"The Most Dangerous Landing in Scotland"
Stormbound - Barra Head. Photograph: Copyright.
Barra Head, Isle of Berneray, the southernmost-tip of the Outer Hebrides, is reputedly the most dangerous landing in Scotland.
The island has a history dating-back Millennia. Bjorn, "The Bear", a Norse prince from the days of the Vikings, called the island home. In fact, it is named after him. "Berneray" means, "Bjorn's Island".
According to an expert authority, Ian Fisher of the Royal Commission on the Ancient & Historic Monuments of Scotland, the fort at Barra Head (in the foreground of the photograph opposite) was built around 900 BC - over a thousand years before Bjorn's day, showing that the island has a history of human inhabitation and endeavour for more years than anyone can remember.
The pier at Barra Head is a far more recent construction. Built in the late 1930's when war seemed inevitable, due to the remote location commanding the Western Approaches more than a watchman was deemed prudent. Few realise that far-flung outposts like Barra Head were hosts to wartime military facilities, especially look-outs and radar. At Barra Head, a sophisticated radar installation was essential.
Before anything like a radar mast could be erected at Barra Head, however, the Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB) had to make provision for site access by Ministry of Defence engineers, supported by NLB personnel, including the three lightkeepers, the Principal Lightkeeper and two Assistant Lightkeepers.
Arrangements for the radar installation site works were carried-out in the NLB's usual Seamanlike way. First, there had to be a facility for landing on the island hundreds of large steel girders for erecting three massive radar masts. Challengingly, large drums containing steel cables for the radar antennae were so heavy that special facilities had to be put in-place at the Barra Head landing to crane them ashore. The problem was when Barra Head was completed in 1883 temporary facilities for landing equipment for the original building works were dismantled and removed from the site. By the onset of the Second World War, all that remained was a slipway, but no landing crane.
Barra Head had been re-classified as a, "Rock Station", partly due to two tragic accidents at the Barra Head landing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when small boats were swamped and lost in the enormous swell. The keeping of dinghies ashore by lightkeepers at rock stations was therefore declared by the NLB to be contrary to the regulations as an additional safety measure.
As a rock station, Barra Head was considered unsuitable for what the lighthouse service called, "Alongside Landings". Unlike normal piers and jetties where boats can safety come in and tie-up before discharging passengers or cargo, rock station landings are so dangerous there is no expectation of bringing a boat in to the pier - only holding-off the pier at a safe distance. To get from a boat to the pier the passenger or cargo is transferred by crane like a breeches bouoy between large vessels.
The reason for avoiding alongside landings at the Barra Head pier is the swell is so great at this offshore location - and difficult to predict - that a boat or passenger may be crushed against the pier or flung over it and on to dry land, as happened in the past. A typical rock station landing by crane is shown in the photograph below taken at the Flannan Isles where another more notorious tragedy occurred when three lightkeepers were lost without trace. For more about the Flannan Isles Mystery click on this link.
In the Northern Lighthouse Board Service a landing crane was known as a, "Scots Derrick". Trinity House Lighthouse Service cranes were simply called, "Landing Cranes", and differed from a Scots Derrick in that the crane-post was set permanently in concrete as a year-round fitting. NLB cranes, however, due to the extreme weather and sea conditions around Scotland's rugged coastline, had to be de-mounted in Winter, so the centre-post was not set in concrete and was fixed to a mounting plate by removeable bolts. Where Trinity House landing cranes only had a centre-post, Scots Derricks also had two de-mountable legs for additional rigidity and stability.
Before a Scots Derrick landing crane could be erected at Barra Head in accordance with the NLB Rock Station Regulations and to land girders and cable drums for the radar, a level surface had to be created first, which is why the two concrete slabs shown in the above photograph were built on-top of the earlier slipway.
As the keeping of boats at Barra Head was against the regulations and there was no expectation of future NLB landings alongside the pier, only by landing crane, the slipway was deemed surplus to NLB requirements. Save for a narrow gap of exposed slipway-surface left for the NLB boatman's dinghy and the convenience of local crofters the slipway was taken out-of-service.
Lighthouse landing crane operations required consummate skill on the part of the boat handlers and crew, not to mention a degree of bravery on the part of those being hauled ashore (in reality well-placed trust in those conducting the operations). Stories of dunkings of NLB Commissioners were popular with seamen, but only ever were unfortunate accidents resulting in a slight soaking at worse. The boat was controlled not just by engine power and a skilled hand on the tiller, but also by four crewmen bearing away each on their own rope, port and starboard, forward and aft, providing additional safety and control. But the boat was never moored or tied fast to the pier and could quickly be cleared-away in the event of an unmanageable swell - common if not normal here at Barra Head. Timing was of the utmost importance - and reading the waves, including the backwash from the rocks so terrifyingly near. The fullest co-ordination was also vital with the lightkeepers on-shore at the landing who took hold of ropes and passed them through mooring rings or pulley blocks before operating the landing crane winch. The Royal Naval technical term surge being apt here to describe the motion of the boat not just the handling of ropes.
