Just an advance warning – this post contains a lot of pictures, including a number of grey seals that may make you just go “aww..”. It just means the page might be a little slow to load. So with that out of the way…
Following from my post of a few days ago I’d arrived back on Barra on my bike and was about to chuck all my gear into a sea kayak for the journey south with a couple of friends. I didn’t bring my own kayak all the way from Cornwall, it was easier to make use of “ex-employee privileges”, or really just that they’re super friends and generous with it, and borrow a Valley Etain 17.5 from Barra-based Clearwater Paddling. It’s a usefully sized, rather than barge-sized, expedition kayak, perfect for cramming in kit and plenty of food without being tedious to paddle.
The plan was to make use of the now arrived calm weather and paddle south along the chain of islands south of Barra and Vatersay (the southermost of the inhabited islands), in order: Sandray, Pabbay, Mingulay and Berneray (another one, the other being at the top of North Uist). I found a wiki-commons map and put some labels on just so you can see where I am talking about.
The Outer Hebrides
Once south of Sandray the journey becomes a little more serious than the average weekend paddle. Remote from any assistance there is minimal boat traffic, your VHF won’t have line of sight with any receiving station and there are few safe get-outs, none on the west coasts of the islands – essentially leaving only the beach on Pabbay and the beach on Mingulay. Both face east and hence have some shelter from prevailing winds but can suffer heavy Atlantic swells. The west coasts of course face the full fury of the Atlantic, and prior to the lighthouse on Berneray being automated, the keepers there on occasion reported fish being deposited on the cliff-tops during storms… some 200m above the ocean surface. Hence the need for a reasonable weather window. Some tidal planning is also required, flow rates on spring tides in the sounds between the islands reach 4 knots with numerous overfalls. With some swell and wind over tide it has the potential to be a rather lively place. We were really lucky… light to moderate east to northeast winds and just a couple of metres of swell from the northwest. A rare opportunity to explore some of the more remote islets in the chain and to really become intimately acquainted with the incredible caves and clefts in the 200 metre high cliffs on the west coast of Mingulay and around Barra Head.
Distance-wise it is not a long paddle, the journey south on day one from Barra around the west of Mingulay to camp on the beach turned out to be 37km, we took all day over it however – glorious sunshine, fantastic bird-life to enjoy and so much to explore. You could easily break it into a two-day with a camp on Pabbay. Day 2 was a lazy day.. a morning on Mingulay exploring, swimming with the local seal population followed by an afternoon circumnavigation of Berneray, with the return journey, straight into a force 6 nor’easterly on day 3… Up the west coast of the islands to find a little shelter and an early o’clock start to make the most of the tides.
I would love to make this journey again with a long lens on board (my on-kayak camera is a fixed 35mm lens), the birdlife is captivating. Mingulay and Berneray in particular are home to large populations of Puffins, Razorbills, Guillemots, Fulmars, Kittiwakes, Skuas .. and eagles – both Golden and White-Tailed. I never tire of watching birds. Below the cliffs of Berneray, in one look up we saw four Golden Eagles and two White-Tailed sea eagles all soaring the cliffs together, circling lazily in the updrafts with their great barn-door wings. The birds see little human interference or traffic and thus are generally unbothered by the presence of sea kayaks. That combined with the clear waters means it is not unusual to paddle through the midst of rafts of Guillemots, Puffins and Razorbills, all hanging out together, while watching them ‘flying’ through the water beneath the kayaks. The waters between the islands are the domain of gannets. It is rather wonderful to be the subject of curiosity of these beautiful birds, soaring low overhead, their pale blue eyes very obviously checking us out. Then there are the skuas… not a large bird, sort of gull-sized, but aggressive. I watched a Great Skua take down a fully grown gannet (up to almost 2m wingspan) mid-flight. Dive-bombed from above it was like watching a plane crash as the gannet tumbled into the sea at speed. An incredible thing to watch first hand. Having seen the same thing before in the Sound of Harris the skua will attempt to drown its target. That time successfully, in this instance the gannet made its escape.
Enough with the background, I’ll tell the rest of the story, of what is truly a super short sea kayak journey, in pictures. Just as an aside if you’re keen to have a look at the area from the seat of a kayak and are not confident in making the journey alone or with friends then Clearwater Paddling run trips down here with camping opportunities on both Sandray & Pabbay, as well as to a number of other captivating destinations in the islands. You’ll have a terrific time.
Crossing the sound between Sandray & Pabbay. Nothing but the gannets for company. Later in the spring this is a good spot for spotting basking sharks. Dolphins and whales are not uncommon.
