uklighthousetour

One crazy lady and a bizarre obsession = an ongoing tour of the best lighthouses the UK has to offer

Bagging all the way to Barra Head

Last week we dragged the kids and my mother-in-law over to the island of Barra in the Western Isles with one specific target in mind: to get me to the island of Berneray to see Barra Head lighthouse. Bob had visited the island and lighthouse back in July 2014 when I had been 7 months pregnant – we thought not the best time for long and multiple boat trips with potentially risky landings! He had always promised that he’d get me there some time to make up for my missing out then.

The journey to Barra became a bit of a lighthouse tour in itself, beginning with a quick stop at Cromarty. As we were heading south on the A9 we decided to try something different and take the 2-car ferry across the Cromarty Firth from Nigg. It’s a really fun little ferry with just enough space for the two cars. The crossing also gave us a new vantage point for the lighthouse at Cromarty and, after the crossing, we wandered around the building. This was my second time at the lighthouse, my first being during my original tour back in 2012.

On the drive to Oban, we glimpsed Corran lighthouse and, once on the ferry, there was plenty of lighthouse fare on offer. We spotted Dunollie (north of Oban), Lismore, Ardnamurchan, as well as Duart Point, Rubha nan Gall and Ardmore Point (all three of which are on Mull), and a few of the Northern Lighthouse Board’s modern “flat-pack” lighthouses.

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Berneray with Barra Head lighthouse, as seen from the sea

The week started well when our skipper, Francis (owner of the Boy James who routinely runs trips to Berneray’s neighbouring island of Mingulay) announced on the Monday morning that we would be heading down to Berneray first that day. A great start to the week, and exactly what I wanted to hear! We travelled down the east side of the islands of Sandray, Pabbay and Mingulay on our way there. The majority of the time we were sheltered from the westerly wind by the islands, with occasional relatively rougher (or should that be “wetter”?!) sections in the more exposed areas.

The landing on Berneray was very easy, although we were surprised not to have landed on the island’s pier. Instead we arrived on the rocks on the north east of the island, just to the east of the pier. Thanks to both the Boy James and its tender being well set-up for moving onto and off of, getting onto the island was easy enough.

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Barra Head lighthouse surrounded by cloud

There is a clear track up from the pier to the lighthouse and we joined this track near an old shed close to the pier. It’s a fair wander up to the lighthouse, but there are points of interest scattered along the way with old houses in various states of disrepair, the helipad presumably used by the Northern Lighthouse Board, and what appeared to be a well with a pump. As we walked up the hill to the lighthouse the cloud was coming and going, at one point entirely obscuring the lighthouse. The light in Barra Head lighthouse sits higher above sea level than any other in the UK. While the lighthouse is only 58 feet (just over 17.5 metres), the huge cliffs on which it is located mean the light operates from a height of 693 feet (slightly over 211 metres). It is incredible to see. As you walk the track, the lighthouse gets bigger and bigger, but once you reach the start of the lighthouse wall and look over the edge you see the true extent of the cliffs, which dwarf the lighthouse.

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The lighthouse with the old keepers’ cottages in the foreground

The buildings, which I assume were the keepers’ cottages, in front of the lighthouse on the landward side are looking worse for wear, not surprising really given that the station was automated in October 1980 and the wild weather that hits the island on a regular basis. We were surprised to hear that the skipper of the Boy James had lost 19 working days in the month of July this year. This says a lot about the sea conditions and weather in the area; the sun may be shining and conditions can seem calm, but the extreme exposure changes everything.

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The view east from the lighthouse compound

Often we have visited islands with lighthouses on calm days and you can’t imagine how wild it can get. Barra Head is different though. The dramatic scenery of the cliffs and the slippery courtyard outside the lighthouse hint at just how bad it can be. Some of the aerial images I have seen since on the Canmore website of the cliffs on which the lighthouse perches give me the chills. You then get a better grasp on just how close we were to the edge of two cliffs at exactly the same time when we walked to the highest point on the island, which is just next to the lighthouse. The lighthouse sits right at the top of an extremely tall gully in the cliffs, and I imagine this gully sends up some pretty huge waves at times. I mentioned the word “dramatic” before and I think that is the best word to describe it in any conditions.

