TRAVEL SPECIAL: THE HEBRIDES: FIVE MEN IN A BOAT

ANDREW EAMES SHIPS ANCHOR TO EXPLORE THE WILD, UNPOPULATED SCOTTISH ISLES, THE HEBRIDES, WHERE THE SACRED MEETS THE PROFANE

Somewhere west of Ardnamurchan we had our first breakfast - a fry-up worthy of the A1 - while hove-to in a sloppy sea.

It wasn't a particularly joyful occasion; Guideliner had been banging into a heavy swell all night and the skipper had woken us at first light to express his concern. We were going to miss the tide necessary for the Sound of Harris, and we didn't have enough time for the long way round.

Gloomily, we pulled the plug on St Kilda. So much for sailing to Scotland's Galapagos. The news sat heavily on the smeary faces around the table. "Never mind," said David. "I'll take you where no booger else goes."

And so started a week's journey around God's back yard, on an ace caff with masts captained by a Cumbrian hill-farmer-turned-zoologist.

David Leaver is not your conventional charter skipper, nor even your conventional zoologist. Invalided out of the RAF with eye problems, he had been variously deep-sea fisherman, mountain rescue expert and paragliding teacher, collecting a false hip and assorted bits of internal metalwork along the way.

These mishaps had in no way dimmed his enthusiasm for a seascape he described as "polluted" with cliffs and "littered" with islands, and had created a store of anecdotes perfect for long sea passages. Robust in every sense, one moment he'd be reminiscing about being chartered by five nurses, the next he'd be on his feet exclaiming, "Look at the wings on that stormy petrel!"

The rest of us - variously potty about photography, wildlife and God - were less certain of the ropes, our roles and each other. But when you're five men on a boat, you can predict a pretty blokish sort of humour, so when Gavin, lay preacher and teacher of religious education, interrupted one of David's nurse reminiscences with an innocent "Is that just a common shag?" the giggles were instant. Testosterone was going to be a problem.

Guideliner surged along the coast of Eigg, reeking of fried bread. By midday, we'd crossed to Rum, the slop was gone and the sun had come, painting the seascape in watercolour shades of liquid blue. The pilot book, in its dry, mind-the-buoys manner, described the area as "relatively lacking in artificial marks". Quite right, it was. In the Hebrides, nature needs no embellishment.

Rum certainly had none. It is a real brooder of an island, with steep, dark charisma, a reputation as a forbidden place of huge midges. It glittered like mica with the rainfall of previous days and waterfalls hung like frayed rope in the mountains.

On the quay, a line of twitchers were shouting "eagle" and gesticulating at an empty sky. They were probably right. Besides the study of red deer, the island has seen the successful re- introduction of sea eagles, but its human history is much less innocent. In the early part of this century, it functioned, according to warden Clive Hollingworth, as a sort of royal brothel.

These rum goings-on took place in Kinloch Castle, an overblown shooting lodge in turreted Arran sandstone. Built in 1901 by textile millionaire Sir George Bullough, complete with air- conditioning, an eclectic orchestra under the stairs and alligators in the garden, Kinloch has a period sumptuousness to match anything in Hello magazine, and a royal salaciousness that you'd be unlikely to read in Majesty.

Bullough allowed no-one other than his guests and the 130 staff on the island. And for good reason. Edward VII's royal yacht was often tied up outside the bay and all sorts of shenanigans apparently took place in the ballroom, whose windows were designed to be too high for peeping.

In recent years, the castle - with all fixtures and fittings unchanged - became a smart place to stay, which is a bit like running a hotel in the V&A. Today, the castle's doors are open only to interested visitors, pending a decision on its future as a national treasure.

By the time we returned to Guideliner, the ferry had purged Rum of its twitchers, leaving us alone to tack around the north coast towards Canna.

We came ashore among great wigs of bladderwrack. A farmer appeared from his barn with rabbits dangling from his fists. Did he know his dog appeared to be locked in a wrecked Landrover, I asked. "It's on heat," he growled. In the Catholic chapel the holy water stood behind the door in a vodka bottle, the priest came over on a fishing boat from Mallaig. This was what the Hebrides were really about.

The contrast between two neighbour islands couldn't be greater. Rum is rugged, with a lascivious past and a transient population, and Canna is a God-fearing chip of basalt topped by glossy green sward brushed daily by the wind and pinned down by three churches (two Catholic and one Church of Scotland) for 25 residents. Even the old farm machinery seemed to be holding its rusted arms aloft in prayer. This was - for us - to prove the pattern of islands, tacking between the sacred and the profane.

