Travelling Hopefully

02 July 

Felt very odd to be preparing to go on holiday, after the many cancellations over the past year. But it looked like Scotland wasn’t planning to once again keep the English out, particularly as Covid case rates were higher in that part of the UK than England. So I took parrot to her bird sitter, had lunch, packed up the car, and drove off.

The day was warm and sticky, and as I don’t like running the car air con (reasons) I became rather warm and sticky myself as I drove north. I had decided not to do the long drive in one go, but stay overnight in Penrith (Lake District). 

I stopped twice at motorway service stations for comfort breaks. Only as I drove away from the second one did I stop to wonder if I should have checked in somewhere on the NHS ‘Track and Trace’ system. (This is an app on a smartphone which allows you to check in to a locale by scanning a barcode. The idea is, should someone who was in the vicinity test positive for Covid, you can be contacted and told to self-isolate for ten days.) I hadn’t seen anything, and hadn’t thought to look for it. Nor could I recall anyone else stopping to scan a barcode. 

I arrived in Penrith around 6pm. My hotel didn’t have a car park, but I easily found free street parking just around the corner. To my delight, the hotel was next to the ruins of Penrith Castle, so after checking in and dumping bags, I went out to explore. 

The castle was built at the end of the 14th century, on the site of an old Roman fort, which allowed Ralph Neville, the builder, to use the banks and ditches. The castle was built to help defend the area against the Scots.

The castle was granted to Richard, Duke of Gloucester, in 1471. Richard resided at the castle at various times up to 1485. After he became king, he ceased to use the castle. By the 16th century, it had already started to decay. It was used in 1648 by a Parliamentarian general, but further dismantled after that time. 

After admiring the ruins, I had a pint of cider in the hotel bar. Many England flags were draped on the walls, and the staff were hopeful for a full house (well, as many as Covid rules would allow) for the Euro 2020 England vs Ukraine match the next evening.

03 July

A much cooler day, with warnings of thunderstorms. I headed out around 9am, pleased to see that road signs already noted ‘Scotland’ lying ahead. I have had many happy holidays in Scotland, and it was good to be heading there again.

I stopped off in Falkirk to visit the Kelpies, a large sculpture of two horse heads. They are very clear from the main road, and I’d passed them before without having a closer look. 

The sculptures, which are thirty metres high, are set in parkland designed for walking and cycling. I made my way to the Kelpies themselves, wishing I’d brought my wide angle lens to capture both them and their reflections in the (somewhat scuzzy) water. 

A short drive brought me to the house of some friends who live in Scotland. We had lunch together, during which they told me I was the first person to enter their house for nearly a year. Although we didn’t hug, we didn’t worry (all of us older ones having been double vaccinated) about sitting close to each other. One can hope that life will return to the old normal.

As I drove to Aviemore, the clouds kept threatening rain but never quite delivering. I arrived at my bed and breakfast at 5pm. The owner showed me to my room and how everything worked, filling me in on his personal history (he’s originally from South Africa). I brought my luggage to my lovely room, and as rain was sprinkling outside, settled in for the night. 

04 July

I had decided to go to some nearby waterfalls today. However, I didn’t realise that when I looked at ‘nearby’, this didn’t take into account the fact that there were no direct roads from me to them. I’d have to drive around an hour to get around some pesky mountains which stood in my way. So I decided to put that trip off to another day, when I’d organize myself to leave earlier. 

I’d bought a book on where to take landscape photos on Scotland, and it recommended an old packhorse bridge in Carrbridge. The bridge was obvious from the road.

I found parking nearby, and shouldered backpack and tripod to walk back to the spot. A set of steps led down to a viewing area. I was tempted to crawl over the railings and climb down the rocks for a better angle. However, I didn’t want to break an ankle at the start of my holiday, so I stayed on the viewing area for my photos.

A towel hung over a railing and a snorkeling mask and tube were on the rocks beyond. I found out later that lads in the area check out how deep the water is and where the underwater rocks are before jumping off the bridge into the pool below.

A noticeboard nearby explained:

‘At the beginning of the eighteenth century, to the inconvenience of both travellers and local people, there was no point at which the River Dulnain could be crossed when it was in spate, and burials at the Church of Duthil were often delayed. Brigadier-General Alexander Grant of Grant, Clan Chief, commissioned John Niccelsone, a mason from Ballindaloch, to build a bridge at Lynne of Dalrachney. ‘Built between May and November 1717, the bridge was paid for out of stipends of the Parish of Duthill. Its parapets and side walls were badly damaged in the 18th century and again in the famous flood of August 1829, giving the appearance it still has today.’

