A day in the Garb­hel­lachs

Paul Rad­cliffe shares one of the west coast of Scot­land’s best-kept se­crets

Practical Boat Owner - - Contents -

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.

Floral de­lights

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.

Cul­ture shock

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.

Drag­ging anchor

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

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