|Summer 2000 Expedition to St
So we were
finally on our way. The Ascrib Islands (DI26) were slipping past on the port side, with
the Fladda group and Trodday on the starboard side. We were tucking into what may well
have been our 'last meal'. It was certainly going to be our last catered meal before our
forthcoming fortnight of island hopping. Having set off at 05:30 this morning, with
GM3VLB's faithful Ford Sierra Estate loaded well beyond it's design limits, we headed
north from Kelso, aiming for Perth where we were to pick up Lorraine, MMOBCR. Alex, GM0DHZ
was in good spirits, looking forward to the trip, despite the threat that one of the meals
ahead was going to be a curry! In the back seat André's son Niall, recently VP8NJS,
squeezed his bulky frame into the tight remaining space - and stepped on one of the six
eggs which were to last us through at least the first two islands. And we had only
travelled four miles!!
|The low-lying Ascrib
The table-topped island in the
Fladda group (left)
We had only just crossed over the Forth bridge when the phone rang - this
was Lorraine calling - she was already in Perth! So terrified was she that we would have
to leave her behind should her train down from Aberdeen have been late, that she decided
to take the first train in the morning - and was now a comfortable hour early. We jokingly
pointed out to her that we were unfortunately way behind schedule, and as a result would
have to bypass Perth altogether - we didn't need the mobile phone to hear her squeal. But
after she realised we were only kidding, and once she was safely on board, André was still
terrified that any delay would result in us missing the ferry over to Tarbert from Skye.
So, with cap on backwards, he set a crackling pace across to Kyle of
Lochalsh, and an even faster pace up to Uig. With the suspension regularly letting the
exhaust scrape along the ground, we leapt around bends and whistled past the tourists -
even the famous Webster BandSpanner was leaning hard back in the slipstream! But we made
it - with an hour and a half to spare. The weather was looking fantastic, and with the sun
splitting the pavement we relaxed and enjoyed a pint at the Uig ferry terminal - breakfast
for some of us! But although this first ferry crossing was flat calm; we still had to hope
that it wouldn't be the last.
The low, flat island of Pabay
The bridge to Scalpay (right)
Coming up through Skye (CN14) we enjoyed the clear views of Pabay (CN17),
Raasay (CN24) and Rona (DI27). As we sailed into Tarbert we also had a nice view of
Scalpay (CN18), with its new bridge making life easier for island activators. Once we had
driven over to the west side of Harris the view of Taransay (HI20) was interesting too.
When Lorraine had passed by on her way back the previous week they had stopped to look for
the 'Castaways' in their 'Pods', but hadn't seen anything. But they were as clear as day
this time. From across the Sound of Taransay we could clearly see everything - the other
tourists lining the roadside had binoculars and telescopes trained on the site - hardly
real Castaways - more like 'Big Brother'!
Taransay (on the left) with the golden
beaches of Harris on the right
Could this be St Kilda in the
distance, or was it the Flannans ?
We pressed on south, heading for Leverburgh to meet up with the boatman
who was to take us to Killegray (and to pick up a replacement half dozen eggs at the
Clachan stores!). As we rounded the corner at the Harris (International) Golf Course we
could see some low-lying islands right on the horizon. We stopped the car and an exciting
debate ensued as to whether they were indeed the St Kilda group. OS maps were dug out and
the Garmin GPS was loaded with all possible co-ordinate information. It certainly seemed
that we were looking at St Kilda, but André convinced us all that we couldn't possibly see
them from Harris, and that the most likely alternative was the Flannan Islands. Ah well -
we would be seeing St Kilda at the end of the week anyway - if all went according to plan.(In fact - after hours poring over OS maps later on, it subsequently
transpired that the most likely candidate was Haskeir Island, at NF 615 820)
Peter our boatman couldn't have been friendlier, and his wife Margaret
even offered us a cup of tea whilst Peter organized the boat for the trip over. Once we
had the boat loaded, and having remembered at the last minute to fill up our 5L water
container, and siphon an extra jerry can of fuel out of the Sierra, Peter pointed out
that, not only was there fresh running water on Killegray, but he also had fuel on the
island if we needed it - he even suggested that we could have made use of the 12.5kVA
diesel generator on the island. As usual, careful forward planning had rewarded us with
their excellent hospitality and kindness. Thank-you both.
We sailed past Ensay (HI17) on the way to Killegray (HI16) - the island
that was to be next on the list. Our timing had proved fortuitous, with the tides having
just changed to the point where landing at Killegray was easy. We offloaded the boat,
which Peter then anchored in the bay before helping us move our enormous pile of kit to a
suitable site. André had already scouted out a site as Peter rowed ashore. However Peter
thought it might not be advisable to set up the station in the front garden of Killegray
House - just in case someone sailed by and took photographs of the 'gypsies' on the lawn.
So he pointed out an alternative site a few hundred meters away - up on a
headland above the mile-long golden beach. And we didn't have to worry about moving our
pile of gear as Peter disappeared, returning with a Honda 4x4 quad bike and large trailer.
This was luxury! We were soon able to wave goodbye to Peter and set about making camp.
Unloaded at the jetty at Killegray
Peter moves the kit in the 4x4 with
GM3VLB hanging on
The cliff top QTH on Killegray
André hustled his team about making sure that nothing was being lost in
the long grass, and showing us that, as a group, we were less capable of erecting the QTH
than he was when he operated alone! We soon had the dipole on top of its twenty-foot
fiberglass mast, and followed that with the simple task of putting up the now (in-)famous
'fishing rod' antenna. This particular antenna had now been as far north as Inuvik, beyond
the Arctic Circle in Canada, and had just returned from it's trip with VP8NJS to Patriot
Hills, at 80 degrees South, in Antarctica.
We didn't lose anything, at least not permanently, and with no breakages
the team was spared the wrath of Eilean Mór! Once the rigs were set up we could hear that
the 'pile-up' was already in place. André put Killegray on the air for the first time
ever, making contact with Denise (M0ADG) in Carlisle. Working through his list in his
normal order, with YL's, XYL's, DX and QRP stations getting the first opportunity he soon
was well on his way to his first hundred contacts. Lorraine, on the second set, was not
far behind - although conditions for her were poorer. But it would have to be a short
session - we all needed an early night, and the spaghetti bolognese still had to be
prepared. André, this time as chief cook, at least had a team of willing bottle washers to
clean up behind him - and we even had the unusual luxury of an outside, fresh-water, tap
to help wash up. (We would be relying on seawater as usual for the remainder of our trip).
A gorgeous sunset accompanied our meal - and made up for the fact that the
box of wine we had brought with us had been 'rough' to say the least! (It hadn't been a
good omen when, on trying to open it, Niall discovered that it had been packed, at the
factory, the 'wrong' way round. He had to tear open the box, turn the bladder the right
way round, then 'suture' the base closed again. And all that for a dodgy glass of wine in
the first place! A pleasant onshore breeze had sprung up, and we were finally able to take
off the ridiculous 'midge' net headgear we were all wearing - trying to eat and drink with
that on had left us laughing, with more than one of us now sporting a red stain on the
netting where, without realizing, we had tried to drink through the mesh!
Sunset on Killegray
VP8NJS fights off the midges!
But everybody was exhausted after a hectic sixteen-hour day, so an early
night was called for. We drifted off to sleep to the gentle throb of the little generator
- left to run out of fuel as it charged the batteries for the early morning session. That
session came just before six o'clock, with André firing his rig up for the DX stations.
Quietly at first, so as not to wake the rest of us up, he soon settled into his normal
rhythm - his loud voice guaranteeing full, clear modulation for all the Scottish Island,
IOTA and WAB chasers, and also guaranteeing that everybody else would soon be wide awake!
But we didn't mind - it was very pleasant to lie awake listening to the count of QSO's
rise up through the 200 mark, and at the same time watch the sun rise up over the south
end of Harris.
