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Published by GM3VLB

Summer 2002 Expedition to the Flannans

And for those of you who may not have had the opportunity to see the web-pages leading up to the expedition, click here to see the archived information.

THE FLANNAN ISLES STORY

Many will recall my August 1999 expedition to the Flannan Isles EU-118 (SCOTIA DI25), accompanied by Keith (MM0BPP). On that occasion, we sailed overnight from Breascleit on the west coast of the island of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, on the fishing boat 'Coastal Surveyor', skippered by 'Johnnie Ronnie' MacLeod.

 

This was our first experience of the infamous Atlantic swell that, even under calm conditions, is ever-present - surging several meters up the near-vertical cliffs of Eilean Mr. This is the largest of the remote Flannan group (also known as the Seven Hunters) and is dominated by its famous, some would say infamous, lighthouse that stands 100 metres (almost 300 feet) above the sea.

The Flannan Light

One December night in 1900, the year after the lighthouse was built, it was noticed the light was out. A landing party was sent to investigate, only to discover that all three keepers had vanished, apparently on the 15th of December (when the last notes had been made on the lighthouse 'slate', prior to being entered in the official log). A half-finished meal lay on the table, two sets of oilskin clothes were missing and a chair lay over-turned as though knocked over by someone in a rush to get outside.

Many theories for the multiple disappearance have been put forward, ranging from sea monsters to aliens from outer space. A fellow island activator and hunter Donald (GM0KCY), now retired and one of Scotland's last lighthouse keepers, was himself a former keeper of the Flannan light. He has told me that, in the severe weather conditions prevailing at that time of year, waves up to 30 metres or more (100 feet) would not be uncommon. It would not be impossible for such enormous waves to surge up or over the rock.

The 'official' explanation of the disappearance is based on this possibility, namely that during a severe storm, two of the keepers perhaps went down to check equipment or whatever, perhaps one was struck by one of these huge waves, perhaps the other went to seek the help of the third man and perhaps in a rescue attempt they too were swept away.

 

The poem by W.W. Gibson, "Flannan Isle", describes the impressions of those who were sent to investigate some days later. It ends :-

We seem'd to stand for an endless while,
Though still no word was said.
Three men alive on Flannan Isle
Who thought on three men dead.

 

Such events were hard to imagine almost a century later when, on a relatively calm, summer morning in 1999, Keith and I landed on what is referred to as the west landing - on some semi-submerged steps leading onto a small concrete platform, constantly washed by the swell and which, in a moment of inattention, swept away a 5-litre fuel container (representing our emergency allocation).

We soon discovered that a few shreds of rusty bolts on the smooth cliff face, sloping briefly at 45 before plunging vertically into the whirlpools below, were all that remained of a 10-metre stretch of concrete steps previously anchored to them. As I found out later, even the lightest rain shower, or sea spray, or water dripping from above would render the surface like glass, and would have made that gap absolutely impossible to cross.

 

GM3VLB negotiates the steps up from the West landing back in 1999.

 

However we had somehow edged across it and painstakingly lugged our equipment up and along some vertigo-inducing narrow ledges, to a second concrete platform. This was some 4 metres square and was perched some 20 or 30 metres above the swirling sea. The platform had been the base for a large crane that had been used to lift provisions from the supply vessels to the base of the miniature cable railway. This railway was then used to haul the cargo up to the lighthouse. The raging seas had long since made a meal of the crane and it was hardly surprising that the flimsy safety railings were part of history too (other than two or three very rusty stanchions between which we stretched a "safety" rope). This platform became our base for the 4 days we spent on the island, perched like wingless seagulls on the edge of the cliff. It wasn't difficult to imagine the consequences of one false step! The dome tent had to be put up without any pegs, its guy wires being attached to whatever items of equipment we felt might be heavy enough.

The 1999 west landing QTH with the MM0BPP and the tent
perched on the old crane platform at the end of the rails

Landing from a two-metre fibreglass dingy had been hazardous in the extreme; the operating position was very precarious, and the condition of the sea so totally unpredictable. It therefore came as no surprise when Johnny, our skipper, informed us (via our handheld marine radio - an absolutely essential item for trips like these) that the wind had veered to the west, and to such an extent as to make any transfer from the rock's west landing to the 'Coastal Surveyor' quite impossible.

