The mere mention of ‘Outer Hebrides’ or ‘Western Isles’ evokes a far-flung place; a land surviving on the periphery, swept by the wildest of weather. The main populated islands form a long narrow chain, starting in the south with Vatersay, Barra and Eriskay, continuing northwards through South Uist, Benbecula, Grimsay, North Uist, Berneray and South Harris, and widening out to the vast sprawling landmass of North Harris and Lewis in the north.
The islands are well served by ferries from three ports on the mainland, with Cal Mac operating regular connections: Oban to Castlebay (Barra), Oban to Lochboisdale (South Uist), Uig (Skye) to Lochmaddy (North Uist), Uig to Tarbet (Harris), and Ullapool to Stornoway (Lewis). A series of modern causeways connect the chain of islands between Eriskay and Berneray, and a further causeway connects Vatersay with Barra. Most of these causeways replaced dangerous fords across sand flats exposed at low tide.
For two sections, the depth of sea between islands requires a ferry crossing: from Barra to Eriskay (or Castlebay to Lochboisdale) and from Berneray to Leverburgh (South Harris). Scattered around the main islands are over 50 unpopulated islands, many were historically populated and some are still used for grazing animals. The most famous and most remote of the unpopulated islands, are those in the St Kilda archipelago, who’s native community was finally evacuated in 1930.
The Outer Hebrides comprise perhaps the greatest concentration of diverse landscapes in Scotland. Vatersay, Barra and Eriskay are hilly, fringed with beautiful white sandy beaches and sand dunes. South Uist has extensive sandy beaches on its west side, transitioning into sand dunes and machair (fertile low-lying grassy coastal plains), then rising to boggy moorland and a range of mountains on its east side.
The northern part of South Uist, together with Benbecula and North Uist is predominantly flat, saturated moorland, studded with an intricate maze of countless lochs, with the adjacent seas scattered with hundreds of tiny islands. This complex wetland landscape, where the land has been almost completely eroded away by successive periods of glaciation, is unique in all of Europe. Beyond the wetlands, North Uist and Berneray are fringed by sandy beaches, sand dunes and machair.
The west side of South Harris boasts a series of stunning sandy beaches, some of the best in all the Hebrides. Harris is dominated by rocky hills and mountains, with the largest group of mountains in the Outer Hebrides rising across North Harris. These mountains, together with the vast Lewis moors, form a physical barrier, historically separating the communities of Harris and Lewis. They are often described as separate islands, because historically the main link between them was by boat, rather than road.
The Lewis wetlands are scattered with numerous lochs and small hills, a classic ‘cnoc and lochan’ landscape, rising up to a more substantial range of mountains on the west side. The coast of Lewis has extensive rocky sea cliffs, interspersed occasionally with the occasional beautiful sandy beach. The most spectacular sea cliffs are to be found on St Kilda, where a 427m vertical cliff drops sheer into the sea, the highest sea cliffs in the UK.
The Outer Hebrides is clearly a fantastic landscape to explore via a long distance walk. However from an initial glance at the map, the route would not be straightforward. The main thoroughfare up through these islands is dominated by roads, a journey that has become popular as a four-to six-day bike ride (http://www.visitouterhebrides.co.uk/see-and-do/activities/hebridean-way/hebridean-way-cycling-route).
Some good off-road paths do exist, notably the ‘Machair Way’ along the west coast of South Uist, and the ‘Harris Walkway’, a route opened in 2001, connecting a series of old tracks and paths on Harris. Peter Clarke in his book ‘The Timeless Way’ researched a route from the Butt of Lewis southwards to Vatersay, following tracks, paths and old ways defined by navigational markers, posts, lines of stones and cairns (see http://www.northamptonsq.com/store/OuterHebridesTimelessWay, http://www.northamptonsq.com/ohw and http://www.gillatt.org/hebrides). The Timeless Way does, however, spend 50% of its route on metalled roads, so is far from ideal.
More recently the local authorities have continued to develop the islands for walkers, including a series of day walks, with routes marked out with wooden posts. Descriptions of these routes can be found in two Cicerone guidebooks: ‘Walking on Harris and Lewis’ and ‘Walking on Uist and Barra’. Many of these routes are available on the excellent Walk Highlands website (https://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/outer-hebrides).
In April 2017 a new official long distance walking route was finally opened: The Hebridean Way, running between Vatersay and Stornoway (http://www.visitouterhebrides.co.uk/see-and-do/activities/hebridean-way/walking-hebridean-way). This was developed by the Western Isles Council with support from the European Regional Development Fund and Scottish Natural Heritage.
The Hebridean Way makes use of the pre-existing off-road routes, but also includes some new off-road routes across moorland where no previous path existed. Some of these new paths are built from imported stone/gravel; some were created by digging two parallel ditches and heaping up the peat between them on a layer of geotextile fabric; some use plastic netting to stabilise the ground, while some sections are simply lines of plastic or wooden posts at regular intervals marking the route across pathless moorland.
The Hebridean Way is a commendable effort, but when reviewing the route against OS mapping, I noted a number of issues: much of the route still follows roads, or runs parallel to or near roads, and the line misses some of the best scenery that the islands have to offer. A personal review from someone who recently completed the walk noted that the route is far from perfect, and in its current state is unlikely to attract the hoards of walkers who hike the West Highland Way (http://www.stornowaygazette.co.uk/lifestyle/gazette-letters-tell-us-what-you-think-1-4437375).
I collated the various walking routes and overlaid them on Ordnance Survey 1:25 000 scale mapping. It was clear that a bus would be a better option for some sections where the road is unavoidable, or the landscape is flat and uninteresting. I felt no need to walk the full distance, particularly in places where there’s no aesthetic value in doing do. The local council provides a network of excellent bus services running up through the spine of the islands, including diversions along many of the side roads. I digitised these bus routes and added them onto my planning maps (http://www.cne-siar.gov.uk/travel/busservice).
Similarly to the Cape Wrath Trail (from Fort William to Cape Wrath), the journey up through the Outer Hebrides is resistant to ever being one single accepted route; it’s more a state of mind. The Outer Hebrides is a unique landscape, where the choice of route and mode of transport is dependant upon individual preference, the amount of time available and the current weather conditions.
The ferry from Oban to Castlebay, followed by the spine route up through the islands on local buses, then the return ferry from Stornoway to Ullapool, together with buses and trains through mainland Scotland to complete the circle, is undoubtedly the finest public transport journey in Britain! With many of the services supported by government subsidies, the journey costs well under £100. Even without doing any walking, this would be a fantastic journey!
I identified the locations of campsites, independent hostels, hostels run by the Gatliff Hebridean Hostels Trust (http://www.gatliff.org.uk) and the sole Mountain Bothies Association bothy in the Outer Hebrides, located on South Uist. This allowed me to start designing an ideal route from Barra to Lewis, using the off-road network of paths, tracks and ways to walk between accommodation. The intention was for my route to seek out the finest landscapes that these islands have to offer.
I would take a small lightweight tent, which would allow excursions into areas where no accommodation is available. The tent would allow me to camp in some very special places, such as in the beautiful sand dunes, and on prominent viewpoints overlooking this unique landscape.
The final addition to my planning maps was the locations of food shops. I intended to carry the first eight days of food to avoid diversions to shops at the start of the trip. Shops in North Uist, Harris and Stornoway would allow me to replenish my food supplied during the trip, balancing the weight of rucksack against the need for carrying sufficient food for exploring remoter areas.
With such a large distance to cover, and so many places to visit, I concluded that three weeks would be a good length of time. Some parts of the Outer Hebrides are still very religious and bus services don’t operate on the Sabbath, so the plan had to take this into account. In May the forecast showed a settled period of good weather, and it was time to put the plan into action!
When travelling I prefer to avoid booking transport and accommodation in advance to give maximum flexibility. However on this journey with so many intricate connections, and services likely to become fully booked, it was necessary to pre-book the long distance return transport. For the outward journey this comprised the return train ticket to London (£44.60), the Megabus sleeper to Glasgow (£55) and the train to Oban (£19.30) on the 2nd of May. Then for the return journey I booked the CityLink coach from Ullapool to Inverness (£13.50), then from here the Megabus sleeper back to London (£58) on the 20th May.
I booked the hostel in Castlebay on Barra (£20), as I would be arrive there late evening and wanted to secure a bed for the night. The other hostel I booked was Nunton on Benbecula (£25) for the 8th of May.
To make the journey extra special I decided to book a day trip to St Kilda. Two companies operate regular trips from Leverburgh (Harris) to St Kilda: Sea Harris (http://seaharris.com) and Kilda Cruises (http://www.kildacruises.co.uk). The Sea Harris trip was £190 and the Kilda Cruises trip £215, both including the £5 National Trust landing fee. This is clearly a lot of money to spend in one day, but I considered it a unique opportunity to visit the most remote islands in Britain.
Both companies offer two day time slots: Mon-Tue, Wed-Thu and Fri-Sat to allow for unsettled weather, with standy-by bookings if the priority group gets out on the first day and the weather is still clear on the second day. I wanted to do the trip on Friday 12th May – the Sea Harris priority slots were all taken, but I managed to call and speak to Angus at Kilda Cruises, and he had one priority space available on the 12th. I was so happy to get a place – these trips are known to get booked up months in advance! Now I had to hope for settled weather.
I had the whole weekend and all day Bank Holiday Monday to get packed up, making the final agonising decisions about what and what not to take! This felt like a bit of a waste of three days, but I had to start travelling on a Monday for the next two Sabbaths to fall in the right places in my plan, and avoid being stuck without transport on a Sunday!
Early evening I took a taxi to Southampton Central, then a train to Clapham Junction and another train to London Victoria, avoiding the Underground. It’s a short walk from Victoria railway station to the coach station, where the adjacent Travellers Tavern is a great place to wait. I like getting there early to eat an evening meal and drink some beer before the Megabus departs at 11pm. I decided to wait until reaching Scotland to eat fish & chips, and ordered a falafel burger instead. Around 10:30pm I strolled across to the coach station, where the Megabus boarded and departed on time.
I got a decent night’s sleep, and woke up just before the Megabus arrived at 6:30am. There was plenty of time to freshen up in the toilets of Buchanan Bus station, walk to Queen Street Station and stop in a nearby cafe for tea and porridge, before the train to Oban departed at 8:21am. It was one of those disconcerting trains that split up (in this case the other half going to Fort William), requiring some care when choosing a carriage!
I’ve travelled this route many times, but it’s always exciting to see familiar mountains and places appear along the way. At Crianlarich three cyclists got on and sat down at my table. They were travelling the same direction as me, taking the ferry to Castlebay and then cycling to Stornoway. Joking about their ages, they said it was a ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ trip.
The train arrived on time in Oban at 11:27am, and I headed immediately to the ferry terminal to purchase a ticket. For a foot passenger this costs just £14.30. The ferry takes nearly five hours to make the crossing, departing at 1:30pm and arriving at 6:15pm. Spending a night an a whole day reaching the start of the walk seems rather extravagant, but I do prefer travel by land and sea; it gives a real sense of the remoteness of the destination.
There’s an excellent fish & chip shop on George Street, just set back from the harbour (http://www.georgestreetfishrestaurant.co.uk/fish-and-chip-shop-oban), which I’ve used on a previous trip to Mull. It was a pleasant surprise to find the shop still going strong, with plenty of customers, and the fish & chips were still delicious! After eating I had a brief stroll around the harbour, and also made a phone call to arrange a bus from Barra to Vatersay the following day. Some of the Hebridean bus services require advance booking by a certain cutoff time the previous day.
The weather for the ferry crossing couldn’t have been better – clear blue skies and wonderfully calm seas. It must be a very different journey when there are strong winds. For the first part of the journey the ferry stayed close to land, following the Sound of Mull between the Ardnamurchan Peninsula and the Isle of Mull. Beyond here the boat entered open seas, with clear views of the Small Isles to the north (Rùm, Eigg, Muck and Canna) and the flatter Coll and Tiree to the south.
Later on, the silhouette of the hills and mountains of Barra and South Uist, appeared on the horizon. I was surprised that throughout the journey, land was always visible. It’s incredible that Neolithic and Bronze Age people were able to cross between these islands in basic dugout canoes and coracles. They would have been able to see their destination in clear weather, but countless numbers must have perished in the attempt, caught in storms or swept by currents.
Soon the ferry was steering into Castlebay with fantastic views of Kisimul Castle, ancestral home of the Clan MacNeil, perched on its little island in the bay. A huge group of cyclists spilled out of the ferry, most of them making a beeline for Dunard Hostel, a short way uphill to the west. After the rush died down, I checked into the hostel, and found I was sharing a room with a lovely Scottish lady called Lorna. She’d been on frequent trips to Barra and the Uists, mainly cycling, but this time she had a back problem so was going to do some walks in combination with buses and ferries.
I’d neglected to get food on the ferry, so headed off to the Castlebay Hotel (http://www.castlebay-hotel.co.uk/restaurant.php) to have an evening meal. They had a salmon steak and chive mash, which was delicious. I was a little perturbed to have no mobile phone signal, and wondered if this would be the case throughout the Outer Hebrides!
I considered climbing the highest mountain on Barra, Heabhal (384m), but it was getting late and I wanted to save energy for tomorrow. After eating I went for a walk around the village and managed to find a phone box, so that I could let my parents know I’d arrived safely. My Dad had walked with his friends from Lochboisdale to Stornoway when he was a young man, and was keen to hear if much had changed in the Outer Hebrides. At the time tourism was virtually unheard of, and the locals referred to my Dad and his friends as ‘the visitors’. After the phone call, I headed back to the hostel for an early night.
The bus to Vatersay was not until 9:30am, so I had a leisurely start. The cyclists who I’d met on the train were down for breakfast, and explained their plans for the next few days. They were cycling to Vatersay, then doing a full loop around Barra and returning to the hostel for a second night. The following day they were going to take the ferry to Eriskay and cycle up to Howmore Hostel on South Uist.
I headed down to the bus stop (by the Post Office, next to the harbour) in good time. On the way I saw the times of the short boat trip out to Kisimul Castle in Castlebay. I also saw an advert for Barra Fishing Charters (http://www.barrafishingcharters.com/tariffs.html and https://en-gb.facebook.com/mingulayboatrtips). They operate boat trips to the uninhabited islands south of Barra and Vatersay, including trips to Mingulay, Barra Head or Pabbay for £50. Mingulay is sometimes referred to as the “near St. Kilda”. This sounds particularly enticing, but would have to wait until another trip.
The bus arrived on time, and was mainly filled with tourists, notably a group of Scottish ladies on holiday. The driver was an eloquent tour guide, informing us that the causeway to Vatersay was completed in 1991 and pointing out the jetty used by the former ferry. He also pointed out a group of seals relaxing on a skerry, and the location where a flying-boat crashed in 1944, its remains scattered across a stream bed near the shore.
I asked the driver to drop me off at the community hall, so that I could do a circular walk visiting Vatersay’s three beaches. The beaches here are typical of the Hebrides, with white shell sand, turquoise sea, grassy sand dunes and machair carpeted with wild-flowers. The machair on Vatersay is used for grazing rather than growing crops, and at the time of my visit was covered in abundant wild primroses.
I followed the east beach first, then cut across a low grassy col to reach the wild deserted south beach. There were great views across to the uninhabited island of Sandray to the south. At the far end of the beach I picked up a line of wooden marker posts that snaked through rock outcrops onto higher ground. The vantage point gave far-reaching views to more remote islands, including Flodaigh, Lingeigh and Pabbay.
There’s a Bronze Age standing stone and cairn on the waymarked route; I caught a brief glimpse of it, but failed to recognise the significance – there was still far to go today, so I didn’t linger! The wooden markers dropped steeply down to the west beach, which I followed back to the community hall. The hall provides drinking water and toilets so is a popular overnight stop for campervans.
I took the opportunity to glug down some water and refill my bottles. The land on Barra looked rather parched and I was concerned that streams might have dried up in the dry weather. While I was stopped the three cyclists from the hostel showed up – they were surprised that I’d already reached Vatersay!
The next part of the walk was nearly three miles along the minor road back to Barra. On my map the Hebridean Way was shown taking a slightly higher route than the road, but there was no evidence on the ground, apart from an exposed area cleared for underground utilities (the Hebridean Way route has now been modified to stick with the road for this section).
After crossing back over the causeway to Barra, the Hebridean Way goes off-road, climbing to nearly 300m, just below Beinn Tangabhal. At the start of the route there’s a collection of information boards describing the results of an excavation that uncovered late Neolithic houses, an Iron Age roundhouse and an 18th Century farmstead.
On this section, the Hebridean Way is just a line of plastic posts, with no path on the ground. A good route has been chosen, following the line of least resistance, sticking close to watercourses. It was reassuring to find a trickling stream near Beinn Tangabhal, a reliable source of drinking water. A passing sheep was confused by my presence: it stood looking expectantly at me, stomping its hoof!
