Thursday, 24 July 2014

Day Four - Mud, Crofters and Tidals

So having pretty much bossed Barra and surrounding isles we hop-scotched our way over to Eriskay; I can’t say we were sorry to leave the wooden pod hostel place, but Barra was a dream and I’d love to go back someday. Patchy grey cloud dominated the sky, a breeze blew about a bit which kept things cool, and best of all no rain to spoil the fun. We were set for a day of days, a bag-fest of astounding proportions, no timetables and restricted only by tide in a bid to explore as many of the tidal islands around South Uist as we could.

     We started with the shrewdly named Orasaigh on the south west coast, a sizable and satisfyingly             island-shaped island with an easily surmounted summit, accessed by a short causeway from the           mainland. Half-way along the causeway we debated the inclusion of a small tump that was home to      some general Uist detritus i.e. bit of old tractor, pallet and/or lobster cage, and I was totally in Camp                                                                  Put-It-On-The-List. 

  As a side note, lately when we’ve been uncertain about whether an island counts or not, the last resort     to calm a naysayer has become “Could you at least have a picnic on it?” I will stick my neck out and     say you could definitely have a picnic on [Un-Named Island]. Ambling up to the summit of Orasaigh     was pretty great, with fantastic views over the sparsely populated landscape behind us and the open      sea laid out in front, the tranquility only interrupted by the chronic chirrup of nearby oystercatchers –                                                  par for the course round these ways!

  Our next destination was further north into Boisdale territory, and a set of tidal islands on the east side    of South Uist. The environment was not the most inviting, sea-weed blanketed rocks and thick, sticky   mud were the only terrain between us and several viable bags so Sam and I got creative in making the   crossing. Sam opted for the Plank of Wood technique, masterfully balancing said plank repeatedly on     various rocks and walking carefully along, whereas I opted for just taking my shoes off and plunging     into the mud barefoot. Not only was my method astonishingly slower (due in part to the squeamishness       involved in sticking my feet blindly into muds of unknown depth), but also failed to take into   consideration what would happen vis a vis footwear once successfully crossed over. This meant that I   was barefoot for the next hour or so as we made our way across oozing mud, barnacled rock, prickly     grass and sharp stones. The silver lining came in the form of actual silver linings as the sun started to         break through the clouds, which always gets me in the mood for enjoying helps me to enjoy the              simplicity of being able to pal around drinking ciders, and we had soon bagged a fair number of the                                                               tidals we had set out for.

     On returning to our car we bumped into a local crofter who obviously wanted a conversation but          wasn’t quite sure how he was going to go about starting one. He plumped for confusionary tactics,    pointing out that my car was not parked in a good place (His house being the end of the road, the next      house probably a good mile away, and not another building/vehicle/thing in sight), and, had a large   lorry come along, would have found it difficult to turn around, however, he also directed us to the note                                              left on the windscreen inviting us into his croft.

Whatever his true feelings about my parking, the conversation was started, and he had a terrific way of talking about six different things simultaneously with intricate cross-references and intelligent links and      jumps all over the place. Subjects covered included crofting, rules for laying roads to houses in sparse communities, Scottish independence, tree growing and re-settling ex-addicts from the mainland on Uist. He was also very excited about his house being in the pictures for our blog, so Eoghann, these                                                                        are for you!

  After that stimulating discussion, we made our way up to Benbecula, to check out some more tidal     islands near the Co-op just over the border. The terrain here was much more enjoyable, sandy beaches   separating the various islands in the bay; a straight forward walk at low tide. We were able to bag a  bunch more islands here before panicking about the tide coming in, which it had done surreptitiously  and by a surprising amount - the small channel that we waded through on the way out was now a river  ten foot deep. There was nothing to do but follow the channel round to find where it looked narrowest   and attempt a crossing. We got wetter than we had planned when we started out, but we just about made                                                                           it back safely!

 Our accommodation was booked at Paul’s Bunkhouse, as we had stayed before and remembered Paul  as a bit of an island hero. Sure enough, when we turned up and were warmly welcomed by his mother,       it wasn’t long before Paul arrived and warned us about the TV crew coming to film him about    something or other. He gave us specific instructions to keep out of the way, but of course Sam had left       his shoes in the car and so off he went and no doubt got in everybody’s way, I couldn’t bear to watch     of course. We had a bit of a chilled one that evening, just a few ciders on the hill behind Paul’s,                    absorbing the fantastic scenery, brightly illuminated greens and blues in the evening sun.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Western Isles 2014 Day 3: More of the same, with an unexpected bonus