Another perfect day seemed to be dawning, with the 3 miles of sea between
Leverburgh and us glistening millpond smooth. Slowly bodies squirmed out of their sleeping
bags, joints creaking as stiffness was stretched out of them. But André was not a happy
boss - a disaster had befallen the expedition. Despite meticulous planning, and endless
checking, and double-checking, we had a serious problem. No bread. Not a crumb! And that
was all that had been designated for breakfast. And we had four days ahead of us! Oops!
But Niall had a plan - we would use the foil-sealed 'Breakfast Brunch'
packs he had brought down from Aberdeen - and bulk them up with the remains of the two
eggs he had stood on at the start of the journey (nobody would notice!). What they did
notice, however, was when he tried to carefully remove the eggs from the now sodden box -
and managed to crack one open to the point where its contents ran off the plate he was
working on and into the open pocket of his trousers as he knelt in front of the cooker!
Even better was his plan to fetch up the high-sided trailer used the
previous day, and press it into service as a makeshift kitchen. We had really struggled
the previous evening, with the wind constantly blowing out the flame. And the long grass
kept on tipping over anything laid down on it. Niall promised himself that next time he
would be packing his trusty V8 Landrover - dragging the trailer through the foot high
grass up the hill to the QTH left both André and him sweating - and knackered. And it
wasn't even 8 o'clock yet! But the plan worked, and everybody enjoyed a scrumptious
With breakfast behind them, and the bands still open, the die-hard
activators settled back down to pushing their cumulative total of QSO's up towards 800,
making contact with everywhere, it seemed, except Japan. Leaving the happy chatter behind
him, Niall donned his swimming trunks, took off his boots, and set off to circumnavigate
the island. Half a mile along the beach however, just around the first headland, the sand
turned to rock and forward progress came to a halt. That was the excuse he was going to
stick to anyway - it had nothing to do with the fact that he had looked at the island on
his GPS III+, and had seen that it appeared to be several miles long, with a coastline
even longer than that!
golden, sandy beach at Killegray, with the QTH on the cliff-top
It didn't matter though - just the experience of walking along a glorious
sandy beach, in blazing sunshine, was enough. And this was Scotland. And this was an
island in the Outer Hebrides. Wasn't it supposed to always rain in Scotland (except during
Summer, which normally occurs on a Tuesday afternoon in September, when you are at work)?
And, moreover, wasn't that rain supposed to be horizontal in the Hebrides? Perhaps this
was the Bahamas after all, with Leverburgh being the far end of the triangular portal.
Perhaps, lying in the channel, were the remains of several missing aircraft and ships. Who
cared? He was going in for a swim anyway.
Fact number one, and a lesson that, once learned, should never be
forgotten - "No matter how sunny it is, and no matter how warm the water feels as it
froths around your toes; in Scotland, once it is deep enough to kiss your nether regions,
it will always be freezing"! But life is short, and days like this are few and far
between, so, perhaps encouraged by the onlookers and video camera up at the campsite, in
he went. In fact it wasn't that bad. Once submerged the cold shut down his nervous system
anyway - leaving his whole body tingling, almost making him feel hot.
Fifteen minutes was enough though, and as he lay on a rock sunning
himself, two thoughts came to mind. Firstly, the mysterious island seen yesterday needed
further investigation - perhaps from the vantage point given by the cairn at the highest
point on the island. The second thought, as he lay there, was just how similar he looked
to the grey seal bobbing out in the bay!
Once back at the camp, it was decided that everybody would climb up the
gentle slope to the summit. There, with the excellent visibility we still had, we felt
that we had to be able to identify all the islands around us. North Uist and all it's
small islands were obvious to the south - despite a mirage cutting off the peaks on the
west coast of the Uists. Immediately to the west was Berneray, again with the high peaks
of N. Uist poking up behind it in the distance. The pyramid profile of Pabbay (HI18)was
close enough to the north to allow André to point out the house which he had been able to
use when he had earlier activated that island.
Berneray (HI15), with Boreray (DI17)
in the distance (on the left)
But of the mystery island in the distance, there was now no doubt. Just
peeking out beyond the north tip of Berneray was indeed Haskeir. St Kilda - the holy grail
of the expedition was hidden behind Pabbay. However visibility was so good that even the
Flannans could be seen, although again the mirage effect had again cut off the tops of the
islands. Even binoculars couldn't show the lighthouse at its peak, although huge breakers
were seen to be crashing against the cliffs. Perhaps the sea crossing over the sixty miles
to St Kilda wouldn't be that smooth after all!
Pabbay - northwest of Killegray
Conditions in the afternoon, on all the amateur bands, were flat so
everybody gave up the idea of operating in favour of relaxation. It was also now
thoroughly unpleasant in camp - too hot to stay in the tents (29°C in the shade) and there
were too many flies and midges outside. So we all headed for the beach where the
exceptionally low tide allowed us to wander a mile east and almost half a mile out from
the camp. Hunger eventually drove us back to camp, along with the fact that Alex still had
to notch up his hundred contacts.
Whilst he and Lorraine settled down at the radio, André and Niall dug out
the still frozen curry and served up a meal fit for kings. Despite the rationed supplies
we even managed to share a tin of pears for dessert. And even Alex enjoyed the curry, and
he hadn't been looking forward to it, not being a curry fan. We were all suffering various
stages of sunburn and were glad to turn in at around 11 o'clock.
Again the gentle throb of the generator sent us off to sleep. Or at least
it would have if it hadn't been for several Corn Craiks who were ardently seeking out
partners. More than one of us had seriously thought of seeking them out -
with a large rock! Despite the fact that they continued all night, we all managed to sleep
- at least one at a time - because we were all able to complain the following morning
about each other's snoring habits.
Morning broke with André's dulcet tones crackling through the ether -
piling up another hundred QSO's before breakfast. And breakfast, still without bread, had
to consist of the remainder of our eggs, and some cheese, in the form of a delicious
omelette. We were all eager to make contact with the boatman who was to take us to St
Kilda. We had heard from him last night and the news wasn't good. The boat was no longer
sailing to St Kilda on Friday, as was the original plan, but was now leaving on Tuesday.
Our original plan still had us on Ensay, our neighbouring island, at that time, and we had
had to change that plan last night - just in case.
We would now only be spending one night on Ensay (HI17), and Peter would
collect us again on Monday, in the afternoon, which would just about allow us to race up
to Stornoway in time to catch the store before it closed at 8pm. Obviously now the new
plan was going to have us on St Kilda for much longer - six days instead of four - so we
were going to have to re-stock quite a bit. The emergency dehydrated food that VP8NJS had
brought back from Antarctica was going to come in useful after all.
We broke camp, leaving just the bare minimum going to allow Alex to make
his century. At least a pleasant stiff breeze kept the midges away - not the flies though.
Even the sun going behind a thin veil of clouds was a welcome change. Lorraine spotted
Peter, in the distance, sailing over from Leverburgh to shuttle us on to Ensay. The last
of the camp was hastily packed into the trailer, and the water bottle was topped up for
the next 24-hour session.
Ensay - north of Killegray
to leave Killegray
Peter was unable to bring the boat in to the jetty this time. You can land
either at Killegray jetty, or at the Ensay jetty, but not at both during the same tide. So
it was a beach shuttling session, made by small dinghy to and from Peter's fishing boat.
But his skill ensured that nothing was dropped in the water and off we set for the
five-minute crossing to Ensay. The wind, although welcomed for the midge problem was now
against us, as it's direction was the worst possible for our landing. But, again, Peter's
boatmanship excelled, and we were soon safely moored and offloading the massive pile of
Quite what Peter really thinks of us, and our island antics, is something
we may never find out.
