We leave Scalpay by the short cut, around the north side, passing the Scalpay ferry from Carnacl to the island. On past Rubha Crago Point and across the wide mouth of Loch Seaforth. On our starboard beam I can just see the Shiant Islands, low and menacing in the early morning mists. On our port beam, looking inland, the massive mountains of North Harris rise into the clouds. These brooding hills are the highest ground in the Western Isles, and are a lonely and forbidding place.
Eilean Lubhard, at the entrance to Loch Sealg, is soon bearing due west and in the far distance I can just make out Eye Peninsula to the east of Stornoway.
We swing due north past Kebock Head and the tangled rocky entrance to Loch Erisort, and now with my glasses I can see the buildings of Stornoway. Five more miles and one hour later we have the lighthouse at the entrance to Stornoway harbour on our port side. On our starboard side I see the island shipyard, two large fishing boats drawn up on its slipways - business must be brisk!
We enter past the local sailing club moorings and the Ullapool ferry pier. Close alongside is a large fishery protection vessel, all bright and shining in fresh light grey paint, with bright orange inflatables, in derricks on its stern. Motoring slowly now, we move well up into the inner harbour and tie up against two small fishing boats at the fish key.
Making sure we are well secured with bow, stern ropes and springs, I scramble across the fishing boats, noting as I go they're ready for sea, with scrubbed decks, coloured plastic fish boxes piled high and nets stowed ready. I climb the galvanized ladder and seeing two fishermen repairing nets, ask if Lazy Beaver is in the way. They tell me that the boats will not be moving until early Monday morning. I thank them and walk into the town.
Stornoway, the principal town in the Western Isles, is not only a busy fishing port but also the Islands' administrative centre. Fine buildings, shops and cars abound, and the noise compared with my previous ports of call, seems intense. On looking around I see at the back of the fish quay, a paved concourse with planted trees and public seating, and people parading in the evening sun. A thoroughly modern town and the largest in the Western Isles. It seems it's always been this way. In 1876, a visitor remarked:
'As a town, Stornoway is an immense improvement on Portree. It rejoices in churches, and the shops are numerous, and abound with all sorts of useful; articles. The chief streets are paved. It has here and there a gas lamp, and the proprietor of the chief hotel boasted to me that so excellent were his culinary arrangements, that actually the ladies from the yachts come and dine there. On Saturday nights the shops swarmed with customers, chiefly peasant women - who put their boots on when they came into town, and who took them off again and walked barefoot as soon as they had left the town behind - and ancient mariners with a very fish-like smell'.
It's late on a Saturday afternoon and the proprietor of the 'chief hotel' will not be feeding me tonight. So off I go and restock with provisions. I make my way to the large Scottish Co-Operative Supermarket at the back of the town and fill my trolly with food - fresh bread, milk, onions, minced beef, Ragu sauce, potatoes and other delicacies too numerous to mention. On my return I spend some time in the book shop and news agent, purchasing a copy of Gavin Maxwell's, 'Raven Seek Thy Brother', and the Scottish Fishing News.
A problem now occurs, my Co-Op purchases are in a number of plastic bags and I have to lower them fifteen feet down the quay side onto the deck of the fishing boat. Seeing my predicament, a face appears in the wheel house and immediately, help is at hand. My purchases safely lowered, I learn that there will be no fishing tonight as it's Sunday tomorrow, but that as there is a storm, force nine forecast, many boats will be coming in to shelter and I should be ready to move to allow them to slip in between me and the two boats I'm tied alongside.
Fearing a disturbed night, I prepare a meal - half the minced beef cooked in half the Ragu sauce with chopped onions and mushrooms, covered with fried potato slices and topped with grated cheese. This is followed by tinned rice pudding, strawberry jam, and mugs of sweet tea. Quite finished, I sit back and begin to read 'Raven Seek Thy Brother'. Suddenly I hear a shout. I go on deck and find four small fishing boats preparing warps and wanting to go inside Lazy Beaver and tie up. I loosen off the stern rope and removing the bow rope throw it to the first fishing boat, who makes me fast by the bow. I then transfer the stern rope to the fishing boat and he and I move aside while the rest moor along side. The boat I'm attached to settles on the outside and we're snug for the night - but not before I am presented with a bucket of prawns, the size of lobsters!
That will do me I think - Sunday lunch.
Sunday arrives. A great gale is blowing outside in the Minch and off Ness Point, but the only indication we have are the clouds scudding by overhead and the gulls, at a great height, cavorting in the wind. I look out of the hatchway. Not a thing moves and all is silent except for the low hum of a diesel generator. I look around and see the inner harbour, full to bursting with fishing boats of all sizes, but, alongside the Custom House pier is the source of the low hum the largest stern trawler I have ever seen. She must be at least two hundred feet long. It's low water and she's sitting on the bottom, her bridge, surmounted by radars, satellite domes and HF aerials, towers above the buildings of the town - I must have a closer look!
I scramble across six fishing boats and their sleeping crews, up the ladder and along the quay and there she is, a magnificent example of the Naval Architect's craft. Not a rust mark to be seen, she must be very new or maybe just at sea after a refit. Her massive bow flared away into a great overhang and her bridge, with rakish windows, looks like some 'split new' office block in a great international city. Inside I see electronic wizardry, all duplicated, and so intricate that even NASA would be lost among its complexities. I can see from where I'm standing on the quay, the computer colour displays and TV tubes, all waiting with their information. No fish must stand a chance.
Forward are enormous winches, their stainless steel trawl wires, as thick as a man's wrist, snaking aft round turning blocks and finishing among a net, so large it could contain the whole boat and her crew. Her stern is a great open space for net and fish to be brought on board, and immediately in front of this, a vast and covered area, where crew can gut and box the catch before it descends to the frozen hold below.
I stand and marvel - About me in the town a few people are stirring and I hear the plaintive tolling of the church bell, beckoning them to prayer, I return to Lazy Beaver, across six decks and sleeping fishermen - to contemplate my prawns, the size of lobsters!
Sunday passes in silence, rest and gastronomic delight, and when Monday dawns bright and dry, the fishing boats are gone.
I wonder where the great stern trawler is heading now? - The Arctic Sea, Bear Island, The Denmark Strait, maybe the North Atlantic - wherever, the fish are doomed!
To return to WORDS ONLY CRUISE select this Icon