What would you do if you and your partner had managed to get four weeks summer holiday out of a busy work schedule? Andrew Thompson told Scotland Outdoors about his family adventure.
You could maybe spend a month in the Italian sunshine seeing the Roman sites. Or you could go further afield and visit an exotic country like China. Or you could try to circumnavigate Scotland in a yacht with your partner (Elsa, co-skipper, navigator, crew and top cook and companion) and two lively children (Ana aged 10 and Bruno aged 8).
"How do you circumnavigate Scotland?", I hear you ask.
Well, thanks to the Caledonian Canal which runs from Inverness on the east coast, down to Fort William on the west, it is actually possible but foolhardy. Because of the prevailing south-westerly winds our plan was to depart Oban where our handsome yacht Myfanwy* is moored, head north up the west coast and the Outer Hebrides, around Cape Wrath (yikes), over to Orkney, down south to Inverness, and then through the canal back home to Oban.
Four weeks. No sweat.
Well, "the best laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft agley". July 2008 was not the best weather for a UK yachting holiday. The first casualty was the Outer Hebrides. North-west gales meant that sneaking up the inside of Skye was a more prudent route.
We had a fantastic time at Portree where we saw three dolphins leaping around the harbour. It was Ana's birthday (now 11) so we all went pony-trekking together. And then on to the increasingly remote and mountainous Torridon area. My brother and sister planned to join us here for a short jaunt, but yet more gales meant they quickly abandoned it after just one night on board (the racket that a force 8 wind makes in the rigging is enough to unnerve even the staunchest sailor).
North to Cape Wrath
Undaunted 'family valiant' went on up to the Summer Isles - very beautiful and surprisingly sunny - and then up to the very tip of Scotland. Here at Loch Laxford we were hemmed in by northerly gales yet again, but found lots to amuse ourselves including meeting up with the great explorer John Ridgway, who runs an adventure school there. He was very friendly and given that he had circumnavigated the world three times was surprisingly complimentary of our own more modest trip.
They don't call it 'Cape Wrath' for nothing. The most north-westerly point of mainland Britain has a terrible reputation for wild seas but it wasn't too bad for us. We waited for a weather window and through a gentle three metre swell (and three meters is big so it was just as well it was gentle) sailed on to Orkney.
The tides around Orkney are some of the strongest in the world. They run at twelve knots in places and given that the top speed of our boat is six to eight knots this can obviously be inconvenient if you get your timings wrong.
We just scraped into Stromness before a powerful spring tide turned against us and we had a lovely four days in the Orkney area. There was a Viking fire festival on in Stromness (Bruno loved the burning of the Viking boat) and we also visited the haunting Neolithic tomb of Maeshowe (think dark Egyptian burial chamber but in gloomy Scotland).
South to Inverness
However, our trip back south was now delayed by fog. A real pea souper. Eventually it cleared just enough for us to head south across the Pentland Firth.
Landlubbers don't realise that fog is actually the most dangerous aspect of sailing. It's easy to get lost (obviously) but even more worrying is the possibility of a big ferry running you down. Elsa went to the front of the boat to blast on the fog horn and we kept relatively close inshore to miss the majority of the fishing boats.
Travelling down the northeast coast of Scotland made us realise just how brilliant the west coast is from a sailing perspective.
The west is full of beautiful islands, twisting sea lochs and cosy anchorages. The east has virtually none of this interest.
Via the foggy ports of Wick and Helmsdale we eventually made it to Inverness. Inverness had been the crucial bribe we'd used to get the children to agree to the trip in the first place. A day out at the 'Landmark Adventure Park' and a visit to the cinema (WALL-E was great though "not as good as Kung-Fu Panda") were possibly the highlight for Ana and Bruno. Although they did wonder why we hadn't just driven up the A9 in a car!
The Caledonian Canal
And then through the Caledonian Canal. A truly fantastic canal it is too. Full of interesting castles and sights. Thank you, Thomas Telford. From the Fort William end of the canal it was a short hop, skip and a jump back to Oban. The sun came out and Loch Linnhe looked wonderful.
I only half-joke to people that yachting is a bit like caravanning with a leaky roof in a storm while doing difficult mathematics. And, what with all the tide races and dangerous rocks you contend with, you also have to imagine that all the wheel bolts of your caravan are slowly coming undone.
But I wouldn't have missed this adventure for anything. It was also a great opportunity to bond with the family as we all sailed, cooked, played cards, read stories, fished, watched wildlife, and generally had fun together. The modern era had been left far behind in Glasgow.
For me the highlight of the trip was towards the very end of the voyage when eight-year-old Bruno woke me up with a worried look on his face. "Dad, I think I've forgotten how to operate the television."
*Myfanwy is a beautiful old-style (though made of fibreglass) sailing yacht, 35 feet long, sleeps six people - though we've crammed in eight before now. Myfanwy is a "Hustler 35", born in 1972, and designed by top British yacht builders Holman and Pye. Myfanwy has an engine for when the wind is blowing the wrong way. Myfanwy is a Welsh girl's name meaning "My Love". She is the fifth member of our family.
Andrew Thompson works as a Producer Director for BBC Scotland.
Page first published on Tuesday 26th August 2008
Page last updated on Thursday 16th October 2008