Friday Flickr – Outer Hebrides: Barra and Vatersay

This week’s Friday Flickr is all about two tiny islands with a lot to see and do.

My visit to the Outer Hebrides started in Barra. I caught the ferry from Oban and spent 5 hours sailing past idyllic looking islands. Continue reading “Friday Flickr – Outer Hebrides: Barra and Vatersay”


A steep climb led to my first sighting of St Kilda!

van and Heaval
The little white van goes to Heaval (which doesn’t look steep at all on this photo).

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 particularly 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.

My dream house

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 want 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 the 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.

view from heaval
See how steep this is?

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.

view from Heaval
Looking south down the chain of islands

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 go no further.

278 view from Heaval

view from HeavalEver 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.

St Kilda
First view of St Kilda on the distant horizon

statue statue

statuePhotographs 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.

Vatersay, Mingulay, Sandray and Pabbay can be seen.

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.


Sunbathing cows, an old fort and a slice of wedding cake.

Barra and Vatersay
The Causeway
Annie Jane memorial

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.

beachClimbing 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.

caveI 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.

Vatersay Vatersay

Dun Bhatarsaigh

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 standing stonesouth. 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.

Vatersay Vatersay Vatersay

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.

cows cows cows cows cows cows

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.

abandoned village abandoned village

I walked to another small beach just past the settlement before heading up and inland across the slopes 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 length 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.

Vatersay Vatersay Vatersay Vatersay Vatersay


A day trip to this abandoned island included sea caves, basking sharks and a gannetry.

boatI 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. Continue reading “Mingulay”

Using my tablet

Enjoying coffee with a view at the Isle of Barra Hotel whilst learning to use my new 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 lounge 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 trying 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.

Much later …

Here are the photos I took. The one where I used the zoom is a bit fuzzy, but otherwise I’m quite pleased with them.

Isle of Barra Hotel Isle of Barra Hotel Isle of Barra Hotel Isle of Barra Hotel Isle of Barra Hotel

Sleeping in my van

Exploring Barra and finding a great spot to sleep in my van.

Sailing into Castlebay

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.

Barra and Vatersay

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.

Barra and Vatersay

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).

plane wreck

Although I saw lots of nice places I would have┬áhad 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.

Barra and Vatersay

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.

Barra and Vatersay

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.

Barra and Vatersay

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.

Barra and Vatersay

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

Abandoned, isolated islands are quite difficult to get to. That’s part of my fascination with them.

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). Continue reading “Trying to get to Mingulay”