Afterwards, I walked a little ways alongside the river. I couldn’t find any way down to the water, so after taking some macro photos of lichen, I headed off.

Loch Morlich was my next port of call. Unfortunately, on a nice Sunday in the school holidays, half of Scotland seemed to have the same idea. I managed to find some street parking before making my way down to the shore. A family was using a disposable BBQ to cook sausages and their younger lad was bored enough to want to investigate a photographer at work. I took photos of the loch view, although the sunlight was becoming increasingly harsh at midday.

A family were feeding ducklings (what is the group noun for ducklings?) and I lowered myself to the sandy shore to take photos. The mother duck stood nearby, keeping a watchful eye.

My lunch was pulled BBQ beef, ordered from a café.  The woman behind the counter was wearing a mask, so when she handed me a small electronic device, I thought it was so that I could be located when my order was ready and it would be delivered to my table. When said device buzzed loudly around twenty minutes later, I stared at it in utter confusion. ‘That means your food is ready for you to collect,’ a couple at nearby table let me know.  You learn something new every day…

After dropping camera equipment back to the B&B, I ventured into Aviemore. An ice cream cooled me off as I wandered through the town. A lot of hiking/mountaineering shops lined the streets, along with various gift shops. I wandered into a few of the latter, always on the hunt for birthday and Christmas presents. I did buy a rather naff fridge magnet for myself.

The sight of young children in masks saddened me. In England, children eleven years and over are supposed to wear masks in public indoor areas. In Scotland, it’s five years and over. Just felt so wrong to me.

With the clouds threatening rain, I decided to return to the B&B to relax. Well, mostly relax. I had been requested to take a Covid lateral flow test three days before boarding the sail boat, so for the first time in my life I put myself through the experience of swabbing tonsils and nostrils. It wasn’t as unpleasant as I’d feared, and the test came up negative. I have to take another on Wednesday before boarding the boat…

05 July

Weather forecast of rain, rain, and more rain had made me decide to treat myself to a full cooked breakfast. I was the only one having breakfast, so I had the full attention of the two owners as I tucked into fruit, toast, and the usual bacon, sausage, hash browns, and egg. The tomatoes and the mushrooms had been spiced up with various herbs, some native to South Africa, which added zing to my tastebuds. 

I headed off to Loch Ness. Although Nessie has never emerged during any of my visits, hope springs eternal. 

I had planned to visit the Loch Ness Visitor Centre. Their website indicated that they were open. Sadly, when I arrived, they were closed due to flooding! So I continued on my drive alongside Loch Ness, parking occasionally to admire the grey skies and dull water. 

On a whim, I decided to visit Urquhart Castle, something I’d not done during any previous visit to the area. Unfortunately, as with many visitor attractions in the Covid era, one has to book on-line in advance. So I pulled into the car park and tried to do so on my iPhone. The signal was very poor, so I pulled on my waterproof coat and, doing my best to stay dry in the rain, I walked up the road for better reception. I managed to book my timed entry, and a few minutes later presented myself at the ticket desk to collect my bit of paper.

It’s thought that the castle was built on the site of an earlier building, in existence by 580AD. St Columba may have visited in order to heal an elderly Pictish nobleman, who became a Christian after his cure. The present ruin dates from the 13th century, and featured in the Wars of Scottish Independence. It has been a royal castle, was raided a number of times by MacDonald Earls of Ross, and held by Clan Grant. The castle was partially destroyed in 1692 to prevent it from being used by Jacobite forces. 

As with many tourist sites, the operators of the castle have done their best to provide a ‘Covid safe’ environment. Barriers have been put in place to make a separate corridor to the toilets, cutting them off from the café on one side and the gift shop on the other. A chap stood at the doorway. As the toilets are at the back of the building, it was his duty to count heads and keep numbers down. I asked him later what he normally did at work. ‘I’m usually at the ticket desk,’ he told me, ‘and I can’t wait until this Covid thing is behind us so I can go back there.’ I did point out that the ability to access a toilet was very important to visitors so he was doing an essential job!

The rain held off as I explored the extensive ruins. Very informative plaques (without any grammatical errors) told visitors which bit of the castle they were visiting. I admired a couple of sail boats which glided past, as well as the clouds draping over the nearby hills.

I continued my trip around the loch. Just past Fort Augustus, the road narrowed from two-way to a single-track road with passing places. The landscape also changed, becoming wilder, with moors and lakes. The sun came out when I stopped to admire a commemoration for those who had died in World War I. Cows in a nearby field eyed me suspiciously. 

As I continued, the fog rolled in. I drove slowly along the single-track road, hoping that anyone coming in the opposite direction might also be taking a cautious approach. 

