Sunday, 19 August 2012

Stornoway

I had no intention of arriving in Stornoway last night and when I did I didn't like it very much. It has all kinds of unexpected things like trees and people and, wait for it, traffic lights and roundabouts. I was expecting it to be more on the same scale as Lerwick or possibly Kirkwall, so to be driving along (it was a miserable rainy night and so I thought I might as well go for a short drive, but it ended up that I just kept going) the peaty, rocky moorland and suddenly run into an area with trees was rather a shock. There weren't just one or two; it wasn't a plantation of evergreens planted for business purposes; and it wasn't just a patch of stumpy scrub masquerading as a wood. No, these were full on, full grown, tall trees of all different varieties and there were lots of them. 

Next it was the houses that struck me. There were lots of them and I wasn't even in Stornoway yet. I was somewhere called Marybank which turned out to be a suburb of Stornoway. Yes, Stornoway has suburbs. Then suddenly there were cars everywhere and a set of traffic lights and another one and a one-way system and a roundabout and another one. Everyone seemed to be driving quite badly and I wondered if it was me, just not used to being among other vehicles. Then I wondered if they are driving badly, is it because they're all out-of-towners who are as shocked as me by traffic lights and trees and don't know how to handle it?

I drove around a bit, wasn't impressed, called at Tesco which had lots of empty shelves and was crowded with people who were manoeuvering in the aisles as badly as the drivers manoeuvre on the roads. Again I wondered if they were out-of-towners and not used to crowded supermarkets and the etiquette required to push a trolley in a socially acceptable manner. 

So I left. I drove back out and stopped at the war memorial in Kinloch to camp for the night. There was a picnic bench and a nice view and a public toilet (with a shower) just down the road at the Kinloch Historical Society in Laxey. it had stopped raining and I planned a nice evening cooking and sitting outside making use of the picnic bench. But then the midges got me and I ended up cooking in a hurry - quick stir of the pasta, prolonged swatting of the midges - and then securing myself in my van to eat and read. 

This morning looked nice, but as soon as I opened the van doors I was under midge attack again. I gave up any idea of a nice leisurely breakfast sitting at the picnic bench and drove down to the public toilet for a wash. There were no midges there so I made coffee and sat outside the toilets for a while. Not quite the leisurely breakfast with a view that I had envisioned. 

Once finished, I headed back to Stornoway. I thought I should give it another go and as it was Sunday and nothing is supposed to happen on a Sunday due to everyone's extreme religiosity and strict adherence of the sabbath (something which the checkout girl in Tesco had confirmed for me last night) I thought I could wander round and take photos without any people in the way. 

I arrived back in town and parked by the waterfront and the public toilets (30p for the toilets and £1.50 for 3 hours parking during the week - parking and toilet charges are also something I didn't expect, but at least being Sunday I didn't have to pay for parking). After a quick walk round the town I still wasn't impressed. A few interesting looking (closed) shops but mostly charity shops and everything seemed a bit grotty with lots of litter. I didn't take many photos but instead headed across the bridge to the castle grounds to follow one of the walks in my walk book. 

The castle, known as Lews Castle, was built in the 1840s by the then owner of Lewis, James Matheson. It was later owned by Lord Leverhulme who gave the grounds to the townspeople in 1924. The castle itself ended up being used as the local college until new premises were built beside it. Currently the castle is covered in scaffolding and green netting and not much of it can be seen. No-one seems sure of what its future use will be but there has been discussion of a luxury hotel or museum. 

The grounds are extensive and full of those trees. Lots of paths wind their way through it and the walk I had was a four mile loop. I started on the walk a bit further in that the book said as I crossed the river leading into the harbour at the first bridge rather than the second. The tide was out and the river bed was dry and litter strewn so I didn't feel any particular desperation to walk along more of it. 

Once the harbour was reached it got nicer with yachts and seabirds and the CalMac ferry getting ready to depart. This is the one I'll be on this time next week. I followed the path along the harbour wall which was crumbling in parts. I passed the visitor centre (closed, including the toilets, on Sunday). It looked nice inside and the book said it was a good place to stop so I must come back here for lunch before I leave. Outside there were some interesting looking seating/play areas such as seats made out of barrels and an old boat, but some of them were rotten. 

As I got further round the harbour wall I could see the end of the bay and a lighthouse. The path climbed to a viewpoint before heading inland. At the viewpoint I as joined by a man who was waving his family off on the ferry. A born and bred Stornoway man he seemed to like his hometown and so I didn't mention that so far I was unimpressed. 

I followed the path inland alongside the River Creed (appropriate for a Sunday) where another man I chatted to for a while told me it was possible to see salmon (I didn't). At a footbridge I turned right. The book then instructed me to turn left at the first fork and right at the second. I came upon the first fork much sooner than expected but followed the instructions. I should have followed my instincts and not assumed that the first fork was the first fork as it wasn't and I ended up off route. However, I was glad I did. I climbed quite high on what turned out to be a loop and came out at a wonderful viewpoint overlooking everything and everywhere. I could see all of Stornoway laid out before me and could see the coastline on the other side. This reassured me that it wasn't as huge as I'd first thought and it actually looked really pretty from high up. The shining sun probably helped of course. 

As I sat there a man walked the other way and stopped to chat. We ended up chatting for quite a while. He's originally from Durham and is a serious walker. He moved here eight years ago after his wife suggested it. They'd had several holidays here and liked it. Sadly, she was only able to enjoy her Lewisian life for under a year as she unexpectedly died from a heart attack. The gent has made his life here now though and plays the accordion at local pubs. He seemed quite lonely and I got the feeling it was through missing his wife rather than not getting to know people here. 

We went our separate ways and I found my way down to the path I'd originally started on by the harbour wall. The walk I was supposed to be doing would have taken me past a monument to James Matheson so my wrong turning meant I missed out on this. However, if I had followed the walk accurately I would have missed out on the amazing viewpoint. I'd much rather have my version of the walk than the book's so I'm quite glad I went wrong. It might even be enough to change my view of Stornoway!

Friday, 17 August 2012

Getting closer to St Kilda

I arrived in Harris on the first ferry from Bernaray this morning and one of the first things I did when I realised I could get a phone signal was ring to enquire about trips to St Kilda. The lady I spoke to told me they'd had to cancel a trip because of the heavy winds - it wouldn't be possible to land passengers on St Kilda so there was no point in the trip going ahead. The weather should improve over the next few days though and so she said she'll ring me to let me know when a trip is scheduled. As my phone isn't on very often she also suggested that I call again on Sunday to check. She seemed confident that the weather would be the only barrier to me getting to go and that there won't be any problem with either too few passenger or too many. 

I've been finding out quite a bit more about St Kilda over the past week. In Linacleit library and museum I picked up a copy of the National Trust for Scotland's Site Management Plan for St Kilda 2011-2016. At nearly 200 pages long I couldn't believe this was a 'freebie' and checked before taking a copy. But, yes it was. It's made fascinating reading. As well as descriptions of the geology, flora, fauna, history and so on, it also details the issues with running the site.

For example, since the 1950s the MOD (Ministry of Defence) have leased part of the island. Their presence does a lot more than provide a rental income. They take responsibility for providing electricity, sewage and waste disposal systems, water supplies including hot water, and medical personnel, all of which are used by Trust employees and volunteers when on the island. They also provide accommodation for visiting researchers and official visitors and deal with the bringing in of supplies. Also very important, they provide a year round presence on the island and so deal with security and 'policing'. The National Trust only have staff on the island during the summer months and before the MOD's arrival vandalism could and would occur during the winter months by people arriving with their own boats. 

If any environmental disasters happen at the times of year when no NTS staff are present they can also deal with them quickly. An example of this occurred in 2008 when a deep sea fishing vessel ran aground in a storm, and about 8 tonnes of diesel oil escaped to sea. Because of the storm NTS staff were not able to reach the island for two days. In the meantime MOD personnel had put the action plan for such an event into prompt practice and prevented what could have been serious consequences for the archipelago. 

In 2009 the MOD considered automating their base on St Kilda and withdrawing all personnel. This would have had a dire effect on the preservation of the island as in this time of cutbacks the NTS would have struggled to cover the costs involved in providing all the necessary services themselves. Fortunately the MOD have continued to keep their base manned but the NTS have realised their withdrawal could happen and so are working on contingency plans in case this does ever actually happen. 

I've also bought a couple of books on St Kilda. I'd looked at these books in several shops but at £35 each considered them way too expensive and resolved to do an Amazon search when I got home. They're the type of books I might have difficulty finding however. Whilst in Benbecula, I called in at MacGillavray's, a renowned shop for selling everything from sweets to furniture to jumpers and has a good collection of local books and second-hand books. I didn't see anything I fancied in the second-hand section but I did find the two St Kilda books I'd been looking at reduced to £20 each. This is still a lot of money and so I hummed and haa-ed a bit but then decided to go for it. So I'm now the owner of two rather heavy tomes. I'm glad I'm travelling with a vehicle and not backpacking!

Leaving North Uist to go to Bernaray on Wednesday I spotted a road sign pointing to a St Kilda viewpoint. Luckily there's rarely anyone behind on these roads and so I slammed on my brakes and did a quick turn. The road wound up and up towards the MOD listening station (or whatever it is). Just before the top was a layby with a telescope and a panorama depicting what was in view. St Kilda could be clearly seen even without the use of the telescope. Much clearer than when I saw it from Heaval. As I drove back along the coast road heading north I kept the islands in view for a while. 

So now I've seen them from a distance a couple of times, learnt lots about them, and put my name down for a trip. This wind had better die down - I'd be really upset if I got this far and then couldn't go!

Is the weather worse when indoors?

Is the weather better when I sleep in a tent?

People shudder and say 'but aren't you cold and wet all the time?' when I tell them I'm going to Scotland or wherever and I'm going to spend weeks in my tent. I usually respond with something along the lines of 'but when you're outdoors the whole time you don't notice the weather'.

Having spent this Scottish trip so far sleeping in my van, I've started to elaborate on this 'theory'. When I'm all snug in my van and it's windy or rainy or just looks cold outside I'm really unmotivated to go out and do anything. I just want to stay snuggled up in my sleeping bag. But once I get out I realise the weather is nowhere near as bad as it seemed. Even what sounded like heavy rain from inside the van is usually no more than a few drops once I'm out in it.

So I've changed my theory slightly. Instead of thinking that when I'm outdoors the whole time I don't notice the weather, I've realised that actually the weather doesn't seem that noticeable because it's really not that bad. It just seems worse than it is when I'm snug inside.

So when I'm at home or wherever I happen to be indoors, if I'm put off going out because it seems so bad outside I now know that actually it's just an illusion and in reality it's not that bad at all.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Ruabhal

Ruabhal (Rueval) is the high point on Benbecula, the island which sits between North and South Uist and links them via a series of causeways. It's 8 miles long and about 5 miles at its widest. Although small, the island is the main administrative area for the Uists. This is mainly because of the large military base here, although the military presence has been scaled down in recent years. Most people live on the west side and the main village is Balivanich whic hosts the airport as well as a bank, post office, souvenir shop, bakery and restaurant. Further south along the west coast is Liniclate which has a large sports complex adjoined to the secondary school. There is a swimming  pool, sauna, gym and games hall as well as an outdoor sporting area. The complex also contains the island's library, theatre and museum as well as a large cafeteria.

But back to Ruabhal. Sunday dawned a bit hazy and breezy but still a fine day. I drove to the town dump just off the main A865 to park. The turnoff is easy to find as there is a brown sign pointing the way to the Rueval footpath.

From the dump a clear, wide track led towards Loch Ba Una. This path can be followed all the way to the far side of the island to Roisinis from where Bonnie Prince Charlie and Flora MacDonald set sail for Skye.

About midway past the loch I left the main path to turn to the left up the side of the mountain and in the direction of Ruabhal. The path is distinct and there are wooden posts acting as waymarkers alongside the first part. The waymarkers stop near a fence and the path gets a bit fainter, but it's still easy to see where to go. Basically just head for the big lump straight in front of you.

Although steep, particularly near the top, this was not a strenuous walk. The walking book I'm using says it is a four mile round trip, but I doubt this. It took me 45 minutes to walk to the top and I went slowly, stopping every few metres to gasp at the ever-widening view. Descending I took it easy and used my poles as I could feel my knee joints creaking, but even so, it only took 30 minutes.

