Barra – The Outer Hebrides
The island of Barra in the Outer Hebrides was home for a week for fellow kayakers, Clive, Colin, Ian, Jay, Kay, Martin, Russell and Sid.
Clive organised the travel and accommodation. Martin sorted out sets of laminated maps and charts of the area for each of us.
We have to thank them both, for the hard work they put in beforehand planning out all the possible routes and camp sites. This had to be done, not only by taking into consideration the direction of the currents, state of the tide at any particular time of day, but also factoring in possible weather conditions that might be encountered, on both accounts they succeeded.
Ian, Jay and Sid kindly supplied all the transport.
All I had to do was pack and drive to Jays’, easy. But what to take, with only three cars to carry nine people, nine sea kayaks plus all the kit space was going to be a premium. Have to pack light, few clean T shirts, some underwear and washing kit. The rest would be paddling kit, dry clothes, cooking equipment, water containers and, enough food to last three days and nights camping out on remote islands with no amenities. Oh, I nearly forgot the tent, sleeping bag and thermarest; this lot I might add, would have to fit in the front and rear hatches of my sea kayak. A dry run beforehand was needed, just to make sure it would all fit. With all the items neatly stored in dry bags of various sizes I managed to cram it all in, just. I took the bare minimum; I thought I could get away with. Some of the others managed to take a camping stool, tarpaulin, and even a washing bowl!
Friday 19th September
With everything packed and ready to go, Fridays arrives. On the way to Jays’ I have to pick up Russell and his kit, which quickly filled up the back of my car. ‘Russell you’ve packed two sleeping bags, is that not a bit excessive!’ I on the other hand, have only two medium sized holdalls, having already off loaded my large kitbag to Kay, who on my behalf was somehow going to try to wedge it into Sid’s BMW – we were after all, travelling in a smaller car.
Kay by all accounts, was so lodged in the back of Sid’s car with all the equipment and bags; speaking was the only way they knew she was still in the car!
We met with Jay and proceeded to load up his VW Polo with three sea kayaks and the rest of our gear. ‘Russell, you’re taking two sleeping bags?’ queried Jay. With plenty of room in the back, by one o’clock we were on our way.
An eight hour drive to a town called Bathgate, east of Glasgow. There we would meet up with Colin, Kay and Sid to spend the night in a large caravan, owned by David and Leslie Reade, friends of Colin, who had kindly agreed to put us up for the night.
Heading north in slow moving traffic for a gruelling ten hours, we just made last orders, before meeting up with the others. They also endured a long arduous trip. But the caravan made up for this, very spacious, clean, comfortable and warm.
Clive, Ian and Martin who after a late start, drove all the way to Oban with no traffic holdups. Arriving at one o’clock in the morning, they then had to find a suitable camping spot in the dark and erected their tents.
The next morning while Ian was still sleeping, Clive and Martin were up and paddling from Oban to Eilean nan Gamhna a twelve kilometres paddle – I don’t know where they find the energy.
We however, still tired from the day before, were invited by our hosts into their home for breakfast, much to the surprise of their small daughter, who must have been wondering why six strangers where eating in their kitchen, first thing in the morning!
Thank you, David and Leslie for your hospitality, and for keeping your dogs at bay!
Saturday 20th September
We met up with the other three in Oban, for a lunch of freshly cooked fish ‘n’ chips.
We were only taking two cars on the ferry to Barra, so first we had to unload the VW of all the gear and boats, and then try to find space for it in the other two vehicles.
The five hour ferry crossing to Castlebay in Barra was pleasant enough with not too much swell – well, some thought so, I had to lie down!
With a couple of trips from the port to our accommodation to transport all the equipment and boats, we settled in to our new home, which I might add was second to none, just have a look at the link http://www.barraselfcatering.co.uk the photos really don’t do it justice, as the inside was immaculate.
Kay soon sorted out our evening meal of goat curry, which Sid’s wife had kindly prepared and cooked for us all to eat when we arrived; it was soon devoured.
With everyone full, discussions soon got around to the windy conditions outside, if it didn’t die down by the morning, it may delay the start of the four day expedition planned for the following day. Martin would check the weather broadcast first thing in morning.
Sunday 21st September
No need to check, the wind was howling outside, great – a nice relaxing day.
Soon after breakfast, it was either Clive or Martin who said ‘we can’t paddle this morning so who’s up for a walk and a spot of fishing? With nothing else to do, we all don our coats and set off – apart from Kay and Russell who had wisely decided to stay in and keep warm.
