I’ve just been sorting through old files and have found a large pile of old magazine articles that have never been posted here. I’ll put some up in the weeks to come; this one was published (2004?) in the now-defunct ‘Paddles’ magazine. Hope it’s useful/ interesting.
Mingulay and the Bishop’s Isles
What care we though, white the Minch is?
What care we for wind or weather?
Let her go boys; every inch is
Sailing homeward to Mingulay.
Mingulay Boat song, composed 1938
Mingulay? Bishop’s Isles? What? Where? Mingulay is the largest of the Bishop’s Isles, which are themselves the southernmost outliers of the Outer Hebrides. Viewed on a map, the Outer Hebrides resemble a curving spine of some prehistoric dinosaur. The Bishop’s Isles form the tail, flicking out into the open expanses of the Sea of the Hebrides. For sea kayakers, these Isles represent nothing short of wish fulfilment; superlative scenery and wildlife, and even better, the chance to paddle right out to the most exposed and remote margins ofBritain.
Most folk will have heard of the island of St Kilda, world famous for its inaccessibility, immense cliffs and huge sea bird populations; perhaps even more famous for being inhabited against all odds until final abandonment in the 1930s. Mingulay is much less well known, but bears close similarity. Like St Kilda it is difficult to visit and is guarded on three sides by cloud reaching cliffs harbouring a huge sea bird population. Like St Kilda, it had a well-established community which departed early in the twentieth century, leaving a deserted settlement. Unlike St Kilda however, today it remains uninhabited year-round.
Paddling south from the large inhabited Isle of Barra, there are five main islands. Vatersay is reached first, and is populated and connected to Barra by causeway. Next is Sandray, then Pabbay, then Mingulay and finally Berneray. After this there is only ocean…the Isles have gone by various names, but ‘Bishop’s Isles’ is most common and stems from their sixteenth century ownership by the Bishop of the Isles.
Getting Out There
The Edge of the World doesn’t come easily, quickly or cheaply. Your starting point is the mainland port of Oban. Those familiar with the West of Sctland will need no introduction to the ferry company of Caledonian acBrayne. As the rhyme goes,
“The Good Lord above made the Earth and all that it contains
Except the Western Isles, for they are all MacBrayne’s”
Calmac sail to Castlebay on Barra most days of the week, taking about six hours. The latter half of the voyage is across the exposed waters of the Minch strait, whence over-the-side vomiting may be encountered. Taking a car is expensive and unnecessary. Calmac charge about £20 each way for foot passengers and another £5 for you to carry or ‘trolley’ your sea kayak right onto the car deck. On arrival you can launch right into the water beside the ferry, or camp outside the Police Station (no, really). Castlebay has a good supermarket and is the place to stock up for your trip. There are no more shops southwest of here, until you reach Brazil!
The Isles form a chain, each being no further than two miles apart from one another. From Castlebay direct to Mingulay is only 12 miles. They are however exposed to wind and swell from all sides, and can strong tidal flows can be generated in the Sounds between them. Before setting out, you need several guaranteed days of calm weather and seas. Spare a thought for the group of sea kayakers from northwest England who spent an unscheduled week stuck on Pabbay in May of this year, before being extricated by the Castlebay lifeboat. The Isles may be very near to Castlebay, but if the weather turns against you, ‘near’ becomes a relative concept.
Outside communication is limited. There is no mobile phone reception from Castlebay southwards (teenagers in your group will slowly go insane). VHF radios will be able to pick up Stornoway Coastguard’s useful weather and maritime safety bulletins, but these get harder to receive when sheltered among the Isles. Contacting them yourself is a lost cause with handheld VHF. The seas are quiet, with only the occasional fishing boat to be seen. It’s pretty lonely out there. This is why you came, right?