There was an ideal patch of short grass twenty feet from the jetty, so we
didn't have to shift the kit very far. As to whether it would accommodate three tents and
two antennae - we would find that out by trial and error. As this was the eightieth
excursion for GM3VLB's dipole, on his eighty-first "Scottish" Island, Niall decided to
video the erection for posterity. It would certainly appear true that André gets on better
putting it up on his own, but it is much more entertaining watching him perform the feat
with a little help!
But, just as the first antenna went up, and the radio was connected ready
for the first contact, we all realised that we had another major disaster on our hands.
Sure, we had bread now, two loaves in fact (thanks to Peter), but we now had NO fishing
rod antennae. They had both been left on Peter's boat. And he had disappeared.
This was now an opportunity for true amateur radio expertise to come into
play. The ability to complete a QSO at five words per minute in Morse wasn't going to
help, nor would knowing how to run a packet system on your PC be any help. We were going
to have to design and build an antenna from scratch. Fortunately the large pile of kit all
had a purpose - the spare Kenwood TS50 HF set had already had to be used on the first
night, when it appeared that the main VFO tuning knob (on the 'No. 1' set) was loose on
it's shaft. Without an allen key that would fit, the jeweller's screwdriver on Niall's
Swiss Army knife had had to be filed to fit the grub screw.
Now it was going to be the turn of the long-wire antenna, a home made coil
of ex-MOD guided missile control wire which André had wound onto a home made drum,
complete with SO239 socket and earth stud. But it had never really been used in anger
before, Niall had taken it to Patriot Hills in Antarctica a few months earlier, but it had
only actually been used as a means of receiving the BBC World Service. Now it had to
become a real antenna. The far end was strung across a neighbouring inlet and anchored to
the top of a spare two-foot stake (formerly a steel whip used on tanks during WWII). What
was then required was to invent a means of mounting the transceiver end, the drum - and
this was done by simply wedging the coil onto a suitable earth stake. We then had to
repair the construction fault that had left the SO239 socket short-circuited and we were
The long-wire antenna
spanned by the long-wire
||The QTH on
Again, careful planning meant that we had with us a MFJ259 impedance
analyser - one of the best tools available to any antenna constructor. A little bit of
trial and error soon had an L-beam constructed, one which was resonant at just over 7MHz,
and whose impedance could easily be matched with André's spare 'homebrew' antenna tuner.
Lorraine was able to put Ensay on the air for the first time, and launched into a huge
pile-up of UK and European stations. It was good to see the on-site home-brew antenna pull
in her first hundred contacts, with many excellent "5 by 9" reports being given in both
However, luck had been on our side. Peter had been spotted returning from
Killegray, and Niall soon drew his attention using the signal mirror from his Swiss Army
Survival Kit. Now he remembered why he had been carrying it on his belt every day for the
last 24 years! We now had our missing antennae back and could set up the full station. But
at least we had been able to work our way out of a problem, in the time-honoured
traditions of the true Radio Ham.
André operating on Ensay
peninsula on Ensay
As afternoon turned to evening we began to question the decision we had
made earlier, when we erected all the tents facing the sea - and had taken advantage of
the gentle sea breeze as a means of keeping the tents cool. With hardly any airborne
wildlife to contend with on Ensay, our individual concerns could now be focused on the
strengthening wind. Niall, with his recent Antarctic experience - where he lost one tent
completely as a result of wind, automatically packed everything away in his tent and hoped
for the best once he had ensured his tent was as well prepared as it could now be.
Lorraine, however, despite also having packed everything away, spent a slightly sleepless
night listening to the wind gusts rattle the outer tent loose from its pegs. Perched on a
little cliff as we were, with sea surrounding us on three sides, more than one of us
wondered how far up wind driven waves might reach.
But dawn broke peacefully, nothing had blown away, and the waves which had
been observed at 4 am had gone with night. Peter would after all be able to get his little
boat back to the jetty. Which he did - about two hours earlier than we expected! Most of
the camp had already been packed up, the long wire antenna had been retrieved, and one
tent was already packed. The dipole had almost been packed - in fact we had all laughed as
Alex made his 'final' QSO - several times! His final 'final' contact took place as André
lowered the antenna to chest height, and the station finally went off the air as the
exchange of details was confirmed. André unplugged the coax cable!
The QTH and 'field-kitchen'
With Peter now moored at the jetty, the camp was packed up as fast as we
could go - our team leader was aghast at how things were packed in any old fashion - with
no regard to where they ought to go. But it was good to be on the move again. An earlier
departure from Ensay meant that we would have plenty of time to re-stock in Stornoway, an
important detail now that we faced a longer stay on St Kilda. With the exhaust bouncing
merrily off the road we drove the sixty miles up from Harris to Lewis. Peter had told us
that a light aircraft carrying visitors to the Castaway island of Taransay had crashed on
landing the day before, and all eyes scanned the island for wreckage as we passed. It
would have made more sense to have relied on a boat like everybody else.
(It subsequently turned out that the incident had only involved a
microlight aircraft, and no passengers)
Into Stornoway we went, into the supermarket to stock up on food, adding
little luxuries like butter and apples, then on to a pharmacy to get sun tan lotion and
sea-sickness pills. The pills had an obvious use, and the extra stockpiling showed what
thoughts were uppermost in our minds. The sun tan lotion had had to be bought to help us
endure the glorious weather - despite the fact that it was uncommonly grey in Lewis. The
last luxury we took on board was a new cylinder of gas for the stove. Niall had thought
the old one was too light, and the sales representative confirmed this with the remark
"It's empty!", when asked about the state of the old cylinder. Lucky !!
Re-stocked and replenished we headed off for Breascleat, where we were due
to meet our next boatman Johnny, captain of the Coastal Surveyor, the little
fishing boat that had taken GM3VLB's expedition, with Keith (MM0BPP), to the Flannan
Islands last summer. As we arrived, we could all see the sixty foot fishing boat at the
quayside. The team, including André, whose memories were still fresh, were looking forward
to the sea crossing less and less! Leaving GM3VLB to negotiate the finer details of the
journey, the rest of the team resorted to eating 'comfort' chocolate to ward off the
thoughts of the looming journey.
But, there was to be a reprieve. We would not be sailing tomorrow after
all. In some ways good news - no sea-sickness - but in reality a huge disappointment for
all. Everybody was desperate to get to St Kilda - a once in a lifetime opportunity. But we
had to fit in with the boat's plans. And they were complicated. Johnny, the skipper, was
off on holiday the following day, his first relief skipper now required emergency dental
treatment, and the second relief skipper would not be ale to fit us into the schedule
until early on Thursday. It was Monday evening now so we just had to bend with the new
Having planned a bar supper for that evening anyway, we headed off to the
local hotel, looking for likely camping spots as we went. Enthusiasm for camping wasn't
high though - it was raining by now, and spirits were low. As we tucked into a great meal,
it transpired, thanks to our waitress, that there was a youth hostel just along the road,
so the tents could be left where they were! Johnny, our skipper, arrived at the hotel,
with a select choice of lobsters and crayfish for the restaurant - fresh from his recent
catch. We were jokingly concerned that here he was spending the money we had already given
him, before leaving for Canada in the morning!
One of the traditional 'Black House'
buildings that forms the community at Garenin, where the Scottish Youth Hostel
Association have established one of their tremendous hostels.
This is a copy of a poem found in the
visitor's book at the Youth Hostel in Garenin, Lewis.
It seems to summarise an Activator's life on the Scottish Islands
Unfortunately, as we left the hotel car park, the overloaded car finally
met its match on the cattle grid at the exit. Despite a last minute shouted "Watch the
bump!", there was an horrific crunch as the exhaust suffered a fatal blow. With the car
roaring and backfiring, and with the driver cursing, it was a subdued party that limped
through the miserable rain toward the hostel. A good night's sleep, a hearty breakfast,
and the usual good company one meets in youth hostels around the world, soon had us in
better spirits as we headed back, the following day, to Stornoway and to an exhaust repair
The plan now was to take advantage of the extra two days to activate
another island for which we had permission from the landowners. Eilean Liubhaird (HI22),
with its questionable spelling, was to be our target. Liubhaird, or 'Eelan Rhubarb' as we
christened it, was off the east coast of Lewis, about 14 miles south of Stornoway. We were
in luck as we arrived at the little jetty. Although we had permission to be on the island,
we had no travel arrangements made, but the curious crew of a RIB offered us a lift over,
providing we were ready to leave immediately. Our huge pile of kit was thrown on board,
much to their amusement, and off we went.
