Anyone who has even glimpsed the west coast of Scotland will know this is one of the most spectacular cruising areas in Europe, dramatically indented and partly protected by islands and skerries.
Anyone who has even glimpsed the west coast of Scotland will know this is one of the most spectacular cruising areas in Europe, dramatically indented and partly protected by islands and skerries. The scale of the country is breathtaking each morning, and you feel a powerful sense of liberating space.
The whole west coast is a paradise of lochs and sheltered sounds. Mountains and sea fit together perfectly, with long fingers of sheltered water penetrating the glens far inland. Here you can savour the silence of vast open acres, a feeling accentuated at night by a streetlight-free pitch blackness. With the anchor safely down and the engines cut, you hear nothing but distant sheep from high on a hillside, and perhaps the muffled cascade of a mountain stream.
Well spaced as they are, the locals who have the good fortune to live on this coast welcome strangers with a pleasure and courtesy that makes you realise that we, in the hectic south, have lost the knack of spending time with people.
Landing once at the head of a loch, I met a lean, weathered man with a soft highland voice, sitting on a stone wall. I asked if there was a farm or small shop nearby where I could buy some milk and vegetables. He pointed with his stick way up the glen to some invisible settlement, but then stood up and said he might have some spare milk at his cottage.
We followed a wooded path for almost a mile, arriving in a hollow where a low croft faced south across the loch. I could see our boat far below. The crofter’s wife was a dumpy, smiling woman who packed me a bag containing two bottles of milk, a dozen eggs from her own chickens, a splendid cauliflower and some new potatoes. She would take no payment for these welcome supplies and, the sun being well up, we took a wee dram before I started back down the path.
Although passage-making conditions can quickly change, the cruising speeds of modern motor boats are ideal for taking advantage of quiet spells and darting for shelter when conditions deteriorate. Because marinas are few and far between, anchoring is a way of life. A power windlass is a great help, but your anchor and chain must also be man enough for the job.
Most boats start a Scottish cruise from one of the Clyde marinas Troon, Largs or Inverkip. From Troon, the simplest route north is up the Firth of Clyde between Arran and Bute, making for Lower Loch Fyne and the east end of the Crinan Canal at Ardrishaig. From Largs, you can cut south of Bute to reach Ardrishaig, or you can cruise north-about through the magnificent Kyles of Bute. From Kip Marina, the quickest route to the Crinan Canal is through the Kyles.
Tiny Caladh harbour lies between the East and West Kyles, a restful anchorage all but hidden behind a wooded islet, Eilean Dubh. This delightful retreat is hemmed around by soft green shores where rhododendrons flourish. High to the east, the steep slopes of Loch Riddon are patched for miles with heather and bracken.
The Crinan Canal
This delightful rural waterway cuts across the neck of the long peninsula of Kintyre. From the west Kyle of Bute to Crinan via the canal is just 22 miles. The equivalent passage by sea via the Mull of Kintyre is over 100 miles in potentially irascible open water.
The canal distance from Ardrishaig to Crinan is eight nautical miles, with 15 locks including the two sea locks. Just before Crinan, the canal follows the River Add, with breathtaking views as you approach Crinan Basin and look out towards the Sound of Jura.
The sea locks and lock 14 are operated by keepers, as are the six opening bridges. All other locks are self-operated, so you should have at least three people aboard for the canal passage. This restful waterway shouldn’t be rushed and I’d allow a full day to work through, with a couple of hours for lunch somewhere in the middle.
Crinan is a charming oasis, a sleepy locked basin within tantalising reach of the Western Isles.
Crinan to Oban
In quiet weather, the 25-mile passage from Crinan to Oban makes a pleasant run. From Crinan make for Dorus Mor, a three-mile-wide channel between Craignish Point and tiny Garreasar island (Garbh Reisa). Pass two miles north of Reisa an t-Sruith before heading just west of north for the Sound of Luing. You leave the Gulf of Corryvreckan, the tidal race between Scarba and the north tip of Jura, well clear to the west. The north end of the Sound of Luing needs care near low water. The main passage lies between Fladda island and Dubh Sgeir beacon. From here head north to leave Bono Rock (Bogha Nuadh) red buoy to port, Easdale to starboard and then curve north-east through the Sound of Insh towards Oban.
Oban is a bustling ferry port, with good facilities and dozens of anchorages a short distance away. You will find plenty of cruising scope within the Firth of Lorne, Loch Linnhe and the Sound of Mull. Linnhe is one of the longest and most dramatic of the Scottish sea lochs, reaching inland for 30 miles to Fort William and the entrance to the Caledonian Canal.
Oban to Tobermory
From Oban to Tobermory is 23 miles through the splendid Sound of Mull, whose impressive mountains bring home the grand scale of Scotland’s west coast. Halfway along the sound, in Salen Bay, are some snug visitors’ moorings. Tobermory is an attractive town at the north end of Mull, with some visitors’ moorings and a notable selection of pubs. A few miles across the sound from Tobermory, in Loch Sunart, you can find some of the most memorable anchorages anywhere in the world.
Tobermory to the Sound of Sleat
Heading west from Tobermory, you reach the austere headland of Ardnamurchan from where, on a quiet day, a host of options opens out: the Outer Hebrides, Barra, North and South Uist, and the mysterious Benbecula. Within 20 miles north of Ardnamurchan are the fascinating Small Isles Canna, Rhum, Eigg and Muck. Rhum in particular is worth a visit, especially if you are keen on walking. Those with time to press on can head north-east towards the Sound of Sleat, which separates Skye from the mainland. Isleornsay is a good spot to make for, opposite Loch Hourn on the west side of the Sound. Here you can relax, take stock, and work out whether it’s time to turn for home.