Morvern Lines with Iain Thornber 19.09.19

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One of the pleasures of sailing on the West Coast is that there are, surprisingly, still one or two hidden corners to savour and explore. Loch Teacuis, a short sea loch off Loch Sunart on the Morvern Peninsula, is one.  The name is Gaelic and Old Norse and means the ‘loch of the thickly wooded hillsides’, which, in Viking speak, is where long ships were built and repaired.

Loch Teacuis looking south-west to Ardnamurchan. Photograph: Iain Thornber
Loch Teacuis looking south-west to Ardnamurchan. Photograph: Iain Thornber

The earlier history of the area lies in the prehistoric kitchen-middens of Barr and the nearby Island of Risga, the 4,000-year-old chambered burial cairn at Carnliath by Rahoy House (the birth place of the celebrated 19th century Gaelic songwriter and local GP, Dr John Maclachlan) and the vitrified Iron Age dun standing on top of the ‘Giant’s Knoll’ above the entrance to the inner loch.

Access to outer Loch Teacuis is guarded by two narrow channels, Caol Charna and Caol Achadhleac, and to the inner loch by Caolas Rahuaidh. Neither is wide and each echoes the old Gaelic proverb, ‘Tha beagan trocair aig an fhairge, ach cha’neil trocair idi aig na creagan’ – the waves have some mercy but the rocks have no mercy at all, but for all that they are navigable on a rising tide.

Up until the 1940s, when puffers, small Clyde steamers, delivered coal and other provisions to the communities around Loch Teacuis, they always used the Caol Achadhleac route.

According to tradition a Highland bull regularly swam across Caol Charna for some female company.

It so happened that John Maclachlan was courting a girl on the same island at the time. When there was no boat to be had, the story goes that this Highland Poseidon would cross the icy narrows on the bull’s back remarking once to some awestruck visitors, not used to seeing passenger-carrying bulls, that their missions could be described as being somewhat similar.

Before the First World War, anyone who owned a coastal property in the Highlands kept a yacht for pleasure and work because many of the public roads were, and still are, little more than cart-tracks – two wheel ruts and a ribbon of weeds and stones down the centre.

In 1871, three brothers called Newton, bought the 23,500-acre Glencripesdale Estate, including Rahoy, lying between Loch Teacuis and Loch Sunart, which they serviced with the Kelpie, a 98ft long, 102-ton, twin-screw, steam yacht and two other vessels. It was said that to keep the Kelpie’s crews occupied, they would get up steam simply to pick up lobster pots from behind the island of Carna.

The Newtons were founding members of the Royal Highland Yacht Club based in Oban. One of them, Commander Mark Newton RN, settled at Rahoy and participated in many RHYC activities. After Mark Newton’s death in 1933 and the sale of the estate shortly afterwards, contact with the club was lost until 1965 when Captain Archie Colville arrived on the scene in his magnificent trimaran, the Victress of Rahoy, which he sailed from Great Yarmouth, via Inverness and the Caledonian Canal.

Victress of Rahoy was designed by an American, Arthur Piver, who became world renowned in the late 1950s for his trimarans. Built by Contour Craft in Great Yarmouth in 1964-5 to Lloyds 100 A1 specification, Victress was the first and probably the only Piver trimaran certified to that exacting standard. She was Bermudan rigged, constructed of GRP sheathed marine ply and was 40ft long, 22ft wide and drew only 3ft 6in. There was no blade keel or centreboard and she never heeled more than 10 degrees. Although Victress did have high windage (but little brute momentum) she could be taken into Loch Teacuis at most stages of the tide.

On one occasion on her return from a trip to Skye, she passed through the Carna Narrows by moonlight, with Tilley lamps as head lights hung from under the float cross beams!

There were six berths although sometimes the floats would be used for sleeping in. The only technical equipment she carried was a Brookes and Gatehouse radio direction finder (RDF) and an echo sounder made by the same company. There was a Ford petrol auxiliary motor engine with a hydraulic, fully feathering propeller, but no reversing gearbox. Although she carried no large-scale electronic charts or a plotter, Victress sailed in and out of Loch Teacuis without mishap.

This was due to good navigational skills and also, in part, to an innovative scheme which involved fastening fluorescent metal road-signs onto the rocks and skerries in the Carna Narrows to determine the vessel’s exact position even at night.

For five years, Victress sailed under the club’s blue ensign and was well known on the West Coast. Every year she participated in a number of RHYC events, including West Highland Week, and cruised extensively for several weeks each summer with the family aboard. Victress was also made available to local school children and to Sea Scouts attending the training camps at Ardencaple on Seil Island, enabling many of them to go to sea in a ‘proper yacht’ for the first time.

During the 1966 national seamen’s strike, she delivered much-needed stores to Mull and clays for the annual Morvern clay pigeon shoot. Following Captain Colville’s death in January 1970, the Victress languished on a mooring off Kerrera for a couple of seasons before being sold and refitted. Her new owner used her for family cruises to Norway and Brittany. If her present whereabouts is known to any reader, I would be grateful if they would contact me.

Captain Colville, who was a popular and well-liked resident landowner in Morvern, had a distinguished military career. Before the Second World War he had been a keen canoeist. Shortly after hostilities began, he volunteered for what was termed ‘special and hazardous service’, and in 1942 was recruited by the Small Scale Raiding Force (SSRF) within 62 Commando. Later he joined the Special Boat Service where he became a canoeing instructor.

In the summer of 1943, he trained at Loch a’ Choire, Kingairloch, on one-man midget submarines called Welman. That year he was injured and after convalescing was re-recruited in July 1944 by Special Operations Executive to work on the Welfreighter. These were top secret, 37ft cargo submersibles, designed with the highly dangerous objective of transporting mines and special forces personnel on raiding and sabotage operations in enemy-held ports and coastal waters. Later he served in the British section of Australian units interrogating former Japanese PoW in the Philippines and the Palau Islands before returning to Australia and becoming eligible for repatriation. He was demobbed in 1946 and remained a keen canoeist all through his life.

When Archie Colville was serving in the Far East at the end of the war, he sailed in local fishing craft with outriggers which, it is thought by his family, may have led him towards acquiring a trimaran.

Given Morvern’s long association with the RHYC, Loch Teacuis, although challenging, would seem an appropriate place for an annual muster. I hope one day this may come to fruition.

Iain Thornber