A trip into the Sound of Harris – a trip of two halves and the return of the Joker

  • by Ian Cooke

It was July 2004 and I was due to start a new contract in Ipswich on Monday 19th, so the week before I was kicking my heels a little bit and wondering what to do…..

One phone call later and Chris Pennock and I loaded up the car and we were off to Skye with a loose plan in our back pockets, to drive up to Uig, dump the car and take the kayaks as hand luggage on the Calmac ferry to Loch nam Madadh / Lochmaddy on North Uist, where we could then go out into the sound of Harris with its myriad of islands and opportunities for overnight adventure.

North Uist is a beautiful spot with more water and lochs than land and an excellent base for a few days or weeks of kayaking with the option to carry the kayaks as hand luggage on the ferries giving the visiting self-sufficient paddler loads of options to catch a ferry to one place, paddle to another and catch the ferry back again in a triangular trip.

On this occasion however we only had three or four days, so it was into Lochmaddy and then we were off, paddling out into the Little Minch. Straightaway, even though the Little Minch is protected by the islands of the Hebrides there is nevertheless a feeling of exposure as we paddled alongside remote cliff lines and past Hermetray towards our destination for the evening, the island of Easaigh / Ensay, off the west coast of Harris.

Island of Easaigh / Ensay with the conical summit of Pabbaigh / Pabbay in the background.

History and Layout of Ensay

Moving up into the Sound of Harris is an absolute delight for lovers of islands and skerries with dozens of them laid out in front of us, meaning that we had to navigate on a compass bearing as we had no line of sight to Ensay, obscured by a cloud bank of fifty islands.

The weather was kind and soon we had landed and were exploring this now uninhabited island, with its evidence of farming, dating back over hundreds of years with the outlines of lazybeds and feannagan (ridges createdto increase the production of crops, such as barley), as well as the stunning beach at Manais / Manish at the north end of the island. With our modern eyes, it’s quite unbelievable that this tiny island used to hold a township of 13 tenants and their families, so as many as 120 people living off the produce of this land. In 1697 however this all came to a dramatic end when a huge storm hit the south-east side of the Western isles, including Ensay, lifting sand and soil and burying the township and nearby chapel and burial ground.

The return of the Joker

Now please bear with me on this section and please excuse me forgetting to take a personal wash kit on the trip, but here begins a tale of humour set on this remote island………. Also, when we think of the Joker in the Batman films, we think mostly of a disturbing character, not someone to meet on a dark night in a remote place!

On the way back from our exploration of the island, Chris and I walked past the largely uninhabited Ensay House and met up with two lovely young families, who owned this house as a family heirloom and one of whom had sailed across the 20 mile or so wide Minch in a small sailing dinghy to get there, impressive stuff…..

We got on well and the family invited us over for a cup of tea that evening and so we gladly accepted and went back to our tents to cook our evening meal. Now for whatever reason, the only food that I had with me was a tin of concentrated Patak’s vindaloo curry paste and some bacon, so bacon vindaloo it was, which I polished off with enthusiasm borne from a hard day’s exercise.

Having finished the meal, I got dressed ready for our visit and emerged from my tent, dah dah! Chris took one look at me and suggested that we should change our evening plans in order not to terrify and traumatise the lovely families as I had emerged looking just like the Joker with a massive indelibly stained bright orange vindaloo smile which I could not remove at all!

So back to the tents it was and a bottle of wine party to pass the time!

A painting of our camping spot painted by the talented artist that is Chris Pennock.

A trip of two halves………

We were now on a schedule to get back if I was to start my job at the other end of the country in three days’ time. So the following morning saw an early start pushing south into the Sound of Harris, bound for Lochmaddy pushing into a two to three foot oncoming southerly swell.

Now this really did become a trip of two halves after the first calm day with a fierce southerly headwind pushing us backwards every time we stopped to fuel up and our forward speed reduced to a crawl as we made our way down the Minch, past endlessly similar cliffs.

At one point a landing craft type vessel passed west of us heading southwards, waves crashing over its bow as it smacked into wave after wave. It sounded its horn to us as we sat offshore from it. We realised that this was a time for patience and work and smiled at each other, Chris muttered the immortal line ‘I’m glad that my mum can’t see me now…..’ and on we went, slowly making our way towards 3 or 4 pints at the pub, tired and warm and ready for a good night’s rest.

Another top trip and the best of times with the best of mates.

My boat of the time, a prototype P&H design, the ‘Project X’, very fast and quite tippy and for some reason never made it into production, a lovely boat.

Spent my life having fun in mountains, rivers, sea and surf. After 40 years doing it, still can’t get enough and hungry as ever to experience this beautiful world and nature.

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