Call of the Tide

Published: 23rd December 2015

From Knoydart to Skye and Sandwood, Richard Rowe explored some of the most fascinating stretches of coastline managed by the Trust for the Spring 2015 Journal.

There can be few landscapes like it anywhere in Scotland, and perhaps none that speak of such raw, elemental power. From the jetty at Elgol on the Isle of Skye, a place where the mountains thrust from the sea with almost indecent haste, the eye is drawn north to where Loch Scavaig funnels beneath the saw-toothed ridge of the Cuillin Hills. Even from a distance, it’s an intimidating skyline.

And there is telling detail in the foreground too: cliffs that have been peeled by wind and sea spray to reveal layers of rock that can be counted like rings on a tree; a beach strewn with boulders smoothed by the relentless pounding of the sea; and storm-tossed strands of kelp that have been ripped from their moorings beneath the water line. Driven by the rhythm of the tides, it’s a wildness very different to that found on mountain and moor.

Elgol sits towards the southwestern tip of the Strathaird peninsula – together with Sconser and Torrin, part of the Trust’s trio of adjoining estates in southern Skye – with one eye looking straight into the heart of the Cuillin, and the other out to the distant lump of Rum and the Small Isles. Given the location, it’s perhaps no surprise that the Trust fields regular filming requests from production companies in search of epic backdrops; scenes from the new Hollywood production of Macbeth were filmed recently in and around Sligachan, while Bear Grylls managed to scare Ben Stiller witless while exploring the Cuillin and Spar Cave last year as part of his Wild Weekend With TV series.

But as well as fish out of water, these wild margins also provide habitat for a range of creatures that are very much at home. Otters forage in the shallows for crabs and other prey, while at nearby Camasunary, deer wander down to the shoreline to graze on nutrient-rich seaweed. Offshore, the gannets that plunge-dive to feast on hidden shoals of fish are often joined on the water by gatherings of Manx shearwaters from the mountain-top colony on nearby Rum.

In the warmer months, resident populations of harbour porpoise and bottlenose dolphin share the sea with migratory whales and dolphins, as well as basking sharks – at up to 11m in length, the second largest fish in the world after the whale shark. It was on the nearby island of Soay that Gavin Maxwell launched his short-lived basking shark fishing factory – the sharks were hunted for the oil found in their livers – before becoming rather better known as a naturalist and author of Ring of Bright Water.

How times change. Hunted in Scottish waters as recently as the 1990s, basking sharks are now the subject of major conservation efforts, with proposals for four extra Marine Protected Areas – on top of the 30 already confirmed – to safeguard not just basking sharks, but also minke whale and Risso’s dolphin.

Specialist plankton-feeders, basking sharks are found in temperate waters the world over and start to appear around the western coasts of Britain from May. Little is known about where this slow-moving giant spends the rest of the year. What is clear is that their numbers off the west coast of Scotland have risen sharply in recent decades, although surveys undertaken by the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust (HWDT) from its research boat, the Silurian, have revealed a decline in the number of sightings over the past two years. “We do not know the reasons for the lower relative abundance in recent years, but perhaps it is due to natural cycles in oceanographic factors that might affect the sharks prey [calanus zooplankton],” comments Dr Conor Ryan, HWDT’s sightings and strandings officer.

Skye is also the heartland of Scotland’s growing population of sea eagles, with the number of breeding pairs expected to reach 100 across the country this year – a fitting milestone given that 2015 marks the 40th anniversary of the bird’s successful reintroduction on nearby Rum. According to Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), the past year saw another significant step up in the number of occupied territories across Scotland, the vast majority of which remain along the west coast, despite recent releases in the east.

“Among the 16 new territories found, there were several that extended the range of the west coast population, with the breeding range now stretching from Sutherland to mainland Argyll,” explains SNH raptor expert, Andrew Stevenson.
Most pairs are still found on Mull, Skye and the Outer Hebrides, with the distinct possibility of encountering wandering immature birds on any one of the Trust’s properties on the west coast. One Strathaird resident had a juvenile sea eagle hover above his house for much of the winter – often with a mob of crows in tow.

Now, with a self-sustaining and increasing population, the challenge is more about working with other interests to integrate the birds into the landscape. Concerns remain within the farming community about lamb predation, while many of the forestry birds are in areas where forest felling and restructuring take place.

Skye’s Strathaird peninsula is home to scattered settlements where crofting and fishing remain important sources of income. However, as in so many of the more remote parts of the Highlands and islands, it’s tourism that now helps pay the bills. Many visitors converge on tiny Elgol to enjoy the tours offered by a mini flotilla of boats that take visitors deep into the heart of the Cuillin, or at speed by Rigid Inflatable Boat to the Small Isles.

