For the perfect Hebridean walking trip, better pack your oilskins...
For days we’d hoped for a glimpse of basking sharks, and suddenly we were about to run one over. Just off the bow of the Eda Frandsen, a dorsal fin lolled – and three metres behind it, a tailfin. A gaping, filter-feeding snout was surely about to encounter our steel hull. The engine cut. We craned forwards. And just in time, with an awkward shimmy, the world’s second-largest fish abandoned its planktonic breakfast and dove down into the dark blue Hebridean Sea.
Such encounters aren’t uncommon aboard Eda (it’s pronounced Ada), a comely 73ft gaff cutter that first put to sea in Denmark in the 1930s. Lovingly restored by skipper Jamie Robinson – an oily-handed mariner of the old school – she now plies the waters around Skye, and charging along, five sails hauling air, she’s a sight to make the nautically-inclined go all soggy-eyed. But even if you don’t know a half-hitch from a halyard, Eda’s a beauty for another reason: she’s surely the most civilised way to reach some of Scotland’s remotest hikes and wildlife areas.
Eight of us sail-walkers had embarked at Mallaig for a week exploring the Inner Hebrides. Although we had a rough itinerary, our real guide was the wind – every morning would begin with a huddle over the weather forecast and a map. As likely as not, the wind would then change, prompting an eye-roll from Jamie and a shift to plan B, or indeed C. So one day’s aim to explore the isle of Canna ended with us moored off Skye; another day we threw the trip dossier to the wind and sailed all the way out to South Uist in the Outer Hebrides, accompanied by a pod of dolphins.
Night one was straightforward, though: a short motor to Skye’s Sleat peninsula, where we moored by a sandy cove with a trio of seals for company. The nocturnal peace was broken only by the klaxon-blast-grind-gurgle of the heads (for landlubbers, that’s the loos) as one by one we confronted the indelicacies of life afloat.The next day we headed north, and got a better view of our surroundings. The island of Eigg rose from the sea mist like some Jurassic monster, and gannets dive-bombed mackerel in the glittering waves. The breeze was up: it was time for our first shot at sailing.
Eda is a heavy girl – 65 tons – and manoeuvring her is a matter of getting the sails where you want them and holding a course, rather than rapid-fire seamanship. Crewing is more brawn than brain.
Under Jamie’s watchful eye, we learned to sweat the rust-red mainsail up, six of us hauling on the hemp halyards until he finally conceded, “Belay it there!”. Then came the jib, the staysail, the jib topsail and – after some surprisingly cat-like action from Jamie high up in the rigging – the topsail. We surged satisfyingly forward. “Bravo!” roared Jamie,
“You’re no longer cargo – you’re sailors!" To be honest, all we’d done was pull on a few ropes when he told us to, but still we grinned with pride. To celebrate, Jamie demonstrated his home-made potato cannon, a drainpipe-and-oven-lighter affair fuelled on pure oxygen that launched spuds impressive distances into the briny.
But the sailing was only the half of it. Every day we’d anchor in some lovely bay, scramble off Eda’s tender like welly-booted commandos and find a hiking trail. On Skye, we moored slap alongside Loch Coruisk – for the boatless, a day-long trudge from the nearest road, but for us just a few steps to an epic view of the Black Cuillin mountains, glowering down like a pack of leashed Dobermans.
On South Uist we anchored off the uninhabited side of the island and walked over the moor to Uisinis lighthouse, with only a golden eagle – fresh kill gripped in her talons – for company. On Canna, we strolled through fields jumping with rabbits to the viewpoint of Compass Hill.
On Rum – shortly after those basking sharks had made their cameo – we made a satisfying traverse of the island from the lonely bay at Harris, past a herd of wild ponies, to the relative bustle of Kinloch (population: 30).
As the sun lowered, we would return to the homely sight of Eda at anchor, a G&T and miraculous aromas from the galley. After supper, the options were simple: reading, or the potato cannon. The reading was inspirational: the ship’s ‘bible’ is a battered, tea-stained copy of Hamish Haswell-Smith’s The Scottish Islands, which could encourage a lifetime of island-hopping adventures. But the cannon was, Jamie twinkled, “about as much fun as you can have with your clothes on”.
As a summary of a week on Eda, it couldn’t be bettered.
The author travelled with Wilderness Scotland, who offer a range of guided walking and sailing trips throughout the Highlands.