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.
Around 1 a.m., in the restful dark of the cabin, I woke suddenly, without knowing why. I turned over, hoping the boat’s motion would send me back to sleep. But the boat’s motion had changed. There had been a jolt. Then came another, then quick footsteps passed outside, and the generator began its low growl.
‘What’s up?’ my cabin-mate asked from the bunk above.
‘Don’t know. I’ll go see.’ I padded up the short aisle to find the door of the engine-room wide open and Stuart inside, urgently gathering up our outdoor clothes, obviously clearing the engines for action. He shoved an armful of Gore-Tex at me and said: ‘We’re on the rocks.’
Upstairs the wind was screaming and the saloon had a noticeable upward tilt. I dumped the clothes on the table, and, cupping my hands round my eyes, peered out of the starboard windows. It was like opening your door at Halloween – there was a row of ghoulish, pallid shapes, sharp and horrible.
The skipper was grim-faced. He appeared, swinging down the few steps from the bridge, down again to the engine-room, and back up. By now almost everyone was awake, half-dressed and mustered in the saloon, where there was little to do except sit on the sofas, and keep out of the way. Bob addressed us from his customary spot, the foot of the stairs that led from the saloon to the bridge. Yes, we were grounded and the starboard propeller held fast. The tide was falling, and the very best that could be hoped for was that the boat was undamaged and the next morning the rising tide would simply float it off again. Worst case, which he didn’t spell out, would be that the boat had been holed and would sink. Norman, the mate, had been despatched below with a power screwdriver. He was lifting the hatches into the bilges to check if there was seawater in there. Seawater would mean the ship was holed. As yet, the hull seemed intact, although it was still grinding and pivoting in the same place. There was, however, no immediate danger.
We were all aware that, if push came to shove, we could lower ourselves over the side onto those same rocks and clamber up to the shore. But why leave when we could sit here in the dry, out of the wind? Bob warned us that, although we had light now, we’d soon be without electricity as the batteries ran down. No engine meant no generator. He then went back to the bridge to radio the coastguard. So there we were, in the boat’s saloon in the middle of the night, hearkening to the wind and sullen thudding as the boat knocked against the rocks. Telling stories. Someone actually mentioned Grace Darling, and then the origins of the phrase ‘women and children first’: some hideous sinking off South Africa. Stories of wind and rain, the sublime and the ridiculous. The time the mobile cinema came to Benbecula. (This wonderful contraption is a lorry which tours the Highlands and Islands, and unfolds to become an indoor cinema, complete with banked-up seating.) A gale blew up, the wind howled and the cinema began to shake. Rain drummed on the roof, the roof leaked, as inside the people were watching The Perfect Storm. John Love, who is a fund of such stories, also told us about a Grimsay fisherman who was alone at sea when he somehow had his arm ripped off. With the other arm, he managed to up the anchor, sail himself home, land and collapse on the slipway, where he was found and lived to tell the tale.
Bob reappeared to say that the coastguard had decided to call out the Lochinver lifeboat, which would arrive in about an hour, although it might not be able to reach us, because of low water. We might or might not be allowed to remain on board: now that the situation had been handed over to the coastguards and lifeboats, the tone had shifted to what would be ‘allowed’. Bob asked whether we wanted to be taken off. We said that there really was no need. He warned that the lifeboat crew might have other ideas, so we should all be ready to quit the boat at short notice. Maybe we’d be able to take a small bag, maybe not. We should pack a few essentials.
Kneeling on the floor of the cabin, packing a bag, I couldn’t hear the wind, just water slopping in the bilges. The wind was behaving oddly. At times it shrieked, amplified, I daresay, by the boat’s structure. Then it seemed to drop away altogether. Maybe it was something to do with the hills, creating peculiar funnels and downdrafts.
What is essential? Over my pyjamas I was wearing one jumper and waterproof trousers, so I shoved another jumper in a day sack. A fleece, a waterproof jacket, both thankfully dry. Mobile phone – though there was no signal, and what was I going to do, phone a friend? Notebook, some money. The others were packing car keys: no use having a car if the keys are at the bottom of a loch. In the saloon there was a basket holding mini Mars bars and I took handfuls of those, thinking that if we had to sit on a hillside all night, or walk for miles to the road, they’d be welcome.
We gathered again in the saloon, and an apprehensive languor settled over everyone. If we were worried about anything then, it was about having to sit around, as though in the waiting-room of a provincial train station, for many hours. At least it would soon be dawn. When a voice from the bridge called that the lifeboat was coming, that you could see its lights down the loch, I was unable to resist – this romanticism will be the death of me one day – and went outside to watch.