The north slopes of Beinn Tangabhal were steeper and more heathery, but not difficult, and soon I reached the rocky coastline on the west side of Barra. The next section of the route followed a waymarked day walk to Dùn Bàn. This tumbledown mound of stones is the remains of an Iron Age broch. Here I met a charming couple on a walking holiday, using the Cicerone guide walking on ‘Walking on Uist and Barra’. The lady was rather taken with my customised maps, and remarked on the amount of planning I’d invested in the trip.
The path continued past Loch na Doirlinn, nestling in beautiful sand dunes, then there was a mile of road walking to reach Borve. On the way I spotted a small standing stone in the machair to the left of the road. I turned off on a minor road which soon became a gravel track heading up into the hills. Here I stopped to speak to an elderly lady who was using a pair of binoculars. She explained that she wasn’t birdwatching; she was actually checking the water level in a cattle drinking trough, and if it was empty she’d open a tap to fill it up!
At the end of the track, the Hebridean Way continued on a new path made from compacted gravel. I departed briefly from the route to follow a line of wooden marker posts to Dùn Bharpa, a Bronze Age cairn. This is one of the best preserved of such monuments in the Western Isles and has a diameter of about 30m and a height of 5m. Large upright kerb stones form a retaining ring around the looser cairn material. There are several pits on top, which suggests that this was a chambered cairn and the chambers subsequently collapsed. There’s another chambered cairn to the south-east of Dùn Bharpa called Balnacraig, which I didn’t have time or energy to visit.
From Dùn Bharpa I cut across boggy moorland to rejoin the Hebridean Way. For this section the new path has been covered with plastic netting, presumably to stabilise the ground and encourage vegetation regrowth. The netting was quite slippery and I nearly fell over on a couple of occasions. It had been a hot day, so I was glad to find a trickle of water emerging from the hillside to quench my thirst.
A little further on the path turned sharp right to cut through a notch in the hills. Here the route reverted to plastic marker posts, descending into Corra-Bheinn. Fortunately this wide heathery corrie provided a good catchment, and soon I heard the reassuring sound of a gurgling stream. It had been a tiring day, carrying a fully laden pack, so I was glad to stop for the night and set up camp.
In the morning there was less haze and the view out to sea was wonderfully clear. I could see the Rùm Cuillin and another mountainous island to the left that was practically a mirror image. Eventually the penny dropped, it was the Black Cuillin on Skye!
The line of plastic posts took me easily down to a grassy track that ran past a couple of lochs. Wild geese swam on the water, their haunting cries echoing around the surround hills. At the end of the track I crossed a road to reach the final pathless section of the Hebridean Way on Barra, where wooden posts climbed to around 100m, traversing around the side of a hill. This high ground gave breathtaking views across Tràigh Mhòr, a vast expanse of tidal sand flats, home to the only runway in the world where scheduled flights land on a beach!
From the road, the Hebridean Way heads directly to the ferry terminal, but I opted for a diversion to explore the peninsula north of the airport. There’s a single settlement, Eoligarry, a 105m hill and glorious sandy beaches on all sides. I walked along the road to the tiny Barra Airport terminal building, to connect with a walking route described on the Walk Highlands website.
I cut across sand dunes to reach the deserted beach on the west side, then walked for a mile along the sands before climbing to the summit of Beinn Eòlaigearraidh Mhòr. Looking back there were magnificent views over rolling sand dunes with wide expanses of golden sands on both sides. From the summit a decaying line of intermittent wooden marker posts lead across the hills to Dùn Sgùrabhal, the lichen-encrusted remains of an Iron Age fort.
Just before Dùn Sgùrabhal a little aeroplane passed directly overhead, then banked around to approach the runway from the west. It was inexplicably joyful to see the little plane skirt over the dunes and touch down on the runway. From the fort, the route descended steeply down to the road, which I followed for a mile to the old church remains of Cille Bharra, dedicated to Saint Barr, after whom the island is named.
The only intact building on the site is a 16th Century chapel. Inside the chapel is a replica of the Kilbar Stone, an engraved 10th Century Christian-Nordic stone that once stood in the graveyard. On one side of the stone is a cross, and on the opposite side a Norse runic inscription. During the 9th Century, Barra was raided and later settled by the Vikings, who adopted Christianity. The original stone, much to the annoyance of the locals, is in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.
Whilst in the chapel, another visitor arrived and offered to show me the grave of Compton MacKenzie, author of the 1947 book Whisky Galore. This book was based on the true story of the SS Politician, which ran aground in 1941 on nearby Eriskay, carrying a cargo including 264,000 bottles of malt whisky. The local men were quick to salvage the whisky, but were forced to hide or drink their spoils when local customs officer, Charles McColl, intervened. McColl managed to catch some men, resulting in fines of between three and five pounds, and later sentences of up to six weeks in prison.
McColl estimated that the islanders had purloined 24,000 bottles of whisky. Rather than allow this to continue, he applied for, and was granted, permission to blow-up the hull of the SS Politician. The islanders watched this extraordinary event, their views summed up by Angus John Campbell, who commented, “dynamiting whisky. You wouldn't think there'd be men in the world so crazy as that!” Original bottles have survived to this day, and have been known to fetch large sums at auction, particularly if they still contain whisky! Legend has it that there’s a forgotten stash hidden somewhere in the hills of Eriskay.
I stopped in the churchyard to eat lunch and was surprised to see the walking holiday couple who I’d met yesterday. I showed them Compton MacKenzie’s grave and they told me that his former house is the big white building next to the airport.
The walking route continued down a side road to a car park and some dilapidated public toilets, where I was pleased to find the cold water tap still worked! From here the path skirted along some dunes, then descended to another beautiful beach, following wet sand for a few miles around to the airport terminal. I passed an island called Orasaigh, which can be accessed across the sand low tide, but the tide was now coming in, and there was a channel of seawater blocking the way.
Just as I reached Barra Airport, the little plane was getting ready to take off. It was a stroke of luck to have timed it so that I could observe the spectacle from close quarters. The flight has to align with the tides, so the arrival and departure times are constantly shifting. The route is operated by Flybe, with a direct flight from Glasgow. Looking ahead a few months, a single flight costs between £60 and £70. I stopped briefly in the airport terminal to refill my water bottles – there’s a cafe here that’s open to the general public.
Now the plane had gone, I was free to walk along the dunes and the beach, staying off road for over a mile, until eventually the incoming tide forced me back onto the tarmac. The final mile of road walking took me down a side road along the Ardmhor peninsula to the ferry terminal. I’d originally planned to take the 5:30pm ferry, but had made good time today and was able to catch the earlier 3:45pm ferry.
The small ferry is dominated by a lower deck for vehicles, and has just a narrow corridor with some seating and a grandiose sounding “ticket office”. The man who’d guided vehicles onboard also sold tickets once the ferry had departed. He was a bit upset at receiving an “English ten pound note” and responded by giving me seven pounds change in pound coins! In retrospect I wished that I’d obtained some Scottish notes from a bank in Oban. This is a remote part of Scotland and it must be hard to get rid of English notes when there are no banks nearby.
On the ferry crossing there were views of numerous uninhabited islands, the largest ones being Fuday, Gighay and Hellisay. The ferry arrived on time at 4:25pm, and I made a beeline for the toilets at the ferry terminal. I was going to wild camp on Eriskay, and unsure about the available spring water, so filled up both water bottles.
A mile of road walking led to a track marked on the map, which I was hoping to follow up to Loch Cracabhaig. The gate was locked, and had a stark sign declaring that this was not a public right of way, and there was no entry, a blatant infringement of the 2003 Land Reform Act. To get around this blockade, I simply walked ten metres up the road and climbed up the open hillside, rejoining the track just beyond another red warning sign! The track led to a water treatment works, presumably the island’s only water supply, so understandably a sensitive location. I would take great care to avoid polluting the loch.
Into the evening the wind picked up and I realised that I was camping in quite an exposed spot! It was a first taste of the strong winds that can sweep the Hebrides, even in clear weather. A little later I smelt woodsmoke and saw a smoke cloud rising to the north west. I hoped that it was a controlled burning of heather, rather than an accidental fire – the moors were so dry that a fire here could spread vast distances unchecked. Later in the evening I spotted what looked to be wild ponies grazing on the far side of the loch.
In the morning I packed up and retraced steps to the ferry terminal to use the toilets, collect more drinking water and have a quick wash. From here the Hebridean Way went across another sandy beach, when I encountered some ladies returning to their campervan after an early morning swim. They said the water was freezing! The path curved around a headland, joined a minor road and passed the Am Politician pub (https://www.facebook.com/Am-Politician-149219668451377), named after the famous shipwreck.
The minor road climbed a hill and joined the main road leading over the causeway to South Uist. On the far side of the causeway there’s a small harbour which at one time provided a vehicular ferry to Eriskay, until the causeway opened in 2001. Before 2001, the ferry from Eriskay to Barra catered for foot passengers only, and vehicles had to take the longer ferry to Lochboisdale.
On South Uist, the first few miles of shore was too rocky to walk along, and I had to stick to the road. I stopped at the West Kilbride campsite to refill my water bottles. Half a mile beyond the campsite, I left the road and followed a path along the coast leading to the Pollachar Inn (http://www.polocharinn.com). The Hebridean Way route inexplicably takes a different route here, sticking with roads for almost another mile to reach the same point!
The pub was closed when I arrived, but the landlady kindly opened up for me; I ordered a refreshing pint of orange juice & lemonade, and a packet of crisps. The lady was really friendly, asking which way I was going, and telling me that I’d see the farmers spreading seaweed on the machair in preparation for growing potatoes, wheat and hay in the fertile fields.
Soon a pair of cyclists arrived – they were staying at Howmore Hostel and had cycled down for the day. They mentioned that tomorrow they were catching the morning ferry back to Oban and had to be up very early to cycle to Lochboisdale!
Before leaving. I took some photos of the impressive lichen-covered late Neolithic/early Bronze Age standing stone on the shore outside the pub. I was now on the ‘Machair Way’, a justifiably well-known route that predates the creation of the Hebridean Way. Sandy farm tracks can be followed along the beautiful shoreline for miles and miles. The Hebridean Way inexplicably takes inland tracks for some of this – perhaps there were local objections to the official route sticking to the fragile coastal tracks.
For lunch I headed a short distance out to the tidal island of Orasaigh to get a different perspective. It was a nice spot, although the pungent smell of seaweed was a little overpowering! I then resumed, following the sandy track along the coast. Seabirds were a constant presence, particular oystercatchers with their haunting cries. Further along I spotted a group of seals basking on coastal rocks. The landscape here was very uniform and lulled me into a meditative state. There a very gentle, yielding, “yin” feel along the coast here.
A few miles further on I spotted a modern graveyard on the horizon. Near the graveyard there are the remains of a group of roundhouses. This is the only place in Great Britain where prehistoric mummies have been found! Excavations were carried out between 1988 and 2002, revealing that the site had been occupied from 2000 BC. In 2001, a team of archaeologists discovered four skeletons, including a male who died around 1600 BC, and a female who died around 1300 BC, about the same time as King Tutankhamun of Egypt.
At first the researchers did not realise they were dealing with mummies. However, tests revealed that the bodies had been preserved shortly after death for 6 to 18 months in a peat bog. The preserved bodies were then apparently retrieved from the bog and set up inside a dwelling, presumably with religious or ritual significance. The bodies were finally buried around 1120 BC, at which point the soft tissue had decomposed. These skeletons differ from most bog bodies: they were apparently deliberately put in the bog for the express purpose of preservation and their soft tissue was no longer preserved when they were finally excavated.
I also spotted a radio mast and turning on my mobile was pleased to finally get phone reception! In this area there’s a golf course at Aisgernish, designed by Old Tom Morris. Old Tom Morris came to South Uist in 1891 to create a course at the request of the wealthy land owner, Lady Cathcart, so that she could impress her high society guests. The course has been described as “the most natural golf course in the world”.
The 18 hole course was maintained by the local crofters until the early 1920s when the demand for golf declined and social pressures meant that maintaining the course was no longer viable. Over the next 80 years the golf course vanished into in the wild machair. In 2005 a group of locals decided to restore the course and set to work, with the help of some of the golf industry’s biggest names. In 2008 it reopened (http://www.askernishgolfclub.com) receiving worldwide acclaim and frequent visits from golfing celebrities who arrive by helicopter! Thankfully the current US president has no involvement here.
I was running very low on water so decided to cut across the course to the clubhouse to see if I could get a drink and fill up my water bottles. The cyclists who I’d met earlier had assured me that the club was not at all snooty and welcomed all visitors. This proved correct – the guy serving drinks and cold snacks, Tommy, could not have been more welcoming. He was interested in my route, and spent a long time pouring over my maps, making suggestions about the route and pointing out places of interest. Tommy had been to St Kilda when he worked at the Benbecula and South Uist Missile Range.
At the clubhouse Tommy had his granddaughter with him – he asked her if she’d walk the Hebridean Way, and she said she’d do it on a quad bike! Tommy provided me with loads of local information and insight, proudly saying that Benbecula, South Uist and Eriskay are now community owned (purchased for £4.5 million in 2006).
Tommy said that I was welcome to camp on the far side on the golf course, on the edge of the dunes overlooking the beach. He said that if anyone challenged me, to tell them that he’d said it was OK! It was apparently an excellent spot to watch the sun go down over the sea. I mentioned my concern about drinking water for tomorrow, and Tommy said there were toilets at the church at Bornais on the way to Howmore. It was not far to walk to his suggested camping spot. The dunes were a little unstable for tent pegs, but I managed to find some rocks from the beach and used them to hold down the pegs.
It was a wonderful place to relax, and I spent the most of the evening dozing. This was disturbed briefly when a herd of inquisitive cows got uncomfortably close and I had to shoo them away! The cows are free to roam across the dunes, and electric fences are used to keep them off the greens. I was hoping to catch the sunset, but couldn’t keep my eyes open, and the sun had disappeared over the horizon by the time I awoke!
The next few miles of the Hebridean Way stuck close to the beautiful shore. Just inland from here is the birthplace of Flora Macdonald, the lady who helped Bonnie Prince Charlie escape to to Skye, disguised as her maid, after his defeat at Culloden. This event was the inspiration for the famous ‘Skye Boat Song’.
At the point when a road came in from Kildonan, I turned away from the shore, following the Hebridean Way along a sandy farm track diagonally past Loch Bhornais to reach Bornais Church. The adjacent fields were well fertilised with seaweed and were covered in abundant wild-flowers, including downy yellow violets. Just before the church there’s an interpretation board describing a Viking settlement on the Bornais Machair.
At St Mary’s Church I found the toilets, located in a separate room at the back. It was quite a relief to reach drinking water; the section of the Hebridean Way between Eriskay and Howmore is the longest stretch without a reliable natural water supply. There are dozens of lochs in the dune slacks, but I was reluctant to take non-flowing water from lowland pools, and was concerned that they could have become tainted with salt from the sea, or run-off from the farms.
Before setting off again, I looked briefly inside the church – the cool peaceful interior was unpretentious with stark stone walls, and a simple wooden crucifix above the alter. Rather than continue along the official Hebridean Way on an inland farm track, I headed for the coast to explore an unusual rocky headland with a tidal lagoon. On the way, I passed some fields where a tractor was collecting and spreading seaweed across the machair. A posse of seabirds wheeled around, presumably scavenging for insects and larvae from the scattered seaweed.
On the peninsula, an information board identified the ruins of an Iron Age broch, Dùn Mhulan, and a settlement established in the early centuries AD. Around AD 400 the broch was rebuilt as a roundhouse, and by the time the Vikings arrived (from 795 onwards) the settlement had beed abandoned. The tidal lagoon here is a favourite haunt for seabirds, including the ever-present oystercatchers.
I followed the remains of a concrete track leading out to a wartime gun emplacement and an OS trig pillar. From the map, the circuit around the loch appeared to be only possible at low tide, but in reality there was a rocky causeway which looked like it was rarely inundated by the tide. Having circumnavigated the loch, I stopped for lunch in this peaceful spot.
Rather than return to the inland Hebridean Way track, I stuck with the shoreline, initially overcoming a fence by dropping down onto a pebble beach. Climbing back up, I followed a rough path between high sand dunes and a fence delineating the edge of agricultural fields. On this section it was interesting to see efforts made by the farmer to stabilise the dunes. Holes had been plugged with bales of hay and fishing nets. The fertile farmland is a precious resource, and clearly it’s important to protect it from coastal erosion.
All along the Machair Way I was surprised to see abandoned rusting vehicles and farm machinery. Although the landscape possesses an innate natural beauty, this is clearly a working landscape, and the farmers clearly don’t feel obliged to sterilise the landscape for visitors. As I approached the next peninsula, the path through the dunes became rougher, until I passed through a gate onto a track, leading up to a cemetery on the peninsula.
