By Eilidh Whiteford
“There are over 4,500 volunteer lifeboat crew in the RNLI and their dedication saves an average of 23 lives a day at sea; simply put, that's the reason for doing this,” said charity walker Alex Ellis-Roswell – 6,500 miles into his 9,500 mile UK and Ireland coastline walk to raise funds and awareness for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.
In January 2017, two years and four months after he began, Alex reached the Outer Hebridean leg of his epic challenge and visited the islands’ three RNLI stations – Stornoway RNLI, Leverburgh RNLI, and Barra Island RNLI – as he walked 400 miles from Barra to the Butt of Lewis and back again.
“I think it's difficult to lump the Outer Hebrides into one thing,” he said, speaking after his stint walking the Long Island. “It's too broad a place to be one; the communities and the landscapes throughout are very diverse.
“But the islands have been a definite highlight; I've never walked somewhere so remote and yet felt so safe and surrounded by good people.”
And Alex, 24, has seen many a place since beginning his RNLI walk on August 3rd, 2014, from his home at Minnis Bay, near Margate, Kent.
Heading clockwise, he first went west along the southern coast of England, with a stroll around the Isle of Wight, then rounded Land's End before turning up and along the Welsh coastline, the Isle of Man, and on northwards to Stranraer in Scotland where he caught the ferry to Belfast, Ireland, arriving in July 2015.
Ireland circumnavigated, including a quick trip around Tory Island, and Alex was back to Scotland, walking Stranraer to Oban, and a wander around the Isle of Mull, before crossing to Barra for Christmas 2016, staying with Christine and Roddy for a couple weeks’ rest over the festive holidays.
“Barra was a great place for Christmas and especially for New Year's Eve, a good community coming together for Hogmanay,” he said. “The Barra beaches are beautiful and I watched the plane land on the beach which was a really cool thing to see.
“I'd hoped to have the chance to experience a Hebridean storm and on Christmas Eve I got that in Barra. I don't think I've ever seen the sea that white before, wild, wild waves and a good angry sea; it was stunning to watch.”
Alex's rules for his RNLI walk are simple: he sticks as close to the coast as possible, walks around every island that's home to an RNLI lifeboat station, and carries his donation bucket always, emptying at and donating its contents to each station along the way.
And to date he has raised over £40,000 for the RNLI – an independent charity since its establishment in 1824, and reliant on donations and legacies to continue its vital, 24/7, lifesaving work at sea.
There are 237 RNLI lifeboat stations around the coast of the UK and Republic of Ireland, and in 2016 they launched a total of 8,851 times; rescued 8,643 people and saved 431 lives.
Alex also had some ‘interesting’ experiences on his way up the isles including a 'once in a lifetime' taste of Ness delicacy 'Guga' in Lewis, and digging a grave in Benbecula after being given a bed for a night by local gravedigger, Donald.
“I thought he’d been joking when he said I could repay him for the bed in his hostel by digging a grave in the morning, but come 9am and there he was to pick me up,” Alex recalled.
In Harris Alex stopped in to visit Leverburgh RNLI, one of the newest RNLI stations in Scotland, opened in 2012 and home to Mersey class lifeboat ‘The Royal Thames’.
“The enthusiasm of the Leverburgh volunteer crew and community was amazing,” Alex commented. “The new lifeboat is so well supported by the local community who worked hard to get the RNLI station up and running.
“I found that about the communities in the Outer Hebrides, there is a real sense of getting things done for themselves,” he went on.
Alex was also amazed by the generosity of Outer Hebrides residents, his donation bucket emptied at and donated to Stornoway RNLI station – a total of £2,773 – remaining the record-breaker to date!
“Over the past two and a half years I averaged around £33 a day in my RNLI bucket, which totals around £1,000 a month,” he said. “But since New Year's Eve, in one month collecting in the Outer Hebrides, I totalled £4,000 – it really is overwhelming and a huge thank you to everyone who donated and helped me out along the way!”
The oldest RNLI station in the Outer Hebrides, established in 1887, Stornoway RNLI celebrates its 130th anniversary this year. The Stornoway station also boasts a claim to RNLI history when its 1929 Barnet class lifeboat, the ‘William and Harriot’, became the first of the charity’s fleet to be fitted with radio telephone!
“I chose to support the RNLI because it is such an important charity, not just through the work it does, but the fact that it has a volunteering culture like no other – 95% of RNLI people are volunteers,” Alex added.
You can keep up to date with Alex’s RNLI fundraising walk on Facebook at www.facebook.com/alexellisroswell and to donate online, please visit www.bt.com/DonatetoLifeboats
And you can find out more about the RNLI at www.rnli.org; or to find out what the RNLI stations of the Outer Hebrides are up to, check out each station’s Facebook page – ‘Stornoway RNLI’; ‘Leverburgh RNLI Lifeboat’, and ‘Barra Island RNLI Lifeboat’.