "Are ye no' coman' in, boys?" So up came the hook and we followed them in. 'Skipper' William Stephen, the harbour master, deserted his fishing off the Point of Isauld, commandeered a tow from a visitor's outboard dingy and came hard in our wake. And the Minister, seeing these things from the high 6th green overlooking the bay, missed a short putt, ran for his car, and was already speeding shorewards. We were given the best berth, up against the north west wall. We fitted the usual fisherman's set of old tyres and listed Miranda to starboard with the anchor, the 56lb weight and sundry large stones. The sand sloped at a nice angle below her keel, and the fishermen promised to see that she bedded it properly when the tide went back.

Meanwhile, the Minister had been examining the boat critically from all angles. At length, he stepped to the edge of the quay and looked at her crew. "Well, boys," he said, "you've come. I see that you've been letting the grass grow on your sides."

With that backhanded compliment from his father, Donald Carmichael ends his narrative of the Miranda's 169-mile voyage from Kyle of Lochalsh to Sandside Bay. It is an evocative cameo of a world now all but faded from memory, a world of adventurous young men, disciples of such intrepid spirits as George Mallory, the great mountaineer, Amy Johnson the twenty-two year old girl who flew a bi-plane solo from England to Australia in 20 days, and Malcolm Campbell, world record breaker on land and water. I am grateful to Margaret Carmichael for allowing me to open the door of this bygone world, using the key of her late husband's private papers.


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Steven Cashmore 1999

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