Tuesday 8 July 2008


Eriskay is, like Vatersay, connected to a larger island via a new causeway - the one between Eriskay and South Uist being completed in July 2001. This casueway has made the passenger ferry between South Uist and Eoligarry on Barra redundant, and a new car ferry plies between Barra and Eriskay. This is how we arrived, on a day of glorious sunshine and little wind, the hills of Skye and Rum visible far in the east, seabirds on rocky, seaweeded outcrops, the white sand of Eriskay so bright it hurt my eyes.

On Eriskay:

Eriskay is famous for the wartime wreck of the SS Politician, which ran aground carrying a cargo of whisky bound for America. Unsurprisingly, the islanders liberated the whisky, only being stopped when excisemen combed the island. This episode was fictionalised in the book and film Whisky Galore.

Am Baile, Eriskay:

But Eriskay has a bigger link with history. In 1745, Charles Edward Stuart stepped onto British soil for the first time at a beach near the southern end of the island. It was renamed Coilleag a'Phrionnsa as a result. It is strange to think of so momentous an upheaval starting with the simple act of a man stepping on to an Eriskay beach; where today amongst the seathrift we sunbathe, beachcomb, and listen to the lulling, gentle waves.

Coilleag a'Phrionnsa, Eriskay:

Monday 7 July 2008

Piper Alpha - 20 Years On

20 years ago today, the world's worst offshore tragedy happened in the North Sea. The Piper Alpha platform caught fire and quickly melted as crude oil continued to be pumped into the conflagration. 167 men died. Against the official advice, which had been to muster and await instructions, some men jumped into the sea. The only people who survived were some of these men.

The subsequent inquiry revealed a culture of neglect of safety in the offshore industry - although men I have spoken to who had been on Piper Alpha felt it was a particularly bad place. Communication and safety procedures were improved considerably across the industry. Yet ten years ago, when I worked offshore, there was still a macho culture of 'get the job done' and an approach to safety from management as a list-ticking exercise. This contrasted unfavourably with my work on a Norweigan rig, where safety seemed almost over-egged. Norweigans and their authorities then - and I suspect, now - simply placed more value on human life than the British.

One lesson that was learned from Piper Alpha was that safety was each person's own personal responsibility - personified by the Geordie who, on being shown our lifeboat muster station on a safety induction, said:
"You boys better be able to run faster than me - when I get here I'm off with the lifeboat, and fuck the rest o' yees."
With the current high price of oil and skilled staff shortage, it is tempting to go back offshore.

The Vitrified Fort on Dunnideer

Ever since hearing about vitrification, where the rocks of various iron-age hillforts around Scotland have been fused through intense heat, I've been keen to see it for myself.

An experiment in Morven and one in East Tullos showed how this could happen - if rocks were packed with timber and peat and fired, the heat is sufficient to partially melt them.

It is unclear if vitrification was a strategy to strengthen a wall, but the experiments seem to show it was more likely that vitrification had been the result of attack and destruction. These hilltops are quiet and deserted now, and it is quite a leap of imagination to picture them being besieged, timber placed against the walls and set on fire, a beacon and warning to the surrounding countryside for miles around.

I've been to a number of prehistoric forts, looking for evidence of vitrification - but it was this weekend before I saw it for the first time, at Dunideer above Insch in Aberdeenshire. This hillfort is topped by the remains of a 13th century castle, but for me the exciting aspect were the low walls surrounding the castle, exhibiting stones that had fused together as if lava had flown between them.

Dunnideer (picture from Megalithic.co.uk):

Friday 4 July 2008


The Western Isles - there are few better places to be on a fine, sunny day. Take Vatersay, for example. Now the most southerly inhabited island in the Western Isles, Vatersay was threatened with depopulation before a new causeway was built in 1991 - accessed from Barra via a steep side-road.

At the bottom of the Vatersay Pass, Barra:

The northern half of this small island is rocky and hilly, with a couple of scattered crofts. The southern half is quite different - a hammerhead of flower-bursting machair bounded by shallow bays of pure white sand, hosting the island's township.

Vatersay Dunes:

At the West Beach, a memorial marks a 19th century tragedy - emigrant ship 'Annie Jane', bound from Liverpool to Canada, ran aground and sank here in a storm, taking 350 lives. The bodies that were recovered are buried in the machair.

Bagh a' Deas:

Today the scene is a peaceful and a happy one, especially if a concert by the Vatersay Boys - the local folk band whose fame has grown across the West Highlands and beyond - is to be held in the village hall.

Bagh Siar:

We arrived in Vatersay late one summer evening after a long rail and ferry journey from Edinburgh and Oban, and sat outside the tent, enjoing the gloaming until nearly midnight. We took a leisurely walk around Vatersay next day, enjoying the wild flowers and irises on the machair, the pale sandy beaches, the views of Sandray, Pabbay and Mingulay to the south, and the sight and sound of herons, corncrake and other little birds.

Machair flowers:

It is possible to camp on the machair and use the facilities in the village hall, and as the first point of call on a tour of the Western Isles, for peace, tranquility and beauty it cannot be beaten.

Bagh Bhatarsaidh: