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Best ever Outer Hebrides trip! Barra & St Kilda

Nov 01 2023

A trip around the stacks to view the amazing cliffs & gannet colony, St Kilda, Outer Hebrides, Scotland

It’s tricky to call your best ever trip, the years roll on, you have lots of different wildlife encounters, great weather & experiences. However this one has got to be up there. We ticked off a few firsts and we probably had some of most settled weather we’ve ever had for a week long trip. Read below for a captains log of our week based on the Isle of Barra in summer 2023.

Fancy joining us next time? See details here.

Arrival Day

For Evan & some of our passengers they caught the Calmac ferry out to Castlebay from Oban in the early afternoon. Some dolphins & a minke whale showed along with plenty of seabirds on the way before they arrived into Barra early evening. Calmac ‘n’ cheese always hits the mark in the ferry cafe before they got off to check in to the holiday house for the week.

For Ben he had a snorkel tour to run from Oban, a lovely one in the sunshine! Shane was left to pack everything and prep the boat, dingy, fuel, wetsuits and spares for the week. The boat would join the trip either that night or early the next morning. There was a bit of fretting about the weather as there was a bit of wind from west. However late afternoon looking at the wind gauges, we decided to go for it! It was a late run out but we had some lovely evening sunshine and the sun setting over the islands as we arrived into Barra.

The forecast ahead was incredible, calm seas, easterly winds and wall to wall sunshine. Could you believe it!?

Basking Shark Scotland boat heading to Barra at sunset


Day 1 – Mingulay & Pabbay

In the morning we started off with the usual packing of the boat, paperwork and safety briefs before leaving Castlebay for the islands.

The wind was from east, which can be challenging with a lot of fetch over the Sea of Hebrides. However it makes the rugged west side accessible with usual Atlantic swell much reduced.

We wound our way through the isles & rocks, first stopping to check out the famous climbing arch on Pabbay. There was climbers already dotted over the routes and gave us a great perspective of the dimensions of the rock face.

Watching climbers on the Pabbay Arch

Heading on towards Mingulay the sea conditions were superb and the full seabird welcoming committee was in attendance. We cruised our way down, eyeing up all the cliffs and caves. This area is one of the most spectacular we visit with full 360 panoramic views. Shane decided the sea was calm enough to take the boat through one of the long cliff passages between the isles. A highly tricky manoeuvre with the rocks within touching distance from the side of the boat. The chasm stretches 300m long with the 100m cliffs rising directly above the boat on both sides. A spectacular place!

Mingulay cliffs, Outer Hebrides, Scotland

The swell was so unexpectedly small that we carried on along the coast, passing the 250m high cliffs and onto King Kong Rock. Aptly named for the obvious – can you spot it in the picture below? Guillemots, puffins & razorbills were all around us. The sun was high and water clear. Bliss.

King kong rock on Mingulay, Outer Hebrides, Scotland

Shane told the group about the infamous arch which lies on the inside of the cliffs. Something that would strike fear into any skipper, only somewhere you would consider in perfect conditions. The conditions were perfect so there was no excuses. The cliffs form a complex of tunnels that is just big enough to take a RIB through, certainly tight enough for a 12m super RIB. It was one of those moments, sun shafts shining down through the cliffs, seabirds all around, calm blue Atlantic water, kelp gently swaying and slowly motoring through the rocky tunnel. An almost once in a lifetime experience! It was also a first and Shane looked suitably relived once we had gone through, however he just turned around and went through the other way!

The basking shark scotland boat heading through the Mingulay Arch, Outer Hebrides, Scotland

With conditions so good, Shane then suggested a swim, and all of our guests bit his hand off at the chance. How many people had swam through the arch? Not many! The kitting up malarky start and everyone tugged and groaned at putting on wetsuits in the warm sun. Once in the water, visibility was excellent, guillemots, puffins & razorbills glided around us along with a curious male grey seal who accompanied our swim. A swim here was very special as you got to look up the cliffs then down below underwater.

Swimming at Mingulay, Outer Hebrides, ScotlandKelp forest at Mingulay, Outer Hebrides, ScotlandUnderwater scenery at Mingulay, Outer Hebrides, Scotland

Guillemot swimming underwater at Mingulay, Outer Hebrides, ScotlandWe certainly packed a lot in today and after our swim we got warmed up with the obligatory hot chocolate and headed up to Pabbay. The sun was still belting down, but the easterly wind made for a bit of chop at Mingulay bay so we opted for the far more sheltered Pabbay. The bay here is beautiful, surrounded by classic Hebridean white sand and crystal clear water.

Exploring Pabbay near Barra, Outer Hebrides on a Basking Shark Scotland expedition On the island there is the village ruins and standing stone to explore. Along with all the rocks and cliffs covered in bright sea pink. A few decided that it wasn’t an opportunity to be missed and jumped in for a skins swim whilst others relaxed, walked or explored.  What a day, a long one for the first one but you rarely get these kind of conditions so we certainly made the most of it.

Ruins on Pabbay, Outer Hebrides, Scotland

Sea Pink in flower on the rocks of Pabbay, Outer Hebrides, Scotland


Day 2 -Mingulay & Barra Head (Berneray)

Another cracking forecast as we headed back for Mingulay with our intention to head onto Berneray first (Barra Head) and then Mingulay. However after checking out the anchorages, which can be very exposed, we decided to opt for the reverse.

We tucked right into the north end of the bay where the quietest water lay and prepared everything for landing. Avian flu was still a risk so we avoided the puffin colony on land and elected to watch them from a distance. Afterwards we headed straight up the path towards the cliffs of the west. Passing the ruins of the manse & village as we ascended, eagles soared above us and the ground was bone dry from the long dry spell we were lucky to be visiting in.

Our trip gives us lots of flexibility and we had a good time ashore to explore. Some headed along the path to the cliffs/arch, other nearer the auk cliffs, to gain views of all the guilliemots and razorbills. Others headed nearer the bonxies, some explored the village and bay.

Exploring Mingulay near Barra in the Outer Hebrides with Basking Shark ScotlandRuined house on Mingulay, Outer Hebrides, ScotlandCliffs of west side of Mingulay with the bay in the background. Outer Hebrides, ScotlandSea pink covering the cliffs of Mingulay, Outer Hebrides, ScotlandBack to the beach, the sun was pouring down and sky a deep blue. What better way to end our visit with a skins swim in the bay immersed in turquoise water.

Swimming at Mingulay, Outer Hebrides, Scotland

Back on board the RIB, the wind had changed allowing us to make our landing on Berneray. It had been a reasonably long walk around Mingulay and it’s a fair climb up towards the lighthouse of Barra Head. So we took it a bit easier to reach the top with us being reminded that the views are worth the effort.

landing on barra head (berneray)Reaching the lighthouse, our sea-eagle record was broken instantly with the almost unbelievable 19 spotted in the sky at one time. They are known to socialise but this seemed like a town meeting. It’s great to see them thriving in their natural environment with limited human interference.

Barra Head Lighthouse, Berneray, Outer Hebrides, ScotlandCliffs and Lighthouseof Barra Head, Berneray, Outer Hebrides, ScotlandSoon it was time to leave and heading down the double track to the landing was an easy amble downhill this time. Great views of the south side of Mingulay and eagles still cruising around on the thermals.

Barra Head cliffs, Outer Hebrides, ScotlandWe found the tide had considerably risen since our arrival and it made for a bit of a longer row out to the boat. The wind direction meant the west side was still perfect conditions so we went round to look for the postmans path, observe the seabirds, seals and check out some more caves.

Cliffs beneath Barra Head lighhouse, Berneray, Outer Hebrides, Scotland

Barra Head Cave, Outer Hebrides, Scotland

For the way back, we decided to take the sheltered west side. Since it was so good we had a short detour through the arch for good measure. It would be rude not too.

Boat at the Mingulay arch, Outer Hebrides, Scotland






Day 3 – Eriskay offshore & S.S Politician (Whisky Galore)

Our day started heading out to deeper water to see what bigger life we could find. On the way out to the drop off we scoped out some some caves on one of the smaller islands that we earmarked for later. The seals were out to play today as lots of them were interested in what we were doing. However we didn’t have that much time spare as we had to catch the tide later on.

We spent the morning surveying a 20mile stretch to the east of the islands and up to South Uist. Lots of seabirds, porpoises and a few common dolphins but no bigger things to see. It was cloudier than our previous days so it felt colder – more so as we’d been spoiled by the Mediterranean conditions.

By time we’d ate lunch, the sun was poking through and it was time to head in to find the wreck site. The shipwreck of the S.S. Politician inspired the Whisky Galore story and there is always the romantic notions of exploring a shipwreck and what treasure you might mind.

There’s a lot of sand banks and shallow water to navigate through till the familiar shadow of the shipwreck looms into view. We kitted up and started exploring around, finding lots of nooks & crannies. The folk with a bit more free diving experience were able to get down to see a bit more of the wreck structure, with a few swim throughs. Even one long section of wreckage which proved a little tricky to get out while holding your breath, the video sequence does look a little sketchy so we’ll save that footage for another day.

exploring the shipwreck of the politician 'whisky galore' near Eriskay, Outer HebridesAlas no new whisky was found on this trip, despite a big of digging and scratching around. There was a lot of pollack and wrasse around, with some nice sections of soft coral & anemones. So everyone has a real nice swim around.

Back on board, we slowly de-kitted while we compared stories and ‘finds’ along with how stuck we really got inside the wreck!!!

Swimming around the wreck of the Politician near EriskayWeighing anchor, the tide was up enough to make our way through the channel and into the harbour. Dropping off our folk first, we anchored the boat and then rowed in for dinner. The AM Politician pub visit is always a popular time in the trip, both from a historical interest & food + chill point of view. The pub has lots of memorabilia from the wreck site, newspaper cuttings, photos, reports. Even a few artefacts, some bank notes and of course some actual whisky from the wreck. Everyone had a decent feed and after a long swim and day on the boat everyone was pretty keen on (at least) 2 courses.  It was an evening return down the east side of the islands, the wind had dropped and we had a pleasant cruise in the sunshine back to Castlebay.

Visiting AM Politician pub on the Isle of Eriskay, Outer Hebrides, Scotland






Day 4 – Muldoanich & Sandray

First up today we decided to have a look around some promising looking caves on Muldoanaich. A nice snorkel in very calm conditions however nesting shags impeded our planned route as we couldn’t keep on track without disturbing them. So one for another time!

snorkelling at Muldonaich, Barra, Outer Hebrides, ScotlandNext up we headed to the next amazing bay down at Sandray. We dropped folk in for a 2nd snorkel in calm conditions before they made their way back to the boat to dekit.

Exploring the Isle of Sandray on a Basking Shark Scotland expedition

Gathering lunch and shore kit, we landed on the white sand beach. Everyone found a nice sunny spot on the rocks to enjoy some food before setting off for the hills and cliff. We always seems to find a lot of orchids here, a sign of the fertile ground which sustained the old islanders.

Exploring Sandray, Outer Hebrides, Scotland

Orchid on Sandray, Outer Hebrides, Scotland

Exploring the island of Sandray near Barra, Outer Hebrides, ScotlandWe never really have any set times on our trip out here. The days are long at this time of year so we make the most of the conditions. Today we planned a shorter trip and we headed back around 4pm as we wanted to fuel the boat before tomorrows Kilda run.

Wildlife always arrives at the most inconvenient time and as we arrived into Castlebay, a large pod of Risso’s dolphins were spotted close to where the previous Bottlenose were seen. Although they are more abundant around the outer islands it is unusual to have them around here so close in. They were very relaxed, some spy hopping, splashing and playing allowed us some nice pictures and they even lined themselves up well with the castle in the background! We did manage to eventually fill up the boat with fuel before we returned to the marina to prep the boat in anticipation of our early start tomorrow. A stop at the Co-op on the way back for all our own supplies and we were ready for the big mission!

Risso's dolphins in Castlebay Harbour, Isle of Barra, Outer Hebrides, Scotland





Day 5 – St Kilda!

Today’s the day. There was a lot of anticipation this week with the weather and we had used lots of nice weather days up already. Shane had been stressing about the forecast and today was always the calmest day. We took the risk and hoped the forecast would stay and thankfully we got the most settled day we could have hoped for.

We left the pontoon at 0730 just a small breeze as we rounded Vatersay and out into open Atlantic ocean. We had 3.5 hours of crossing to go and we settled into the journey ahead, pushing on at around 20-22knots, passing lots of seabirds along the way. After a few hours Kilda appeared on the horizon and grew steadily bigger with the jagged outline.

Hirta appearing on the horizon arriving by boat to St Kilda, Outer Hebrides, Scotland

Entering village bay passing close to Dun, the hairs were standing up at the incredible view and elation of such a calm crossing and achieving our goal.

Once anchored up we called the rangers and ferried everyone ashore for our briefing on the island. We managed to catch up with archaeological ranger Clare, who had on our trips previously and on a previous episode of the podcast. First up we had a look around the village before heading up towards the gap passing numerous cleits.

Houses on Village Bay, Hirta, St Kilda, Outer Hebrides, ScotlandClimbing Conachair, past the cleits on Hirta, St Kilda, Outer Hebrides, ScotlandReaching the top of the gap we had amazing cliff views looking out to Boreray and the stacks. Still the hill continued and we headed left passing some aircraft wreckage and trying to avoid some of the very defensive bonxies!

St Kilda cliffs on Hirta, looking towards Boreray & the Stacks, Outer Hebrides, ScotlandAfter reaching the top of Conachair, we passed the radar station and then headed down to Gleann Mor. The views over to Soay were spectacular, with the sea so calm. Dolphins & minke whale were spotted feeding on bait balls and seabirds were everywhere you looked.

Hirta, St Kilda, Outer Hebrides, ScotlandWe managed to find the precipice of the the lovers stone. Nick & Shane gave the pose a go, but maybe not quite as close to the edge as the old St Kildans. The story goes that the young males has to prove their worth before being able to go on cliff climbing bird collection. As such it then signalled to the St Kildan ladies that their laddie was a decent boy. They had to make their way out to the edge of the stone, then balance on one leg whilst clasping their hands above their elevated foot.

Reenacting the pose on the lovers stone, St Kilda, Outer Hebrides, ScotlandWorking our way down the Gleann, we had some basic directions for the tunnel. As it was so dry and primo conditions we really wanted to check this out. The route down is slightly sketchy in dry weather so wet would be really tricky.

Once there the tunnel was spectacular, a huge cavern with Boreray framed by the rock. The pink algae on the rocks, blue/green ocean gave some amazing colours and we took hundred of pictures trying to take it all in.

The tunnel on Hirta, St Kilda, Outer Hebrides, ScotlandLeaving the tunnel we were a little weary making our way back up the road at the top of the hill before heading back to the village. We left enough time to explore the village, visit the shop, the gun and take in the ambience of Village Bay. Again a benefit of our trip is that we don’t have a set schedule and we were going to use the most of the daylight and calm conditions. Most of the day visitors had left and it was very quiet ashore allowing us to imagine living on the island.

Back on board we were a little sad to be leaving, but elated our success and excited for the trip over to the stacks.

group of visitors in Village Bay, St Kilda, Outer Hebrides, ScotlandLeaving village bay, we hugged the coast checking out all the caves, cliffs, birds and eventually the tunnel. We then sped across to the two stacks of Stac an Armin & Stac Lee where the large gannet colonies are. Sea conditions has improved again from earlier and the sea was mirror flat. You don’t get the Atlantic like this very often so we felt completely privileged to be here.

A trip around the stacks to view the amazing cliffs & gannet colony, St Kilda, Outer Hebrides, Scotland

Boreray didn’t disappoint and the classic cliff was hugely impressive. Everyone clicking away with cameras with oohs and ahhs.

Exploring the cliffs of Boreray, St Kilda, Outer Hebrides, ScotlandAlas even our extended schedule had to come to an end and Shane was working out sunset time, with our journey time on the way back. We left around 1830 for the journey home arriving into Castlebay around 10pm as the sun was setting. A perfect day….

Basking Shark Scotland boat heading back to Barra from St Kilda


Day 6 – Vatersay Land Day

We have a land day planned for the trip and the almost guaranteed windy weather. This week there was unbelievably no bad weather so we still had lovely sunshine to explore the island.

We had such a long day yesterday at Kilda that we had a leisurely start, Evan met everyone at the Vatersay hall for some coffee & cake before exploring the machair and twin beaches. It gave us a chance to recover, enjoy a more chilled day before packing ready for the ferry the next day!

Exploring the Machair, Dunes & Machair on VatersayBen & Shane didn’t have quite so chilled a day, with the boat finished and a tour out to Fingal’s cave the next day. They had to pack and prep the boat for the 4hr run back to Oban. Wash, fuel and prep the boat for the next day along with washing and re-packing hire gear. Never a dull moment!

Next morning it was a early start for the 07:30 ferry departure. Again a pleasant crossing back to Oban with dolphins & minke showing on the crossing over. Thanks to everyone for joining such an incredible trip. A experience no-one will forget.

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