There are no records of any serious mishaps involving landing crane operations for all the years cranes were in-service with the Northern Lighthouse Board, a further testament to the NLB's seamanship skills.
Not only lightkeepers swung on the end of a rope. A Commissioner of Northern Lighthouses with an ironic sense of humour upon witnessing fellow Commissioners, the Lord Advocate, the Lord Provost of Edinburgh, and the Solicitor General successively swinging at the end of a landing crane rope observed wryly, 'No such act of retributive justice has been witnessed since John Porteous was hanged in the Grassmarket' (in 1736).
With the new pier installed at Barra Head in the dark days before WWII, all the equipment and materials to build the radar were landed safely and the new installation was opened on an official visit by the Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses and representatives of the Ministry of Defence.
In the Post-War Years, with the advent of helicopters the Northern Lighthouse Board sensibly took advantage of increased reliability and safety of access and supply by air. Landing crane operations declined in frequency and eventually were phased-out. All that remains of the landing crane at Barra Head that can be seen today is the mounting plate for the mast.
"Rock Stations" were so named on account they were sited on isolated rocks which may be awash at High-Water. In the case of Robert Stevenson's most famous lighthouse, the Bell Rock on Scotland's East Coast, the rock upon which it stands is often completely invisible and before the lighthouse was built it claimed many seamens' lives. Stories abound about Barra Head, of horses-and-carts flung down the island by the wind, of Stevenson's experienced artificers crawling on their knees clasping with both hands a safety rope just to get to-and-from their accommodation to the workplace a few yards away. As a Barra man wisely observed about this location, 'Why, it is just a breakwater for the Atlantic'.
John Stavert, much loved and sadly now deceased Area Technician for the Northern Lighthouse Board always gave the strictest warnings never to leave the relative safety of the lighthouse courtyard in a wind and how unexpectedly it can start to blow. Which is why lightkeepers were often stranded at Barra Head - the longest recollected period being for more than three months. Bearing in mind how the NLB only ever employed the finest boatmen in Scotland - therefore probably the best in the world - it presents the grimmest prognosis for anyone less skilled who might try getting there themselves.
The following harrowing story was recounted by a retired Barra Head crofter.
It was one of those beautiful days in the islands, which you get a few times each year. Blazing hot, I was in rolled shirtsleeves. There was a clear blue sky and not a breath of wind. It was slack-water and there was barely a ripple, the sea was like a mill-pond. So I decided I'd do something I'd never done before. I'd tie the boat up to the pier. No sooner had I knelt down to tie the knot, I looked up to see the boat flying above my head on a great big wall of dark green water. It was a massive swell, and it came out of nowhere. I put-up my arms to protect myself as the boat flew by and felt my skin scraping off. If the wave been smaller it would have been worse because the boat would not have gone so high and would have cut my head off. The boat ended-up yards away, high-and-dry, right up the track. The sea went down and everything was calm again. It was a miracle I survived. I never tried tieing up a boat at the Barra Head pier again, not even in the calmest weather.
A Barra creel fisherman whose family originates from Barra Head is not only a fine seaman but working daily in these waters has extensive local knowledge, including of the sea conditions. He was asked how often he visited the birthplace of his ancestors. His reply was a surprising, 'Never'. He has never been ashore at Barra Head. When asked why, he replied: 'Because what if I get stuck there? I'd have to watch my crewman take the boat back to Barra. You can't get in to the gully with the big boat. So I'd have to use the wee dinghy myself, and leave the big boat with the crewman, and you can't anchor there. If it got bad, I'd have to wave the boat off. Then I wouldn't fancy sitting around for days in the ruins of my family's old croft with nothing to do but wait for my boat to come back'.
A retired merchant seaman whose forefathers also came from Barra Head had this to say about going to visit their old family home: 'As children we used to go and play hide-and-seek around the stones of my grandmother's home at Barra Head when my father and uncle helped with the sheep. The weather can be lovely, but you've got to pick your day. The old fellas were wonderful seamen, they knew those waters like the backs of their hands. So we would only go when it was not dangerous, and with my father and uncle you were in safe hands...'.
John Alan MacNeil, the most respected seaman on the West Coast of Scotland and former coxswain of the Barra Life-boat, like his fore-fathers before him was Boatman to Barra Head for the Northern Lighthouse Board. He was once asked how many days each year on average was it possible to land at Barra Head? His response was a foreboding, "One day in twelve".
So the advice of the acknowledged experts should serve as unequivocal warnings of the clear and present danger to anyone considering venturing to Barra Head on their own. Without local skills or knowledge you might find yourself playing Russian Roulette with three bullets. To find out more about the dangers to small boats in Hebridean waters click on this link.