The view at the top is breathtaking. There is a trig point and a couple of cairns. Even though it was hazy and I couldn't see any distant islands (no chance of seeing St Kilda today), I could still see far more than I could take in. The island is covered with lochs and lochans and seems to consist more of water than land. It was difficult to tell which bits of land were actually Benbecula, just separated by a loch, and which bits were different islands and islets separated by the narrow channels that run between them. I could also see how spreadout the majority of houses were and how few there were in total. I spent quite a while at the top, forgetting all about the wind, just gazing at the 360 degree view.

Flodda

Flodda (Flodaigh) is a small island attached to the north coast of Benbecula by means of a short causeway. I drove over the causeway and parked at the end of the road in the bus turning circle. A sign asks people not to park during the hours of 8.00 - 8.45am and 3.30 - 4.30pm as this is when the space is needed by the bus. An abandoned brown 3-wheeled car is perched at the side of the space rotting away. 

Two tracks lead off side-by-side. The right-hand one leads down to the small peninsula where a resident seal colony can be found. Part way along this track is another abandoned car. This one has been put to use as a display board for the 'Flodaigh Seal News'. An A4 map of the area showing the best walking routes and the best points to see seals (noted as Point A and Point B) is stuck to the inside of the driver's window. On the dashboard is another A4 sheet giving information about the routes and the seals. It said that the seals often beach themselves on the rocks during low tide, sliding back into the sea to go fishing at high tide. So low tide is the best time to see them. I had no idea what the state of the tide was, but as I've seen plenty of seals before and I fancied an evening stroll, I set off anyway.

As I was leaving the car to continue down the track a man came striding purposefully across the moor and over the wire fence. I said hello but I don't think he even registered my presence. He strode past the car and down to the croft house from where a few minutes later I could hear him shouting 'hello'. On my return I saw him striding out back across the moor. It made me think of times of old when people would have visited each others houses in this way. Now most people use a car, but maybe the old ways still continue for some. 

A little further on the track splits, but a hand painted sign on the ground points the way to 'seals'. A little further still another sign on the ground shows the paths leading to Point A or Point B. The information in the car had said that Point A was rougher going, so I decided to go that way first. Although it wasn't particularly difficult going I was glad of my poles to sweep all the bracken away. A faint but definite path led the way through to the end of the point past several pieces of abandoned and well-rusted farm machinery. 

There were no seals to be seen. I continued round the small headland and came to what must be Point B - I could see the path leading back. No seals here either. There weren't many exposed rocks for them to sit on so I guess it was high tide and they were all out fishing. I walked back along the second path, which was much easier going, past more abandoned and rusted farm machinery, back to my van. 

The walk was just over a mile in length so quite a good one to fit into a day spent doing other things. Although it was a shame not to have seen any seals, I have seen them before, and the walk was a nice way of getting to see a bit of yet another Hebridean island.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Bornais

Bornais is a rocky promontory, not quite an island on the west coast of South Uist. The promontory is used by the military for weapons training, but this is infrequent and there were no signs of it today. Literally no signs. I thought at least there would be warning signs advising visitors to heed notices and leave the area if asked, and so on. But there was nothing.

I parked by the church in quite a spacious car park. The church can be found by turning off the main A865 to the left at the signpost for Bornais. After about a mile the road curves to the right. At the curve is a left hand turn leading a short way down to the church.

The church is surrounded by farmland and machair, the sandy land which is a haven for wildflowers, grasses and butterflies. Seventy per cent of the world's machair is said to be found in the Outer Hebrides and all along South Uist's twenty-some mile long west coast is a waymarked trail called the Machair Way. This isn't so much a trail to follow from end-to-end, but more a dip in here, there and wherever takes your fancy sort of trail. There are frequent signposts along the A865 pointing out narrow roads leading down to various access points for the Machair Way along the coast.

Getting out of my van, I chatted to an older man for a few minutes. He's been coming here for 14 years and loves the scenery, but said he's never been down to the end of the track to the promontory. Together we watched a herd of cows wander across the fields to the lochan next to the car park. One by one they all waded in and stood around for a few minutes having a drink and seeming to enjoy the refreshing coolness. It reminded me of scenes in Africa, in my mind I was substituting cows for water buffalo. After a few minutes they waded back out and several came over to the car park. They seemed to be real free-range cows just wandering wherever they felt like. I did notice the hayfields were fenced off though, presumably to prevent them from munching there winter feed too early.

I got my boots on and continued down the road, which quickly became a track, towards the promontory. I spent a long time wandering round the promontory and did a full circle. I came across an information board for a broch and a couple of other ancient building remains, but it didn't say whereabouts they were and neither my walk book or the OS map mentioned them.

As I was midway round my loop of the promontory I came across the broch. It was quite easy to see the entrance and where the inner and outer walls had been. I saw no sign of the other building though. Each time I saw what seemed a likely heap of rocks I wandered over, but if it was an ancient building I was none the wiser and each heap of rocks did seem like nothing more than a heap of rocks even close up.

Leaving the promontory my book instructed me to walk over the dunes backing onto the long white beach. Apparently walking on the side would make it difficult for me to know where exactly to turn inland to see the remains of a castle. The dunes were really tough going however, with no clear path. I was really glad of my poles as I clambered around scaring rabbits left, right and centre. Eventually I came to a fence that extended right over the edge of the dunes and on to the beach. I couldn't see a way down and so ended up having to climb over. I don't like climbing over barbed wire fences at the best of times, but this was quite wobbly too. I realised I'd be better climbing over the fence that followed the top of the dunes and met the wobbly fence at a right angle. This was made of firmer wire and there was a gate on the other side which I could step on to, to help get down the other side. Once this was done I went through the gate and continued walking on easier ground on the inside of the dune-topping fence. I'm sure it would have been easier to walk along the beach and keep popping up on to the dunes to check for the nearness of the castle.

Coming to a second fence, I followed this inland to reach the ruin of Caisteal Ormacleit. This was probably the last castle to be built in Scotland. It was built around 1700 and burnt down in 1715. It's not possible to go inside as the structure is unsafe and also a private house is built on to the side of it. I detoured as close as possible and took a couple of photos.

Then I followed a good path through the hayfields and machair back to the church and my van. The farmers were out in force gathering hay and making silage and I stopped to chat to one for a few minutes. He commented on the good weather that had been here over the past couple of months, unlike the rest of Britain which seems to have been under a constant deluge of rain. He said, if anything, they could do with some rain here now. I have noticed on my walks so far, how dry everywhere is, particularly ground that I'm sure for the most time would usually be very boggy.

