Morvern Lines – 21.5.20

The skipper, centre, with the mate and steward in Oban.

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There is something noticeably missing for those of us who look out over the water. This time last year the seaways from the Clyde estuary to the Outer Isles and beyond were dancing with yachts and boats of all shapes, sizes and colours. Anchorages and pontoons were thriving and chandlers’ tills were singing like spring larks. Only the wake of the sonorous CalMac ferries, the Glensanda bulk carriers and a few other commercial vessels, disturb the shore birds along the Sound of Mull now.  The world pandemic has seen to that.

Oban, with its sheltered waters, railhead and ferry terminals lying at the centre of several important sea routes, used to be a popular place for yachtsmen to meet, over-winter their boats and stock up with fuel and food for cruising further afield.

Many well-known boat owners of the past have written about Oban. Chief among them was Charles Cotterell Lynam (1859-1938) who wrote three books. The original Log of the Blue Dragon; The Log of Blue Dragon II and To Norway and the North Cape in Blue Dragon II.

Blue Dragon II was left in Norway at the start of the First World War and Lynam got into trouble for selling it to a Norwegian in 1916.  After the war he bought another yacht which became Blue Dragon III.  He did not put the subsequent logs together himself but most of them were published in the Dragon School magazine.  They were collected from there and put into book form by the late Jim Pitts in 2000.  Lynam kept his yacht at Kerrera from 1922 until his last cruise in 1935.

Charles Lynam was an undergraduate at Hertford College in Oxford, before joining the staff of the Oxford Preparatory School in 1882. Four years later the headmaster, Rev AE Clarke, died suddenly and Charles took over until 1920. He said, ‘I hate to be called Sir every half-minute; I prefer to be called Skipper’ – a name that stuck for the rest of his life. The Dragon School was and still is one of the most famous feeder schools in the world sending pupils to Shrewsbury, Harrow, Rugby, Canford, Cheltenham Ladies, Eton, Radley, Marlborough and many others.

It is the original Log of the Blue Dragon (published in 1908) which, of course, is of greater interest to those of us who live on the west coast. If you are lucky enough to have one, treasure it; if you see one for sale snap it up as they are becoming very scarce. The text is brilliant, full of wit and pithy comments as you would imagine, the photographs are acceptable considering the cameras and development process of the time; the sketches have little artistic merit; however, they catch the atmosphere and bring the book to life. Before going on to quote from the Skipper’s logs – sometimes written in the third person – here are some of the original Blue Dragon’s measurements: Length overall – 25ft; length on water-line – 19ft 6ins; maximum beam – 9ft; draft plate down – 5ft 3ins; mast, truck to step – 27ft; boom – 14ft 2ins; weight (Lloyd’s) 7 tons. Luke & Co, boat builders at Hamble, doubled the depth of her rudder and gave her dead wood aft to counteract her tendency to run into the wind on the top of a short wave, while John Munro, owner of the Kerrera yard and chandlery in George Street, fitted her with a new and stronger mast, mainsail and jib. The one thing lacking was a coke-stove especially for winter-cruising.

The Sound of Mull has no yachts in it now…

The summer cruise 1893: ‘On August 18, we rounded Ardnamurchan for the first time and sailing past Muck we ran through the narrow passage between Eigg and Elean Castel and anchored close in to the rock breakwater. Here we made our first acquaintance with Sandy Mackinnon who works the big red boat that puts off to the Claymore, and Dugald Macleod who then kept The Temperance Inn. We also caught a glimpse of the venerable proprietor, Dr Macpherson, who was sitting in his sunny garden. Sandy’s sister brought us milk and eggs in the morning and smiled in farewell…At Balmacara we picked up the vicar. He had been to Portree by the ‘swift steamer Gale. At Oban he had spent the night looking for a hotel – rather a needless search one would think in that town…On August 29, we sailed for Loch Carron…and were rash enough to beat through the narrows in the darkness to Plockton. It was very difficult to distinguish the many rocks and islets, and buoys and perches; but having bumped on a rock and banged into a perch the moment afterwards, we anchored in the middle of the bay.

‘The following day the skipper and the mate beat out of Loch Carron, hoping to make Rona Sound but they eventually sailed through the Caol Mhor and anchored behind Scalpa in the dark. Here, in the morning, we made our first intimate acquaintance with a crofter’s cottage. An old lady, Catherine Macdonald, gave us eggs and let the skipper sketch the interior of her cabin. The plan is very simple. A low wooden partition divides the single room in two. On one side is a bed, on the other a long wooden seat, and a hearth with peat fire. The smoke comes out blue, through crevices in the heather and straw thatch, kept down by grass strings with stones attached. The bed is home-made, the roof open, with a few black beams across.  The hens stroll in and out at pleasure, and the little highland cattle sniff about.

‘It took us all the rest of the day to reach Portree, and we moored just after midnight. The highland games had taken place, and we watched the rockets reach a black canopy of cloud, above which they burst. As we rowed and drifted, the search light of a big yacht helped us in.’

Two days later they sailed, or rather drifted, at a knot an hour, reaching the Shiants. ‘We landed on the isthmus joining two gigantic rocks with some difficulty, and found two old men – one who was deaf and dumb – with four women and children, the sole inhabitants. One said “tobacco”, and the skipper said “milk”. Taking him on board The Blue Dragon in the dinghy (a risky passage, as he did not realise its tricky ways), we gave him a dram and some tobacco. The skipper went ashore with him, and he gave us some warm milk, all the morning milk of his cow, and a quantity of good potatoes. One woman could say “Fine day”. The little girl was blue-eyed and golden-haired but had no English. We left these lonely people and sailed the sixteen miles to Stornoway in three hours with spinnaker set. Here we made the acquaintance of Mrs Macivor, whose son drove the skipper and bosun to Callernish to see the wonderful standing stones. It is a desolate country we  drove through, bog and innumerable lakelets, and barren rocks.’

To be continued.