6 October 2016 – Scotland’s Isles and Lochs
From Norway we sail west to visit marine energy projects on Orkney and am ecovillage in Findhorn. After passing through the Caledonian Canal we taste organic whisky on Islay.
Bergen (NOR) – Isle of Islay (GBR)
Trading Trolls for Ponies
Our timing is perfect. The strong westerly winds that hammered the Norwegian West Coast for more than a week have abated. And just as Ivar steers Luci out of Bergen harbour, a bright rainbow appears in front of grey clouds that cover the dark green hills. The sun lights up our boat and the crystal clear water around us. The display of natural beauty is a fitting farewell from Norway.
After carefully navigating between the last Norwegian rocks, we reach the open sea again. The sea is calm and the swell is coming from the the direction we’re heading, west. That makes the movements of Luci relatively comfortable. Our planned destination is Shetland, around 200 nautical miles from Bergen across the North Sea. It is the northern-most group of islands of Scotland and its remoteness has always appealed to us. Okay, and the ponies.
We only have a short weather window to get there. The next low-pressure area is due to arrive soon, so we are glad that after a few hours of very little wind, the wind picks up from the NE and the sky clears. The perfect weather makes the trip very enjoyable. For the first time on this trip we sailing into the direction of the sunset. Seeing the orange-red sun disappearing behind Luci’s bow surely adds to the experience. During our night watches we are mesmerised by the billions of bright stars and the milky way that stretches across the entire horizon. It’s easy to stay awake with such a view. And the changing wind keep us busy, too. It shifts to SE, so we have to gybe to continue our beam-reach course – albeit with the beam at the other side of the boat. Herbie, our wind vane, does the rest.
We only see a couple of other boats during our crossing. Among them an enormous survey ship that carries several cables, many miles long. It makes a loud blast every seven seconds in order to create a geological survey map of the seabed. The purpose is to find suitable drilling spots for oil and gas exploration. The contradiction with the Paris climate agreement could not be more obvious. After all, a large quantity of the proven fossil fuel reserves will need to stay in the ground to achieve the agreement’s goals. Searching for more fossil energy therefore seems such a complete waste of money, money that could be spent on renewables or conservation instead. Not to mention the damage the blasts do to marine life. We feel tempted to stick to our route and thereby deliberately block the surveyors’ path. Realising we won’t stand a chance, we opt for safety instead and steer out of its way.
After two days and two nights of sailing, we see land again: the mountains of the Shetlands! Dozens of gannets and fulmars surround us and perform spectacular dives close to the boat. We’re sailing right through their rich fishing grounds, and they probably circle the boat in search of food. Or perhaps also out of curiosity? In any case we feel welcomed by them. We can see hundreds more in the distance. The birds colonise the impressively steep rocks around Bard Head, a remote part of the islands. As we pass the white lighthouse against a background of bright green grass, we prepare to enter the yacht harbour of Lerwick. It’s still early morning when we find a good spot on the pontoon. It concludes a very enjoyable crossing – we had almost forgotten how pleasant the North Sea can be.
The next low-pressure area is expected to bring strong winds tonight and tomorrow, so we decide to stay at least another day. The next day is indeed windy, with a SW 7/8, but dry and sunny. We rent bikes and explore the main island, called Mainland. Well, explore is a big word – we don’t get all that far. Going upwind is quite tough; we even have to paddle to go downhill. Still, we have set our minds to see the former capital Scalloway and its castle. The rough and open landscape is scattered with meadows. Many of them are home to Shetland ponies. They really are quite tiny! Higher up the hills are peatlands covered with flowering heath that provides a purple haze. They make for a pretty cycle to Scalloway, where we get back some energy after a tea at the castle’s visitor centre.
The route back to the harbour is much easier, thanks to the tail winds. We meet Candy & David, an American couple who left Seattle 11 years ago with their beautiful steel boat “Endeavor”. As humble beginners in the “world of cruisers” we’re eager to learn as much as we can from their exciting stories about their travels around the Americas and Patagonia. Together we enjoy fish & chips and we gladly accept David’s offer to make digital copies of their impressive collection of pilotbooks. In return, we provide them with some information on the Netherlands. They hope to visit Vinkeveen, the place where their boat was built, during their European travels next year.
Marine Energy on Orkney
The wind apparently gave it all yesterday, since today it is completely absent. That’s only temporarily, since the next low pressure area is expected soon, followed by two more. Which means we’ll be stuck here for around five days if we don’t leave today. Unfortunately, that means we motor away from the Shetlands against an impressive swell towards our next destination Orkney. When we approach the island of Fair Isle the wind picks up and we can sail again. Too bad visibility has also significantly reduced; we would have loved to see the island that is mostly known by the weather district that has been named after it. Instead we only sea a vague rock in the grey distance. The SE wind quickly gains strength and the coastguard warns “all stations” about the near-gale SE that is “imminent” on VHF channel 16. The last leg towards Kirkwall, Orkneys capital, is against a strong current, but there’s around 30 knots of wind to keep us going. When we moor against a firm pontoon in the early morning, we’re glad to have made it ahead of the strongest winds. The increasing noise from the wind gusts outside fade away quickly as we fall asleep, tired from the long day at sea.
