By Eilidh Whiteford
When artists Derek Scanlan and Elsie Mitchell moved to the Isle of Lewis in 1998, little did they know that 15 years later they would establish one of the first 'glamping' sites in the Outer Hebrides.
Opened in August 2013, the Mangersta Croft Wigwams and Shepherd's Huts, on the couple's croft in the Uig village of Mangersta, offer scenic, self-catering accommodation for visitors.
“A great thing about the Wigwams and Shepherd's Huts is the flexibility – they suit lots of different guests from families with young children to couples on a romantic get-away, or the solo traveller,” said Elsie.
“We've glamped in both the Wigwams and the Shepherd's Huts to make sure that they are a good experience, warm and comfortable to stay in at any time of the year.”
The predicament facing service-people returning home has received scant sympathy in the past. It was thought they are tough enough for battle, strong enough to face death…so obviously they can easily cope with peace and life on Civvy Street.
Actually they often cannot. And that is now being accepted more widely and, most importantly, by the men and women themselves.
Anyone who has changed from working in a highly reactive job into a pro-active environment should be able grasp this…particularly if they also swap from team working to an individual life. Servicemen – it still is predominantly men – leave an environment where they are hardwired to work together, to be interdependent, where a single wrong step or missed detail on a far horizon can mean death to themselves and their friends, to return home to find a world where a single, careless word can be seen as damaging someone else’s self-esteem and where there literally seems no real reason to move.
And that’s what some do, says retired RAF Squadron Leader (Rtd) Shaun Pascoe who founded the charity Turn to Starboard which is dedicated to rescuing ex-service-people from this predicament. He recalls one man who spent four years mostly lying on a sofa, so meaningless had life become.
Turn to Starboard was founded with the idea of using sail training to help Forces personnel overcome the challenges of transition to civilian life and was inspired by Shaun’s own personal experience. Shaun served on numerous tours during his 16 years in the RAF, including Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Iraq and repeatedly in Afghanistan as Officer Commanding (OC) of the Medical Emergency Response Team (MERT).
MERT is a medical team that flies forward using the Chinook aircraft to retrieve injured personnel often under heavy enemy fire. The high-intensity nature of his operational work meant coming home became an increasing challenge. Shaun found it difficult adjusting to normal life, felt isolated and found it difficult to share his experiences, even with his loved ones.
After his second tour of Afghanistan Shaun raised £8,300 from various charitable sources and purchased windsurfing equipment and a rescue boat. As a windsurfing instructor Shaun taught those returning from operations with an emphasis on meeting others in similar positions. And this began for him what has become a new series of rescue missions, extracting the victims of battle from the mental and physical backwaters into which they had drifted, ending up with the foundation of Turn to Starboard in 2012. This was still an entirely volunteer-run charity until two years ago, but the success of its work has won widespread support and it now has a permanent staff.
On June 1, a group of ex-service-people began the sea journey – Turn to Starboard’s Round Britain Challenge 2016 – to regain their lives. A total of 38 crew members – with both psychological and physical effects from their service – started joining the trip in shifts to challenge their mind and bodies to sail around the coast of Britain. Leaving Falmouth, home base for Turn to Starboard, they travelled up the East Coast and around the north of Scotland. On July 5th, Spirit of Falmouth – one of three boats involved in this flotilla – arrived in Stornoway. Spirit of Falmouth is their 91ft wooden gaff rigged Mersey Pilot Schooner which was built using traditional methods in Liverpool in 1985. Gifted to Turn to Starboard in 2014 by The Prince’s Trust, she has a core crew of six with the capacity to carry 12 passage crew.
Some of the 38 veterans sailed the complete expedition as part of their training for more advanced seagoing qualifications whilst others joined for shorter sections. The two additional Turn to Starboard yachts, also crewed by ex-serviceman and women, were added to meet the unexpectedly high number of applicants for the trip.
It’s not hard to see why sailing can revive ability of ex-service-people to cope with life. The automatic doors and gentle ramps of civilian life are replaced by vertical quayside ladders and ship’s steep companionways where a missed step can easily mean injury; tidiness is essential; team-working is the norm; and challenges can come from anywhere – from the sea, the weather or the machinery on board. Instantly there is something to get up for, and Shaun says that the effect starts to work on the men, sometimes within hours.
After their day in Stornoway, the crew of the Spirit of Falmouth spoke of the great welcome they had received on the Island - including a special mention of an “absolutely cracking” breakfast in the café in the Bayhead Bridge Centre. The crew - all but one of whom are ex-service veterans - mentioned the care given by the port with someone available to assist with mooring despite their early morning arrival.