Heading south around Pabbay on a beautiful spring day.
Uninhabited Pabbay has a rather wonderful beach. We stopped there for lunch. It is also a terrific camp spot.
As with all these islands Pabbay has a population of grey seals that seem to positively enjoy following or swimming beneath sea kayaks in the clear waters. This curious youngster came to have a look at the kayaks while we dozed in the sun.
With perfect weather conditions and at slack tide we took the opportunity to explore some of the more remote islets to the west of the sound between Pabbay and Mingulay.
Finding great clefts in the rock through which, even around slack tide, there was still a couple of knots of flow to play with.
The west coast of Mingulay itself is a place of towering cliffs that dwarf any visitor and are alive with birds.
The cliffs are well-endowed with vast caverns with crystal clear waters plunging to the depths. It feels a real privilege to be “permitted” into these places by the ocean.
Towering clefts in the rock
We spent hours exploring these caves.
..and always with those towering cliffs as a backdrop.
Imagine how it would be here in rough weather…
Wave-carved windows in the stone.
A shaft of sunlight illuminates the stern of Ben’s kayak.
It was quite a long day on the water and feeling a little tired from all the bicycle miles I was happy to make camp behind the beach on Mingulay that evening and put feet up. The days are really long at this time of year, daylight until almost 11pm.
A look at the rather lovely beach on Mingulay…
… and our camp.
A significant population of grey seals occupy the beach from time to time. They appear unbothered by the presence of a few sea kayaks. A group of seals this large is quite a stinky thing… happily the wind direction was a good one with respect to the southern end of the beach where we camped…
Beautiful colouration on this chap.
Meeting the locals…
The island was just starting to bloom.
Truly a beautiful spot with the sea pinks, turquoise ocean and white sand.
The only thing to watch out for really is the occasional seal turd half-buried in the sand.
Mingulay has a history of habitation going back to the Iron Age, the remains of which can be found on the island. This building is one of a couple still standing, sort of, from when the island was finally abandoned in 1912.
Setting off from Mingulay for the short paddle south to Berneray and Barra Head, the most southerly point of the Outer Hebrides. The water here could not be any more perfect. It is deceptive, at this time of year it is only around 6-7 degs C. More on the significance of that shortly.
Berneray is equally well-endowed with towering cliffs and caverns.
Terrific coloration on the rock – a combination of algae, mineral staining, and birdshit.
More big places..
The pink colouring below the high water mark is an algae.
A rare opportunity to get inside Barra Head
Last of the cave pictures… promise!
Just a small swell running around Barra Head.
Evening back on Mingulay. Having paddled around Berneray the light was getting really nice. I wanted to see if any puffins were around to photograph while Ben and Andrew wanted to land on Berneray and climb to the lighthouse. So I headed back across the now lively tiderace between the islands. The puffins weren’t playing but it did mean I had a nice view of the other two heading back into the bay at Mingulay.
This is Ben’s tent. It is somewhat more photogenic than mine, a factor I neglected to take into account when buying mine… Pretty nice spot to spend a couple of nights.
Doesn’t really need a caption. Red boats look great on an ocean of this colour.
The beach extends inland a fair distance. There is a good stream for a water supply.
I was sitting on the beach watching the seals and noticed my footprints. I know it’s a bit of a cliché picture… I couldn’t help myself.
Speaking of the seals… camp here and you will be very much an object of curiosity. In the evenings the especially inquisitive youngsters came out of the water to inspect the kayaks. I love watching seals.
Surfing in to the beach for a look…
Endlessly interested.. and interesting.
Something of an x-files experience… always a number of seals just watching… waiting perhaps…!
It was an early o’clock start for the journey back to Barra. Sunrise at 4.30am with the Isle of Rum in the distance.
While we sat on the beach eating porridge for breakfast, this Great Skua was having a puffin for his.
Heading along the east coast of Mingulay. With a stiff force 6 nor’easterly it was a bit of slog north. We had some tidal assistance for the first 3 hours to Sandray which made a perfect, beautiful spot for a brunch and few hours dozing and exploring, mostly dozing, in the warm sun before the final leg back into Castlebay on Barra.
A very sad story. A couple of weeks prior to my arrival in the islands a local fishing boat, the Eliza, went down one night while at anchor just a couple of hundred metres off the beach at Mingulay. Despite calm seas and the inshore location only one crew member managed to swim to shore. The rest perished in the frigid seas. At the time of writing one is still missing. During our last evening on the island this rig, accompanied by a dive boat, arrived to begin the recovery of the Eliza. There is an ongoing enquiry by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch.