Isle of Skye Boat Trips

Elgol Boat Trips to Loch Coruisk (Loch na Cuilce)

In 2009 Seumas was asked to write an article for the ‘Elgol & Torrin Historical Society’ magazine about the history of Elgol boat trips to Loch Coruisk. The following is adapted from that article:

Rarely human eye has known
A scene so stern as that dread lake
With it’s dark ledge of barren stone…
(Sir Walter Scott 1814)

My own earliest memories of the Elgol boat trips are from the late 1950s while still at Elgol School.

At that time we had the opportunity to get a lot closer to the tourist action than the children can today. This was partly because the river and fore shore were our unofficial playground and as there was no jetty then all boarding was done just below the school.

Occasionally at the high tide the launches would come alongside a rock in the river mouth, but usually passengers had to be helped into the dinghies and rowed out to the boats. When competition for fares was intense it was not unknown for the dinghy crew to lie down on the shore to form a human bridge to save passengers having to travel with wet feet.

It was not till around 1959 that Inverness County Council finally allocated funding for the Elgol Jetty after many years of lobbying by the Elgol boatmen.

Today before building a project of this type the access road would be constructed, but with no funding available for this the contractor Wm. Tawse & Co set up a temporary mono rail system to transport the concrete from the school car park to the shuttering for the jetty. School play times were great fun watching the concrete being mixed before being dispatched on the train which was under the charge of Shonnie Phadraig our teacher’s husband. Occasionally Shonnie would be so engrossed in conversation that he would forget to pull the stop lever and the train would by-pass the mixing plant and de-rail. The gaffer’s response to this would allow us to hear some choice words that we had never heard at home. The access road came many years later saving us from having to carry fuel to the boats and making landing catches a lot easier especially for the Soay fishermen who were the main landers at that time. Finally in 1995 the wave wall, fuel system and gear store were the direct result of a long campaign led by Col. Lachie Robertson.

The Elgol boat trips tour operators that I can remember from my Elgol School days were Ruaridh (Beag) MacKinnon and Angus MacLean who ran the trips then and still ran them alongside me many years later. Angus Morrison had the ‘Morag’ and then the ‘Lady Ann’ which was a larger launch than was usual at that time. He stopped the trips not long after this, probably to concentrate on running the shop and other interests. Calum (Tormaid) had the ‘Highland Monarch’. The Monarch went aground after breaking down on its way home to Glasnakille on a poor evening. I can remember it being re-floated with barrels tied alongside, but I don’t think it was ever repaired as Calum was approaching retirement age at that time.

Brothers Adam and Lachie MacKinnon bought the ‘Hetty’, a fine Henderson (Mallaig) launch from Ronald MacDonald who had been using it to run from Glenbrittle, where he lived, to Loch Coruisk. After just a few seasons the Hetty was pulled up just below where Alistair’s (old!) house is now, and lay there for many years until Charlie MacLean took her to Faolin to repair. I think he was too late as I can’t recall it going back to sea.

There was another launch on the fore shore at Elgol. The ‘Ocean Pride’ owned by Ruaridh (Uilleam) MacKinnon. As children we were allowed to play on her so I think her working days were over.

Lachie (Mash) MacIntosh had the ‘Otter’ although I can’t remember us ever calling it the Otter when we were at the trips. People tended to refer to the boats more by the skippers name at that time, but when he brought her to Elgol she lay alongside the school wall with the name Otter BRD. on the bow. Before starting the trips Lachie reckoned the boat needed more freeboard so he heightened her all round in a very professional manner. He may have had some help from his brother Donald.

Lachie was one of life’s great characters and I have many memories of him around that time.

He probably ran the trips for 10 years or more but was so laid back that he made a lot less trips than he could have done. His cattle were his main concern and some years his trips would not start till close to the end of the season, and certainly not before he was satisfied that all his cows had been successfully bulled.

Lachie had an elaborate system for ballasting the boat that involved removing or adding boulders to the stern section, the amount depending on the wind speed and direction and the number of passengers on board. He was fairly thin and wiry but exceptionally strong as any one who volunteered to speed his departure from the jetty by helping to shift the ballast found out.

As the years went by the croft became more important to Lachie and the boat lay unused alongside the top of the jetty for many years. She was kept looking very smart thanks to (Wee) Lachie Robertson (who went on to become a legend in the fishing industry) painting her every summer during the school holidays in the hope of getting to sea. Eventually when the jetty extension was about to start Lachie, reluctantly, allowed the contractors to shift his boat but only, in a true Elgol spirit of recycling, up to the croft to become a shed for cattle feed.

