Wings & Water: Scotch and Water

On clear nights, say the inhabitants of Crinan, a village in southwestern Scotland, you can hear bagpipe music drifting across the bay from Duntrune Castle. The instrument, they contend, is played by the ghost of a handless bagpiper.

In 1644, the MacDonald clan laid siege to the 12th-century castle, which the Campbells occupied. A spy for the MacDonalds had crept into the castle, and when he discovered that the Campbells knew about the impending attack, he played his pipes to warn his clan. In retaliation, the Campbells cut off the spy’s hands. Even now, it is said, the unfortunate fellow continues to play—although it is unclear how he does so without hands.

On a rainy night in July of this year, the sound of bagpipes comes not from a ghost but from members of the Mid Argyll Pipe Band, who are playing on the Duke of Normandy II, an old black and red tugboat. The tug, taken by the Allies from Germany’s Elbe River as a prize following World War II, lies moored in a lock of the Crinan Canal. The pipers, wearing black slickers over their kilts, are entertaining a crowd that has assembled on the shore for a ceilidh, a Scottish party. Among the revelers are several members of the Campbell and MacDonald clans, dancing the old steps together.


The Campbell contingent includes 34-year-old Mike Dalglish, one of the two organizers of this gathering. The MacDonald group includes Frances Ryan, née MacDonald, a talented painter and the wife of Nick Ryan, proprietor of the Crinan Hotel, which stands close to the canal. Frances and Nick have a son, 33-year-old Ross Ryan, who is a friend of Dalglish’s. In the summer of 2006, Dalglish and Ross Ryan were sailing on the Sound of Jura between Crinan and the island of Jura. As they entered the bay—called Loch Crinan, though it is not a lake—one of them (they have forgotten which one) said, “Wouldn’t it be great to see this place full of classic boats?”

Being young and vigorous, the two men made it happen. Now, on this July evening, a flotilla of wooden sailboats and motorboats is moored in Loch Crinan, awaiting the first Crinan Classic.

One of these boats is Glance, a green, 53-foot cutter owned by Isabel Hood, a retired teacher from Belfast, Ireland. Both Glance and Tom Tit, a 36-footer, were built in 1894, making them the oldest vessels at the event. Hood races Glance frequently and has won “one or two bits of pots,” as she puts it. Her vessel is likely to be a strong contender in this competition.

Ross Ryan plans to race his own sailboat, Truant, built in 1910 by the famous Scottish boatbuilder William Fife III. Ryan just finished restoring his “wee boat,” as he calls it, and she is fast. Other promising entrants include Tryad, a 33-foot yacht from 1956, and Nan of Gare, a 40-foot cruiser that dates to 1965.

But the first race does not begin until tomorrow morning, and tonight, at the ceilidh, the assembled participants are attending to perhaps more serious business: imbibing. They mingle cheerfully in the rain on either side of a stone rampart that separates the Crinan Hotel from the point where the canal meets Loch Crinan. Nick Ryan and a pretty waitress in a blue tartan skirt facilitate the drinking by circulating through the crowd with trays that briefly are full of Jura whisky shots; the shots disappear at an astonishing pace.

The whisky is complimentary, courtesy of the Isle of Jura Distillery, on nearby Jura. One of the wildest islands in the Inner Hebrides, Jura has only 180 inhabitants, and its sole industry is the distillery, which is located in the village of Craighouse. The islanders have been distilling whisky since 1810, when Archibald Campbell (of the Campbell clan) erected the first still there. These days the distillery, now owned by Whyte & Mackay, makes a fine Highland-style Scotch, less smoky and peaty than its cousins from the nearby island of Islay, except for an extraordinarily strong version called Superstition.

At the 2006 London Boat Show, Dalglish and Ross Ryan encountered a representative from the Jura distillery, who mentioned that the company was looking to sponsor an event. The young men described their idea for a classic boat regatta, and later they received a call from a Jura manager. The two then set to planning a three-day event that would begin with a sailboat race across the sound from Loch Crinan to Lussa Bay, off the island of Jura near Craighouse. During the next day’s contest, the sailboats would trace a large circle in the sound. On all three days there would be separate races and events for wooden motorboats. Throughout, the festivities would be well-oiled by Jura whisky, including a spirit called the Crinan Classic; the 1999 vintage, bottled just for the race, would have an even bigger kick than Superstition.

Like his fellow residents of Crinan—all 60 of them—Colin Tindall, a race officer and a trustee with the Royal Highland Yacht Club, is at the ceilidh. Standing on a small bridge over the canal, he explains how the race will be organized. “It’s impossible, really,” he says. “These boats are of all ages and all sizes. We’ve tried to handicap them as best we can.” (Racing boats, like golfers, often receive handicaps so they can compete more evenly.) “The sailboats are divided into Class 1 and Class 2: the faster ones and the slower ones, basically. The motorboats are grouped in a single class.” Tindall gestures toward a crowd gazing at the vessels moored in the bay. “At the end of the day, it’s best to think of this as a wooden boat festival. People have come here to see these beautiful boats, and the racing is a bonus.”

