19th to 26th of June, 2010 – Southern Western Isles

Six of us headed out to Barra on the ferry and almost immediately after arriving at Castlebay, we packed and paddled over to Vatersay’s north-east tip to camp above a tiny little sandy bay we had seen from the ferry on the approach. We had nice weather all the way out and the 2km paddle under the last of the light and a half-moon was a great start to the week’s paddling. Tents up and bedded down soon after to finish off a long day of traveling.

Next day, we woke to grey skies but it was bright and there was little wind over breakfast. Setting off southwards, we passed and stopped at Sandray first then Pabbay (lunch) before finally arriving at Mingulay. The weather deteriorated en-route to Sandray and part way to Pabbay, however, we were pleasantly distracted by our first wildlife sighting of the trip, basking sharks! First, a small one appeared inside 35 minutes after launching, quickly followed by two more including a kayak-sized one (5m+) inside an hour then a group of perhaps 8-10 between Sandray and Pabbay. Truly amazing experience having one of these creatures beside and beneath me, parallel to my kayak which it matched in length easily. The mouth gaped to a meter across and I only wish at this point it had been calm enough to take pictures but anyway better to enjoy the moment.

Weather improved dramatically from slightly before our arrival on Pabbay where we had a lengthy lunch, swim and explore before continuing on to Mingulay.

Mingulay would be our base for the next three nights and being the biggest in the chain of islands after Vatersay there is enough to explore on and round the island for that length of time and thankfully a trickling water supply too. We arrived at a gorgeous sandy bay, though not exactly quiet, all in there was a group of climbers at one end, a large group of seals in the middle and another group of kayakers (4) on top of our own at the other end. No matter, space for everyone and as it happened the noisiest, most boisterous group was the seals.

The following day after breakfast (on the beach for me) and a brief explore of Macphee’s Hill at the north end of the island, we set off from what was now an empty beach southwards for Berneray (Barra Head), the southern-most point of the Western Isles. Rounding the south of Mingulay, Berneray came in to view looking lush and green a peaceful spot in contrast to the noise of surging water all along the coast around us. We decided to circumnavigate the island before landing on it and did so anti-clockwise passing through some rough water and 2m swell – exciting at times.

Berneray had a couple of surprises, first, the seals which had vanished unnoticed whilst I had breakfast showed up. After a noisy night of ‘singing’ or calling to each other, they had obviously come down to Berneray for a feed and … snooze. I’ve read about seals sleeping head up out the water but until now never seen it. It is indeed possible to sneak up on them unnoticed. Second, we heard gunshot on the island and as it turns out on landing we discovered that this was NTS representatives (the islands of Pabbay, Mingulay and Berneray are National Trust for Scotland owned) culling the last of the sheep on the island which could not otherwise be removed, Pabbay and Mingulay are already sheep free. A quick walk up the road to the lighthouse and to take in the views up the island chain and down the huge cliffs we had just paddled under.

A forecast from the NTS guys persuaded us to circumnavigate Mingulay in the afternoon rather than miss out getting to do so during next day’s expected deterioration in the weather. We set off clockwise this time and soon were back in rough waters with the swell off the Atlantic (2m) coming in and bouncing off of the cliffs that run the length of the west of Mingulay. Sadly, the conditions made it nigh on impossible for me to get pictures of the climbers in various precarious looking positions up high above us. Lots of bracing on either side at times as the water was often in narrower channels quite chaotic. Fun and games but no capsizes. Some braver members of the group managed to explore some of the narrow channels between stacs the island is famous for but just a couple of these were paddled by the whole group.

Rounding the north tip of Mingulay by way of a long, narrow passage, we passed from night to day – well, rough to flat calm – and we were welcomed by a cute seal pup resting a meter or so above the water line in a pocket in the rocks. Some immediate fishing successes were had here and dinner was supplemented by pollock and mackerel that night. This being the longest day, some of us headed up high for some quality sunset views over the islands north, a gorgeous finish to the day.

A bizarre start to the next day, a second breakfast of … Berneray lamb’s liver! Very nice indeed and very unexpected, a gift from the sheep shooters who were also staying on Mingulay. Weather got worse after that and a day of walking the hills with limited views followed by reading and eating in the tent.

Northward bound the following day, we set off for Sandray to a known camp spot in weather growing increasingly wet and cold. After just two hours with the assistance of wind and tide, we arrived and the thought of setting up camp and being tent bound was not popular on this otherwise pleasant spot so we continued on, first to our first camp on Vatersay then onwards up the east coast of Barra ending up at a small sandy bay on a tiny island called Orosay. We were still off the water by just 4pm and with the sun now out, we lazed under its warmth and drew out a late lunch then dinner whilst gear dried on the rocks.

Onwards the following day, passing gorgeous scenery and over shallow, green water to North Bay and all its confusion of channels in a bid to gain access to the hotel, our first bit of civilisation for a few days. A bar lunch, toilets and hot water! Back on the water, we then headed over to and between the islands of Hellisay and Gighay then on to Eriskay for a planned camp on its north-east corner. However, on re-grouping after the crossing from Gighay to the Stac Islands which lie right at Eriskay’s southern tip, we found ourselves next to a small, idyllic spot to camp and settled there for the night. A beach fire finished off the evening nicely.

Our last day on the water took us up the east coast of both Eriskay and South Uist as far as Lochboisdale where we camped the night and showered (woo hoo!) before our journey back to Oban on the ferry.

Overall, a brilliant week of paddling, camping and wildlife spotting; basking sharks, sea eagles, puffins, skuas, otters porpoises and … rats!


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