The boats at this time all had petrol paraffin engines, usually Kelvin Poppets or the larger version the Ricardo. They were fairly temperamental engines with a magnet to provide the spark and requiring petrol squirted down the cylinders and many turns of the starting handle to get them going.

Ruaridh Beag never seemed to have any problem with the Kelvin Ricardo in the Kelvin launch ‘Silver Spray’ that he bought to replace the Mary Ann, but he was still the first to make the change over fitting a new 3 cylider Lister which made his launch even faster. Ruaridh ran Elgol boat trips since just after World War II for a period of around fifty years (so far… there’s time for a come back yet!) He always liked to keep ahead of the game starting the trend for Avon dinghies which saves a lot of back ache from hauling wooden dinghies up the beach.

Angus MacLean was the last one to change over to diesel power after quite a few breakdowns with the old petrol paraffin engine,some of which involved help from the tourists rowing the ‘Paragon’ back across Loch Scavaig. He fitted a new Yanmar 8hp diesel which is probably still in the boat where she lies by the road side at Faolin. Angus was very happy with the Yanmar though I do remember him complaining one day while wiping down the seats “The diesel is not nearly as good as the paraffin was for getting the seats looking shiny”!

Before buying the Paragon from Angus MacSween in Fort William Angus ran trips for a season with a 16′ scow and this probably showed George Lamond and I that the 17′ ‘Apollo’ that we had just bought for lobster fishing was big enough to run trips. It wasn’t really, especially with an outboard engine so the next year we had ‘Apollo II’ built in Stromness.

George and I used to fish lobsters from first light in the morning then take day about to run the trips as having a crew was not required. In the early seventies George sold me his half of the boat although he restarted Elgol boat trips again for a short time in the early eighties with ‘Loch Eishort’, but when she was damaged at the jetty he replaced her with the ‘Starfish’ and returned to full time fishing.

Mathew MacKinnon bought a 26′ launch from my uncle Alistair (Blackpark) called the ‘Maighdean-Mhara’. She was previously the ‘Myra’, owned by Calum (Tormaid) Glasnakille whose family also had the ‘Sea Bird’ and earlier the ‘Daisy’ which used to do trips after the Loch Slapin cod fishing season was finished. Mathew had hardly started trips when the boat broke its Elgol mooring in a N E gale. Ruaridh Beag spotted it drifting close to Rum and I remember it being picked up by the Mallaig lifeboat and towed in to Kilmarie. I assume it was damaged because it was pulled up beside the saw shed where it gradually deteriorated beyond repair.

There were a few more operators between then and the present day.

Donnie Morrison bought a new Task Force 26 but it was wrecked after breaking it’s mooring at Elgol before the season had started.

John MacKinnon, Glasnakille ran Elgol boat trips with ‘Otter’ I and II. I think by the time he had bought ‘Otter III’ fishing had pushed boat trips out of his plans.

Gordon MacKinnon ran trips with the ‘Nicola’ which Ruaridh Beag later bought when the ‘Silver Spray’ was written off after a tree fell on her at her winter berth in Kilmarie river. It was a strange and rather sad way to loose a boat, especially for one as careful as Ruaridh was. Before the benefits of all the computer forecasting we have today Ruaridh would just look around while scratching his chin before making his weather predictions – usually with great accuracy.

Around the time Ruaridh retired, Gordon Smith (the school teacher on Soay) started running trips with a Lochin 33 ‘Kayleigh Jane’.

Donald and Bella Mackinnon had started trips with a Cygnus 21 the ‘Sasha’ followed by ‘Delta Barbara’, a Newhaven sea Warrier, but in a fairly short time they up-graded to a Lochin 38 the ‘Bella Jane’. The general format of the Elgol boat trips had changed very little before Donald arrived on the scene. Young, keen and a truly innovative character, Donald got a 30 passenger licence for the boat and began serving teas on board and even gave a commentary to the tourists… something previously unheard of.

Some days as Stuart and I are making the ninetieth cup of tea, coffee, hot chocolate of the day I think of Donald!

Sadly, Donald, Bella and the family moved to Australia a few years back selling the business to a company from England.