When I reached Inverness, I stopped for petrol and to buy something for my evening meal. The rain began to fall as I drove back to Aviemore.

The B&B owners were inside, and they informed me that they had planned to open the bottles they’d recently purchased from Speyside Distillery. This is a small whisky distillery near Aviemore, not currently open to the general public. We agreed to meet in the lounge at 5pm. They operate an ‘honesty’ bar for visitors to drink the whisky, and I went for a peaty malt. Very drinkable. We watched as Boris Johnson announced the lifting of the last lockdown measures on 19 July. My hosts wondered when Scotland would also lift restrictions, although they plan to continue to wear face masks in their communal areas. 

After a convivial dram, I went back to my room to relax and plan for another day devoted to photography. 

06 July

I headed south, driving first to the Falls of Bruar. The parking was at the House of Bruar, a very fancy retail park offering upmarket food and clothing. It’s not often that I feel I should have dressed up to visit the toilets, but the ladies cloakroom (their term!) was very posh.

The path to the Falls was well marked and rather steep. It’s when I’m toiling under the weight of two cameras and four lenses, as well as a tripod, that I cheer myself up by thinking, ‘Well at least I’m doing that weight-bearing exercise doctors say is good for our bones.’  

The lower falls emerge below a lovely stone bridge. I set up tripod and, much to my surprise, the sun decided to emerge. A number of people insisted on stopping on the bridge to admire the falls, so I waited for them to depart before taking my photos. The recent heavy rainfall had added a lovely brown tone to the falling water.

Another waterfall ran down into a pool on the other side of the bridge. Sadly, a lot of white foam filled the pool, and I planned my images to avoid the sight. 

I headed back down to the House of Bruar, and decided to treat myself to a fish and chip lunch. They also offered fresh lobster, and I studied the two creatures in their tank with sympathy. Then I had a terrible thought. Are the lobsters in such tanks fed in any way, or do they just slowly starve until someone chooses one for lunch? Research seems to indicate the latter. Ugh.

A thirty-minute drive further south brought me to the Hermitage. The area, now owned by the National Trust for Scotland, was originally designed as a pleasure ground for the Dukes of Atholl, the chiefs of Clan Murray, and their castle lies not far away. I paid for the car park, reading a moment too late that parking was free for members of the National Trust in England (which I am) as well for those who are members of the National Trust for Scotland. I waited for another car to arrive, and gave him the ticket which I didn’t need. 

The level path followed the River Braan, leading through a lovely forest of giant Douglas firs, said to be the tallest trees in Britain. I saw no signs of red squirrels, sadly, but perhaps all the people and dogs kept them away. 

The path led to Ossian’s Hall, a folly built to provide a viewing platform for Black Linn Falls. I used my widest angle lens at 15mm to capture the sight of the thundering water. The noise was incredible, and made conversation with other visitors very difficult.

I continued upstream to take a few more photos, fighting as ever with exposure. The white of foaming water, usually in a dark gorge or alongside dark rocks, is a challenge to even the most modern camera.

By the way, the predictions that red hair might die out in the near future seems to be exaggerated. Almost every other child I saw had red hair, as well as very thick Scottish accents. 

When I turned to leave, I decided I’d had my fill of waterfalls for the day. So I returned to Aviemore, where I stopped to draw out cash. The sailboat has an honesty bar, and I doubt the owner-operator accepts credit cards. 

Back in the B&B I did some organising. I had packed two different bags for the holiday, a smaller one with clothing for the initial part of the trip, and a much larger case with what I’ll need for the boat trip. But toiletries and first aid bag needed to be transferred over, plus I wanted to downside to a smaller camera backpack. I’d decided not to take my macro lens on the boat, and I hoped I wouldn’t come to regret this.

I joined other people in the common area later on to watch the Italy versus Spain football semi-final. We kept speaking as if we were certain England would reach the final, and debated which team we’d rather they face. Italy was the preferred one by someone who follows football (he could even name most of the players), and they were the eventual winner of the semi-final match.

07 July

When I rose at 6.30am, my first task was to take another lateral flow test. This gave me a negative response, and I took a photo of it before adding the bits to the plastic waste which plagues our planet. 

Check-out time was 10am, the drive to Ullapool would take around two hours, and time to report to the boat was 2pm. So I had a leisurely morning, checking my packing one last time before filing the car with luggage and leaving just after 10am. 

The drive was rather grey and wet. Once at Ullapool, I visited the Highland Pottery store, and did succumb to temptation and bought a bowl and a mug rest. A short drive away was a large, free car park, where I hoped my car would be happy for the next ten days. 