John came out on deck too. We leaned at the port-side rail in the wind, watching the searchlight of the lifeboat sweep round a bluff and across the dark water. It was quite theatrical: the bulk of the mountains rose solemnly around us into low, wind-driven cloud; dark waves journeyed across the loch. The tide had dropped three feet since we grounded, so the boat wasn’t being tossed about. There was still an occasional jolt. The lifeboat came level, but stopped some distance away, its searchlight too dazzling to look at. It disturbed oyster-catchers roosting on the shore, and they set up a frantic piping. The searchlight played slowly along the length of our hull; they were checking for damage, I suppose, or a safe place from which to board. Then we could see a small inflatable, with figures, making its way towards us.
Now I can’t quite remember the sequence of events. Aware that the lifeboat people were boarding and we ought to go in to hear what they had to say, John and I turned from the deck-rail to walk the very few steps to the saloon doors. John may even have had his hand on the door handle. But then, all at once, the boat tipped: it toppled so sharply towards the water that we both fell and begin sliding back down the smooth, now steeply tilted deck.
I felt I was moving fast, as though down an icy slope, and in my fright couldn’t remember whether I was travelling towards a solid wall or – and this was the image my mind chose to present to me – open railings, in which case I’d shoot straight into the waves below. ‘John, catch me!’ I called, and though he’d fallen heavily, I felt him grab for me. Then, mercifully, my feet and legs crumped against steel. There was a moment’s pause, then the boat shifted a second time, just a little. There was nothing to suggest it wouldn’t tip a third time, or even keel over completely, pitching John and me overboard and trapping us beneath the boat. For the moment, though, it was stable and we were sprawled on the deck. I remember shouting ‘Now!’ – meaning here’s our chance to get back inside.
Squirming even a few feet uphill on smooth, damp wood is not easy; I hauled myself up using the foot of the ladder that gives access to the upper deck, and by then John was struggling to open the door, which was heavy at the best of times, but now he had to push it against the weight of the tilted boat. But he managed, and gallantly gave me to understand that I was to crawl beneath him and so back into the saloon, where everyone else was picking themselves up off the floor. There were two lifeboat men there now, bright orange figures, and even they were cursing softly.
Later, I understood that the boat had lurched because the final dregs of the tide had at last ebbed away. Having found its new level and stabilised itself, I don’t suppose it would have shifted again. However, the skipper and lifeboat crew agreed that it was time to put on life-jackets. They were stowed below, and because all movements had now to be made with the floor at this absurd 40º slope, it was with difficulty that Norman went down to fetch them.
The saloon was getting crowded. As well as passengers in life-jackets (the light and whistle that air-hostesses demonstrate and everyone ignores were suddenly objects of great interest), there were lifeboat men in bulky waterproofs and harnessware, slewed bags, broken mugs. The only comfortable positions were sitting on the floor half under the table, or leaning against the galley wall.
There was no question now but that we would be taken off. In fact, unknown to us, a helicopter had been despatched from Stornoway and was heading over the Minch. However, we were asked again if we wanted to leave, and again we chorused no. By that point, though, I was ready to demur. The deck-sliding business had been frightening. Perhaps we were all secretly ready to leave, but could still mount a mild show of solidarity, sensing it would be overruled. The lifeboat man seemed to accept our answer, but then he surprised me by turning towards me as best he could, and asking quietly: ‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘I’ve got young children,’ and he said: ‘Aye.’
The young owner of the Kylesku hotel was very kind. Woken in the small hours by a phone call from the coastguard, he opened his bar to receive the 12 passengers the lifeboat deposited on his slipway. The two crew remained onboard our vessel, and having dropped us off at the hotel, the lifeboat returned up the loch to assist. As we were being taken down the loch, so fast the wake vaporised into cloudlets, the helicopter had swung overhead, its lights winking, to stand by while the lifeboat was delivering us to the hotel. We were all glad it wasn’t required. It was enough to have climbed over the bow in the wind, and been manhandled into an inflatable that leaped up and down in the swell, then to be ferried to the waiting lifeboat.
By then, shreds of grey were appearing above the hills. Cast up on the rocky shore, the boat made a miserable sight. ‘Like a toy,’ we say, and she did look just like a toy, broken and forlorn. Bob had been talking of retiring; this was to have been his last season, after so many years without mishap.
The hotel landlord had lit the wood-stove and he made us hot drinks and bacon rolls. The hotel was full, so we sprawled across his bar tables. Again there was nothing to do but hope for the best. And if worst came to worst, what to do? Where to go? How to make the long journey home, wearing only waterproofs and pyjamas?
Six hours passed. The tide fell, turned, then in mid-morning the rising waters lifted the Poplar Voyager off the rocks – floated her off like a dream. After an inspection, she was declared undamaged. A short while later, accompanied by the lifeboat, she sailed out of the upper loch into view. The lifeboat carried on under the bridge, back home to Lochinver. There would be an inquiry, but for now there was a small shape in the tender: Norman coming from the boat to fetch us. We were aboard again, the skipper was back on form, all was ship-shape. Then we put out to Eddrachillis Bay. Whales had been spotted the day before, and we had hopes of seeing them too.