Friday Flickr – Outer Hebrides: Eriskay and South Uist

An endangered breed of ponies, special jumpers, miles of gorgeous white beaches, prehistoric remains, tales of uprisings and whisky … these are two very special islands.

For this week’s Friday Flickr I’m continuing my reminiscences of my Outer Hebrides road trip. Continue reading “Friday Flickr – Outer Hebrides: Eriskay and South Uist”

Friday Flickr – Outer Hebrides: Mingulay

An abandoned island lying to the south of the Outer Hebrides is the theme for this week’s Friday Flickr.

I visited Mingulay as as day trip from Barra.

Mingulay was the southern most inhabited island in the Outer Hebrides until 1912 when it was finally abandoned, its remaining population unable to sustain their lives there any longer. Continue reading “Friday Flickr – Outer Hebrides: Mingulay”

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”

St Kilda in a Day

I actually made it to St Kilda AND got to see a shoal of tuna along the way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

When I first thought about going to St Kilda I didn’t think about a day trip. In the absence of having my own yacht and not having the kayaking abilities to paddle my way out there (yes, some people do) I’d decided the only way to get to St Kilda would be to join a National Trust for Scotland working party and go for a week or two. However, in spite of these being quite expensive, they are still allegedly very popular and hence difficult to get on to. What makes it almost impossible for me though, is the time of year. The working parties are pretty much finished by the time English schools break up for the summer holidays.

Not wanting to let a simple thing like fixed holiday times get in the way of my ambitions I looked around for alternatives and after meeting someone in Unst last year who’d been for a day, decided that maybe a day trip wouldn’t be such a bad idea after all.

During my time in the Hebrides I’ve been trying to get myself booked onto a tour with one particular company. It’s always a bit touch and go whether the trips go ahead or not, because they are very weather dependent. If one trip is cancelled the people booked on to it get taken out the next day meaning no free spaces for other people. A spate of windy weather seemed determined to prevent me from going. But then another company said they had room and the chances of actually going were pretty good on the day they were offering me.

The night before I drove out to the small pier at Miavaig in the Uig area of Lewis. I set up camp beside the office which conveniently had a toilet and wash basin round the back. I got everything ready for the next morning and settled down to sleep. I’d not been asleep long when I woke feeling a bit headachey and queasy. Not the best feeling at any time, and certainly not before such a big day.

By morning the headache had gone but I still felt a bit sickly. Hmm, what to do for the best when feeling a bit sick? Stay in bed, rest and relax? Or get on a little boat and spend 4hrs being tossed and churned as you crash your way across the Atlantic? Of course the only choice I really had was the latter. If I didn’t go today, I wouldn’t be going at all. 

Before it got rough

The other passengers arrived, about a dozen of us in all, and after re-arranging cars on the pier we boarded The Lochlann.

I strapped myself into a seat and prepared for the worst. Once out at sea the roller-coaster started in earnest. The boat felt as though it was being plucked up high and then being dropped from said great height. Each time this happened the ‘BANG’ as the boat hit the sea and the reverberations through my body lifted me out of my seat. If it wasn’t for the seat belt I’d have repeatedly hit my head on the roof.

I tried to sit with my eyes closed willing the horrible feeling in my stomach to go away. No chance. I’ve never been sea-sick before and I have been on some tiny boats on some pretty rough water. But then again, I’ve not got onto a tiny boat on pretty rough water whilst already feeling sick.

My guts had no chance of recovering and at one point I had to stagger to the deck to lean over and throw up. I wanted to rush, but it’s a bit hard when you’re getting thrown from side to side and have to plan each move to ensure at least 3 limbs are firmly planted at all times. If I didn’t have sympathy for people who suffer with sea-sickness before, I certainly do now.

One highlight of the otherwise dismal trip was seeing a shoal of tuna leaping and swimming in front of the boat. Even I stood up to get a look and watch them for a while. The tuna were dolphin sized, and look nothing like they do in a tin. Having seen them, I can understand how the nets used to catch tuna also manage to snag dolphins. I don’t understand how the dolphin friendly tuna nets work though – how do they manage to keep the dolphins out? As a veggie I don’t buy tuna anyway, but have wondered why next to the ‘dolphin friendly’ label that can be seen on some tins of tuna, there isn’t another label next to it saying ‘tuna unfriendly’? Apparently it’s quite unusual to see tuna so close like this so we were very lucky.

St Kilda slowly came into sight and we could make out people sitting around on the jetty. These turned out to be students who were on some kind of placement on the island. We decanted ourselves into a dinghy and travelled the last tiny bit to the pier. Once we were all on dry land we were met by the warden who gave us a chat about dos and don’ts and told us about what there was to do on the island.