After about three miles of walking, the rain started and of course, with us all being experienced walkers, we all had with us some food, hot drink and waterproof leggings.
Nope! – apart from Ian that is, all the time smiling whilst putting his waterproofs and drinking coffee. Not to worry, we’re all use to being cold and damp.
Leaving the fishermen to catch our dinner, we carried on over the causeway that links the island of Vatersay to Barra. Walking along the coastal road we came across a war memorial to the crew of a Catalina sea plane, that crashed into the side of the island during a training exercise. What made the memorial so different was that the wreckage was still there, by the side of the road, as a testament to the sacrifice of the air crew.
Before turning back we reached the dunes which divide the island of Vatersay into two. On one side the sea is flat calm, turquoise coloured and with fine white sand.
The other side however, has the Atlantic surf breaking on the beach, and there is not one surfer in sight.
The “short” walk must have been a good eight miles, the fish Clive and Martin caught where so small they had to be thrown back. Never mind, we’ll have to raid the fridge or have one of the homemade cakes brought from home.
The wind had died down in the afternoon, time to launch the boats and try our hands at fishing in and around Castlebay, but not before a quick paddle around the castle, that stands about a 100m from the shore, giving the bay its name.
My mackerel line I was trying to unravel at the time, decided to part company with me right next to the castle, in three metres of crystal clear water. ‘Should have had it tied on!’ came the replies – right!
Numerous mackerel were caught, Kay as usual catching the most. Landing further on a dazzling beach of white sand on Creag Mhor for a quick break, giving the “fishermen” an opportunity to discuss who caught the largest or most fish. With me missing my line they never had much competition.
In all, a six kilometre warm up paddle before returning to our bungalow.
Earlier, Kay and Russell had thoughtfully booked a table for all of us at the local hotel in Castlebay, where we could sample some of the local food and beer, stocking up on the calories before embarking on our tour of the islands the following day, when the only food we’ll have, is what we can cram into the hatches of our boats.
Monday 22nd September
Everyone up bright and early for a quick breakfast and pack the boats. Colin had already started an hour before – the reason being it took some preparation to store all the gear he was planning to take, which included the camping stool!
I, however, was not having a good start, for some reason I had a thumping headache. All I could put it down to was either the local water not agreeing with me or being so far north, but either way the aspirins were not having much effect and, with very little sympathy from the rest of the group it was going to be a long day.
The weather was perfect, a bright September morning with no wind for the first leg of our trip, Castlebay to Pabbay via the east coast of Sandray, a sixteen kilometre paddle. The sea was bright blue and flat, what a lovely start.
We arrived on a fine sandy beach on Pabbay for a spot of lunch and rest, which I sorely needed, only to disturb a family of seals with young pups.
With everyone on top form, I struggled to paddle every one of those kilometres, more aspirin were needed.
The camp for the night was located on Vatersay, a further ten kilometres; I could just about make that. However, there was just enough time to visit the island of Berneray via the east coast of Mingulay, before pitching the tents, a small additional distance of twenty-nine kilometres. Clive, Martin and Sid take up the challenge.
The rest of us decide to take a leisurely paddle back to Vatersay, thank goodness. Tracking along the west coast of Sandray we found a superb beach to take a break, surfing right up on to the sand, again with its own resident family of seals, who seemed a little put out by our arrival, not surprising really, when you consider the outstanding location, only to have it spoilt by six kayakers’ plonked down in the sand spoiling the view.
With the seals patiently waiting just off the beach and us resisting the urge to stay, it was back into the boats.
By this time the surf was looking ideal, perhaps a couple of surfs each before heading back. I’ll just have one last go; well perhaps not. The surf seemed to be getting bigger and realising I’m not too competent at surfing a sea kayak; I let the wave go under the boat. The next thing I know, the wave has broken on the back of the kayak and I’m surfing in, upside down. Luckily I manage to right the boat only losing my hat in the process, much to the amusement of my fellow companions, but it did clear my head for a while.
Having landed on Vatersay, our last stop for day, the most difficult task was just deciding where to pitch your tent, as the views overlooking the sea were just magnificent.
Jay secured the prime spot, an elevated flat grassed area with a raised bank behind, with splendid views of the other islands.
This however didn’t last long – when Martin turned up he pitched his tent right in front! Well, the spot could accommodate two tents! I must say at this point that all the camping done on the islands was wild camping with absolutely no facilities, no roads, no paths and best, no other people. The majority of the islands in the past, where inhabited by crofters who have long since gone.