This was an enjoyable walk that took me about 3.75 hours despite only being 5 miles. I spent a lot of time on the promontory and it was quite slow going along the top of the dunes. I noticed on the other side of the fence the ground seemed much easier and so if I was to do this walk again I'd stay on that side of the fence.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Wheelhouse, South Uist

I'd spotted signs from the road for something called the Hallan Wheelhouses. I had no idea what these were but decided to investigate. Following signs down side roads and a track I parked outside a modern church with a large graveyard, seemingly in the middle of nowhere.

I then walked down a sandy track assuming I'd know when I got to the wheelhouses. I did even though they weren't signed. There were actually three information boards on the opposite side of the track but they had been placed on the ground behind a bit of a dune, so are not visible unless you go around there. I like poking around and so I found them.

The remains of the wheelhouses are thought to date to the early years of the first millenium. Archaeologists have found evidence of them being lived in for about 1400 years, some of the most continually lived in properties in Britain.

the houses are round and have thick stone walls with entrance passage ways and fireplaces. They also have burial places within them and bodies have been excavated. This seems to have been a way of honouring a respected dead person or as some sort of good luck charm. The houses are known as wheelhouses because of the round sides and spoke-like chambers leading of the main central room. Others have been identified in the area but many are buried underneath the drifting sands and these are the best exposed examples.

I could see that if I continued to follow the track I would have come to the beach, but as time was getting on and I'd only stopped for a quick look, I left and walked back the way I'd come.

The following day I followed a short walk in my walking book entitled 'The Wheelhouse'. this started slightly further south than my walk the previous evening and at first I thought it might be a walk leading to the same wheelhouse. A check of the map showed that this was a different location albeit not very far away.

For this walk, I parked on the side of the one of roads I had driven down yesterday. I then set off across the machair and cultivated fields along a good track for about 1km. Coming to a crossroads of tracks I turned right along a distinct track though it wasn't as good as the one I'd just been walking along. I knew the wheelhouse was somewhere off to the left along here and the book warned me it could be hard to see. I kept veering off to look at any mounds of hollows, but when I came upon the wheelhouse it was actually really obvious. It wasn't as distinct as the ones yesterday, but was still clearly a wheelhouse.

I continued on my way turning right after a short way to head north along the dunes and the beach. Finally I left the dunes to join up with a path leading east and back to my car.

As I walked along this path I kept getting glimpses of the graveyard where I'd parked yesterday. If I was to do this walk again I'd join both together. Walking a bit further along the beach I'm sure I could have come inland at the sandy track I'd followed to get to the Hallan Wheelhouses. It would then have been a relatively short walk along the quiet lanes to get back to my car.

Eriskay

Eriskay is the small island to the north of Barra and to the south of South Uist. It is about 3 miles long and 1.5 miles wide with a high point of 185 metres. The whole island is an undulating mass or rock, heather, bog and wild flowers. The ferry from Barra docks here and there are toilets and showers (£1 if you want a hot one) in the rather nice new waiting room at the pier.

Round the coast a bit, on the west side, are the two villages of Am Baile and Rubha Ban that sit side by side - I couldn't tell where one finished and the oher began. It is here that the Am Politician pub can be found. The pub is named after the ship, the SS Politician, that came aground here in 1941. To the islanders' delight the ship was carrying a cargo of 20,000 crates of whisky to America. At any time this would probably have delighted the islanders, but as this was the wartime and whisky was hard to come by, this was like manna from heaven. The locals carried out their own salvage operation and although some islanders ended up in prison, customs and excise never caught up with the majority and it was a case of 'finders drinkers'. The story was immortalised by Compton Mackenzie in his book Whisky Galore. The film of the book was later shot on neighbouring Barra.

The east side of the island is where the SS Politician actually came aground but this side has no tracks or roads or houses. It looks an interesting part of the island to walk over and Peter Clarke, when researching his book The Timeless Way, did just this and found faint tracks from years ago.

However, today I was just planning to follow a walk I'd found in a little walk book I'd bought in the tourist office in Barra. I parked at the pub and walked past the two graveyards stopping to investigate a couple of small beaches along the way. After the second graveyard the road forked and I took the right hand track which led to the larger beach known as Prince's Beach as this is purportedly where, in 1745, Bonnie Prince Charlie first put foot on Scottish soil. He'd arrived from France and was on his way to mainland Scotland.

All the beaches on this side of the island are take-your-breath-away beautiful: white sand, silvery rocks, clear pale blue sea shimmering in the subdued light. There were clouds, but it was warm and there was no rain forecast. I followed what looked like otter tracks for a while - the tracks looked quite fresh, but I didn't see any. I came up to the road at the far end of the beach near the ferry terminal.

Walking up the road away from the pier I came to the crossroads where I'd earlier turned left to get to the village. This time I turned right and walked a short way before cutting to the left, through a gate and along a track leading up hill to the water purification station. The track ended here but I could see a faint path where people had walked before me veering to the left. My walk book instructed me to walk straight up behind the station however, which I did, clambering over a few rocks in the process. I soon found a faint track again and saw a marker post. I walked out towards the small, still Loch Cracabhaig and then, still following faint paths on the ground and the occasional marker post, headed north through the rocky landscape and over the moor. The ground was spongy with heather and moss and in places quite boggy. Wildflowers were everywhere and these were attracting copious amounts of butterflies of different colours and varieties: red, brown, cream, pale blue.

I was tempted to walk up to the trig point, but decided against it as I was starting to get hungry and I'd not brought any lunch with me. I saw wild Eriskay ponies on the rocks above me. The ponies are native to the island and no more than 12-13 hands height. In the past they were used to carry peat and seaweed around the island, but now they seem to be enjoying a life of permanent retirement. They are hardy and stay outdoors year round. The ones I saw were white, though I think there may be other colours. They have a different stature to Shetland ponies, being a slimmer build.

As the village came into sight the tracks and marker posts began to lead me downwards. I came out on the road but felt I could walk further on the moorland, so headed back up and descended again just above a roadside shrine to Our Lady of Fatima.

