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Explore Scotland: Sail & Climb the Outer Hebrides – Part 3 “Rock? Plenty of it!”

After a few hours enjoying the rhythmic rise and fall of the waves, we passed Little Minch and by late afternoon we arrived at an uninhabited archipelago at the southern tip of the Outer Hebrides: Berneray, Mingulay and Pabbay. The deep blue sea scribbling a border of white lace along the vertical cliffs, a light beam dusting a grassy knoll with gold. Nonstop clicking of the cameras, the monumental arch architecture on the cliffs of Pabbay took our breath away: 150 meters of vertical rock!

Hannes waved his large-diameter telephoto wildly, snapping photos of a puffin – a bird that’s earnestly (and inappropriately) called a parrot-diver in my native German language – a black suited, somewhat clumsy looking bird with a colourful beak. Quite different are the elegant sea birds, like a flurry of snow they swarmed the black cliffs. Great black-back gulls, silver gulls and skuas, fulmars, gannets, razorbills and guillemots nesting on the balcony of basalt dykes that crisscross the gneiss. The white bird droppings and nests everywhere were enough to delight an ornithologist’s heart, but the walls were unsuitable for climbing. Steeper and overhanging stretches of coastline would offer better climbing.

We dropped anchor in a bay off the east coast of Pabbay. The sun was holding even above the ridge, the evening light shaping the green knoll where the grassland dropped down to a white sandy beach. Halfway up was a house with boarded up windows; closer to the beach on either side of a brook extended half sunken, half-worn foursquare stone chunks and fallen grave markers from the sand: the abandoned village. Wild sheep grazed in small herds on the grassland. Animal carcasses in all stages of decomposition down to bare skeletons were the only signs of more recent times. Beyond the hilltops, the cliffs of rugged gneiss plunged abruptly into the sea. We could only roughly estimate their height from the seabirds that melted into the whitecaps of the waves far below. Beyond this, the great blue mirror of the Atlantic stretched with no interruption all the way to America. Devout as believers and furtively as grave robbers we entered the isle, as if there were mysteries here to explore: Et in Mingulay ego …

While elsewhere commercial interests have driven forward the concreting of the most remote corners of the world, a contrary process has taken place here: “Blood is circulating through ever smaller circles” wrote the German novelist and poet, Theodor Fontane, in an account of his journey to the Hebrides published in 1860, “All are moving to major cities and fertile plains and the extremities are becoming bloodless and dying.” On the deserted islands, thousands of birds have found their paradise lost. But in the north, the development of new oil fields is planned, threatening the black plague. A preview of what could happen occurred in 1993 in the Shetland Islands when the Braer tanker lost tens of thousands tons of oil. At that time, it was only the favourable winds that prevented a major disaster.

Soon our reverence subsided enough that we could make an Alpine approach of the island – following the Scottish ethics of clean climbing, of course. All protection is placed by the lead climber and removed by the next. The rock should be left without a trace as far as possible – Scotland may well represent the toughest bastion against bolt use on the continent.

Part III of the journey
To be continued…


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