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The three graves inside the keepers’ graveyard

The lighthouse itself was built by Robert Stevenson and completed in 1833. While the island may seem like an almost impossible place to live compared to today’s standards, it was home to a small number of people in the past. The last remaining residents though were the lighthouse keepers who lived in the cottages there until the station was automated. The keepers, interestingly, have their own walled graveyard on the island not too far from the lighthouse. Within the walls are three graves, including those belonging to two of the keepers’ children who died at particularly young ages. The keepers’ cottages, which I referred to above, appear to have an interesting history since the keepers left. There is a fascinating summary of the plans for the buildings at buildingsatrisk.org.uk since automation. I really hope someone manages to find a use for it before too much more damage is done.

Berneray is a very special place and I feel privileged to have been able to make it there. If I were given another chance to visit then I wouldn’t hesitate to take it. If you are ever thinking of heading that way then I would definitely recommend getting there on the Boy James. A fantastic trip and a great day, and the kids were in bed when we arrived back at our accommodation too! 🙂

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Haskeir: the bonus bag

On the visit to the Monach Isles back in May we had a bonus lighthouse bag in the form of Haskeir lighthouse, which is located 13 kms west north west of North Uist. Although we knew we were visiting the island and that it was home to a lighthouse, we were both expecting a “flat-pack” affair. We were pleased, however, to discover that it was something more substantial. Not “Stevenson” substantial, but definitely worth visiting.

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Haskeir lighthouse from the sea

As we arrived at the island and prepared to get into the tender a helicopter flew overhead and landed on the island. We wondered if we were going to get any trouble from a potential owner or anything, but the door opened, a couple of people got out, took pictures, hopped back in again and off they went. The helicopter was operated by PDG and was blue and orange in colour. These are the helicopters currently contracted by the Northern Lighthouse Board to transport their engineers around to service the lighthouses.

We weren’t sure whether we would manage to land on the island, but the conditions were in our favour once again. The landing wasn’t too bad and there was a bit of a clamber up some rocks and along a couple of narrow ledges before we reached the relatively flatter ground. The island reminded me very much of Eilean Chathastail on which the Eigg lighthouse (a very similar structure to this one) sits.

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Haskeir lighthouse

Being careful not to disturb the birds we made our way up to the lighthouse. It’s what I have started referring to as a “halfway lighthouse”, a white, 9 metre, fibre glass structure with a white lantern. The lighthouse was constructed in 1997 and is one of only two buildings on the island, the other being an old bothy, which we didn’t see while we were there. As with those we’d visited the day before and that morning, it was a very peaceful place and definitely worth the effort of getting off of the boat.

The high point of the island was just next to the lighthouse, which is always pleasant and tends to keep everyone happy 🙂

 

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The Flannans – finally!

For the past three years we have been holidaying in the Outer Hebrides, based on Lewis or Harris, with a chartered boat lined up and ready to take us, and a number of other hill/island baggers out to the Flannan Isles. All three times the trip has been cancelled due to poor sea conditions.

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Eilean Mòr lighthouse

The Flannan Isles lie 32km west of Lewis and, as you can imagine, are subject to some pretty wild seas at times. Having spent so many years waiting to get out there, a part of me thought it might never happen. But then we saw the forecast for last week, which coincided with what had become our annual holiday to the Western Isles. Sunshine, virtually no wind. It was looking promising and even more so when we received a message to say that our boatman, Seumas Morrison of Sea Harris, was confident that we would make it out there. Landing, though, would be another matter entirely…

Of course, my priority was landing on Eilean Mòr, the main island, which boasts the famous lighthouse (more on that shortly). The group we were with, including Bob, were also interested in landing on the other seven islands (or lumps of rock, in some cases) that make up the Flannans. The sea looked nice and calm on the morning we headed out. None of us expected to be able to land on anything other than the main island, and we weren’t even sure about that one!