From here it was a short walk back to the pub and my van. The walk is only about 2.5 miles long but took me about 2.5 hours. This was because of my many stops to take photographs or just to stare at the amazing views.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Heaval

I climbed Heaval after a day walking on Vatersay. It had been hot and sunny all day and with barely a cloud in the sky and no haze the opportunity to ascend Heaval and see up and down the chains of the Inner and Outer Hebrides and possibly all the way out St Kilda was too good to miss.

I parked in the car park up the hill from Castlebay. At the side of the car park is a stunning house. Most houses in the Hebrides, as I'd also found in Shetland, are not perticularly nice to look at. You wouldn't go to either place to wander round quaint villages as you may do in the Cotswolds. On the whole the houses are functional boxes, often pebble-dashed.

But this house is something completely different. It has a stunning, uninterrupted view over the bay and the castle that sits in the harbour, and the house has been designed with the view in mind. The side facing the bay is almost all glass, with a soaring double height ceiling over the living room. Around the outside overlooking the bay is a large decking area. If I was to move to Barra, this would be the house I would to live in. Actually, even though I have no thoughts of moving to the Hebrides at all, if I was offered this house, I think I'd move anyway.

Enough of the view of a house from the car park. I was here to see the view of the islands from the top of Heaval. By starting at the car park I was already part way up tue 383 metres to the summit. The hill looks like a mini Matterhorn and seems to rise to a distinct point. It looks steep. Very steep. Just below the summit is a statue of Our Lady of the Sea which can just be made out as a tiny white speck from the car park.

Striding out from the car park, I crossed the road and came to a standstill. There was a barbed wire topped fence seemingly all the way along the side of the road. There was a gate but that just led to another layer of fence. Supposedly down the road a bit was a stile. As I was looking the guys from Kent who had been on my trip to Mingulay arrived, along with a girl from their hostel. Four heads are better than one and together we wandered up and down looking for a way over the fence. We did find a stile but it was so rickety it didn't seem safe to stand on, let alone use to climb over a fence. Eventually we decided to go over the fence near the gate as there was a bit without the barbed wire.

Once over it was onwards and upwards. It really is steep and there is no set path, just lots of slightly beaten down bits bearing footprints that show which way people have gone before. Of course, following these can give a bit of false hope, as they could have walked that way only to have to turn back when they could no further.

Ever so slowly, I picked my way through bog, heather and moss. I scrambled over rocks using my hands and poles for support. Eventually I got to the top and the view was amazing. I could make out Mingulay and the other islands to the south. Skye was clear to the east. But best of all, way on the western horizon, I could make out the islands of St Kilda. My first ever view of them. Now I want to go there even more than before.

Photographs taken, view admired, I started to descend. It was too windy and a bit chilly to stay at the top for long and I knew it could take me a long time to get down. It seemed almost like a vertical drop. I'm sure it would have been easier to abseil down. I detoured slightly to the statue and then continued picking my way down using my hands and poles again and sometimes sitting on my bum to get down the bits I knew would jar on my knees if I jumped down them.

Very inelegantly I got to the bottom. I had wondered how I'd fare getting back over the fence with no-one to lean on for support. The other three were much faster than me and I could see them getting back into their car whilst I was still mooching around the statue. The wire was quite wobbly to stand on and so it had been good to have a shoulder to lean on when crossing to go up.

Just before I got to the bottom I spotted another gate further down. This was a proper big wide gate, which if locked, would be easy to climb over. I headed for this and was able to open it and walk through. There was a little ditch to jump over, but that was it. Easy-peasy. I walked up the road and back to the car park where I stayed for a while looking at the hill I had just climbed, the view of the bay and castle, and of course my dream house.

Vatersay

Vatersay is the southern most inhabited island in the Outer Hebrides. It is joined to Barra by means of a causeway. The island is shaped like an apple core with a thin bit in the middle and a chunkier section at each end. The middle bit has a glorious white sandy beach on either side. There are several other smaller white sandy beaches dotted around the island, several of which can be seen from Barra.

The day I did this walk was hot, sunny and almost cloudless. I parked near the Annie Jane memorial and started by walking up to the memorial. This is situated on the cliff by the right hand (east) beach on the middle thin bit. The Annie Jane was a ship taking emigrees from Liverpool to Canada which was wrecked just off the coast in 1853. Three quarters of the people on board, more than 300, lost their lives that day and many are buried on Vatersay.

Climbing over the stile by the memorial I crossed the dunes down to the beach. There were only two other people on it, despite it being a long beautiful beach, easily accessible, and such a nice day in the school holidays.

I walked to the far end and examined a low sea cave then backtracked a little to get up on the dunes and machair for the uphill trek towards the remains of Dun Bhatarsaigh, a 2000 year old fort. There wasn't much to see of the fort, but the views of the surrounding area were magnificent.

The descent on the other side of the dun was decidedly boggy and I was glad of the footprints left by the man walking some way ahead of me. There were waymarker posts but these were not always in the driest of spots. Up over another hill and I was looking out for a standing stone. I went through what seemed to be the remains of a gate - one post remaining with a smaller rounder stone supporting it, and carried on up onto some flat high rocks with great views of Sandray to the south. I sat here for a while, enjoying the weather and the view and trying to work out where the stone was. I realised that it must have been the gatepost I'd seen. Not the most impressive standing stone I've seen but I went back to take a photo of it anyway.

The path continued over machair and down to another wonderful beach. This one was so nice even the cows agreed and they'd all come down to spend the day on the beach. Some were standing, others were lying around - all they were missing were beach towels and sun umbrellas.

As I climbed back up the other side of the beach I came across the man I'd been following and a couple who were walking the opposite way and had stopped to chat. It was the couple's first visit but for the man, who turned out to be a very fit octogenarian, it was his twenty-fifth time. He'd retired at fifty and started leading tours to the islands. He only stopped when he turned 80 and the company he was working for said it had got too expensive to insure him. His tours were mainly with older people and fairly sedate, but he liked to get out walking whenever possible. He was knowledgeable about the islands and I walked with him a short way to the abandoned settlement of Eorasdail. There were only about four houses so this had been a very small settlement indeed and life must have been very hard. Now the cows treat the houses as their own and looked at me very suspiciously as I poked around them.