In practice, this meant that on our last day, we had to make several exhausting trips up and over the island to the so-called east landing, a long process threatened with the ever-present possibility that the wind would veer back again! When at last we had we were homeward bound, we vowed never to return. Those who have had the opportunity to see our photographs and the video footage have all agreed with those sentiments - and the video camera's death-plunge into the sea on our last shuttle-trip down to the east landing reminded us how easily we might have followed it.

I would like to pause here to re-iterate my remarks about marine-band capability. The absolute necessity of this was hammered home when one of my fellow Scottish island activators suffered a heart attack whilst on an expedition to the Treshnish islands. The expedition team had marine-band capability and were able to contact the coastguard and to receive emergency medical advice from an on-board paramedic during the relatively long wait for the rescue helicopter. As it happened, I picked up the expedition's call for help on the 40m band, but remember, there is a period at the beginning and at the end of an expedition when there is no HF capability - and this is precisely the time a slip can mean broken bones or worse, or when the effort needed to carry heavy equipment up, down or even simply across rocky landings can have disastrous consequences on even the fittest activator.

On Scotland's west coast, there is no guarantee whatsoever that mobile phone coverage will exist. Sometimes, when there seemed to be no coverage, climbing to the top of a hill has worked, but this can be unpleasant and dangerous in a howling gale, or indeed impossible if incapacitated for whatever reason.

Immediately after the incident described above, I needed to replace a very aged Icom IC2E, and decided to purchase the very reasonably priced HORA C150 handheld, which has full transceive capability in the 2m amateur and 167 MHz marine bands. I also had a word with a representative of the Radio Agency who intimated that a 'blind eye would be turned' if marine band use was limited to safety purposes. Since then, I have checked in with the Coastguard as a matter of routine, whenever it seems appropriate, giving details of my operation and letting them know when I've safely left the island. I even did this recently, for what may seem a simple trip to the Isles of Fleet (CS10).

On the more remote islands, a marine-band radio may be the only way of communicating with the fisherman or boatman (who often may also wish to communicate with you). Surprisingly perhaps, although there is a telephone on St Kilda (DI23), there are no telephones on The Monachs (DI22), the Treshnish Isles (DI09), the Shiants (DI24), the Flannans (DI25), the islands lying south of the Outer Hebrides or indeed many other islands.

There are 11 GM IOTA islands (or island groups), and I have now managed to activate all of them. EU-008, 009, 010, 012, 092 and 123 are all easy. EU-059, 108, 111 and 112, though all relatively easy to land on, are much less accessible and certainly more costly, except for very short "pop on, pop off" operations where the boatman stands by for an hour or two (thus making only one return trip). Such short operations to relatively rare IOTA groups, leave many 'hunters' frustrated and should in my opinion be avoided, if at all possible. On multi-island expeditions, and even with careful planning with inter-island ferry timetables, it is not always possible or convenient to overnight on every island. Furthermore, operations involving overnight stays (especially on uninhabited islands) are in an entirely different league, as you need to be equipped (in terms of shelter, water, food and fuel) not just for one night but perhaps for several, in the event of bad weather. Incidentally, it is perhaps surprising, yet critically important, to note how few islands have fresh water available.

And finally - there is EU-118, the Flannan Isles group, entirely in a league of their own.

 

Perhaps the passage of time plays tricks with one's memory. Almost three years had elapsed since that first memorable visit with Keith MM0BPP. Many had 'missed it' and many more had since then joined the ranks of IOTA chasers. I was constantly being asked if I had any plans to return to EU-118. At first my reply was "not under any circumstances", before gradually mellowing to "definitely not", then to "no plans", "no immediate plans" and more recently to "you never know"!  

The west landing (lower right) in calm seas during the 1999 expedition

I knew instinctively that I would never again attempt a 'west' landing. If there was to be another attempt, it had either to be (1) by helicopter or (2) by boat at the 'east' landing (and then only in near-perfect weather conditions). I had previously looked into option (1) and indeed did so again. Just below the lighthouse, there is a purpose built heli-pad used by maintenance crews from the Northern Lighthouse Board. Apart from the fact that the cost of chartering a helicopter is absolutely prohibitive, there are also Dangerous Goods regulations that make it virtually impossible to transport fuel and batteries by air. (By the way, this is also true on non-vehicular island ferries operating between certain Scottish islands, e.g. to the Small Isles of Muck, Rum, Eigg and Canna, where special permits must be obtained prior to such transport). Any thoughts of 'begging a lift' on a 'pseudo-training' exercise with the Search and Rescue helicopter based at Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides, can also be dismissed. They had had their 'fingers burnt' after helping an earlier DX-pedition and were under strict orders not to repeat the exercise.