By 2pm I had rolled my luggage down to the harbour and contacted the ship’s owner and skipper. I sent her a photo of my negative test result, which was accepted. Hurrah! One of the crew came over in a zodiac, and he took me and my luggage to the boat, the Bessie-Ellen. My case and backpack were handed up, and I climbed the somewhat challenging ladder up the side of the boat to the deck.

After a quick hello from the skipper, I headed below to sort out my bunk and belongings. There is storage under the seats which are in front of the bunks, and I used this area to put my case. My clothes were stuffed into a pillowcase to make an additional pillow, and other items went to the foot of my bunk. The bunk which I’d chosen proved to be closest to the toilet and the charging point which was a plus.

After the last couple arrived, we had hot drinks and homemade banana bread whilst the skipper ran us through a safety briefing. I’m the only guest who has not voyaged on the Bessie-Ellen before, but they all listened dutifully. The average age of the guests is in the 60s, crew in 20s/30s. 

The crew manoeuvred the boat from the harbour and out to sea. As we passed the mainland, the skipper decided to take advantage of the wind and put up the sails. We all worked together on this, given instruction by the crew on how and when to hoist on the different ropes. The Bessie-Ellen is a ketch, originally a trading vessel (the twelve bunk beds are in what had been the cargo hold), and has two masts. 

Once the sails were up, we travelled by wind rather than engine power. This gave a whole different feel to the ship, and one which I welcome. After a blissful hour or so (during light rain actually gave way to brief sunshine), we took the sails down again and used the engine to go into a bay near the Summer Isles.

I went on the first zodiac trip to the rocky shore. Bracken, the border terrier who lives with the skipper, was rather desperate to visit land. It seems he will not relieve himself on the boat, which causes problems during longer sea crossings. 

The shore led up a light rise to a hill of bracken and flowers. Bracken happily chased sticks, only his head to be seen as he leapt through foliage taller than he was. He also swum after sticks thrown into the water on the other side of the slope. Small boats filled the natural harbour and houses were to be seen beyond. 

After an hour or so, we headed back to the boat. Dinner was ready soon thereafter. Bream was the main course, with asparagus and Jerusalem artichoke. I mentioned that the artichoke was known as the ‘windiest vegetable’, and later one someone joked that we could always fill the boat’s sails with our own wind!

One person managed to get enough of a signal on his phone to check progress of the England versus Denmark semi-final. Much to all of our surprise, England actually won. Now a number of us want to find a TV somewhere to see the final!

As ever, when people ask what I do for a living, I tell them that I’ll reveal this on the last day. Past experience has taught me that people can react poorly upon discovering that I’m a priest. The skipper said to me that she might set up a betting pool as to my occupation, and that she was pretty good about working out what people did. Later that evening, when she said that my surname made her think of a ‘Cornish vicar’, I did say, ‘Well, I’m not Cornish.’ I wonder if she’s somehow worked it out?

I sorted out my bunk and crawled in around 11pm. Each bunk has curtains for privacy, and after I pulled them across I was able to ignore my fellow guests to soon fall asleep.

08 July

I woke up a few minutes before my alarm, so I was able to turn it off before waking the others. I worked on yesterday’s photos whilst people slowly emerged from their bunks, taking it in turns to visit the single toilet.

The boat set off towards our destination whilst we had breakfast (cereal, blueberries, freshly baked sourdough bread, cold meat, cheese, boiled eggs). A skua followed us for awhile. Another grey day, the clouds remaining as we went ashore on the island of Handa. Once occupied, the island is now a nature reserve, and a couple of volunteers met us on the beach. A scheduled boat service brings people across from the mainland, and a group of us gathered around the two rangers for a quick briefing. We were requested to stay on the paths, both to avoid the boggy ground and so not to disturb the nesting birds.

One member of our party had a radio linked back to the ship, and we were asked to stay together as a group. As we headed up the slope, we headed into misty weather. I was warm enough in my waterproofs, and my Tilley hat helped to keep the water off my glasses.

The weather might have been autumnal, but the flowers spoke of summer. Some very tall thistles drew our attention, as well as small orchids. Great skuas posed on nearby rocks, and occasionally bombarded walkers. 

We passed the remains of a village, and the grassy path was replaced with wooden boards. At the cliffs, we looked down into the fog, watching the fulmars fly to and fro and razorbills landing onto rocky perches. 

A colony of razorbills nested further along, but no puffins were to be found. We turned around and headed back the way we had come, passing many more day visitors on the way. Back in the bay, several people were having a swim.

Lunch awaited us upon our return. Many of us then went back on deck to admire the bird life floating in the dark sea and flying above. A dolphin appeared in the distance, skyhopping to check out the area. Common Atlantic, probably, and s/he looked a bit pudgy on my photos. 

