Marhofn 106.06 - May 2004

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St Kilda, May 2003: One man's log

Bert Barnett

Thursday 1 May

The 2pm ferry to Lochmaddy sailed out of the rain into the sunshine, and I headed over fine moorland to bag the Li's (formerly the Lees) with greylag overhead calling their passage. Despite the lochs on the map this is an excellent outing, and navigation was no problem. Views of Eaval and the Benbecula lochs dominated, with dog violet bright. Maireabhal was a dull-looking lump, but halfway up I turned to see an amazing view of St Kilda; I could identify Dun, Conachair, Stac Lee, Boreray and Stac an Armin. Sadly the light was fading and the photograph failed to catch the outline. Camped nearby with snipe and lapwing for company.

Friday 2 May

Still fine clear weather for the crossing from Berneray to An t-Ob. The going on Roineabhal is rocky, dry and easy, and the green sea looked as bonny as in my previous snow-blasted motorbike excursion in 1997. The cold dry wind rose an eagle 50 metres away. The Rhenigidale road was steep and narrow, and Toddun looked superb, glinting in the sunshine. The ascent was surprisingly wet, but gave great views of Caiteshal and Pairc. Nae much flowers but another eagle at 100 metres. On to the road to Lemreway, where the start up through sheep-mown grass to Beinn Bhreac looked inviting, but after ten minutes reality dawned. Heather and bog rolled on and lochs appeared across my path. I could not tell which was the top and I was beginning not to care, but the lousewort was pleasing. Out to the west to find plentiful parking on the old roads under Conostom. Snipe and approaching showers accompanied a fine curry and Tesco whisky.

Saturday 3 May

Beautiful morning. Heading to the end of Loch Roag, I spy the Bowkers' van and call in for a quick hello. Wary of the flat ground round Loch Fuarail, I headed round the north end and found good going. Over the side of Sgeun and on to Beinn a'Tuath the walking was excellent, and so it was to Beinn Mheadhanach. Good viewpoint, but clouds over the Grahams were telling me I should have brought waterproofs. After two months of dry weather I was used to leaving the Gore-Tex in the van. Heading for Mhorsgail I could see there was no escape, and had to run for cover by a rocky spur. The Pertex bivi bag came to the rescue as a rain-mate. Under Coduinn the going was very wet and I was glad to reach the grassy slopes of Caultrashal Mor. The ground to Caultrashal Beag was wet too, but the descent to the road was fine and rocky. At Miabhaig harbour at 2.30pm were the Bowkers and the MV Cuma, with the others arriving an hour later, having scaled the heights of Forsnaval. The Cuma is a 65-foot 12-berth boat with double-bunk rooms, toilets, lounge and showers. On board we met the skipper, Murdo, first mate Findlay, and Cathy the cook. Our team was Rowland Bowker, Ann Bowker, Alan Dawson, Mary Cox, Rob Woodall, Chris Upson, Dave Butterfield, myself and Michael, a German living on Berneray. We weighed anchor and made for Loch Resort; life on the ocean wave was fun.

Sunday 4 May

After a hefty breakfast we were put ashore and teams headed off their own ways. We chose the SubMarilyn Taran Mor; rough ground and breezy but enjoyable. Back on board, after tea and drams, Murdo brought the news that the weather was turning even windier, and he had to return to port; a four-hour trip. As we left the sea loch into the open sea, we had our first taste of big seas. The swell was side on, and the boat made some crazy dives. This was not pleasant and people were looking green. Turning east, it evened off and we were relieved when we tied up in the harbour. I enjoyed a large dram.

Monday 5 May

The boat is going nowhere so fresh plans are hatched. Dave and I head off in the rain to Beinn Mholach, as featureless as the map suggests, followed by Conostom, which was a fine rocky traverse. Dave identified a merlin call and answered loads of questions on birding. Back for a big meal and whisky, and topping tales from the runners. Michael had abandoned ship due to the weather.

Tuesday 6 May

After breakfast, Murdo reckoned that the force 5/6 forecast was worth a try for St Kilda, as the rest of the week was likely to be worse. He said something about turning back if the going got too rough, but I do not recall the surrender being offered. As we headed out of the loch the boat took on a life of its own and we dived inside. People turned green, some went below, some lay down and some buried their heads. Big degradable sick bags were brought out, and Findlay threw the full ones over the stern as required. I stood holding on to two tables, whooping when the boat dipped to a scary angle. Findlay and Alan and I talked cheerily. I am not sure if it helped the others or not. I suspect they were beyond help. As we approached Boreray, Findlay encouraged me to peek round the side of the boat. Both hands were needed to stand up, and photos were difficult as we neared the stacks, shining in the sun and spray.

