Marhofn 84.04 - May 2002

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Ill Met By Internet: A Barra Caravanner's Tale

Chris Watson

Browsing through the RHB mailing list in January 2001, I spotted that Rob Woodall was organising a trip for a dozen baggers to Barra and its southern satellite islands in July. With a paltry 300 Marilyns to my name, I hesitated to volunteer for a trip in, probably, quite exalted company. However, the lure of Mingulay, famed to me at least for its boat song, proved too great, and after getting a pass-out from the boss (Lorna) I contacted Rob and got on his shortlist. After a further exchange of emails, Rob and I had booked a caravan on Barra for the week and my car on the boat to Castlebay, returning via Uist and Skye. I had never met any of my fellow Marilyn baggers so looked forward to an interesting week.

During the following months, our proposed boatman took ill and so did his boat. Rob managed to find an alternative with more space, and another dozen places became available. We also offered space in the caravan to fellow trippers but, despite a bit of interest, no firm arrangements were made. However another plan developed when Gary Honey offered places on a boat to the other Pabbay, off North Uist, later in the week. Rob couldn't resist and so another boat trip was in the offing.

I turned up at Oban in late July and found a motley collection of ruffians waiting for the ferry. It didn't take long to work out which was Rob - the scruffy one in the Ron Hill trousers. Since booking the trip I had realised that I would not be able to keep up with him for more than four or five yards so I was pleased to see most of the rest looked older and, possibly, slower - and my beard didn't look out of place.

All was going well as we sailed up the Sound of Mull, past Ben Hiant, until one of the group, Ursula, announced that she had nowhere to stay - she had been inadvertently gazumped out of the Castlebay hostel by Gordon Adshead and his team - so could she stay in the caravan? We were happy to agree as it would save us money. During the rest of the journey we split into two groups - birders and boozers - so I spent most of my time in the bar.

As we approached Castlebay, I heard a rumour that Charles Everett was sharing the caravan as well - a bit alarming having seen the size of him. Rob confirmed that he just might inadvertently have offered him a bed but I still tried driving off to the caravan without him. However, Ursula wouldn't hear of it so I struggled over the pass to Leanish with a very heavily laden car. After sending her to knock up a few islanders - well, blokes won't ask the way, will they - and nearly breaking the sump on a raised manhole in a farmyard, we eventually found the caravan. We were a bit surprised that it had a full-height block wall built around it, but inside it was okay. After a short discussion, Rob and I found ourselves sleeping in the living area whilst our 'guests' bagged the bedrooms. To be fair, Charles was crammed into a kid's bunk which Rob and I didn't fancy. As cooking commenced, we found both our guests were veggies (I don't mind vegetarians but I couldn't eat a whole one) but they were gracious enough to let me and Rob eat our chicken curry inside.

The wind got up inside and outside the van during the night and we realised why it had a wall around it. By the morning we were resigned to a no-show by our boatman. However, with our numbers boosted by some naturalists (not that sort, they had their clothes on) on an annual pilgrimage to Mingulay, the income must have been too good to turn down at 20 quid a head. A handsome ferry boat appeared and we piled aboard. We were a bit concerned as to how Jon and Lynda's dogs would get on the boat until Jon picked one up and threw it - the other got the message and went of its own accord. Baby Daniel got slightly better treatment and we headed south.

Barra Head (aka Berneray) was the first port of call, and the heavy seas soon began to tell on some of us on the 13-mile journey. However, the skies were blue which was some consolation. This island was the furthest south and we were pleased to get it out of the way. A small rubber boat delivered us in small groups to the only slipway we were to see on our voyages. Even so, good balance was required to get ashore.

We headed uphill, some for the lighthouse, some for the summit of Sotan. As so often, both seemed to be the highest point when viewed from the other, so we all visited both. I snapped Adshead and Blanco, both of whom had reached 1000 within hours of each other a few days earlier. Blanco declared Sotan to be the highest point as we headed north for Mingulay.

This was the biggest of the five islands south of Barra and we had a long stay there. Having climbed the obligatory Marilyn, Carnan, we spread out to see the sights. I headed north, past the huge cliff of Biulacraig, to MacPhee's hill, named after a chap abandoned there for a year after an outbreak of plague. Others headed west to view the stacks of Arnamul and Lianamul with their spectacular chasms. Dave Butterfield and I nearly trod on some snipe - that's what he said they were and he's RSPB so he should know.

Mary Cox and Chris Watson on Mingulay

Mary Cox and Chris Watson on Mingulay

As we headed home, Ursula suggested climbing the Vatersay top, Heishival Mor, that evening so that she could reach 500 on one of the islands on the following day, whilst Rob suggested we go orchid hunting. We did both but didn't find the orchids, despite tramping around lazybeds for an hour. A great day was completed with some real Scottish music in the Castlebay Hotel that night.

