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Travel

Over the Bridge to Skye

There may now be a bridge to Skye but, as Norman Wright discovers, there are still many 'bonnie boats' like the luxury catamaran Seaflower

Scotland's richest jewels are found in its rugged beauty. Shining out from the overflowing treasure chest is the Isle of Skye- one of the brightest of gems. 

Thanks to The Skye Boat Song, which most of our generation probably sang in primary school, Skye is not only-spectacularly beautiful but also one of the best-known corners of Scotland.

The song was written in the late 19th century about the event following the Battle of Culloden more than 100 years earlier, in 1746. It conjures the epic image of Flora MacDonald rowing Bonnie Prince Charlie, disguised as a serving maid, on the choppy crossing from Uist to Skye as he evaded capture by the pursuing victorious government army of the Duke of Cumberland and made his escape to France.

It may not bear scrutiny for historical accuracy, but it's a hell of a story and one which modern tourism promoters must thank their lucky stars for. Even though the island has had a land link since its bridge was opened in 1995, boats and the sea are fundamental to its economy, culture and heritage as well as the awareness created by tales of Flora's work with the oars amid the icy waves.

The MV Seaflower is one of the newest ventures in Skye's long sea story, and the sleek, 40ft catamaran is certainly a bonnie boat- with a touch of romance added for good measure.

Just about to start its second year of service offering luxury sea tours of Skye's main town Portree, Seaflower is the brainchild of Ewen Grant and Janice Cooney.

Ewen, from a long-established Skye family, and Janice, an insensitive care nurse from County Kildare in Ireland, met,as so may young people do these days, while travelling on the other side of the world. 

Janice was on holiday in Thailand, Ewen on a longer trip working for a while after leaving school, was heading for Australia. They met on the beach, kept in touch when Janice's holiday ended and she later joined him in Melbourne where they both worked and travelled.

The couple married and settles in Dublin for a while as they worked out their future plans. They came up with the idea of boat tours and moved to Ewen's home town of Portree, launching the service last May and enjoying great success in their first season. 

Ewen's father and brother both have fishing boats and he was brought up working aboard them during the holidays. 

Their catch from the pots they set and check daily are kept live in underwater storage cages just outside Portree harbour.

"It's a bit of a tourist attraction of Fridays when they bring their week's catch to load onto a lorry which transports the shellfish off to Spain," said Ewen. "By Tuesday morning they are being sold live in Vigo market."

Unsurprisingly, Seaflower's food offerings are based on the Grant family's shellfish catch; they also feature smoked salmon from Salar Smokehouse on the neighbouring island of South Uist. There are also vegetarian and non-fish alternatives.

As well as private hires, birthday and anniversary trips have been popular; Ewen and Janice run day or half-day tours as well as two-hour evening Canapes and Fizz voyages.

The voyages leave from Portree Pier at the harbour lined with brightly coloured buildings and head across the sound to the smaller islands of Raasay or Rona, or both on the full day trip. Rona has two permanent residents and three holiday cottages. The couple have a contract to provide a weekly ferry service to Rona as well as ad hoc trips when needed.

On the tours there is time to have lunch on the boat inshore and time to land and explore the island.

Seaflower is licensed for 12 people and, as well as the spectacular scenery, the cruise will see plenty of wildlife in the sea, the air and on the shore.

Usually the boat pays a visit to Ewen's father's or brother's boat hauling pots in the Sound to give an insight to the work of Island Fisherman.

Make no mistake, Seaflower is a working boat, too. Ewen and Janice can run trips during the day then an evening voyage. "When we get home we then have to prepare the seafood for the next day," said Ewen.

"The days are long in the summer and it can still be light at midnight. After the evening trips we sometimes stay on board with a glass of wine and watch the sun go don."

The couple were expecting to carry mainly visitors to Skye but found that their first season, which lasted long into the autumn because of the good weather, attracted many locals.

"A lot of locals make their living from the sea but have little chance to relax and really enjoy their surroundings," said Ewen. 

We visited Skye in January and the weather closed in to prevent our planned trip with Seaflower. Ironically, as Ewen's pictures show, a couple of days after we left the scene was flat, calm, sunny with a sprinkling of snow on the hills- picture postcard.

Their service is something very different for visitors to Skye, run by a really lovely couple dedicated to providing a high-quality experience. If you love seafood, it will be the freshest you'll ever be served...

To get to Skye we borrowed a 2019 VW Touareg SUV and had a 1000-mile plus return road trip.

Next month we will bring you our adventures in the Highlands- spectacular scenery with just a touch of snow.

You can learn more about Seaflower by checking out their website: www.seaflowerskye.com

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