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OUT AND ABOUT WITH RALPH: A privileged look round an abandoned island

By Ben MacGregor

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A spectacular view.
A spectacular view.

Some people enjoy the challenge of walloping through the waves into a force five, or more, in a sea kayak. And then surfing home at speed with the wind behind, concentrating hard to avoid a capsize.

But most of us prefer light winds and small waves, even sunshine, to explore our fascinating and spectacular Scottish coasts and islands.

This year both sun and light winds have been in short supply, and outings on the sea have mostly been nervy affairs, avoiding being knocked off balance by the next big wave, or hunkering down, gripping the paddle tight, as a gust of wind hurtles towards you flattening the sea ahead.

Even good days have usually had the threat of rising wind.

I hadn’t visited any of the islands this year, and the first opportunity for a look at Eilean Nan Ron came towards the end of June.

In good years you can get quite blasé about paddling across from Skerray and hanker after more adventurous trips to the neighbouring Eilean Iosal or even Meall Thailm – I still look for an experienced climber to help me to the summit of this one!

But this year, a simple visit to Eilean Ron would be exciting enough, I’d need to head back by lunchtime as the wind was forecast to pick up against a big tide, leading to potentially rough conditions. I could explore little Neave Island in the afternoon.

Looking down into a lochan.
Looking down into a lochan.

Skerray, looking across to the islands, is a lovely place, such a different environment and only an hour or so from home.

Launching the kayak demands some care, once I let go of the boat when sliding it down the stones, it gathered speed, shot into the sea and, drifting rapidly out towards Ron on an offshore wind, I just managed to hook it with the paddle.

Already the wind was picking up, I hugged the rocky coast past Lamigo Bay for the shortest crossing of the Caol Raineach.

The island was inhabited until about 1940, the small settlement is totally exposed and must have been a very harsh place to live.

Now a visit is only for the fit as the easy access from the old harbour has been lost to storms and you must land in a bay and scramble up.

It is indeed a rare privilege to set foot there.

Semi-wild Soay sheep roam the island and neighbouring Iosal, keeping the grass and heather well-cropped.

With time short I did the usual “tourist” round, inspecting the melancholy old dwellings now mostly full of sheep dirt, and looking down on the amazing array of stacks and skerries to the east, with the Kyle of Tongue and the Sutherland peaks beyond.

The island summit has one of the best views anywhere, there were no attacking bonxies (great skuas) this year, presumably due to bird flu.

I always look down into the great gash just north of the village with a freshwater lochan then a sea inlet through a big cave where I once nearly got trapped in a funnelling force seven (companions would have towed me through eventually if I hadn’t made it!).

With that frisson of being alone on an uninhabited island and a sea crossing yet to make in a rising wind, it was only noon when I set off back across the choppy waters towards Skerray.

This meant I could spend more time on Neave Island, just across the narrow Caol Beag from Skerray. I knew I’d get back from that island unless a gale blew up.

The sandy beach on the eastern side is a delectable spot, it’s worth learning to sea kayak just to get there!

Although the whole island fits into a one kilometre square on the OS map, you could spend days exploring.

Thyme grows wild in abundance.
Thyme grows wild in abundance.

High, vertical and even overhanging cliffs drop into boiling seas of stacks and arches.

With no grazing animals the place is a wild flower garden, huge patches of scented thyme, roses white and red, white campion, pink ragged robin, white umbels of wild carrot and aniseed and scotch lovage, purple heather and yellow tormentil and orchids and thrift, I could go on.

Just take great care around those clifftops!

In rare calm conditions an exploration of all the inlets, caves and arches makes for spectacular paddling.

And then there are the ancient Christian connections. Was there a monastic settlement and is it true that sermons were shouted out across the water to the crowds on the “field of the people” on the mainland?

In no more than 15 minutes from the beach I was back at Skerray.

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