I continued forging a route along a rocky stretch of coast, to a place where a minor road approaches the shore. The Hebridean Way follows the minor road, whilst I stuck with a rocky track close to the shore. A campervan had taken the track, and was parked up on the brink of the dunes – an idyllic camping spot! Over the past hour the highest mountains on South Uist had dominated the view to the east. I planned to climb these mountains, Beinn Mhòr, Beinn Choradail and Hecla, the following day.
For the last part of today’s walk I rejoined the Hebridean Way on a track crossing a bridge over the Howmore River. Howmore Hostel (http://www.gatliff.org.uk/?page_id=10) is a short distance over a grassy field, next to a chapel. The hostel is run by the Gatliff Hebridean Hostels Trust, founded in 1961 by Herbert Gatliff. The trust is dedicated to encouraging young people, especially those of limited means, to experience, explore and appreciate the British countryside, with a specific focus on providing small hostels in the Outer Hebrides.
Herbert Gatliff (1897-1977) was an early enthusiast for the outdoor and youth hostelling movement in the 1930s. Youth hostels were central to Gatliff’s vision and mission. He believed that a network of hostels should exist in remote rural areas, coastal areas, and amongst hills, moors and wildernesses, to provide opportunities for young people to explore the countryside. In a consumerist age, the value of experiencing natural beauty is particularly important, especially for young people of limited means. Small hostels in remote places are an ideal means of making this possible. A biography of Herbert Gatliff can be downloaded here: http://www.gatliff.org.uk/?page_id=994.
In addition to Howmore, the trust operates two other hostels in the Outer Hebrides, one on Berneray and the other at Rhenigidale on Harris. None of the Gatliff hotels can be booked in advance; they operate on the same principle as the youth hostels of old: if you arrive on foot, you will never be turned away. There are always spare camp beds, and places to sleep on benches, or on the floor. The ‘no booking rule’ effectively discourages large groups and encourages independent travellers.
Howmore Hostel was established in 1966 in a couple of old blackhouses. Blackhouses are typical Hebridean dwellings with thick stone walls, originally with thatched roofs and a hole for the smoke to escape. The smoke turned the walls (and everything else) black, hence the name! The dormitory building at Howmore has been restored with traditional thatch, encircled by a ring of suspended stones on ropes, installed to hold down the thatch in strong winds. The kitchen/lounge building has a modern corrugated metal roof. A further outbuilding provides storage, with plenty of room for bikes. In the field next to Howmore there are some atmospheric lichen-encrusted ruins, the remains of a 13th Century monastery and medieval chapels.
There was just one other person staying at Howmore this evening, Claire from Wiltshire. She’d flown into Barra airport, hired a bike and had cycled up to North Uist to stay with her parents at a holiday cottage on North Uist (http://www.unique-cottages.co.uk/cottages/west-coast/hebrides/ex2-the-doctors-bothy). She was now on her journey home, cycling back to Barra. She told me that she’d seen golden eagles (but not in any of the well-known viewpoints), and had spied the outline of St Kilda from a hill on South Uist. She remarked that you don’t need to climb very high in this landscape to get far-reaching views.
I asked Claire what she did for a living, and she said she worked on animal welfare, assessing the psychological well-being of monkeys in captivity. Apparently some psychological measures are very similar to humans, but there are also some significant differences.
After chatting some time with Claire, I decided to take a shower. My muscles were aching and I definitely needed a wash after travelling for nearly a week without a shower! There are showers in both buildings, and towels are also available to use. The shower was wonderfully warm, and afterwards I felt much better!
Later in the evening, the hostel warden, Betty, dropped by. There’s a visitor book and honesty box in the hostel. A bed costs £15 per night, plus £2 if you need to hire a sheet sleeping bag. I didn’t have any change of £20, so made an additional donation – this sort of hostel definitely needs to be encouraged! Betty had some fresh eggs for sale, 20p each. I found some stale bread in a spare food box, and cooked up some delicious eggy bread, to supplement my usual meal of pasta.
After Claire went to bed, I looked through the bookcase and found a copy of Peter Clarke’s ‘The Timeless Way’. I’d not seen it before, so was fascinated to compare Peter’s route with mine. Of particular interest were the North and South Ford crossings between Benbecula and the Uists, which are only exposed at low tides. Both routes have now been replaced by road causeways, but the routes across the sand-flats did look intriguing.
In the morning I awoke to strong winds and thick clouds covering the hills down to 100m. Outside the air was damp – clearly this was a bank of sea mist which had accumulated due to the humidity of the previous days. It didn’t look very promising conditions to be climbing the highest mountains on South Uist!
I lingered around, waiting to see if the cloud would lift, spending the time studying the map intensely. Walk Highlands shows a route heading eastwards from the main road, across moorland to the foot of a ridge that rises up to Beinn Mhòr. The route visits the three mountain summits, before backtracking and cutting across Gleann Dorchaidh to rejoin the outward route at the foot of the ridge.
I decided to follow the moorland path to the start of the ridge. From here I could decide whether to climb Beinn Mhòr, or stay in Gleann Dorchaidh and from there cross a low bealach to enter Gleann Uisinis. Either way would get me to Uisinish Bothy on the east side of the island, by the evening.
Claire set off first – she was not looking forward to cycling with a strong crosswind! I set off soon after, retracing the previous day’s route back to the coast. Today was Sunday and local people were emerging from their morning worship at the chapel. I felt a little self-conscious to be ‘working’ today – in these islands any kind of activity on the Sabbath is potentially frowned upon.
A short track connected with a minor road, which ran for just over a mile, avoiding a long walk along the main road. A short way south along the main road, next to a farm with poly-tunnels, I picked up a grassy track. This provided a dry passage across the boggy moorland. For a short section beyond the track, the ground became saturated and the path became indistinct, but it soon picked up near a small lochan. The cloud had now lifted to around 500m, so I decided to aim for Beinn Mhòr – it would be a shame to miss it out!
The path followed a small burn up the hillside – I took the opportunity to top up on water at this point. There would be no running water once on the ridge, so I needed to carry enough for the whole day. The path was surprisingly good, leading all the way to the shoulder Maola Breac, where it finally disappeared. Beyond this point the heather abated and the ground became grassy, making for easy-going underfoot. As I climbed higher, the north-east wind became increasinly intense, and I took a more sheltered line below the ridge. I had to pack the map away, fearful that it would blow away!
Once on the main ridge of Beinn Mhòr there was absolutely no shelter, and it was a constant battle to stay upright! Trekking poles are very useful for such conditions! Without the map I was unsure how far along the ridge it was to the summit. I reached a very narrow section which appeared to be the highest point – cloud was being blown onto the crest, so it was hard to tell. The conditions were unpleasant and I decided to turn around – checking the map afterwards, the ridge widens out to a little summit plateau with a trig pillar at 620m. I couldn’t have been far from the top.
I retraced steps back along the crest for half a mile, until a rocky shoulder dropped steeply down to Bealach Heileasdail. Fortunately the cloud was only scuffing across this part of the mountain, so the visibility was good for descent. The bealach and the steep-sided glen below was an impressive rocky place, as fine as I’ve seen anywhere in Scotland.
When planning the route, I hadn’t appreciated the huge height loss between these three mountains. Each mountain is around 600m and each bealach is around 300m, so half half the height of the mountain is lost with each descent. The total ascent would be around 1200m – a challenging day, equivalent to climbing one or two Munros!
Of the three mountains, the next one, Beinn Choradail, requires the most careful route-finding to cross. The direct ascent from Bealach Heileasdail is blocked by crags, which can be circumvented by skirting around to the east. During the ascent it was great to get some shelter from the strong winds – being constantly battered by the wind is exhausting!
Once on the pointed summit, the descent route requires care, since the north side of Beinn Choradail is dominated by a line of cliffs. The key is to initially drop to the east, until a rocky gully appears, which can be carefully entered, working back west across steep slopes. The ridge is then rejoined, dropping down to the second bealach of the day. On the way I nearly trod on a bird’s nest – the bird flew up suddenly revealing a clutch of four beautiful speckled eggs. The bird then made big fuss, flapping around, clearly trying to distract me away from its nest.
I was now running low on energy, and it was quite an effort to regain the lost height on the final climb up to Hecla. The rocky summit was so windy that I had to crawl the last few steps to touch the summit cairn! I hurried off the top, descending slopes to the south-east. Looking back at the summit, the rock forms a little crooked overhang. The name Hecla is a Norse word meaning a short hooded cloak – clearly a reference to the shape of these summit rocks. Incidently, there’s an active volcano in Iceland with the same name.
Gleann Uisinish was clearly a favourite secluded haunt for deer – I disturbed several groups on descent from Hecla. From experience I anticipated large numbers of ticks, and soon enough, began to pick them up as I brushed past the heather. I avoided dropping down into the heathery glen, and stayed on the ridge above as long as possible. At the Allt na Criche I stopped to drink the wonderfully cool clear water. My bottles had been exhausted some time ago and I was getting rather dehydrated. The stream was less than a mile from the bothy, and I completely filled both bottles – I avoid gathering potentially polluted water near bothies.
On the final part of the walk I followed deer paths running between rocky crags. There are some archaeological remains here, including a souterrain, a wheel house and some huts. However the heather was so thick that most of the ground was obscured. Also ticks in this area were a nightmare, and I was keen to reach the bothy, so that I could thoroughly check my trousers.
The bothy is not marked on the OS map, so I was relying on the co-ordinates from the MBA website (https://www.mountainbothies.org.uk/bothies/north-west-highlands-islands/uisinis/). Right up until the last minute the building was not visible from above, and it was a relief to finally see its chimney and roof sticking up from behind the hillside. I was completely exhausted, but very happy to find this remote little shelter.
The bothy has a tiny multi-fuel stove, and on my visit there was a large stack of driftwood collected from the nearby beach, together with a box of dried peat. I waited until late evening, then got a fire going for a few hours. There’s no glass window on the stove, so it took some time to set the right amount of airflow – too much and the fire burnt too quickly, not enough and the fire died down. The bothy warmed up really well and was lovely and cosy. The thick walls provided shelter from the strong winds that whistled around the roof long into the night.
By the morning the winds had died down. I spent some time clearing out ashes from the fire (burying them away from the bothy), sawing up some firewood and sweeping the floor. The map shows no paths and tracks going to Uisinish, and I expecting the first four miles of today’s route to be a tough walk over pathless heathery moorland. I was pleased to discover vehicular tracks leading right up to the bothy door!
The track took a gently ascending line around the side of Beinn na h-Aire, to reach the 200m bealach between the Beinn and Maol Martaig. Along the route, wooden boards have been used to bridge across some of the wetter peaty sections. At the bealach I got a first view of a very different landscape, a watery world, with land fractured into a maze of tiny lochans, little rocky knolls (cnocs), sea lochs cutting deep inland, tiny islets and a low rocky coastline with a distinctive black tide mark.
The reliable track descended from the bealach, and found a course through rocky outcrops. I took the opportunity to collect water from the Abhainn an Leigidh, before getting too near to the tiny settlement at Loch Sgioport. On the way, beside the track, I stopped to investigate an abandoned house with a rusting iron roof. Inside there was still some furniture, but birds had taken up residence and the floor was covered in bird poo, so not a suitable shelter!
After I reached the road, there was another abandoned house. This one looked like it had been abandoned fairly recently, perhaps less than twenty years ago. There were still curtains, mattresses, wooden furniture, fireplaces and a metal range in the kitchen. Again birds had taken up residence, so it wouldn’t be a good bivvy spot. Throughout this trip through the Hebrides, I encountered dozens of such houses, some clearly abandoned fairly recently. Perhaps an elderly resident would die or be taken into care, and their houses were left unsellable, being unmodernised and in remote areas.
The next couple of miles were completely pathless, skirting around the side of Beinn Tairbeirt, following the tidal Loch Sgiopoirt inland. Incidentally the word ‘Tairbeirt’ or ‘Tarbert’ has a Norse origin, meaning an area of land where it’s possible to drag boats from one sea to another. There’s a maze of freshwater lochs north-west of Loch Sgiopoirt that eventually leads to the sea on the west coast.
The ground was a bit boggy, but with careful observation of the different vegetation types and their associated growing habitats, I picked out a dry route. Beyond Loch Sgiopoirt, I used a series of freshwater lochans to navigate. I was aiming to rejoin the Hebridean Way, so was rather pleased to see a line of marker posts on the horizon. This was a good place to stop for a break. In doing so, I discovered a tick attached to my elbow, and another on my leg. Neither had been attached for very long, and both came off cleanly with tweezers.
Just after rejoining the Way, I crossed a substantial wooden footbridge. This apparently was also an historical crossing point; there are what looks to be the ruins of a bridge or causeway just to the north. This section of the Hebridean Way is pathless, with just marker posts for guidance. However at Loch an Ligidh the route became a substantial path of compacted stone, running between drainage ditches. Three prominent wind turbines had been a constant presence on the horizon for the past hour, and the path now headed directly towards them. The path emerged on a broad gravelly track directly beneath the turbines.
The community here spent seven years obtaining finance and permits to build the Lochcarnan Community Wind Farm. The giant towers were trucked and shipped from Germany to South Uist via Sweden, and erected on bases containing 40 million cubic metres of concrete each. The turbines became operational in 2013, and have been generating huge amounts of electricity and cash ever since. The local people have given the turbines affectionate nicknames: Wendy, Fanny and Blowy!
The wind farm was expected to earn about £600,000 a year, but gales of 80 or 90 mph are not uncommon on South Uist. Consequently the turbines operated about 98 per cent of the time, and earned £1.2 million – a bonanza for a tiny island. Twenty per cent of the profits are pumped straight back into the community, but the rest helps provide further investment, notably the regeneration of the island’s harbour at Lochboisdale, which had stagnated following the collapse of herring fishing in the 1960s.
I completely respect that local people have the right to decide to erect wind turbines on their own land. This a working landscape, not a museum for tourists. However, it’s surprising that the Hebridean Way has been routed directly beneath these turbines! Walking beneath such industrial constructions is an unsettling, deeply unpleasant experience. No one in search of beautiful landscapes wants to go anywhere near wind farms. Hurrying from the giant turbines, there was still nearly two miles of soulless wide gravelly access track to trudge along.
Once at the road, I picked up a much more pleasant grassy track that led to a minor road. There was then just a mile more walking to reach the main road. I was aiming to catch the 4:31pm W17 bus to Nunton Hostel on Benbecula. The Hebridean Way also goes to Nunton, sticking to the road most of the way – this didn’t look like a pleasant walk, so the bus would be a much better option.
I was now running low on food, and since the supermarket at Balivanich is over a mile’s walk from Nunton, I decided to stock up on food from Lovats supermarket before catching the bus (https://en-gb.facebook.com/lovatssupermarket). This was a typical rural supermarket with not much selection, so I had to quickly search around for suitable items, conscious of the bus departure time. I bought some breakfast cereal, cheese, oatcakes, snickers bars, couscous and pre-cooked rice. For this evening’s meal I bought a tin of cullen skink (a thick Scottish soup made of smoked haddock, potatoes and onions) and a quiche. The lady serving in the shop was very friendly and helpful.
The bus was a bit late, and being a minibus it was hard to spot – I had to put my hand out at the last minute! The bus crossed the causeway to Benbecula – historically this crossing was known as the South Ford, a route described by Peter Clarke in The Timeless Way. The South Ford was originally spanned by a concrete bridge between Benbecula and South Uist in 1942. By the 1970s the bridge had deteriorated and was replaced by the South Ford causeway, opening in 1982. The name Benbecula is nothing to do with mountains, it’s thought to derive from Peighinn nam Fadhla “pennyland of the fords”, a reference to the land being as flat as a penny.
One across the causeway and beyond the old ford, the bus stopped for half an hour at Lionacleit to collect children from the school. The driver explained that this was exam time, so there wouldn’t be many children. The bus finally dropped me outside Nunton Hostel (http://www.nuntonhousehostel.com) at 5:09pm.
The hostel was locked and unoccupied, with a telephone number on the window. I called the number and the owner, Donald, drove around in his van to let me in (the door has a lock that opens with a pin number). The interior of the hostel was decorated to an impressively high standard – it feels more like a hotel than a hostel, and is definitely worth the £25 per night! All the dorms have an en-suite toilet and shower, and luckily I had a dorm to myself. Breakfast of cereal, toast and jam is provided, along with tea and coffee, and jars of rice and pasta. Donald found me a towel so that I could have a shower.
There were some scones on the side that Donald said had been left by workmen staying at the hostel, and I could help myself. I immediately made a cup of sweet milky tea and had some toasted scones with jam. It was a really nice welcome to Nunton. Next I had a shower, put on some clean clothes, and brought all my dirty clothes downstairs to wash. There’s a washing machine and tumble drier available for £2, but I only had a few items, so hand-washed them, and pegged them on the line outside to dry.