Next morning, Monday, found us back at the harbour in the sunshine, singing the Mingulay boat song and watching a cruise ship unloading tourists to visit Kisimul Castle in the bay. We saw their ship, the Black Prince, rolling across to St Kilda later in the day - one day perhaps!

Muldoanich, close by Castlebay, was our first target - the lowest Marilyn at 153m. The landing was tricky and the scramble up to the summit a bit nerve-wracking for some, especially with great skuas threatening to attack us. Rowland Bowker reluctantly missed this one with a bad leg, as did one of the dogs.

Descending steep grass on Muldoanich

Descending steep grass on Muldoanich

South again, then, for Pabbay. Seals bobbed around in the water as we landed, and we took a variety of routes to the top of The Hoe, where Pete Bibby reached 500. I had found by this time that I was slower than the rest so tried to get on an early boat each time. But I was still last off the island again.

Sandray has a delightful rocky top as well as the higher Cairn Galtar, and both were bagged by most. Ursula reached 500 but was trumped by Don Smithies reaching 1200. Rob said that he, erm, might be on 1300, and when reminded of Baystones' re-entry, decided he was. Hardly a landmark for him as he has since gone past 1400. Ann Bowker, of course, had reached 1545, with only the Shiants and St Kilda left.

I enjoyed Rowland's company as we descended, though he was still quicker than me at 70 and with a bad leg. Ursula was almost left behind as the boatman lost count and headed back without her - we resisted the temptation and sent him back for her.

Sandray landing site

Sandray landing site

With all the islands done in two days, plans were re-jigged. Charles and Rob galloped up Tangaval that evening and Ben Cliad early Tuesday morning, leaving the former to go back to Oban and Rob to catch the passenger ferry to South Uist. Ursula had bagged the last place on Gary's Pabbay boat and would travel with me to South Uist on Wednesday evening to meet up with Rob at Howmore hostel. Gary and Warren, meanwhile, had done all nine section 24D tops since landing on Saturday evening, and caught the Monday evening boat to Lochboisdale. A bit too keen for me.

Having dropped off Charles and Rob at their ferries, I joined the other car-driving members for a leisurely day on Tangaval, Heaval and Ben Cliad. For a third day running the weather was excellent and we could see all our previous conquests as we looked south from Heaval's Madonna. There was even time for tea in the caravan - all very civilised. Adshead's team and Dave bussed up to Cliad and walked back over Heaval and Tangaval to Castlebay. Obviously fitter than me! Ursula, meanwhile, had hitched around the island, bagging her last three tops.

A pleasant evening chez McLaren and Bibby was marred a little by having to drive back to the north end of the island to retrieve Ursula's map which she had dropped whilst depositing somebody else's sweet papers in a bin - environmental damage due to extra driving easily outweighing gain on sweet papers. The constant bickering between us and the fact we were alone in the caravan convinced our landlady that we must be married.

Wednesday was wet but, by the time we boarded the evening ferry, 20 of the group had cleaned out 24D, an excellent result. A dash up South Uist and more knocking up by Ursula eventually got us into Howmore hostel late at night to find Rob, Gary and Warren already ensconced. Rob had knocked off South Uist in a couple of days.

Another bad night convinced us that Pabbay would be off but, once again, our boatman was keen so we roared up through Benbecula and North Uist to meet him on Berneray. A choppy ride took us to the nicest island yet. Lush, with herds of deer, and, best of all, a view of Boreray and the stacs from the top of Beinn a'Charnain. Rob declared them 'no problem' but we weren't convinced.

It was my turn to nearly miss the boat but we still got back in time to do a bit more. The youngsters nipped up the Lees whilst Ursula and I drove miles to get to Crogary na Hoe - the second-lowest Marilyn. Helen McLaren entered the Hall of Fame there a couple of days later. Lovely views in all directions.

I dropped Ursula off to hitch back to Howmore and she was last seen waving down a passing car - did you get back okay, Ursula? Probably commandeered an army truck.

Rob and I, ably assisted by Gary and Warren, polished off his Jura malt that night at Berneray hostel, a traditional crofter's cottage, and spent the next day motoring down to Ballachulish where he had left his car. Went via Uig and the Quiraing (bagging Bioda Buidhe on the way), Skye bridge, and Fort William for chips. The warden at Glencoe Hostel assured me that it had been raining non-stop for the whole week, and it didn't improve for me. A wet climb up Meall Mor on Rannoch put me up to 15 Marilyns for the week and I was home in Wolverhampton for tea. Excellent!

A big thank you to Rob for his organisation.

Heaval and Castlebay, Barra

Heaval and Castlebay, Barra

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