It therefore had to be solution (2), if at all. Knowing that Jim (GM4CHX) also needed the Island of Scotland Award Outlier Group for his 'Activator' totals, I had invited him to join me on a possible attempt. However, he did not take up the offer. By this time, Alex (GM0DHZ) had also become a seasoned island activator (with 45 islands activated to date) and so he didn't need much coercion, even though he had seen the video of the first expedition!!

For transport, the 'Coastal Surveyor' was available, but try as he might, Johnny could not find a suitable boat to transfer our equipment and ourselves from the fishing boat. By necessity, irrespective of which landing is used, this has to be anchored some 200m offshore. Neither he, nor I, nor his crew, would ever consider as a candidate, the 2-metre fibreglass dinghy originally used on our previous expedition. On that occasion, it had twice sunk to the gunwales, both times with Keith (MM0BPP) aboard!

 

As the 'Coastal Surveyor' would be carrying out it's normal fishing duties whilst we were on the rock, the boat would have to be lifted out of the water for the duration. There was no way it could be towed about, in the Atlantic swell, 'behind' a working fishing boat and there was certainly no room 'on deck'. The only other (remotely likely) candidate would be a small 'R.I.B.' (rigid inflatable) and even then, I had grave doubts about whether that could be hoisted out of the sea, vertically, up by 4 metres or more depending on the state of the tide and the severity of the swell.

Johnny and I reluctantly had to admit that, with the short time by then available, another solution was required. Alex and I were sorry not to renew our acquaintance with the ship and its crew, which had also taken us, in July 2000, on the long haul to St Kilda (EU-059) and back, accompanied then by my son Niall just returned, as VP8NJS, from Antarctica and another 'weel-kent' YL activator, Lorraine (MM0BCR).

 

There are private charter companies (as used, for example, by the Cambridge University expedition (GB0FLA) in 1989). Such a charter would cost in the region of $5000 nowadays. Alternatively, we could go as individual private passengers (perhaps for $700 a head) on such a chartered vessel but it would then be up to the skipper to decide which islands (if any - depending on the weather!) would be visited, or indeed whether any landing might be possible once the boat arrived at that island.

 

In 1999, I had spoken about my original Flannan plans to Murray Macleod, who runs "SEATREK", a small commercial operation that takes fare-paying passengers on sightseeing tours to wherever the weather allows. By 'sightseeing', I mean whale and dolphin watching, although he also runs visits to St. Kilda, the Flannans, The Monachs and elsewhere. I already knew of his reputation as a first class skipper, something that is essential to survive in those seas.

While we were on St. Kilda, that intrepid activator Bill (G(M)4WSB) had made a lightning trip to the Flannans himself, and with Murray's 'Seatrek' outfit. However, it was a very short-lived operation due to a rapid deterioration of the weather (the full force of which we ourselves later experienced as we were leaving St Kilda). Anyone tempted to say 'but August is summer-time' had better think again - the gales are perhaps less severe and less prolonged than in the winter months, but don't ever underestimate their ferocity!

I knew Murray relied on large RIBs (over 8 metres long), and although I have ventured out in many similar (but much smaller) RIBs on my island travels, the thought of a 30 or 40 mile crossing, in rough seas, was a bit daunting. Despite Bill's reassurance, hanging onto safety ropes around the perimeter of a small RIB, with 2 or 3 metre waves crashing over you can be a frightening, if not backbreaking experience, as Alex will readily testify. And that was in the relatively sheltered Ulva Sound, not more than a couple of hundred meters offshore.

As I had explained to Alex prior to our departure, 'you pay for what you get'! Our estimate for the cost of getting from the Hebrides to the Flannans with 'Seatrek' would be considerably higher than we had originally allowed for, but there was clearly no alternative. It was already the end of July, and Murray had told me that the weather had only allowed him to visit the Flannans twice since April, but that it looked as though there was a possible window in the weather the first week in August. I took the decision, chartered 'Seatrek', and summoned Alex up from Portsmouth in the deep south of G-land.