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The east landing on Eilean Mòr

After an hour and 40 minutes on the boat we approached Eilean Mòr. Quite quickly we realised that a landing would definitely be possible, although we’d need to time it right to avoid getting wet feet. Very kindly, Bob had taken along a rope and he joined a couple of others as the first group to land, which then gave him time to set up a rope/handrail to help the rest of us. We arrived at the east landing, which very helpfully still has many of the steps intact. A clear path then took us up and in a big, sweeping route around to the lighthouse. The path followed what would have been the tracks (removed now), which would have taken the supplies up to the lighthouse. Apparently the interchange point between the tracks going down to the east landing and the west landing – which they would change manually – was known affectionately by the keepers as “Clapham Junction”.

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Eilean Mòr lighthouse

The lighthouse sits beautifully at the top and there’s a real awe-inspiring feel about the place, possibly helped by its remoteness and how challenging it is to get to. Slightly off the path to the right as you walk up is the old chapel (known locally as the “dog kennel” apparently, which says a lot about its size!) As you walk up, the helipad is just behind the chapel.

On such a calm day, it was difficult to imagine how wild it could be out there, although the state of the west landing area suggests the severity with much of what was put in place for the keepers’ landings, including the steps, having been washed away.

It is easy, before visiting the island, to view it solely as “the one from which the keepers went missing”, but visiting the island gives you the opportunity to see it for what it actually is, which is a beautiful structure, built in (what must have been) a challenging location that now makes for a very special place. There is a feeling you get on these islands off of the west coast of Scotland that I haven’t experienced anywhere else – possibly, in part, due to the low number of visitors to these islands. Hyskeir is another example as is the Eigg lighthouse on a small island to the south east of Eigg. It’s isolation, but the beautiful kind that soothes the soul. It probably helps that I’ve been to them on calm, sunny days!

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View of the west landing on Eilean Mòr

Descending down the path and back on to the boat went smoothly with our “handrail” in place! We then went on to get those more adventurous members of the group landed on all of the other islands, which I sat back, viewed the Eilean Mòr lighthouse from various angles and watched one of the boatman successfully catch numerous coalfish and some fair-sized pollock. It was all very relaxing.

Later in the week, we grabbed the opportunity to visit the exhibition and memorial dedicated to the three keepers lost from Eilean Mòr in 1900. For those not aware, on the 15th December a vessel passing by noted the light did not appear to be operating. When a boat was sent on 26th of that month (after being delayed by the weather from 20th) for the changing of the keepers, the first man onto the island reported that none of the three keepers were to be found. There are numerous stories about what could have occurred, including a poem that took a little artistic licence with the story. The most likely story, in my opinion, is that one or two of them got into some trouble at the edge of the island and the other went to help resulting in all three being lost to the sea. It’s a very sad story and the exhibition and memorial pay tribute to them.

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The lighthouse exhibition in Breasclete

The exhibition, titled ‘Waiting for darkness to fall’, opened in April at Breasclete Community Hall and is open daily from 2-4pm. The community of Breasclete chose to develop the exhibition and memorial as it is in the village that the lighthouse’s shore station was based (it is still there now and stands out clearly from the rest of the buildings. A picture can be found in one of my previous posts). It features descriptions of the Flannan Isles, the building of the lighthouse, what is known about the disaster and the aftermath. A great deal of information has been pulled together for the exhibition, including excerpts about the island from various publications, weather reports from the time the keepers went missing, newspaper cuttings following the loss of the keepers, and pictures of the development, building and launch of the memorial, which is located just half a mile down the road, next to the water’s edge.

We spoke to a very friendly gentleman from Breasclete Community Association who was on hand to chat to visitors and he informed us that there are a number of potential plans in the pipeline to ensure the exhibition can remain permanent and expand upon it. He said that they hope to introduce visits out to see the island itself by boat or helicopter at some point and also look for a more permanent home for the exhibition. I had read online that there has been some talk about the community purchasing the shore station and using the building as a home to information about the lighthouse and the missing keepers.

