It is a perfect spring afternoon on the Isles of Skye. The Cuillin mountains that frame the tiny port of Elgol reign supreme in the polar-like clarity; their snow-tipped ridge a clean wiggly line against the deep blue sky beyond.
A gleaming blue and white boat named ‘the Eilean a cheo’ (Gaelic for the ‘Isle of Skye’) is ready for us on the harbour-side. As I stroll up to join the small group of tourists who gather around awaiting its departure, I meet Duncan our skipper and wildlife guide for this 5-hour round trip. April is rather early for marine wildlife here in the Hebrides but as Duncan explains in his soft highland accent “you never know what you’ll see”.
With our cameras and binoculars poised, the whirring of the engine and the soporific lull of the waves quieten us as we make our way out of Elgol into the waters of the Little Minch, hugging the mountainous coast of Skye as we head off in a South Westerly direction. Our journey is to take us past the cliffs of the Small Isles; Rum and Eigg and then across to Canna where there is time ashore.
I asked Duncan, what was his most memorable trip since working with the Misty Isle Boat Company? “Well”, he says, “there have been many but my most vivid memory is coming out of the straits from Rum and seeing a pod of 200 or so common dolphin and in amongst them a small pod of minke whales”. “Wow!” I reply, “that must have been quite something”. The small brochure that is neatly folded over into my back pocket also mentions the possibility of seeing orca. Duncan shrugs his shoulders, “I haven’t seen any – it’s been 37 years and I am still hoping”. I laugh, “yes, me too”.
Our journey out is calm but rather uneventful beyond isolated groups of guillemot bobbing between the gentle swells and a fly past of kittiwake with their pretty black eyes, and soft grey wings that have been neatly dipped in black ink.
I take in deep lungful’s of the clean, crisp air and enjoy the blue space around my soul until we reach the dramatic cliffs of Rum with their basalt columns similar in form to those at Fingal’s cave. Here there is a hive of activity. The kittiwakes have begun nesting. Huddled together on rocky shelves, their distinctive fingery, white art created by their droppings point downwards towards rows of rather handsome shags, dressed in black and deep green velvet and sporting quirky neat quiffs. They stand dignified and upright like distinguished gentlemen moving their heads from side to side as they watch us glide past the black towering rockface.
Sadly, we are just a couple of weeks too soon to see the Manx shearwaters. Rum hosts a third of the world’s population of them during their breeding season and I was hoping to see at least a few of them on the water. I feel the familiar pang of disappointment as these are one of my most favourite pelagic birds. They are mystical creatures that during their twenty-year lives can fly a million miles over the crests of ocean waves.
It is hard to know where to focus one’s gaze, the scenery or the wildlife as we head out towards Canna; a small island owned by the National Trust of Scotland with only 18 inhabitants. We put our watches back 40 years as we set ashore to explore its delights; a small shop with its own kitchen, an honesty box rather than a till and the bored figures of two local children nonchalantly kicking a football by the shoreside. There is little to do here.
I walk high up onto the cliffs where newly arrived wheatear call and where meadow pipits busy themselves in amongst the grass. Gulls swoop past the headlands as I follow the sheep tracks to the summit. From here I can see over the sea to Skye and to my right the Gabbro mountain peaks of Askival and Hallival on Rum. I sit quietly and take in this timeless scenery until the clock moves on and it is time for our departure back to Elgol.
On board, it is now late afternoon and the sun is dropping towards its finale. Two large raptors break the ragged skyline above the cliffs. An elderly lady standing next to me is so excited by these ‘sea eagles’ that I do not have the heart to point out that they are in fact buzzards. Sea eagles do patrol these cliffs and just maybe she is right and I am wrong. I wish it was so, they certainly feel a more fitting end to this wild day.
The wind has dropped and the sea by now is indigo glass. A common seal comes alongside the boat, the water splitting as his long dark body cuts the wave. I scan the surface for signs of dolphin or minke whales, but alas, not today. Never mind, I think, it is a good reason to return.