Yes BUTT no BUTT yes BUTT

Three days ago we paddled around Butt of Lewis. It was nice day on water, I really like days like this one, it was a wee butt bouncy. 
Well, this is how it started. There are some many sentences where one can use the word Butt, and once you are out paddling for long enough, then you start to think in slightly, or more than slightly skewed way. In the end our whole day was filled with the Butt variety. Butt I think it would be better to spare you of most of our conversation, otherwise you might never read what we would write again. 

  
 We were buttling our way up north in great expectation of what may be coming: swell, wind, huge tideraces and so on. We heard a lot abutt this, and especially remembered a story told to us by our friend Andrew W., who wanted to paddle past the butt some years ago with his friend David. The story went, that they rounded the butt from east, found the conditions too big to make it safe for them to continue, so landed. That’s what really struck us – conditions too much to paddle, yet landing on the west side. We would like to know where, as we would not be able to land anywhere on that stretch, even in these enjoyable conditions. The story then went on with them scrambling up the cliffy bit and to a farm, where a lady let them camp while one of them made his way down to Tarbert, then on a ferry back to Uig, to get car to rescue the other one with boats. So we were very curious. 

 Fortunately, as I said, our experience was different one, could almost be called buttiful. We even got to surf down waves past the lighthouse. And landed safely in the picturesque harbour of Port Ness. The beach here reminded us of Dureness, the harbour itself brought memory of entering Dunbar harbour, a mixture of natural and manmade. 

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Letter to customer service

Dear Sir, 

This is an accompaniment letter with the pair of shoes, made by your company, which I have enclosed. I decided to inform you about what happened to them.

You see, I bought them some year and half ago, and wore them while pursuing my hobby kayaking. I never had a complaint about them until now, when the left shoe decided to deceive me in circumstances, that I would call rather peculiar.  I have been kayaking in Outer Hebrides for the last five weeks. As most of the coast is rather of a remote nature, all equipment I took with me was carefully selected, and only that, which was deemed the most reliable was taken with me.

On this unfortunate day, day before yesterday, myself and my companion set off from the north of Great Bernera to continue up north. The wind was meant to be getting stronger and we decided not to hesitate to make fast progress. Unfortunately, as it usually happens, one hour into the paddle I needed to go to the bathroom. The sea state was such, that I decided against attempting it within the space of the boat and decided to land. Something not easy to do, when the coast is formed of cliffs, yet I spotted a small rocky bay.

Leaving my partner behind, I hurried forward, surveying the best place where to land in the crashing swell. By now, I was a woman in need, which helped with the perception of the size of the waves making them look smaller, and I landed.

As you may not realise yet, the boat containing all our equipment needed for such long unsupported trip makes a boat quite heavy. Yet, not able to wait for help I acquired extra strength and pulled it as far up as possible before proceeding with the business, which brought me here in the first place. I was wearing drysuit with drop seat, which allowed me to be fully independent.

I had got on with the business, details of which aren’t relevant, and I shall not bore you with them. Although fully occupied, I was still able to watch the waves crashing on shore and their effect on my boat. In spite of the initial effort of pulling the boat as far as possible, the waves succeeded in their effort and managed to dislodge the boat. In my defence I have to say that I have made an effort to run after it, even if it meant that my drop seat stayed open, and undergarments were by my knees.

And in that moment it happened. I realised that the right shoe became detached from its sole and the sole was hanging freely along being only attached by the toes. To my despair I had to give up the chase, as the prospect of tripping over and landing in the water without the dry suit being made water tight again didn’t appeal to me. I watched the boat setting off free in the water and quickly retreating beyond the waves.

In my misfortune I was fortunate enough that my partner was there able to recover my boat, bring it close enough for me to get hold of it and enter it safely. We finished that day in Bragar. The next day the weather didn’t allow us to paddle and we took a bus to Stornoway instead. I am now a proud owner of new purple Crocks and neoprene over socks, the best alternative to size 10 neoprene shoes that Stornoway could offer. However delighted I am about the colour of my new kayaking shoes, no where near they are as comfortable and safe as the original ones.

You see, Sir, these shoes have a history behind them, which I strongly believed was important to share.