A few days later, and a six-hour drive from the Scottish Borders, we found ourselves at the northern tip of the Isle of Skye. From there we enjoyed a pleasant, calm, 2-hour crossing to the Outer Hebrides, followed by another 2-hour drive up through the Isles of Harris and Lewis to the sheltered harbour of the hamlet of Uigean on the island's remote west coast.

 

There it was - a brand new, beautiful, 8-metre ocean-going RIB, with all the latest navigation, communications and safety equipment necessary to operate in the wild waters of the Atlantic Ocean. In fact, with his huge past experience in such vessels, Murray had designed and built much of the open-type superstructure himself. It was certainly a vessel that inspired confidence.

Murray Macleod's brand new 8m RIB "SEATREK"
with our small pile of expedition gear, ready to go

 

Alex and I were warmly received at their home by his charming XYL, and a short time later Murray himself arrived. We made final arrangements for departure the following morning and were soon having a quick meal and stretching out in our sleeping bags in our mini-mobile home for a well-deserved sleep - it had been a long day, and the following one would be even longer.

Thursday morning, on the 8th of August, we rose early and had a light breakfast before driving down to the pontoon where we unloaded everything required - ticking items off against our checklist. We intended to be on the Flannans for 4 or 5 days but had emergency food, water and fuel to stretch the stay to perhaps 10 days. When these ran out, a call to the Coastguard would most likely ensure a return trip by helicopter (or at least an air-drop of essential rations) and a certain mention in the various media.

 

Murray soon arrived with a couple of family relief crew and in minutes everything was loaded in the watertight forward compartment. Several hundred horsepower of inboard engine roared into life, we straddled our motorcycle type seats, cast off, and gently purred our way through the channel leading towards the open sea, passing the islands of Gt. Bernera (HI27) and Vacsay (Burns Is. - HI26) to starboard, until finally the radio masts perched on the cliffs of Gallan Head slipped behind us on our left. Straight ahead, lying low on the horizon, lay our objective - the dark outline of the Flannan Isles.

 

The radio burst into life as Murray checked in with the Stornoway Coastguard on Channel 16, giving our proposed itinerary and receiving the latest weather reports from them. There was even a formal Coastguard request that Alex and I keep in regular VHF contact with them once we were on the rock. We then surged forward as Murray opened up to full throttle, and the RIB rose up onto its cruising plane and settled down at something approaching 50 mph. The earlier gentle breeze now felt much stronger and the crests of the increasing Atlantic swell reached several meters above the troughs.

The old story that every seventh wave is a big one seemed to be verified. Murray never took his eye off the sea and, every few moments, the throttles were shut back to allow the RIB to climb carefully up and over these enormous waves. Hitting one at full speed would surely have induced a backwards somersault and would have spelled certain disaster. In between the 'big ones', the ride would have tested the skills of a bucking bronco rodeo rider. I soon discovered that the jarring on the whole human frame was slightly less if, instead of sitting, you crouched over the seat, with your knees slightly bent to absorb the shocks (as indeed Murray was doing at the controls).

 

As we slowly got used to the ride, we were able to concentrate on other things such as searching the bouncing horizon for whales or dolphins, catching sight of the Flannan lighthouse now visible on the skyline, or in my case trying to hold the camcorder steady - an impossible task! After a few false alerts, when Murray had throttled back at the shout of "Whales!", one of our keen-sighted co-riders shouted "Dolphins!". Sure enough, as we came to rest, wallowing in the deep swell, a huge white dolphin crossed under the RIB with almost lightning speed, followed by another and another.

A white dolphin surfaces beside the "Seatrek" en route to the Flannans

 

They shot back and forth, round and under us, occasionally leaping in perfect synchronisation on our starboard side that, for some reason, they seemed to prefer. We watched these gentle giants play for a long time before gradually turning up the throttles again. Still their huge white shapes stayed just ahead of us, demonstrating their incredible power, speed and agility as several metres of muscle leapt out of the water. It was as though they knew exactly where we were headed. We thought for a while they might lead us all the way to the Flannans but we must have reached the outer limits of their current territory, as they were gone as suddenly as they had arrived.