Perhaps it isn’t quite so lonely and quiet. The Isles may not be inhabited by humans, but they have plenty of residents. In the waters around, seals and porpoise are common, and encounters with whales are not unheard of. Heading south from Barra, the skies become increasingly thick with sea birds. Cormorants and Shags (Shags are the thinner greener ones) fish from every rock above the surface. Both Common and Black Guillemots are there (no, we didn’t know there were two types, either) and the Isles are home to 15% of Europe’s population of Razorbills. Skuas (‘Bonxies’) nest on the hills of Mingulay and fiercely harass anyone unfortunate enough to wander into their territory. Gannets dive-bomb the seas with their daunting speed and mass. The Puffin, everybody’s favourite sea bird…spotting your first pair of puffins on the paddle south is always exciting. Very soon after, the novelty has worn off and the skies are so thick with the little blighters that you can literally swat them out of the air with a paddle swing. Some numbers; the Isles support about 10 000 puffins, 45 000 razorbills, 60 000 guillemots…take a clothes peg.
A further thought…perhaps the most numerous locals are that most deadly and evil of all beasties, the Scottish midge. Take a head net? The good news is that days when the breeze drops enough for the little b+st+rds to fly freely are rare indeed!
Vatersay is only a mile from Castlebay. It forms the southern edge of the bay and its sandy coves may be your first stop-off from Castlebay. Vatersay is linked by causeway to Barra, with a population of about 90. If you find yourself on Vatersay with time to kill, explore the beaches and dunes which link the two halves of the Isles in a 500 metre wide strip. The glorious white beaches here (like all of those in the region) are composed from ground down seashells. Nestled among the dunes is a memorial marking the mass grave of 350 passengers of the ‘Annie Jane’. These emigrants were sailing to the New World in 1853, when a storm wrecked the ship in the bay. Also to be found among the dunes are the remains of old cars and household appliances, an unfortunately common sight in the inhabited parts of the Western Isles. Heading south of Vatersay, this is it…you are now leaving the inhabited world behind.
Sandray is only a mile from Vatersay across the Sound of Sandray, and is aptly named. The entire eastern part of the island is composed of massive sand dunes, linking two beaches on opposite sides. There are no major cliffs on Sandray, but the rough and indented coast is well worth exploring. If you have time to explore inland, try crossing the island by the central valley and ‘bealach’ (pass), or perhaps ascend to the dramatic ruins of a galleried ‘dun’ (fort) perched on the west flanks of Cairn Ghaltair, the highest hill. Although Sandray is the nearest of the uninhabited Isles to Barra, it is generally agreed to be the least visited. Spend a night in gloomy Glen Mor, camped among the scattered and broken remnants of past settlements; if you don’t feel spooked, you are braver folk than us.
Pabbay is reached by a more serious three mile crossing, directly exposed to the Atlantic swell. The best landing spot is Bagh Ban, the almost Caribbean white sands on the eastern side. Behind the beach are more dunes, where excavations have revealed a Bronze Age settlement. A rocky burial mound has a metre-long decorated stone laid upon it; this Pictish inscribed stone is almost unique to the Western Isles, being more usually found in far-away Orkney and Shetland. Pabbay’s west coast is much more impressive than Sandray’s, should the weather be good enough. The highlight is the ‘Arch Wall’, an enormous overhanging cliff of smooth granite.
From Pabbay, it is two miles further across Caolas Mhiughlaigh (the Sound of Mingulay) to Mingulay itself. The excitement mounts as you approach the landing beach on the eastern coast; the skies thicken with puffins from the colony on the northern edge of the bay, and the resident seal colony swim out to greet you. Keep a lookout for the tide races which can sometimes make approaching the Isle awkward, and be aware that landing and launching may be a problem with swell from the east.
Was it worth all the fuss? Oh yes. Among the dunes facing the beach is the old village, which is remarkably intact. The thick walls of abandoned blackhouses stand proud against the encroaching sand, which is slowly but inexorably burying the whole settlement. Two larger buildings stand separate from the village; the Priest’s house had its roof blown clean off in the ‘90s and is now ruinous, whilst the schoolhouse has been re-roofed and is used by occasional visiting shepherds.
