Radio antics on the Inner Hebrides

I have just returned from a much needed break away to the Inner Hebrides of Scotland, consisting of a week on the Isle of Skye and then a week on Islay.

It was our fourth visit to Skye but Islay was a new destination for us. While it was primarily a holiday away with the wife and dogs doing some walking, sight-seeing, visiting the numerous malt whisky distilleries (especially on Islay and Jura) I also planned to do some operating.

Last year I did operate from the same rented cottage on Skye but this year I wanted to do some portable working on both islands. With this in mind and following my disappointment last month I had taken time to properly prepare. As well as repairing the end-fed wire “magitenna” that had caused issues last time out I had constructed a linked dipole for 40m/20m for a simple inverted-vee using a fibreglass windsock pole.

I took the Yaesu FT857-D with a small SLA battery for portable work and a small power supply when in the cottages. Unfortunately things didn’t get off to a good start when I dropped the battery when unpacking. I had used a small screw-terminal chock block to connect to the power loom and the weight of the battery simply ripped both wires out of the terminal block and they touched with an almighty spark and welded themselves together. I acted quickly to remove them from the battery but it has almost certainly affected the battery. Despite this set back the battery performance proved more than sufficient for my needs.

During the first week on Skye, the South Kesteven ARS, which I am the chairman, had their monthly meeting and we planned to try and make a scheduled contact (sked) I did have a run through one evening to test the set up and antenna, drinking a beer and making contacts while sitting on a bench at the cottage watching the sunset going down over Loch Bay with the Outer Hebrides in the distance – sheer bliss!

On the night of the sked the famous Scottish midges were out in abundance and I opted to work from inside the cottage. A successful contact and conversation was made even if there were a few issues at the club that night. They were unable to get the planned antenna up due to activities in the nearby scout hut but like all good hams they improvised using an Ampro-40 magmounted vertical on top of a large saucepan until they were able to get a dipole up but by then band conditions had started deteriorating, but a contact is a contact.

Going portable I had planned to do some Worked All Britain Award activations, the W.A.B scheme uses the Ordnance Survey (OS) mapping agencies National Grid Reference (NGR) system to divide the country into 10km x 10km grid squares. The aim is for activators to operate from the squares and for other operators to “work” those squares.

In addition to activating squares, operators can also activate pillar type triangulation points (commonly known as ‘Trig Points’) which were originally used to carry out the surveying for Ordnance Survey maps but have now been abandoned and have become interesting relics and many are now sadly falling into disrepair, however many people still seek them out and a database exists at www.trigpointing.uk

I planned to try to activate some squares and trig points as the more remote locations such as the Scottish Islands are highly sort after as they don’t get activated as often.

Firstly before I describe my adventures let me be brutally honest! I am fat, in fact very fat and unfit!

I haven’t always in such poor shape, in fact I used to be a keen walker regularly going out at weekends walking miles and even completed several long distance footpaths, including The Coast to Coast Walk back in 1991. I then spent many years competing in dog agility most weekends which kept me reasonably fit but the last few years circumstances have changed and I now have a sedentary lifestyle and desk bound job. This coupled with stress, apathy and being a more than willing victim of comfort eating mean I have piled on the pounds.

Why make this confession? Simply because most trig points are on prominent hill tops and high ground throughout the country and therefore will require some physical climbing to get to them. I was under no illusion there were many on Skye and Islay that I stood no chance of reaching without some form of coronary episode! But I had identified a number of more attainable ones requiring on paper just a modest exertion.

How wrong I was.. 

On the Isle of Skye we were staying on the Waternish peninsular and I had identified two possible candidates the nearby Ben Horneval (TP1275) and Ben Geary (TP1269) while both were over 260 meters in height the maps and descriptions seemed to indicate reasonable but still strenuous approaches. However prior to us arriving the weather had been very wet and the ground was very boggy and when actually standing looking up at the hills I sensibly thought “Not a chance!”

Instead I opted to go to the coast, specifically Talisker Bay which is glorious and simply activate a WAB square NG33 while the wife and dogs occupied themselves on the beach. So off we went, drove across Skye and walked the mile or so from the parking area carrying the rucksack with radio and pole. I went of to a nice spot just up of the beach to set up to then discover I had forgotten to pack the coax… never mind had a good few hours on the beach and stopped off at the Talisker distillery on the way back.

I hadn’t given up on a Skye trig-point and I had spotted Culnaknock (TP0664) on the North East coast of Skye, which was tantalisingly described as “one your granny could do” and had the advantage of also having a Geocache for the wife to get. So we set off in the car with the dogs for a grand tour round the island and ended up there late one afternoon.

