Thursday, October 11, 2012

Mills Rocks

In the 1970s, I recall sailing out from Tobermory north west for the Outer Hebrides into a westerly. The destination was ideally Castlebay on Barra but Lochboisdale on South Uist or even Lochmaddy on North Uist were possibilities if we couldn't point Castlebay. Several hours into a not entirely pleasant experience, I remember calling out in a mixture of triumph and relief "I can see the lighthouse on Oigh-sgeir!" (Wrongly pronouncing it "Oy Skeer" - it's actually "Hesker") And my father replied "Aye, but it's not Oigh-sgeir we need to worry about, it's the Mills Rocks."

These are an unmarked reef about 2 miles south west of the lighthouse - potentially right in the path of a yacht bound for Castlebay inevitably being deflected northwards by the wind, tide and lee-way in the days before GPS.

I can't remember now whether we made Castlebay or ended up in Lochboisdale - the Acarseid Mor (Gaelic for "big anchorage") on Eriskay in between the two is another possibility. But the name of "the Mills Rocks" has stuck in my mind ever since.

Not least because of the overtly English name of this reef compared with others I recall from my sailing days in the 70s and 80s such as Bo Faskadale, Bo Vich Chuan, Sgeir Inoe, Dhubh Hirteach et al.

There is another English named rock I can think of - the Lady Rock at the southern entrance to the Sound of Mull. It's allegedly so called because some MacLean chief of old abandoned his faithless Campbell wife (might be the other way round) there to be drowned by the incoming tide. But I've always assumed this to be apocryphal because, if true, why is the name of the rock English rather than Gaelic as reflecting the times?

But there's no doubting the provenance of the name of the Mills Rocks as I chanced upon while browsing maps at National Libraries of Scotland website the other day: Thomas Kitchin's A new and complete map of Scotland and islands thereto belonging of 1773 tells us exactly why the Mills Rocks are so called:-

Another old map on the NLS website notes the rocks were discovered in 1731 rather than 1733 but I can't remember which map that was so can't link to it - if you've got the time to spare, you could probably while away a pleasant few hours looking for it.

Meanwhile, back in the 20th century, I recall in 1988 being on a Calmac ferry (the MV Claymore (1978)) en route from Lochboisdale to Oban and she passed to the north of Oigh-sgeir which is a slight deviation north of the direct route. I wonder if that was due to a desire to be sure of avoiding Mills Rocks to the south of Oigh-sgeir? Do today's ferries with the benefit of GPS still make a similar detour? (Can they pronounce it correctly?)

Actually, now that I think about this, there are other English named rocks. There's a Jemima Rock on the chart above and I can think of Eugenie Rock and Comet Rock between Skye and Harris. All doubtless have tales to tell.       


  1. I well remember, whilst sailing as a guest onboard LochArd (I got there due to Dan McLeod being my father's cousin) him telling me, "If the wind and tide are setting NW or SE the Mills Rocks are a known hazard and best to steer well to the North and East in order to ensure safe passage", i.e. Go round the lighthouse rather than cut the corner.

    He (Big Dan) was acknowledged as being able to awake in his bunk and, within 1 minute, state exactly where his ship was.

  2. Excellent comment, thanks for contributing it.

    What Big Dan had was what would now be called "spatial awareness" although if told that I expect BD would say something like "Ach well, we'll be seeing about that now ...". I expect all of the crew of the Loch Ard knew what they were up to west of Ardnamurchan.