Monday, 6 August 2012


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.

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