Ardrishaig to Crinan (Canal) – Section 4 | Day 1

Ferry Maid from Queensferry, on her transit of the Crinan Canal in 2018. Queensferry won the SCRA Cruising Log competition for this voyage from Oban to Largs
Early doors, and four skiffs would have gathered at the sea lock on the Crinan Canal ready for the organised flotilla transit through the Canal from Ardrishaig to Crinan, 9 miles away. The canal connects Loch Gilp with the Sound of Jura, providing a scenic short cut between the Clyde and the Inner Hebrides, without the need for a long diversion around the Mull of Kintyre.

The Mid Argyll club arranged for us to leave skiffs in the Ardrishaig Boatyard overnight, and were to help with warps going through the 15 locks and seven swing bridges. The Arran skiff, Seabhag, the Whitburn skiff, Latimer Ledja, the Isle of Seil Skiff, Selkie and one of the five (!) Islay skiffs, and had availed themselves of Scottish Canal’s kind offer to waive the £87+ fee for each skiff for the transit, as part of the Year of Coasts and Waters 2020 celebrations.

The Add estuary, with the canal, looking towards Loch Crinan: photo, Wild About Argyll

Selkie was due to have had two Findochty (rowing!) stowaways on board – one had worked on the canal as a student and was very keen to row it, rather than work the locks. Latimer Ledja was to have joined us for three days –– one of the crew had lived on the Isle of Luing and had traversed the infamous Dorus Mor in his creel boat, so was keen to come back from Whitburn, North Shields to row it with his crew.

In the real world, Argyll has been uncharacteristically dry for the past few weeks; when it rains here it usually forgets to stop. Our wee virtual flotilla was lucky to get through the locks in one day; water to fill the locks was rationed when the Queensferry skiff went through a couple of years ago, and they were delayed. Time for a lockdown quip?! However, we were virtually able to reach the Crinan Hotel in time for posh fish & chips and the odd libation. The skiffs were to be left at Crinan Harbour, guarded by the Seil campervan contingent; some complicated shuffling of vehicles then took place with Arran and Islay heading off for their respective ferries and crew changes taking place.

One of our crew today is Kathie. Her day job is as a reporter on the local paper, the Oban Times – and she is a very useful press guru for the RowAround!

I swim in the sea everyday so coastal rowing is another pleasurable excuse to spend even more time out on the water.
My first time in a skiff was when I was writing a story about Oban Sailing Club’s open day, one of the have-a-go sessions was coastal rowing – I got hooked after that first time and when I moved to Seil joined my local club.
I’m still very much a novice, enjoying lapping up crew camaraderie and the thrill of moving across the water under total team power.
Having the opportunity to see where I live from the water, makes me feel even more blessed when I’m out rowing.
Making the most of what’s on my doorstep – on the coast and water!

The sea lock at the Crinan end of the canal, looking over to Loch Crinan (above): photo by James Fenton

The sea lock at Loch Crinan; the Crinan Hotel is the large white building on the right
The Vic 32 Puffer at Crinan: photo by Clive Brown

Today, all things being equal, we would have been joined by a new skiff, based just three miles south of the canal, close to the famous beaver reintroduction site in Knapdale.

The Achnamara Skiff

Loch and Castle Sween © Gordon Doughty
Loch Sween, which meets the sea in the Sound of Jura some ten miles south of Crinan, has several claims to fame: Castle Sween on its eastern shore is the oldest castle in mainland Scotland which can be dated with reasonable certainty; there is a tidal anomaly whereby the tide rushes in over the first three hours of the flood (unseemly behaviour in an area which has no word to convey the urgency of the Spanish ‘mañana’), then sits around for three hours before repeating the process in reverse; and, most importantly for present purposes, it will in due course become the home waters of the Achnamara skiff.

In shape the head of the loch resembles a hungover four leaf clover which has just been given a severe fright. The former forestry village of Achnamara sits on the easternmost lobe and does not have a pub. On the westernmost lobe, however, is to be found the village of Tayvallich, home to the highly regarded Tayvallich Inn. intervening northern lobes result in the two villages being some nine miles apart by road but less than three miles across the water. This was undoubtedly one of the considerations underlying the genesis of the Achnamara skiff, a more important one being the desire for a community project enabling a group of residents to work together to practice and refine old skills and observe and learn new ones.

After rounds of carefully coordinated fundraising, including generous grants from Foundation Scotland and the National Lottery Awards for All Scotland, the newly formed Achnamara Rowing Club began work in 2018, first by adapting a former Forestry store shed next to the Village Hall into a suitable workshop. Construction of the skiff itself began in the autumn of that year, with 2-3 hour working sessions each Wednesday and Saturday morning. The team of 12+ includes a couple of members with boatbuilding experience, several with impressive woodworking skills and some (present writer included) without.

By the time we were forced into lockdown in March of this year, the hull was fully formed and painted, and we were preparing for liftover; fine tuning of the construction of a prototype box section oar was also well advanced. The colour scheme was the subject of much debate conducted over an International Paints colour card, suggestions ranging from inclusion of some green in light of the forestry connection, red to symbolise expended blood (but how to denote sweat and tears?), and a combination of Atlantic Grey and Squall Blue to represent our expectations of local weather. Ultimately we decided on a more contrasting variant on this last option, with the main body of the hull in grey and the top strake and gunwales in Lauderdale Blue.

Watching paint dry © Andy Grant
She is to be named Daisy Belle as a tribute to longstanding local resident Miss Daisy Bell, who moved with her family from the now-abandoned village of Stronefield to farm in neighbouring Inverlussa, where she continues to live in retirement after her work in farming and forestry.
Whither now and when – who knows? The enthusiasm remains and the day will undoubtedly come when a crew of Achnamaran oarsmen and women will stride, gently perspiring, into the Tayvallich Inn (drinks on the cox…).

(text by John Marsden)

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