The skipper decided that we would press on around Cape Wrath to Stromness. The seas were much calmer than the name would indicate, although at times the boat rocked quite a bit from side to side. As far as I could ascertain, no one suffered from seasickness. I did worry about Bracken, though, and his refusal to relieve himself on the ship. He hadn’t been allowed on shore at the Handa (as it’s a nature reserve) and we had to ditch the idea of landing at Cape Wrath. Bracken amused us by attacking a black bucket. 

Dinner was a quick pasta dish. We had been assigned watches as the boat was due to sail (well, motor) through the night. I had been given 4am – 8am, but was able to swap for the 8pm – midnight shift. So at 8pm I reported on deck.

The watch was uneventful. I mainly kept company with the person behind the wheel, drank cups of tea, and admired some distant pink in the sky. A pair of dolphins leapt out of the water, at a distance, at one point. When the next people came up for their turn on watch, there was still plenty of light. A reminder of how far North we are. 

09 July

I rose at my usual time of 6.30am, although I felt a bit tired. We’d arrived in the early hours of the morning and anchored off Stromness. One of our group had had the bad news that her sister had been taken intensive care, and overnight our fellow guest had booked flights from Stromness to Heathrow, then Heathrow to Canada (which is where sister lives). She’d arranged the various Covid tests required, as well as a letter from her sister’s doctor confirming the situation so that the Canadian authorities might permit her to enter the country. 

During a leisurely breakfast, we worked out our plans for the next couple of days. The plan had been to go ashore and for most of us to make our way to Skara Brae. However, when I checked the website on my iPhone, tickets had to be booked in advance and there were none available for the same day. So we booked tickets for the next afternoon and decided to sail to Holm to see the Italian chapel.

Sails were duly hoisted. There was very little wind, and we crept past the shore. After an hour or so, the skipper decided to use the engines so we could actually reach our destination.

After lunch, we went to the dock and walked the mile or so to the chapel. The Italian chapel consists of two Nissen huts, which were transformed into a chapel by several Italian prisoners of war. The men had been captured by the British and taken to Lamb Holm, Orkney, to help build barriers to close off four of the entrances to Scapa Flow. This was to make the base of the British ships more secure. 

The camp priest asked, and gained, agreement that the two Nissen huts could be joined together to provide a chapel. Amongst the prisoners was an artist, and he was allowed to decorate the interior. 

I had disembarked before the others, and when I arrived at the chapel, I had it to myself for five minutes. I took photos with my extreme wide angle lens, then knelt to pray before the altar. I felt a bit guilty about asking God for the England team to win over Italy, particularly in a chapel built by Italians. I then redeemed myself by also praying for our departed guest and her sister.

There was little else to see. A walk back to the rather grey town revealed several buildings which had seen better days. Oystercatchers complained at the shore. I caught up on emails with my iPhone. We piled into the dinghy for our return to the boat.

The skipper decided we’d move on from our site with the hope of a short beach trip. One of our group was put behind the wheel for the first time, and ten minutes later he raised the alarm. The wheel wasn’t working. The skipper and a  crew member dived into the box beneath the wheel, using a rope to put the chain back onto the driving mechanism. Rather bravely, I thought, the same guest went back to operating the wheel after the repairs had been completed.

As we stood on deck, a glove floated by, and we wondered where it had come from. A moment later, one of our group identified it as hers. The dinghy was launched, and the glove was rescued and brought home. 

Beach trip was cancelled and we discussed our plans for the next day. We guests knew that we’d anchored off Kirkwell, and we had a discussion whether we went ashore to that town or sailed back to Stromness. The skipper joined in, confusing us by stating we’d need to add the time in to reach Kirkwell. When we finally pointed out that we were already at the town, she sat down and covered her face in embarrassment. She’d thought we were anchored off some other settlement! 

We decided that we’d rather have the day at Stromness, and in particular try to visit the Ring of Brodar as well as Skara Brae. I was tempted by the whisky distillery in Kirkwall, but one had to book in advance for tours and tasting so I let the idea go. 

I used the boat’s shower after dinner, enjoying the hot water but also mindful that I should be as quick as possible (as no doubt there is only so much fresh water on board). Drinks flowed freely. I had a dark beer, and then I was delighted when one guest brought out a bottle of single malt whisky. 

As the evening went on, and more whisky was imbibed, the other guests decided that they should give the crew a lie in and do breakfast and run the boat. I declared that I was happy with the current totalitarian regime! But the skipper decided that this was a great challenge and would be done the next morning. I declared gloomily, ‘We’re all going to die.’

