"Halcyon in the Hebrides" by Bob Orrell is a wonderful book. Well written, engaging, and unusually compelling for a work of non-fiction, this is a book that reveals the Hebrides in what for many readers will be an entirely new light. Most of us who love Scotland's islands travel to and between them courtesy of CalMac's ferries, and I suspect that most of us have at one time or another leaned idly on the ship's rail watching the sails of a passing yacht slip by and wondered how much more freedom we'd have in a boat of our own.
To celebrate 60 years of sailing Scottish waters, Bob Orrell set sail from Fairlie on the Firth of Clyde in his 32ft wooden ketch Halcyon. For most of the trip he sailed single handed, and we follow him as he rounds the Mull of Kintyre and travels up through the Inner Hebrides before heading for the Western Isles. All the time we share his hopes for a window in the weather large enough to allow a trip to St Kilda, though anyone glancing at the route map at the beginning of the book knows what the outcome of this will be.
Even those of us whose experience is limited to large ships operated by professionals will have realised that the waters off western Scotland offer a huge range of challenges to anyone wishing to sail in them. It takes no great insight to realise that the combination of unpredictable and rapidly changing weather, sometimes vicious tides, and uncounted rocks, sandbanks, islets and islands, must make this a dangerous place for the unwary, unlucky or inexperienced. Bob Orrell embarks on this trip as a celebration of 60 years of sailing these waters, having run away form home to serve as a deckhand on west coast fishing vessels at the age of 14. As a result he knows them as well as anyone. Which is as well, because some of the situations he encounters, and successfully overcomes, would have seen many sailors, at best, travelling home without their yacht.
And as we watch Bob dealing with squalls, storms and slipping anchors, or follow him as he embarks on a series of walks culminating with the ascent of Clisham, the reader inevitably begins to hope that he or she will be as fit and active when in their mid-70s.