Heaval, Barra

6 02 2012

Quite a short report, this one…

Evening Fishing Boat off Barra

Quite a few years ago now, I was particularly bad with my asthma (I’ve hopefully got it completely under control now I’ve got properly fit) and was on my annual trip back to the Outer Hebrides. I stayed overnight in Oban before catching the ferry from there the next day for Lochboisdale on South Uist. I didn’t have a great night as my chest was starting to play up but didn’t realise I was heading for a particularly nasty attack.

In the morning when I got up, I felt terrible and wheezy and wondered whether it would be possible for me to get to visit a local doctor for some antibiotics and steroids as I was pretty sure I had one of my chest infections, which always led to serious asthma attacks and hospitalisation. However, I decided it wouldn’t really be possible to get to see a doctor just like that, in a strange area and before the ferry set off in the early afternoon so decided to just grin and bear it – bad move!

The ‘Claymore’

Everyone piled onto the Uist ferry, the Claymore, and she cruised out of Oban Harbour for the sound of Mull. Not long after we left the sound and headed out across the open Minch, about an hour into the journey, I could hardly breathe at all and realised I was starting one of my bad attacks. To say I was extremely scared was an understatement but I tried to stay calm. I knew that, if I stopped breathing, there would be nothing anyone could do as we were by now too far from land to get help in time. I attracted the attention of one of the crew and explained how sick I was and asked if they could see if there was a doctor on board. I also asked if they carried oxygen – luckily they’d just started to carry oxygen and there was a nurse aboard who happened to be travelling back to the islands.

It was foul weather so I needed to be kept inside so I could be kept warm but I felt I couldn’t breathe when I was away from the fresh air and started panicking a bit. This meant that I had to sit on the ‘observation deck’, near the double doors, with them wide open so I could be kept warm but still get plenty of fresh air – the other passengers weren’t impressed! I was strapped to an oxygen bottle anyway so they could see I wasn’t just being a nuisance.

The nurse just happened to work at Barra hospital and, as that was the first port of call (5 hours later), I was dumped off there and carted off to their hospital. As usually happens, by the time I’d had a night on the hospital nebulisers, oxygen and the required drugs, I was completely recovered and could be released fairly quickly to continue my holiday. The doctor told me to take it easy… Of course the next ferry wasn’t until a day later so I had a day to explore.

Castlebay Church

Kisimul Castle

I’d had my eye on Heaval, the biggest peak at a mere 1,264 feet, for years and decided it would be good to walk up the road pass to recce it. Now it just so happened that, when I’d walked up the pass (at about 330 feet and about a mile away) and was stood at the foot of the route up the peak, a vehicle drove past, stopped and then reversed back. It was one of the hospital medics and he was absolutely furious that I’d walked up the pass the day after I’d been admitted to hospital with a serious asthma attack and as soon as I’d been let out. I told him that, when I was better, I was better and not to worry but he was seriously unimpressed! I told him I wasn’t planning on actually going up the hill but was just scouting it out. He drove off muttering. Good as my word, I descended back to Castlebay and then walked the five miles or so across the causeway onto the island of Vatersay to spend the afternoon on its two lovely sandy beaches either side of an isthmus.

The next day I continued my journey to Uist with plans to visit Barra intentionally the next year and ‘bag’ Heaval.

Heaval (L) & Hartaval

The next summer I visited Barra first and stayed overnight in Castlebay again (but this time in a B&B) and, the next morning, was away up the road pass again for my hill walk. From the summit of the pass I just headed north-west up the nose of the peak (there were no paths). It was a good steady plod up the slope on easy grass and, above me was the traditional statue of the Catholic Hebridean Islands – the Virgin and child (there is also one of these on South Uist under Rueval on the south side of Loch Bee).

On reaching the statue at around 900 feet, I stopped for a breather and looked back at her view of Castlebay with Kisimul Castle, the seat of the MacNeils, in the centre of the harbour – it was a great viewpoint. I also admired the statue but noticed that t’owd lass could do with a good scrub-down as she’s pretty covered in moss with being in such a damp atmosphere all the time! The kid was behaving himself though 😉

I then turned to complete my ascent of the hill but was becoming a little bit perturbed at what looked like quite a narrow and very steep finish to the ascent! There’s quite a prow to ascend at the end – short but rocky and steep and there was quite a crosswind blowing! I found though that, as with all the routes on the islands, it was nothing like as fearsome as it looked and was quite straightforward. From there the prow stretched in a narrowish ridge to the summit trig point. There was a superb view all round from the summit but the view which interested me the most was the one into the interior of the island where there were various other hills and some secretive glens looking very tempting for another visit.

To the north-east, Heaval’s sister (or brother) hill was Hartaval. I couldn’t see any point in going back down the same route so headed across to that instead. This was an easy enough walk and there was an interesting and tight little bealach between the two hills with quite a rocky wall on the far side.

From Hartaval I headed south-east down to just east of the pretty little hamlet of Brevig – one of the only places in the Outer Hebrides with trees (non-coniferous plantation trees that is). It was then a pleasant walk back over the road pass to Castlebay.

Heaval behind Brevig

By the way, if you don’t want to take the ferry across to Barra, you can have the fun of Loganair’s light aircraft and landing on the beach! Done that a couple of times 🙂



2 responses

8 02 2012

Another Island I,ve Always wanted to go visit Carol then always opted to go to Europe backpacking and climbing instead due to the better chance of finding summer Sunshine and hot weather.Looks like you got good conditions though.Very lucky up there.


21 10 2014

It’s really nice when you get good weather up there. It’s a lovely cycle round the island and you used to be able to hire bikes (think you still will be able to). But it’s all easy stuff – plenty of time when you’re old to do Barra 😉


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