The workmen staying at the hostel arrived – they were all from England, and were up for a few weeks doing work on Benbecula. They’d initially stayed at a hostel in South Uist near Lochboisdale (https://www.southuisthostel.co.uk/south-uist-hostel.html), but had not liked the standard of accommodation, and subsequently switched to Nunton. South Uist Hostel is run by eccentric Gaelic singer Paul McCallum.
The only other guests were a couple, Jim and Vic, who were cycling the Hebridean Way. They were originally from London, but currently live in Edinburgh. Jim said he worked for publisher Dorling Kindersley (DK) on children’s books.
Just before sunset, I headed outside, crossing fields and over sand dunes to reach a beautiful beach. There was a fantastic view of the sun setting over the sea. A full moon was also rising to the east. It had been quite an intense day, so I went bed early, and had a perfect night’s sleep on a comfortable memory foam mattress.
Benbecula and North Uist presented a problem for the ascetics of my route, since they are almost entirely flat, and the Hebridean Way mostly sticks on or near the main road. The key was realising that this landscape can be best appreciated by climbing the highest points on Benbecula and North Uist: Ruabhal and Eabhal respectively. Ruabhal I could reach directly from the hostel, while Eabhal would require a bus journey over the causeway to North Uist.
I was originally planning to approach Eabhal from the Loch Euphort road to the north, but careful studying of the map suggested a possible approach from the west. This would require navigating through a complex maze of lochans and tidal inlets, but it looked just about possible. In the morning Donald dropped by and mentioned that he’d climbed Eabhal on Sunday. He kindly showed me his route on the map, making some adjustments to my intended route.
Just beyond the hostel, I passed the medieval graveyard and chapel of Baile nan Cailleach. After this, the first part of the walk was rather dull, following a minor road for three miles eastwards, to reach Market Stance. This crossroads at the centre of Benbecula was once the location of a medieval market. It’s now home to a bleak waste transfer station and a recycling centre. Beyond the crossroads and the recycling centre, I left the road behind, continuing in the same direction on a track.
At Loch Bà Una, the Hebridean Way departed from the track, and took a path uphill to the summit of Ruabhal. Incidentally the main track continues eastwards, forking and heading to two remote spots on the east side of Benbecula. This would be a lovely route to explore by bike on a future trip.
The summit of Ruabhal at 124m was a marvellous viewpoint to appreciate the watery flatlands of Benbecula and North Uist. To the north I could see the hills rising up on the east side of North Uist, with the dark wedge of Eabhal dominating the view. There was also a fine view of the enticing tracks heading over to the east side of Benbecula. Looking back I could see the distinctive Beinn Mhòr group on South Uist, which I’d climbed a few days earlier.
The Hebridean Way heads north from Ruabhal across moorland and returns to the main road. Surprisingly there were no marker posts for this pathless section. It didn’t really matter since the navigation was straightforward. The only complex part was near the end, where an old faded track snakes between lochans to meet the road at Gramsdal. There’s a stone circle in this area, but I was concerned about missing the bus, so didn’t stop to investigate, and checking online afterwards, found that it’s in a ruinous state.
I was aiming to catch the W18 “North Uist loop clockwise” bus service, departing from Balivanich at 11:52am and arriving in Clachan at 12:25pm. There was no bus stop, so I would need to keep my eyes peeled and look out for a minibus. The bus arrived pretty much when expected, and a female passenger kindly offered to tell me when it was time to get off.
The bus headed immediately onto a causeway over sand-flats, connecting between little rocky islands. Historically the crossing between Benbecula and North Uist could only be made at low tide on a complex route known as the North Ford. For significant parts of each tide cycle it was too wet to ford, but the water was not deep enough to cross by ferry. Old maps show the North Ford was actually a network of tracks connecting between various points on Benbecula, Grimsay and North Uist.
In 1960 the North Ford Causeway opened, a five mile arc of single track road linking North Uist and Benbecula via the western tip of Grimsay. It made the newspapers later that week when motorists from Lochmaddy reached Lochboisdale within a day using the new causeway: something unheard of until then!
I expected the bus to cross Grimsay and continue directly to North Uist, but the lady explained that it does a loop to serve the settlements on Grimsay. I mentioned that I was interested in crossing the North Ford, and the lady said that fisherman of Grimsay would probably still have a good knowledge of the sand-flats and be able to guide people safely across. This would be an excellent idea for a local tourist business – I’m sure people would pay for this unique experience.
I left the bus just before Moorcroft Campsite (http://www.moorcroftholidays.co.uk), and walked for a mile down the minor road to Cladach Chairinis. This road provided a good view back to the causeway and the complex coast comprised of sand-flats and rocky islets in this area. At the end of the road, I passed by a beautifully restored blackhouse with a golden thatched roof, and set off across the pathless moorland.
Donald had said to head directly over the highest ground for half a mile, towards a narrow isthmus between a freshwater loch and a tidal inlet, where there’s a gate. On the way several deer appeared on the horizon, quickly bounding away. Beyond the isthmus, the route continued on the same line, past a helpful marker cairn, continuing until just beyond a loch, where it swung northwards around a tidal inlet. There’s a few ruined buildings here, the remains of the settlement Ceann Arigh an Obain.
Donald had said to continue eastwards to reach the end of the vast Loch Obasaraigh. To get around the end of the loch, a short fence has to be climbed between this and an adjacent pool. Stones have been helpfully piled up either side of the fence, forming a makeshift stile. There was one more fence to cross, this time through a gate, and I was finally on the slopes of Eabhal!
I’d used up all my water, so was glad to find the trickle of a spring on the lower slopes of Eabhal, near a pair of old cairns. I intended to camp on the summit of Eabhal, so drank a lot of water, and filled both bottles to the brim. The heather in this area had been recently burnt, so gaining height was easygoing, without having to negotiate deep heather. A little valley runs up the side of Eabhal, which Donald had said was the easiest way up. There was actually water running in this valley, not shown on the map, so I could have collected drinking water higher up.
Once on the shoulder, the ground got a bit steeper, but it wasn’t difficult, and soon I was standing on the 347m summit, admiring what is undoubtedly one of the finest viewpoints in Britain. Walk Highlands gives an excellent description of the view: “This is truly a unique viewpoint, with the whole of North Uist mapped below as a maze of lochans in the east and a strip of sand and green machair to the west, whilst north rise the mountains of Harris and south the Beinn Mhòr group on South Uist. Skye seems only a stone's throw away on a clear day. The strip of crofting land alongside the Loch Euphort road looks like a green oasis amidst the brown moors that surround it.”
There’s little to add to this description, except to note a few more details. On Skye the distinctive flat-topped hills of Macleod's Tables were clearly visible. The other North Uist hills, Lì a' Deas and Lì a' Tuath looked magnificent, immediately to the north of Eabhal. Out to sea, a little white sailing boat was skirting around the coast. It’s worth noting that Eabhal is almost entirely surrounded by water, it’s practically an island and it wouldn’t take much to cut it off from the rest of North Uist.
It was quite windy on top, but I found a sheltered spot just south of the summit. The temperature was lower than previous camps, and I used my thermal merino wool base-layer for the first time on the trip. At points in the evening I emerged from the tent to take more photos, as the sun cast light and lengthening shadows across this awe-inspiring landscape. Unfortunately a bank of cloud on the horizon blocked the sunset and dashed my hopes of spotting St Kilda. Oh well I’ll have to come back again!
Overnight the sky became overcast and by morning the air was damp and cold. I planned to catch the W16 12:24pm bus service from Clachan to Berneray Hostel. There was over nine miles to walk to the main road, so I made an early and chilly start, setting off around 7am. Unlike the ascent route, there was a good path down the north-east side of Eabhal.
At the base of the hill, the path sticks to the shore of the vast Loch Obasaraigh for two miles to reach a line of stepping stones. The stones cross a very short river between Loch Obasaraigh and the sea. At high tide the flow reverses and the loch is inundated with sea water. Apparently the stepping stones can be completely covered at very high tides – I was lucky and made it across with dry feet. Loch Obasaraigh contains a mixture of fresh and saltwater, making it an unusual habitat, a chracteristic of several other lochs on North Uist.
Just beyond the stepping stones, I reached the end of a minor road. There were now four rather dull miles to walk along this road, past the crofts at Drim Sidinish, Sidinish and Locheport. The tidal fjord Loch Euphort cuts deeply into North Uist, almost reaching the west side. I would follow it all the way, rejoining the Hebridean Way on a new path around the end of the loch. Just before I reached the new path, a car stopped and a lady offered me a lift – I politely declined; by that time there was only a few more minutes of road walking!
The new Hebridean Way path was an interesting mixture of different path-building techniques. It started off with compacted stone, then continued with plastic netting, then one section had just plastic marker posts. The path leads to Langass Lodge hotel and restaurant (http://www.langasslodge.co.uk/homea.html), which has a reputation for excellent seafood dishes. From here there’s a small network of waymarked trails, visiting a couple of impressive Neolithic sites: Pobull Fhinn stone circle and Barpa Langass chambered cairn.
I went past the hotel, heading first for Pobull Fhinn. The name is usually translated as “Fionn's people”, almost certainly a reference to the legendary Gaelic hero Fionn mac Cumhaill, known in English as Finn or Fingal. The site is also known as “Sòrnach Coir' Fhinn”, “the fireplace of Fionn's cauldron”. The circle is built on an artificial platform created by digging away part of the hillside, depositing the excavated earth on the lower part of the slope, thus making a level surface. The stones are surrounded by a sea of deep heather, and it’s quite hard to photograph the full extent of the circle.
The waymarked trail continued around the side of Beinn Langais, then turned sharp left to climb up to the 91m trig pillar on its summit. On the far side of the hill, the path dropped down to the massive Barpa Langass chambered cairn. Of all the chambered cairns in the Outer Hebrides, this is the best preserved, and the only one with an intact chamber that can still be entered. Unfortunately there’s been a recent collapse near the entrance, and the custodians have deemed it unsafe to enter.
The entrance was covered by a propped up wood-framed metal grille, which I simply removed and peered inside. It looked safe enough, so I crawled in and admired the Neolithic engineering of thislarge and regularly-shaped chamber. The entrance faces just south of east, and is not considered to have been aligned to anything specific. Incidentally there’s another chambered cairn a few miles away on the side of Uineabhal, which is seldom visited – one for another trip.
I hurried down to the road, since it was nearly time for the bus. Thankfully it arrived on time, just after 12:30pm. From the bus I could see the Hebridean Way following the original route of the road on a parallel track. To the north there’s Loch Sgadabhagh, which has the most complex shore of all the lochs in Scotland! The road led to the ferry terminal at Lochmaddy, served by ferries from Uig on Skye. Beyond here, the road continued northward through wetlands, with a couple of distinctive hills Crògearraidh Mòr and Crògearraidh Beag on the horizon.
The bus then crossed the causeway to Berneray, opened officially in 1999 by Prince Charles, constructed at a cost of £6.6 million. The ferry to Berneray ran for the last time at the end of 1998. The Prince, well-known for his strong views on conservation and design, praised the causeway for blending into its setting, and for the provision of wildlife facilities such as otter culverts. He also approved of the efforts, including fencing, that have been made to keep rabbits off Berneray, preserving its unique ecology.
The bus dropped me off right at Berneray Hostel (http://www.gatliff.org.uk/?page_id=9) around 1:10pm. The hostel is not well signposted; it’s reached via a grassy track leading to a pair of restored blackhouses perched on a rocky shore. The thick stone walls of both buildings are painted gleaming white, and both roofs are thatched in the traditional style, with rocks weighing down the perimeter. One building contains a couple of dormitories, toilets and a shower, the other contains a large kitchen/lounge/diner and a separate dormitory humorously known as ‘The Penthouse Suite’.
There were a couple of Scottish ladies who’d also just arrived. Both were retired, and were making use of their bus passes to travel around Scotland for free, staying in hostels. One had been coming to Berneray for years – it was one of her favourite hostels.
It was still early in the day, so I decided to spend the afternoon following a Walk Highlands route around the coast of Berneray. I’d been walking for over a week with a full pack, so it was a welcome change to do the walk with just a day pack. The route stayed with a minor road for a little under a mile, then followed a line of wooden posts past a graveyard, and up onto Beinn Shlèibhe, at 93m the highest point on Berneray!
The marker posts led down to the vast sandy beach on the west side of Berneray. The marked route stays on the machair behind a ridge of dunes, but I abandoned the path, and dropped down onto the beach, where the firm sand was good to walk on. In 2009 it was reported that a photograph of this beach had been used to advertise Kae Bae beach in Thailand! Apparently the turquoise water, white sands and absence of people looked better than the actual beach in Thailand! See here for the news articles: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/highlands_and_islands/8413627.stm and http://www.scotsman.com/news/hebrides-find-a-new-home-near-thailand-courtesy-of-tourist-board-1-782859
I walked for over a mile along the deserted beach, admiring the exquisite landscape. After rounding a headland, I found a way up the steep dunes, and walked for a while along the dune ridge, admiring the landscape from the higher vantage point. For the next section, I cut across wet dune slacks, surrounded by hundreds of wheeling seabirds, apparently feeding or perhaps nesting. Oystercatchers and gulls appeared to be the dominant species. At one point I was surprised to see an owl flying directly overhead. Some owl species, such as the short eared owl and the little owl are known to hunt in the daytime.
After passing the community hall, the wooden marker posts ascended the small hill, Beinn a’ Chlaidh. There’s a large lichen-encrusted standing stone on this hill, presumably dating from the Neolithic or Bronze Age. The posts finally descended to the road, which I followed along the east shore, past the main group of houses on Berneray, back to the hostel. It had been a long day, and the last mile of road walking was a bit of a struggle!
The hostel was a hive of activity, now that many more people had arrived. Some were camping outside, paying a £10 fee for using the hostel facilities. One man had just got returned from St Kilda – he’d taken a boat that starts on Uig, Skye, stops at Berneray and continues to St Kilda (http://www.gotostkilda.co.uk/, £240 for a return trip from Berneray). The Scottish ladies had been out for a short walk and had stopped somewhere for crab sandwiches, which they said were delicious.
An intriguing guy with long white hair and a beard said he was travelling around the world with just a rucksack, having given up his job, disposed of most of his possessions and relinquished his permanent accommodation! A cyclist arrived later in the evening when the lounge was crammed with a hubbub of people talking and cooking. He looked a bit overwhelmed, so I explained the hostel system – grab any free bed and pay the warden when she comes later. Eventually the warden, Jackie, arrived to collect the £15 fee. The cyclist was very generous and gave me some red wine to drink with my meal.
After eating I had a welcome shower, then headed off to bed. I was hoping to travel to St Kilda on Friday morning, so needed to be in Leverburgh by tomorrow evening. I decided to take the morning ferry at 7:15am from Berneray to Leverburgh, and drop my things off at Am Bothan Bunkhouse (http://www.ambothan.com). I could then do a day walk on South Harris and be back at the hostel by the evening.
It was a little hard to get up early, but I soon got going, reversing the previous day’s road walk, and continuing past Ardmaree Stores to reach the ferry terminal. Despite the early hour, there was a long queue of vehicles. The system was the same as for the Barra-Eriskay ferry – you embark first, then go to the ticket office to pay. For a foot-passenger the crossing costs £3.45.
Until 1996, the only way to transport a car from North Uist to Harris was via a ferry, following a triangular route between Lochmaddy, Uig (on Skye) and Tarbert. On many days the ferry went indirectly via Skye, with a journey time of four hours between North Uist and Harris. The only alternative was a passenger ferry across the Sound of Harris between Otternish on North Uist to Berneray and Leverburgh. A direct vehicle ferry service across the Sound of Harris began in 1996, using a novel propulsion system that allows a high degree of manoeuvrability in these treacherous shallow and rocky waters.
Once the Berneray causeway was completed in 1998, the ferry's southern terminus became a purpose-built slipway in a new harbour at the causeway's northern end. Traffic using the ferry increased dramatically, far more than anyone predicted. In 2006, the service started to operate seven days per week. Sunday services were strongly resisted in Harris, and eventually it was agreed that the ferry could use Leverburgh harbour, but the local men would offer no assistance to help it dock! This change made the northern half of the Outer Hebrides accessible by ferry on a Sunday for the first time.
The sea between Berneray and Harris is unusually shallow and scattered with rocky islets. The ferry has to take an exacting route, with numerous changes of course to keep the boat in the deepest water. This year between March and October, there are days with particularly low tides, and some of the regular ferry times are adjusted to accommodate.
I sat next to a guy from Berneray, who was travelling to Harris to meet a friend in Tarbert. He kindly offered to give me a lift, which I declined since I wanted to confirm that there was room at the bunkhouse first, and drop off my camping gear. When we arrived at 8:15am some people headed from the ferry directly to the Kilda Cruises boat – I was amazed that they’d chosen to risk the morning crossing to join this trip!