The run up to Hirta was a bit easier and I was outside most of the time enjoying the changing views of Lee, Armin and Boreray. The bay was flat but a cold wind came hurtling down the slopes of Conachair. It was six o'clock, and we had sandwiches before taking the inflatable dinghy to the pier, where we were met by the warden, a new boy who was keen to stamp his authority though willing to offer assistance. As the light began to fade he suggested a tour of the village. I politely advised him that we all intended to climb the hill without delay, and we left in a cloud of dust. The runners and Dave went right, Alan, Mary and I went forward, while Ann and Rowland went left. We saw each other on the hill, with its grass neatly cropped by the Soay sheep and their lambs. We briefly visited cleits and gazed down the cliffs, but were intent on Conachair. The evening light was dimming as we reached the top, but we were grateful for the good visibility. Tomorrow would be the day for absorption of landscape and history. Back on board the Cuma, the meal that night was followed by drams and silent prayers.

One of the unlikely-but-possible landing sites on Boreray (photo: Ann Bowker)

One of the unlikely-but-possible landing sites on Boreray (photo: Ann Bowker)

Wednesday 7 May

Looking out in the morning, we were struck by the huge detrimental impact of the military establishment, the water storage up the hill and the numerous portakabins, the monstrous electricity generator building, the fuel-storage compound and the radar spheres on the hill. The place is a mess and undermines the potential for historic ambience in the village. Before the crew surfaced, channel 16 called out 'coastguard must speak to Murdo, strong winds approaching'. Cathy appeared and I told her what I had just heard. She said, 'It would not have been the coastguard, he only calls if it is serious'. Before the toast was eaten, Murdo had the engine running and moved over to Dun, while Cathy put away the dishes securely. Puffins, fulmars, kittiwakes and gannets wheeled about us, while a few yards away the St Kilda wren, the museum and the Mistress stone all beckoned but were beyond reach. Our disappointment was tempered by a tour of the Hirta cliffs and the Soay channel, followed by close-ups of Stac Lee, Boreray and Stac an Armin. The sea was moderate, and one-handed camera shots were possible. As we moved away from the stacks our thoughts turned to the sea conditions, but the swell was not so bad and the wind was at our tail. We were heading for Scarp and a possible Marilyn tick, but in the last hour the swell was high and the boat was pitching around, so a landing was not on. In the shelter of Scarp we had sandwiches and Murdo told us we would have to head for port due to the threat of a north-east wind. The run home was not too bad, and we had a late meal, wines and whisky.

Dun skyline from Hirta

Dun skyline from Hirta

Thursday 8 May

With the boat tied up securely in the gale-force winds, Murdo offered a run in his Land Rover up the pass over to Loch Tamanavay. The Bowkers and the runners went first, Dave and I got off at the high point for the three Yeamans and a repeat Marilyn to the east. Alan and Mary did Griomaval to complete their set of four.

Friday 9 May

Pairc postscript: Away at 6am to put Dave, Chris and Rob on the 7.15am ferry to Ullapool. Heading out of Stornoway, I was haunted by the memory of 1997 when I had stood on Uisenis. On my return home I was dismayed to find that the spot height and name on the map was not the highest point (according to the gospel of RHB) and I resigned myself to a gap in the book. After the fury of the Atlantic, the bonny bright morn coaxed me into action. I turned off for Eisken, where I was asked to park near the fish farm. I had walked the excellent path twice in 1997, the Pairc being a two-day bash for me. Butterwort was flowering and the sunken boat in Loch Sealg was looking sad. A section of new path raised hopes but only went as far as the mooring. Still, the going was much drier than on my previous visit, the grassy slopes above Loch Ucsbhat were fine, and my Anquet print-out provided spot heights for both tops.

The Etrex GPS was placed at the foot of each cairn, but the readings did not give the reassurance I had hoped for. The altitudes were reversed. Best to believe the OS and RHB I suppose. At least the visibility was good and the view of the Shiants was fine. The outing seemed easier this time, which brought to mind those friends who repeat walks in preference to seeking new ground. The notion is that walking seems easier on a familiar route when no map is required. The repeat of Uisenis bears this out, but I do not intend changing my ways because of it.

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