Yours sincerely

Natalie

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A perfect gateway to the “country” 

We found it. Paddling in the break between the windstorms we took shelter in the Uig Bay. From there we could see them perfectly, some 18NM west from us, the outline of the Flannan Isles and, at some moments through the days, their lighthouse. 
  
I once read in one of the books we came across during this paddle, that in the past the people, who rowed there to get the birds, did not call certain places by their names. In case the ocean heard it and prevented them from reaching such places. And therefore the Flannans were known as the “country”. 

During our last time on the land the forecast changed few times and something what looked like a window worth waiting for appeared. It promised, that after solid F5 in the evening it would calm to variable F3 for most of the day, only to pick up later in the evening again. We decided to give it go. Planning was done, bearing counted, food prepared, alarm clock set. 
In the book it also said, that those, who went there, only went when an easterly wind blew, and as soon as it turned westerly, they turned and hurried back. Unfortunately we couldn’t follow this advice, we decided to leave when the westerly was blowing, only to be returning with easterly, as setting at later times would mean coming back against F5 headwind, which we could not justify. 
We set off, the sea was calm in the bay, but once we left its shelter our well known acquaintance, the swell, was there, waiting. We pressed on for almost an hour trying to decide whether it was getting smaller or bigger further away from the land. Really we were just trying to find excuses to continue as the idea of giving up on this project so soon was just a bit to painful. Then, at 7.10am, we remembered and turned the radios on, and for once actually heard something, it was the weather forecast. The sea state was moderate or rough, the wind picking up. And so, with lighter hearts we turned back. That day it was the best day’s weather we’ve had for long time, yet what we realised later was that, the wind blowing under F5 for six hours does not make a window for any off shore paddling. 

  

We know it was wise decision, as landing isn’t possible there, if the swell it on. And we knew that doing at least twelve hours round trip without landing in such conditions was beyond our possibilities. Still, I felt a bit disappointed. I wanted to visit the island with the lighthouse from which the three keepers mysteriously disappeared with no trace in December 1900. We were also told that in a village of Brenish a game keeper was given a job of noting in a diary if the lighthouse was lit every night, or wasn’t. What he apparently wasn’t told was, what to do if it wasn’t lit. And so dutifully he noted yes or no in his book without really doing anything about it. 

For a little while I also cherished the hope of landing on the so called House island. It had a house on built by someone who was lured there by his friends from Great Bernera. Apparently very unpleasant man, that the community decided to get rid of. Although he didn’t want to go initially, he gave in to bribes and promises and set off. However his feeling were right, his party abandoned him on the island. Yet, when they came for their next visit expecting to find a body, they found him in good health and good spirit, a changed man. Whether these stories are true or not, I enjoyed listen to them.

What’s more, they were told to us by David and Rosie, who we met the day before in a cafe in Timsgarry and who happen to be in laws of one of our club member living in the area.  

 

A chance encounter

We were paddling north from Huisinish Point towards Uig Sands bay to seek shelter from the forecasted storms. Wind was calmer that day and we were looking forward to making good progress. The landscape was amazing, the sea was washing on the tall rocky hills, which were cut by deep running lochs. 

  
The beach on the Mhealasta island looked very inviting from the distance, pale yellow with white and transparent green waves. On the closer look it looked rather steep with waves more on the breaking side rather than gently washing on the shore side, so we found smaller beach in a cove to land for short break. Here we saw hundreds of hairy caterpillars crawling up and down the beach .what I could not understand was why some of them were crawling up the beach and some were braving it right to the water’s edge only to be swept away to certain death. Not being able to help them we left to continue on our journey, which were to take us out from the protection of the sound of Scarp and throw us back to the open sea. 
Paddle it was spectacular, we were and weren’t and were and weren’t able to see the great cliffs with caves and stacks on our right. Something we would like to come back to one day, when the swell allows. Then something appeared in a distance on our left. At the start it looked like some antennae peaking over the waves. Later it became clear that it was a boat. We were hoping that they won’t come closer to the shore to what we were and won’t run us over, yet they seemed to be closer every time we looked. It was a very strange looking boat, more like a houseboat but build much seaworthy. It had people in colourful jackets on deck. As soon as a wave brought us to eye level with it, we gave them a wave, just a little one, so they don’t think we are waving frantically, and won’t come closer. 