I walked to another small beach just past the settlement before heading up and inland across the sloped of Am Meall. I could see the modern day village which shares its name, Vatersay, with the island. About 120 people currently live on Vatersay, most of them in this village. I circled widely round the village to reach the beach on the other side of the thin middle bit. This beach was positively crowded by Hebridean standards with many families sunbathing, playing cricket or throwing sticks for their dogs. Walking the full lenght along this beach brought me to the village hall and a welcome pot of Earl Grey and a slice of wedding cake. The man I'd chatted to earlier was in the cafe and I sat with him whilst I drank my tea. I wondered if the wedding cake was left over from the wedding that had taken place in Castlebay on Saturday. The young couple on the boat to Mingulay had come home to Barra as it was the man's sister who was getting married.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Mingulay

I made it to Mingulay. Last night I rang the boatman but I was only the third person to book onto the trip to this deserted island and he needed five as a minimum to make it worth his while. He told me that there was still time to get two more recruits and so I agreed to turn up this morning in the hope that he would be going.

As I drove past the Isle of Barra Hotel this morning I pulled into the car park as this seems to be the only place I can get a mobile signal on the island. His wife informed me that the trip was going ahead and so for the second day running I parked in the small car park in Castlebay, put my boots on, made a packed lunch and stuffed my waterproofs into my bag.

There were exactly five passengers waiting to board the small Boy James. With three crew we had an almost one-to-one ratio. The boat left 2 minutes early and almost immediately we were offered coffee and biscuits. The boat took its time and we circumnavigated several islands and stacks looking at seabirds and the wonderful rock formations and sea caves.

There was a shout. Someone had spotted basking sharks. Our captain slowed the boat right down and took us close to them. They came to investigate us circling the boat, fins slicing through the water Jaws style.

Passing the now uninhabited island of Pabbay we could see a derelict house above the sandy beach. The house, obviously made with stone from the island, blended into the rocky hill and was difficult to see; the island reabsorbing its stone.

Before landing on Mingulay we sailed round the island and up close to the soaring Eagle Cliff. Looking at more sea caves and a gannet colony we then chugged through a narrow sea cave open at both ends, but too long to be called a natural arch.

As we came close to the white beach on which we were to land we could see what looked like a pile of rocks. Closer investigation showed that these were all in fact seals. As we pulled closer they left the beach and flopped into the water, not disappearing, but staying around to watch us.

The boat was unable to land on the beach and instead pulled up to a much smaller boat attached to a buoy. We climbed into this boat and, motor started, moved up close to the rocks at the right hand side of the beach. Here we piled out of the boat onto mollusc-encrusted rocks and then had a short but steep scramble up the rocks and then down to the beach below.

Crossing the beach we then had to find a way up at the other side. We each found our own way that best suited and assembled at the top for the short walk to the old school. This was built in 1894, but abandoned in 1912 when the last residents left the island. Until now it's been left for nature to do what it will. However, this year the National Trust for Scotland, who are responsible for the island, have decided to carry out renovations. Once finished, NTS staff and volunteers will have a base to use when they are staying on the island.

Currently there are two men working on the building and they have been here for a week. They are both local and have a tent to sleep in pitched just outside the building. Work is coming along well with the inside of the building already looking much better than the outside.

Leaving the schoolhouse a track was visible leading to the abandoned village remains. The school is quite a way from the village as the Lady of the island in bygone times didn't want it building too close to the houses as she didn't like the noise of children. The track had been well-made and was defined with a line of stones to the seaward side.

The village itself was fascinating to look round. The houses have all long since lost their roofs and any timber has rotted away. Many walls have fallen down, but those remaining or part-remaining looked very picturesque against a backdrop of wild flowers and rocks. The beach is slowly taking over the houses and some were filled with sand almost to the height of their remaining walls. It will probably take a long time for them to completely disappear but I wondered if one day in the distant future they could be uncovered by a storm Skara Brae style and astound archaeologists.

I walked uphill slightly to the church (also the priest's house) with two of the passengers. Both men are from Kent and are on a sea-kayaking holiday staying at the local hostel which is also the sea-kayaking centre. The other two passengers, a young local couple, who no longer lived on Barra but were back for a wedding, had come over to visit a cousin who was one of the men working on the school. They had not walked with us and we didn't see them again until it was time to return to the boat. The three of us who were still together sat by the church and ate our lunch.

Then the men headed uphill and to the left (west) to the tops of the high sea cliffs (Eagle Cliff) that we had sailed beneath earlier. I didn't go this way as both this and the hill to the north were shrouded in mist and I didn't think I'd see much. Instead I headed to a slightly lower part of the ridge between the two high points. This was slightly below the mist and I though I'd get better views.

The walk climbed steeply over peaty ground and expanses of flat rock. It never got too boggy which surprised me. Levelling out at the top, I walked a bit further across a small moorland plateau to reach the western edge of the island from which I had wonderful views of the surrounding cliffs and stacks. Skuas were soaring overhead but showed no interest in me and didn't swoop down to attack me.

I stayed for a short while before heading back down, picking my way through the springy ground and feeling very glad of my walking poles. Near the church a couple of kayakers we'd seen landing on the beach earlier were setting up camp. Camping is allowed on the island but the NTS request that you inform them first.

Making my way back to the rocks I came across the two Kentish men. None of us could quite remember the way down to the pick-up point. The local couple joined us, but they didn't know either. It wasn't a problem as once we were all gathered the boatman set out in his small boat and once we could see which direction he was heading in we were able to make our way down the rock face to meet him.

Once back on the main boat we were again offered coffee and biscuits. The boat headed straight back for Castlebay and picked up speed so the homeward journey was much quicker than the outward bound one had been.

All in all, the trip last just under six hours with about three hours on Mingulay. Although the weather wasn't the greatest in Barra, it was fine on Mingulay apart from the mist on the high cliffs. There was no wind apart from at the highest points on the island. The boat trip as well as the time on the island all made this a very enjoyable day and well worth the £50 it had cost.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Using my tablet

I'm typing this on my new tablet. After much research I decided to go for an Asus tablet that comes with a detachable keyboard so it can be used as a netbook. It had good reviews, particularly about the aspects that were most important to me. The battery lasts for up to 15 hours; it's light enough to carry around when used without the keyboard (the keyboard makes it heavier, but I wanted a keyboard to use for when weight isn't an issue); it has wireless internet access; and it has Polaris installed which is similar to Microsoft Office (and apparently compatible, though I haven't tried it yet). It also has a camera, bluetooth, and can be used with a USB as well as SD cards.