Incidentally, Leverburgh is pronounced Lee-ver-bur-ruh, like Edinburgh. It was named after Lord Leverhulme, who’d established Lever Brothers with his brother in 1886, one of the first companies to manufacture soap from vegetable oils, and now part of the Anglo-Dutch business Unilever. In 1888 he constructed a bespoke village, Port Sunlight on the Wirral, for his workers.
In 1918, in semi-retirement, Leverhulme bought the Isle of Lewis for £167,000 and the estate of South Harris in 1919 for £36,000. His plans for future prosperity centred upon using modern science and his own business skills to establish a large and thriving fishing industry. For various reasons Leverhulme failed to get local buy-in, and in 1923 he finally gave up, offering to transfer the land to the locals. Only Stornoway accepted the gift, everyone else refusing to accept what was clearly an unprofitable estate. Leverhulme sold as much as he could, but many of the buyers were interested principally in the sports of shooting and fishing.
Am Bothan bunkhouse was open, but deserted, when I arrived. The kitchen and lounge is imaginatively decorated with a nautical theme, including a suspended boat, whale bones, driftwood and rope fenders. There’s a collection of musical instruments, notably an acoustic guitar, which I was looking forward to playing later. I chose a bed and unloaded all my camping gear.
Just after 9am I spotted the owner, Ruari, outside, and went to pay for a night’s stay. The cost is £25, surprisingly high considering no breakfast or towels are provided. Ruari likes to spend time out on the water – he’d been out canoeing until midnight yesterday! He seems to have a very relaxed attitude to running the hostel.
So far my progress up through the Outer Hebrides had been a linear route, moving northwards every day. The St Kilda trip broke this progression, but I still wanted to investigate the route northwards, so today decided to get a bus north, then walk back to Leverburgh.
Roads follow the coast on both sides of South Harris, but the two sides could not be more different. The main road takes an easier route on the west side, passing some beautiful sandy beaches, tidal sand-flats and sand dunes. The east coast is extraordinarily rocky, with an extremely complex coastline. This area is sometimes called The Bays, due to the numerous tidal inlets.
For many years the fishing villages on the east side of Harris were unreachable by road. In the 1870s a local minister told a Royal Commission that the road was desperately needed, since there had been many near accidents, narrow escapes and some deaths from people crossing swollen rivers. Initially tracks were constructed in 1897 to provide access for children to schools. Several of these tracks are now grassed over and incorporated in the Harris Walkway.
The locals had a long fight to persuade the grudging local authority to spend the money to build a metalled road. The road is nicknamed the ‘Golden Road’, perhaps a reference to the authorities’ reluctance to spend money on it. Local labour was used in the construction, so it was actually relatively cheap to build, but a claim lingers that the cost was so high it ‘must have been made of gold’! The metalled road was finally built in the 1940s, in places replacing the previous track and in others forging a new route.
I decided to take the 9:30am W13 bus from Leverburgh, along the Golden Road to Lickisto. From here I could pick up a section of the Harris Walkway, an old path crossing to the west side of Harris. From here the Hebridean Way curves around hillsides above the main road, eventually leading back to Leverburgh by the evening.
The bus driver was really friendly, and volunteered many interesting nuggets of information. The rocky moonscape on the this part of the Harris coast was used by Stanley Kubrick in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The alien planet surface seen as Dave Bowman passes through the Stargate includes some optically distorted shots of the rocky Harris coastline. This barren landscape was filmed from small planes, and tinted using coloured lenses to make it look even more otherworldly. The rock, known as anorthosite, is similar in composition to that found on the moon.
The path I planned to take across to the west coast is known as the ‘Coffin Route’. The ground is so rocky on the east side and the soil so shallow, that Christian burial is impossible. Coffins had to be carried by hand across a 100m pass, where there’s a gap in the hills. Apparently during one journey the pallbearers realised that the occupant of the coffin wasn’t dead, and had to turn around and carry them back! The coffin carrying shows a strong dedication to the Christian faith – before Christianity perhaps people in this area would have been buried at sea or cremated.
Frustratingly the driver dropped me off a mile further along the road to where I wanted to get off, because he knew where there was a signpost and information board. This was already going to be a long walk, and now it was even longer! The first mile involved a climb and a descent to a house, the point where I should have started the walk.
The Coffin Route path looks to have been recently improved, presumably to incorporate it into the Hebridean Way. In some places the path has been rerouted onto drier ground. It’s surprising that these changes were made to a path steeped in so much history. On the far side of the bealach, the path widened to a track, descending past several lochs to a salt-marsh.
From this point the Hebridean Way heads off on a pathless route, across six miles of heathery hillside. This was a rather daunting prospect, but my previous experience on the Way had been good, so I decided to give it a go! Wooden marker posts lead up a steep hillside to a height of 150m. This was an excellent point to view Luskentyre Beach (Tràigh Losgaintir), with its vast sand-flats stretching across an estuary and blending into turquoise seas.
The wooden marker posts were spaced surprisingly far apart, which made the route-finding difficult. It was not always possible to see from one post to the next – this would be a really hard walk in wet and misty weather. The route lost height, dropping down to the first of three substantial new wooden footbridges, this one over the Abhainn Sheileboist. It was a good opportunity to top up on drinking water. Streams are abundant in the mountainous Harris landscape, and thankfully it was no longer necessary to carry large amounts of water.
The route then went over a low pass and curved around the side of a ridge on heathery ground to enter Gleann Horgabost. There are more beautiful beaches and an official campsite below this point. Here a second footbridge crossed the Gil Meodal. The footbridges stand in sharp contrast to the rough terrain and complete lack of a path! Half a mile further on, the route met the line of an old field boundary, a stone wall cloaked in vegetation. The rest of this section of the Hebridean Way followed old walls, making for easier navigation.
At the third footbridge, over the All Borgh Beag, I was surprised to encounter a pair of walkers, coming the other way. They lived locally and were keen to explore this new route, describing it positively as “something different”. They remarked that the route was boggy even in the current dry weather, so would be difficult in wet conditions. They advised to not literally walk from post to post, but instead take a line avoiding the bogs, using the posts as a general guide. They mentioned that once I got down to the road, I could continue following the Hebridean Way off-road along sand dunes, rather than stick to the road, as shown on the official route map.
This morning’s grey clouds had now cleared and the weather was hotting up again. Views to the west included the mountains of North Harris, beautiful sandy beaches, dunes, and nearby the Iron Age fort Dùn Bhuirgh. Towards the end of this section, the route approach a sheep farm; the more intensive grazing had kept the vegetation down, making for easier walking.
Once down at the road, a series of metal gates led out onto the dunes of Tràigh Scarasta. Here the dune grass blended gently into the white sands of the beach, a really beautiful location. Somehow I missed the marker posts leading back to the road, and stayed on the dunes as they transitioned into salt-marsh. I followed a fence back to the road, and had to make a bold leap over a tidal stream to escape!
It was now 5:30pm, and there were still four miles to walk back to Leverburgh. Half of this would be on an engineered geo-textile path through Gleann Uachdrach, while the last part was on minor roads, which didn’t look very enticing. I needed to call Kilda Cruises by 7pm, and there was no reception here, so decided to try hitch-hiking back to Leverburgh.
The road was very quiet so I worried I might have a long wait for a lift. In the first car was a lady, who didn’t stop, but ten minutes later the second car stopped, the driver wound down the window saying “where you going my friend?” The guy’s name was Bob, and he said he was going to Leverburgh. He worked for Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) as a trapper eliminating American mink from the Outer Hebrides.
The mink were introduced here for fur farming in the 1920s, then a wild population became established in the 1950s, as a result of escapes and deliberate releases when the fur market collapsed. SNH are aiming to eradicate the mink to protect the internationally important ground nesting and migratory bird populations. Mink are aggressive predators and often predate on waders and other ground-nesting birds, their eggs and their young. The Hebridean Mink Project was started by SNH in 2001, and now the mink have been practically eliminated. Isolated solitary mink are not considered problematic, since the chance of meeting a breeding partner is minimal; eventually they will die out naturally.
Bob dropped me off right at the bunkhouse; he mentioned that he needed to check up on some plants in Ruari’s poly-tunnels. I thanked him for the lift – it would have been a real slog to walk back. Bob mentioned that he was going out in boat tomorrow, so the weather should be good for my trip to St Kilda. I called the Kilda Cruises office and the lady confirmed that the trip was going ahead. This was fantastic news, I was really excited now the prospect was becoming a reality!
In the hostel I picked up the acoustic guitar, and noticed that the top E string was missing. There was a packet of spare strings, and I soon fixed the missing string. I normally play with a capo, and managed to improvise one from a spoon, an elastic hair band and some cardboard. I got the instrument into a working state, and enjoyed singing with the excellent acoustics in the lounge, looking out at mountains in the distance.
Later an Austrian family arrived with young children, and a pair of workmen turned up. The workmen, Paul and Andy, were from South Uist and had travelled up to Harris to install a concrete floor. They were very appreciative of my music, and offered me several beers. We went outside and I sang some songs from artists they liked, including a few Oasis songs and Little Lion Man by Mumford & Sons.
Later on I cooked up some pasta, and Paul and Andy kindly gave me some curly fries. Paul was amazed that I was paying £210 for a day trip to St Kilda. He reckoned that it would be possible to find a local man with a boat to do it for £50! This may be true, but there are some significant differences. A private boat would be difficult to arrange in advance, it would require asking around in Leverburgh, potentially waiting several days for the boat to become free, and the weather to be settled enough for it to make the crossing. The private boat would have none of the costs and overheads associated with running a business.
Kilda Cruises, on the other hand, has four full-time staff: Angus who runs the business, David & Malcolm the regular crew, and Lewis in the office by Tarbert pier. The boat makes on average three trips per week to St Kilda, out of a possible maximum of six. Presumably the crew need to be paid even if the weather is unsuitable for a crossing. The trips only operate between May and September when the weather is most settled, but the company has to be viable for the entire year. In addition presumably public liability insurance has to be paid, which is probably expensive for a trip to such a remote location.
Later in the evening a larger group arrived at the hostel. There was some confusion about where they were staying, and they eventually ended up in a six-bed dormitory, the only upstairs dorm, accessible from a balcony above the lounge/diner. Two people in the group were on the same St Kilda trip as me tomorrow morning.
In the morning I packed up everything including camping gear, since I was not intending to return to the hostel this evening. Angus has assured me that there was plenty of room on the boat, so it would be OK to leave stuff onboard when going ashore on St Kilda.
The boat was due to depart at 8am, from a jetty just west of the ferry terminal. Boarding was at 7:45am, at which time there would be a safety briefing. I headed down to the jetty with the other two people from the hostel. The weather was looking dull and overcast, and it was beginning to drizzle – not a good start to the day. The skipper David and crewman Malcolm welcomed us onboard (http://www.kildacruises.co.uk/the-crew).
Soon the rest of the passengers arrived. There was a mother and daughter, both doctors, with the daughter Mhari working at the hospital in Stornoway. Another couple were on holiday from Canada and had some serious photography equipment! There were two young friends from Aberdeen, one of them, John, employed by the Scottish National Party. Finally there was an older couple, who had a fascination with remote islands (they mentioned Skellig Michael, seven miles off the coast of Ireland: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skellig_Michael)
As soon as we departed, it was clear that it was going to be a very rough crossing indeed. The fifty miles across open sea to St Kilda was quite a daunting prospect. The cabin windows were splattered with seawater and steamed up, making it hard to get a good view, and soon I began feel nauseous. I asked for a life jacket and stayed out on deck for the duration of the crossing. Initially I watched the land until it disappeared, then kept my eyes glued to the horizon. It took a lot of concentration to avoid feeling seasick.
Mhari was also out on deck, she was in good spirits, but the guy from Canada looked very pale. Inside the boat John was seasick – luckily there were plentiful (biodegradable) cups on board, and Malcolm went back and forth several times casting these overboard.
Once the land disappeared into the distance, it was a surreal experience being out at sea. The sea, the sky and the swell behind the boat are so monotonous that they have a hypnotic quality. After a few hours Malcolm pointed out St Kilda looming up on the horizon. Dark rocks rose ominously out of the sea, disappearing mysteriously into cloud. A gannet swooped past the boat, easily identifiable from its yellow head and huge wingspan. The occasional puffin also few past.
As we sailed into Village Bay, the steep cliffs of Oisehbhal loomed up to the right, and the long craggy arm of Dùn stretching out to the left. We were landing on the main island, Hirta (Hiort in Gaelic, pronounced hersht). Here there’s a concrete pier where the water’s deep enough for boats to moor up. However because of the risk of rats, it’s forbidden to bring closed cabin vessels alongside the pier. Instead we had to anchor in the bay, and transfer into an open dingy (easier to check for rats). As an addition precaution, a member of National Trust staff watches for stowaways when the boat moors up!
Two trips were required to get everyone ashore, I went on the second trip. As I climbed the concrete steps of the pier, I was amazed to see an old work colleague, Rob Gower! It was Rob who’d first told me about St Kilda, describing his experiences on National Trust work parties there, conjuring up a vivid impression of the place with his boundless energy and enthusiasm. I probably wouldn’t have ever gone to St Kilda if it wasn’t for Rob, so this chance encounter brought things full circle. Rob was only on St Kilda for two weeks, in his dream job as volunteer warden. Meeting him on St Kilda was an incredible coincidence!
Malcolm said we’d have about 4½ hours on Hirta, with the boat leaving promptly at 3:30pm. Due to incoming bad weather, the next boat would not be until Wednesday, so getting stuck was not recommended. I wanted to explore as much of the island as possible, so told Rob that I would catch up with him later, once I returned from a walk around the island.
I wound a way through a maze of stone walls and cleitean, climbing onto open hillside. A cleit (plural cleitean) is a stone storage hut with a turf roof, uniquely found on the isles and stacs of St Kilda. There are known to be 1260 cleitean on Hirta and a further 170 on the rest of the archipelago. They are no longer maintained and are slowly falling into disrepair. The structure is designed to keep out the rain, but still allow airflow. They were mainly used for storing food and some equipment. The corbelled roof design dates back to the Neolithic.
Cleitean were used to store cured fish, eggs (buried in peat ash), feathers, fishing gear, grains such as wheat, barley and oats, hay, manure, peat, potatoes, ropes, salted lamb and salted seabird carcasses. The mainstay of the St Kildan diet was the abundant seabirds, particularly gannets and fulmars. The people generally avoided fishing, because of the heavy seas and unpredictable weather. St Kilda was historically part of the domain of the MacLeods of Harris, whose steward was responsible for the collection of rents. Rent was typically paid in feathers, seabirds and bird oil.
There’s evidence that Hirta has been inhabited since the Neolithic. Vikings are also known to have visited the islands. Up until 1930 the islands were home to a subsistence community, surviving mainly on seabirds, but also growing crops and keeping sheep.
I climbed higher, passing an area of substantial stone-built sheepfolds, leading up to a place called The Gap, the low point between Oisebhal and Conachair. Here the cliffs drop vertically into the sea. On a clear day it’s possible to look out from The Gap and see the sea stacks Stack Lee, Stac an Armin and Boreray, four miles away.
The St Kildans confidently abseiled down the cliffs on the north side of Hirta, collecting seabirds and eggs. They were also extremely capable rock climbers, and were able to free climb to reach some extraordinarily exposed locations. In the Victorian era, wealthy tourists began visiting the community on St Kilda, and the abseiling/climbing proved to be a popular spectacle for visitors. There were, however, occasional causalities when the basic home-made ropes broke, or rocks on the cliffs crumbled.
I decided to climb Oisebhal (290m) first, and hope that the cloud would lift by the time I backtracked around to Conachair (430m). Unfortunately the cloud was just clipping the top of Oisebhal, so there was no view from the summit. As I returned to The Gap, several other people from the Kilda Cruises group were climbing up. Conachair didn’t look very promising with cloud covering half the mountain. The air was quite damp, so I put on waterproofs before continuing up into the clouds.
Soon I was on the summit of Conachair, the highest point in the archipelago. I got out my GPS to take a reading – St Kilda is just five miles from the edge of British National Grid, and as a geography geek I wanted to take a photo of the GPS display! The GPS also showed that Conachair is very close to the southern edge of 100km square NA – later in the walk I’d cross over into grid square NF.
Some careful compass work was required to descend from Conachair, avoiding straying onto the massive northern cliffs, the highest sea cliffs in Britain. On the bealach between Conachair and Mullach Mòr, the clouds began to lift, and frustratingly the summit of Conachair was now free of cloud! There was also a hazy view out to sea, with the sea stacks visible as sinister dark silhouettes, floating in a whitish haze.
On Mullach Mòr there are ugly radar tracking towers used by the MoD, and a metalled road leads all the way back to Village Bay. Staff based on St Kilda operate tracking facilities linked to the army missile testing range on South Uist. In 1955 the British government decided to use St Kilda as part of a missile tracking range, and in 1957 it became permanently inhabited for the first time since 1930. The MoD leases St Kilda from the National Trust for Scotland for a nominal fee.