Eilean Liubhaird - south of
(or 'Eelan Rhubarb' as we christened it)
loaded and ready to cross over to Eilean Liubhaird
Promising to return the following day, they deposited us, and our kit, on
the slippery rocks at the base of a twenty-foot high cliff. We humped and slithered our
way upwards and soon had the camp and radio stations operational. Another 'new island' was
on the air for the first time ever, and despite the strengthening rain, everybody settled
down to build up their totals.
The rain persisted until early evening, but we only ventured out of the
tents to re-fill the generator or to answer calls of nature. Unfortunately, once the rain
ended the wildlife returned and we were all plagued by midges and horseflies as the
evening meal was prepared. So much so in fact, that our Eilean Mňr didn't get enough time
to boil the rice, and we were all treated to a 'crunchy' meal - despite André trying to
convince us that it was being served al dente!
Our kit at the foot of the cliff
||VLB and NJS
move the kit up
After another early start, this time by Lorraine, who opened up on 20m at
around 0530, followed by André at 0700, breakfast was enjoyed in the early morning
sunshine of what promised to be another glorious day. As the camp was broken up, with Alex
again manning the radios to the bitter end (was he sure he hadn't served on the RMS
Titanic ?) we eagerly awaited the return of our boatmen.
And we waited, and we waited.
Eventually, after two RIBs had sped past in the distance, without even so
much as an acknowledgment to our waves, Niall again relied on his signal mirror to attract
the attention of a huge boat which came around the headland. Looking almost like a car
ferry, it turned out that our crew from yesterday were on this boat, and couldn't
understand why we had not yet been picked up. After all, they had asked several friends to
do the job for them as they had been busy. Another island activator's rule was being
formalised : "Never have total confidence on being uplifted when you expect to be" It will
either be several hours earlier, as was the case on Ensay, or several hours later as was
now the case. In fact bad weather could mean several day's delay, so it is always wise to
conserve supplies until the very end.
However, this boat was huge, and we could not see how it would be able to
get to the shore to collect us - but again, the skill of these island boatmen, with their
local knowledge, soon had the blunt prow nestled solidly against the rocks at the foot of
the cliff, and we hastily threw everything on board, trying to get the kit away from the
huge waves that had been generated by the vessel's wake.
Once back ashore the generosity of these boatmen, who unfortunately
remained nameless to us, was again manifested to us in their refusal to accept any payment
for their help. This is something which should be borne in mind when any activator sets
out - if approached in the right manner, these folk are enthusiastically keen - and, no
doubt in some cases, get a good laugh on our behalf as they recount our 'crazy' adventures
to their pals next time they are in the pub!
VLB cooking the evening meal
(al dente rice !!)
craft getting us off
Off we set, heading for Stornoway and the Youth Hostel at Garenin - the
most sensible overnight stop prior to our early departure for St Kilda the following
morning. In Stornoway, Niall managed to persuade the local Librarian to make use of the
Library fax line to allow him to connect his PC and upload the latest version of this
story. For those of you who read it 'live' so to speak, you will have wondered where all
the pictures had gone - well, under the strain of a library that had already closed, the
article was uploaded without giving any thought to the attached photographs - sorry!
We headed on to Garenin, calling ahead only to find out that the hostel
was almost full, and that there was no way to book ahead. Bearing in mind that we had
already had one exhaust section replaced, it was difficult to balance speed against
caution as we raced across Lewis. On our arrival, the current occupants rather cheekily
suggested that the hostel was full, but in fact we were able to secure four bunks - the
last four of the fourteen available. We made an enjoyable meal, and washed it down with a
couple of litres of excellent red wine. We soon managed to break the icy silence which
seemed to exist between the various couples resident at the bunkhouse, and left them all
chatting happily amongst each other as we headed back out to the pub to make final contact
with the boat.
The plan was to have phoned the boat at around 9pm, the time it was
expected to be docking at Breascleat. However, when Niall popped out to the pub car park
to make the call, he bumped into the crew who were obviously already ashore and who were
keen to take advantage of any available drinking time. The latest nugget of information
was that the 'relief', relief skipper thought it best to sail direct to St Kilda,
bypassing the Flannans altogether. And this plan would entail a departure at midnight. Two
hours away! Returning to the remainder of the expedition, now well lubricated by wine and
beer, Niall broke the latest change of plan to them - and couldn't convince them that it
was not a 'wind-up' until the crew walked into the bar a few minutes later.
So we now had to race back to the hostel, avoiding the exhaust-killing
bump at the hotel exit, and check out. Niall explained the situation to the warden, who
smiled knowingly. Obviously plans are never set in concrete in the Islands! We were even
offered our money back, but left it 'on account' for when we returned. Off to the boat we
went, leaving our new companions in the hostel perplexed as to why we were now departing,
after all the bother we had made to secure bunks in the first place.
At the boat, the next problem arose. The low tide had left the Coastal
Surveyor some fifteen feet below the level of the quayside, and the thickening fog had
coated everything with moisture. And a diesel engined fishing trawler is not noted for
having the easiest surfaces to walk on, even when dry. The four of us set to, forming a
human ladder to pass the kit down to the boat, then we tried to find a place for
everything to live. Such kit as could conceivably survive a drenching outside was stacked
at the stern, and all the other kit was squeezed and hidden away. Fortunately we had the
run of the vessel prior to the crew returning from the pub, and had managed to get
everything 'ship-shape' by then.
And it was fortunate too. The first pair of crewmen arrived somewhat
'inebriated'. When we had first arrived, it had taken Niall ten minutes to reach the boat
with his extended leg, and to pull it against the dock. And we had subsequently untied
the securing rope we had used because it had just not seemed 'tidy'. But now Niall
regretted it, because the two drunks who stumbled down the ladder seemed destined for the
water, as they clung to both rung and 'carry-out' whilst trying to reach the boat rails.
Eventually both they, and their precious 12-pack of beer, and their bottle of Vodka, were
safely aboard. We were then all heartily entertained by the senior crew member as he
performed a ritual of Scottish dances to the blaring tunes from an ancient tape recorder.
In fact, in his drunken state, it might have been more correct to have called them 'reels'
as he ricocheted and tripped his way around the limited space of the galley.
Finally the Captain and the remainder of the crew arrived, and after half
an hour of throwing switches and pressing buttons, the Captain managed to get enough of
the vital electric circuits functional to allow him to start the engines, power up the
radar and autopilot, and to get enough navigation lights working such that a crew member
was not going to have to stand at the stern, all night, with a torch! During this period,
where he appeared entirely non-plussed at the chaotic wiring, he regaled us with stories
of how, the last time he had sailed this boat, he had been up to his neck in water in the
bilges as it had started sinking off the Flannans two years earlier. But it had been OK,
because Stornoway Coastguard had been able to get a pump on board using their helicopter.
Niall elected not to tell this story to his travelling companions until they were safely
at St Kilda!
Two of the bunks were made available for Alex and Lorraine, whilst André
crashed out on the floor of the sleeping compartment. Niall decided to remain dozing
upright at the door of the galley - just in case a quick exit was called for. Quite why he
bothered was something he asked himself the following morning, where, in the cold light of
day it seemed highly unlikely that anybody would have survived the transition from boat to
life raft. But at least spending the night in the galley allowed him to enjoy the
stimulating spectacle of a three-dimensional technicolour yawn provided by one of the crew
after the Vodka had been consumed. Thankfully Niall's 'super-extra-strength' sea-sickness
pills were able to fight off the desire to join in this new sport of 'team barfing'.
