Wednesday, 13 July 2011

The Heb 3

Heel ya'ho boys, let her go, boys
Bring her head round now all together
Heel ya'ho boys, let her go boys
Sailing homeward to Mingulay!

What care we tho' white the Minch is
What care we for wind and weather?
Let her go boys, every inch is
Wearing homeward to Mingulay!

Wives are waiting on the bank, boys,
Looking seaward from the heather.
Pull her 'round boys, and we'll anchor
'Ere the sun sets at Mingulay!

The Mingulay Boat Song

 At the southern tip of the Outer Hebrides lie a group of Islands called Eileanan an Easbaig, the Bishops Isles. Today only one of the group of islands is inhabited, Vatersay, and this is linked by causeway to the isle of Barra. The others are uninhabited, isolated and reaching them is very weather dependent. Mingulay is the largest of these islands after Vatersay, its name derived from Mikil-ay meaning “Big Island” in Norse and as I had really enjoyed my only previous trip here which had involved kayaking from Vatersay to Sandray I was looking forward to this rarely available chance to visit such an isolated place. 

Leaving Castlebay

Hamish had arranged a trip with a local lobster fisherman one of only two on Barra who have a licence to take visitors to Mingulay which owned by the National Trust for Scotland, and who appeared to run trips to these islands in his spare time. Approximately an hour after leaving Castlebay and having been served coffee and biscuits on board we were transferred to a smaller launch. There is no jetty or pier on the island so after a quick jump and scramble over the rocks we were ashore. Although this felt like a bit of an adventure to us, in years gone past this proved to be problem to the islanders, nowhere to land a boat for an island community that was heavily dependent on fishing is a serious problem and although to us the weather adds to the islands isolation and therefore its charm, In 1897 the entire male population of one of the bishops islands, Pabbay, was lost when a single fishing boat sank. It was a difficult place to live.

Our transport

The first view of the island is of a quiet a paradise with its beautiful long stretch of golden sandy beach but on reaching the ruined village the overwhelming sensation is of desertion and people forced from their homes as has been the history of many parts of Scotland during the periods of absentee landlords and the highland clearances. During the clearances on Barra the population of the Bishops Islands rose as some chose to move there rather than join the emigrant ships but this saw the population of Mingulay grow to beyond what the resources of the island could sustain.

The landing craft
In 1906 landless men from the other islands settled on Vatersay which was owned by an absentee landlord who only visited once in the 54 years of her ownership. Apparently the men referred to an ancient law in Ireland saying that you if you can build a wooden dwelling and strike a fire in its hearth in the time period of one day then you take ownership of that land. The landlord took the men, the Vatersay Raiders, to court and they each received two months in prison despite the judge’s condemnation of the landlords’ behaviour and despite public support for the Vatersay Raiders. 

In 1909 the island Vatersay was purchased by the Congested Districts Board (set up in 1897 to improve the lot of those in “congested districts” of the highlands and islands) and the land was divided into crofts. In 1912 the last inhabitants of Mingulay left to settle in Vatersay leaving the village and the island of Mingulay deserted. Only one building remains occupied and only then on a temporary or seasonal basis. When we visited the only occupants were researchers studying sea birds.

The ruins of the village on Mingulay

 After looking around the village we headed up to the huge cliffs and gneiss rock stacks rising over 150m from the sea, apparently the second highest in Europe. It is home to a wide variety of seabirds and designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest. We sat at the top of the cliffs and ate lunch whilst the seabirds swooped over head.

We arrived back to Castlebay after more coffee and biscuits on our return journey we headed to the Chocolate shop for a cup of tea and chocolate to finish off an amazing day.

awesome chocolate cake!
 Visting Barra always feels like an adventure. The boat takes about 5 hours to get from Oban to Catslebay and when you factor in the 4 or so hour drive from Aberdeen to Oban you could probably get to New York in a shorter space of time. Fortunately this year the weather was a considerable improvement on last year and the only epic journey was made by Michelle who had missed the boat in Oban on Friday and had heroically driven to Skye and through the islands to make it to the start line in time for the race on Saturday.

Kisimul Castle in the evening sun

relaxing and enjoying the view

 The weekend was all the usual great craic, a fabulous half marathon course, buffet and celidh and then, of course, the Castlebay bar until late in the evening. A couple of us picked up prizes in the race and I even enjoyed my solo bike ride across to Vatersay to find Simon when he kidded on that he was away for a long cycle ride and had actually only gone as far as the the co-op!

