A day in the Garbhellachs
Paul Radcliffe shares one of the west coast of Scotland’s best-kept secrets
One of Scotland’s best-kept secrets
As we cast off, the man on the next boat looked out of his cabin and asked: ‘Where are you going?’ ‘We’re off to the Garbhellachs,’ we replied. ‘Never heard of them. Where on earth are they?’ he said, looking puzzled.
It was a common response, as this small group of rocky islands south of Mull, on the edge of the ocean, are known as the ‘Islands of the Sea’ and seem much more remote than nearby Luing, Scarba and Lunga. That’s partly because they have been uninhabited for a long time, partly because they don’t have easy, sheltered landing places, and are simply further out from the mainland.
There are four islands (and numerous skerries): the northernmost, Dun Chonnuill, is an imposing lump with the ruins of a medieval castle on it. Goodness knows how you approach it in a boat – it looks pretty difficult. The largest, Garbh Eileach, is a very fertile island, with a habitable bothy that is used by a sheep farmer. The third island, A’ Chuil, is simply a lump of rock, while Eileach an Naoimh (pronounced ‘Neeve’) is one of the most interesting islands of the west coast. It was here that St Brendan the Navigator (the uncle of St Columba) established a monastery in 542AD, and the ruins still stand.
I was in Oban with friends Terry and Alan towards the end of a week’s sailing in late May. The weather had been pretty frustrating, with high winds and heavy rain, but the forecast for the last couple of days was for sunshine and light winds, so our eyes lit upon the Garbhellachs. It’s not a place to go except in calm weather and it wasn’t too far, so it seemed perfect.
We set off down the Sound of Kerrera in a light north-westerly and headed for Insh Island, passing between there and Easedale Island with the spinnaker up, making stately progress in winds of up to 10 knots. Once past Insh Island the Garbhellachs were within sight to the south-west, so it only took about four hours’ sailing to get to a point off Garbh Eileach. The wind then died and we had to motor.
The south-east coast of Garbh Eileach has a central small bay, which is the usual landing place, with a small slipway for the sheep farmer to land his boat. We drew cautiously into the bay, surrounded by steep rocks, until the spot matched the pilot book description, and dropped the anchor. The firm sand appeared to hold well. Although the bay offers some shelter from a westerly wind, any swell would make it very uncomfortable – if not dangerous – but this day was beautifully calm.
A trip ashore revealed an island covered with an astonishing carpet of bluebells and other wild flowers. We headed for the bothy, which was in good repair but locked. The foundations of several other buildings suggested there was once a significant settlement here.
There were also the remains of an old dun, or fort, and a former burial ground, plus outlines of some fields. The strata is a mixture of quartzite and limestone, so the island is quite fertile: it is also tilted to the north-west, which shelters it from the prevailing winds. There are no census records, but it might well have been
inhabited until the 19th century.
After a good look around, we raised the anchor and headed for Eileach an Naoimh. This requires an even more careful approach due to a line of rocky skerries. We followed the course suggested by the pilot book to enter the bay between the island and the skerries, and we could see the monastery ruins on the shore above. We selected the northernmost of two possible anchorages, which may have been a bad choice as the bottom was rather rocky. Alan and I went ashore, leaving Terry to guard the boat.
Landing on Naoimh was a culture shock. We hadn’t gone far when we were confronted by an Historic Scotland information board about St Brendan. Then we came across an enclosure with a metal Ministry of Works fence. On an uninhabited island in the middle of nowhere, this seemed utterly incongruous. Beyond the fence were two beehive cells which were used by the first monks, perhaps 1,500 years ago. They are slightly ruinous, but are the best-preserved examples in Scotland – bettered only by those on Skellig Michael off south-west Ireland.
Beyond these were the remains of mainly medieval buildings from the monastery. The original monastery was a favourite retreat of St Columba but was destroyed by Vikings in the 10th century and, although rebuilt, it’s not certain that it was ever permanently occupied after that.
Among the ruins there is a chapel, a building with an oven used for drying grain, and a burial ground. Naoimh was regarded as a sacred place, and apparently in the early 19th century the burial ground contained numerous fine carved burial slabs (like those to be found on Iona) for local notables, but almost all of these have since been stolen. It’s a beautiful place, with lovely views across to Luing.
I was jolted out of my reverie by my mobile phone ringing. This was a surprise as I hadn’t intended to take the phone ashore with me and certainly hadn’t expected a signal in this remote spot. It was Terry: ‘You need to get back quickly as the anchor is dragging and there is a strong current running here through the skerries, so I need help.’
We dashed back to the dinghy and, once aboard the boat, we anchored further out so that Terry could have a look ashore.
Once we were all back on the boat we needed to find somewhere to stop for the night. None of us felt safe at the anchorage off Naoimh, and although the Garbh Eileach anchorage was better, it wasn’t very secure either. So we checked the pilot book and settled on the Dubh Eilean – two small islands which lie to the north of Lunga, at the end of the chain which goes Jura, Scarba, Lunga. They were within sight from Naoimh, and between these two islands there is a sheltered bay with a sandy bottom, which makes a fine anchorage.
It took us a little over an hour to motor there: it was empty. We picked our spot, dropped the hook, and got out the whisky. It had been a very satisfying day.
At anchor off Garbh Eileach
At anchor in the skerries off Eilean an Naoimh, another uninhabited island
A view of the monastery ruins on Naoimh
One of the two beehive cells which were used by the first monks 1,500 years ago