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The Flannan Memorial in Breasclete

Of course, we also had to visit the memorial. It really is a lovely piece of work. The artist James Crawford of Garynahine has carved the shape of the lighthouse out of sandstone and it sits on top of a Lewisian Gneiss rock shaped like Eilean Mòr. This stone is on a bed of smaller stones with beautiful sandstone block-work around the edge. A bronze wave appears to the left of the island, the wave heading straight for it. A plaque features on the front with the names of the three keepers: James Ducat, Thomas Marshall and Donald Macarthur. I’ve included a couple of  extra pictures below of the finer details.

Having the opportunity to see both the island and lighthouse as well as the exhibition and memorial in the same week was a real treat. I feel very lucky to have been able to do so. 🙂

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A Lewis walk & a Harris surprise

Welcome to my 100th blog post!

We went over to the Western Isles earlier this month for a week-long holiday, staying in a great four-bedroom house on Harris. I’d been to the Western Isles a few years ago and visited the easier to get to lighthouses, such as Butt of Lewis, Tiumpan Head, Arnish Point and Eilean Glas. So this time the plan was to reach another that involved a bit more of a stretch of the legs, Aird Lamishader.

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Aird Lamishader lighthouse

I knew before we set off for the walk from Borghastan/Borrowston that the lighthouse was one of the “flat pack” style. To get there we had to navigate our way down some nice steep slopes (we seemed to miss the sensible path down). Once we made it to the fields below we encountered some particularly friendly/scary sheep that, instead of running away as I would normally expect them to do, started to follow us. I was later informed that it was likely to be because they, and their lambs, were still bring fed by the farmer at that point, so they expected us to feed them. Once we’d passed over the fields we started the wander up a hill that Bob wanted to climb and said would be a more direct route to the lighthouse. So, up we went and spent some time checking out the view before we went down the other side. By this point it was feeling like quite a trek, but at least we could see the lighthouse.

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Butt of Lewis lighthouse on a sunny, but chilly, day

After crossing more fields and going up another (considerably smaller) hill we arrived at the lighthouse. As with most “flat pack” lighthouses, there’s not a lot to say about them, but they are often located in places with rather good views and this one was no exception. We were even fortunate enough to catch sight of the Flannan Isles out to sea. Fortunately we walked around the hill on the way back, but in the process met even more over-friendly sheep. I managed to calm down though when we spotted a man heading the same way as us. He was a local former Gaelic teacher who has been growing carrots in the area. He was a friendly man and took us the sensible route back to the car.

The following day we revisited the Butt of Lewis lighthouse briefly. I say briefly because it was a bit wild that day!

 

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The old Flannan Isles shore station in Breasclete

On the way back to our accommodation that day we drove through Breasclete on the west coast of Lewis in search of the old Flannan Isles lighthouse shore station. We spotted the big house from the main road, and as we got closer, noticed the old Northern Lighthouse Board emblem above the front door. I believe there are plans to create a memorial in Breascleit at some point in memory of the three lighthouse keepers that went missing from the Flannan Isles lighthouse in December 1900.

During our trip we stopped by Hebrides Arts, a beautifully located art gallery and cafe with some amazing work from local artists. While we were there we spotted a painting of a lighthouse with the title ‘Leverburgh lighthouse’, which surprised us as we weren’t aware of any lighthouses at Leverburgh, just beacons. The story associated with the picture was that the top section had blown off during a storm, leaving just the tower.

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What remains of Leverburgh lighthouse

That evening we headed to Leverburgh pier and sure enough, just as the lady at Hebrides Arts mentioned, the tower was visible just across the water to the right. As we headed back up the road, we parked up at the side of the road and walked along to it across some, boggy in places, moorland. The tower turned out to be bigger than I’d imagined and Bob made a note of its coordinates as we hadn’t found it on any maps. Later in the week we spoke to Seumas Morrison, who runs Sea Harris and regularly goes out from Leverburgh pier. His take on it’s history was that the top section on the lighthouse was actually removed and not blown away.