10 July

At 7am the guests rose to work on the boat, although it was noticeable that many of the crew were also in evidence. One couple presented themselves at the wheel, and began to steer away. ‘Stop, stop, stop!’ shouted the skipper. ‘The anchor isn’t up yet!’ ‘Rookie mistake,’ the couple decided.

Another guest had helped pilot the dinghy to shore, so that Bracken could have a toilet stop before we set off. When they returned, I admired how well the dog could run around and balance on the craft. 

Another guest assisted with breakfast, and we had scrambled eggs for a change. We headed back to Stromness in very calm conditions. The skies were once again grey, but there was very little wind and no rain. 

The six of us who wanted to see Skara Brae and the other nearby sites decided to book a private taxi to take us around. Although there is public transport, the bus timings wouldn’t work for us. So I worked with another person to obtain quotes, and in the end we booked the same man who had taken our departing guest to the airport for her trip to Canada.

The crew made up sandwiches for us, and in the late morning we disembarked at Stromness, taking the dingy to the harbour. Having agreed a place and time to meet at 1.30pm, we split up to walk through the town. 

Stromness dates back to 1590, although ships had been using the bay for much longer than that. The old buildings, both those fronting the sea and those straggling up the hill, were very appealing. Small shops offer various souvenirs and crafts made by local people. Although I really don’t have the wall space, I did purchase a limited edition print of diving gannets. And I also found a sew on badge (I collect them) of the Orkneys which pleased me.

We all presented ourselves at the pickup point on time. Our driver took us first to the Sternness stones. For a few minutes, our group was the only one there. I found myself taking off my hat as I approached, for I felt I was standing in a holy place. 

A short hop up the road brought us to the excavations of the Ness of Brodgar. The site was shut for the weekend, but it was easy enough to scramble up the rock wall to look over the barbed wire fence. Most of the excavation is currently covered up to protect the ancient settlement from the elements, but we could see some of it. Remains of a bowl found in the site dates back to around 3500BC. 

A longer drive took us on to the Ring of Brodgar. Many more people were visiting this site, and that, as well as the sheer size of the Ring, made photos challenging. The Ring is set between two lochs, with wonderful views on either side. It’s thought that the structure, a stone circle, was erected between 2500BC and 2000BC. The diameter is 104 metres, and originally comprised around 60 stones, of which around 27 are left. A deep circular ditch was dug out of the sandstone bedrock. The area nearby features other ancient sites, including tombs, cairns, mounds, and more standing stones. 

Another longer drive took us to our final destination, Skara Brae. I collected our tickets before we shuffled through the exhibition (keeping the six metre social distance from the family in front of us). 

A storm in 1850 stripped grass from a large mound, and exposed the outline of a number of stone buildings. The local laird embarked on an excavation of the site. Between 1928 and 1930 the dwellings which can be viewed today were dug out. The settlement dates back to around 3200 BC, and the buildings were protected by the sand which had covered them for thousands of years. 

There were probably more buildings, which might have been eroded by the nearby sea. What is left was stunning. The stone walls as well as stone structures inside (dressers, the stone slabs for bed sides, firepits) were very well preserved. All the buildings are round, no square walls to be seen, and passageways led between the homes and the workshops. There is still some life. We saw a starling carry a worm into a nest set in the stone walls, and a vole scurrying away into hiding place.

After our visit, the taxi dropped us back to the harbour. The boat had been brought in, and was tied up along the quay side. We handed our backpacks to the crew to lower to the deck, and climbed down the quay side ladder to board the ship ourselves.

The sun finally came out, and we sat on the deck to enjoy some pre-dinner drinks. The boat, to my amazement, has a washing machine, and towels and bedding were hanging out to dry. 

Dinner and the evening was a much quieter event than the night before. Full tide, which we needed to leave the harbour, was at 6am and noon, so the skipper had decided we’d be leaving at 6am. Many people went to bed around 10pm.

11 July

Another rather grey day, although yet again with little wind so calm conditions at sea. The crew rose early so we could set off, although we guests stayed in our beds. As ever, I rose at 6.30am to write up the events of the day before.

Once away from Stromness, we raised the sails to coast on wind-power for awhile. Two separate pairs of dolphins emerged briefly in the distance. I managed to get a photo of fins from the first lot. The engine was employed from time to time to give us a bit of extra speed, and later on the sails were taken down and we travelled on engine power alone.

The skipper decided to have some fun. A swing was brought out, attached to the boom, and a crew member was instructed to sit on this before being lowered into the water. The skipper then decided that she would try to rig up the paddle board to try to skim alongside the boat, but this didn’t work well. A couple of guests also used the swing to either have a look at the boat from alongside or to also venture into the water.