This would have been someone’s living room

I set off for a wander, still feeling queasy. I had hoped to walk up to at least one side of the cliffs but didn’t really feel up to it. Instead I wandered round the derelict village, poking in and out of the old houses. They were mostly laid out in one main street and in between the derelict building were a few restored ones which were used for accommodation and a museum. I spent a while in the museum finding the exhibits and the information provided quite fascinating. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The MOD, as part of a long-running arrangement, have workers based on the island and their accommodation and offices are in green painted buildings near the pier. Maybe these could be said to be an eyesore and spoil the antiquity and isolation of the island, but the MOD have played such an important role on the island I’d like to think that in future years these buildings and their role will be seen as just as relevant to the history of the island as the remains from the St Kildans are.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A helicopter landed and took off whilst I watched. The unique St Kildan sheep roamed around, birds flew or skittered across the ground, the sun shone, a perfect day. If only I could have enjoyed it more.

We had a stay of a few hours on the island and this was plenty of time to have a really good look round the village and museum and would also have given me time to go for a bit of a walk had I felt so inclined. Just before the boat was due to leave, the warden opened the shop which sells souvenirs of St Kilda as well as a range of books. Next to the shop is the restored school (one classroom) and church and I had time to have a look round them. 

The Museum
The Church
The School

Once back on the boat we circled the island and went out to a couple of the stacks to look at the birds before heading back for Lewis. It was much later that evening before I started to feel alright again. 

I managed to enjoy my day on St Kilda even if I wasn’t feeling great. It’s such a special place and felt like such an achievement to get there, that even an upset stomach couldn’t put too much of a dampner on things. I doubt I’ll ever get back, so I’m glad I didn’t decide to give it a miss, as I now have memories that will last me a life time. 

The Details

Company I travelled with: Seatrek
Cost: £180
Depart: 7.30am
Arrive back: 8pm
Time on Hirta: approx. 3.5hrs

Here are a couple more posts on St Kilda:

The St Kilda Mailboat 

Getting closer to St Kilda 

and one on Mingulay – an island that found itself in a similar position to St Kilda.

Here’s a copy of the press release Seatrek issued regarding the tuna we saw. I’ve copied it in rather than just linking to it, in case it later disappears off their website.

Shoal of Tuna off Lewis

Press Release 30th Aug, Seatrek

Tuna Sighting West of Lewis

On one of our regular day trips to St Kilda on the 24th of August 2012, our Seatrek vessel, the  motor cruiser Lochlann, sighted an unusually large and concentrated flock of diving gannets.
We decided to go over and investigate, fully expecting to find the usual dolphins feeding on a shoal of herring.  We told the passengers to get their cameras ready for the spectacle of diving birds and jumping dolphins and possibly minke whales. We very often see diving gannets in a feeding frenzy as they can spot the fish from a great height. The gannets are helped by dolphins, which herd the fish to the surface.
The leading edge of the diving gannets was unusually fast moving at 5 knots, and as we closed in we could see the fast moving splashes among them. We were amazed to see the characteristic upright, thin forked tails of tuna darting through the water.
Some were coming to within 10m of us and you could see they were about 6/7 ft long, maybe more. The sight was amazing. The furiously diving gannets were accompanied by fulmars, skuas, manx shearwaters, sooty shearwaters, black backed gulls and herring gulls, all looking for a piece of the action.
We watched them enthralled for some time and thought they were possibly Bluefin Tuna;  such an unusual wildlife sighting we had never experienced before so close at hand.
The next shoal was moving much faster, say 10 knots to the SW and zigzagging with birds showing their whereabouts when near the surface. The tuna were about the same size.
Earlier in the day we had seen a handful of smaller Bonito type, 2ft long, just East of Gallan Head, Uig, Lewis. These were fast moving along the surface just beside the boat but were unaccompanied by birds.
The rare sighting of tuna so far north of their normal habitat was a memorable experience. Unusual also was the distinctive spectacle of the exceptionally large number of gannets that were following the shoal of fish. We have never seen such a large flock in such a small area; they could be seen from many miles away.

Mingulay

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”

Fetlar

A museum curator who does cartwheels in the car park, home-made ice cream with unusual flavours and a couple of lovely walks.

Wednesday 10th August, 2011 and Thursday 11th August, 2011

campsiteI arrived in Fetlar on Tuesday evening and pitched my tent in the boggy field that is the official campsite. Apart from a Dutch family on the far side of the field, I was the only person there. The wind was getting up, but the light was beautiful so I had a stroll along the road taking photos of the amazing coastline, before settling in for the night.