 

With the huge Flannan light towering above the near vertical cliffs of Eilean Mr, we were soon entering the calmer waters between it and the other 'Seven Hunters'. There was to be only one way on to the island. As Murray slowly edged forward, and very briefly wedged the nose of the RIB into the rocks, I gingerly jumped onto a narrow seaweed-covered but reasonably flat rock, at the same time reaching for a vertical stanchion which had been better galvanised than its neighbours. As I did this, the swell pulled the RIB down and away below me. But, it felt good to be on the Flannans again!

The white arrow shows the east landing as we approach

 

Alex followed on behind, as Murray threw me a climbing rope and we hauled all the equipment vertically up the face and onto the landing platform as he tried to keep the big RIB on station in the swell. By the time I had finished, my hands were raw (I tried to imagine the effort that would have been required to haul a dinghy or smaller RIB from the water onto the platform!). Murray then offered to anchor off and let the others visit the island, but I think that they had seen how much equipment we had and, suspecting they might be roped in as porters, they declined the invitation!

 

Alex soon realised I had not been joking when I had spoken of narrow concrete steps (with a depth of maybe only half a shoe length and without any guard rail), which rose at an angle of 60 from a concrete landing stage - at this moment about 4 metres or more above sea level - that sported the remnants of a vertical iron ladder that I wouldn't have hung my hat on. These steps climbed to another platform some 20 metres above the sea and, from then on, a path climbed a further 30 metres at a 'much gentler' (!) 45 or so, but which was covered in long, slippery grass, saturated by water running off the higher ground. The path then met up with the 'present end' of what remained of the mini-railway, levelling out to a slope of about 30, running in a long right-hand sweeping curve up to the lighthouse.

Looking back down the steep steps to the east landing, here we can see the 2m dingy
that was used to do the shuttle transfer to and from the "Coastal Surveyor" back in 1999

 

We began the long, multiple haul of equipment, leaving some fuel and a car battery at the second level, as it would not be immediately required. I had started to take my first load up the final stretch when a massive whoosh of air over my head made me belatedly duck. No it wasn't an RAF Tornado, but instead was an enormous feathered bird that, though never having seen one before, I soon identified as a skua, and more accurately (later) as a great skua. The body length of the adult male is typically 2 feet, with a commensurate wingspan. A great skua attacking from behind with incredible speed and agility is not something you ignore, and a pair of them was repeatedly attacking me. I guessed I must be near their nesting site. They circled high over head and each time I tried to move, they came in like fighter bombers on the final bombing run, just skimming the ground before climbing steeply at the last moment and missing my head by inches. The agility of such a large bird is quite incredible. I have no qualms about admitting that I was afraid - primarily afraid of the possible injuries I might sustain should one of these birds' navigation systems be slightly off-tune.

 

After what seemed like an eternity, I had managed to edge forwards about 50 yards and realised I was no longer a target. I was out of their "patch". I veered off the railway track, up and over the soggy grass, and up towards the heli-pad to select a suitable site for the tent and the two 24-foot masts. One mast would support the 20/40/80m multi-band dipole and the other, the 10/12/15/17/30m version.

The QTH below the lighthouse

 

I temporarily used a brightly coloured 1-metre aluminium mast section as a 'weapon' and found this very effective - the skua is not stupid, they were not going to be 'grounded' before me! After each attack, it took them time for them to climb to a height high enough to launch the next dive-bombing run, and during this time I moved forward as much as I could before swinging round to 'repel' the next attack. It almost became a game, a deadly one, I thought. Whether they tired, or whether they realised I was just 'passing through' and not really a threat after all, I cannot say, but the attacks gradually subsided and Alex subsequently had a relatively free passage.

 

Up at the camp-site, we had no 'skua' trouble at all - throughout our stay, and I can only suggest that the enthusiastic Sunday Mail reporter whose article said "Two radio hams were forced to flee a cursed Scots (sic) island after being attacked by giant Arctic skuas" certainly had a vivid imagination Maybe he was reliving the scenes in Hitchcock's film "The Birds"!