Russell and Ian, being more practical, decided that the best place to pitch their tents was in a dip next to abandoned and roofless crofter house, with no views of the sea.
This would afford them (they said) a measure of protection should the wind blow up, which it didn’t. It looked distinctly eerie when the sun went down.
In the mean time, Clive, Martin and Sid arrived back looking extremely pleased but hungry, having just completed a forty-four kilometre paddle. The effort they had made was well worth it, for after leaving us at Pabbay, they had paddled nine kilometres to Berneray via the east coast of Mingulay.
There, the three of them had sighted a large colony of seals basking on a beach and also, an Orca (or killer whale by its other name) patrolling the same stretch of water looking for something to eat. From there it was another nineteen kilometres back to Vatersay via Pabbay and the west coast of Sandray.
The sighting was later reported by Clive to the Whale Watch responsible for that area. The person taking the details asked if they noticed any visible markings or scaring on its’ body or dorsal fin, and also if they knew whether it was a male or female. Unfortunately, the only information the lady got was: “it was a lot bigger than a sea kayak, with a large black dorsal fin and looked extremely menacing!” She noted that next time if they came across one, perhaps they could be more observant.
With the evening drawing in, everyone was busy cooking their supper, Russell qualifying as Master Chef with a pre-prepared home cooked meat stew (which had somehow stayed frozen all the way from Taunton), along with a side dish of olives. The rest of us made do with either a Wayfarers’ or a tin supper – or in Martins’ case, noodles, which seem to feature at every meal throughout the trip as his only food source!
With the stars out and a fire to keep us warm, we gathered to discuss the day’s events and the possible routes the following day dependent of course on the weather conditions.
Russell at this point, had not yet decided whether to remove his brand new, full length dry suit he’d recently purchased for the trip and had been wearing all day, or to leave it on and go to sleep in it. Much depended on the generosity of someone undoing the large zip, located out of arms reach around the back of the suit. Needless to say we made him wait.
Tuesday 23rd September
Again a good start to the morning, early breakfast, tents down, boats packed and ready for a full days paddling.
Unfortunately, Ian had realised he had underestimated the amount of water he needed to carry for four days and, would have to return to the bungalow to obtain some more. So, we all paddled back through a strong southerly wind, for Ian to get some more water. However, once we had all landed, out came all the empty water containers from each and every boat.
Back in the bungalow, with no time to waste and a long day ahead, everyone was busy topping up with water, when someone asked “who fancies a cup of tea and some toast ?, that’s everyone then”. While we were there, between us we managed to polish off a large cake that Colin’s mum had kindly baked for us. So much for being self sufficient!
After leaving Castlebay for the second time, we paddled for nine kilometres along the east coast of Barra to a small inlet at Bruairnis before taking a break. As usual, the surrounding scenery was always outstanding. This time sitting on the remains of an old stone wall, which made up part of a small crofter’s cottage, you could see exactly why the original owners built it in such a grand position. With a magnificent view along the small inlet and out to sea, but sheltered by the surrounded high ground, it made the perfect location, if not a bit lonely.
Jay, a wealth of information, pointed out that the mound of stinging nettles close by was generally an indication of a small refuge site use by the previous owners to discard their waste, rather than just tipping it into the sea.
We were not the only ones enjoying this particular spot, not more ten metres away a family of sea otters were going about their business. Not frightened in the least, they carried on swimming and climbing over the rocks as if we weren’t there. To see these animals in the wild was certainly a great privilege and a first for me. But this was only one of many rare sights we’d see on this journey.
Tearing ourselves away, we paddled another ten kilometres to Fuday via Fuidaheigh and Flodaigh. Taking a detour, we travelled through the channel that separates the two islands of Hellisay and Gighay. I wonder who thought up the names for these islands! With both the entrance and exit being constricted, it had the effect (on that day at least) of making the sea in between as calm as a mill pond, dead smooth, not a ripple and crystal clear. Protected on both sides from the wind, it was also very quiet.
A large male seal protecting his family became a tad upset at the sudden appearance of nine sea kayaks. The way he started to swim towards my boat certainly wasn’t out of interest; I soon got the message and moved on quickly.
Half way through the gap, soaring along the ridge on Gighay was a Golden eagle, again a very rare sight indeed.
Reaching the exit we had a clear stretch of water to cross before reaching Fuday, our destination for the day.
The first beach we came to wasn’t too promising, so we kept paddling around the island and, by now, most of us were, how I should put ‘whacked out’ and would have gladly stop anywhere. Martin, undeterred, pushed on until he finally found a suitable site for us.
