Exploring the southern half of the Outer Hebrides
from Barra Head to the Sound of Harris
In last month’s article I told you to stop dithering and reach across the Sea of the Hebrides to the Western Isles or Outer Hebrides. I also suggested that you should allow at least a week to explore the southern half of the Outer Hebrides from Barra Head to the Sound of Harris. The following comments and reflections assume that you are in possession of the appropriate charts and the excellent sailing directions published by Imray or by Clyde Cruising Club. Other very useful publications are “The Scottish Islands” by H.H.Smith and Caledonian MacBrayne’s summer ferry brochure with some useful maps.
In settled weather the anchorage on the NE side of Berneray allows a walk to one of Britain’s highest lighthouses at the southern tip of the Outer Hebrides. Take care not to step over the cliffs just south of the lighthouse! Try to imagine the sea conditions in a prolonged southerly or westerly gale. Former lighthouse keepers reported finding small fish on their doorstep (100 metres above sea level) after the most prolonged gales. Don’t miss the chance to sail round the west side of Mingulay with its spectacular sea cliffs which are only second in height to those of St Kilda. The most southerly sands of the Outer Hebrides are those on the east side of Mingulay but it is not often that an overnight anchorage in the bay will be free from swell. If you want to get back to your yacht with dry feet I would suggest that a rocky scramble at the north end of the bay has a higher success rate than a direct beach landing but more about beach landings when we get to Vatersay.
One fine day in July I remember hearing a familiar voice on the VHF radio while at anchor in Mingulay Bay. Thinking the voice was not very far away, I called him up and we had a clear conversation on a working channel. “Where are you?” asked I. “East of Coll” came the reply! Yes, line of sight, masthead ariel to masthead ariel, a distance of 60 miles. A freak, possibly due to the high pressure system which had been lurking about for several days. In spite of the fact that the Coastguard have powerful ariels at strategic positions throughout the Western Isles, the air waves don’t bend round every hill and into every anchorage. Until you become familiar with the VHF coverage it is probably a good idea to call the CG before entering your destination if you have given them safety traffic.
Heading north from Mingulay there are some enchanting silver sands on the east side of Pabbay and Sandray but take care to study the chart and do a local survey with your echo sounder before dropping the hook. I am told that this was a regular haunt of the Royal Family when Brittania was in commission.
Vatersay is the most southerly inhabited island of the Outer Hebrides and is linked to Barra with a causway which blocks a through passage of the Sound of Vatersay. This most beautiful of Hebridean islands has 3 spectacular beaches (plus 2 smaller ones) and even in summer the cows on the beach often outnumber the people. The largest and most sheltered bay is the east one. It is one of the most beautiful anchorages in this part of the Outer Hebrides providing you avoid the drying rock in the SE corner of the bay. There is a regular bus service from Vatersay to Castlebay on Barra for those yotties who, like myself, don’t have room for folding bicycles.
A few years ago I chose the west beach of Vatersay to carry out some nautical experiments. I had persuaded my crew that the absence of wind presented us with an ideal opportunity to conduct some dinghy manouvres in the interest of science! We were anchored overnight in Vatersay’s east bay but the following morning there were absolutely no waves breaking on the beach so we motored round to the west bay which is open to the Atlantic and found just enough of the white stuff to conduct our experiments. There are many inviting Hebridean beaches which lure us ashore but by the time we want to return to mother yacht a slight swell has built up and the fun and games are often of a very wet variety. As a precaution you might want to consider taking a light anchor and warp with you. The trick is to judge when to drop the anchor on your way ashore. Too soon and you run out of warp! Too late and the falling tide leaves your anchor on the beach! Tie a fender to the end of the warp so that you don’t loose it. On your return you simply haul yourself off the beach until you are able to get underway with oars or outboard motor. This Hebridean Heave does not prevent you getting wet. It simply reduces the length of your battle with the elements!
When the experiments were complete it was time to relax on board and reflect upon our surroundings. There are very few days in each year when you can anchor in a flat sea off a beach which is open to an Atlantic fetch of 2000 miles. To combine this with blue skies and the sun sparkling on the blue and green sea was a rare moment indeed. It was not long until our thoughts turned to the monument above the beach, to the Annie Jane and her destruction in this very place in 1853. How could the villagers of Vatersay cope with the survivors and the bodies of 350 men, women and children washed ashore on their island? No causway to Barra. No phone to the mainland. No RNLI all weather boat. No Coastguard Helicopter. The full story is told in the Heritage Centre in Castlebay which is open during the summer months.
If the Silver Sands of Vatersay can be described as enchanting, what adjectives are left for the sands of Barra? The great strands on the west of Barra are best visited on foot via bicycle or bus while mother yacht is safely anchored in Castlebay or Northbay. Most visiting yachts head for Castlebay which is the main town and ferry terminal. There are times when the 12 visitors moorings are fully occupied but in southerly winds it is more comfortable to anchor on the north side of Vatersay if you have enough tide to cross the sand bar. In westerly winds a beautiful anchorage is Brevig Bay on the east of Barra if you have the confidence to dodge the rocks on the way in. The most sheltered anchorage on Barra is Northbay which has water, diesel and gas on offer courtesy of the staff of the Fish Factory at Ardveenish Pier. Yachtsmen must appreciate that these facilities exist for the local and visiting fishermen who pay fees to land their catches and berth alongside. It is a matter of courtesy to choose a quiet moment to request these facilities. Another magnet for the visiting yachtsman is the local pub in Northbay which offers meals in the summer months and is now an internet café! There is a regular bus service to Castlebay for provisions or crew changes by ferry or a visit to the swimming pool or the Heritage Centre and much more. For those crew who can afford it, the one hour flight from Glasgow airport is a unique experience as there is no other airport where the plane lands on the beach and arrival and departure times are dictated by the state of the tide.
For the adventurous cruising yachtsman, Northbay is the place from which to explore the many islands and secret anchorages in the Sound of Barra. High on my list of favourite places is the lagoon between Gighay and Hellisay. It is definitely not the place to take a charter yacht. It is only the owner of a yacht who should take the risks involved as both entrances to the lagoon are tidal and heavily fortified with rocks. Once safely inside it is a magical place. Beware low tide explorations of these and similar places throughout the Hebrides. If your pilotage has been mainly visual your return at high water can be fraught with danger as many of your references will have disappeared. For this kind of risky but rewarding exploration I keep small marker buoys on board and if all goes well I collect them on the return! Forget about secondary port tidal height calculations from the standard ports of Ullapool or Stornoway. Get hold of the local tide tables in Castlebay. The tourist office will point you to the wooden hut where they can be purchased. Whatever you do, don’t be tempted into the Sound of Fuday in anything other than your dinghy. Chart corrections cannot keep pace with the shifting sands in this sound and even local shoal draft boats go aground from time to time.
Moving north, the beautiful island of Eriskay is now linked to South Uist by a causway. The natural harbour on the south east of Eriskay is well worth a visit. The island can be comfortably explored on foot and the main village has a pub offering meals. A new ferry link has just been established from the west side of Eriskay to the Ard Mhor peninsula east of Barra Airport.
Lochboisdale on South Uist is a much larger natural harbour with visitors moorings and ferry terminal. Between Lochboisdale on South Uist and Loch Maddy on North Uist there are a number of natural harbours for the cruising yachtsman. The entrance to some can be very difficult to spot from seaward for the first time. All involve careful pilotage and some require very settled conditions for your first visit. Happily for the cruising yachtsman, mother nature has provided us with a magnificent natural harbour about half way between the ferry terminals of Loch Boisdale and Loch Maddy. Loch Skipport has no visitors moorings or shoreside facilities, but its various arms offer 360 shelter in a spectacular setting of hidden pools, mountains and islets. Don’t take my word for it. Discover it for yourself and allow a couple of days to explore its many parts in the dinghy.
Loch Maddy on North Uist provides a natural springboard for a passage through the Sound of Harris. Be careful if you are entering from the north, particularly if you are tired after a lengthy passage from St.Kilda or elsewhere. It is easy to mistake the correct arm and end up in a Loch Maddy Muddle.
Paul McNeill is a Yachtmaster Instructor and Principal of Westbound Adventures Sailing School which operates on the Clyde and in the Scottish Hebrides during the summer months. Paul is also a member of the Royal Institute of Navigation. In the next article “Paradise Lost”, he guides us through the northern half of the Outer Hebrides from the Sound of Harris to the Butt of Lewis.