A variety of military buildings and masts have since been erected, including a canteen (which is not open to the public), and the 'Puff Inn' the most remote pub in Britain (which is not open to day visitors). There’s a rather unsightly group of military buildings in Village Bay, and there are plans to replace them with something more in keeping with the landscape.
From Mullach Mòr, I had a good view down into Gleann Mòr, apart from Village Bay the only other lowland area on Hirta. It would have been interesting to visit this remote glen, but there wasn’t time to lose height, then regain the height to return to the boat.
Instead, I identified a ridge stretching out westwards above Gleann Mòr, to a high point at Mullach Bi (358m), then winding out towards the tiny island of Soay in the west. This ridge looked rather enticing; I checked the clock and decided that there was sufficient time to make this diversion. I stayed away from the metalled road as much as possible, then followed a trace of an old path around the hillside and up onto the ridge. There were numerous cleitean along the way, and in places it was necessary to clamber over rocky outcrops.
In one spot I was attacked by bonxies (great skuas). I’ve encountered these before on Orkney and in the Faroe Islands. They swoop down and dive bomb anyone who ventures near their nests! The best tactic is to hold up a stick, so that they aim for that and not your head! A final steep grassy slope rose up to the summit of Mullach Bi – this required some care, as I didn’t want to sustain an injury and miss the boat! I neglected to take a GPS reading on the summit, but took one on the way back, confirming that I was now in 100km grid square NF.
Time was getting short, there was no time to stop for lunch, so I munched some tuna and oatcakes as I walked along. I retraced steps for part of the way, then climbed up onto Mullach Sgar. From here there were excellent views of the serrated profile of Dùn. This separate island was formerly connected to Hirta by a rock bridge, up until a few hundred years ago when the bridge collapsed during a storm. It’s still possible to scramble across seaweed-covered rocks to Dùn at very low tides.
There’s another radar tracking tower on Mullach Sgar, with a track linking to the Mullach Mòr road to Village Bay. I avoided most of the track and road, cutting diagonally across the hillside, down towards Village Bay. There was a fantastic birds-eye view of Village Street and the assorted rocky walls and cleitean scattered around the village.
Hundreds of sheep were grazing around the village, many with newborn lambs. These are Soay sheep which are distinct from the sheep kept by the St Kildans, and are actually descended from a population originating from the island of Soay, just west of Hirta. On Soay they lived as feral animals, belonging to the landlord, not to the St Kildans. During the 1930 evacuation, the islanders' sheep were completely removed from Hirta, and soon after the feral population of Soay sheep was introduced. Today there are 600-1700 Soay sheep on Hirta and around 200 remaining on Soay.
Soay sheep are a unique type, are believed to be remnants of the earliest sheep kept in Europe in the Neolithic. They are small, short-tailed, usually brown with white bellies, and have naturally moulting fleeces. After the evacuation, the islanders left some of their own sheep on Boreray to become feral, and these are now regarded as a breed in their own right, the Boreray. This breed originates from the Iron Age and is one of the few surviving descendants of the Dunface.
I walked along Village Street, visiting each ruined building. These cottages were constructed around 1860 for the islanders to use, replacing the traditional blackhouses. The cottages had zinc-roofs which were not ideal, since they became damaged and could not be repaired without more imported supplies. Such changes made by visitors in the 19th Century, gradually disconnected the islanders from the way of life that had previously allowed them to survive in this unique environment.
Visiting each ruin, I noticed names and evacuation dates had been written on pieces of slate inside each building. At one time the population of St Kilda numbered several hundred. This began to dwindle, mainly as a result of outside influences. Visiting ships in the 18th century brought cholera and smallpox, which had a big impact on the tiny population with no resistance to such diseases. In 1851, thirty-six islanders emigrated to Australia, a loss from which the island never fully recovered.
After WWI, most of the young men left the island, and the population fell sharply. There was as a succession of crop failures in the 1920s, and four remaining men died from influenza in 1926. Investigations into the fields have shown that the soil became contaminated with lead and other pollutants, caused by repeated use of seabird carcasses and peat ash in the manure applied to the fields. This occurred over a lengthy period of time, as manuring practices became more intensive, and may have been a factor in the crop failures. On 29th August 1930, the remaining 36 inhabitants were evacuated, a decision they took collectively, described in ‘Island on the Edge of the World: the Story of St. Kilda’ by Charles Maclean (1977):
The morning of the evacuation promised a perfect day. The sun rose out of a calm and sparkling sea and warmed the impassive cliffs of Oiseval. The sky was hopelessly blue and the sight of Hirta, green and pleasant as the island of so many careless dreams, made parting all the more difficult. Observing tradition the islanders left an open Bible and a small pile of oats in each house, locked all the doors and at 7am boarded the Harebell. Although exhausted by the strain and hard work of the last few days, they were reported to have stayed cheerful throughout the operation. But as the long antler of Dun fell back onto the horizon and the familiar outline of the island grew faint, the severing of an ancient tie became a reality and the St Kildans gave way to tears.
Walking through the village is an eerie experience. It feels like the past is so close to the surface on Hirta, that you can almost reach out and touch it. The archipelago was bequeathed to the National Trust in 1957 and through their conservation efforts, the memory of the St Kildan way of life is being preserved for future generations. St Kilda is recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, and is one of the few places recognised equally for both natural and cultural significance.
On my walk through the village I omitted to visit the old graveyard and Taigh an t-Sithiche, an Iron Age souterrain. It would take days to explore all the cleitean and walls in the area around Village Bay! I now headed back to the National Trust building, spotting Rob Gower welcoming a newly arrived group of campers. While I waited for Rob, I popped into the gift shop and bought a couple of postcards.
Soon Rob emerged and we had a good long chat. He’s now been retired for five years, and hasn’t looked back at all! He runs the St Kilda gift shop from his home in Romsey, and this is the first year that he’s worked as volunteer warden. We talked briefly about work, and he was pleased to hear that many of the initiatives he’d started had reached completion and had borne fruit. Rob walked with me down to the pier, as David prepared the first shuttle back to the main boat, the Hirta.
I said farewell to Rob, and boarded the second run back to the Hirta. Back on board Malcolm handed around mugs of hot tea, and slices of fruit loaf. This was a nice surprise, and was much appreciated! After the refreshments, David set off on a course to visit the sea stacks and Boreray at close quarters. First we visited Stac Lee, rising 172m above the sea. The stack is populated with around 14,000 seabird nests, the rock beneath their nests is streaked white with guano, and the skies are filled with hundreds of birds wheeling around. It truly is an awe-inspiring place!
Boats from Hirta used to drop the St Kildan men off at the sea stacks – they would land by lassoing an iron peg, then leapt ashore when the swell rose up. There was no permanent mooring, so the men were effectively stranded while they gathered seabirds and eggs, until the boat returned to collect them. Malcolm pointed out the landing point, the route that the men free-climbed, and the stone bothy where they sheltered in a crack in the rock.
We then continued clockwise around Boreray, passing a few minor stacks, to reach Stac an Armin. At 196m high, this is the largest sea stack in Britain. Stac an Armin is a breathtakingly spectacular otherworldly place. It’s covered in thousands of seabird nests, the rock stained white with guano, and the air filled with wheeling birds.
The longest recorded period spent on Stac an Armin was about nine months. Three men and eight boys on a seabird collecting trip from Hirta were marooned between August 1727 and May 1728. They managed to survive all winter amidst the most ferocious storms, living off seabirds and eggs, not knowing why no-one had come to rescue them. They were eventually rescued by the steward of the estate, who’d come to collect the rent. Hirta had suffered a smallpox outbreak while the men were on the stack, and thus the islanders were unable to retrieve them. It turned out that the marooned party were the lucky ones.
Malcolm pointed out the landing point, the climbing route and the location of the stone bothy used by the St Kildans on Stac an Armin. Remarkably there are 78 cleitean here – the stack appears so sheer-sided that it seems improbable that there’d be space for all these buildings!
We continued clockwise around Boreray, viewing the most impressive cliffs on its north side. Further around to the north-east, a landing place was pointed out, and we saw the feral Boreray sheep grazing on the steep slopes. It’s incredible that the sheep can survive the severe winter storms here. Boreray has a cleit village of three small bothies, used on a regular basis during bird-hunting expeditions from Hirta. An archaeological excavation in 2011 found that the Boreray supported a permanent farming community in the Iron Age. Given the island’s unfeasibly steep slopes, it’s amazing that people even tried living here in the first place!
On Boreray we saw a rocky shelf where seals were basking, and a cliff with a large colony of guillemots. On the horizon what appeared to be another huge sea stack came into view, but it was Stac Lee again. We’d come full circle around Boreray, and it was time to leave.
The sea was initially quite rough – John was ill again – but on the way back to Leverburgh the sea calmed. Once land came into view, it was time to pay the balance of the trip, which I did by credit card (you only pay if the trip reaches St Kilda). After paying, Malcolm offered everyone a shot a whisky, which was a nice gesture to end to the trip. The boat arrived back at Leverburgh around 7:30pm.
I still had to decide where I was going this evening and my plan for tomorrow. Mhari was driving back to Stornoway and offered me a lift. I decided to do the ‘Coffin Route’ again in the opposite direction, four miles to Lickisto campsite (http://www.freewebs.com/vanvon) this evening, then continue on the Harris Walkway to Tarbert the following day. Lickisto was reputed to be an excellent campsite, with individual private pitches, a blackhouse with a peat fire as a common room, and fresh bread in the morning!
I thanked Mhari for the lift, then set off over the ‘Coffin Route’. It was a wonderfully still evening, and mirror images of the mountains were reflected in the lochs. Just beyond the top of the pass, I heard the musical sound of running water, and couldn’t resist the temptation to stop and wild camp. There was still a couple of miles to Lickisto; I didn’t fancy arriving at the campsite late and trying to find a pitch; also there wouldn’t be any time to appreciate the facilities.
After the hectic past few days, I had a nice long sleep and awoke feeling refreshed in the morning. The air was still, but the sky was overcast, with lead grey clouds. The first few miles were over familiar ground, to the spot where the bus driver had dropped me on Thursday. From here there was a short stretch of road, before the Harris Walkway continued along the route of an old track. This track predates the construction of the Golden Road, which connects the same points, but takes a longer route closer to the coast.
There was a great feeling of history along this old track, first an old ruined blackhouse with its thick stone walls exposed, then a large deserted byre with its roof still intact, then numerous marker cairns, and the line of the track clearly visible as a green ribbon, snaking between rocky outcrops and lochans. The track emerged at the village of Greosabhagh, where there’s a beautiful loch ringed with dwarf birches. A man out in his garden said “hello”, and said it was about seven miles walking to Tarbert.
There was now just over a mile of road walking, before the Harris Walkway turned off onto another old grassy track between Scadabay and Plocrapool. I stopped for lunch on a well-placed bench, with an excellent view over a large loch. Beyond here there was more road walking, past the Drinishader bunkhouse, continuing for a couple of miles to Meavag. The mile beyond was off-road, sticking closely to the coast, first on a footpath, then on a very rough access track to a remote cottage.
Once again, the route returned to the road, this time for less than a mile on a busier A road, from where I joined the last section of path leading to Tarbert. This path went past a ruined building with a rusting corrugated iron roof. Peering inside, items of furniture and fireplaces were still intact, but birds had taken up residence, so it wouldn’t be a pleasant place to stay.
The path dropped steeply down into Tarbert, which was the busiest place I’d encountered so far in the Hebrides! It’s a major ferry port, and has the shortest connection to the “mainland”, with a regular ferry to Uig on Skye. I located the hostel, but it had been completely booked by a group over the weekend (http://www.backpackers-stop.co.uk). In the tourist office they said there were no other hostels in Tarbert, so the only choice was a B&B or take a bus to a hostel somewhere else.
Checking my map I decided to walk on five more miles to Rhenigidale Hostel (http://www.gatliff.org.uk/?page_id=11). This hostel is run by the Gatliff Trust, so booking would not be an issue. Tarbert was far too busy, its hostel didn’t look that great, so walking onto Rhenigidale would be a better plan anyway.
Before setting off, I needed to stock up on food. There are no supermarkets on Harris, the largest shops are AD Munro in Tarbet (https://en-gb.facebook.com/www.admunro.co.uk) or Harris Community Shop in Leverburgh (http://www.harriscommunityshop.co.uk). My purchases included breakfast cereal, raisins, smoked salmon (locally-caught), oatcakes, biscuits, cakes and snickers bars.
There’s also a takeaway van in Tarbert, recommended by Malcolm as a good place to get fish & chips. This proved correct – the price was only £7.50 for a generous portion, including sachets of ketchup and tartar sauce. I left Tarbert feeling reinvigorated. The first couple of miles was along quite a busy road – this road eventually leads to a bridge over the sea, to the island of Scalpay, where there’s a large settlement.
I ignored the turning for the Harris Walkway, which runs along a track through the deep glacial trough of Gleann Lacasdail. A bit further on I reached reach the start of the Postman’s Path. Up until 1989 this footpath was the only way to reach the remote village of Rhenigidale. As the name suggests, it was used by the postman to deliver and collect the mail, but also by children to walk to school, and even by old ladies going to Tarbert to do their shopping!
The Postman’s Path crosses a 300m pass, then drops steeply down to sea level, before climbing up above the rocky shore, following the coast to Rhenigidale. The route has been described as “the most beautiful path in Britain”, and became well-known after Robert Macfarlane described it in his book The Old Ways.
I began the climb up to the 300m pass, but it had been a long day and my energy was flagging. It started raining so I made a quick decision to leave the path, and camp beside the Abhainn an t-Strathà. I hurriedly erected the tent, and dived in just before the heavens opened. Carrying a tent definitely helps with flexibility! With the close proximity of the stream to a well-used path, I treated the water with iodine to be on the safe side.
For the past three days, I hadn’t reached my intended destination by the end of the day: a combination of over-ambition and road-weariness. My clothes all needed washing and I hadn’t taken a shower since Berneray. Also a I had a knot in my left leg muscle, which needed massaging and rest. Tomorrow was a Sunday, so I decided to have an easier day, if not a complete day of rest. I could walk the final few miles to Rhenigidale Hostel, then spend the rest of the day washing and relaxing.
In the morning there were clear blue skies, but the wind had picked up. Dire weather with gale force winds and heavy rain was predicted for Monday. I packed the tent up and set off along the well-maintained Postman’s Path, leading up to the bealach between Trolamul and Beinn Tharsuinn. The summit was marked by a substantial cairn. To the east there were excellent views of the uninhabited Shiant Islands, twelve miles out to sea. Between 1925 until 1937 these islands were owned by Compton MacKenzie, author of Whisky Galore.
Just beyond the cairn, a minor side path heads off to the right – this leads to the abandoned village of Moilingeanais. I continued straight onto a notorious section where the path plunges down a precipitous slope, negotiating a series of tight zigzags, all the way down to sea level at Loch Trolamaraig. The waters of the loch were turquoise blue and looked very enticing!
Just before the loch, the path passed through a gate in an electric fence. A sign from the North Harris Trust explained that a peninsula of land had been fenced off from grazing deer, as an experiment in vegetation regrowth. At the loch, another minor side path follows the coast to Moilingeanais, while I took the route straight ahead, over a footbridge, regaining height with some more zigzags. There’s an alternative path that takes a slightly lower route, but I stuck with the main path.
Rounding a corner, I bumped into a lady coming in the opposite direction. She said she was staying at the hostel and was just out for a day walk, introducing herself as Kirsty. She mentioned that she was heading out to St Kilda on a National Trust work-party next Wednesday for two weeks (http://www.kilda.org.uk/workparties.htm).
From the elevated path, there were excellent views out to sea. Today the strong winds were whipping up white horses on the dark blue waters. The next point of interest was another abandoned village, Gearraidh Lotaigear. Beyond the ruins, the path snaked uphill, then curved above high sea cliffs to meet the minor road for the final half mile into Rhenigidale.
The mountainous single track road was completed 1989, linking Rhenigidale with Maraig on Loch Seaforth (below the main A859). In places this road is alpine in character, and was constructed using large quantities of explosives. The local people must have been very determined to build such an obviously expensive road to such a small community.
Rhenigidale Hostel was opened in 1962, and was the very first Gatliff hostel. The custodians of the hostel were instrumental in persuading the authorities to construct the road, understanding that it was key to the survival of the village and the hostel. I took the zigzagging road down into the tiny hamlet, arriving at the hostel just before midday. The place was deserted when I arrived.
Rhenigidale is the most compact of the three Gatliff hostels, with a separate kitchen and lounge downstairs. A toilet and shower occupy the space underneath and next to the stairs. Upstairs there are three separate dormitories, and a fire escape with a metal bridge onto the hillside behind. Kirsty had taken the dorm at one end, so I took the dorm at the other.