There were a number of suggested approaches, on the first we were met with fences, livestock and a sign saying private and seeing no obvious path up we investigated another through a gate on the main road. This was more straightforward however the nearest parking area was a little way down from the gate. The road was extremely busy and we weren’t comfortable trying to walk up the road with the dogs due to the traffic. I was feeling at little peeved at this point and opted to stay with the car while the wife retrieved the cache and took a photo so I know what I missed.

In the end I made no trig point activations on the Isle of Skye, but should we go back at least I am more prepared.

The second week of our holiday was on Islay. Islay is simply a fantastic place to visit, much quieter than Skye, probably due to the two hour ferry journey involved and I did manage some portable operating between visiting the eight whisky distilleries and a trip to a ninth on nearby Jura.

The cottage we were staying in overlooked Lagavulin Bay with the Lagavulin Distillery and the remains of Dunyvaig Castle, it was a two minute walk to a high point near the ruins where I set up one evening and had an hour operating in the setting sun, again band conditions were poor but I didn’t care, NR44 was activated.

There were two trig-points quite near to the cottage. Ardmore Point (TP0875), from the map this looked simple enough, however the road to Ardmore was a private road so couldn’t take the car and while walking there from the nearest parking space was simple enough time didn’t allow it.

Cnoc Rhaonastil (TP2293) was another potential trig point, locally called the Fairy Hill it promised spectacular views for short but steep walk, however again parking and access proved problematic and so was never attempted. 

The Mull of Oa (TP4976) trig-point I actually walked to being next to the American Monument which commemorates the loss of two troop ships in 1918, the Tuscania and the Otranto and the spectacular location overlooks the very spot where the Tuscania sunk. The monument built to thank the inhabitants of Islay for their help is built in the shape of a lighthouse and is visible from many areas on Islay. Despite the very wet ground conditions the walk was straightforward however the weather put paid to any attempt at activating. The wind was very very strong, as this short video demonstrates.


The attempt on An Curran (TP0839) really was a comedy of errors, being a fairly modest 49m high and close to where we were staying it should have been straightforward. To get to the summit you have to navigate a dense conifer forest and I had read the description on the trigpointing.uk website of how to ascend via a gate and distinct path.

It looked short and simple so didn’t take a map or the GPS with me. I found a gate and what seemed like a path along a wall and set off and quickly the path became indistinct and the trees were indeed very dense, so dense I was struggling to get through them. But I carried on going up gaining altitude thinking I must be nearing the top, however it got to the point I just couldn’t get through the trees anymore and there was no sign of them thinning out as they supposedly did at the summit. It started raining and was having to negotiate water filled hollows, heather and bracken hummocks and swarms of midges – this was not fun!

Eventually I did spot a clearing only to find it was where a power line ran up the hillside. I knew I was too far south and since going north through the forest was neigh on impossible I instead descended following the power line through chest high bracken back to the road, all the time worrying about “Serpents” as the locals quaintly called the adders which were prevalent this year.  When I did reach the road I had to climb a low dry stone wall and promptly slipped into a deep water filled ditch on the other side, losing a boot in the peaty mud much to the amusement of a passing group of horse riders.

I almost decided that this was enough, I was doomed not to activate a trig point however one remained on the hit list and I succeeded in activating it on the final day.

I had spotted Cnoc Lolairean (TP2283) when visiting the nearby Bruichladdich Distillery earlier in the week, only 29 meters high it was on a small ridge along the side of Loch Indaal and it involved just a short walk up a farm track and up a narrow track to the top.

The wife went of to get a coffee from the nearby mini-market and took the dogs for a walk on the nearby beach while I went to the trig point. What it lacked in height it made up for with the position with fantastic view across to Bowmore and down the Loch.

I used bungee cords to hold the pole to the pillar and soon had the inverted-vee up on 40m. I had around 40 minutes of operating, and band conditions were again poor with lots of noise but I did make a decent number of contacts running approximately 20W before the battery voltage started to drop off. I was especially pleased to work Stewart M0SDM a fellow SKARS member.

One unexpected radio highlight on Islay was capturing a SSTV image broadcast by the Russians from the International Space Station to celebrate 40 years since the Apollo-Soyuz link up. I didn’t know about the SSTV operation before we went on holiday and so hadn’t taken any VHF aerials with me so I just stuck a piece of wire into the back of the FT857-D and dangled it out the window to hopefully catch one of the passes early on the Sunday morning, I hadn’t had time to unpack properly but the captured image was actually quite good considering.