The trip across Loch Scavaig to the foot of the Cuillin is particularly popular, with the added attraction of passing a large colony of common seals on the way. From the jetty, it’s a short walk to hidden Loch Coruisk, a striking glacial loch surrounded on all sides by some of the highest peaks of the Cuillin. From here, there are numerous possibilities for striking further into the hills, although many return to Elgol on foot. It’s a tough walk though that includes negotiating the Bad Step – an imposing rock slab high above the sea that demands respect.
The return to Elgol passes the sandy bay at Camasunary, one of several locations where Trust volunteer work parties carry out regular beach cleans. “Rubbish tends to collect at Camasunary and further south at Glen Scaladale as both are at the head of the loch,” explains Sandy Maxwell, the Trust’s volunteer co- coordinator. “Our beach cleans are popular as volunteers really see the results, particularly when we hit a beach hard for two or three years as we have done at Glen Scaladale.”

Rather than the usual cotton buds and wet wipes found on beaches closer to major population centres, volunteers tend to gather almost exclusively fishing and fish farm-related gear; this means mendings from nets, piping from fish farm cages, and smaller items such as the ‘stoppers’ that are threaded into mussel ropes to prevent the molluscs from moving around.
But while gathering the rubbish is one thing, actually removing it from remote stretches of coastline is entirely another. It’s here that the Trust’s boat, the Silver Fox, has come into its own, once returning half a dozen boat loads of rubbish to Elgol from a single beach clean. It’s a vessel more associated with the Trust’s property at Li and Coire Dhorrcail on the nearby Knoydart peninsula, where it’s often used to transport volunteers across Loch Hourn rather more quickly than if walking in.

Li and Coire Dhorrcail is a place where much has been achieved since becoming the Trust’s first property 27 years ago. It’s a landscape transformed, with the once deer-bitten land now finding its feet. Some of the earliest trees planted have matured and produced seeds of their own, while deer fences have come down, allowing natural regeneration to merge with the harder- edged woodland to create a more continuous feel.

And it’s a landscape that Lester Standen, the Trust’s deer officer and Knoydart property manager, knows intimately having first come here as a volunteer in the 1980s. “It’s funny, but I don’t think of Knoydart as being on the coast,” he says. “It’s not inland, but it’s not an island either – I see it as a kind of boundary between land and sea.”

Lester’s feelings about somewhere that has become a place of hard, physical work have changed from when it felt so new and exciting, but what has remained constant is how mountainous and inhospitable the Knoydart peninsula can be. “That appeals to me to an extent,” he says. “I do feel drawn to such places.”

Largely emptied during the dark days of the clearances, there are still very few people here, particularly in winter. Instead, the hub of Knoydart life is the village of Inverie, its white-washed buildings lining the shore of Loch Nevis on the south side of the peninsula. With no road links, most arrive here by boat from Mallaig, although hardy walkers also make the long trek in from the road end at Kinloch Hourn to the northeast.

The heartbeat of the community-owned Knoydart Estate, Inverie is a vibrant place, with 50 or so full-time residents. Numbers are boosted each year by an influx of temporary workers, as well as tourists, walkers and mountaineers. “They bring freshness and contribute a great deal,” says Lester. “Inverie really survives on that annual influx of people.”

But Knoydart remains a challenging environment – with Li and Coire Dhorrcail on the north-eastern slopes of Ladhar Bheinn a cold, dark place for many months of the year. And yet there is colour here, even in deepest winter. In bright weather, with snow on the hills, there is great contrast in the landscape, from the blue of the sea to the orange bark and dark green foliage of Scots pine, the purple of birch, and earthy colours of the bracken.

Things change of course in spring – a period that can be slow to arrive and quick to pass. “It’s the time of year when I look forward to the warmth and light as the sun finally starts to come over the ridge to the south,” says Lester.

And, crucially, the midges have yet to appear – one reason why seasoned Trust volunteers tend to avoid work parties here in the summer. Part of the problem is that the relatively sheltered Li and Coire Dhorrcail can be a warm, wet and humid place, with only a few gusts of wind to drive the midges away. “I sometimes feel that I am always wet, either from the rain or through sweat, because in summer I’m invariably covered from head to toe to keep the midges out,” says Lester.

But despite the challenges, there is magic to be had here, too; it’s a place of chance encounters and brief moments. Lester recalls coming off the hill one winter to find himself in the midst of a battle between two snarling badgers; another time, a sea eagle crested a ridge right where he was standing. “It was like an ostrich flying overhead – I think we were as surprised as each other,” he says.