After lunch, we had the opportunity for a walk on a nearby island. I decided to go on the shorter walk, so I could concentrate on photography rather than exercise. Several of us were dropped off at a long beach, where we scrambled over rocks to reach the shore. We saw oystercatchers, fulmars on nests, arctic terns, and curlews. A small cemetery, just up from the beach, also caught our attention.

I spent some time on the beach trying to photograph the arctic terns. Of course they decided to fish wherever I was not standing. 

The dingy came to shore, and one of the crew got out for a swim back to the boat. I boarded the dingy and we kept near the swimmer, just in case he needed help. But he was able to do the swim. Bracken however was beside himself at seeing someone in the water, barking with great concern from the boat.

The fog rolled in after dinner. One guest managed to get BBC iPlayer on his mobile phone (the rest of us couldn’t get a signal) and he and I watched the Euro final between England and Italy. Although England started well with an early goal, once Italy equalised I felt it was all over. I couldn’t bear to watch the extra time nor the penalty shoot out, and felt rather disappointed when Italy won. Perhaps it had been unwise of me to pray for an England win in an Italian chapel? 

12 July

The fog still clung to boat and shore when we arose. We could just about see the one end of the boat from the other, but not much further. As we ate breakfast, the skipper told us her plans to head back to the Scottish mainland. ‘The fog is quite thick—that’s rowan jelly,’ she said, breaking off her original statement to point out an option on the breakfast table. We all laughed, delighted at the idea of calling fog levels after jellies and/or jams.

We proceeded with caution, the crew using modern navigation equipment and a person on the front of the boat to keep a look out for other vessels. The fog horn was also regularly deployed. As we left land, the fog lifted, although the skies remained grey.

The passage took us away from land altogether. The crossing was a bit rougher than the way out. A minke whale appeared in the distance, as well as dolphins. In the afternoon, several dolphins decided to keep us company. For a couple of minutes, they flitted back and forth under the front of the boat, emerging and then diving back down again.

We saw a guillemots and razorbills floating on the water, males with the single chick which they will accompany until the youngster is able to fend for him/herself. Gannets and fulmars crossed overhead, and at one point we saw many groups of puffins.

Bracken amused himself by barking at the birds overhead and chasing his tennis ball up and down the deck. I’d brought some dog treats with me, and if he found me sitting near my bunk, he’d come up and look at me with pleading eyes. Sadly, I’d given him the last treat that morning, and had nothing to offer him. No doubt he will lose any affection for me. 

After our evening meal, two people spent time practicing knot tying, using string on pens and forks. The boat began to rock in earnest as we approached Cape Wrath.

The crew didn’t require any of us guests to serve on watches, so I went to bed at my normal time. At one point a watermelon jumped off the bunk above mine, landing on the seating area which I crawl over when leaving my bunk. This confused me terribly when, only half awake, I left my bunk to visit the toilet. 

In the early morning, the crossing was complete, and the anchor was lowered in a bay near the coast of mainland Scotland.

13 July

We awoke to clearing skies, and by the time we’d had breakfast sunshine bathed the nearby beach and low hills. There was also great news on dog front. Bracken, obviously desperate after our long crossing, had finally relieved himself on the deck. We declared that drinks that evening would be in honour of ‘Peepoo day.’

We packed to go to shore, and I made sure I took a hat with me. A few days before, when I’d sat on the deck in the fog, I’d forgotten that sunlight can reach through cloud, and my nose and cheeks sported the worst sunburn I’ve had for years.

We set off walking along the road, amazed by the number of cars in an area which feels like the middle of nowhere. A herd of shorn sheep awaited collection in a pen, and the farmer, his dog standing on the truck’s guest seat, drove past us. By the time we returned to the beach, several hours later, the sheep were gone.

The bay had a number of holiday cottages alongside the older farm buildings. Several old, turf-covered structures turned out to be ice-houses, used decades ago to store freshly caught fish. A small field planted with crops straggled up one slope. But most of the area is meadow and scrub land, with sheep and a few cows.

Bird life was plentiful. A flock of oystercatchers performed a flyby, complaining loudly. We saw redshanks and wagtails as we walked inland. At an abandoned farmhouse, we decided to turn around and go back to the beach.

We met up with the crew, who were having a quick walk of their own. I joined them as they talked to a local house owner. The man assumed that one of the men in our group was the captain, and he was quickly corrected. Our skipper shrugged it off, saying this happened regularly!  

When skipper and crew decided to return to the boat, Bracken chose to remain with us on the beach. Several of our group went for a short swim, reporting afterwards that the water was very cold. Bracken had a wonderful time swimming, chasing sticks, and digging in the sand.

