A Hebridean ferry crossing

We’ve just got back from a week’s holiday on South Uist in the Outer Hebrides. Hopefully more blog posts to follow but I had to write about the ferry crossing on the way home; I don’t think I’ve had a more lovely one!

We caught the very early morning ferry from Lochboisdale to Mallaig, getting up at 4:30am to pack the last bits into the car and make the 15 minute drive to the port. The day started dull and cloudy but as the ship (the Lord of the Isles) pulled away the sun started to break through the cloud, although the thick haze never lifted completely. The Sea of the Hebrides was as flat calm as I ever recall seeing open water. The ripples weren’t strong enough to break the surface and it had taken on a liquid glass appearance. This meant that we could see far further across the water than normal and the wildlife wasn’t obscured behind waves as it so often is; even individual birds hundreds of metres away could easily be picked up with the naked eye.

Having seen cetaceans before in this sea, including on the way across at the beginning of the week, I was hoping for more and there was no disappointment. We saw common dolphins four times during the crossing and a couple of pods of porpoise. The dolphins were leaping clear of the water as they chased across the flat calm sea while at times they circled around catching fish. The porpoise, however, we more subdued in their movement, simply breaking the surface and rolling down again, often barely noticeable. 

The birds were equally special. At first there was some arctic terns slowly flying out to sea but there were many more birds to come. I saw my first ever storm petrels, as they darted swallow-like, close to the surface of the sea. I’ve helped to install nest boxes for them but never seen one before – they were lovely and so much easier to pick out against the calm waters.

More spectacular were the Manx shearwaters. Large flocks of them sat on the sea, feeding on the surface but they lifted almost swarm-like as they were harried by the skuas after their catches. They raced across the water, escaping their tormentors and eventually settled back on the surface again.

The were groups of other seabirds, often gulls and fulmar, fishing around concentrations of fish, with gannets plunging in from above. There were also auks everywhere; individuals fishing, sitting on the surface and long chains of birds racing across close to the water. We saw guillemots, black guillemots, razorbills and puffins for much of the way across, often dipping below the surface as the ship passed by.

All the sea life was laid out in front of the stunning backdrop of Skye and the small isles (Canna, Rum, Eigg and Muck) as well as the Outer Hebrides disappearing in the mist behind us.

I generally love a ferry crossing but this was was spectacular!

Scottish Islands: Outer Hebrides

Following on from my trip to Skye last autumn (as well as a number of other trips before), I’m carrying on with my aim to visit all of the main islands, or groups of islands, around the coast of Scotland. This time, I’m staying on North Uist for a week.

After travelling as far as Fort William yesterday, I made the second leg of the outward journey today. I woke after a pretty poor night’s sleep, having been kept awake by a nearby fairground, then woken at 1:15am by the fire alarm and hotel evacuation, and then delayed from getting back to sleep by the overly loud bathroom extractor fan! However, the freshness of the morning, the bright light and the excitement of the journey ahead soon knocked me out of my drowsiness once I’d had breakfast.

My outward trip to Skye last year used the Mallaig ferry and my homeward journey was mostly in the dark before I passed Fort William. I had therefore never driven the route between Fort William and the Kyle of Lochalsh in daylight; today showed what I had missed! I use the word ‘stunning’ quite a lot in my blogging but it’s a truly perfect word to describe the journey. For someone who enjoys a good, long drive on demanding roads, the journey was just about perfect. As I had set off early, there was little traffic along the way although the intermittent snow, sleet and hail made it ‘interesting’ at times. However, I will remember the journey more for the sheer beauty of the landscapes, washed in early morning light, with dark but broken clouds allowing the sun to break over the deep valleys and the newly snow-dusted mountaintops.

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I arrived on Skye in plenty of time before I had to be at Uig for the ferry, so I drove a little further into the Trotternish area and retraced some of my autumnal steps. Unfortunately, the sea was too rough to allow much of a chance of catching a glimpse of a cetacean or two.

I love a ferry journey and the trip from Uig to Lochmaddy didn’t let me down. I stayed on deck for the whole 1hr45mins; it was cold but the views were worth it. On arriving on North Uist, it was only a short trip to my accommodation for the week; a newly rebuilt stone and thatch cottage, right on the coast. I don’t think I’ve ever been made to feel more welcome by owners of a holiday cottage and the place itself is pretty special; I might be a bit spoilt this week!

I didn’t do too much exploring before unpacking but I did pop out to the shop and slowly drove back, scanning the landscape for interesting wildlife – I was rewarded with a view of a short-eared owl right by the roadside. Unfortunately, by the time I got my camera ready it had flown off somewhat but I still managed to get some shots. As I write this post, there’s actually another one flying past the cottage!

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I can’t wait to see what the week brings!

Isle of Skye – Uniquely Skye

With very strong winds today and with my walking boots still soaking wet, I decided against another coastal walk and headed north to retrace some of my steps (or tyre marks) from Sunday and visited some of the places I’d missed in the Trotternish area.

There were three places that stood out:

I spent a while at Faerie Glen, near Uig – it’s a very strange area of odd geological formations all coated in a blanket of rich green grass with clumps of woodland – there were even some bright red toadstools at the base of one of the hills – possibly nibbled on by fairies.

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I visited Macurdie’s Exhibition, near Bornesketaig.  It’s hard to describe exactly what it is and it’s best left for people to find out for themselves.  All I’ll say is that it’s probably a work of both insanity and comedy genius and well worth a visit!

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IMG_7434 IMG_7435IMG_7441My final stop of the day was the Old Man of Storr, another incredible geological formation that stands out in the landscape and can be seen for miles around.  It’s a steep, breathtaking (literally), walk from the car park in quiet weather but with strong winds added, it was quite a challenge on the lower slopes of the hill.  However, I managed to jog up the final sections once the felled forest area had been left behind.  I also ran and bounced much of the way down but had to put a brake on my fun when the strong winds picked up again.

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All three of these places are unique and together help to give Skye a character all of its own.

Isle of Skye – A Tour to the Wild Side

To learn where the best nature spots are in a new area I think it’s alway best to ask the locals and a good way to do that it to take a tour with a local guide.

I’ve been on fully led wildlife holidays both in the UK and abroad, and whilst I have enjoyed every one, I don’t think there is any need to have such holidays in the UK. With a bit of planning (not that I’ve done much this time), some maps and a bit of thought into what habitats there are, and what wildlife they may support, you shouldn’t go too far wrong. However, a little local help is alway a bonus!

So today I went on a guided trip, without my (not so) trusty camera, to help familiarise myself with some of the best places to spot the best wildlife on Skye. Setting off midmorning from the main car park in Portree, we immediately headed out to spot otters in a nearby bay. However, no otters were seen but two soaring golden eagles more than made up for it – slowly floating and circling on what little wind and lift there was, they eventually dipped behind the nearby hill.

Perhaps the most unexpected and astonishing sighting was next with thousand upon thousand of migrating thrushes (mainly fieldfares with a few redwings mixed in) forming fly-swarm like clouds passing over the heaths and hillsides. Everywhere we looked there were birds – on the trees, in the heather, on the telephone lines and all round us in the air. This was a true wildlife spectacular.

As the weather started to close in we headed on in search of more eagles. We went to several places without much luck, seeing some red deer instead, but as the rain eased, we were rewarded with two juvenile white-tailed eagles floating around the top of a hill, giving us very good and close views (they were much closer than the photo below suggests).

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Moving on again we scoured an area of water for otter but again no luck but at lunch we were rewarded again, but this time by two golden eagles displaying high up above us, one moment soaring and then next stooping and rising like on an invisible rollercoaster.

The afternoon was spent looking for otters and finally we were given a few fleeting views of a couple of these watery mammals. We saw one from a distance but it soon disappeared, so we moved on around to the far side of where we had seen it. From there we had a better view but almost as fleeting. A second otter was then seen, but for just as short a time, with neither to be seen again.

Heading back to Portree, after a few more stops to look for otters, we were given a final sight of a single white-tailed eagle as it flew past back to where we had just come from – a nice, last view to finish the tour.

The trip wasn’t just otters and eagles, however, with plenty of other birdlife seen, in addition to the masses of migrating thrushes – we had well over thirty species by my reckoning.

Although I didn’t have my camera, I still managed some scenic shots of the island with the following two being the best my phone would allow.

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I have to say thank you to Andy of Isle of Skye Wildlife Tours for such a great day – he certainly put in the effort to make sure we had the best chances of seeing some pretty spectacular wildlife and I hope everyone went away as happy as I did!

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