Chapter 9: Aug 16/17 - Tobermory to Tarbert

Tobermory is a cheerful and pleasant spot. There is nothing very striking about the scenery; it is probably the tamest place in Mull, though it enjoys a good prospect of Morven and the Sunart hills; Ben Hiant and MacLean's Nose being prominent features. When we came out the next morning we passed close by the homely Calve Island which half encloses Tobermory Bay. If you were not, as I am, a persistent seeker after beauty, you would probably pass it by without comment. Yet as I conned the shore of this plain, low, grass topped islet, I saw beauty in every line of it: the low cliffs, stratified and adorned with saxifrage and thrift gave it an almost Parisian neatness and chic. It was in fact extremely well turned out and dressed in exquisite taste. In that quality, that flair for the perfection of detail, you have the secret of Scotland's pre-eminence over all her rivals.

Save for a few gannets we had the Sound of Mull to ourselves. We left Tobermory at 11.50 and by 13.20 we had Ardtornish Castle abeam. This was the old stronghold, where the Lord of the Isles was married to the Maid of Lorne. Sir Walter Scott described the proceedings; but you can never be quite sure how much of it was fiction. Whenever I see the identical coulter at Aberfoyle, with which Bailie Nicol Jarvie laid about him at the inn, I become more and more convinced that the "Northern Wizard" was the first and true inventor of history. That he is so regarded by his countrymen is quite evident for to this day you may if it suits you change at Tillietudlem junction. Behind this romantic old ruin the cliffs rise very steeply and it is a delight to see the succession of waterfalls tumbling sheer many hundreds of feet through the trees which cling precariously to the chocolate coloured basaltic rock. This day, for a change, we enjoyed sunshine and light airs. From Lismore to Oban, however, we rolled considerably - the scend coming up the Firth of Lorne indicating that there was still plenty of disturbance outside.

We spent a lot of time in Oban while the shore party lost themselves on the beach; but what with intermittent squalls and rainbows and much activity in the bay, the time passed very pleasantly. Steamers were setting out and returning from their daily trips. It was good to watch the fine handling of the "King George V" as he approached the Railway pier. When he was less than a distance of half a cable, he threw out his starboard anchor and using it as a pivot came smartly alongside and was landing his passengers, even before he was made fast.

We had anchored in Oban at 14.35 and now at 21 hours we went a mile or two down the Sound of Kerrea. The sky line of this island seemed black against the setting sun. At one point I counted nine cows silhouetted against a scarlet cloud. Presumably, in fact almost certainly they had gone up to get a good view of one of the sunsets for which Oban is so justly famous. We dropped anchor in Horseshoe Bay, a quiet secluded spot and preferable to any berth which could be found in Oban Bay.

We cleared early next morning and coming out into the Firth of Lorne we saw breakers dashing white over Dubh Sgeir. A little later it was an impressive sight to see Atlantic combers rounding on the slate rocks of Easdale. The force of the sea plunging through the caves and gaps in the strata produced high fountains of dazzling white surf. There was a considerable swell rolling in, the distance between the crests of the waves being about twenty yards. Far away to the south west I could just descry the Ross of Mull. The weather was dull and overcast as we fairly flew down Luing Sound towards Scarba and the Dorus Mhor.

Gliding down to Scarba
On a summer's day
Bound for Crinan Harbour,
Skies were leaden grey.

Whirling through the Dorus
Like a tee-to-tum;
The islands sang in chorus:
Oh! Whither have you come?

We've come from far Lochinver
Neath Suilven's lofty perch
Aye e'en in lone Grimshader
We did Evander search.

We've come from isles of Summer,
Where the Southlands breezes blow
Where the honey bees do murmur
And the moorland torrents flow.

We tell you without rancour
And verify the tale
That we dropped our starboard anchor
By the banks of Flowerdale

They saw us in South Rona
The heron, hawk and gull
We wish we'd told you sooner
How we came round the Mull.

We had left Horseshoe Bay at 7.50. BY 10.5 we were off Crinan waiting to enter the canal and seven minutes later we were in the Sea lock. There were fourteen yachts in and near the basin: perhaps some indication of the sort of weather that prevailed. Among them were the dutch barge "New Horizon", "Boyne Water" and "Eun Mara". Normally it takes a little over four hours to work one's way through the canal, but there was considerable traffic and six hours were necessary to complete the passage. If one is bound for the Irish Sea no time is saved, unless weather makes the outside passage impossible. Actually we would have found no difficulty in rounding the Mull; but the Skipper wanted to make as many ports as possible for the benefit of the Shipwrecked Mariner's. The persuasive powers and organising ability of the Booster would unquestionably be of great value to the cause. He did in fact visit over fifty agents and others in the interest of the Society and once more made history by enrolling the first woman member.

When the "Royal Route" was abandoned it was a great loss to the amenities of Scottish travel. Similar deprivations have occurred on the Firth of Forth, on the Thames, on the Mersey and doubtless many other places. I remember a journey with my grandfather. We had been a three day cruise to St. Kilda, which you may imagine was a thrilling experience to a boy of eleven and when we got back to Oban, my grandfather piled Pelion upon Ossa. He decided to return home by way of the "Royal Route". It was a heydey in the long history of the MacBrayne fleet. The "Mountaineer" used to come down from Fort William; the "Fusilier" went - I think - to Staffa and Iona; the "Lord of the Isles" went to and fro on the Clyde and then we boarded the "Chevalier" to sail from Oban to Crinan over the same ground that "Helen" came this morning. We felt the same rolling off Easdale, a circumstance so repeated and so inevitable that it was probably the reason for ceasing to ply between Oban and Crinan. The ordeal only lasted twenty minutes; but the general public, who decide these matters, had no courage. So the autobus has taken its place.