After eating lunch, I had a well-earned shower. There was a jar of washing power in the toilet; I washed my clothes in the sink and hung them on the washing line outside to dry. With the strong winds and sunshine, they dried quickly. I found a little tin of dubbin, and used it to reproof my boots – they’d got rather dry and scuffed over the past two weeks. After completing all my chores, I relaxed in the lounge reading a copy of The Timeless Way.
This seemed a bit of a waste of a fine day, but I definitely needed a rest, massaging all the knots out of my overworked calf muscles. Some cyclists stopped in briefly to fill up water bottles – amazingly they’d made it over the Postman’s Path with their bikes, wheeling them most of the way. The zigzags had been very difficult to negotiate! They were heading on to cycle the mountain road, then were going to take the Harris Walkway track through Gleann Lacasdail, completing the loop back to Tarbert.
In the evening Kirsty returned from her walk. She’d climbed up to the 300m pass on the Postman’s path and had descended to the abandoned village of Moilingeanais. She couldn’t locate the start of the coast path, so had climbed back up to nearly 300m, taking the Postman’s Path back down the zigzags towards Rhenigidale!
In the evening I got a fire going in the wood-burner in the lounge, and had a good chat with Kirsty. It turned out that her family was from Arran, but she now lived in Bristol. She works as an actor, mainly doing stage work, so taking three weeks off was quite a significant break. Without doing regular auditions, the work dries up, and she expected to be unemployed for some time when she got back to Bristol. I mentioned that my sister is involved in conservation projects in Stoke Park in Bristol, and suggested that she get involved via their Facebook page.
My original plan for the next few days had been to climb the mountains of North Harris, sticking to the highest ground, following the ridges. With the dire forecast, the plan would need to be modified. I was still keen on retaining the idea of a continuous route, so a good option looked to be returning to Tarbert by bus, then walking the last section of the Harris Walkway to the Scaladale Outdoor Centre (http://www.scaladale-centre.co.uk/untitled-ciev), where hopefully I could get a bed in the bunkhouse there.
Kirsty and I both caught the 8:15am W11 bus from Rhenigidale, arriving back in Tarbert at 8:50am. This is the normal school run, but due to exams only a few children got on. The route through the mountains was impressive, and I admired the efforts of those who’d constructed the road across such challenging terrain.
In Tarbert I picked up a few more supplies from the AD Munro shop. In the shop a bespectacled man asked me if I was going far – we had a brief discussion of walking routes, and I recommended that he walk to Rhenigidale. I got a cup of tea from the takeaway van (it was too early to eat fish & chips!), then called the Scaladale Centre. They were unfortunately fully booked with a group. Checking the map, I spotted an area of native woodland near the Scaladale Centre – hopefully I could camp there, with the trees providing some shelter from the coming storm.
The weather was still good as I set off down the road, a repeat of Saturday evening’s walk. Soon I left the road behind, and entered new territory, following the track through Gleann Lacasdail. The route made for easy walking, along the shore of Lochannan Lacasdail. There appears to be a new path on the far shore, making it possible to do a complete circuit of the loch. The track climbed gently northwards towards a 140m pass. Then it dropped immediately down to join the Rhenigidale road, rising up a short way to meet the busy A859.
A short distance along the A road, the Harris Walkway turned off, following an old track across a 212m pass between Gormul Màraig and Cleit Àird. Here the wind began to pick up, the skies darkened and it started to drizzle. The track was poorly drained in places, quite wet and boggy and difficult to negotiate. The rain was now getting heavier, so I hurried on, making a beeline for the area of native woodland. On the map the trees looked well-established, but from a distance it appeared to be just scattered clusters of tiny birch trees planted in hollows.
At the end of the Hebridean Way, a sign announced that the route was opened in 2001 by Cameron McNeish. From here there was less than a mile of road walking to enter Ardvourlie Woodland, on a well constructed path that commences just before the Scaladale Centre. At the beginning of the path there’s a plaque commemorating the 2003 community buy-out of North Harris. The North Harris Trust was established to enable the buyout and continuing management of the 55000 acre North Harris Estate, subsequently expanding to include the 7500 acre Loch Seaforth Estate.
I was now getting soaked, so hurried up the path through the patchy woodland, desperate to find some shelter. I spotted a small birch-filled valley which looked suitable, but it had no water. A short way up the path I found a peaty pool, not ideal, but the murky water could be treated with iodine. The ground under the trees in the valley was a bit uneven, but I managed to arrange the tent in a reasonably level spot between trees, tying the guy lines onto the branches for stability.
Throughout the rest of the day the winds became ferociously strong, and bands of heavy rain lashed the tent. The trees provided excellent shelter, but the occasional strong gust shook the tent. One particularly violent blast yanked on one side of the tent, and I almost lost the peg. In a lull in the rain, I nipped outside and pushed twigs into the ground at 45 degrees over each tent peg to hold them in.
I was lucky to have found such a good place to shelter. It was satisfying to hear the wind whistling and the rain lashing all around, and be tucked away in a relatively sheltered spot. Also camping in woods was an unusual experience in the Hebrides, where trees are extremely scarce.
Ardvourlie Woodland is said to the finest example of a young native woodland plantation on Lewis and Harris. It was the brainchild of the local grazing clerk, the late Murdo Morrison. Murdo’s mother told him that “trees will never grow ‘round here”, but he disagreed. Starting with a small trial plantation on his croft, his ambitions grew, and he soon decided that the hillside above the township would look much better cloaked with trees.
With support from the Forestry Commission, SNH and various funders, Murdo started putting his plans into action, and in 2002 work began on his ambitious project. Today, 300 hectares of hillside have been planted with over 200,000 young trees, including birch, willow, alder, rowan, holly and juniper. In 2015 a further 9000 saplings were planted by the landowners, the North Harris Trust, with help from the Woodland Trust and the John Muir Trust. Murdo wanted everyone to enjoy this woodland, so he made sure a good footpath was included in the project.
If the weather improved, I was considering climbing Clisham, at 799m, the highest mountain in the Outer Hebrides. However, by the morning the wind was still strong, and bands of heavy showers were still sweeping across the landscape.
One option would have been to abandon Harris, and catch the bus to Stornoway. However studying the map, I noticed an intriguing series of old stalkers’ paths heading deep into the North Harris mountains. Going this way I could preserve the continuity of my walk through the Hebrides as long as possible. The stalkers’ paths took lower routes, so would be more sheltered than on the exposed mountain ridges.
The paths would provide a good route to Sròn Ulladale, the largest overhanging cliff in Britain, which I’d heard had a number of bivvy caves under fallen boulders beneath the cliff. This would be a good place to shelter this evening if it was too windy to camp.
The Ardvourlie Woodland path continued uphill in the right direction, suggesting that it would connect with the first of these stalkers’ paths in Gleann Bhìogadail. However the woodland path was not shown on my map, so I decided to take a longer route, back down to the road, and join the stalkers’ path at its very start. Checking an aerial photo afterwards, the Ardvourlie Woodland path goes all the way to Loch Ruairidh, from where it’s less than half a mile to intersect with the stalkers’ path.
The start of the walk was dry down to the road, then there was a mile of road-walking to the beginning of the stalkers’ path. At this point there were a couple of army vehicles with a soldier keeping guard over them. He said that the army were helping the North Harris Trust construct two bridges. He’d helped carry heavy metal girders the previous day and had got completely soaked! A quad bike was now being used to carry bridge timbers along the path (actually more of a track) up to a 180m bealach.
I trudged up the track, walking the two miles to the bealach, lashed by strong winds and heavy showers. Just beyond the top of the pass, the track forked and double-checking the map, I needed to take the right-hand fork. On the way down, I met a large group of bedraggled soldiers climbing up to collect the bridge timbers. The ones at the back didn’t look very happy! Surprisingly they weren’t using waterproofs, and were just wearing the standard camouflaged cotton overalls.
Down in the valley, the Abhainn Langadail was in spate, and it looked impossible to cross without removing my boots. At this stage the new bridge was just two concrete plinths, one on each bank with a pair of steel girders spanning between them. There were ‘keep off’ signs, but with no army guys around, I decided to nip across. The technique was to sit on one girder, with feet braced against the other girder, and slide along. This was a bit intimidating with the water rushing underneath, but I managed to sneak across safely.
The well-constructed stalkers’ path continued to a second bealach, this one 328m high. The ground was steep, but the carefully-designed zigzags made light work of it. In the past there must have been expert knowledge of how to build paths across rough ground, and with the cheap labour available at the time, some remarkable paths were constructed in the mountains of Scotland. I wondered if the new Hebridean Way paths will stand the test of time so well.
Just beyond the bealach, the wind became ferocious, since it was being funneled through the mountains. A waterfall was being blown uphill, and spray was whipped up from white horses on Loch Chleitir below. In several places the force of the wind was impossible to resist, nearly blowing me off the path, and at one point blowing me back several metres! The mountain summits would have been extreme today!
Beyond Loch Chleitir, the path dropped down, heading towards a second army bridge-construction site. This was a separate group of army guys, who’d reached this point by taking a long track up the glen from the south. Beyond here, I had to cut cross-country for a couple of miles to reach Sròn Ulladale.
There were a choice of routes, depending on the location chosen to ford the main watercourse through the glen. I avoided crossing the tributary where the army were constructing the bridge, and headed for the outlet of Loch Bhoisimid. The mouth of the loch has been concreted to form a narrow weir – it was possible to jump across with a bold leap. The concrete was wet and slippery, so it was a relief to get safely across.
I took a diagonal line to the third and final pass of the day, at 212m. Here there was an excellent view of Sròn Ulladale, jutting out like the prow of some great galleon, towering over the rippling Lewis moors. I descended into a rocky corrie and crossed the Abhainn Cronagreine. On the way I disturbed a mountain hare, still with white patches from its winter coat. It snows rarely in the Outer Hebrides, so it’s surprising that natural selection has not bred out the ‘white winter coat gene’ from this population.
Directly below Sròn Ulladale, I spent a long time exploring the chaotic jumble of giant boulders, trying to identify the best bivvy cave. There were several that looked possible, but uncomfortable, so I kept searching until I found a really good one. It was located beneath an enormous van-sized boulder, on the perimeter of the boulder field near Loch Uladail. The boulder has heather growing on top and the cave entrance faces the crag, rather than the lake.
Looking inside the cave, there weren’t many animal droppings, so it looked like it would be free from ticks. I dumped my things and went off to check for other caves. I also took water bottles because I wanted to collect water well away from Sròn Ulladale – this is a popular area with climbers, so the water could have become polluted through toilet waste.
A short way uphill I found a larger, circular cave, but it was full of deer droppings, so didn’t look a pleasant place to stay. I then dropped down to the Abhainn Uladail to collect water from a tributary. Now the skies had cleared and I took some wonderful photos of the sun shining on the face of Sròn Ulladale. The imposing overhanging crag is an awe-inspiring place – the rock climb up it looks unimaginably difficult!
I next dropped down to the shore of Loch Uladail to a spot where a little fishing boat was moored up. The boat was completely full of rainwater! There’s a tin shed here, but it has a sturdy lock, so can’t be used as a bothy. Back at the bivvy cave, I arranged a plastic sheet on the floor and laid out my sleeping bag and mat. I found a few ticks crawling around, but there didn’t seem to be many about.
As it got dark, the cave got a bit chilly, and I put on a thermal merino wool top, then it was nice and cosy. It was still very windy outside, but the cave blocked out most of the wind, and I had an excellent sleep in this unusual spot.
If I’d had more time and settled weather I would have headed north from Sròn Ulladale, across the Lewis moors, to the remote abandoned village of Ceann Loch Reasort. From there a path continues northwards, through the Lewis moors, across the Morsgail Forest, and emerges on a remote road. This looked to be an enticing route, across a seldom visited area, and notably was the route taken by Peter Clarke in The Timeless Way. It would be great to return to Harris and Lewis to make this challenging moorland crossing.
Instead today’s route would follow a series of stalkers’ paths and tracks through the North Harris mountains, ending up at Hushinish, the westernmost settlement on Harris, at the terminus of a minor road. I had enough food, so could potentially spend another night in the Harris mountains, but time was running out. I had to catch the ferry home on Saturday morning, and there was still the Isle of Lewis to explore!
I decided to try to reach Stornoway today, to catch a bus out to the famous late Neolithic stones at Callanish. It would be wonderful to camp overnight near Callanish, so that I could see the stones both late in the evening, and early in the morning, when few people would be around. On Thursday from Callanish I planned to head up to the restored Blackhouse village at Gearrannan, where one of the buildings operates as a hostel. I still had to decide what to do on Friday, but I needed to be back in Stornoway in a hostel by the evening, ready for the morning ferry.
Today the skies were overcast, and the winds were still blowing strong, but the rain was holding off. A good path headed south from Sròn Ulladale, up to a 250m bealach. The bealach provides easy access to the rocky ridges that run either side of Gleann Chliostair. My track continued south, first passing Loch Aiseabhat at the head of the watershed, then switching to the other side of the valley, descending and cutting through rocky ground above the shore of Loch Chliostair. In some places the rock has been blasted to make way for the track.
Loch Chliostair is dammed at its southern end; from the dam an imposing metal pipeline descends a mile to a hydroelectric power station. There’s also a pipe dirverting water into Loch Chliostair from an adjacent stream. For the next mile down to the power station, the track became a metalled road, and the feeling of wildness disipated.
An energetic walker passed me on the way up – he was off to climb some mountains today, and mentioned that he’d been on Clisham yesterday. He said that it didn’t get any windier higher up, and the wind was worst where it was being channelled through the valleys. Heavy cloud was still covering the mountains, so it was unlikely that he’d get much of a view today.
At Loch Leòsaid, near the power station, I turned off the road, initially following marshy pathless ground, until another stalkers’ path became established higher up in Gleann Leòsaid. This path ascended very gradually to a 217m bealach, which was an extraordinarily windy place!
The path dropped steeply into the deep glacial trough of Glen Cravadale, which cradles the long slender Loch a’ Ghlinne. The surface of the loch was alive with white horses, with the occasional intense gust of wind whipped up clouds of spray. A rough stony path followed the south-west side of the loch; this was quite exposed, with the wind attempting to knock me over, and the occasional drenching with a cloud of spray.
Looking out to sea, the skies were clear, but as soon as the warm sea air hit the colder mountains, it was turning into clouds. I was just about escaping the clouds now, and began to enjoy patches of sunshine. It was particularly beautiful as the sun was creating rainbows in the spray whipped up from the loch.
At the end of Loch a’ Ghlinne, there’s a short river, where the water runs into the sea at Loch Crabhadail. There are some idyllic sandy beaches here, next to a ruined settlement and the remains of lazy beds (lines of parallel ditches and raised ridges formerly used for subsistence farming). I came across a field mouse, and almost got a photo before it found a hole to scurry into. A little further on, I reached the freshwater lake Loch na Cleabhaig, and the remote cottage at Crabhadail. From here it was less than two miles on a good path to Hushinish.
I was aiming to catch a bus at 2:35pm, and just had enough time. The path climbed up to a 100m pass, where a walker recommended that I climb the little 115m peak, Greascleit, above the pass. From here there was an excellent view of the uninhabited island of Scarp. This island was once home to a subsistence community, but saw a declining population through the 1950s and 1960s. The closure of the primary school in 1967 followed by the post office in 1968 were the final blows, and by 1971 the population had dwindled to just twelve.
By the end of 1971, the last permanent inhabitants of Scarp had moved to Harris. The Gatliff Hostel on Scarp was forced to close. A few remaining houses on the island are still in occasional use as private holiday homes. Scarp was one of several Scottish islands, including St Kilda and Handa, where all the men of the island would gather every morning in a so-called 'parliament', to agree the day’s work for the community.
From Greascleit, there was a glimpse of the extensive beach Tràigh Mheilein. If I’d had more time, I would have made a diversion north to explore this enticing looking beach. Returning to the rocky path, the next section was quite exposed, traversing above high sea cliffs, with waves crashing below. The path soon broadened out when it reached Hushinish. The last section turned south, going through a boggy area, and ending up at Tràigh Hushinish, another sandy beach.
I double-checked the timetable out for the W12 service, and realised that the 2:35pm bus was only scheduled to run on Fridays, when schools finish early. The next scheduled service was at 4:40pm – this was no good, since I would miss the last bus to Stornoway. I decided to try hitch-hiking, and didn’t have to wait long for a vehicle to stop. It was a van, and the two occupants had been in Hushinish checking on the construction of a new byre (stable). The back of the van was full of cattle feed and a dog, but they managed to make room, and I ended up sitting on a spare tyre.
