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Untouched dive sites around a remote island with a former lighthouse as your base ... it didnt sound likeour everyday dive trip! Where Berneray - the southernmost island in the chain which forms the Outer Hebrides.
The nearest civilisation in this part of the world is found in the small town of Castlebay, some 12 miles to the north, on Barra. The islands of Mingulay, Pabbay, Sandray, and Vatersay punctuate the boat ride between Berneray and Barra, and Bernerays tall black cliffs are topped by the lighthouse station.
The Barra Head Light, which marks Berneray, was built by the engineer Robert Stevenson, grandfather of Robert Louis Stevenson, in 1833. It is a triumph of Victorian persistence against the harshest of environments and nigh-on impossible logistics. During the ferry journey from Oban to Castlebay I wondered whether all the effort was going to be rewarded. Staying in a lighthouse on a remote island seemed romantic enough, but was it all going to be worth it
Trevor Woodfine, from Island Divers, in Barra, offered to come with us. An immigrant Geordie and local commercial diver, his expertise was to prove crucial to the success of the diving.
Access to and from Berneray was extremely hazardous. Robert Stevensons slipway had long since been broken up by the action of a fierce sea. We had to be extremely careful, kedging the RIB close in, with the help of several stern lines, each of which had to be swum ashore in rough conditions.

The Northern Lighthouse Board had always encountered great difficulty in supplying this station and, in the end, had converted it to a fully automatic operation. The original facilities included all that was necessary for two lighthouse keepers and their families to live unsupported between the months of October and May.

Now, Barra Head lighthouse, perched high up on the Berneray cliff, had no facilities whatsoever! There was neither fresh water nor a power supply. Staying in the derelict accommodation building, we cooked our food on fires made from old pallet wood, and hung our sea soaked clothing out to dry. We had a tiny generator from which we could have run lights, but fuel was scarce, so we decided to use it to power an original 1949 Land Rover owned by the Barra Head Lighthouse Trust. We used this as transport from the lighthouse station to the waters edge, a distance of about one mile along a sloping track. Toilet facilities consisted of a shovel and your choice of earth outside. The high wind and shortage of fresh water added to our discomfort.
Without a safe anchorage for the RIB, Trevor returned it to Castlebay each night. The following morning, he brought back air refills for our diving cylinders.
The Atlantic 21 is, arguably, the finest rescue boat of its type ever built. Strong, self-righting and with fully submersible outboards, it took the unkind seas around the islands in its long stride. But as a dive boat it wasnt ideal. With no transom, the interior flooded when stationary.
This put the tubes low in the water for easy access from the sea, but left us wading around looking for the smaller items of our kit, hoping they hadnt been swept out the aft when the boat took off - which it did, when asked, without hesitation.
Naturally, we had high hopes of the diving. Many of the stricken vessels of the Spanish Armada came around the Scottish islands. There seemed no reason to doubt that, given enough time in the water, we might stumble upon other later wrecks too. There had been plenty of maritime activity here during the last war.
Its exciting to dive where no man has dived before. It can also be disappointing. Unfortunately, the heavy iron content of these islands made the use of a magnetometer impossible. This meant we had to pool our combined experience to come up with some guesswork about where the best sites would be.
Our success rate was not high. We had optimistic expectations of the water at the foot of the fabulous Barra Head cliff. These were ill-founded, for it turned out to be only 12m deep and strewn with nothing but barren boulders.
We swam around between kelp fronds and managed to find a solitary crab. A seal entertained us for a few minutes with a few passes - or were we entertaining him
However, we were able to make some more successful dives elsewhere at other points taken almost at random. During these dives, we frequently encountered dogfish, smooth hounds, and angler fish. There were plenty of crabs, and the lush kelp forests are extensive in this region.
It was easy to locate basking sharks in the sound between Berneray and Mingulay. Every member of our group was able to experience a close encounter with one of these giant plankton feeders.
On spotting the telltale dorsal fin protruding from the water, Trevor would bring the boat to a halt, then circle the animal very slowly. We quietly entered the water one by one, surrounding the shark. It is dramatic to come so close to such a large animal: the heart races a little as it approaches your midriff. We were near enough to run a hand over its soft, wrinkly skin, and marvel at the long strings of weed trailing from its fins as it swam within our circle.
The cliffs below Barra Head support large populations of sea birds. Guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes and fulmars stain the high black granite surfaces with their guano. The area is populated by large colonies of grey seals, a specimen of which seemed to dot most of the exposed rocks.
The conditions were typically those of west Scotland: clear visibility and lots to look at. What was more, we had the added thrill of being the only people around! No sites crowded with divers here. Our diving was limited only by the difficulty encountered in replenishing our air supplies.
Being the first to dive somewhere is a risky business, but despite the discomforts on shore, we enjoyed ourselves. After three days, we exchanged the dubious pleasures of the derelict light keepers accommodation for the more up-to-date facilities of a vacated Decca station on Barra itself. This had been bought by Trevor with the intention of converting it to a leisure diving facility. We dived around the main island of Barra. Trevors local knowledge gave us the location of the wreck site of the Adler, a 17th century Dutch East Indiaman. She lay on the northern tip of Barra to the west side - a long ride in the Atlantic 21 from Castlebay! The water here was churned by waves which had raced, unobstructed, across the Atlantic.
But although Trevor had an impressive collection of silver coins hed previously rescued from the site, the rest of us had to content ourselves with discovering ancient cannon barrels lodged in underwater gullies.
If you want to organise your own expedition to Barra, there are two hotels, the Castlebay and the Craigard. There are also numerous B&Bs. Island Divers (tel. 01871 890392) is also able to supply accommodation.
Food can be purchased on Barra, but the prices reflect the fact that its a remote island. Its better to bring what you need for your stay from the mainland. There is a regular ferry service by Caledonian Macbrayne Ltd from Oban.


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