The Tender behind the Boy James
Next day was Monday. The weather was still lovely, and we woke from our 'log cabin' at the Dunard Hostel at a suitably early hour. (Note, the structure advertised as a 'log cabin' at the Dunard Hostel, is identical to that marketed as a 'camping pod' at the Ayers Rock campsite on Sanday in Orkney, where a night's stay is considerably cheaper.) We didn't have any specific issues with the hostel per se, as the kitchen and showers were fabulously well appointed, and the lounge spacious and warm, but over the two nights we stayed we found the atmosphere to be somewhat stilted, without any of the Bonhomie we'd found at the Gatliffe hostels of our previous trip up this coast. That they didn't disappoint in this regard second time around suggests this wasn't a case of rose tinted spectacles, perhaps it was because the Dunard seemed to be predominantly filled with a Christian rambling society, and perhaps our ideas of an evenings entertainment don't coincide that well. 

Mingulay from Berneray (Gearam Mhor to left)
Anyway, enough moaning about quiet and respectful hostel guests, and on with the islands. Today was to be a repeat of the last in many respects, with a meeting at the slipway at ten to embark once again on the Boy James for a short trip to the south. We did feel a bit special when we turned up at the boat and Donald greeted us by name as he was corralling the rest of the passengers for today, these ones seemed to be mainly birdwatchers, destined for the island of Mingulay, which was where we headed first. After Donald had helped the twenty or so other passengers off the boat onto the flat bottomed little tender for his assistants Francis and Dewey to take land them at the bottom of the cliffs on Mingulay however, he instructed me and Liam to stay on board, as first of all he was going to run us the additional mile or so to land on Berneray, or Barra Head, the furthest south of all of the Western Isles.

On Berneray
Barra Head Lighthouse
There's not a huge amount of interesting stuff to say about Berneray itself, 2 miles long by one mile wide, rising to a Marilyn and with an imposing Stephenson lighthouse on it's head. Its history has followed the usual trend of these isles, with a recorded pastoral population of subsistence farmers eking a living out of it's thin soil for centuries until they left it in the hands of the lighthouse keepers in 1931, and when they left in 1980 as the light went automatic, the rock was left to the birds and the sheep. 

Approaching Gearam Mhor
We didn't stop for long on Berneray as there wasn't much to do and Donald was waiting, he had suggested that there might be another island we could bag before setting down on Mingulay for an hour or two. At the Western end of the channel between Mingulay and Berneray, facing the full expanse of the Atlantic, lies little Gearum Mhor. Donald and Francis said they'd climbed to the top before, and showed us photos of them on top as proof, apparently there are some remains of human occupation on top, which is confirmed by the website maintained by the Western Isles Archaeology Service, which also has something to say about accessing the island

'The rock ... is inaccessible except from the side next Mingulay, where the face is terraced. These terraces may be partly artificial, as they lead by short traverses to the top, which is flat and covered with grass. A low stone breastwork occupies the face of the rock above the terraces, and the latter have been protected on the sea side with similar breastworks'. 
'As seen from the boat, the remains of those walls were from two to three feet in height, and built of dry stonework; the rock is at least 60 feet high, and as a place of defence it must have been impregnable.' J Wedderspoon 1915. 

On the Terrace
Artificial or not, these so called 'terraces' looked very much like slippery weed covered juts of rock, and even ascending just one terrace would have left us some twenty feet above roaring sea with no handhold to save us if we slipped. We had already taken our lives into our hands once just making the jump onto the rocks from the tender of the James, and were more than content with a photo on the lower levels of the rock without making the ascent to the top.  

Not a happy camper - in fact, pretty scared
Now it really was time to go to Mingulay, and this was one of the islands that I was looking forward to visiting the most. Despite having its own twentieth century evacuation story similar to Sandray, Pabbay and Berneray already visited, this one seemed to have stuck in collective consciousness a bit more, with more information available about Mingulay and its people than other places. You can find a jumping off point to read about the sea-birds, enormous sea-cliffs and the Mingulay boat song from our good friends at

Mingulay Bay
 When we arrived we climbed over the clifftops into what would have been the village, just as it started to rain. We made our way up the side of the opposite hill to the structure of the old school yard with the modern warden's accommodation behind, where we met the warden himself and had a chat about the weather and the island. Turned out he knew who we were and what we were doing, so we had a chat about islands in general as the rain started to come down more heavily. It didn't last however, and after wandering around the village for a while taking photos of the buildings and landscape we ended up gravitating towards the beach where a seal was toying with us swimming just off shore, and the rain was rousing up the dried up stream, trying to make it reach the sea. 