And there are tricks of the light too, whether on the hill, seeing the layers fall away to the horizon, or out on the water. “I was in the bow of a canoe once paddling near the head of Loch Hourn,” recalls Lester. “The water was so clear and calm that I could see the cliff on the shoreline going down into the depths as if there was no water there. It felt like I was floating in the air – there was a real sense of vertigo and that I would drop a long way if I fell out of the boat. It’s the kind of experience that is imprinted on your mind.”

The Trust’s other coastal property is a different animal again. The Sandwood Estate in northwest Sutherland, just a few miles south of Cape Wrath, is a land of machair and moorland, dunes and sea cliffs. At its centre is Sandwood Bay, a stretch of sand and dune that rarely fails to entrance, and which was recently named as one of the world’s top 50 beaches in the influential Travel magazine. But there is much more to Sandwood than just its very fine beach; it’s gloriously picturesque, yes, but the sense of history and hardship, light and life are equally affecting.

When Don O’Driscoll, the Trust’s conservation officer for Sandwood and nearby Quinag, first set eyes on Sandwood some 25 years ago, it was love at first sight. His introduction was from the sea one summer, following a murky two-week fishing trip out to Rockall. “As we crossed the Minch to Kinlochbervie in brilliant sunshine, I could see those high mountains, the snow patches still on Foinaven, the sandy strips of Sandwood, Oldshoremore and Poilin, and the white of the houses along the coast,” he recalls. “I was just struck by the beauty of it and the brightness – the greens and blues.”

And his feelings have changed little since. “It’s the light, space, lochs, hills and of course the sea bordering it all. The sea makes it more bearable here after dull wet and windy winters like the one just gone. It’s always different, always moving, and enhances those changes of light and colour.”

Winters are long this far north, the weather often violent, and the landscape an uninspiring brown and grey. But, as Don points out, there is still life to be found: the bright blue of milkwort blossom in mid-December; the greens and yellows of lichen; the red caps of Devil’s matchsticks; and patches of sphagnum “glowing red like spilt blood”.
It’s little wonder though that people crave the signs of spring. It comes in flashes at first, the heads of bog cotton peeking through the coarse grasses, then the first birdsong, and, in the machair, the first flower – usually coltsfoot. It’s then that the bogs, silent during the winter save for the sound of wind and surf, come alive.

“In March, the wagtails return, then the wheatears and the geese, and by April it really starts to cascade as more birds return and the greening begins,” says Don. “There’s such a great feeling of life – a quickening. It sounds and smells different, like the land is stretching after sleep.”

But in amongst the natural rhythms of the season, there are poignant reminders of the human life that was once here – places where people, evicted from their homes, had to scratch out an existence tending lazy beds, the outlines of which are still visible on poor, hard ground close to the sea.

Today, all of the estate remains under crofting tenure, with crofters using the open moorland common grazings for sheep and cattle. However, crofting alone rarely supports a family. Typically, people here take more than one job. Many work offshore.

Once the heart and soul of the area, the fishing industry has fallen away, but people still look to the sea. “Salmon farming keeps a lot of people in jobs here, as does tourism and the public sector, but the school roll is falling,” says Don. “Maybe it’s fragile, but there is resilience too, with some thriving local enterprises. People are prepared to invest here and there are many positives – it’s a great place to bring up children.”

It’s perhaps no surprise that the area has seen its fair share of characters down the years – both residents and visitors. Many will have heard tales of James McRory-Smith who for more than 30 years lived as a virtual recluse at Strathchailleach, now a bothy maintained by the Mountain Bothy Association.

He was a bit of an outlaw, and would go on ‘sprees’ during trips to Kinlochbervie that often led to trouble, remembers Don. “But I saw another side of him when I stayed in the bothy with him. He was rather shy when sober; he read and painted and liked to talk of the birds and deer seen around where he lived.” One time he came to Don with a poll tax demand notice, and asked what he should do. “I wrote back saying he lived six miles from the nearest road, had no water, electricity or street lighting and that he pulled his own teeth. There’s no way this man will pay your tax. There were no further demands.”

Other encounters have proved just as memorable: Hol Crane, the octogenarian father of TV presenter Nicholas, who one winter spent two days walking to Cape Wrath but wouldn’t accept a lift because he wanted to be true to the young people he took on such trips; the walkers, climbers and escapees from urban life; and the inspiring people who attend conservation work parties. Many have become friends. “All the time, there is a consistent theme – people come and talk about going away feeling refreshed and renewed,” comments Don. “The word ‘magic’ is used a lot.”

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