After our return to the boat, we sailed along the coast, admiring the Old Man of Stoer (a sea stack), the bird life, and Stoer Lighthouse. Although we were using the ship’s engine, two sails were up, and I’m certain people on shore enjoyed seeing the Bessie Ellen as she sailed by. 

We re-entered fog further south. Our stop for the evening was near Lochinver, a small town. A number of people decided to go to town to visit the pie shop and the pub, before walking back to the beach. Others landed on the beach to walk to town. I decided to stay on the dinghy to go to the harbour, and I spent a little while photographing boats. One crew member went off to buy petrol (filling a 20 litre plastic storage container). The rest of the crew reached the harbour just before he returned, and we went back to the ship.

I sat on deck and admired the view, very peaceful if yet again grey. The sea was very calm. After dinner, the skipper told us her tale of how she ended up buying and operating the Bessie Ellen.

‍ 14 July

Several people took the opportunity to go ashore, just after breakfast, for a short swim from the beach. The skipper went paddleboarding, and tried to surf on it for the return to the ship. This did not prove very successful.

After many days with very little wind, we had plentiful as we headed away from the mainland. The rest of the day was spent at sea, putting up all of the sails to give the ship, as well as crew and guests, a full workout on a proper sail. 

Early on, in the sunshine, I was able to use my large cameras to capture life on board. We also had a wonderful few minutes with at least three pairs of common dolphins who swam back and forth around us. They appeared to be mothers with calves.  

As the wind picked up, the ship swayed more and more, and I packed away large cameras. It simply wasn’t safe to try to balance whilst holding relatively heavy equipment. I needed both hands for the ship! 

We picked up speed, hitting 9.9 knots at one point. Bracken became rather agitated as waves crashed over the sides, sending water to darken the deck. One large splash hit several guests, soaking coats and trousers. 

Lunch was held on deck, and I managed to fill my soup bowl from the pot without spilling a single drop. We sat on the deck to eat! Visiting the toilet during this time was an interesting challenge, as it was hard to decide how to brace myself whilst pulling trousers back on.

After an exhilarating day, the sails were furled and we used the engine to return to Lochinver. The spot was too windy for the skipper, so we travelled another five miles down the coast. The conditions were wet and rough, so we guests thought it best to stay below deck and let the crew get on with it. At one point, colourful language informed us that something was amiss. This proved to be wires caught on the anchor, and the crew had to free the debris before we could continue.

Dinner was lovely beef brisket, which had stewed away in a tomato and herb sauce on the gas cooker throughout the day. The bottles of whisky which guests had brought on board were emptied. The beer selection was reduced to Korev, lager brewed by St Austell Brewery in Cornwall, so I had a couple of those before we all turned in for the night. 

15 July

The ship rocked from time to time during the night, a motion I have always enjoyed and found very good for sleeping. After breakfast, there was an opportunity for a brief swim. I joined the swimmers on the dinghy, hoping that I would have a short time to walk on shore. However, the beach proved rather difficult for landing, so the swimmers dropped off into the surf and I stayed on the dinghy.

The four swimmers made their way to shore, and then bathed in a wide stream which they reported was rather warm compared to the ocean. Their return to the dinghy was rather more difficult. The sea bottom was deeper than their feet, so they had no surface to push off against as they tried to board. They had to be hauled back in, in a rather undignified fashion.

The rest of the day was dedicated to sailing. We started the twenty-five mile journey to Ullapool, sails put up and adjusted as necessary. Our speed was around half of the day before, giving a relaxed trip along the coast. At one point, we had the opportunity to go out in the dinghy to photograph the ship from the water. I enjoyed the challenge, kneeling inside as we circled the Bessie Ellen.

At one point I finally took the opportunity to steer. The youngest member of the crew, a teenager who has worked on ships since childhood, was very good at gently correcting my efforts. I was glad to have had the experience, but also quite happy to hand control back again.

We sailed to the harbour, the sails not taken down until we were very close by. The crew sprung into action as the engine took us alongside the dock. Tenders were thrown over the sides, as well as ropes to tie us up. Harbour staff assisted. 

Afterwards, we went ashore. The sun had come out again, and several of us walked Bracken on the pebble beach. We went to a pub and had drinks at the shore front. We returned to the ship for our dinner, and stayed up late to enjoy our last evening together. 

I did reveal my occupation, which met with much shrugging and a little disappointment. ‘I thought you were a cyber-spy!’ was one response! 

16 July

Departure day! We gathered up our scattered belongings and packed. Our cases were handed up to the deck, and the dinghy took us to the quayside. Hugs and goodbyes ensued. 

I had an uneventful drive to Moffat, where I broke my journey for the night, and arrived back home the next day with a sunburn, many photographs, and happy memories. 

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