It’s no coincidence that Orkney is home to Europe’s Marine Energy Center (EMEC). Tidal streams can reach up to 16 knots in the Pentland Firth just south of the island group, and waves up to 18 meters high have been measured on the Atlantic West Coast. The Crown Estate has designated a large area of seabed for the development of wave and tidal energy in Scotland. However, before marine energy can be harnessed in an effective way, robust technology needs to be developed. That’s exactly what EMEC has been facilitating for many years. All this is explained to us by public relations consultant David Flanagan. He generously tours us around the island and shows us a variety of installations, among them the tidal energy unit that will be anchored for commercial use next week. Later we also meet Orkney’s Economic Development manager Stuart Allison in the pub. Over a local beer he explains that tidal energy development is ahead of wave energy because of its more predictable flow. Both forms of marine energy are expected to grow significantly, and taking a substantial share of Scotland’s renewable energy generation in the years to come. They will supplement the wind energy already in use on the island, as evidenced by the wind turbines we encountered on the island. We’ve included more details in the article and video about this sustainable solution.
With too much wind to sail, we spend some days working on our blog, vlog and doing research. On a sunny day, we rent bikes at the local outdoor shop and paddle around to see some of the island. Most impressive are the remains of human settlements dating back to around 3,000 B.C. Stone circles and remains of villages remind us that people have lived here for over 5,000 years – quite humbling!
Our next destination is the Ecovillage Findhorn. For more than 40 years, this community aims to live in harmony with nature and each other. It has become an internationally known showcase example of how a community can organize itself in a sustainable way. Naturally we are keen to visit this place. Although there is a bay close to Findhorn, it seems shallow and open to the sea. This makes accessing it very dependent on the tide and the weather. We decide to sail to Inverness instead and take a bus from there.
Once there, we find different types of sustainable houses. The newest ones are built in wood and other sustainable building materials, equipped with solar panels for energy and heat-cold exchange pumps for heating. Fruit and vegetable gardens are all around, as are some wind-turbines. We were impressed by the oldest homes. Without modern technology, they tried to be as sustainable as possible. They even created homes out of recycled whiskey vats, which are nowadays heated with wood stoves; cosy homes for people satisfied with a more basic lifestyle.
What intrigued us most was the social coherence of the community, and the welcoming approach to visitors like us. After being told the founding story (in short: three people started living in a caravan on an abandoned air force base, organizing everything themselves out of economic necessity), we were taken on a tour around the village. People work together in groups, servicing various community needs such as the cooking, gardening and maintenance. Also spirituality and meditation plays an important role, as we learn during a humming session with our host. Before you start thinking we ended up in some kind of sectarian cult, meditation is not mandatory and the community seems remarkable open. Potential new residents can buy real estate on the market, and some homes are also rented out temporarily. Ecovillage Findhorn clearly proves that sustainable housing is achievable, and its social coherence reduces the need for private ownership. Many things are shared, most visibly (electric) cars and all kinds of tools out of a central building. Love for each other and love for nature clearly go hand-in hand at Findhorn. We’ve included more details in the article and video about this sustainable solution.
The Caledonian Canal
Built from 1803-1822, the Caledonian Canal stretches 97 kilometer from Clachnaharry (near Inverness in the northeast) to Corpach (near Fort William in the southwest). Only one third of its length is man-made, four lakes are forming the rest. These four “lochs” are located in the Great Glen, a geological fault in the Earth’s crust. The canal includes 29 locks and 10 bridges, and its highest point above sea level is 32 meters.
For us it’s a scenic shortcut rights across Scotland on our way south, and quite comfortable with the predicted strong SW winds. We use all eight days that are included in our passage ticket, which includes all locks and bridges, berthing and facilities. We spend a night halfway the largest and most famous Loch: Loch Ness. No we didn’t see the legendary monster “Nessie”, but while hiking we discover many wild blackberries that make for a great crumble. We hike through pristine forests, along fast streaming rivers and a spectacular waterfall. We also find lots of golden chanterelles – enough to fill a shopping bag and provide for delicious pasta and risotto dishes and soup.
All locks are very smoothly operated, so it is actually quite relaxing to pass them. That is also true for our most spectacular passing. As we go down “Neptune’s staircase”, a series of eight locks, we see Scotland’s highest mountain Ben Nevis in the background. Stunning. When we leave the sealock in Corpach and reach salt water again, we’re ready to explore Scotland’s West Coast.
Scottish West Coast
As we quickly learn, the strong SW headwind is still there. We spend two windy and rainy days on a mooring not far from Fort William before we head onwards to Oban. Only to tie up in its marina to seek shelter from our first gale. Sailing in Scotland takes time, certainly if you intent to go south in late September. After four days in Oban the wind turns to SE and we’re glad to see the sun again. What a difference – the scenery is breathtaking, the colours vibrant and we can sail again!
The conditions are perfect to sail to the Isle of Islay, where we moor in Port Ellen. The SE wind becomes so strong that we stay a few days to explore the island. Nature presents itself with great variety as we encounter steep cliffs, sandy beaches, peaty mountains, fresh green meadows and pine forests, all during one hike. We also witness that a great variety of birds inhabit and visit the island when we go into one of the bird watching huts in a nature reserve.
Whiskey distilleries have made the island famous – there are eight of them! We choose to visit the one that is farthest away from Port Ellen, because it makes organic whiskey: Bruichladdich. Getting there on our hired tandem is fun! As we paddle in unison and let the wind push us forward, we reach speeds usually reserved for Tour de France participants, all while carrying on a conversation and enjoying the scenery. At the distillery, we learn that encouraging steps towards a more sustainable whisky are taken by these “Progressive Hebridean Distillers”. Our favourite is of course the variety made without pesticides, the “Organic Scottish Barley”! The whisky tasting surely makes our upwind bikeride back to the boat a bit easier (although the wind didn’t help). We’re ready to sail further south as soon as the winds allow us!