So, how am I finding it? I'm sitting in the stunning lounge of the Isle of Barra Hotel near to where I've been camping. I came in looking for a coffee and a place to sit and type. They weren't open for coffee but said I could sit in the lounge and then offered to make me a coffee anyway. So I'm sat with a silver pot of strong, delicious coffee, on an orange sofa, in front of a large window overlooking the beach and sand dunes. The lounge itself is airy with big red and orange sofas, a budgie in a cage, a piano, interesting wall hangings and pictures, a shelf of games and three shelves of books, and some very comfy looking leather loungers. I'm getting very distracted looking out of the window and looking around the room.

But, I'm here to test my tablet. I took a few photos of the longe using the camera but have no idea where they've gone or how I save them. I found the Polaris version of Word and I'm tyring to get used to the tiny keyboard. I'm making a lot of mistakes. I've not found out how to copy and paste or how to drag text around yet. I've also not found the delete button and so can only use backspace to clear any mistakes. But I'm learning and when I feel competent this will count towards my 2012 twelve goals.

Barra and Vatersay

Here's a bit of information on the first two islands I visited in the Outer Hebrides:

Barra


The island covers about 20 square miles and is 6 miles long and around 5 miles wide. The highest point in Heavel at 383 metres. The main village is Castlebay which is where the ferry from Oban docks and where the majority of the island's population of about 1300 live. There's a small grocer's shop and a larger Co-op, a few hotels and coffee shops, an Italian/Indian restaurant, a tourist information office, an ATM and a post office. The airport is to the north of the island and is the world's only beach airport to have scheduled flights. As the planes land on the beach the times of the flights are of course tide-dependent.

In the bay of Castlebay there is, appropriately enough, a castle. The exact age of Kisimul Castle is disputed, but there was probably a broch here long before there was ever a castle. The castle is owned and managed by Historic Scotland and the ticket price included the short boat journey over to it.

There is also a heritage centre on the road to the west heading out of Castlebay. Next to the heritage centre is the sports centre with pool and sauna. Campervan campers and wild campers can get a shower here for £1.05.

The filming of Whisky Galore! (based on the book of the same name by Compton Mackenzie) took place on Barra, though the incident about which the book is a fictionalised account actually took place on neigbouring Eriskay. Compton Mackenzie is now buried at St Barr's Church on the road past the the airport.

Barra has several standing stones, cairns and fort remains, reflecting its ancient history. St Barr, a follower of St Columbine, is reputed to have come here in the seventh century. Later the Vikings laid claim before the Macneils gained control. The name Macneil is still common on the island today as can be seen on the gravestones in the graveyard of St Barr's Church.

The island did not fair well in the clearances of the 1800s and many islanders emigrated to Canada. The herring industry was important in the 1800s and 1900s with many curing stations operating along the shore of the bay.

Barra is a mainly Catholic island, meaning the Sunday restrictions found in some of the other islands do not apply here. Looking at the readers' letters page of the Stornoway Gazette has given me a taste of things to come as so many of the letters were contributed by God-fearing folk and had a religious slant to them. One example is a letter objecting to the name of a band that took part in the recent Barra festival. The band was called The Holy Ghosts and the reader objected to God's name being taken in vain.

Vatersay


Since 1991 Vatersay has been joined to Barra by means of a causeway. The causeway was built to make the amenities of Barra more accessible to the Vatersay residents with the aim of enabling them to stay put on their island thus stemming the population decline. The island, which is currently the most southerly inhabited of the Outer Hebrides, now has a population of around 120.

The island is 3 miles long and about 2.5 miles across at its widest. It has an hour-glass figure with its pinched-in middle having a sandy beach running either side. The majority of the population now live in the village of Vatersay situated in the south of the island. There is a community centre and a post office, but not much else in the way of facilities.

Vatersay was inhabited in prehistoric times as well as by the Vikings. In more recent time Vatersay was owned as a single farm by Gordon of Cluny. This was the time of the clearances and the population was decimated. The clearances meant there was also a shortage of land for crofting in the surrounding islands. As a desperate measure a group from Barra and Mingulay 'invaded' and set up crofts under an ancient law which said that anyone building a house and lighting a fire in its hearth on the same day could claim the land. The landlord did not agree and several of the Vatersay Raiders, as they became known, were imprisoned. Eventually the island was bought by the government and the land was split into 58 crofts.

Vatersay is also associated with two wrecks which are remembered with monuments. The first is that of the Annie Jane, a boat taking people emigrating from Liverpool to America in 1853. Although about a quarter of those on board survived the shipwreck, over 300 lost their lives and many are buried on Vatersay.

The second wreck is that of a WWII Catalina flying boat. Although the majority of the crew survived, three lost their lives. A memorial has been erected alongside the remains of the wreckage.




Sleeping in my van

I've camped in my van for the last three nights and I'm loving the freedom of it. I left home much later than planned on Thursday and arrived in Oban just after midnight. I found a free car park, rolled out my bed in the back and went to sleep. I had a really good night's sleep and felt comfortable and safe. It would have been much more difficult to find somewhere to pitch my tent. It was dark when I was driving so I couldn't spot any good camping spots from the road.

On Friday I caught the ferry over to Castlebay on the island of Barra at the bottom of the Outer Hebrides. It's a five hour sail and was calm, clear and sunny all the way. We arrived in the early evening to more sunshine. Knowing the good weather wouldn't last and wanting to explore I drove a full circuit round the island's ring road stopping to take photos of the white sandy beaches and looking for a camping spot for the evening.

I drove over the causeway to Vatersay and followed the road finding more white beaches and a lone seal. I also discovered the remains of a second world war plane crash. This reminded me of walks I've done in the Peak District to see similar remains (a more macabre version of being a plane spotter).

Although I saw lots of nice places I would have had to park a little bit back from the sea and not have had the best view. With this is mind I drove back to one of the laybys I'd passed earlier on the west side of Barra and stopped there. Although it was on the main road there were very few vehicles passing. I had the beach and sand dunes in front of me and a rocky grassed over hill rising up behind me on the opposite side of the road.

