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Fingal's Cave

Author: Susan Gray

When I was young my mother bought our first family record player, and our first record – Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture. There it lay in its album cover, resplendent on our coffee table – a picture of Fingal’s Cave, looking very romantic.

I remembered it, on trips to the West Coast, sailing with family and friends to the edge of Scotland, anchoring at the Bull Hole on Mull, as the tides rushed through the Sound of Iona. But when we passed Staffa, the weather was never right; it was too windy, or a big sea was running. The island would disappear behind us in the spray of the waves.

Many years went by. Family had grown and moved away, but we still had some sailing to do. Four of us chartered a good-sized yacht, to retrace some of those journeys of the past. We sailed up the Sound of Mull and on to Coll, leaving our anchorage to journey on through big Atlantic rollers to the shelter of Gometra.

After lunch (we like to take things fairly leisurely, nowadays) we carried on, towards Staffa. The waters had calmed, and the horizon was silvery. The string of the islands of the west were floating on a sea of mercury. Today, at last, would be the day.

It was a Sunday afternoon in early autumn. The tourist boats were plying their trade, two of them anchored off the island while their passengers went ashore. We circled round, searching for a place where our anchor would hold in the thick blankets of kelp. Three of us would go ashore, while the fourth would stand watch over the anchor.

We pumped up the dinghy, which had sat unused on the deck until now. It was not a large dinghy, and sat low in the water with the weight of three well-rounded sailors, so it took some pulling for the oarsman to get us to shore, round the rocks guarding the small jetty. We had not reckoned on the tide, so low that we could not reach the bottom rung of the ladder on the quay wall, so we ploughed on, around the corner, towards a stony inlet beneath the dark rocks.

Suddenly, there was a strange, balloon-deflating sound. 'Goodness,' my fellow passenger in the stern said, 'we seem to be jet propelled.'

We were: the air escaping from the dinghy was pushing us forward, even as the boat collapsed around us. With a speed belying our years, we leapt onto the rocks, and stood looking at the sad rubber remains floating in the seaweed.

We realised our plight was being watched from above by the tourists awaiting the return of their tripper boat. 'Do you need a hand?' one of them called. 'I’ll go and speak to the skipper.'

Awkwardly, we clambered up the cliff towards the jetty, while a young crewman took the line for the dinghy and towed it round to the boat.

Repartee abounded as we climbed aboard and the skipper set off to take us to our anchored yacht. 'You’re away for a week with three men? Ye must be brave!' two jolly ladies said. 'We’ll be looking out for you on the BBC News.'

Everyone waved goodbye as the skipper turned for Fionnphort and we hauled the dinghy back on board. The patch from a previous repair had ripped away from the bottom. We had been lucky it had happened when a Good Samaritan was available, or it might have been a long dark night on Staffa.

We sailed on past the entrance to the cave and the island slowly faded behind us. On the way home I bought a book of photos of Staffa. They sit now on my coffee table, a replacement for that record, and the nearest view I will get of Fingal’s Cave.