Miughlaigh in the nick of time

Kisimul Castle off of Barra
Waiting at the Post Office
Mingulay Bay
Almost at the top

Greetings from the beautiful isle of Berneray, where Mara and I are graciously hosted by our friend, Loriana. We stopped over on this island almost 2 weeks ago and it’s great that we are able to spend some more time here on our trip back up north to Lewis and Harris. Later today we get to meet a good friend of Loriana’s and an excellent Gaelic singer named Duncan. If I’m lucky I will be able to bring along my recorder and capture some raw music from someone that grew up singing in Gaelic. Should be a fascinating day!

So last Wednesday evening on Barra we still didn’t have a confirmation on the boat leaving for Mingulay, and in fact we had to wait until Thursday morning, when Francis and his wife drove to our campsite on Vatersay and told us in-person that the boat is leaving at 10am from the Castlebay pier (on the island of Barra and Vatersay there is, at best, really spotty mobile phone service and naturally the location of our campsite had no service). Mara and I immediately changed our moods from moderately pessimistic to nervously ecstatic and began hurriedly breaking camp as we spoke out-loud our packing list for Mingulay. It was at this point that I remembered batteries need to be recharged, but thankfully all of our devices had enough juice to last for the time spent on Mingulay. The weather had finally eased up, the sun was shining, and we were on our way to the southern tip of the Hebrides – such a relief!

The boat-ride to Mingulay bay lasted about 1.5 hours and was pleasant, landing on the gently-sloped rocks was easy enough and we set up our tent on a bluff looking out into the sea, just next to a mound that served as a bronze-age burial site. Mara and I didn’t want to waste time so we put all of our equipment on our backs and began the trek to the west side of the island, where you find some of the tallest cliffs in Britain. Mingulay is one of these islands that kind of sweeps up from the calmer east side and then drops off into the Atlantic Ocean, creating a huge wall for nesting birds and terrifying (in a good way) views. It was amazing to be standing at the bottom end of the Hebrides – the only visible land to our south was Barra Head, home to a lighthouse and some remnants of the keepers’ cottages. We managed to walk up to the highest point on the island, marked with a trig point or ‘triangulation station’ and were treated to a view in all directions. Even at the very top of Mingulay the earth beneath our feet was really boggy, almost like walking up a hill in deep snow. After some time on the summit we continued west and were shocked at how suddenly the cliff appears. It was that kind of moment where something is so intense that a gasp is the only appropriate thing to do. I tried peering over the side to glimpse the surface of the water below but it was not possible. It reminded me of carefully looking down into the Grand Canyon or the Black Canyon in Colorado. Needless to say, it was pretty intense. Just next to this impressive cliff is the site of a bronze age fort aptly named Dun Miughlaigh. I’m not sure if much of the fort is still visible today, but I could see some stone wall reinforcement on the tiny land bridge that connects the fort-peninsula to the main island area. It’s typical to see the iconic ‘blackhouses’ in the main village area and dream of what life could have been like on Mingulay, raising sheep or cattle, harvesting shellfish and raising crops for your family. But it’s amazing to think so many ways of life where followed there on one tiny island. There is evidence of people settling on Mingulay for several thousand years, so being uninhabited since 1912 is a relatively new experience for the island.

That first day on Mingulay was really pleasant weather, and we were out long enough that the sun reddened our skin (yes, we know, sunscreen…). A good dinner cooked on our little stove put us to bed and we woke up a couple of times in the night as the wind got stronger…

In the morning we awoke to the sound of ‘flapping tent’ from the powerful easterly winds. It was a bad sign because the waves were being blown directly into the bay where the boat lands to pick up passengers, the water crashing up on the rocks where we unloaded our things one day earlier. The Ranger on duty for a few weeks came out of the old schoolhouse and said to us, “…looks like you get another night on Mingulay”. That wasn’t the news we were hoping for because after waiting a week to get there, we needed to continue our trip and make our ferry reservations and meet up with friends from Austria travelling through Scotland; basically we needed to get off the island! We quickly agreed that there is nothing we could change about our situation except to make the most of our time on Mingulay, so we went back to work recording the sound around us and shooting some video. Down by the old village on the beach Mara said to me, “do you hear that?” “It’s just the sea making weird sounds”, I said. But seconds later we could see the familiar white antennas on the top of the Boy James with Francis at the helm bobbing up and down with the strong swell near the bay. We couldn’t believe it because we really thought it looked too rough for a safe landing and moving all our gear on board, but luckily for us when Francis said “ay’ll be seein’ ya temmarah” he truly meant it. The Boy James actually carried several passengers that day for a quick 2-hour puffin-watching session while we quickly packed up our things and moved it all onto the boat. We were super happy to have made it on board and the return trip was wonderfully wild.

We’ve got to get going to Duncan’s soon, so I’ll save the Monach Isles for later when I have a little more time to write. Enjoy the photos – leave a comment if you like, is that even possible on this website?  -T


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