Since the new firm started in 2005 I can think of a dozen skippers who have run the boat – approximately the same number as I can remember skippering the local fleet over the last 50 years!

There have been many changes to the trips over the years with the building of the jetty being the biggest one. Today when a risk assessment is required for just about everything, using flit boats to load passengers would not be any more acceptable than would batching concrete in a school playground.

The boat I have now, the ‘Misty Isle’, is licensed for 63 passengers to the strict MCA standards and has tea making facilities and even toilets on board. People have higher expectations these days and rightly so. Back in the early 90s the E & THS chairman (Donald Mackinnon) and I would train the binoculars on the jetty from the ‘Gladly Anne’ and if it looked busy we would quit hauling creels, up-turn the fish boxes for seats and head in for a party of tourists and a relaxing afternoon in Loch na Cuilce.

Over the years the boats seldom had crew other than the skipper on board though I can remember both Lachag Phadraig and Big Charlie (Glasnakille) crewing for Angus Morrison at times.

Present day regulations require 2 on board and I have been lucky in that when Jamie Kieran left the Elgol boat trips for the BBC, my son Stuart agreed to take over looking after everything from the web site to the boat for the last 3 seasons. Although my ‘people skills’ are a bit different from Stuart’s or indeed Jamie’s we share a love for the job, the area and meeting people. To illustrate the difference I’ll give our answers to one of our most frequently asked questions: “Do you not get tired of doing the same trip every day?” My answer: “No”. Stuarts would be more like “How could we get tired of spending the day working in this beautiful part of God’s creation. It is both a pleasure and a privilege to have this as my daily commute to work, meeting people from all over the world and being able to talk to them while all around the scenery, though ever the same, is constantly changing with the weather and lighting.”

Anne, Stuart and I do indeed believe that it is a privilege to be passing custodians of the Elgol boat trips, for what is only a short time in the history of the trips to date.

A lot of the early records kept of visitors to Loch Coruisk were of people who went on to become famous.

Sir Walter Scott visited in 1814 and later, in 1831, he commissioned JMW Turner to illustrate his book “Lord of the Isles” resulting in the famous Turner painting of the loch. I took the liberty of using Scott’s description of his first sighting of Loch Coruisk to open this article. I am sure he wouldn’t mind.

Alfred Lord Tennyson visited Loch Coruisk and his description of failing to see the loch because of mist and rain comes to my mind when trying to decide whether or not to take people across on a day when they will be unable to see the loch in all its splendour.

Another visitor was John MacCulloch MD. As well as being a well known travel writer he was also a map maker who climbed and attempted to climb several of the Cuillins during his map making quests in the early 1800s.

By Victorian times Loch Coruisk had become the place to go for any who could afford it. There was a steady stream of yachts and steamers arriving along with the day trippers who were rowed across Scavaig and Loch Slapin from Elgol, Soay and Torrin. The ‘Claymore’, ‘Loch Mhor’ and ‘Dunara Castle’ were among those that called in the Cuilce as part of their cruises. MacBraynes errected a new set of steps around 1950 which were in use till 1990 or so when the council built the present ones. There were also regular sailings from Mallaig. Brucie Watt had the ‘Western Isles’, which his son still uses today, and also the ‘Islander’.

Today we still have the equivalent of these travel writers. This summer we had director Richard Else with a crew filming Cameron MacNeish for the program ‘A Long Walk On The Isle of Skye’ which was shown on boxing day, 2009. We also had Orcadian travel writer Charles Tait gathering material for his next book.

Anyway, I’ve probably already said too much although it is only scratching the surface of a subject that, like the author, just goes on and on.

I will close with my own favourite quote, part of MacCulloch’s description of his first sighting of Loch Coruisk after making the short walk from Loch Scavaig. He had anchored in the Cuilce which he described thus:

“This singular basin affords an anchorage, the most extraordinary perhaps in the whole world… Then on to Loch Coruisk… It was a lovely day when I first found this place; which, excepting the shepherds of Strathaird, mortal foot had scarce ever trod. I had no reason to be disappointed with Loch Scavaig… but a valley burst on my view which, in a moment, obliterated Loch Scavaig, together with all the valleys that had ever left their tracks on my brain.”

Misty Isle Boat Trips, Sealladh na Mara, Elgol, Isle of Skye, IV49 9BL Tel: 01471866288 Email: contact@mistyisleboattrips.co.uk