  
It didn’t work, suddenly it became clear that they were indeed heading over to us. A short panic washed over us, thinking how we are going to get out of their path with the sea so high and them bobbing right to left. Then we spotted the kayaks tied on the deck. This explained their interest in us. 

All was revealed very soon. This was indeed the Seakayaking Plocton trip to St Kilda. You see, once, when we sat on shore feeling a bit frustrated with the weather, we decided to google all the kayak companies organising a trip to St Kilda this year. And Sea kayaking Plocton was one of them. It then gave us an interesting topic for conversations between us about whether they would go, because of the state of the weather this year. And on that day, as we sat in the waves, we had a quick talk about whether they left or not, and how much paddling they will probably do, knowing that the storms were coming. So here they were, in front of us, on board of MV Cuma. 

  
And yes I was right calling it a houseboat for it having six twin cabins with duvets, linen and towels, with hot and cold water and central heating, three toilets and two showers on board. There’s choice of open deck seating or covered deck saloon, where passengers can choose to take their full board meals. We had a little chat, as you do if you meet in the middle of the Atlantic, they holding onto the railing, us being shaken and lifted up and down, yet feeling stable and comfortable. The captain was smiling from his cabin, so one day I wouldn’t mind to be on board of the Cuma, too.         

Sending a postcard

Few times we tried to go to the post offices here on the islands to sent post cards. Not always have we succeeded. Some were shut on certain days, some did not open till the afternoon, or few days later. Yet, we got to one yesterday, and fortunately with much less effort than others before us. 
Lots of people know St Kilda and how remote it is from the mainland. It almost sounds like the inhabitants there had a romantic, yet very reclusive existence. I am not sure they saw it that way, but the truth is, there wasn’t something like a post office in those days. The Kilda mail sent in bottles is famous, and in a museum in Uig we found one of the Kilda mail boats. Which was made when they were running out of food providing for ten Austrian sailors, who were saved from their aground ship. In the message they asked for provisions to be sent to them. Later after the sailors returned home the Kildians were rewarded £100 pounds by the Austrian government. 

  
There are other forms of how islanders tried to deal with the fact that post office wasn’t always available. We paddled past Scarp, just west from Huisinish Point, there in 1934 a german, Herr Zucker, tried to launch a packed by a rocket across the sound. The rocket exploded and “thousands of letters addressed to King and Queen, members of Parliament, and private citizens from Stornoway to Sydney were scattered over the beach like a snowstorm”. 

  
Monach Isles also didn’t have post office, not even post box, which cost life two lighthouse keepers from Shillay. In 1936 a tragedy occurred, when two of them died crossing the ford between Shillay and Heiskeir to post their letters. 

 Isle of Eigg was fortunate in having post office, it’s still inhabited and still has the service. How fortunate for its neighbouring island, Muck. If someone on Muck was sent a telegram a whole process was started. It got to Eigg ok. Only then a fire had to be lit on its south coast to let people on Muck know, that an important message awaits. A ferry boat was then sent and the ferryman had to pick up the message, not only by crossing the sound but also by walking four miles to and from the post office situated in the middle of the island. 

  
(Dundee Courier, 19th Jul 1938)

Let’s talk about weather

I don’t feel that we’ve talked enough about the weather so far. Ok, we did with everyone we met. The holiday makers say what an awful or unfortunate luck with the weather they had. The locals say that the winter has been harsh and long this year and everything is by four weeks late. The newspaper said that the snow falling in the Highlands at the end of April didn’t suggest a good May. A local man said that there hasn’t been Spring yet. The sheep are hitting fences in a bit to break through and get to the grass on his tennis court. Overall everyone agrees that this year has been unusual compare to normally and May have not lived to everyones expectations. 

Being here for four weeks we learnt that it’s no point to dwell on the fact that this year’s extraordinary circumstances put halt on our project so far, we just hope it won’t be doom and gloom in June, too. On the other hand we’re quite enjoying this unsettled weather. 

  
Yes, no longer we read the overall outlook of highs moving towards Azors and Icelandic lows moving over the north west of Scotland. We just check the wind whether it is paddleable or not. And give a little thought whether we have a headland to tackle or not as the swell here is spectacular. 