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Bob’s picture of Leverburgh lighthouse in 2006

Bob had a look back at some of his pictures from the area and found one from 2006 showing the lighthouse intact. A picture he had from 2012 shows the tower alone. There is very little information about this lighthouse online. I was pleased to find out about it though and to visit it during our holiday.

We were due to take a trip out to the Monach islands and possibly Hasgeir, which would have involved two new lighthouses for me, but sea conditions weren’t in our favour on this occasion, so they will be for another time. We did manage to make it to Taransay and Scarp though, and although there were no lighthouses they are still fantastic places to visit if you are lucky enough to be able to get to them.

I have only one lighthouse left to visit on Lewis and Harris now, Rubh’ Uisinis, which involves a lot more planning. I’m not sure I fancy the 10 mile+ walk out to it over bog land (and then there’s the return journey), so will need to think a bit more creatively about that one!

Finally, once we arrived back in Ullapool and began our journey home we took a minor detour as we noticed the van in front of us belonged to the Northern Lighthouse Board. We’d never seen one before so had to get a quick picture 🙂

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Western Isles – part 3

Another day of lighthouses and tourist activities lay ahead of us on the Western Isles and, once again, the sun was out. We were intrigued to find out more about and visit the beach on which the Lewis Chessmen had been found centuries ago. On our way there we passed a merry band of scarecrows (or figures) at the side of the road that we had previously seen on our first day. We stopped to see them and I partook in some pretend drumming alongside the piper and accordion player.

A long stroll out to the sea at Uig beach

A long stroll out to the sea at Uig beach

We travelled on to Uig, spotting a couple of large sculpted chess men replicas on the way there, and arrived at the biggest beach I’ve ever seen. Although it’s not the widest beach, with the tide out it was quite a walk to reach the sea and we were cautious not to spend too long near the water’s edge in case the tide started coming in quickly as we’d have had a long way to run back to shore! We followed this walk up with a stop off at the museum and café in Uig. There was a little more information about the chessmen at the museum, but also some really interesting exhibit pieces showing what life was like for those living on Lewis in the past.

As always, Bob was looking for an opportunity to do some hill-bagging while we were there. His previous trips to the Western Isles had mostly comprised of travelling on to somewhere else or hillwalking so he was enjoying being a bit of a tourist for once. However, we couldn’t go to Lewis without bagging one of its hills. Reaching the top of the hill turned out to be a lot easier than though in the end as a road led us almost up to the top, so all we had to do was climb one set of steps before we reached the peak where there was some fantastic views of the surrounding area on Lewis and other islands nearby.

The lighthouse at the Butt of Lewis

The lighthouse at the Butt of Lewis

Knowing that the Callanish standing stones were a popular attraction on Lewis we decided to pay them a brief visit and return later that day when the tourists were gone. The weather had gone downhill slightly during the day, so we had a quick look around at the stones before heading for our very exciting next stop – the Butt of Lewis. We’d both seen some fantastic pictures and videos of the lighthouse at the Butt of Lewis with massive waves crashing up above the high cliffs there, but there was nothing of that on the day we visited. There is a real sense when you get there that you are at the end of the road and there’s not a lot between the cliffs there and Iceland, although we were surprised to see how close we were to Cape Wrath and, therefore, home! It was great to see another different style of lighthouse, which itself (in my opinion) doesn’t look dissimilar to a chess piece. It’s natural brickwork with no white paint in sight (on the tower anyway) made it stand out from the rest. We enjoyed wandering around the impressive coastline there for a while and seeing the huge cliffs, which seem to dwarf the lighthouse in places. I was surprised at how many people there were walking around, although it did look like there was at least one group of adventurers around and I imagine it might be one of those places where you would choose to start or end some sort of endurance challenge. On our return from the Butt of Lewis we stopped at the Eoropie Tearoom for a drink and I was delighted to see, just along the road that someone had some small handmade stone structures outside of their house, one of which was a lighthouse with an operational light – I’m very easily influenced by these things!

