View across the Outer Harbour of Stornoway

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Ferry woes

Well, that is a mad 36 hours we've just had here in Lewis.

Yesterday, Friday, the MV Isle of Lewis, limped into port two hours late after developing a fault in her engine. She had only managed to complete one of her scheduled three return crossings to Ullapool. Whilst the engineers went to work to fix her exhaust system, passengers piled up at the ferry terminal only to be told there would be no ferry services at all on Friday. This was nothing short of a disaster. We're currently hosting the Hebridean Celtic Festival (with about 8,000 visitors in Stornoway & environs), and many of them will have been on their way here, or on their way back to the mainland. Some people managed to divert to Tarbert, Harris, to cross to Skye. Compounding the situation was the fact that the Isle of Lewis had carried 200 passengers on a daytrip to Stornoway, who had intended to return to the mainland on the scheduled 7pm crossing. They now had to be put up in Stornoway, whilst there was not a spare bed left due to the Hebridean Celtic Festival. Some unfortunates were reduced to sleeping in the ferry terminal, or in sleeping bags outside. Just as well it's summer, and not desperately cold at night.

Whilst this mayhem was going on, Calmac organised a relief vessel (in the shape of the Isle of Arran) to take over on the Stornoway to Ullapool run. On Friday evening, it was still doing the Kennacraig to Islay run; by 11 o'clock on Saturday morning, she was up here. Also on Friday evening, the Hebrides (which normally plies from Uig in Skye to Tarbert or Lochmaddy) sailed to Ullapool to help clear a backlog of vehicles which had built up on the mainland.

Loaded to the gunwhales, the Isle of Arran bravely sailed to Ullapool shortly before midday. Passengers were reported sitting on the ground, as there was no seating left for some. Checking a minute ago, I was pleasantly surprised to see the Isle of Lewis steaming into the Minch, headed for Ullapool. It is due back at 4.30 this morning, preceded at 3.00 am by the Isle of Arran.

The Sunday sailings are certainly getting off with a bang, with no fewer than two ferries coming in first thing on a Sunday - the first scheduled Sunday service will depart as billed at 2.30pm tomorrow afternoon.

Tuesday 14 July

After a nice breakfast, I drove off in a northerly direction to go round the cemeteries in North Uist and Berneray. The single-track roads require your full attention, both in terms of on-coming and following vehicles. A police-van was behind me from the Balivanich turn-off until I had to turn off myself at Carinish. Had a job finding the graveyard, but finally located it in the middle of a large ruin - the Trinity Temple. I met a council employee who had been spraying nettles there. The two gravestones were difficult to read. Next stop: Balranald. The morning began to clear up by then, and the views opened out as far as St Kilda, 40 miles to the west. Balranald is famous for a RSPB bird reserve, but I went into the large Kilmuir cemetery. I spent quite a lot of time there, and found many war-related gravestones. The road after that veered east along the north coast of the island, with the tidal island of Vallay to the north. I parked at the Sollas Co-op and got myself something for lunch, the time being midday. I then walked down the track into the machair, only to be eaten alive by flies. The cemetery at Dunskellor was fiendishly difficult to find, and it was only due to a large memorial that I could see it. After taking the photographs I needed, I walked across the machair to the sea to have my lunch. Fortunately, there were no flies by the dunes. About 10 miles further along, I found Clachan Sands cemetery, once more in the dunes, but this one is properly signposted. Berneray, only a couple of miles further along, was endowed with two graveyards. I went to the wrong one first, of course. This involved driving down a track into the machair, get yourself eaten by the **** flies and find that none of the gravestones is older than the mid-1960s. So, off to the other side of the island. You can't do more than 20 mph on Berneray. I got out at Sandhill Farm and was met by the most horrendous stench. Rotting seaweed on the foreshore below. I walked into the machair and passed through thick nettles - from which emanated a very deep, ominous buzzing noise. Millions of flies... Spoke to a chap who was having a break from his walk by the graveyard, who thanked me for doing what I was here to do. Afterwards, I drove south into North Uist and visited people at the Langass Lodge. The A867 between Lochmaddy and Clachan allowed me to do 60 mph in 5th gear, wow. Dinner was venison.

Monday 13 July

The day dawned bright and sunny, with some low cloud over the hills that quickly burned away. I went on the 9 o’clock bus to Balivanich to collect my hirecar. Well, that was the start of some adventure. I haven’t driven for a while, and am a bit rusty. At any rate, I won’t go into the relearning curve, suffice to say that I covered 70 miles today. After calling into Nunton cemetery in Benbecula, I headed south along the A865 towards Eriskay. Took me an hour and it was quite warm in the car. When I called into the Am Politician bar for a lunch at 1.15, I was perspiring. Had a coke, a bowl of soup and a tuna mayo sandwich. I left the chips. The cemetery was almost next door, so I walked there and took the pictures I needed to take, as well as some of Eriskay’s fantastic colours and landscapes. Nipped round to the Polochar (stress last syllable) Inn to leave a message for the familiar faces I saw last night, and resumed my search for graveyards. The first one, at North Boisdale, found me up a rough track, but I got the result I was looking for. Ardmichael, near Stoneybridge, was located between two stunning, sandy beaches. Howmore, a mile or so up the road, is next to the Youth Hostel, and I briefly chatted to a couple who were camping nearby. The cemetery at Lionacuidhe [Linique] proved elusive – I went up this sandy track, but found nothing. I think I went up the wrong sandy track. I duly returned to Ardmhor and checked into the Anglers Retreat, situated next to the A865 spinal route. Marion showed me to my room, where I crashed for an hour with a cup or two of tea. Bill was wrestling with a midge-eating machine which wouldn’t work. Dinner is at 7pm.

Sunday 12 July

Today dawned grey and wet. A steady drizzle was coming down. Breakfast was between 8 and 10, so I showed up around 9 am. The staff were friendly, the breakfast good. As I was getting my tea and toast, the lady was a bit too sharp off the mark clearing my cutlery, but she apologised and replaced said items. After breakfast, I lugged my case down and left it in the dining room, as previously arranged. Then I went into town. The drizzle was heavier than I thought, so I quickly put on my waterproof trousers. Walked along the seafront as far as Dunollie Castle, past Columba’s Cathedral (which began ringing its bells as I passed) and the War Memorial. I then turned back in order not to miss the parade of yachts. A very large private vessel steamed out of port at a rate of knots, and a plethora of smaller ones followed in its wake. The old Oosterschelde remained stately at anchor. She later relocated to an anchorage further south. As the morning progressed, the drizzle slowly eased off. I went for a cuppa in a restaurant on North Pier, then went up to McCaig’s Tower. This is a folly; Mr McCaig wanted to give local stonemasons some work at a time of unemployment around 1900. Returning to town, I had lunch at the Regent Hotel, then went back to the Kelvin to collect my luggage and go to the ferry terminal.

After a longish wait, we were allowed on board the Clansman at 3.20, twenty minutes before departure. It is full of kids, youngsters and holidaymakers. We leave exactly on time, and quickly steam out of Oban Bay, into the Sound of Mull. The weather remains grey; to my horror, the battery on my camera is nearly depleted, so I have to cut back on the number of pics I take. Duart Castle at Craignure, Lismore Lighthouse and Ardnamurchan. A few others sneak in as well. I have a Calmac curry before we hit the swells off Ardnamurchan, by which time the sun has come out. Eigg and Rum are barely visible, just over 10 miles to the north, hidden under a blanket of cloud. Muck is slightly clearer. Coll bathes in sunlight to the south. All are left well behind as the Clansman starts the long crossing to Barra, across the Sea of the Hebrides. Finally, after 8pm, we see the shapes of Barra and the Bishops Isles looming up, as well as that of South Uist. We dock at Castlebay at 8.30, and I espy familiar faces on the quayside. The crossing to Barra was characterised by a lot of swell, and not everybody was coping to well. A few green faces appeared on deck to get some fresh air. The continuation to Lochboisdale was swell-free. Arrived there at 10.20, and Mr Murray collected me by car to take me to his wife’s B&B.

Saturday 11 July

That was a very early start, 5.30 am. Taxi took dad and myself to Arnhem for me to catch the 6.46 fast service to Schiphol Airport. It was reasonably busy, particularly at Utrecht (Holland’s 4th largest city and its main rail hub). At the airport, a large queue awaited me for check-in at Easyjet, but this went reasonably fast so at 8.30, I was in the lounge awaiting a call to board the aircraft. That duly came by 9.45 and half an hour later we were airborne. A swift passage across the North Sea saw us over East Anglia, then north over Lincolnshire and the Humber. By coincidence, I spotted the strange shape of the Stang Forest, which lies about 8 miles north of Reeth, and I could just about make out the Dales around that area, as well as the landscape to the north, into County Durham. Edinburgh came not long after, and we were on the ground as scheduled at 10.35 local time. Several other flights had also landed and disgorged their passengers, leading to a long Q at passport control. After that, it was a case of pick up your case and go for the bus. And thus it was that I found myself in Edinburgh city centre at 11.45.

I went for a walk round Princess Street Gardens, back to Waverley Bridge then up Calton Hill, which is a nice viewpoint. When walking round, you get a 360 degree view of the city. Had to return to Waverley to pick up my case and locate the bus station. Couldn’t find it on St Andrews Square. Well, it’s got this large sign – going vertically up the building and not very prominent in the street. By that time, I got so hot and bothered that I got on the wrong bus to Perth – the fast one, which does NOT go into the bus station. It drops you off at a park-and-ride outside the city, and you have to grab a shuttle service to get into Perth proper. Once there, I had about 50 minutes before the Oban bus came. On the way to Perth, we passed the T in the Park concert venue, which was marked by a sea of tents and caravans – near Kinross.

So, at 4.50, we headed off west, all the way along the A85 to Oban, 95 miles. Fifty to Crianlarich, 45 on to Oban. It was a nice sunny day, and it’s a beautiful ride. If a long one. You get a p break in Tyndrum, but that’s all. Oban was reached three hours later, as per schedule. Am typing this in the Kelvin Hotel, a simple hotel (bit too simple for my liking) and you just about get the Wifi signal from the Calmac terminal. As I type this on Saturday evening, I don’t get a signal. Went into Oban to get some fish & chips and to admire the “Oosterschelde” (a Dutch threemasted schooner) and some dolphins jumping in the bay. Beautiful sunset.

Saturday 18 July

The morning has been quite wet, although there is not much wind today. Our replacement ferry, MV Isle of Arran, has just chugged out of the bay, on the first of its two crossings to Ullapool for the day. It will finally return tonight at 3 am. What will happen on Sunday is as yet not clear - there is talk of two sailings instead of the billed one. People are advised to relocated to Tarbert in Harris to take the ferry from there to Skye, but it is rumoured that this boat is fully booked.

The oldest veteran from the First World War, still alive in the UK, has died at the age of 113. Henry Allingham, who saw six monarchs in his lifetime, was the oldest man in the world. He was the sole survivor of the beginnings of the RAF, and he had seen action at the Battle of Jutland on 31 May 1916, as well as in the trenches on the Western Front. Henry had spent the last years of his life educating people about the Great War. Only Harry Patch now remains as the last of the Great War veterans. Henry Allingham, well done. You can rest in peace now with your mates.