As the Barra Head pier was intended for crane-landings, which no longer occur following introduction of relief by helicopter, and concrete deteriorates through incessant wave action, plans are underway to remove the concrete and restore the slipway. Originally, the slipway was fitted with a railway track, like at modern RNLI life-boat stations, for safer launching and recovery of a boat. It was last used in the days when tons of coal were landed each year at Barra Head for the lightkeepers and their families before re-designation as a rock station when the families were moved to NLB housing ashore. In those days cod was salted at Barra Head for shipment to Africa.
Re-designation as a rock station was accompanied by the conversion of the Barra Head chapel to accommodate a visiting inspector, one of whom lies buried in the lonely graveyard on a headland looking out across the sea towards America.
In more recent years, Barra Head was host to some new research and developments in sea safety. To assist with research into crane landings, Trinity House Lighthouse Service loaned a landing crane and provided training materials. Offshore Oil standby safety boat engineers John Gray and Murray Craigen of Meridian Marine & Technical Services in Aberdeen advised on ship-borne boat recoveries by crane. The research confirmed that the size of crane required to recover a boat at Barra Head would be too large to dismount in winter without another crane to do this.
The RNLI, fondly known by life-boat crews and seamen generally as, "The Institution", wished to obtain useful data from engine tests to help inform ongoing development of the Atlantic Class lifeboat and an existing independent research project into a prototype standby-safety boat for Barra Head provided a timely opportunity. Tests were conducted at Barra Head and five-hundred gallons of marine fuel were supplied by BP under a sponsorship agreement. To help ensure the independent tests were conducted to the Institution's usual Fail-Safe standard the RNLI helped with technical advice, training materials and safety equipment. The tests were completed successfully and results helped inform correct power-to-weight ratios for new types of Atlantic Class lifeboats. HM Coastguard and other leading safety authorities were consulted and provided assistance in an inspiring example of multi-organisation co-operation.
The boat used for the research was a former North Sea Oil Halmatic Atlantic 21 MKIII modified by Halmatic to enable long-range operations with full DTI offshore capability. The research also helped inform HM Coastguard's decision to acquire new craft from Halmatic for Coastguard duties off Scotland's remote West Coast.
Another outcome of the research was the identification of the original slipway and traditional launching-carriage method, last used in Stevenson's days, as the only safe way to recover a boat from the water at Barra Head.
The overall conclusion following the research was that without all these additional safety measures in-place, launching and recovering boats at Barra Head could be more difficult and hence more dangerous.
Upon successful completion of the tests the RNLI made available a surplus Drive-on-Drive-Off (Do-Do) launching and recovery carriage and rails for an Atlantic 21 and a surplus boathouse winch to be installed at Barra Head once the slipway was restored.
To read more about the Barra Head Halmatic Atlantic 21 MKIII click on this link.
Remote location or not, all this ongoing co-operation in sea-safety at Barra Head helps reassure the public of the dedication of those who work hard to make our seas safer.
Understandably, due to the challenges presented by a project like restoring the Barra Head slipway to improve safety, the widest consultations were carried out and advice and assistance sought and naturally received from all the UK's leading authorities, including the Northern Lighthouse Board, local fishermen, the Maritime & Coastguard Agency, Trinity House, the RNLI and its' then specialist designer and builder of life-boat launching and recovery systems, M.A. Bigland Preparations Ltd.
The good advice always to recover a boat from the water at the Barra Head landing and keep it well above High-Water Mark may prove easier to follow when the slipway has been restored.
But no one should ever forget the dangers presented by this place, which truly deserves its' unique reputation as, "Scotland's Most Dangerous Landing".
Photographs by Scots author the late Seton Gordon reproduced by kind permission of the Seton Gordon Literary Estate.
Text and Additional Photography Copyright www.safetybarrahead.com.
New concrete pier at Barra Head and Scots Derrick crane in the late 1930s. Lightkeepers and boatrman in attendance. Note: boat tied-up above High-Water Mark even though sea is unusually calm. Photograph by Seton Gordon. Copyright: Seton Gordon Literary Estate. Used with permission.
Typical landing by Scots Derrick crane (Flannan Isles). Copyright.
Barra Head Lighthouse. Two of three radar masts are visible. Photograph Copyright: Seton Gordon Literary Estate.
The Barra Lifeboat Crew, Boatmen to Barra Head, with lightkeepers before introduction of relief by helicopter.
The dinghy was used only in the sheltered waters of Castlebay as tender to the larger NLB relief boat named, "Berneray", which made the hazardous 12-mile crossing to Barra Head. Photograph Copyright: Seton Gordon Literary Estate.
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Halmatic Atlantic 21 MKIII "Defender". Copyright. All rights reserved.