VLB videoing our arrival at St Kilda
Village Bay, Hirta
Dawn broke, with Lorraine and Alex stumbling out of their bunks, heading
top-side to catch the first glimpse of St Kilda as we approached. A long gentle swell
accompanied us as we rolled into Village Bay on the main island of Hirta. Everybody, most
of the crew included, were amazed at the sheer size of the islands. The rocks of Boreray
were stained white with guano of millions of seabirds, deposited over countless thousands
of years, and the cleats* of the village surprised us with their sheer numbers.
Even the size of the village was impressive, as was the communications tower at the summit
of Hirta - built to withstand 300 mph winds.[* The 'cleats' are small, low, dry-stone
structures - open at both ends - built and used by the original island inhabitants to
store food throughout the year. Built all over the accessible parts of the island, and
numbering over a thousand, the landscape is defined by these incredible buildings.]
The new buildings with the old
village houses in the background
military installation atop Hirta
'Feather Store' and gun emplacement
Our final challenge was to figure out a way of getting ashore - but again
we need not have worried. A chartered boat in the harbour was more than happy to help.
Stevie, the cook and leader of a diving charter operation, came over from the Gaelic
Rose in their inflatable, and soon had us all ashore in three quick trips - and we
still had not had to use the wellington boots we had been carrying since we left Kelso!
Coastal Surveyor (left) and the Gaelic Rose (front right) at anchor in Village Bay
We were here at last!
Several months of meticulous planning and several years of dreaming had
paid off. We had two clear days ahead of us to fine tune the camp and radio equipment
prior to the big IOTA competition which would be taking place at the weekend. And, despite
being heavily restricted as to what we could do, and where we could do it, we were soon
ready. The restrictions were, sensibly, enforced by the warden, who has the overall
responsibility for the island, bearing in mind it's unique history. With many parts of the
island being declared as 'SSI' (Sites of [Special] Scientific Interest), we were lucky to
be allowed to even put in tent pegs, far less the slightly larger pegs we used to guy the
vertical masts. Happy to work within the imposed restrictions we simply took them as an
extra problem requiring a solution.
Landing our team and kit
original 'black houses'
However, these restrictions should again be borne in mind by any other
team wishing to activate the island. In fact it again remains questionable as to whether
the sanctity of the island should be spoiled by unnecessary visitors - at least until all
the preservation and archaeological work has been carried out on the island. Should St
Kilda be taken off the any island list until that time? Does the sheer expense of mounting
an expedition to the island make it reasonable to keep it on the directory listing?
But we were here, and the island was on the air again, for the first time
in three years. Despite an ever descending cloud base, the activators were soon well on
their way to their centuries. But a night with little or no sleep had most of us
exhausted, and not wanting to miss out on the spectacle of the busiest pub in the
Hebrides, we all snoozed until evening meal time, prior to our visit to St Kilda's famous
'Puff Inn'. Sporting our special expedition tee-shirts we were welcomed by the huge number
of people enjoying their stay on the island. As members 299 through 302 on the Puff Inn
register, we raised a toast to the expedition. By the end of the evening we had even laid
foundations for travel arrangements to two further Scottish islands, one of which we hoped
to activate the following week. As has been constantly repeated - careful planning pays
With a full day in hand, prior to the IOTA competition, everybody took
advantage of the unusually fine weather, and spent time exploring the Village Bay
settlement. It certainly was a privilege to be here and to be part of the incredible
culture and history that is St Kilda. Even the spelling of the island's name was important
- there is no 'period' after the 'St', because, although it is the abbreviation of the
word 'Saint', there was never actually a 'Saint Kilda'. In all mention of the name it is
therefore accepted practice to drop the period.
It was also interesting to visit the small local museum, and to read the
article concerning the first radio equipment installed on the island. We were therefore
proud to continue the radio history by activating the callsign 'GM5K', specially arranged
for the contest event.
the museum in the old village
of Wireless on St Kilda
||A St Kilda
native, a unique species
We were also honoured to be invited for a splendid evening meal by the
members of SKWP 6/2000. This small team, the St Kilda Working Party, number 6, were the
final group of enthusiasts who would be working on the island this season. All volunteers,
each member had actually paid for the privilege of labouring for the restoration
and conservation of the island's monuments. Although we were nowhere near the starvation
diet we had all expected to be on during this trip, it was still a delight to sit at a
table and enjoy a fantastic three course meal. Thanks to all the team members - especially
to the cook and the dish-washers! After the meal, sitting outside sharing stories, we were
even graced by the special appearance of a St Kilda mouse - a species unique to the
Naturally, it being Friday night, we retired to the bar to round off the
evening. Everybody commented on how surreal the experience was. Here we were, 60 miles out
in the Atlantic Ocean, all but cut off from civilisation, enjoying a friendly pint in the
Puff Inn, as if it were the local pub just around the corner back home. Only when, in the
small hours of the morning, you stumble out into the pitch black of the night do you
remember where you are. Perhaps it is the lack of street, or rather 'path', lighting that
causes many locals to sit it out inside 'til dawn breaks. Either that or the fact that the
beer is cheap!
Saturday saw final preparations for the IOTA contest - the SERCO base were
even kind enough to volunteer a small table and chair to make things easier for Alex to
operate the CW station. As usual the first hour of the contest was a lively period.
Despite poor conditions, the first two hundred contacts were logged in less than an hour,
with interested onlookers in attendance. We were even interviewed for a yachting magazine,
by a journalist who wanted to know why people visited St Kilda, an island whose weather
could change so rapidly that visitors could be stranded ashore whilst their boats,
previously moored in the bay, were forced to flee for the relative safety of open waters.
||Our QTH in
Despite the poor conditions, such was the interest to make contact with St
Kilda, EU059 for IOTA, that we carried on, through the evening meal, until the Puff Inn
opened at 9 o'clock. Then we shut down and headed for the pub! And BINGO Night! Again,
what a surreal occasion. The whole island population seemed to be there, for a good cause
too, with the evening's proceeds going to the RNLI lifeboat fund. The final surprise was
sitting down to Fish and Chips, served in newspaper, courtesy of the SERCO base staff.
What a fantastic community.
The following day sparked into life, as usual, with André trying to work
into the Western USA and Canada. But enthusiasm waned as the weather improved, despite a
last minute flurry of activity as the competition drew to a close. But the island itself
was beckoning and we all set out to explore what we could before our time ran out.
Lorraine and Alex set off along the beach of Village Bay, with Alex returning as Lorraine
joined a group of people who intended walking right out to where Hirta almost joins the
small island of Dun. Niall and André set of to the 'Gap' where you can look out over
Boreray and Stac Lee, from the top of sheer cliffs which drop over 600 feet into the sea.
Looking back down from the 'Gap'
host on St Kilda
The view was stunning. The two islands in the distance stood out of an
almost mirror smooth sea. Andy, the SNH/NTS (Scottish Natural Heritage / National
Trust for Scotland) warden was also at the top of the cliffs - looking at a group of Minky
whales basking in the sun. Below us grey seals were hooting at each other, and all around
us were fulmars and gulls, wheeling around us almost silently except for the powerful
whistle of the wind over their feathers. There was no noticeable wind, and the tranquility
was almost tangible. We could see why people wanted to walk the cliffs - but, as Andy
reminded us, there was to be a memorial service in a few days time, in memory of one of
the St Kilda Work Party members who went out for a walk and ended up in the sea. You
simply cannot take the chance of wandering around alone - especially not outside the old
village walls. And even with a partner, some of the cliff paths should be left to the
sheep - even the slightest slip would result in a plummet into the sea. Be warned. As you
will be told upon your arrival - help is a long, long way away.