 

A typical 'vivid' article from the UK tabloid press

 

The facts of the matter were that Stornoway Coastguard had put out a severe gale warning for Monday the 12th of August. We could not have expected to be taken off the rock on the Sunday, for no other reason than the long-standing local islander's tradition of holding Sundays as their 'days of rest'. We could have decided to ride out the storm, after all we had adequate provisions for a few days and emergency shelter was possible in one of the lighthouse outbuildings. However, storms in that area ARE unpredictable, and even if it had abated, and Murray had managed to make the trip, the big problem would still remain - the transfer from the rock back into the RIB with all the equipment. The Coastguard would most likely have helped in such an emergency, but it was obvious that they would have taken a dim view if they had had to take us off by helicopter AFTER we had ignored their weather warning. My eventual decision to terminate the operation on the Saturday was therefore quite an easy one.

Far from being "forced to flee", I decided, on our second day, to venture closer to skua territory, hopefully to induce a dive-bombing attack and capture it on the camcorder. However, I had great trouble arousing any interest, although one brave bird did mount a completely unexpected, very high speed, ground level, frontal attack which took me totally by surprise and resulted in me almost falling over backwards and which ended up with me getting rather a poor video shot!

Radio-wise, the operation, though curtailed, was reasonably successful. As in 1999, conditions were poor, despite us having an apparently better site this time, being up near the top of the rock rather than perched halfway up a cliff face as Keith and I had been. It was primarily short skip conditions into Europe, with virtually no early morning propagation to W6/W7/KL7 or to VK/ZL and with only one or two JAs making it into the log. However, despite being on the air for almost one day less this time, my QSO total was 20% more, our overall total being around 1500. This year, we had made a conscious decision to operate not only on more bands - indeed, I had built a second mast and another multi-band inverted 'V' for 10, 12, 15, 17 and 30m - but also on CW.

 

Alex GM0DHZ found a large rock near the tent, on which he balanced his TS-50S and his electronic keyer, with another couple of rocks stacked to support his rear end!

 

It was nice to hear many of our SSB 'regulars' also calling us on CW. And no, the GM3VLB/p you have been hearing recently on CW was not a pirate! Thanks to many torture sessions organised by well-known Dxer Steve Gibbs (GU3MBS/VQ8CC etc.etc.) back in 5Z4-land in the 60s, I am still occasionally capable of a respectable performance on the key!

 

We had pitched our tent on the only bit of flat ground available, immediately next to the heli-pad. It would have been interesting to see if it would have survived the down-draught of a helicopter landing! Certainly, we would have had to lower our HF multi-band dipole had we had such a visitor.

The Flannan Lighthouse helipad,
with the QTH in the background

 

During one of our few breaks, other than those for hurried meals, we were able to explore a bit. Extreme care must be taken on the rock - any slip could prove fatal. One strange fact is that although we were visiting at the same time of year, we did not see any sign of the hundreds of black rabbits I had seen with Keith in 1999 - not a single one - where they have gone, I do not know.

I talked Alex into going down to the west landing, and to the cliff-side perch where Keith and I had 'pitched' the tent in 1999. We discovered that there had apparently been a major rock-fall, and several metres of the track just above the tiny platform were now missing, presumed to be in the sea. In fact, there seemed to be a more pronounced slope on the platform itself, and I would not be at all surprised to find the whole of this gone before too long. I suspect that water from above is gradually eroding the underside surfaces of the concrete and the iron and steel used to reinforce and/or anchor it. I would certainly NOT consider camping on it now!

There was an eerie silence at night - with little wind, there was just the sound of the sea surging up and down the cliffs The ghosts of the missing lighthouse keepers seem to be the quiet type! The beam from the light, seen a considerable distance out to sea, was sweeping rhythmically over our heads but, in the clear air above, it was invisible to us. The light is powered by a large array of solar panels and we noticed that the huge mirrors rotate not only at night, but throughout the day as well (when the light itself is of course extinguished). Presumably, once moving in their bed of mercury, it takes less energy to keep them moving than it would to start and stop them each day. The lighthouse is well maintained, by the Northern Lighthouse Board. On my first visit, the maintenance crews had just finished their stint on the rock, and it was disappointing to see so much discarded rubbish lying around in corners that were sheltered from the near ever-present wind. What kind of people would leave empty beer cans, cigarette packets, broken bottles etc., lying in such quantities in such a remote and otherwise unspoilt environment. I had reported this on my return and it was therefore a pleasure to see that a cleaning party had largely removed this human detritus. (Sadly, I see more and more of this sort of pollution on my island travels. Some of course is washed up on shores, sometimes well above the high tide mark by high seas, but too often, it is the result of inconsiderate visitors who presumably behave as they would on their home patch).