It was worth the effort. On the west side of the island, we hauled our boats up on to the beach, and carried all our gear up into the dunes. Thick high grass a foot deep made for a comfortable mattress to pitch our tents on.
While we were all preparing our evening meal, a pod of dolphins appeared just off the beach, about eight in total, and treated us to a ten minute display of them using the surf along the shore to hunt for fish. Well, it was either that, or they were just having some fun.
After the sun went down, the air turned quite chilly. With no clouds in the sky and no light pollution from built up areas, the stars appeared very clear and seemed a lot closer than normal.
For the rest of the evening Jay patiently explained the different stars constellations’, also showing us the orbital difference between a shooting star and satellites. Even the worst navigator amongst us now knows how to find north using the stars.
Wednesday 24th September
The wind was blowing this morning in southerly direction, making the trip from Fuday around the top of Barra hard work. Finally, around the top, we travelled down the west coast of Barra, passing the dunes which protect the only commercial airport in the UK that uses a beach as a runway. Admittedly, you won’t find an Airbus taking off, and with not too many passengers, customs would be a doddle.
Covering nine kilometres, we were to stop near Cliad for a well deserved break.
Unfortunately we first had to negotiate the dumping waves before landing on the beach.
Everyone managed to land safely except me. I managed to turn the kayak sideways to the wave and then roll over in shallow water, with the waves still pounding down on me and, unable to roll up because of the depth, I had to wait to be rescued.
With water still in my ears and my pride in tatters, I was then told that such a stupid stunt could have resulted in a neck injury, especially with a fully laden boat. What I should have done is braced into the wave so as not to roll over. This really didn’t sink in until a month later, when another club member sustained a neck injury from a similar occurrence.
Leaving the beach, we had to go round the point at Aird Ghrein, where, an hour earlier, the sea looked very ominous, with large waves formed by a reef crashing all around the point. By now the sea had calmed down slightly, but with a strong southerly wind it was still tough going. But it does have its rewards – seeing the rugged coastline from out at sea gives a different perspective of the islands’ beauty, a lot more I think, than if you were just walking along the same stretch of coastline.
With a further nine kilometres under our belts we stopped for a coffee break, enjoying the shelter of the dunes at Bagh Thalaman. Pushing on to Sandray, our destination for the day, it became quite clear the wind was not going to die down. So between the inlet of Barra and Vatersay a decision had to be made on what we intended to do next.
Colin, Kay, Jay and Sid decide on paddling back to the bungalow, a distance of ten kilometres from the last stop. But first they had to reach the causeway linking the two islands and then to join the calmer sea the other side. Sitting just outside the mouth of the inlet watching them paddling away, I honestly thought they had made the wrong decision, looking at the size of the swell moving down through the two islands and the crashing surf. But with no problems, they all landed safely and enjoyed an evening out in Castlebay.
Having seen them off, we began our final paddle for the day. Travelling along the west coast of Vatersay we were still encountering the wind blowing in our face and the swell coming from the side. After rounding the point at Bioruaslum, we could see the island of Sandray in the distance. A small lobster boat passed by, moving up and down in the swell, the second we had seen all day.
With each of us now moving at our own pace and enjoying the last of rough conditions, it wouldn’t be long before we reached our target, a hot meal and a well deserved rest. Russell though seemed to be slowing down, although he was still paddling hard.
“What’s the problem Russ?”
“The boat filling up with water, my cooking pans are floating about inside and the spray deck you gave me leaks like a sieve” came the reply.
Oh, I offered the use of the bilge pump, but Russell declined, with all the waves crashing about and the thought of swamping the boat at this late stage, it was better for him to struggle on, as the beach at Rubha Sheadair was now in sight.
Within striking distance of the beach, Ian, (never usually one to complain) confided in Clive that paddling this final stretch of water, in the prevailing weather condition, was perhaps not such a good idea. In this particular circumstance he was, I quote “only half an hour from complete exhaustion”. Fortunately, he made a complete recovery.
Hauling all our gear up the beach and onto the grass above, we found the remains of another crofter cottage with a view out to sea – they certainly knew where to build. All that was left standing was the four walls, which at three foot high provided some shelter from the wind; the inside was carpeted in fine grass and a small fire place along one wall. Ian soon recognised the benefits of this camping spot, quickly erected his tent inside, leaving us enough room to do our cooking. The rest of us set about pitching our tents outside.
The first site I had chosen was just too windy and the tent was in danger of collapsing, so down it came, being re-erected in a more suitable position. By this time however, I was so weary, it was just about all I could manage to boil some rice and open a tin of curry.