I wouldn't have been able to pitch my tent here as the layby itself was covered with loose stones, the hill behind was too steep (and I probably wouldn't have got my pegs into the rock anyway), and the sand on the beach was too soft and the tide was coming in. So having my van meant I was able to camp in an amazing spot and have it all to myself. I kept the door open until quite late and opened it early the next morning, sitting in the doorway to eat my breakfast. Last night I camped here again. Another campervan was parked at the far end of the layby, but it was far enough away for us both to have privacy.

I've put a roll-up bed that I've had for years in the back of the van. It's actually meant for a child and is made up of three foam cushions attached together - two larger ones and one smaller one. When it's folded up it makes a chair, the smaller cushion being the back of the chair; when it's unrolled it makes a bed with the smaller cushion being slightly raised at the head. It fits really well in the van and is where I'm planning to build my bed when I convert the van. Down the other side from my bed I have everything stored and although it looks very packed, it's much more organised than I was in my car.

The more I use my van, the more I'm getting the feel for how I want to convert it. I'm glad I didn't rush into anything. Although most of my original ideas still hold, there are a few things I will do differently and other modifications I've realised would be nice to have.

This doesn't mean I'm giving up on my tents though. When I want to get off the beaten track to places I can't access with a car and when I'm walking and carrying all my gear, a tent will be needed. Also, when I'm staying in one place for a while it's better to have everything set up in one place so I don't have to pack things away in the daytime. I'd also have more room in the back of the van during the day.

Trying to get to Mingulay

Mingulay has a similar depopulation story to that of St Kilda, but it is less well-known and less documented. I didn't know anything about it before arriving in the Outer Hebrides (probably because I'd had no time to research my trip).

The island is about 10 miles south of Barra and so not nearly as isolated as St Kilda. The unpopulated island of Sanday is closer still being only a couple of miles away. Although small (3 miles long and 2 miles wide), it is hilly with high sea cliffs rising to 150m in some parts. It is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a European bird protection area.

Its prolific seabird population (including puffins) may be a reason for protection and tourism now, but in the past the birds were just as important as they were essential for the survival of the population. The inhabitants ate the birds and their eggs, used their feathers and processed oil from them.

Mingulay had a population of around 150 in the 1800s but life became unsustainable and in 1911 the island was finally abandoned. It is now in the care of the National Trust for Scotland.

It is possible to visit the island by means of a boat tour from Barra. The six our round trip allows about three hours on the island and costs £50. Although St Kilda is still my main focus of the trip, I like the idea of visiting an island with a similar story. I always like islands, the smaller and harder to get to they are, the more I like the idea of visiting them.

The girl in the tourist office gave me the phone number of the man who runs the trips, but advised me not to bother calling until the evening as he would be out on a trip during the day, especially with it being such good weather. It was difficult to find a phone signal, but I eventually got one by the Isle of Barra Hotel. It's strange that the main residential area of the island doesn't have a signal and also doesn't pick up radio stations very clearly. Maybe it's something to do with the surrounding hills?

I called, but only got voicemail. I left a message to say I wanted to go on this morning's trip, but of course without speaking to the man I had no way of knowing if it would be possible. Once I moved away from the area I lost my phone signal again, so he wouldn't have been able to call me back. He needs a minimum of five passengers to run the trip, but I was more worried that due to the nice weather he would be full-booked rather than under-booked.

I was up and ready early this morning and drove down to the pier. I watched the ferry to Oban depart and then brewed a flask of coffee and got my boots on. I waited around but there was no sign of the boat to Mingulay, the boatman, or any other passengers. Giving up, I went for coffee at the Isle of Barra Hotel. After 12 o'clock when the tourist office opened I came back into Castlebay and got the girl working there to try to ring for me. Again it went to voicemail.

I really enjoyed having coffee in the Isle of Barra Hotel this morning, so I may go there for a beer this evening. As I can get a signal there I'll try phoning again this evening. If I don't get to speak to him, I'll turn up again tomorrow morning and if the boat doesn't go or I can't get on the trip then I'll head for the Eriskay ferry at 11.10am and start moving up the islands. Mingulay may have to become a place to add to my wishlist.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

July 2012 Twelve Review

I've done a little better this month than I did last month, but still got lots to do if I want to get them all ticked off by the end of the year.

  1. Floating in a floatation tank (I'm hoping to do this in London during the February half term)
  2. Reading at least 10 books from the BBC Big Read list (if I read 10 a year, I'll have the whole 200 knocked off in the next 12-13 years!) - still haven't done anything about this one.
  3. Taking at least one photo every day of the year (this will improve my photography skills, be a photo-diary of 'year in my life', and help me to learn to use my new camera) - I've taken lots of photos whilst I've been on holiday, but not the rest of the month. I'm seeing a pattern here - I'm good at taking photos when I have leisure time but not in my day-to-day life.
  4. Coming up with a fitness plan and sticking to it (the start of my training for Kilimanjaro, though I may not actually climb it for several years yet) - I did a couple of walks on the Cotswold Way 
  5. Leading at least 4 of my own walks (good practice for my walking group leader's qualification) - not led any walks, but I've done a bit more walking
  6. Buying another house (need to get my finances in order first) - nothing done towards this yet. 
  7. Learning to use at least 3 new pieces of technology or computer programmes (not counting my new camera) - I've been taking lots of short video clips. I want to put them together using something like 'moviemaker'.
  8. Doing a writing course (depends on the length of the course whether I'd complete it in the year or not) - I keep carrying lesson 1 of my course around with me and then not getting the time or motivation to do any work on it. 
  9. Getting at least one piece of writing published (paid or unpaid, as long as someone else makes the decision to publish it and it's not self-published)
  10. Making a start on sorting out my photos (putting the prints that are currently still stuffed in packets into albums and getting all my photos scanned into the computer - no way will this be completed in a year, but I'll feel good even if I get started on it) - I seem to have got distracted with developing a book database so I can see the photos having to wait until next year.
  11. Buying a car/van that I can sleep in (and doing any necessary conversions/adaptations) - I've now had a second week camping in my van and have even figured out how to use it as a shower! I'm fairly certain now about what I want doing to it, but it will have to wait until I get back from the Hebrides.
  12. Getting into cycling (even if it's just short cycles along decent paths) - I was thinking of taking my bike to the Hebrides, now I'm not so sure. I still want to but my dad has stored it in rather an inaccessible place and I may not be able to get it in time.