Sand House
Abandoned building, used to be a schoolhouse
Then the rain came
Our time on Mingulay was dictated by the crowd who had come for their day trip, and the next stage was back on the Boy James, around the back of Mingulay to get up close and personal with the giant looming sea cliffs, and the bird colonies that live there. Apparently it was one of the best days of the year for this journey, as Donald bravely managed to steer the James through a natural arch with swell rising and falling and not a huge amount of clearance either to the sides or below, the views were absolutely awesome. So was Donald's suggestion on the way back to  Castlebay. If we wanted, he would meet us at his house in Northbay later on, where he had another smaller boat, and would take us on a private tour around some of the small islands fringing the north west coast of Barra. Yes we did want to. No questions asked!

Then stopped again
Weather in action
Sea Cave 
First we had to get involved in the end of the normal service of the day. Whilst Donald was dropping off the rest of the passengers in Castlebay he dropped me and Liam off on another Orasaigh that we had been eyeing up since our arrival, just at the end of the peninsula north of Castlebay. Once the commoners had been dispatched with us boat folk headed over in the Boy James to Caolas, the settlement just over the causeway onto Vatersay, where the craft is kept overnight. It just so happens there's also another Orasaigh there, and this time it was turn for young Dewey to take the motor of the tender and power us over for a quick landing an a photo. 

Orasaigh 1
Orasaigh 2
Donald gave us a lift back to the car at the Dunard, and then we followed him, (as fast as we dared, he knew the roads better than us!) up the east coast to Northbay. In no time at all we were out on the water again and we began a circuit of the many small but big enough islands that sit between Barra and Eriskay. Starting a little down the West coast of Barra at little Healum, we visited about sixteen islands in two hours in total, the largest and furthest away being Fuday, we also stopped at Hellisay, now uninhabited and seemingly uninhabitable, but apparently where Donald's grandfather was born when it was still inhabited, and also little Grianamul, where the ferry pulls across to head into Barra's northern terminal from Eriskay, and where Donald had landed before to pick cockles. There's not much to say about Garbh-Lingeigh, Eilean na Clarsiach, Eilean Sheumais or any of the other mouthfuls, beyond them being pleasant places to stop for a few minutes to take some photos, looking out across the bay as the sun drops low in the sky, with trusty skipper waiting below to lead you across the chain like stepping stones in the great Hebridean mess of a sea. Beautiful.


Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Western Isles 2014 - Day 2: Sand Bowls and Tent Towns

Our second day began bright and early; the beds had been incredibly welcome but we had a date in Castlebay with Donald McLeod, his boat the Boy James, and a bunch of islands, so a lie-in to further review them was out of the question!  The hostel provided us with much needed cereal, toast and coffee, which we thoroughly enjoyed before packing up and heading to the car, acquiring a climber with matching destination as we did so.

Leaving Castlebay
The Boy James
 A short drive to Castlebay later and we were on the ramp leading to Donald’s boat surrounded by climbers on their way to Pabbay, a small, unassuming and uninhabited island to the south of Barra. Although home to some of the tallest sea cliffs in Scotland, climbing them is a relatively recent development with prescribed routes yet to be defined, which obviously added an element of frisson to the mix as our car guest had waited nearly twenty years and joined an elite climbing association to have a go on them!

One of the few remain areas of the country with a number of sizable islands that we hadn't yet visited, the Barra (or Bishop) isles thread their way south from Barra itself to reach the terminal headland of Barra Head (or Berneray) with its clifftop lighthouse. Five of the group are large enough to support a Marilyn, making them popular with summit baggers, and several of them have a history of habitation and human use. Mingulay is probably the most well known, having been evacuated in 1912 leaving the village, with church and schoolhouse, intact. If you want to visit these islands, Donald McLeod is your man, and he knows the waters as well as any. 

Birds nesting on Sandray
 We boarded the boat floating in calm waters, and after everyone was settled and had read the rules, we were on our way. The first stop Donald made, with the help of an able assistant and an apprentice, was to drop Sam and I off on Sandray, small, uninhabited (save for some sheep) and with about 2 hours for us to explore.

The Barra and Vatersay Historical Society note that Sandray was previously occupied but population suffered from emigration to Nova Scotia in Canada, and that it was finally abandoned for good in the 1830's, however Wikipedia suggests it was 1934. Based on the seriously ruinous nature of the walls and buildings on the island, the earlier date seems reasonable, now only sheep-pens and enclosures remain, without even a permanent landing place for the shepherd, just a few points where the rocks are flat enough to jump ashore. 