It became obvious fairly soon, that we were not alone on the island, as there was now something scurrying around our tents. We should have taken more notice of the small burrows, all around the site – only now did we realise just how many there were.
They all belonged to Roland the rat and his mates. Ian, on further inspection, found that his tent was surrounded by holes and proceed to place large rocks over them, in an hopeful attempt to stop them coming out. But it was too just too late to worry.
‘We need some wood for a fire’ demanded Martin, always keen to get one alight. It was now pitch black, but with the use of our dim head torches, we managed to stumble around the island looking for drift wood. We found only a small amount of real wood and some woody looking plants which I think were some sort of seaweed, but we had several arm full’s, enough for a reasonable fire.
Even Ray Mears would have had trouble lighting this wood, but with perseverance Martin eventually got the fire going. Using the cottage walls as shelter, we sat inside, trying to absorb some of the heat from the fire. Unfortunately the chimney (or what’s left of it), was a mere foot above the actual fire, and with the wind still strong, it blew all the smoke back inside.
It was so bad you couldn’t actually see the fire from four feet away. When some of the wood finally dried out, it produced a continuous stream of sparks, which were drawn up the small chimney by the wind, right towards my tent! The others found it quite amusing when, just using my hands, I tried to deflect the burning embers. Luckily, none landed on the material. However, I had to hang the tent up for over two months afterwards, just to get rid of the smell of wood smoke, before I could pack it away.
We eventually gave up trying to talk, as everyone by now was coughing and spluttering and smelling like a smoked kipper; it was time to retire to our tents.
To make sure there was no food left hanging around in any of empty tins or wrappers, I threw the lot on to the fire, before turning in.
During the night, Russell was woken by the sound of happy munching on two large bars of Cadburys’ milk chocolate he had inadvertently left outside his tent. The culprits left a few squares for his journey home.
Thursday 25th September
Being unusually grumpy the next morning, Ian complained that the previous evening, he was forced to stay up for a considerable amount of time after us, as someone had thrown all the plastic wrapping and rubbish on the fire, and being slow to burn, produced so much toxic fumes he was unable to stay in his tent. No idea who that was!
With the site cleared and the boats packed (Clive having left the rest of his Gorgonzola cheese as a leaving a present), we embarked for home.
With good weather, and spurred on by the thought of a hot shower and clean clothes, we cruised back the fourteen kilometres to Castlebay, circumnavigating the island of Muldoanich.
We came across a colony of seals, with the young pups altogether in a large group, only their heads showing just above the water. Only when the large male looking on decided enough was enough and slid into the sea towards us, did we move on.
Nearing the castle I announced to my fellow paddlers I was going to attempt to retrieve my lost mackerel line. “This should be good for a laugh if nothing else” came the reply.
Suitably equipped with Ian’s snorkel and mask, I quickly located the lost line, and made my first descent – about a foot, before bobbing back to the surface, with a helpful comment “you need to vent your suit; you look like Michelin man”, and some eager encouragement. I made two more attempts, but without any weights, all I managed was about three feet down. By now the cold water was finding its’ way in through my seals, it was time to give up, and get back to the bungalow for a hot cup of tea.
The rest of the group, already back the day before, plied us with food and hot drinks on our arrival. Leaving us with some space to get cleared up and refreshed, they decided on a five kilometre paddle before finally packing away their gear.
This being our final evening on the island, we opted for a meal at the local restaurant and some drinks in the bar next door.
Having had a great week together and a few beers under my belt, I succumbed to Kay’s coercion to write a report about the trip. I do apologise if I’ve rambled on too much throughout this article; hopefully Kay will edit and correct all the grammar and spelling errors. I’ve tried to but across my view of the events that happen throughout the week, which may or may not be the correct ones, but there you go.
Friday 26th September
With everyone up early, busy packing and clearing up the bungalow, we still had plenty of time to climb the Sheabhal peak on Barra at 383 metres.
Just over half way up there is a statue of the Holy Mary, which unfortunately we missed completely due to the mist.
With a few navigational errors (and I wasn’t navigating either), we made it back down to Ceann nan Leac.
With the ferry not due to leave until the evening, we had time to do a circular tour of the island, admiring the scenery this time from the comfort of the car.
Arriving back in Castlebay, the local café provided lunch of freshly caught scallops. All that was left to do now was load the boats, finish packing the cars and make our way to the ferry for the long journey home.
I’d like to say a thank you to everyone in the group for such a great time and I’m looking forward to the next trip in 2009.