There were eagle pellets on the summit of the Stack of Glencoul, spherical, the size of golf balls, composed of matted fur and bones. We’d seen an eagle earlier, soaring in the distance, and the summit of the stack was a nice scenic spot to regurgitate. It commanded a view, if eagles cared, down Loch Glencoul and its surrounding hills, out over Eddrachillis Bay to the waters of the Minch, with the Isle of Lewis away in the distance. At least that should have been the view, but when we got to the summit a drenching squall of wind-driven hail had obscured all, even our boat, the Poplar Voyager, anchored in the loch 1500 feet below.
The descent was precipitous and damp. There was no path, so we followed a watercourse down through squelching bog, between terraces of bedrock. The sun came out, and by the shore there were a few bluebells in flower, a memento of when these peaty places were woodland. Then the party who’d climbed the stack, together with those who’d occupied themselves at lower altitudes, all scrambled down over steep, weed-slathered rocks to the landing place. Norman, the mate, brought the tender over to carry us back to the boat.
The Poplar Voyager is a 90-foot steel motor yacht, built apparently for some millionaire whose wife decided she didn’t like it. Now it belongs to Bob Theakston, who’s been sailing these waters for twenty years, and operates charter cruises on it. At the beginning of the week we’d been forty miles out in the Atlantic, north-west of Cape Wrath, exploring the uninhabited island of North Rona and the gannetry at Sula Sgeir. We’d gladly have spent the whole week on Rona, and that had been the plan. But an easterly wind had risen, and because there are no safe anchorages there we’d had to make the nauseous six-hour journey back to the mainland. So, with a couple of days in hand, skipper Bob suggested a trip into what he calls ‘Little Norway’. We sailed round Handa, letting the field biologists aboard make a quick count of the seabirds on the cliffs (the last two breeding seasons have been disastrous), then turned under the Kylesku bridge to glide beneath the mountains into the upper reaches of Loch Glendhu and Loch Glencoul.
The expedition had been organised by Stuart Murray, a naturalist who was for several seasons warden at St Kilda. He’d arranged this trip as anyone else might organise a dinner party. Having chartered the boat he invited 12 people – ornithologists, archaeologists, writers, photographers – he knew would enjoy island-going: an Enid Blyton adventure for grown-ups.
Force-eight gales were forecast out at sea, but the head of Loch Glencoul is as far as you can get from open water. Here we could admire the longest waterfall in Britain, 650 feet of it, climb hills, and watch red-throated divers and, of course, eagles. It wasn’t the wild Atlantic, but it was all right. It was all right also to get soaked coming down the hill, because when the boat’s engines were shut down the engine-room made a perfect drying place: it was always warm and smelled of clean oil; every pipe and rail was draped with dripping gear. Then, as the boat swayed in an arc on its anchor, we had dinner. It’s a lovely sensation, this swaying, with the hills gently drifting back and forth. The tender was tied to the back of the boat, and two terns settled on its outboard engine. We watched them through the windows, and I remember thinking that the wind must be getting up, because after a while the birds became uncomfortable. Sometimes a gust ruffled them, and they spread their quartz-white tails for balance. Eventually they flew away, and shortly after, at about 11, I went below to bed. All that fresh air.