Barra & Outer Hebrides Expedition
Nov 02 2021
We’ve long looked out at Barra & the Southern Isles from our summer base of Coll. Just another hop over from the Inner Hebrides that has so much allure of new coastlines to explore.
The weather is always the main challenge with the islands fully exposed to the Atlantic swells and wind! However that’s also what makes the area so special with the geology, wildlife, history and culture all mixed together in a big melting pot! The basking sharks also have an affinity with the islands, however we haven’t been able to do much study with them.
Here’s a Captain’s log from our 2021 expedition, it was such an epic trip with some amazing memories. Come join us in June 2023 where we’ll continue our adventures.
Arriving to Barra (Day 1)
Our first day, arriving to Barra in lovely sunshine. Most people caught the ferry from Oban including Rachel with the BSS van and Shane brought the RIB over from Oban. Lot’s of promise with blue skies as we berthed at Castlebay. Everyone had a chilled evening and got settled into the accommodation for the week ahead.
Our first day on the water and the calm weather spell didn’t last long! Thankfully at this time of year there is a lot of daylight. We left harbour around 3pm and chipped our way down to Mingulay and then onto Barra Head. There was still a swell running so we cruised round the island watching thousands of seabirds beneath the 200m+ cliffs, a mind blowing experience for all the senses. You just didn’t know where to look there was that much going on.
Once back round the sheltered side time was marching on, but conditions suddenly improved and settled enough for us to land. Go go go! We scurried ashore and explored the top of the cliffs, lighthouse and ruined cottages, all bathed in amazing light as the sun was setting. A magical experience and a late run back to Castlebay for 11pm.
Barra & Vatersay (Day 3)
A reverse in the weather with a calmer spell in the morning and stronger winds in the afternoon. We were a little weary from the late finish but elated from the experience. We explored the Barra, Vatersay and Sandray coastline again with many seabirds showing on the water. Eventually we found shelter around Vatersay and used the opportunity to have a swim and test out all the snorkel gear. It’s always a bit of a faff the first time on a trip and it’s good to get this under our belt before exploring more exposed locations. There was lot’s of marine life to see around the reefs in good visibility before we headed back to Castlebay for a rest. Once we were back, some folk had a bit of an explore on land around Barra since we hadn’t had too many opportunities up till now.
Sandray & Pabbay (Day 4)
A leisurely start again today with lighter winds in the afternoon. Chipping our way through the islands, spotting porpoises and seabirds along the way we arrived into the shelter on the main bay on Sandray. The weather was fine but still with a small residual swell running. Running ashore was a little more exciting today, we had to be careful to time the small waves and surf the dinghy into shore. We all ended up with wet bottoms and big smiles!
The sand dunes were full of orchids and beaches littered with cowries. This is the place of the infamous ‘skinny dip’, but you’ll need to look that one up on social media for the full story. The moral is, even though you are on an uninhabited island, expect to bump into someone!!!!
After a good explore around, we took a more sheltered landing to get back out to the RIB. We then used the good weather to continue our adventure onto Pabbay. This is another amazing island to visit, lots of coastline, cliffs, nooks and crannies. A few swam and snorkelled with the seals. All bathed in glorious sunshine. A cracking day.
Mingulay (Day 5)
Today our target was Mingulay and a full blown island exploration. We first headed offshore to the deep water to look for bigger beasties then headed into the shelter out of the light westerly wind. Mingulay’s main bay is still exposed and there was a residual sea running. However landing wasn’t too tricky compared to the previous day. With everyone safely ashore we pulled the dinghy far up the beach and set off to explore.
Mingulay is a much larger island than the rest, approx 4km long and 3km wide with almost 250m cliffs on the west side. We explored the ruined village, the last inhabitants left here in 1912 and the peak was around 150 people.
The towering cliffs on the west side are home to many thousands of seabirds. They were everywhere you looked. Exploring the island we carefully avoided the nesting bonxies and gazed down at the vast cliffs, slots and archway. It was here we spotted sea-eagles in a social display and we counted 14 flying at once. Eagle-nado!
A few hours later and back at the beach we watched the large population of puffins flutter back and forward to their burrows. Along with the large colony of grey seals frolicing around in the waves. Unperturbed by our presence and with us alone on the island, they came very close to us on the beach. Heading back to the boat we kitted up and spent a while interacting with them in the water. How much more could we fit into one day!!!
A full on day of exploration and wildlife in and out of the water. Everyone was filled with amazing memories.
Eriskay & S.S Politician (Day 6)
Today was the day, or was it! A settled and fine day, with easterly winds. The forecast was good for around Barra but stronger winds at St Kilda. We chatted to the rangers as they knew that even though easterlies were offshore winds it could actually mean worse conditions at Village Bay. On their advice it sounded like to much of a risk to get out there and not land. However Shane has an excellent plan B in mind.
Firstly taking the westerly route of the Barra coast we headed up past the cliffs and bays towards the north coast. The tricky sound between Barra and South Uist was shallow and sandy giving incredible water colour and a very pleasant cruise through the islands. We continued onto the east side of Eriskay to search out in the deeper waters off South Uist. After an hour cruising around the shelf edge and with low tide approaching we then headed back in Eriskay.
Finding shipwrecks isn’t that easy and Shane has many years experience wreck hunting and diving. The remains of the actual ship has been colonised by a lot of marine life – one of the reasons why wrecks are popular. It took a little while to make sure we were on Spot X, but with relief we had anchored directly next to it. Everyone hopped in very quickly today for some reason and had a good explore around. Everyone was imagining that there would be one of the remaining whisky bottles just sitting upright on the sand! (haha – maybe this was a bit far fetched). There was lots of fish life around the structure, and lots of soft corals & anemones attached to it too. The site had great visibility and with the overhead sunshine it made for a really pleasant swim.
We then had one other trick up our sleeve as nearby there was some guaranteed whisky! The AM Politician pub is full of artefacts, pictures and history from the shipwreck story. We are had a really great lunch in the sun whilst we chatted about finding that elusive whisky ‘next time’!
It was a nice calm evening run back to Castlebay in the sunshine. Another really great day and a big tick off the bucket list.