On arrival at Crinan we embarked on the "S.S. Linnet" and so went through to Ardrishaig where the far famed "Columba" awaited us and with the majestic sweep of her paddles wafted us through the beautiful Kyles of Bute to Rothesay (where they waited for the "Lord") to Dunoon and to the accompaniment of hundreds of thousands of hammering rivets up the Clyde river to the Broomielaw. I believe Queen Victoria took the trip and so gave it the accolade.

The weather deteriorated and we had cold and continuous heavy rain with a contrary wind for nearly the whole passage of the canal. On a fine day, it can be charming and it is astonishing how many people will queue up for "Pandora's" annual stately transit north and south. Working the locks is excellent exercise for the hand on the bank. He races along the towpath, he hooks on the warps and exerts all the beef he possesses to lever open and shut the gates. On board it is not quite so funny, especially for the Skipper, who on this occasion dare not stop his engines for fear they would not start again. Moreover he wonders whether the fender wallahs will do their stuff and whether the slack of warps is taken up or let out as required. There are fifteen locks on Crinan and fifteen possible headaches. Torrie sensed some of this tension, when after some seven hours of fasting, she produced in as many minutes buttered eggs and peas white bread and butter and coffee. One gets an easy in the flat sections and has leisure to look about and enjoy the passing scene. There is every variety of full grown trees in the right bank among which the scarlet berries of the rowan make a fine splash of colour. There is honeysuckle and meadowsweet. Over the left bank, where runs the towing path, there is a wide prospect over Moine Mhor, the great moss, with the distant hills of Lorne in the background. There is the little loch at the summit with its islet of heather and pines.

At length we came to the basin at Ardrishaig which is crossed by the road bridge, the main highway from Inveraray to Campbeltown. Here we were delayed quite a while and when at last the bridge was swung we had to wait while the lockman filled the sea lock. Doubtless the Skipper was fed up; but that didn't justify him in making a wild plunge at the gate. What had happened was that the clutch of the starboard engine, of its own inherent vice, had suddenly engaged and was like to have caused a catastrophe. But here the Skipper's long training in handling and manoeuvring ships of all sorts and sizes stood him in good stead. Quick as thought he backtreadled and saved the situation. Estimates varied from two feet to four inches as the actual distance between "Helen" and the very heavy solid lock gate. It was not, as I thought at the time, a case of seeing what happens when an irresistible force meets an immoveable object.

We were soon through the sea lock and at 1604 we entered Loch Gilp. It had taken six hours to come nine miles; but we had undoubtedly effected a short cut. Had we come by sea round the Mull the distance would have been over one hundred miles. On the other hand had we been making for Irish instead of Clyde ports we should by now have been within five or ten miles of the Mull of Cantyre and at this time of day handy for Larne or the Belfast Lough. Indeed with six hours in hand we would have been well past the Mull, given favourable weather. So much nonsense has been said about the passage round the Mull and the supposed advantage of using the Crinan Canal, that I give my own experience of ten calm passages, some in perfect summer weather to perhaps two in stormy conditions. Again there is no doubt that it is much warmer outside where the Gulf Stream sheds its balmy influence, than it is in the often cold and draughty Clyde. And if you think Killbrennan Sound, between Cantyre and Arran is a good place - well!! try it on a stormy day with wind against the tide. A fair parallel would be Formby channel on the ebb in a strong Nor'wester. No! the matter was fairly summed up by Joy, a fair haired lassie of ten summers. She was making a passage with her grandfather from Campbeltown to Oban. They had waited in the Cantyre port many days for a favourable slant, if a such a dispensation were necessary for a steam yacht of 240 tons. She had heard moans and gloomy prognostications of disaster if they should attempt to brave the dreaded promontory. At last, however, they put to sea and when an hour or so later, in fair weather, they passed a lighthouse high up on a bold and massive cliff; Joy cried to her grandfather on the bridge "Grandpa! Is that the Mull?" Her grandsire replied that it was. "It is, is it?" she retorted "What's the matter with it?".

The rain cleared a little as we went down Loch Fyne. It is a pleasant sail as one coasts along the shores of Knapdale, one of the most desirable tracts in that part of Argyll. Presently we put into East Loch Tarbert and came to anchor in the east creek at 1730 hours. In this secluded tree girt backwater we had some difficulty in finding a berth. The whole place seemed to be occupied by an old steam yacht with a fiddle bow and a green hull. Her rating would be about a hundred tons. She had been there for a number of years and used to house a canary in a cage. She was now nothing more or less than an abandoned nuisance. There was also lying to a mooring a neat little cutter "Islay" belonging to Captain Harvey R.N. the author of "Sailing Orders" an extremely well written yarn for those who wish to cruise on the west coast. Between these two we managed to wedge In fairly well: but the whole scheme was spoilt by another fellow who came in later and dropped his pick about a couple of boat's lengths off, between "Helen" and the beach. All went well till about two in the morning when we all started swinging. I wish I could describe to you the schemozzle that then occurred, but being sound asleep in what Lordie calls the "Cat's Cradle" I must leave it to your imagination. I heard afterwards that Booster had spent an agile ten minutes brandishing a boathook while balancing himself precariously on the bulwarks of the 'Green Pest'.

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