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Callanish standing stones

On our way back towards the Callanish standing stones we stopped off at a single standing stone a short distance off of the main road. We also decided, allowing the tourists to have fully disappeared from the standing stones, to stop for dinner at the Doune Braes Hotel where we had some amazing food. I’d definitely recommend it to anyone visiting Lewis. We then had free reign at the impressive Callanish standing stones when we arrived. It is a fantastic site with the cross-shaped layout of the stones and the circle in the centre. If only we were able to travel back in time to see its development!

Before we called it a night and headed back to the campsite in Siabost, we popped in to see Dun Carloway, an old broch tower (an Iron Age dry stone structure). Although it’s old, we were still able to climb some of the original steps and it was another example of a site that has clearly been well-maintained without it looking too well-maintained. The Western Isles are very good at that!

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The Norse mill

Friday was our final day in the Western Isles,  but fortunately we had enough time to do some more exploring and, of course, bag some more lighthouses. However, we began our day with a visit to the nearby Norse Mill and Kiln – again here are more examples of two buildings that are very well preserved, but haven’t been turned into multi-million pound attractions. They’re actually very well-hidden and the laminated sheets of information about them are tucked away. Some really great handiwork must have gone into them originally, even if the roofs have needed a lot of work over the years to maintain their thatched look. Gearrannan Blackhouse Village was the final of our tourist stops for the trip where we found out more about cutting peat, weaving and the lives of those who used to live in the village. A really interesting place to visit and nice to see that they have kept some of the houses in the condition they were in back in the day, although some have been renovated as accommodation for visitors.

Tiumpan Head lighthouse

Tiumpan Head lighthouse

We had two more lighthouses to fit in before catching the ferry. The first was Tiumpan Head, which sits at the north east end of the Eye Peninsula to east of Stornoway. Visibility while we were there wasn’t particularly good and we didn’t hang around for long as the lighthouse cottages are now home to kennels and I knew Bob wasn’t comfortable with the continual barking of the dogs there. I see why it may be a good location for kennels full of barking dogs, but the noise did detract a little from the experience of seeing the lighthouse. As is the case with many others, Tiumpan Head lighthouse looks very similar to many of the others, which actually isn’t so common in the Western Isles as there appears to be no set “look” for the lighthouses there.

Arnish Point lighthouse

Arnish Point lighthouse

Our final stop before heading back was Arnish Point lighthouse. We’d seen it on the approach to Stornoway  as we arrived on the ferry, so it was just a matter of finding it from the main road. After a little driving around and “trial by error”, we finally found a bit of a dirt track that seemed to lead in the right direction. Aside from a couple there walking their dog there was no one else around. Being on the other side of an industrial estate probably doesn’t make it such a frequented spot and it was clear on the approach to the lighthouse that the area hasn’t been used much in recent years. The lighthouse itself though has been well-kept (as many operational lighthouses are) and is a fairly squat little tower. It may not be far from the harbour, but it’s a very quiet little location, even if you do get the feeling that being there isn’t recommended.

The ferry journey back to Ullapool allowed us another glimpse of Arnish Point as well as Cailleach Head and Rubha Cadail lighthouses, as we’d seen on the outward journey. We’d arranged to stay at a B&B in Lochinver that night and I was incredibly glad of a real bed after camping for the week. The following day Bob was joining his fellow volunteers from the Assynt Mountain Rescue Team for the Sutherland Trail in 24 hours challenge fundraiser. They successfully completed the trial with Bob setting off on the first of his legs (his second was during the night) while I headed home. I then met the team the following morning just after the final group had reached the end in just under the 24 hour time limit. A great achievement!

So, that was our week on the Western Isles with a few trips further afield. We had been so lucky with the weather and seen some amazing places. We shall definitely be heading back there again in the future 🙂

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