Sand-Ray - the last visitors?
Awesome sand formations
Updated Sign
 Ciders at the ready, we made our way across Sandray to snuffle out a tidal island Sam had seen on a map previously, whilst taking care not to stand on any one of the gazillion caterpillars scattered around the floor like so many discarded moustaches. When we reached half-way or so, we came across an awesome sand bowl with fun yet scary precariously steep sides, barren apart from a simple rock formation reading “2013”. This called for a brief stop to pal about in the sand and update the rocks, but as time was limited it wasn't long until we continued our journey and arrived at the beach on the other side of the island. We were greeted with a potential tidal island on the far right end of the beach, so we bagged it as it was right there, agreeing to confirm later. 

There were tens of thousands of these guys all over the island
Sandray beach - tidal island?
Sheep enclosures by the landing place on Sandray
 Donald’s boat was heard across the water on his return trip from Castlebay so we hot-stepped it back to the landing zone, and lounged in the warm sunshine until his assistance arrived with a tender to take us back to the boat. Our next stop was Pabbay, supposedly uninhabited , however there seemed to be more people here than we saw on the whole of Barra. A small town made entirely of tents and positively bustling with activity was visible as we approached the island, and more people arriving in their kayaks by the minute. We had less time to check out Pabbay, had we spent more time I would have liked to have seen the Pictish Stone, but at least I have a reason to go back one day!

With a more reliable evacuation date of 1911, Pabbay has a slightly more detailed history than Sandray, but also more tragic, a storm in 1887 having laid rest to all five able-bodied men of the island, leading to the ultimate decline. Now owned by the National Trust for Scotland, there are reportedly only two sheep on the island, which is just enough for it to make it onto our list, though the impossibly picturesque views from the beach and the tranquility of the remote location must make this one of the best too. 

Pabbay Landscape
Ruined house
Pabbay beach
The landing place on Pabbay
On the ride to the next island, Donald took an interest in our bagging activities and cottoned on to what we were trying to achieve. As we explained that the islands need only to be big enough to support a couple of sheep or so, we could see the cogs turning in his eyes as he sought to impress us with his deft knowledge of the sea. At that exact moment, Donald became a True Island Hero and subsequently landed us on the Marilyn island of Muldoanich and the smaller islet of Snausamul (a former prison island!), bagging the last one with us as he hadn't landed there before himself!

On Snausamul with Donald
 Once back in Castlebay and with some time to burn, I insisted that we take the ferry over to Kisimul Castle Island, which had attracted me since we went by in the ferry on our first island trip three years ago. The crossing took only a few minutes and we had a good look around the castle i.e. we went all the ways and read all the signs, even so only taking about half an hour before we were ready to be ferried back to Castlebay.

Kisimul Castle Courtyard
From Kismil Castle
On the ramparts
Inside the walls

 As we were still enjoying gorgeous sunshine we hopped into the car and zipped over to Vatersay to bag it and some of its tidal islands, where we befriended yet another dog on our way who schooled us in a role-reversed game of fetch. The warm weather and beaches of white sand even allowed us a lovely little paddle on the shore before we headed to our second hostel of the trip, the Dunard Hostel right in the middle of Castlebay. 

Vatersay could well have ended up as another of the abandoned islands south of Barra, but its population of ninety are now connected the the services and supplies of Castlebay via the causeway built in 1991. This means prospects are good for the Westernmost permanently inhabited island of Scotland, it doesn't hurt that it is also one of the prettiest.

   Uineasan - Vatersay 
Vatersay Beach
 Having stopped off at the hostel and bagged our beds for the night, the evening was showing signs of closing in, but this far north in May it takes an absolute age for the sun to go down, so we knew we had time to bag a couple another island if we tried. In the end we made a complete circuit of Barra, starting out west on the main road, heading through the village of Borve and the stunning Atlantic beaches of the west coast before looping east again to take the turning to the left at Northbay and on to Eoligarry. 

A quick moment here for a word about the marvelous Traigh Mhor, also known as Barra airport, one of only a handful of airports in the world where arrivals are dependent on tide times, with the small planes landing and taking off along the acres of sand exposed when the tide leaves it behind. Whilst we weren't able to schedule a flight in to this trip, it's still high on the list of things to do when you're in the Hebrides.

Orasaigh - Eoligarry
Last bag of the day 
Barra "airport"
Just past the airport and further along the beach is the large tidal island of Orasaigh (which is what they are all called), and with the sun starting to leave us we made the crossing of the beach at an amble. What with a long day of bagging (eleven islands in total) and still a fair bit of sleep to catch up with from the drive, there was time for a quick sit down on the slope looking back over the beach to the airport buildings and a couple of photos before we headed back to the car and completed the loop of the island to the hostel. Another day with Donald was the plan for tomorrow.