Shags nesting

 What is the difference between the Great Cormorant and the European Shag? Apart from wingspan which in the latter is slightly shorter and apparently differing flight patterns, neither of which features are easy to spot without having both birds present to compare, the only other distinguishing feature seems to be, according to the three bird books in our library, a white patch on the face of the Cormorant and a yellower bill on the Shag. So on that basis we’ve been watching Shags coming and going from their nesting site on the cliffs a hundred metres or so from our anchorage in Tobermoray Bay for the past two days. And they definitely do not lay their eggs in a paper bag no matter what the rhyme may say, rather a mess of sticks and seaweed!

Harbour waterfall

Fascinating as well as fun. Adult pairs feeding their still downy grey young despite the fact that the offspring are as large as their parents. There is at least one adult bird who’s skill at spotting a suitable landing site on the near vertical cliff is a bit lacking, the Shags fly into the cliff at full tilt, folding their wings at the last minute then push their webbed feet forward to cling to a crevice, a quick wing flap to steady themselves and they are secure. Unless you happen to choose a bit of cliff under an overhang and no crevice in which case the bird plummets seawards only just recovering to skim across the surface, fly a circuit and try a again. When departing the Shags often launch themselves off their perch with a splash onto the sea then dip their head under the water, no idea why. Others fly away low over the water to a nearby mooring buoy before setting off on a fishing trip.

On their cliff perch they spend most of their time preening (possibly because their toilet habits mean that the lower birds are frequently plastered with a stream of guano from above). They roost with gentle satisfied squawks, coos and clucks rather like hens in a hen house. They are surprisingly vocal though when a bird lands close to a nesting pair becoming quite a rumpus. Some of the Shags have young, some are sitting tight on twiggy nests whilst other pairs are still fighting over lengths of seaweed with one placing it on the cliff ledge then their mate picking it up and swinging it about, some sort of mating ritual? No idea but it has been a fascinating few days, even more interesting than the waterfall in full spate a short distance further along the cliff which would have made this anchorage unique and enjoyable in itself. The water around Temptress is streaked with the peaty brown water of the stream which has hardly mixed with the clear green of the sea when it reaches us, clear stripes until the boat swings and acts as a giant spoon. The sea itself is so clear that the bottom many metres down can be seen as can large orange capped jellyfish that drift past from time to time.

On Thursday evening we went with Jim from Rona to the Mishnish (a Tobermoray institution) for a pint and some Gaelic entertainment. First up was a small part of the Mull & Iona Pipe Band, two young lads and their mentor playing to raise funds for their planned trip to Glasgow and the World Pipe Band Championships later this year. It must be daunting to play for a pub audience when you are only just a teenager but they carried it off with panache and three pipers in unison was enough to drown out any conversation! Interwoven with their sets were performances by a small Gaelic choir who sang lots of local music including tunes used when musical instruments weren’t available to accompany dancing. The music was varied; laments, songs of the sea, reels and jigs plus a few haunting solos, not what you’d normally expect to find in a bar on a Thursday night, it was wonderful. Jim is hoping to make Ullapool by July 8th for a traditional boat festival so we are hoping the forecast improvement in the weather improves for him.

Another of the joys of this part of the world are the distilleries. Tobermoray has had one since 1798 and so we treated ourselves to a late morning tour of this wonderful grey granite building. Whisky is made from three ingredients; barley, water and yeast. In the big mash pan grist (ground up malted barley produced especially for Tobermoray on Islay) is stewed up with water drawn from a peaty stream up on the hillside above the distillery. It smells quite disgusting. The resulting liquid is drawn off, heated up some more and placed in one of four washtubs, literally a huge 20 foot across two floors high wooden tub renewed in the 1960’s using American pine but with new wooden lids last year.

The final ingredient, yeast is added and the lot left to bubble away for many hours. How many depends on the weather outside, in colder months it can take 90 hours for the yeast to work its magic on the sugars from the malted barley. The smells were much more palatable and the heat being generated was amazing. The froth rises up almost to the top of the tub and then settles back as the fermentation reaches completion. Once the mix is judged ready the beer strength brew is pumped out into a still for its first distillation. A second distillation then raises the proof of the liquor to over 40% before it is shipped away to be barrelled and left to sleep (aged) in a Stirling warehouse. Just six people run the entire process in three shifts of two! The 10 year old Tobermoray was a bit rough for our taste but the smokey Ladaig (pronounced Led-chuck) made with barley that was malted over smoking peat was smooth and treacly, just right for drinking on Temptress of an evening by oil lamp.
The great thing about hanging around in any harbour is watching all the comings and goings. We had fun in Loch Aline on a windy Wednesday afternoon as boats made their decisions on where to anchor mainly it seemed based on where we and a handful of other boats were and not on how sheltered they’d be stuck just that little bit further out into the loch with the wind howling down its short length from the entrance. At least one boat had to move before the evening was out to a calmer spot.

Saturday morning – 2nd leg of the Round Mull race starts

Here in Tobermoray as well as the ferry coming and going, during the course of Friday virtually all the visitors left both the pontoons and the moorings as well as the anchorage, the weather having vastly  improved for those heading further out into the islands or hoping to head south to Oban and beyond. Gales are forecast in every area around the west coast of Scotland except for where we are, Malin and the tomorrow’s forecast offers yet more improvement becoming variable force 3 to 4.

The Hebridean Princess arrived mid-afternoon, her black and white hull making her look for all the world like a Calmac ferry (apparently she once was one but nowadays is occasionally chartered by HM), she anchored down the bay from us with a loud rattling of chain that sounded like a massive thunderstorm below on Temptress and sent us scuttling on deck to see what calamity had happened in the harbour. This miniature cruise ship is now quietly swinging to her chain presumably her passengers will be going ashore shortly. As the afternoon wore on hordes of cruising yachts arrived, Tobermoray on a grey Friday evening seemingly a magnet to every visiting yacht for miles around including the fleet of the Round Mull Yacht Race arriving from Oban. Great for boat spotting and people watching with practical lessons on how to or how not to anchor thrown in for good measure!

We may not be exactly long distance cruising but we certainly are enjoying the superb mountain scenery, relatively flat water sailing (including when it was blowing force eight down the Sound of Mull on Thursday morning) and the lovely harbours and lochs in which to anchor. Kevin is beavering away, fitting the solar panels to their scaffolding as I type this. Let’s hope next weeks promised weather improvements will include some sunshine to test them out in. For now posting this entry will have to wait though, no 3G coverage in the bay but hopefully we’ll find a friendly cafe with wifi soon.

Kerrara – Loch Aline – Tobermoray 31.6nm logged 719nm total