By Sunday night, what was planned to be our last night on the island, the
weather was changing noticeably. And that meant it was changing for the worse. We had been
told, when being interviewed for a yachting magazine, that a wind from the south-east
would have all the boats in the bay scurrying for shelter - usually the open ocean. And on
Sunday, off they scurried. We decided to smother our fears of not getting off the island
on Monday by paying an extended visit to the Puff Inn. We kept the bar open until well
after two in the morning, and once we were well 'lubricated' we organised the step-ladder
and felt tip pen and each of us performed the obligatory ritual 'signing of the roof' in
the pub. Not an easy task after eight pints of McEwan's best!
But the roof was duly signed - an our visit would preserved in perpetuity.
We wondered what future visitors would make of the 'GM5K Summer 2000 Dx-pedition'. Would
anybody understand why we had been here? We had tried to explain our reasons to the people
we had encountered - but we were, as often as not, met with blank stares. Which was a
shame, because the visit for us, now, had become more than just a radio expedition. We had
enjoyed the history and splendour of a truly special place - and in some ways we felt it
was now our duty to keep this small secret to ourselves. At least our method of getting
there was so unusual that it would be unlikely to be repeated - and so the secret of St
Kilda would withheld from the majority of the population.
Alex (GM0DHZ) signs the roof
signs the roof
Monday arrived. Along with the rain. And the wind. And the rain wasn't the
brief shower that we had had on Ensay, it was the continuous rain of a Scottish summer's
day. And the wind was Force 5-7 from the south-east, the worst conditions that we could
have feared. With a full three-metre swell in the bay, getting on or off our boat was
going to be impossible. It had been difficult enough dropping kit off the high freeboard
of the Coastal Surveyor onto the RIB which had taken us ashore. There was no way we
would be able to reverse the exercise, getting kit and bodies onto a boat heaving past you
with each successive swell. What we also had against us was that we had no means of
contacting the boat - so we did not know of their plans. We had no choice though, we would
have to dismantle the camp. In the rain. And the wind.
There was an alternative, or at least a delaying tactic that might see
better weather arrive. The previous evening we had been invited up to the radar station at
the top of the hill by the crew from SERCO. We duly turned up at the power station at the
appointed time only to be met by blank stares by the occupants of the passing Landrover.
But, if we wanted to go up the hill, then they were happy to oblige. Once up there, before
the poor Landrover had even had a chance to recover from having been thrashed up the 1:3
gradients, in whatever gear was most appropriate to help burn it's clutch out, we were bid
goodbye by the driver - who at least shouted after us, to the poor soul who 'inherited'
us, "Show them something, but not anything that is classified". In the thick enveloping
mist that surrounded us, it seemed somewhat unlikely that we were going to be able to see
anything, far less something 'classified'.
However, we were given an interesting tour none the less. Seeing what
amounted to a 10m radar dome, containing a radar dish capable of slewing in three axes at
a rate of 60 degrees per second, with a precision of less than a fraction of a degree,
built on the top of a one-thousand foot mountain, on an island 60 miles out into the
Atlantic - that was impressive. What was not so impressive was when we were ready to
leave, and it was pointed out to us that it only takes 15 minutes to walk back down the
hill! Didn't they realise that it was pouring down outside? Hadn't they seen that some of
us only had on tee-shirts under flimsy anoraks? Obviously not, so off we set, trudging
down a slope which disappeared into the fog less than twenty feet ahead of us. They
weren't actually far wrong - but still it was quite a thought to start. At least the fog
disguised how far we still had to go after each step, but we were all aching by the time
we reached the camp again. And we were all now thoroughly drenched - despite any
waterproofs we might have been wearing.
The rain had stopped though. We continued breaking down the camp - in
stages, trying to dry each item as it was packed away. Dropping the inners of ridge tents,
without dropping their flysheets helped, as did folding everything up underneath one of
the covers. We finally received the break we needed - the St Kilda Working Party again
showed compassion when, on seeing our bedraggled figures squelching to and from our
campsite, carrying various bundles of kit, they offered us hot cups of tea, and the
promise of a meal that evening. Lorraine and Alex were immediately dispatched to their
'house' to dry off in front of the fire. Niall and André could then finally pack the last
kit away - without having to worry about how tea was going to be prepared. The meal,
enjoyed in front of a blazing fire, was fantastic. Thank-you SKWP 6/2000. Thank-you all
very much for all your hospitality.
But more than one of us, whilst eating the meal, wondered whether they
might yet be seeing the meal again later on. Especially when our boat eventually sailed
into the bay, pitching alarmingly from side to side. There was no alternative now -
assuming we could get on to it, we would be crossing back to Lewis in seas that had a
thirty-foot swell, which had been encouraged by winds blowing at Force 7 for most of the
previous twenty four hours! Just how effective were our sea-sickness pills going to be
this time ?
We now only had one more problem to resolve. We had found a trolley which
allowed us to move the pile of kit to the jetty in one hop, but had no means of getting on
to the boat itself. We knew that the boat had no dinghy of it's own, and the only other
boat in the bay from which we could have borrowed transport had left - just as our boat
arrived. (Obviously they knew something we didn't !) So we were forced to go, cap in hand,
to the joint forces of SERCO and the NHS trust, and ask if they could provide us with a
means of transport to our boat, now anchored precariously half-way across the bay. They
obliged, although we guiltily felt they had no real alternative. It was a case of get us
off then, or put up with us for who knew how long, feeding and sheltering us until the
weather changed for the better. So they prepared a dinghy and outboard motor, hitched it's
trailer up to the front of a Landrover, and drove the whole assembly down the ramp into
The long-term effects that the salt water was going to have on the
Landrover chassis was obviously not their concern. Nor was the impending damage to the
boat itself. After bouncing around, slamming into the jetty as we loaded it the plan
seemed to involve tearing across the bay at a speed fast enough to keep us from sinking,
but only because we remained airborne most of the time. Unfortunately, our 'pilot' forgot
to slow down as we approached the Coastal Surveyor, although the sickening crunch
of the impact was at least a guide as to how bad all the further crunches were going to
be, once we were moored along-side. (Niall, thinking of his own Landrover, shuddered as he
imagined the chassis dissolving in the sea-water - both it and the trailer waiting, in
seawater over their axles, for the boat to return.)
The swell had the two boats racing past each other like express elevators
- one moment you could step over the gunwale of the Surveyor, the next it was
either ten feet above or below you! Poor Lorraine made a valiant leap for the boat,
managed to get one foot on, and was then grabbed by it's crew and hauled upwards. Or at
least her jacket was. She was left dangling, almost unable to hold on to the guard rail as
her jacket was pulled up over her head. Niall leap on next, in order to be able to control
Alex's arrival, but only managed to get half-way on himself before a snare, carefully
disguised as a rope ladder, snagged his boots, leaving him spread-eagled on the side of
the boat. Fortunately years of experience as a boy scout allowed him to fall back into the
boat like any other damn fool!
With the ladder out of the way, a second ascent of the starboard face of
the Surveyor resulted in success. Once Alex made it on board, sheer determination
shining above any form of technical merit, we were able to get the remainder of kit passed
over. The generator was passed up, and it, too, made the successful crossing due to Niall
being unwilling to open his one finger and thumb which were holding it. André had the
luckiest passage - timing it just right to be able to make a simple step from the dingy to
the boat at the crest of a wave - obviously, as Eilean Mňr, this sort of manouvre was
second nature to him!