And they explained they had found great sympathy and support from all the ports and communities they had visited in their long voyage from Falmouth in Cornwall up the east coast of the UK - with every port so far, waiving its mooring fees in support of their venture.
Looking back at his RAF career, Shaun said the rescue work out in Afghanistan was “quite challenging, it was really hard. Coming home was really hard. We picked up about 6,500 patients and of those, personally, I picked up 1494.”
Approaching his last year in service, Shaun decided to spend his resettlement time and money on a Royal Yachting Association, Yachtmaster Offshore course with Cruising Instructor. Using this qualification Shaun began providing sailing opportunities for others. The success of this meant that Shaun registered a charity with the Charity Commission in July 2012 and Turn to Starboard was born. Originally the work was entirely ad hoc with borrowed boats but the way the sailing benefitted those involved meant the project grew and it has seen a dramatic increase in funding and support from other charities and organisations supporting veterans.
Building on how he managed his own recovery, Shaun said that the sailing experience “particularly benefits those with post-traumatic stress disorder.” He said: “most of them struggled to do everyday things and engage with normal life.” The experience of sailing meant that “suddenly, within a day or two, they realise they are in like-minded company, there’s no judgement, there’s no reminders, there’s no associations with what they had done and they kind-of get on with it. We don’t mince our words, if you get three services – RAF, Army, and Navy – on board a boat they are pretty ruthless and the banter is rife, they…start engaging, enjoying it and learning something new.”
Sitting below deck with crew members, it is difficult to imagine a group of more positive people. They make it quite obvious how much they are enjoying the work and the real challenges involved in the work and life at sea. Tamsin Mulcahy, the operations manager, is the only civilian on board and is part of the core crew from Turn to Starboard. She had been to Stornoway before, with the Tall Ships in 2011. Her fellow crew members make clear she has the respect of all around for her management and sailing skills – and you know they are going to waste time on saying that if they did not mean it. Their reception in each port has been positive and Shaun says this is a real change in public attitudes to service-people and ex-service-people which has taken hold in the last 20 years.
Tamsin explains that when they arrive in Liverpool in a fortnight they will be taking part in a 250th anniversary commemoration of the work of the Mersey Pilot schooners. These used to race out to the Mersey Bar – a vast sandbank – to safely guide in ships to the port. They competed with each other to be fastest so as to get out to the cargoes first – and were paid in cargo from the vessels which was carried in the rear holds and sold-off to make the money to pay the crew.
Shaun emphasises that on the Spirit of Falmouth they are not providing treatment – or counselling. He has turned people away who weren’t engaging with their treatment. But they have found that the sailing experience has helped some understand better what their psychological treatment is meant to be achieving. After the initial trips, he says: “we got to teaching people who were really quite profoundly unwell to do crew and day-skipper courses. Then they came back for more.” This got them yachtmaster qualifications and some have now gone on to full-time jobs – including with Turn to Starboard itself – and others to part-time jobs like yacht delivery. He emphasised the special skills of their yachtmaster trainees – not only did they have experience on a wider range of vessels than is usual as part of their training but they had pre-existing skills as navigators, as engineers and generally as leaders.
The Round-Britain trip has won wide support, not just from ports and from ordinary people and businesses wherever they have visited but from major funders including International Paints and the Endeavour Fund.
After leaving Stornoway, the Spirit of Falmouth headed for Oban where she met up with the other two yachts and there was a crew changeover. Next stop is the Isle of Arran, followed by the Isle of Man. Whitehaven in Cumbria follows next – arriving July 17th, if the timetable can be maintained. Then there is the stop in Liverpool for the 250th anniversary of Mersey Pilot Schooners with an exhibition at Liverpool Maritime Museum that opens July 22nd. After that, another crew changeover, passage to Holyhead, the Isle of Lundy, Isles of Scilly and finally back to Falmouth for the start of August.
By Fred Silver
Despite having lived on the Isle of Lewis for almost 25 years, I still have done relatively few boat trips…yet travelling by boat makes the Islands understandable in a way that little else can.
The old way of life on the Isle of Eriskay was once recalled for me by the late Father Calum Maclellan, parish priest there for many years. Then the constant availability of boats, and the limited quality of roads, meant the island was very close to its neighbours on South Uist but the modern era of fixed ferries and safety regulations, prior to the building of the causeway, left it almost isolated. Equally, the Outer Hebrides were linked throughout history to the other islands like Skye and to the mainland, so a family connection between northern Barra and Arisaig, which I came across in a story about the origin of Long John Silver, was quite normal.
But governed as we are now by roads, when I went out to the Island of Taransay, I was baffled that we set out from Ardhasaig in Harris. Surely Taransay was just off the coast of Luskentyre much further south. Well it is, but it is almost as close to North Harris as well – the road to Leverburgh loops a long way to the east on its way south.
Similarly when I went on one of the regular sea tours offered by Seatrek from the pier at Miavaig in Uig, west Lewis, I was surprised to find us quickly passing under the pioneering Great Bernera bridge – again the road distance between Bernera and Uig is quite misleading as the route loops away from the coast.
Equally, the coast can appear quite different from what you might expect – the Point area of Lewis seems quite flat and relatively low-lying if you drive across it by car, but if you were to take a trip with Sea Lewis or Stornoway Seafari along its Minch coastline out of Stornoway, a dramatic coastline of cliffs, caves and craggy bays can be seen.
Unexpectedly, if you want organised boat trips to unusual islands, it is the Islands Book Trust that could be your first port of call. For instance, they are running a boat trip to the Shiant Isles in June, 2016. It’s on Saturday 18th, 09.30–17.30 at a cost of £75 per person. Places must be booked in advance through Eventbrite only – either through the book trust website or at www.eventbrite.co.uk
I have been on excellent Island Boat Trust trips to Ensay in the Sound of Harris and to Scarp, off north Harris. For both occasions the boat transport was provided by Seatrek, who deal with one-off hires as well as regular trips. For Scarp in summer 2015, with around 80 people to transport back and forth across from Hushinish, they effectively set up a ferry service for the day.
Seatrek offers a range of boat trips around the Uig coast, and as far as St Kilda. There are wildlife trips, special charters and family trips. I went on one popular trip which leaves the jetty at Miavaig, in Uig, most days throughout the summer (with the exception of Sunday) weather permitting. Heading out into Loch Roag and past the village of Reef, you may see sea eagles and otters, then you head for the sweeping length of Traigh na Berie towards the island of Siaram, then on to Pabbay Mor, slowing down to explore the amazing depths of the sea-caves, before going round the north end of Pabbay to see its impressive natural arch and spectacular lagoon surrounded by sandy beaches.
On your return journey, you stop off to see the seals and lift a couple of lobster pots to check the day’s catch, a highlight of the trip, especially for younger passengers. I have also been out to Pabbay by canoe and that is also spectacular.
Everyone talks about St Kilda– Seatrek can take you there, too – and I have been there twice with Kilda Cruises. Hirta is a really special place…but if you want to go to a less publicised island with an abandoned village around a sandy bay, one with vast cliffs on the other side of the island, one which the population left a century ago, then try Mingulay…a little more than an hours trip from Castlebay, Isle of Barra. Mingulay – occasional summer home of the artist Julie Brook – is an overlooked gem.
But for city dwellers, the two inter-island CalMac ferries on the Sound of Harris and the Sound of Barra can be quite amazing, particularly the last ferry of the day across from Eriskay to Ard Mhor on Barra. On a sunny, summer’s evening, lingering on a seat out on deck can sweep you away to oceanic imaginings of the past sea roads of the Isles.
By Iain A MacSween
A new boat charter service operating out of Stornoway offers passengers a unique look at the stunning wildlife of the Hebrides.
Stornoway Seafari is the brainchild of Gordon Maclean, who admits to having the sea in his blood, having been brought up with a love of the local coastline and all the exciting things it has hidden within its waters.
“I worked offshore up until four months ago, when I was paid off due to the slump in oil prices,” said Gordon. “I have two skipper licences, and for years I had wanted to set up a boat charter company, so I decided that the time was right to just go for it.”
By Eilidh Whiteford
Whether it’s an action-packed day of adventure or an exploration of flora and fauna, the landscapes and shores of the Western Isles offer a playground like no other.
Land or sea, action or reflection, from the Butt of Lewis to the Isle of Barra, visitors can find something available to add an extra ‘wow’ to their island experience.
And what’s found can often be something of a surprise for visitors – such as the £250,000 Olympic-scale Harris Gun Club range, tucked away within the woods of Aline Forest, on the road between Stornoway and Tarbert.
Dating back to the early 1900s, the Harris Gun Club is one of the oldest on the isles and offers the region’s widest variety of clay target shooting with a range of Olympic disciplines catered for, including Double Trap.
Open to both competitive and recreational shooters of all ages and abilities, and registered with the Scottish Clay Target Association (SCTA), the Club ensures that there is always a SCTA Trained Range Safety Officer on hand when it’s open.
And already historic, the club made further history in 2015 when it hosted the Scottish Clay Target Association’s Scottish Universal Trench Championships.
For those seeking further adventure, there’s no shortage of local instructors and guides ready and waiting to share their island secrets.