Fetlar Fetlar

Wednesday was a beautiful day. I started by going to the museum. As I drove up a boy was doing cartwheels in the car park, obviously really enjoying the sun. He turned out to be the curator and tourist info guy. When I turned into the car park he went back inside and stood behind the counter and was very professional.
Fetlar Fetlar
The museum had lots of local history, geology, etc. There was a big display on William Watson Cheyne who had a house in Fetlar. There were lots of connections with places I’ve been so I was quite interested. He was born on his father’s ship just off Tasmania and christened in the Scottish church in Hobart. He’d worked in King’s College Hospital. His family were from Tangwick Haa.
Fetlar Fetlar
I spoke to C (the young curator) and an older woman who came in. She was a trustee of the museum. The curator had left suddenly and they had a new one starting in another week or so. The new one was a lady from the Isle of Sheppey. As the museum was currently curatorless the trustees had been opening it up and working in it voluntarily. They’d also got the island’s teenagers to get involved and do shifts. C was one of those. He was 14 years old and originally from Warrington. He’d moved to Fetlar with his younger sister 18 months ago when his mum got the district nurse job. C was a student at the Anderson, the main high school for Shetland’s children of secondary school age. He’d started at the high school in Unst but didn’t like the travelling  and having to get up at 6am and not getting home till 5pm. He was really happy at the Anderson, living in the hostel. He said everyone, kids and teachers, had made him feel part of things from the start. He felt they got a lot a more freedom then he had in Warrington too. There are no school uniforms in Shetland schools, but he said it gets a bit boring wearing your own clothes as then you have nothing different to wear in your own time.
Fetlar
He told me there were nine children currently on Fetlar, but a family with two more, including a girl his age, were due to arrive on Friday. It seemed that life on Fetlar is ‘moving up’ – families are moving in and the primary school which has been closed for a couple of years as there were no children that age, is about to re-open as there are now two children to go to it. The previous teacher is coming back.
Fetlar
It seems a good thing to do to get the teenagers involved in the museum as not only do they get to know about their island, it’s great work experience. Where else would a 14 year old be doing shifts in a museum by himself, dealing with tourist info queries, both in person as the museum doubles as the tourist info office, and fielding overflow calls from the main Lerwick tourist office?
Fetlar
The woman trustee showed me some old photos including one of her and her friends standing outside the Anderson hostel back in their school days there. There was a woman visitor in the museum who said she had also been a pupil at the Anderson. She is now a teacher, though not there. I don’t think she lives in Shetland. Three generations of Anderson students together – this must be quite normal here, where everyone will have these connections and links.
TFetlarhe woman also showed me a photo of the old church. This has now been rebuilt as the modern community centre and the only original part seems to be the internal roof. All dark wood. She was the last person to get married in this church back in 1969. As there weren’t the ferry links then it was a massive task to get all the food and guest together. Fetlar weddings she said, at least back then, can go on for days.
Fetlar is hoping to get good enough internet connections that people on the island can start working from home doing council jobs and so on. Teleworking. This would be good in further encouraging people to move to Fetlar. There are about 70 people at the moment.
Fetlar
I left the museum still giggling at the thought of the museum curator doing cartwheels in the car park. It kept me amused all day.
Fetlar
Before going to the museum I’d called in at the well-stocked shop to pay for camping. I spoke to the woman who had moved up from the Midlands a year or two ago to take over the shop. She told me about riots that have been happening in cities in England, including Manchester. Apparently police had shot someone in London and a demonstration about this had turned into a riot that had spread around the country. It seemed to be more an opportunity for thugs and looters to have a field day than anything political though. I love that I can be in a place in the UK and yet not know about something as major as this happening. It really is like a different world. She also told me that because of the film that’s currently being shot in Shetland, The One Show had been up and done some of their own filming. The shop woman had been interviewed, but she wasn’t sure when it was going to be on.
Fetlar

I next went to the community centre where there is the Fetlar Café. I had a Panini and coffee – a cafetiere of very good strong coffee and then followed it with a homemade golden bay flavour icecream. The cook in the café used to be the school cook until the school closed down. The café job is part-time so she’s thinking about selling her ice-cream commercially. A small tub with a simple ‘Fetlar ice cream’ label was £1.80. Most of the ingredients she sources locally, but obviously some she can’t. Golden Bay has the cream flavoured with bay leaves and then it’s sweetened with golden syrup instead of sugar. The homemade cakes looked good too.

FetlarLeaving the café I drove the short distance to Funzie Loch  (Funzie is pronounced Finney) I watched two red-throated divers on the loch for a while and then walked to the hide where I sat for over an hour looking for exciting wildlife. I saw a rabbit. The Dutch family were also at the hide but didn’t stay very long. When I left the hide I walked up across a boggy, burn criss-crossed moor to the old derelict coast guard station. There were quite a few bonxies about , but they were enjoying flying about and not at all interested in me. I then walked round the headland taking photos and stopping to admire the views. It was late when I got back to my car and I didn’t get back to my tent till about 8pm. It’s wonderful having such long days, even at this time it was still broad daylight.
Fetlar
The following morning I had a bit of a lazy start. I had a shower and got packed up and then went back to the café for lunch and a gooseberry and elderflower ice cream. More gooseberry taste than elderflower, but delicious all the same.

Fetlar

I left the car back at the campsite and waked down to Tresta beach. I intended walking along the beach and then following a path to the high point of the cliffs above. I had a quick look at the church – lots of memorials to various locals of bygone times – and then made my way to the beach. I got interested in the rocks and shells and spent my time walking up and down and collecting some of them instead of going up onto the hill. I only left when it was time to collect my car for the drive to the pier to catch the 4.45pm ferry.

Foula

A journey to an island shrouded in mist.

I seem to be getting to more and more remote British islands, but my ultimate goal is St Kilda. This is a small collection of islands (how many does it need to be to count as an archipelago?) way off the west coast of Scotland. It was abandoned by its remaining inhabitants back in the 1930s as they could no longer sustain their way of life there. It’s now owned by the National Trust for Scotland and is extremely tricky and expensive to get to.

The nearest I’ve managed to get so far is Foula, another remote island off the west coast of Scotland. This has come close to being abandoned in the past, but currently has a population of about 30 and seems to be surviving quite well. Foula is the island used to represent St Kilda in old films about the last days on the island.

The journey to Foula is either by a small mailboat or a tiny plane. The island is known for its fog and so the plane is often cancelled. The boat can also be cancelled due to bad weather and so although I was only intending going to Foula for 2 nights, it could have turned out to be longer. The man in the shop in Walls, where I departed from, warned me about this and so I packed a few extra days’ food supplies.

I left my car and walked round to the ferry terminal in plenty of time for the 1.30pm departure. However, we didn’t leave until about an hour later as the captain had got stuck in fog on his way from Brae. The journey was expected to take about 2.5 hrs which was fairly accurate. There were a few other passengers on the boat as well as a crew of four. The other passengers consisted of a family of four who were on their way to visit the man’s sister who’d moved to Foula a year or two before. They’d been booked to fly, but the plane had been cancelled because of the fog.

Foula appearing in the mist

The journey was good, the sea was so calm, no waves at all, though there was quite a big swell. I stood out on deck the whole time hoping to see whales but wasn’t lucky. As we got nearer to Foula it started to rain a bit and the weather really closed in. When we first came in sight of Foula it was as a vague shadow in the mist and it was only when we were almost there that I was sure that it was land I was seeing and not just a trick of the light.

We docked and had to climb up a ladder on the side of the pier. Luggage, post and shopping deliveries were piled into a crate and lifted out with a crane. Whilst waiting I watched a couple of seals playing about in the harbour. Then I walked about a mile along the road to the airport where I’d decided to camp. The fog was so dense that although it wasn’t far and the airport is in plain sight of the road I still had to get my map and compass out and navigate my way to it. I couldn’t see it until I was actually there.

My tent is to the left. Abandoned cars to the right.

There was one fire station building and a tiny waiting room with a toilet and wash basin with cold water. A few abandoned cars were parked in the car park alongside the runway. I wandered around for a while over the boggy ground trying to find a slightly less boggy bit on which to pitch my tent. There only seemed to be one bit and that was quite close to the runway. I was no closer than the cars though, and it wouldn’t have been the worst thing in the world if I had to move my tent next morning before the first plane arrived.

Lots of curious sheep watched me pitching my tent. They were all over the runway – I don’t know what happens when a plane is due? – does someone have to chase them away? Once my tent was pitched I sat on stone seat and finished my flask of coffee. It was a mild evening and was lovely to be sitting there so alone in the mist, staring at the sheep who were staring right back at me. Apart from the odd ‘baa’ it was completely silent.  

After a while the mist seemed to be lifting a little so I walked to the far end of the road and back. It was really eerie walking along and seeing shapes looming in the mist. Not knowing if they were houses, sheep or abandoned cars until I was quite close. I could hear a few sounds of life, but saw no-one. On the way back to my tent the mist lifted even more and it started to rain. I gave up my walk as it was getting a bit late anyway, and hibernated in my tent for the rest of the evening.