Behind the village, the fields are still – inexplicably – clearly delineated and clear of weeds, and the remnants of an old mill can be found beside the main burn. Heading up the hill towards the obvious pass, a genuinely heart stopping sight awaits those fit enough to ascend to the top. As you close on the cleft, you feel the breeze rising from the western side of Mingulay, and carried on it is the screeching noise and dank stench of a billion defecating auks. You have reached the cleft of Bulnacraig. Below your feet are eight hundred feet of air, a deep cleft walled in by some of the largest and sheerest cliffs in the British Isles. You’ve never seen anything like this.
If you have a guaranteed period of settled weather, you’ll want to camp here and explore further. The best of all possible worlds would be to have calm enough seas for the paddle around Mingulay and Berneray. Unsurpassable caves, clefts, stacks…incredible. As you pass the three hundred foot high stack of Lianamuil, spare a thought for the villagers who used to climb it in search of tasty seabird. This paddle offers simply the most staggering sights that the U.K.’s (World’s?) coast can offer. Go see.
Berneray is the final island, mainly notable for the Barra Head lighthouse which sits atop the south facing cliffs. Landing is awkward due to the lack of a beach, but a small jetty can be reached a mile across the Sound of Berneray from Mingulay. A track winds up to the lighthouse, beside which the remains of Dun Briste (much depleted for the lighthouse construction) can be explored. Should it be possible, the paddle around the exposed side of Berneray, Barra Head, is a final treat. This is the place. The World ends here.
The tide begins flowing east between the Isles 5 hours and 5 minutes after High Water at Ullapool. It begins flowing west 1 hour and 40 minutes before High Water at Ullapool. In the Sounds of Sandray and Mingulay, the tide flow reaches 3 knots at springs. In the Sound of Pabbay, the tide reaches 4 knots. The east-going flows are stronger and tidal races can be encountered at the eastern end of each sound.
Berneray is slightly different. In the Sound of Berneray and south of Berneray, tide flows reach 2.5 knots. The tide begins flowing east 6 hours before High Water at Ullapool, and flows east for 4 hours and 15 minutes. It begins flowing west 1 hour and 45 minutes before High Water at Ullapool, and flows west for 8 hours and 15 minutes.
Not Ready Yet?
The paddles described here are best suited to experienced sea kayakers, or at least, groups supervised by those who know what they’re doing. If you want to sample the fantastic sea kayaking of the area without the commitment, a visit is still recommended. The coasts and beaches of Barra offer many sheltered options for day trips with civilisation still in sight. Those wanting to dip their toe under supervision may want to contact Clearwater Paddling (www.clearwaterpaddling.com) who have a base in Castlebay and run guided trips. Even if you don’t feel up to the paddle to Mingulay, a day trip on a local fishing boat is recommended…see the Tourist Office near the ferry terminal.
‘Western Isles Pilot’ by Martin Lawrence, Imray Norie books
‘Mingulay’ by Ben Buxton – unfortunately out of print and hard to find!
‘Barra and the Bishop’s Isles, Living on the Margin’ by Keith Branigan and Patrick Foster
‘The Scottish Islands’ by Hamish Haswell-Smith
‘Admiralty Chart 2769, Barra Head to Greian Head’ – detailed chart of the Isles
‘Imray Chart C65, Crinan to Mallaig and Barra’ – overview chart
Ordnance Survey Explorer 452 – Barra & Vatersay
‘Scottish Sea Kayaking’ by Doug Cooper and George Reid
www.calmac.co.uk – ferries
www.lonely-isles.com – great intro
www.nts-seabirds.org.uk/properties/mingulay/mingulay.aspx - birdlife
www.ukseakayakguidebook.co.uk/mingulay - photos.
www.ukseakayakguidebook.co.uk/forum - advice
http://web.ukonline.co.uk/mountains/barra5.htm - photos
www.isleofbarra.com – contacts for boat charters, accommodation, etc.