The rain intensifies. Seemingly oblivious to it, Frances Ryan joins Tindall on the bridge. In addition to running the Crinan Hotel with her husband, she creates vast, spectacular seascapes in oil, mainly with a palette knife. She has shown her work in London and has several clients in New York. “This,” she says, shrugging at the rain, “is what we call Scottish summer. You have to be tough to live here.” She laughs. “You have to be tough and wear a woolly hat.”

Frances and Nick Ryan purchased the hotel 37 years ago. Built around 1795, it is a three-story Scotch baronial building with 20 rooms, a fine restaurant, a library, a lounge, and a bar. The hotel’s phone service is analog, and its televisions receive only four channels. Cell phones do not work there—they do not work anywhere in Crinan—and there is one Internet connection, in a phone booth–type space near the lobby. “The guests like it that way,” says Nick, a stout, gregarious, silver-haired gentleman wearing a bow tie. “They come for the solitude and the sea.”

Any guest seeking solitude has come to the wrong hotel tonight, for the party is growing rather loud. Nick receives a hug from a red-haired beauty: his daughter, Julia. She is married to Jamie Spencer, the hotel’s manager, who also runs a charity in Africa. Over the past 10 years, the couple has been shuttling to and from Madagascar, convincing  villagers there to take advantage of a silkworm that lives in the forest. The villagers now make a decent living selling silk goods to tourists, and they feel much less inclined to cut down their trees for agriculture.

Julia is an excellent swimmer, and soon she will attempt to swim across the Corryvreckan, a fierce whirlpool located off Jura’s northern tip. In 1945, a man named Eric Blair almost died in the Corryvreckan. He had come to the island of Jura to escape London society and write a novel. He considered titling the book The Last Man in Europe, but instead he settled on Nineteen Eighty-Four. Blair, aka George Orwell, saved himself from the whirlpool by clinging to a rock.

On the morning of the first race, Isabel Hood crouches at the helm of Glance. The weather has improved somewhat, but she keeps her yellow rain suit within close reach. Her friend Davie Campbell, also a former teacher, busies himself with the sails. He delegates some of his duties to Graham Kilgour of Dunlop, Scotland, and Kilgour’s 11-year-old son, Christopher, who are coming along for the ride. Graham has taught school as well, but Christopher says he wants to be a sailor when he grows up. His great-grandfather, Septimus Humphreys, was one of eight members of his family who went to sea, and his grandfather, Peter Humphreys, was a navy man. When Hood or Campbell barks a command, Christopher jumps quickly.

Some 45 sailboats cruise around the loch: cutters (like Glance), ketches, yawls, catamarans, and even a boat rigged like a Chinese junk, with two square sails. A 12 mph wind, excellent for racing, blows up the sound from the south.

A gun fires, and the Class 2 sailboats head off. The Class 1 boats begin moving toward the starting line, and soon another gun sounds, signaling that their race will begin in 10 minutes. Then the five-minute gun fires, and the boats continue jostling closer to the line and to each other.

“Thirty seconds!” Hood cries.

Truant approaches Glance at starboard. The skippers of both boats are trying to reach the line right at the starting gunshot, and Ross Ryan, at Truant’s helm, does not appear willing to give way.

“Give us water!” Hood screams at Ryan.

Meanwhile, the committee boat—  the watercraft that is holding the race judges—is approaching at port. The vessels are heading toward a three-way collision. Committee members gape from the deck.

“He’s not going to give!” Campbell cries.

“Yes he is!” Hood shouts. “Yes he is!”

When the start gun fires, Truant veers starboard across the line, producing a space between it and the committee boat, and then Hood maneuvers through the gap. It is a good start for both contenders.

After catching his breath, the Kilgour boy turns to Hood and asks, “Have you ever had an accident on this boat?”

Hood grins. “Oh, yes,” she says. “There’s a saying: There are people who have crashed a sailboat, and there are liars.”

Humans have inhabited the Crinan area for more than 8,000 years. Argyll County, where the village is located, contains Scotland’s largest number of ancient burial sites, including several Neolithic burial mounds and Bronze Age cairns. The name Crinan is thought to derive from a tribe called the Creones, who occupied the area around the first century.

During the 1700s, canal mania swept through Great Britain. James Watt, better known as the father of the steam engine, helped create a canal that cut through Scotland’s Kintyre Peninsula, allowing ships to avoid the dangerous passage around the peninsula’s tip. Once the canal opened in 1801, it served largely as a means of transporting cargo, first by horse-drawn barges and then by small steam-driven boats called puffers. In 1847, Queen Victoria passed through the canal on her way to a holiday in the Highlands. She apparently found the journey through the many locks tedious, but her trip sparked a surge of tourism in the area, and the puffers gradually gave way to yachts and cruisers.

Today, sailing and motor yachts constitute most of the canal’s traffic, and they frequently stop at the Crinan Hotel, located at the waterway’s western endpoint. Many of the participants in the Crinan Classic have arrived via the canal, some after competing in the 8-Metre World Cup on the Clyde River to the east.