  
In terms of other weather features, we became fond of this unsettled times. We have sunny days, and if we could shed the hats and gloves at least during one of them, it would be great. 

  
We have nights with windstorms during which someone for some reason keeps standing next to our tent and throws buckets of gravel (according to the sound) on it. We have days with both sun and rain followed by rainbows. 

  
We have rainy days which add adverse feeling to some of the places where we’ve look for night. 

  
On some rainy paddles I resumed to wearing a helmet to protect my face and head from the sharp rain razors. And recently we reached the top. We set off in the morning and when the cloud lifted, the peaks of the highest hills on Harris were covered in white. Here we go, summer half term in Britain and I finally could see the long missed snow.   

  

A night on an ismuth

Ismuth, some years ago I didn’t even know the word. Why would I, there aren’t any ismuses in Czech republic and I didn’t learn English by reading a dictionary from A to Z. So for years I haven’t known something like this existed. Until some years ago, during one of my paddling holidays with friends Ali and Nick, we had lunch on one. Ismuth, Nick said, and then he explained what it means. A narrow strip of land with water on both sides connecting two larger areas of land. 

  
So paddling to Taransay, the aim was clear, to stay there for a night, as the beach between the two islands is a perfect example of an ismuth. Besides, it was time for Michal to learn the word and its meaning as well. 

We liked Taransay. Not only it gave us shelter from some very big seas while rounding Toe Head, it had a nice feeling about it and gave view to many beaches on this side of Harris. 
  
Talking about big seas, when big swell was crushing into the cliffs coming back at us, and having some strong gusts to make the waves even more confused to what they already were, it was really a time to appreciate our kayaks. We played with the waves there and now trying to sit still with the paddle in the air or with our eyes shut. Amazingly, our kayaks were dead stable, and we could take photographs. 
  
  

  We walked around the island for a bit, but didn’t visit any of its former churches, nor the one for men’s burial neither the one for women’s one. Neither did we go to see the “village” Paible, and where Castaway 2000 took place. No, we stayed close to our ismuth, and explored the dunes, observed the deer and sheep, not the needy kind from previous stop. And marvelled at the colours of boulders and patterns on the beach. The white sand was mixing with some black one and it looked like battique or mackerels. 

  

From Taransay we planned for Huisinish point, however the wind had different ideas. It wasn’t that bad at first, surfing down wind and then following the lee side of the island. But when I decided to stop for short while just after the sand spit and had to paddle 300metres against the wind, it became clear, that today it was unlikely to go very far. Still, we decided to try and continued hugging the coast admiring its rocky formations. Then, once in the sound, the wind hit us full speed. We fought for half hour, but then had to admit defeat, we could do this for one hour but won’t be able to last for three or four. We turned and sailed down wind followed by some nice hills towards Tarbert.    

SPOOKY HOUSE AND SHEEP MOB

On Saturday we missed the best weather window so far, however for the evening we wanted to attend a concert of traditional music by students from Lews Castle College, ad sometimes paddling has to give to culture. Anyway, the window of opportunity lasted about three hours, so not much was missed. The concert was fine and it had a raffle. Sadly we missed on all prizes containing wine whatever quality, yet we won as well. 
We won a tea light holder which could be placed in an empty bottle of wine and was made from glass. Something very practical when one travels by kayak. It now lives in the bow of my boat and awaits a very special occasion when it would be lit. image
The next day it was time to move again. I am not going to bore you with the description of the weather. It suffice to say, that when it became so huge, that when we reached the sound between the island of Killegray and Ensay on route to Toe Head on Harris, we turned down wind. After some significant surfing trying to avoid all breaking waves over the shallows, we finally reached the calmness between the islands. We were in sound of Harris and while Killegray still looked pretty much like it belonged to Berneray and North Uist, all dunes and beaches; Ensay was quite rocky similar to what we saw on Harris.
We thought we would stay on Ensay and enjoy some remote island camping. We reached a beautiful sandy bay to land, which was dominated by a grand house. We went to explore but soon decided that we did not like the place. What seemed romantic and beautiful at first, was turning into spooky. The house seemed old, build in the beginning of nineteen century. It had stairs leading to its spectacular doorway from the beach. Closer look convinced us, that we wanted to leave and seek camp elsewhere. Looking through the windows we could see once grand rooms, with chandeliers, armchairs, sofas and tables. One room had grand but very old piano covered in dust, both rooms had libraries full of books which looked that they were read, still nothing looked used for long time.  