But we were on board - all of us and all of our kit - nothing broken, and
nothing (too) wet. Well the dinghy was broken - only a little - but enough for our new
crew to be refused passage ashore. We felt sorry for them, one was actually celebrating
his birthday, and had looked forward to spending as large a part of it as possible ashore,
enjoying the hospitality offered by the Puff Inn. The crew did eventually accept the
dangers, and we raised anchor and headed home. Sort of. It actually felt like the boat was
doing somersaults - and we weren't even out of the bay yet. We were able to tell when we
did make it out to open sea, simply because all of the crockery leapt out for a dance
party on the galley floor. But by then we didn't care - not even about the kit which had
had to remain outside, sliding around and perhaps disappearing overboard through the
scuppers. We tried very, very hard not to care for the next ten hours - all the way back
At last we were back on terra firma, hopefully with the worst part
of the expedition behind us. A hearty, greasy breakfast in Stornoway was most welcome. And
none of us had had to see last evening's meal twice!
We now only had one more leg to complete - our carefully kept secret - a
trip to the island of Taransay, the island commandeered by the BBC and Lion Television for
their Castaway 2000 television series. Chris Kelly, the series producer, had given
us special permission to visit the island and all we now needed to do was to get to the
right place at the right time to be able to get a lift on to the island. But he had proved
remarkably capable of being out of contact every time we tried to call him. We took up
residence at the youth hostel in Garenin, and waited.
After picking up a final stock of supplies from Stornoway in the morning,
we had been in plenty of time to get to the hostel before the afternoon 'rush' started.
But that didn't stop some of our team heading straight for their bunks. Alex and Lorraine,
who had stayed up most of the previous evening on the return journey from St Kilda, slept
for the rest of the day. André and Niall sorted out paperwork, including the many, many
log sheets that had been accumulated on the last four islands. Niall tried to bring this
story up to date - but mostly we ended up recounting our tale of adventure to everybody
who passed by. It is common enough to ask your fellow travellers where they had been, and
where they were heading to - but most were surprised to hear that we were travelling from
St Kilda to Taransay, one island out of reach, and the other out of bounds.
To cap it all, the local Gaelic BBC Scotland TV crew turned up, and on
discovering us in the hostel, proceeded to film us making plans for our next island. Such
is the varied life of a seasoned island activator !!
The following day, rested and fresh from hot showers and a hearty
breakfast, we made our way to the Harris Hotel in Tarbert - a hotel that has definitely
benefited from the Castaway 2000 programme. We arrived at 1130 to find the producer, Chris
Kelly just settling down to breakfast. We were informed that we had missed the morning
boat trip across to the island. GM3VLB, meeting Chris for the first time, took time to
explain exactly what our intentions were, and how we would be perfectly happy being
deposited as far away from the Castaways as possible. Again, meticulous planning, and
patience, paid off - there would be another boat crossing that evening and we were welcome
to join it.
Waiting to cross to Taransay
|Our pile of
kit ready for Taransay
craft arrives at last
We were off again! We waited in Tarbert only long enough to enjoy an
ice-cream (the sun was out again!!) and for Niall to upload the latest episodes to our
web-site. (And thanks must go to the staff of the hotel for allowing him to use their fax
line for that purpose). We headed off to the cliffs overlooking the golden beaches of
Taransay Sound and re-organised the equipment for the final time. We were only going to be
on the island for twenty-four hours, and were hardly likely to starve during that time, so
only the bare minimum was to be taken. Even so, it was still a daunting pile !
There had been a rumour that another 'new one' was being activated, and so
the TS50 in the car was powered up and questions were asked. Imagine our surprise when the
first person to come back to us was Bill (G4WSB) who was /M activating WAB squares. And
imagine our even greater surprise when we learned that he and Debbie and son Tony were
less than five miles away, heading towards us from Tarbert! They had been enjoying the
same glorious weather as us, although the storms that saw us off St Kilda had greatly
shortened their brief stay on one of the Flannan islands. (We understood that they had
gone out to the Flannans in a RIB, did not attempt a landing on the main island where
André and Keith (MM0BPP) had operated from last season, and were forced to leave hastily
after only a few hours - losing their portable HF antenna in the process).
We spent the rest of the afternoon rag-chewing with Bill who has spent
many years trying to activate as many WAB 10km OS-grid squares in the UK as he could get
his portable station into. Niall, who has received special permission for vehicular access
from many landowners around Scotland, was able to reminisce about squares such as NJ10 in
the Grampian region - a square that can only be accessed by four-wheel drive, or foot, and
a square that he visits regularly on camping trips. Other areas had been opened up to
Niall when setting up emergency communication posts for sporting events such as the 'Coast
to Coast' challenge - a grueling three-day triathlon event. Many of these had also been
visited by Bill - often the 'hard' way, on foot, carrying a portable HF radio station !!
As the wind gradually increased towards the end of the day, a small crowd
began to gather on the beach, and Angus McKay whose family own Taransay, turned up to
ready the landing craft for the crossing. Having already learned that nobody had made the
crossing the previous evening, we were concerned that the deterioration in today's weather
might also jeopardise the trip that night. But that was not going to be the problem. Under
contract to BBC Television as he was, he could only carry 12 passengers at any one time -
the capacity of his life raft. It was the first time this had ever been a problem for
GM3VLB, who had always been able to 'dilute' the rules with whisky. In this case it seemed
that a second crossing would be needed to get us over to Taransay, and despite the huge
sum of money that Lion Television had already paid to rent the island for the year, this
second crossing was going to be one of the most expensive ever incurred - certainly the
most expensive on a per-head-per-mile basis. Whilst Bill (G4WSB) gratefully donated an
over-generous sum of money towards the trip, we were finally able to cross over with the
rest of the passengers as it transpired that not all of the crowd on the beach were there
Bill and his family helped us to get the last of the kit down to the beach
and onto the landing craft. The friends and relatives travelling with us to visit the
Castaways made themselves comfortable on the piles of equipment we thus provided - notably
the mother of Gordon Carey. Gordon, from the island of St. Kitts in the Caribbean, was not
expecting his mother at all - in fact he later told us that he knew that she was not
going to be able to make the trip due to ill health. His mother, despite her island
background, was most uncomfortable during the crossing - even though we wedged her in nice
and stable on top of various boxes of expedition gear, and surrounded her with sleeping
bags and tents.
The truth was that she was probably as concerned as we were when the
choppy sea caused waves to come crashing through the bow of the landing craft. The water
would then cascade across the deck before pooling in foot-deep lagoons at the aft
scuppers. A frenzied reorganisation kept most of the equipment dry, but the scene brought
memories of the film 'Saving Private Ryan' and, even more worrying, memories of the
Herald of Free Enterprise off Zeebrugge. Despite first thoughts that this was going to
be the most effective means of transport between two islands with sandy beaches, it did
give us all some, not inconsiderable, cause for concern.
Are the bow doors open ? !!
floodwater pours out of the scuppers
contemplating this D-Day landing
Fortunately though, our D-day type landing at Taransay was not met by
mortar rounds and 50-calibre machine-gun fire. Instead we were met by a huge crowd of
almost all the Castaways, and the Lion TV film crew. Some of the Castaways were genuinely
interested in us - both to establish our reasons for coming to visit them and, for some,
out of an apparent genuine pleasure in seeing new faces, and meeting new people.
Apart from the occasional excursion off the island, in some cases for
compassionate reasons, in some cases for shopping - the only people they ever normally met
were the Lion TV film crew. As some will have seen on the TV programs, there had been an
excursion to Stornoway to purchase vital stores - and the locals had regaled us with
stories of 'trips to the pub' and 'visits to the chipper' !! We later learned that our
recent trip to Clachan stores in Leverburgh almost had us bumping into some of them as
they paid a goodwill visit to the local agricultural show, as representatives of the
self-sustaining farming community on Taransay! Despite a lot of involvement at the
planning stages for the series, André was now glad that he had not 'volunteered' to be a
member of the socio-psychological experiment itself.
