Mingulay has a similar depopulation story to that of St Kilda, but it is less well-known and less documented. I didn’t know anything about it before arriving in the Outer Hebrides (probably because I’d had no time to research my trip).
The island is about 10 miles south of Barra and so not nearly as isolated as St Kilda. The unpopulated island of Sandray is closer still being only a couple of miles away. Although small (3 miles long and 2 miles wide), it is hilly with high sea cliffs rising to 150m in some parts. It is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a European bird protection area.
Its prolific seabird population (including puffins) may be a reason for protection and tourism now, but in the past the birds were just as important as they were essential for the survival of the population. The inhabitants ate the birds and their eggs, used their feathers and processed oil from them.
Mingulay had a population of around 150 in the 1800s but life became unsustainable and in 1911 the island was finally abandoned. It is now in the care of the National Trust for Scotland.
It is possible to visit the island by means of a boat tour from Barra. The six hour round trip allows about three hours on the island and costs £50. Although St Kilda is still my main focus of the trip, I like the idea of visiting an island with a similar story. I always like islands, the smaller and harder to get to they are, the more I like the idea of visiting them.
The girl in the tourist office gave me the phone number of the man who runs the trips, but advised me not to bother calling until the evening as he would be out on a trip during the day, especially with it being such good weather. It was difficult to find a phone signal, but I eventually got one by the Isle of Barra Hotel. It’s strange that the main residential area of the island doesn’t have a signal and also doesn’t pick up radio stations very clearly. Maybe it’s something to do with the surrounding hills?
I called, but only got voicemail. I left a message to say I wanted to go on this morning’s trip, but of course without speaking to the man I had no way of knowing if it would be possible. Once I moved away from the area I lost my phone signal again, so he wouldn’t have been able to call me back. He needs a minimum of five passengers to run the trip, but I was more worried that due to the nice weather he would be fully-booked rather than under-booked.
I was up and ready early this morning and drove down to the pier. I watched the ferry to Oban depart and then brewed a flask of coffee and got my boots on. I waited around but there was no sign of the boat to Mingulay, the boatman, or any other passengers. Giving up, I went for coffee at the Isle of Barra Hotel. After 12 o’clock when the tourist office opened I came back into Castlebay and got the girl working there to try to ring for me. Again it went to voicemail.
I really enjoyed having coffee in the Isle of Barra Hotel this morning, so I may go there for a beer this evening. As I can get a signal there I’ll try phoning again this evening. If I don’t get to speak to him, I’ll turn up again tomorrow morning and if the boat doesn’t go or I can’t get on the trip then I’ll head for the Eriskay ferry at 11.10am and start moving up the islands. Mingulay may have to become a place to add to my wishlist.