Later we found that the island was last inhabited by the 1930s. There was a chapel close by, locked, and apparently used biannually, which didn’t add to our feeling of welcome.

We decided to leave and paddle over to Harris. Trying to avoid Levenburg we ended in a very small bay close to half built house surrounded by sheep. Obviously they must have been missing their humans, they seemed to be very pleased to see us first. They were following us round, bebeing and memeing, coming right close. At some point, once we cleared our tent patch from all the golfballs and pitched it, they entered almost inside. Going to pee seemed to be impossible as one became surrounded by desperately sounding animals. Once we retreated inside, it did not stopped. Lying in the tent we could still hear it: thump thump on the canvas, and I imagined the sheep pulling their sleeves up and trying to build some kind of poogloo around us. Sweet dreams.    

  

WAITING GAMES

Today, after three days of sitting on the shore bound by winds, came a day, when we could go on the  water and paddle again. But where to? We could move slightly further north and round one or two corners before the wind strikes again but what would be gained from that? Nothing apart from a change in scenery. 
It is becoming more and more obvious that this trip is different to those we have done so far. Unlike previously, the main challenge is not to move further along the coast bit by bit to gain distance. In the same time, the most important set of skills is not about the ability to brace what sea would throw at us. At the moment it became apparent, that what we need to practise is patience and believe. Believe that the weather window will come, hopefully sooner rather than later, and patience to wait for it.

What we are living at the moment is far from the mainstream imaginations of experiences of hardy expedition kayakers. Not that we see ourselves as those anyway. Our days are filled with long sleeps, nice coffees, even better cakes, interesting books and windy walks with birdwatching. Hard? Easy? Well, like with everything else in life, it is as hard or easy, as one makes it.  

 

The Monach Isles

The day we crossed into the Atlantic from the Hebridean Sea we could see it, a tall stick in a distance. It was the Monach Isles, we were debating for a bit whether to go there or follow the coast further, in the end we left it to the morning to decide.  

 Woken by the sun we looked over to the isles, they were nicely visible, wrinkles of green and white with a light house on  one of them. Decision has been made for us, of course we will paddle there as we can see it so clearly. It took about two and half hours in pleasant conditions, surfing lightly forward. Monach isles consist of five islands and some of them were inhabited in the past. The green and white we have seen were the dunes, apparently the highest in Britain.   

We came closer and it was time to decide on our landing spot. However rather than long sandy stretches, all we could see were boulders lining the beach. We started to look for a gap in the rocks, and then heard it. The sound, oh no, they weren’t rocks. Of course we have read that the Monach Isles have one of the biggest seal colony in North Atlantic but who thought it would be lying on the beach. We made a retreat and went to look for a landing place without the danger of disturbing them all. Found it just round the corner and named it Dead Seal Beach.  No wonder his former friends no longer wanted to share this space. 

 We could not choose a better day for the visit here.  It was warm and the dunes sheltered us from the wind. It was also very quiet apart  from the sounds of bees, birds and seals in the distance. The stillness was there and now disturbed by running rabbits.  

  

We walked all the way to where the village used to be. People lived here until 1942, and then one more family moved in for few years at the end of the 40’s. People lived mainly on two islands, this one and the one with lighthouse. Interestingly this lighthouse was manned still in the 1937. So many people lived here, that a school was built here. It looked very idyllic in the warm sun, that it was hard to believe that these isles have about 160 days of gales per year.  
  
Although it is a place out in the Atlantic, it has been visited regularly by fishermen, mainly from the isle of Grimsay. Nowadays there’s the old hall with exhibition and the old school house. This was repaired and sometimes people stay in there. We debated whether we should stay and live out the bad weather here, we found the keys and looked into the room which serves as shelter and respite to fishermen and boatsmen. Unfortunately we wouldn’t be able to comply with the note saying “Leave it as you found it”  as we would have to tidy it first, so we decided to leave for North Uist instead.