Now they are racing on the Sound of Jura, and Glance has shot to the head    of the pack. The boat is traveling at about 9 mph, tacking frequently against the stiff wind, and each time it does a side of the deck slides beneath the water. Rain spatters the boat, and to the south, over the island, ugly black clouds begin to mass. But Hood does not mind—indeed, she grins ferociously as she works the helm. “Glance loves this!” she shouts. “This is her weather!”

Some vessels, pursuing their own tacking patterns, sail close to Glance. Here comes Barbican, a 32-foot, white and blue sloop built in 1963, reputedly the first yacht to visit Russia after World War II. The Russian navy arrested her owner while he visited St. Petersburg. Here is Svalan, a 30-foot, white sailboat built in Sweden in 1937, grand-prize winner at the inaugural West Highland Yachting Week in 1948. Next is Tom Tit, the teak-hulled yacht from 1894, described by its owner as perhaps the world’s oldest continuously registered yacht. And then Ross Ryan’s Truant approaches, continuing to fight for the lead.

The head position passes back and forth, but Glance is more than holding her own—which creates a problem. Neither Hood nor Campbell knows exactly where Lussa Bay is, and given that most of the racers trail them, they may have no one to follow. “We had the same trouble in a race last week,” Campbell admits. “We basically ended up following the boat behind us.”

But their dilemma appears to be growing moot: The clouds have swept over the racers; rain is driving down, and the waves are swelling to frightening heights. The crew of Glance, now wearing their rain gear, scramble about the deck as they struggle to keep the boat on course.

“Watch the jibe!” Campbell shouts as the heavy boom swings. “Watch it!”

Then from the radio they hear a committee member reporting that Lussa Bay is a mass of whitecaps, making anchoring impossible. Behind Glance, some of the racers already have turned back.

“We’re pulling the plug,” the committee member says. “Race abandoned.”

Glance’s crew swings back toward Crinan, their disappointment mixing with relief. With the wind behind her, the boat hurtles toward the mainland. Because no tacks are needed on this leg of the trip, Hood turns the helm over to Christopher.

“Come on, youngster,” Hood growls. “Show us what you can do.” The boy beams.

Within an hour, Glance has returned to Loch Crinan, and Campbell casts anchor amid the other craft bobbing in the bay. It is midafternoon, still raining, and a few dinghies are motoring from the sailboats to the village. Hood, however, leads her crew into Glance’s teak-lined cabin, where she produces two bottles of Scotch.

“Now,” she says, “for the important part of the race.”

Throughout Crinan, the rest of the day is devoted to Scotch. On the third floor of the Crinan Hotel, Jura master distiller Willie Tait, a compact man with silver hair and a winning smile, leads a tasting of his company’s best. These include the 92-proof Crinan Classic, which he describes as “a big woman who’s going to kick up her backside.”

When Nick Ryan announces dinner, the tasters repair to the hotel’s Westward restaurant, where most order dishes made with local lobster or prawns. Before the meal, Ryan leads a small group to the kitchen, where he demonstrates a little-known culinary practice.

“I hate killing lobsters,” he says, “so I put them to sleep beforehand.” He tilts one on its head and gently strokes its back, until eventually the creature’s legs stop moving.

“Now,” Ryan whispers, “for the pot.”

The next morning, Dalglish and Ross Ryan spread the news that the day’s race has been postponed by one hour, due, as Dalglish explains, “to the rocky physical condition of the participants.” But by 11 am the boats are off again. With their bright-colored sails billowing in the ample wind, they make a pretty picture on the sound. And Glance, it appears, is once again near the head of the pack.

Today, Hood will claim some of the glory that eluded her in yesterday’s aborted race. Around 3 pm, Nan of Gare reaches Loch Crinan first. Glance comes in fifth, trailed closely by Truant. After handicapping, however, Tryad is declared the winner, followed by Nan of Gare and Glance. In Class 2, the winner is Vindilis, a 35-foot cutter built in 1935.

As they did the previous afternoon, many of the sailors remain on their boats for postrace celebrations. Onshore, three pretty young women have donned kilts and “Jimmy hats”—tartan caps with a shock of red hair spilling from beneath—to lead some Highland games aimed at the children in the crowd. In the most popular game, the kids toss a haggis—a Scottish dish that consists of sheep parts, oatmeal, and pepper stuffed in a sheep’s stomach—into floating life rings. One celebrant claims that Scots love this dish almost as much as they do black pudding, which is made of fat, pepper, and pig’s blood.

Such amusements are only a prelude to the day’s main social event, another ceilidh, which begins at dusk. The pipe band appears again, as do the shots of Jura, and the dancing and singing last well into the night. The next morning, Nick Ryan will report that his employees were thankful for the party. “There was some kissing going on toward the end, though,” he will say. “I shall have to hose them down today.”

But tonight, during a band break, a young boy picks up a set of bagpipes and plays “I See Mull,” a song about an island just north of Jura. The song is subtitled “Land of My Youth.” Partygoers become still; some hold hands; and a few dab their eyes, as this lad of about 10, with the freckles and red hair of his ancestors, plays a song that his grandparents played, and that his grandchildren probably will.

Crinan Classic and Isle of Jura Distillery



Crinan Hotel



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