The Castaways as we arrive
finally meets his Mum
As we landed, Gordon Carey (who had been 'persuaded' to come down to meet
the boat) spotted his Mother, and an emotional reunion ensued. Anybody who watched the TV
programme back in September 2000 may well have seen GM3VLB helping Gordon's mother off the
ramp, whilst Niall tried to keep his bulky frame well out of camera shot. It was also at
this point that we were invited to camp just above the beach, less than 100 yards from the
pods. It soon became apparent that this was going to be the best site that André had ever
experienced during all of his island trips. The grass was nice and short and the sandy
soil was as flat as a billiard table - it certainly made a change from trying to erect a
tent on sharp, slippery rocks, being drenched by spray from waves crashing ashore a scant
few yards away!!
As we have already said, many of the Castaways were happy to meet us, and
kindly helped us up onto the flat patch of land above the beach with all of our equipment.
First impressions were that, finally, Taransay had real Castaways living on the island -
us! Our motley pile of flotsam and jetsam, home-brewed equipment, and
second-hand tents in no way compared to the hot-and-cold running water, electrified,
heated luxury that was their 'Pod Village'. But we were here, the camp was constructed,
the antenna farm erected and the stations went on the air. And again a huge pile-up was
waiting. HF operation was brisk - the word had been spread, and certainly in the UK and
Europe the notoriety of the Castaway Island had preceded us.
The QTH on Taransay
|The QTH and
the Pod village
Julie Lowe, from London, came over several times to meet us and talk to
us, often relying on the wanderings of Floosie, her puppy (born on Taransay). We wondered
whether there had been an agreement amongst the Castaways that they would distance
themselves from us. We had certainly had no intentions to be this close - in fact we had
hoped to be on the other side of the island! But we were certainly not invited over to
join in with their reunions - and that celebration had gone on well into the early hours
of the morning - obviously there was plenty extra electrical power to keep the lights
burning, perhaps supplied courtesy of Lion TV for the duration of the visitor's week.
The following morning, up bright and early again thanks to GM3VLB's
'crowing' alarm clock, saw us enjoying a healthy 'full-fry-up' breakfast, where we cooked
virtually all the food we had, knowing that it was to be our last breakfast al fresco
this trip. And the best part was that we didn't even have to clean the pots, pans or
dishes. Inca, Ben Fogle's black Labrador, turned up with Floosie and the two of them
proceeded to lick everything clean whilst we were busy on the radios. Julie soon arrived,
following Floosie, and spent an hour chatting to Niall about their experiences to date on
The Pod village seen from the hills
beach below our QTH
Various members of our team, not having been invited to share the
facilities in the pod village, disappeared off into the sand dunes and hills, each leaving
their own 'time-capsule' to complement that being left by the Castaways. Ours,
unfortunately, were perhaps more of a 'biological nature' than theirs!!
Our last day of the fortnight's trip was again blessed by glorious weather
and as conditions on the band became quieter around mid-day, we all just lazed around,
although André kept on fiddling with his antennae, trying different bands on each to see
if there were any stations still looking for another island to add to their totals.
Ben Fogle, and a few members of the Lion TV production team, wandered
over, and it was obvious that the Lion crew were not really sure about us being there.
Obviously they felt that they had exclusive rights to the Castaways, and yet here was, to
them, a full, multi-transmitter, broadcast facility set up 100 yards from their
'guinea-pigs'. What were we telling our listeners? What secrets would be passed to the
press? What secret photographs had been taken through high-power zoom lenses? Niall kept
their paranoia at a satisfyingly high level by explaining how the equipment we had with us
was capable of two-way voice, data and video, to virtually anywhere in the world - and
that the whole expedition was being followed by 'millions' on our regularly up-dated
[For those of you who waited five months for the conclusion of this tale
- the reason for the delay was partly due to an agreement with Lion TV that we were not on
Taransay to 'steal their limelight'.]
Eventually the crew left, although Ben Fogle returned shortly afterwards,
this time accompanied only by Inca, his pet dog. Again, he seemed genuinely interested in
what we were doing, and realised that we were only on Taransay because it was an island on
a list, and that the plan to go to Taransay had been instigated before the island had been
selected for the Castaway 2000 project.
GM3VLB and Ben Fogle
Gordon Carey was our next visitor, and we were all quite amazed to learn
that he had had a lifelong interest in Amateur Radio, but had never met anybody who could
explain to him how he could get started. For the next hour he diligently took down details
of books, audio tapes, minimal equipment lists and timescales. He even asked GM3VLB to
specifically hang on to some of the second-hand HF equipment he had for sale. Swapping
addresses with Niall, he also let slip that he and his family would not be staying on to
the end of the year, but instead were intending to return to St. Kitts as soon as
possible. We hope to be able to announce a new station going on the air from V4-land in
the near future!!
As the afternoon wore on, and knowing that the landing craft would be
crossing over to collect us at around 1900, the camp was dismantled, leaving only one tent
and the dipole antenna still up. With the generator already removed to the pick-up point,
the power of the last TS50 was dropped to 50W, then 10W - but still the last, frenzied,
QRP pile-up saw close on 200 QSOs being made by André in the last hour of operation.
Again a big crowd turned up to say goodbye to the four family visitors and
the Summer 2000 team. Big hugs from Julie and best wishes from Ben and Gordon saw us on
our way. We had made new friends and we had completed the five islands that we had set out
to activate. As we dragged and carried the huge pile of kit up the sandy cliff to the
waiting car, emotions were mixed. For some it was the end of a fantastic trip, a trip
sprinkled with memories that would last a lifetime. For others it was the beginning of the
return to reality, where normal life was much more difficult and far less exciting than
trying to eat reconstituted scrambled eggs through a midge-net. And for others it meant
that another major expedition had passed by uneventfully, and for whom a return home
simply meant facing the arrival of several thousand QSL cards, mostly from stations that
had not the faintest idea of the detailed planning and expense that was involved to make
this expedition the success that it had been.
Catwalk modelling of our T-shirts
infamous GM5K T-shirts
Castaways wave goodbye
The final high point of the trip came the following morning as we tucked
into another hearty breakfast on the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry back to Uig on Skye. We
were all sitting in our St Kilda expedition tee-shirts when a total stranger came over and
asked whether we had been to the island. We explained what we had been doing, and he then
went on to tell us that he was the eldest son of one of the last four surviving St Kildans.
The whole island community had been evacuated from the island back in the 1930's (for
their own good?), and his mother was one of the young children who had been born on St
Kilda. It was a totally unexpected pleasure to be able to reminisce, with the authority of
having 'been there' , with someone whose uncle had written an as yet unpublished
autobiography about life on one of the truly magical places on earth.
The four team-members, some of whom had never met each other, except via
the radio, had worked well together - and despite difficult conditions there had been
almost no acrimony between them. We were sure that Cynthia McVey, the psychologist for the
Castaway programme, would have had just as much material had she followed our antics for
the fourteen days we were together!!
||Special thanks have to go
to each other, for putting up with ourselves, and for making each other laugh the
Also thanks to Peter, our boatman for Killegray and Ensay; to the anonymous crew of
our RIB for Eilean Liubhaird; to the wardens of the youth hostel at Garenin; to the
various crews of the Coastal Surveyor for getting us to and from St Kilda; to
everybody we met on St Kilda - too numerous to mention individually; and to
Lion TV and the Castaways of Taransay.
Finally, and because of the delay in posting this final episode, we are able to
record our sincere gratitude to Mike Crownover (AD5A) whose Island Radio Expedition
Foundation (IREF) - for the third time and without limiting criteria or reservations
(other than for us to reply to all QSL cards received - sponsored GM3VLB for the St
Kilda leg of the trip to the tune of US $150.
Thanks again to Bill (G(M)4WSB) for his spontaneous 'on the beach' donation, and to
all those hams out there who acknowledged the pleasure that they had had (and the
relative hardships our team had endured to provide it), either by kind words or by
donations large and small. They are nearly always the same people, but it is their
help which has allowed GM3VLB to return and plan and execute the 'next one' each
André's island file bulges with thank-you letters which bring him back many happy
memories of all his trips.
Thank-you all again, and here's to the 'next one'