Castlebay as seen from the road to Vatersay
Bert approaching the finish line

Simon finishing having spent the entire race chatting up Michelle!

A great effort by little Freya Mowbray
Bert had been avidly watching “An island Parish” on BBC 2 and was delighted to meet his hero Father Roddy. Whether Father Roddy was as delighted to meet Bert remains unrecorded.

The road to the Isles


 My Heb 3 challenge this year was comprised of the Barra, Skye and Harris half marathons. Luckily (and unusually) this year the weather was fine for all three races starting with the Skye half marathon in June. This race saw a lower than usual turnout of HBT runners for this slightly challenging half marathon course and its hill which seems to climb for about three miles before the final descent into Portree. This is race now has the largest number of entrants for any of the Hebridean half marathons, probably due to it being the most accessible of the islands. 

Post race photo
 Simon still holds the course record and on crossing the finish line the local radio station were keen to interview him. What a legend…

Once we had recovered, had a dip in the swimming pool, eaten and watched the prize giving we all headed in different directions to find some entertainment for the afternoon. Bert, Louisa, Mike and John went on an, as it turned out futile, expedition to go and look at sea eagles (they weren’t coming out to play that day), Ali, Ivor and Colin headed down to the fairy pools in Glen Brittle for a swim and Simon and I headed off to the Talisker distillery.

The Talisker distllery was opened in 1830 despite the process of whisky distilling being carried out by the islanders since time immemorial as is the case throughout Scotland. The whisky produced has a soft rich peaty character and its latest bottling of 2008, the 57 degrees north, is well worth sampling. Talisker whisky was a favourite of the author Robert Louis Stevenson and received a mention in his poem of 1880 “The Scotsman’s return from Abroad”

                                                    The king o' drinks, as I conceive it,
                                                          Talisker, Isla, or Glenlivet!

Top womens team - HBT!
Talisker Distillery

 I found that it was quite tricky trying to get a table for a large group in Portree on the evening of the half marathon race but eventually I managed to get a booking at the seafood restaurant which turned out to be a very good move as the seafood platter was to die for and a very entertaining evening commenced.

The sea food platter

John! Stop playing with your food!

Well earned food and beer
  The evening finished with a tour of the pubs of Portree where Simon seemed to be recognised by numerous locals...what a legend...until finally it was kicking out time and Bert and I shared a miniture of Talisker while wandering down the high street, Bert muttering something about not remembering where his B&B was before going in search of it leaving Hamish, Simon and I to go in search of our respective lodgings all the time wondering if Bert had managed to locate his.

 The final race of the Heb 3 is always the Harris half marathon and although a great event I always feel a bit sad that its is all over for another year. Hamish, Bert, Simon and I headed to the youth hostel in Uig on Skye on the Friday night and were joined there by Maggie, Ivor, Dave and the Mowbray family.

Sgurr nan Gillean in the evening sunshine

Arrival in Tarbert
 Dinner was at the Sligachen hotel before the usual late arrival in Uig and the sunlight catching the slopes of the Cullin hills made a fantastic sight and filled us with optimism for the weekend ahead. We met Elaine from the Cosmic hillbashers running club who was on Skye to run the Glamaig hill race the following day and who tried to persuade us that it was a better option than the half marathon. We weren’t convinced. The next morning we got the boat across to Tarbet in time for race registration and then on to the buses which took us the 13 miles to the start of the point to point course near Borve. Now, there are two downsides to getting the bus to the start. The first is that it reminds you just how hilly the course is and the second is that it takes you past the stunning scenery of the beaches at Seilibost and by then forgetting about the race and going for a swim and a picnic on the beach seems like a much better idea.
However after the famous toilet stop the bus drops everyone off at the start and then it’s a 13 mile hilly run back to Tarbert.

Hamish relaxing at the Tarbert Hotel
 After finishing at the harbour, a dip in the swimming pool and the prize giving it was off to the Tarbert hotel for food and beer and to wait for the ferry to arrive and transport us back to Uig. I took the chance to do a wee bit of shopping for some Harris tweed too.

Its seldom that you want a boat to be late in arriving but this is definitely one of those times…

The bridge to the isle of Scalpay
  After a few beers on the boat, its off the boat in Uig and straight into the pub…for a few more beers.

The Sunday saw a slow crawl back to Aberdeen, the Heb 3 over for another year.

The Hebrides disappearing into the distance

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