Cove to Mellon Udrigle – Section 5 | Day 14

For the last few days we have been blessed with very warm and sunny weather, and today looks like it may be the last for a while with much cooler temperatures arriving midweek and dropping considerably by the weekend.

At this time of year, the days are really long and night-time is barely dark. Sunsets and sunrises are spectacular, and this morning was no exception. Compared to yesterday, we should have a much easier row and certainly much gentler scenery and coastline to look at, but as we all know, Highland weather can change quickly so we have to be prepared for that.

A relatively short day ahead, roughly nine miles, there is no rain forecast just nice long sunny intervals and light W/NW winds. Loaded with plenty water, food, sun cream and sun hats, we set off from Ullapool to drive 58 miles to pick up the skiff which was left securely on the beach in Cove last night. It sounds like they had quite an adventure, but still left us some goodies in the boat, and a good luck note for our row.

We had a plan prepared, leaving Cove around 11:00 going with the flood across the vast expanse of Loch Ewe towards Slaggan Bay, then up towards Greenstone Point. This stretch sees us rowing away from the coast, keeping Mellon Charles to starboard. Making good time, we stepped ashore at Slaggan Bay for a quick brew – having brought the trangia, we could get the kettle on and enjoy some fresh coffee with apple cake, kindly made by Nick the night before.

Slaggan was once a crofting settlement which supported a school and a teacher, but by the outbreak of the Second World War the population had dwindled to just six. The Crofting Commission invested in the township in the mid-30s in an attempt to revive the community, but the last remaining family moved out in the early 1940s and Slaggan has been deserted ever since. It is a beautiful, tranquil spot and can also be accessed on foot by track from Achgarve on the eastern edge of the peninsula.

Our arrival was announced by some noisy oyster catchers, and there was evidence of hungry otters with remains of sea urchin shells along the rocks. It was lovely to wander up to the ruins, and we were watched overhead by a soaring white tailed eagle. Midges however quickly drove us back to our skiff and we set off again, with our cox, Ron, hugging the rocky shoreline to Greenstone point.

The landscape quickly changes to something very much more rugged with small waves lashing up against the rocks. Despite it not being too windy, it was still a case of getting stuck in with head down, a few tens from Ron and our efforts would soon be rewarded.

As we rounded, the familiar sight of the Summer Isles came into view, with Priest Island in the foreground. Priest Island is the outermost and most exposed of the Summer Isles, lying about 6km off the west coast of Wester Ross. Fulmars accompanied our glide across the waves, and auks dived silently around us. The island has one of the largest Storm Petrel colonies in the UK, together with other breeding seabirds. Now we were in the lee of the south westerly wind, the water was much calmer, and startled seals followed us, watching as we glided by.

The NW Highlands at its best; what a great view to end a fantastic day.

Introducing Loch Ewe Community Skiff Group

Inspired by the Inaugural World Championships in Ullapool in 2013, we realised there was sufficient interest and expertise in the communities beside Loch Ewe to build and row a skiff of our own and formed Loch Ewe Community Skiff Group [LECSG] in July 2013, with an enthusiastic team in place. It took six months to get the funding in place (we won a major grant from the 2014 Communities [Big Lottery] fund, with match funding from Highland Council’s Culture Fund and Ward 6 Discretionary Fund) and to purchase the kit. Unfortunately, by then two key members of the team were no longer available. Although word was that the build method was within the ability of an average DIY-er, none of our remaining members felt their DIY skills were sufficient and the project languished while we tried to find someone who felt confident enough to supervise the build.

Fortunately, the team behind the build of Gairloch’s Longa heard of our plight and came to the rescue: we remain extremely grateful to Hugh Macintyre, Ian White, Martin Rowe and Bill Richardson (otherwise known as the ‘Men of Laide’), who in May 2015 took on the build of the Loch Ewe skiff; also to Mark McLarty and Emma Hewes, who kindly offered their shed as the build site; to Jane Macintyre, who regularly visited with her camera on days the builders were in action, providing a pictorial record for our Facebook page; and to various volunteers who helped with tasks such as boat-turning and, in the later stages, painting. Together, thanks to their remarkable and meticulous teamwork, they produced a boat of great beauty.

In 2015 we held a competition to name our skiff and choose the colours. Several individuals suggested the name of Kay Matheson, and we thought it would indeed be a suitable tribute to this long-time Inverasdale resident who had died in July 2013 – the same month that LECSG came into being. Kay was born in 1923 to a local crofting family, and was of course best known as one of the four students who removed the Stone of Destiny from Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1950 and [briefly?!] repatriated it to Scotland.

She later returned to the area, and was well known as a teacher of home economics at Gairloch High School and as a travelling teacher of Gaelic at numerous primary schools in Wester Ross. The colours of the skiff are meant to reflect the Matheson tartan [see the attached photo of Kay, attending the formal opening of the new Scottish Parliament], with a blue hull and green top plank (… well, insofar as the range of marine paints will allow!)

The Kay Matheson’s maiden voyage was on 3 July 2016, and we took part in the Shieldaig Regatta in August 2016 (too soon!) and the Russian Arctic Convoy Project’s WWII Festival at the head of Loch Ewe in May 2017. We have also held a goodly number of taster sessions and social rows for our more experienced members.

Inaugural voyage of the Kay Matheson
Sadly, despite this, our membership numbers have dwindled somewhat from the early days: even before COVID-19 brought everything to a juddering halt, people seemed so busy that it took luck and a lot of planning to assemble a sufficient team free and able to get together just when the weather conditions allowed. Also, unfortunately, the cost of the original build had left a shortfall in being able to buy a road-trailer and we have been striving ever since to raise the necessary funds, because it has always been part of our ethos that coastal rowing could really help bring together the disparate communities around the shores of Loch Ewe.

Boathouse, Loch Ewe and An Teallach

Inverewe Garden behind (National Trust for Scotland)
Thanks to the Whittle family from Inveran, we have recently been able to develop a base at their boathouse in Poolewe, and we are hoping that – once the lockdown and pandemic restrictions have eased – its relatively central position will act as a focal point for a significant re-launch. Loch Ewe is, at most times, a sheltered site (compared to what many others clubs must combat!) and set within a highly scenic backdrop; on the right day, rowing together across the middle of the loch is a truly blissful experience.

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