All too soon (and only because of the severe weather warning), it was time to dismantle and make the multi-trip journey down to the east landing to wait for Murray. It seemed incongruous that we should be doing this in near perfect conditions (but three days later we were forcibly reminded that Hebridean weather can be very fickle, especially around these more remote and exposed islands. Direct radio contact with Murray and 'Seatrek' had not been possible whilst we were on the rock, as its homeport of Uigean lies sheltered below some west facing high ground. Fellow activator Peter GM3OFT had been our principal mainland 'back-up' and he was in touch with my XYL Veronica (who relayed news on to Alex's XYL, Susan) Also keeping in touch with Murray was my son Niall, in Aberdeen, who had found that he and Murray shared a common passion for (ancient?) Landrovers!

We had also maintained regular contact, via the marine band, with Johnny on the 'Coastal Surveyor' - never far from the Flannans, as he took advantage of the better weather to pick up a few crabs and lobster from the rich waters around the islands. We had also monitored Stornoway Coastguard's regular weather bulletins for our area and had reassured them directly, from time to time, that all was well.

As we brought down the last of the gear, I called "Seatrek" and Murray's reply was soon followed by Alex's superior eyesight detecting a fast-moving speck on the horizon. The RIB was soon alongside. It was a really fine afternoon, and some of the family had come along for the trip. While two climbed up to the lighthouse, some of the younger generation did a spot of fishing as everything was reloaded and stowed safely away.

 

Eventually, passengers and equipment were back on board and the Flannans were soon becoming a diminishing speck on the horizon. As I looked back, I wondered when they might next be activated. Just as mountaineers answer "because they're there" when asked why they risk life and limb in dangerous climbing exploits, so it will always be with islands, whether they are on the IOTA list, or the SCOTIA or whatever.

GM3VLB on his second expedition to the
Flannans - will there be a third visit?

 

There are certainly far more difficult and dangerous islands to land on and activate than Eilean Mr in the Flannans. I believe for example, that as long as the island of Rockall remains on ANY island list, someone will, sooner rather than later, attempt an operation. I only hope they live to tell the tale. I believe that former SAS man Tom Maclean did land (in the 1980s?) and did make some amateur radio QSOs but as he did not have a proper licence, they were invalid. I had personally researched the situation in the early 70s (with the help of Royal Navy contacts as a helicopter landing would have, without question, been necessary) and again in June 1997 when a former physics pupil of mine was himself on Rockall as part of a Greenpeace protest team. He approached the Greenpeace top brass on my behalf but the latter were understandably reluctant to take on an extra 'liability'.

 

Now, at the end of 2002, within months of collecting the state pension, I have given up any, even remotely held, ambition to activate Rockall (did I hear someone say they had a helicopter?!!).  As they say, that's for the birds (and madmen!).

The 'island' of Rockall, shown here with
waves crashing over its summit

 

That night, Alex and I enjoyed hot showers, a good meal, pleasant international company and a comfortable bunk in the Garenin Scottish Youth Hostel, on the northwest coast of Lewis. We had often stayed there before and, recognising us, the warden welcomed us once again. We relaxed for a couple of days and took the opportunity to visit Johnny and his good lady Annie and her delightful mother.

The communal kitchen at the Garenin Scottish Youth Hostel

 

It was Saturday and the 'Coastal Surveyor' had also returned to unload its catch, the Sabbath still being a day of rest for many in those parts, and when anything smacking of work is very much frowned upon. I had promised to try and set up a two-way marine link between Johnny's house and the 'Coastal Surveyor'. The change from an analogue to a digital mobile-phone system in the Outer Hebrides had meant the loss of a vital communications link, as the range was now too great for mobile telephone communication. Johnny normally fishes around the Flannans and beyond, and is often away for 6 days at a stretch. It is understandable that, with no news, one or other could become anxious, especially in times of severe winter weather conditions. I understand that Stornoway Coastguard is very helpful in such situations, but relayed messages are always somewhat limiting.

