The following panoramic view was filmed from Achduart. There is a rocky outcrop which, I think, must have been an old lookout point. If it wasn’t, they missed a trick — it should have been! You can see the entire length of what we would have been rowing, except for the very beginning, from Ullapool itself to Isle Martin.
The row from Ullapool to Badentarbet is always longer than expected, and much depends on wind and tide. But it measures 12 miles.
Leaving from the jetty in Ullapool, Coigach Community Rowing rows Coigach Lass swiftly out along Shore Street and past the pier. A few well-wishers have gathered, along with some curious visitors. There’s a real feeling of pride and excitement to be part of this onion of experience: I, Lisa, am but a small cog in a small crew, drawn from a small club in a small community. Yet, here we are, taking part in an event which navigates, describes and cherishes the shorelines of our country.
The reflections of fishing boats and clouds melt away at the touch from our oar tips, and the rhythm settles into that melody I love so much: swoosh, creak, clunk, plonk, swoosh, creak, clunk, plonk. The sound of the oars entering the water (as imperceptibly as possible, sometimes barely a whisper) and that fat, rich rushing of water as we pull back and out, never fail to lift my spirits.
I love to row stroke, for lots of reasons. I’m quite tall and I have long monkey-arms, so this position gives me lots of room. I also really enjoy the view, the sense of space. But musically, there is a thrill in falling into a rhythm together, knowing the others are there because I hear them. Each oar has a slightly different clunking sound at a slightly different interval (it’s to do with the construction of the pins, I’m told – the traversing of the plate by the shaft of the oar), and the collected effect is mesmerising. Listening to this is what gets me through some of the tough times, when you don’t have much else to keep you going.
As we leave the shelter of Ullapool harbour, we are met by the first fingertips of the Minch, reaching deep into Lochbroom on the tide. The waters around the point can be like two completely different beings; you’d never think it was one body of water. And it isn’t, when you think about it. The calm, still, pond-like quality of the shallows close-in is a continuation of human habitat. The untamed waters rushing forwards have mixed with the open ocean, have carried the whales and the orcas, and have breathed the Arctic air.
Once we settle on the swell, we make steady progress. Those on the team who think things through will have made sure we are rowing with the tide, not against it. There is plenty onshore to mark our way: Morefield Brae, the lighthouse at Rhue, Isle Martin, Scoraig, and then out into the Summer Isles. A curious fact few people know: the Summer Isles are not fixed. They re-arrange themselves for sport. You look away for a moment and they will have swapped places, just to thwart you. Our position, low on the waves, at their eye-level, so to speak, is about the best place to catch them unawares.
Meall nan Caorach, dumpy hill of the sheep, and Càrn nan Sgeir, (which might as well be Sgeir nan Càrn, rocky rock) appear to float like corks; they almost bob. Iolla Mhòr and Iolla Bheag will be visible at the low tide; otherwise you will see little more than a disturbance in the water. Eilean Dubh looms on our left, the cabin roof glinting brightly in the sun, whilst Horse and Goat (which are one at low tide) glide by on the shore side. The shelter of Tanera Mòr is welcome, and it won’t be long now till we slip into the round-bouldered and pebbled shore at Badentarbet.
The above photo of Coigach Lass was taken last year, on a lovely summer’s day, at Eilean Dubh. We waited there for the intrepid crew from Ullapool who had rowed all the way across the Minch to raise funds for MS. When we saw them coming, we hopped back into the skiff and hollered across to them. They thought we had just chanced upon them whilst out for a picnic, but they seemed pleased when we offered to join them for the last wee bit.
The songs were recorded at Acheninver beach, just below our house. Nuala and Finlay helped me to sing ‘Iomraibh Aotrom’ (Row Lightly) and ‘Seallaibh Curraigh Eòghainn’ (Look at Owen’s Boat) as well as ‘Am Bàt’ Uaine’ (The Green Boat). This last song has lots of verses praising the proud salmon boats that worked the loch until about 40 years ago. This one was supposed to be so fast that they thought she might even have a chance of winning the America’s Cup. Of course, she also had an amazing crew: “gallant, knowing, canny – we know of none who bettered them, in whatever place they met.” Just like us, then! The song was written by Neil Macleod, the Polbain Bàrd, and appears in Roderick F. Macleod’s booklet ‘An Trubhal na mo Dhòrn – The Trowel in my Hand’.
Thank you for allowing us to imagine this wonderful row – hopefully we’ll be able to do it for real some time soon. Good luck and fair weather to the next crew!