From Canna we sailed in the company of minke whales and sea eagles, in conditions that quickly improved boat-handling confidence. The breeze was stiff, the sky immaculate, and there was disturbing talk of God at the tiller.

That evening Coll (population 150, but only 13 original islanders) felt like a metropolis, with Dutch backpackers in the island shop and a Cajun band from Cheshire steaming up the windows of the hotel bar. The ferry had just been, sending a fresh wave of humanity down the main street. The woodworker - there's a craft scene on Coll - was staying open late. What was the gossip, I wanted to know? "Usually the barmaid," he said. The arrival of a new one for the summer season was something half the population looked forward to. We all agreed, after several pints of heavy, that this season's was particularly striking.

Chugging away from Coll on a limpid morning, we left our trademark streak of fried bread in the still air. Against the pier, the Cajun band were having an authentic Cajun lie-in on the diving boat chartered for their tour.

At Treshnish, seals bellyached on the rocks and vomiting fulmars and fussy puffins rootled around in the cliffs. Just offshore stood a mighty stack of basalt seething with guillemots and razorbills all effing and blinding at each other.

The only human resident was a Glaswegian lady in a tent. She'd come to watch the puffins, and it was easy to see the fascination: the Tootsies of the bird world, they looked like nervous, cross-dressing butlers.

Landfall on Mull that night didn't offer such exotics as a Cajun band or a ballroom of bonking royals, but the hotel had hot showers and a nice bottle of red beejolly (the barman's own description). For a while, the profane seemed to be getting the upper hand again - until Gavin met a crew of fishermen on the quay, and came back with a free cod. It was a perfect parable for his sermon that weekend.

The next day was to be a big challenge for us unbelievers. "Only the totally insensitive fail to be moved by the spiritual qualities of the place," said my guidebook, sternly.

The "place" was Iona, a tiny island where St Columba stepped ashore in 563, transforming it into the Christian centre of Europe. We came ashore just ahead of the next instalment of 600,000 day-trippers. A sculptor, Chris Hall, was adding flourishes to the cloisters beside the cathedral church, a job he'd been doing on and off for 30 years. His is typical of the dedication that turned a ruin into a thriving spiritual centre, but it was these personal stories of dedication rather than any over-riding spiritual atmosphere that really impressed me.

Iona spreads a cloak of mysticism like a sea mist over its neighbour islands. Even the poster for Alternative Boathire talked of "reaching new destinations". Ours was Erraid, an island at the mouth of the Sound of Iona, colonised by the Findhorn community. "Good place for naked bathers," muttered David, testosterone getting the upper hand again as we crept into David Balfour's Bay. Named after an episode in Kidnapped, it could have been a scene from the Mediterranean, minus the floating jobbies.

Sadly, there were no naked bathers, either. The Findhorners were on holiday, said a man. A new garden shed high on the hill stood empty, a tambourine in the middle of the floor, a cross on the window, and a view to make any heart glad.

That night, Guideliner rode at anchor in Ardlanish Bay. In the gloom, the granite rocks looked like dough kneaded by a giant's knuckles. On deck, believers and unbelievers locked horns in a heated "Is God?" conversation that rolled on until we could no longer see each other think.

Next morning we climbed - by now an efficient working crew - upwind to Eileach An Naoimh, clawing back 21 years before Columba. The ruins of St Brendan's chapel and beehive cells were simple and stark, but here I found those "spiritual qualities" that the guidebook said I should on Iona. Far more power lay in these unreconstructed walls than in the prayer centres and gift shops. St Brendan's monks had had such dedication that they could make flat stones curve.

St Brendan's place was a fitting end to a voyage that had been planned for St Kilda, but which turned out to be a tussle between God and testosterone. Gavin had polished his sermon right to the last Amen. Trailing clouds of fried bread, we set the sails for home.

TRAVEL NOTES

GETTING AROUND: Oban and Mallaig are the main gateways for ferry services to the Inner and Outer Hebrides, although some boats depart from Ullapool. You can also fly from Glasgow to several of the islands. Andrew Eames sailed around the Hebrides on David Leaver's charter boat Guideliner, for all booking enquiries call 01764 670781. Several other charter boats also follow similar routes, departing from Oban.

STAYING THERE: there is affordable bed and breakfast accommodation on most of the islands, which can usually be booked on arrival.

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