I had my MFJ-259 antenna analyser with me, and we were able to erect and test a marine-band antenna at their home. We also set up a power supply and checked that the installation on the boat was in good order, despite the severe environment it is regularly subjected to. On the Monday, the fishing boat was once again 'working the Flannans' and we were all delighted, especially Annie, to hear 59+ signals both ways. It is nice to be able to help such friendly people, and to repay the kindness and hospitality that we so often encounter in the islands.

 

Later that day, and that night, we were on Great Bernera (HI27), and the weather began to turn nasty - as had been predicted by the Stornoway Coastguard. The following day, Alex was able to activate Lewis and Harris (HI21) before we set up camp on what looked like a disused military site high up on the Island of Scalpay (HI19), overlooking its lighthouse, and looking out towards the Shiants Islands (DI24) where I had been a guest on Peter (GM3OFT)'s expedition less than a year previously (again in horrendous weather conditions!).

The mobile QTH on Gt Bernera

Scalpay lighthouse with the Shiants in the background

 

The next day, there seemed to be a lull as we sailed back to the island of Skye (CN14). But this didn't last long. In fact, by the time we passed through Portree, the main town, it was deteriorating into a wild night. We had held the faint hope that we might make the last ferry of the day from Sconser, on Skye, crossing over to Raasay island (CN24). The ferry from the Hebrides had been late arriving in Skye, and I was 'pressing on' trying to get there in time.  

 

The Cuillins on Skye, seen in the background,
from the QTH on Raasay

 

Although I had been having increasingly difficulty steering the car, it was only when I nearly didn't get round a fairly tight bend and the rear end slipped a bit on the flooded roads, that I pulled in to a lay-by and discovered an absolutely flat rear tyre! Of course, where was the spare? Naturally, it was in its recess in the floor of the boot, UNDER all the gear - and of course all I had was the original manufacturer's jack (with its mechanical advantage geared to the needs of the average 90-year-old lady when changing a wheel). We still beat all records however, literally throwing everything out of, and eventually back into, the boot, and eventually arrived at the Sconser slipway - now firmly expecting to be camping there overnight - only to find I had misread the time-table and we had fully 15 minutes to spare! In fact we had even more than that, as we could now see the approaching ferry making slow headway in very heavy seas.

The Raasay crossing is fortunately quite a short one (which was to be even more exciting the following morning as we returned to mainland Skye). It was a wild, wild night but we had managed to park in what seemed like a small, almost flooded quarry, which gave us shelter on three sides. By good fortune, the fourth side was open with a clear take-off over the sea crashing ashore a few hundred meters down the slope from us. The car once again became our shack, and restaurant, and hotel, all rolled into one. We have become quite proficient at this now and it means we can be on the air almost immediately, using a variety of aerials, including a full quarter-wave on 20m, whenever the car is available to us. Indeed all our operations on this trip, other than from the Flannans, were made using vehicle-mounted antennae.

The following morning we watched in amazement as the small ferry that was to take back to mainland Skye, was wallowing in and being battered by extremely high seas. We boarded it in trepidation, but arrived a short time later, none the worse, on Skye. A short drive soon saw us activating Skye from the end of the pier at Broadford, over-looking Broadford Bay ahead and to our right, and the island of Pabay (CN17) to our left. I was going to say we had water on three sides, but in reality it was actually four sides, the fourth being the roof! Though the sea was several metres below the level of the pier, huge waves were almost totally submerging us every few moments. The car was being severely buffeted on its right-hand side by almost continuous gusts of wind, which must have been reaching well over 100kph.

Although fully loaded, I was still somewhat concerned and in fact reversed the car back two or three metres such that a large, substantial, lamp-post on our left-hand side would hopefully act as a safety barrier should the 'big one' hit us. It was almost hurricane conditions and we were glad when time dictated that we should head for home, once again paying the extortionate toll (5.70 each way) to cross the relatively short Skye Bridge. (I am quite sure such a level of toll in a very rural area, with a fragile economy, would never be accepted south of the border. As I recall, even the massive Dartford Bridge over the Thames in London only costs 1. I would be failing the people of that region if I didn't add my voice in protest at this government-backed extortion - by both this and the previous governments).

The weather improved slightly, and some 6 hours later we were back in the Borders, 'ready for the next one'. Since then of course, we have completed an 11-island expedition to the Shetland, EU-012, and one to the Isles of Fleet (CS10) but that is another story, for another time!

73 de Andr (GM3VLB)

 
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