The driver introduced himself as Steve, and the passenger was his son Keith. They owned the croft around Hushinish, and grazed cows and sheep. They’d tried growing potatoes, but half the crop had been eaten by rats! Steve was originally from New England in the USA, but had been living in Scotland for many years. Steve was full of useful nuggets of information, he gave a long explanation of Norse origins of place names in the Hebrides:
Steve dropped me back in Tarbert, right next to the bus station, near the pier. The W10 bus to Stornoway departed at 4:25pm, so I had about an hour to spare. I needed food for the last few days, so went back to the AD Munro shop to get some more smoked salmon, oatcakes, biscuits, cakes and a pasta meal. Unfortunately the takeaway van was closed, so I couldn’t get fish & chips. Instead I had a few ‘treats’ from the shop, including some fresh fruit and a couple of packets of crisps. I made a few phone calls, arranging accommodation for the following two nights: Thursday in the Gearrannan Blackhouse and Friday in the Heb Hostel Stornoway.
The bus turned out to be a coach – the largest I’d seen so far in the Hebrides! This departed on time, threading through the Harris mountains and out onto the rolling Lewis moors, towards Stornoway. On the way I was really quite impressed by the Lewis moors. I’d assumed that they were flat and uninteresting, but this really is a complex landscape, full of little hills, cnocs and lochans. There were stunning far-reaching views to a horizon of higher mountains in the west.
The bus arrived at 5:25pm at Stornoway bus station, where I used a tap in the toilets to refill my water bottles. I was intending to camp at Callanish, but was uncertain if there would be a reliable water supply. The W2 (anticlockwise) bus arrived at 6pm, and a local man, Neil, offered to tell me when we got to Callanish. Neil lived north of Callanish at Gearrannan, and was full of praise for the Lewis landscape. He’d returned to further education in later life and had just completed a psychology degree.
As we crossed the Lewis moors, Neil pointed out the wonderful views south across rolling moorland, lochans and mountains in the distance. He said the cloudscape was constantly changing, with the sun casting different light across the moors. He recommended walking the section of coast east of Gearrannan, however his most enthusiastic praise was reserved for the mountains on the west side of Lewis. He said these have a special magical feel, like being on the edge of the world, which you don’t get anywhere else. These mountains are just south of the beautiful beach at Uige, where the famous Lewis chessmen were discovered.
As we approached Callanish, Neil pointed out various stone circles in the landscape. The bus driver dropped me off at the visitor centre around 6:30pm. I’d have plenty of time to explore the main site and a couple of peripheral circles, before finding somewhere to camp. The main Callanish Stones are positioned on the spine of a low ridge extending southwards towards Loch Ròg. From the visitor centre, there’s a steep climb up a rocky knoll, and the stones are beyond, set back from the highest point.
Callanish I consists of a ring of thirteen stones with a monolith near the centre. Five rows of standing stones connect to this circle, forming the shape of a cross. Two long, almost parallel, avenues of stones approach the stone circle from the north-northeast. Then there are shorter rows of stones to the west-southwest, to the south and to the east-northeast. The stones are all of the same rock type, the local Lewisian gneiss. Within the stone circle is a chambered cairn next to the central monolith. The stones were erected in the late Neolithic, and were a focus for ritual activity into the Bronze Age. Over time the site was abandoned and a thick layer of peat accumulated. In 1857, 1.5 metres of peat was removed, revealing the stones in all their glory.
The site has been thoroughly studied by Margaret Curtis, who proposes that the stones were erected as a lunar calendar, marking the stages in the 18.6-year lunar cycle. Margaret has found notches and other markings on the stones, which she suggests were used to record and measure specific points in the cycle. In Neolithic society where the life expectancy was very short, it’s amazing that celestial events were observed across multiple 18.6 year cycles, records were kept and patterns observed, allowing the calendar to be accurately constructed.
There must have been practical reasons for wanting to predict the movements of the moon. Boats were the main form of transport, and also were used for fishing, so it was essential to understand the tides. Men perhaps hunted at night under the light of the full moon. Knowledge is power, and those who knew how to read the stones could exert a powerful influence over the local communities. In additional to these practical reasons, the site clearly was also of great ritual significance. In Bronze Age the site was used for individual burials in chambered cairns, possibly containing the remains of powerful people.
On the horizon looking south, the shape of the distant hills forms the outline of a reclining woman, known as 'Cailleach na Mointeach', 'The Old Woman of the Moors', or the ‘Sleeping Beauty’. On the major lunar standstill, the moon appears to roll along the reclining form of the woman. This event only occurs every 18.6 years, the last one was in 2006. The next one will be in 2024-25. For more on Callanish and the moon, see these links: http://www.geo.org/callan.htm, http://www.megalithic.co.uk/article.php?sid=2146412503 and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e98oObp4nwM.
This evening I was really lucky to have the place to myself, and spent a long time taking photos as the evening sun cast its light and shadows across the stones. From the main site, I followed a few minor roads for a mile to reach the stone circles Callanish II and III, positioned a few hundred metres apart. Both are perched on small ridges extending towards Loch Ceann Hùlabhaig.
A man was taking photos at Callanish II, but he stopped to make some interesting observations. At all three sites the stones are on ridges, but they are not placed on the end of the ridge, they are all set back just behind a small rise at the end. Possibly the end of the ridge was used in a ceremony overlooking the stones, or the positioning was intended to obscure the stones from those approaching from the south.
The man also pointed out the setting of the stones in the landscape: a huge natural arena or amphitheatre with far-reaching views. There are striking similarities with the Ness of Brodgar on Orkney, and the ritual landscapes of Avebury and Stonehenge in Wiltshire.
The man left me to photograph Callanish II, while he headed across the boardwalk to Callanish III. At the centre of Callanish II, there’s a ruined cairn. The circle was uncovered in 1848, when a metre of peat was removed to reveal the stones. I walked on to Callanish III – this circle is actually two concentric ellipses, but many stones are missing, making the original design hard to discern.
For this evening’s camp, I returned to the road, walked a short distance beyond a group of houses, hopped a fence, and climbed up to Cnoc Sgeir na h-Uidhe. From here there were great views of the three Callanish sites. The spot was on the edge of a large area of moorland, used for sheep grazing. The ground was very dry, but there were ticks about, and I intercepted quite a few attempting to climb up bits of kit I’d placed on the ground! It had been a long day, with the most road travel since I’d arrived in the Hebrides, so it was really nice to put my head down for the night.
I’d planned to make an early start, heading down to the Callanish stones to take some photos at sunrise. The sunrise didn’t materialise and instead several bands of showers blew across the landscape in the early morning. Eventually the skies looked a bit more promising, so I shook the raindrops off my tent, and reversed yesterday’s route to return to Callanish III.
At Callanish III the sun was still proving elusive, so I headed on to Callanish II, and finally the sun appeared from behind a cloud. The lighting was so good, that I left my pack and hurried back to Callanish III to take some more photos there. The sun continued to shine, so I walked as fast as possible to Callanish I, keen to reach there before the first visitors of the day.
I was lucky to get five minutes of photography at the main Callanish stones, before the first visitor of the day arrived, a lady from Germany. Soon after, the sun vanished behind a sizeable bank of cloud, and I decided to take a break at the visitor centre, which opened at 10am. In the cafe I ordered a cup of tea, a piece of cake and asked them to fill up my water bottles.
The people sat on the table next to me struck up a conversation. Their names were Liz and Urs, and they were from Switzerland. They mentioned they were travelling on to Orkney, so I recommended that they take the most scenic ferry, from Scrabster to Stromness. I also recommended that they visit Orkney’s Neolithic sites: the Ring of Brodgar, Maes Howe and Skara Brae.
Just as I was about to leave, the bespectacled man who’d chatted to me in the AD Munro shop in Tarbert walked in. He introduced himself as Anthony – a member of the Long Distance Walking Association. He’d taken my suggestion to visit Rhenigidale Hostel and had enjoyed a wonderful night’s sleep there, although he admitted that the zigzags on the Postman’s Path were very tough on his knees.
Time was wearing on, and I still had far to go, so I said my goodbyes and set off, walking past the Callanish stones one last time. I followed a couple of minor roads, emerging on the main road north to Carloway. The land around here is mostly crofts, with no cross-country tracks, so it looked like I would be stuck on the A road for the next few miles, until a minor road turned off towards Tolsta Chaolais.
As I walked along, I spotted a pair of raptors with large wingspans – I’m almost certain that they were golden eagles. I’d seen a few likely-looking birds of prey in the distance at various points in the trip, but this was the first clear sighting. Soon after a campervan pulled into a lay-by just ahead – it had a CH marking, so I guessed it was the Swiss couple from the visitor centre. They’d stopped to very kindly offer me a lift, which I gladly accepted. Liz insisted on giving me a bag of Swiss chocolate, which was very generous of her.
I wanted to walk cross-country to the Carloway Broch, so asked to be dropped off at the end of Loch an Dùnain, next to the Doune Braes Hotel. This route from the Cicerone guidebook, initially followed a track south, then turned sharply west, cutting across heathery ground and climbing up to Loch a’ Chàrnain Mhòir. The surrounding ground had been subject to recent peat cutting, with the little bricks of peat stacked up to dry. Looking out to sea there was a great view of the group of islets and sea stacks north of Little Bernera.
The pathless walking route followed the outflow from the loch down into a little valley, curving around to the north to meet Loch Thonagro. On the way down I disturbed a large animal that slithered away into a hole in the heather – it had short brown fur, and resembled a giant rat! At the north end of Loch Thonagro, a gate led onto a distinct path that connected with the end of a cul-de-sac at Doune Carloway. It was then less than a mile along the road, and a short uphill climb, to reach Dùn Carloway, the Carloway Broch.
Dùn Carloway is the best preserved broch in the Outer Hebrides, and one of the best preserved in Scotland. Parts of the old wall are nine metres tall. It was probably constructed in the first century AD. Brochs are believed to be primarily defensive structures, although there’s evidence that people lived in them for extended periods of time. The design is a double-walled construction, with the two walls supporting each other, allowing the building to go higher than any previous single-walled structures. Between the walls there were staircases, some still visible at Carloway, that would have accessed the upper floors.
From the broch, I followed a path leading to the visitor centre. On the way I met some people who I’d seen earlier, camping on a croft next to Callanish. They said that they’d met the croft owner on the ferry and he’d let them camp in his field. They offered me a lift to Gearrannan – I said that I wanted to explore an off-road route, but if they saw me on the road later, I’d be grateful for a lift.
My route went south for a short way down the A road, before climbing uphill to meet a path running cross-country. Ribbons on metal stakes marked the way, leading downhill to Loch Fasgro and on to Knock Carloway. From here there was an unavoidable couple of miles road walking to Gearrannan. I briefly considered diverting for a longer off-road coastal walk around the peninsula to the west of Gearrannan. However the skies were darkening, and soon a heavy shower arrived.
Fortunately I found a place next to a wooden shack, sheltering on the side opposite the prevailing wind. This was a quite a sustained shower, holding me up for half an hour until it cleared. The skies were still quite ominous as I hurried towards the Blackhouse Village, with the heavens opening again as I reached the gift shop. The lady serving didn’t seem to know about the hostel, so she suggested that I just go in and see if there were any arrival instructions in the kitchen!
From the outside, Gearrannan village is really quite remarkable – an entire settlement of traditional Hebridean blackhouses, lovingly restored with thatched roofs. On the insides it’s quite a different story, with only one of the houses restored to its original state. Three of the houses are available as holiday lets, and one is a bunkhouse. The bunkhouse was decorated to a surprisingly high standard – apart from the slightly cramped interior, the décor wouldn’t have been out of place in a city hostel. There are three dorms (sleeping six, six and two), a kitchen/diner and two toilet/shower rooms. Prior to the restoration, the village was home to a Gatliff hostel, but the current bunkhouse is not associated with the Gatliff Trust.
There was only one other person currently in the bunkhouse, Birgit, the German lady who I’d seen earlier at Callanish. She was complaining about the haphazard approach to hostel booking – she’d stayed at Am Bothan in Leverburgh and had found Ruari’s approach too relaxed. There was some chaos at Gearrannan too, as more people arrived, while there was still no sign of anyone responsible for the bunkhouse! Eventually we discovered that Mairi, the lady who runs all the accommodation in Gearrannan, had taken someone to the doctors and would be back later.
Various people introduced themselves including a guy called Roman from France, and biker Franz Heinz, who’d ridden his motorbike all the way from Germany. There was also a lady from Switzerland, a couple of cyclists from Germany, a large group of cyclists from Lancashire and two ladies originally from Harris.
Roman picked my brains about good places to visit in the Hebrides – I showed him some photos and he picked out Hushinish for the beautiful combination of mountain and sea, South Harris for the beaches, and Eabhal for the view across the wetlands of North Uist. I gave him my maps of these areas, and he gave me a beer! Eventually Mairi turned up, sorting out the confusion over beds, and taking £15 payment from each of us. The cost is surprisingly low, considering that towels are provided and the place is decorated and cleaned to a high standard.
It was now almost 5:30pm, closing time for the museum, so I nipped across to the opposite blackhouse and met Alec Macleay, operating a Harris Tweed weaving loom. This machine, over a hundred years old, was remarkably sophisticated. Chains of ‘keys’ are loaded to specify the patterns, and wool is fed in from multiple spindles to provide the colours. Once configured, the weaver just has to operate the loom with foot peddles, with the finished fabric winding around a roll at the end.
Two rooms of the blackhouse were fitted out with period furniture. One room had a table & chairs, with dressers loaded with crockery, a peat fire and a bed in the corner. The other room had a bed, a fireplace, a spinning wheel and a Singer sewing machine. I briefly visited the other museum building – the main focus was a screen showing a documentary on Harris Tweed. There was also a scale model of a blackhouse, showing that animals would have originally occupied one half of the building.
The kitchen/diner was rather busy, with everyone cooking and eating, but it was a pleasant sociable atmosphere. I had a chance to pick the brains of the two ladies from Harris on some of the complexities of Gaelic pronunciation. I’ll never be able to speak Gaelic, but at least I want to pronounce the place names correctly.
Tomorrow was my last full day in the Outer Hebrides, and I had to decide how to spend it, ensuring that I’d be back in Stornoway by the evening. Neil (from the bus to Callanish) had strongly recommended going to Uige on the west side of Lewis, but exploring this area would have taken more than a day. He’d also recommended the coastal walk east of Gearrannan, so this looked to be a good start.
I also wanted to visit the most northerly point of Lewis, the Butt of Lewis. This would be a good end to the trip, given that I’d started on Vatersay, the southernmost inhabited island in the Outer Hebrides. Checking bus times I could do the Gearannan coastal walk, then catch the W2 bus to Barvas junction and the W1 bus to Eoropie, near the Butt of Lewis. Once I’d walked around the Butt of Lewis I could catch the W1 bus from the Port of Ness back to Stornoway. The bus times were rather tight, but it looked a good climax to the trip.
I didn’t sleep well in the cramped room of six and awoke at 5am. The Lancashire cyclists were up and about to depart – they intended to cycle to Inverness by this evening! The two ladies from Harris were also up. I had a fairly relaxed breakfast, setting off just after 6am. The first bus in the plan was at 10:08am from South Shawbost, although there were other places to cut the walk short and still catch the bus, if this proved too much.
The walk was marked with wooden posts painted with flashes of yellow paint, but these were spaced far apart and difficult to follow. For some sections, the path stayed away from the coast, while in other places there was a good view of the fifty-metre-high rocky sea cliffs. Looking back there was a clear view of the islets and sea stacks north of Little Bernera. The skies were overcast, but the weather stayed dry, and as the sun rose, the undersides of the clouds were bathed in golden light.
Along the coast there was evidence of lazy-beds, indicating that people had farmed here in the past. In one place I saw a large mammal bounding across the lazy-beds and down onto the beach. I guessed that it was an otter, and concluded that the animal I’d disturbed the previous day was also an otter.
The marker posts eventually led to Dalmore, the location of a beautiful deserted sandy beach, served by a side road that connects the coast to the main road. Either side of the road next to the beach there’s a large cemetery. The path continued for a mile, with some ups and downs, along a route away from the coast, emerging on the road to Dalbeg. Here there’s a beach, much smaller than Dalmore, with an adjacent freshwater loch, popular with birds.
Checking my watch it was gone 8:30am, but it looked like I’d have sufficient time to reach South Shawbost. Climbing back up after Dalbeg, the views back across the coast were initially impressive, but further along it became less interesting. The coastal path beyond here continues for five miles, ending at Bragar.
I swung away from the coast path, heading for Loch na Muilne, where I picked up a track leading to South Shawbost. There was then a mile of road-walking to reach the bus stop on the main road. On the way, I spotted the thatched roof of a restored Norse mill and kiln, but there wasn’t time to investigate.
The W2 bus arrived on time at 10:08am, and I asked the driver if he connected with the W1 bus as Barvas Junction – both timetables showed the buses reaching there at 10:50am. The driver said another walker, getting at North Shawbost, had already called to check the connection, and he’d been in contact with the W1 driver to confirm.
When we stopped at Eilean Fraoich campsite (http://www.eileanfraoich.co.uk), that other walker turned out to be Anthony. He was heading the same way as me to the Butt of Lewis, but he didn’t have to travel home until Monday, so after visiting the northernmost point, he was planning on walking back south along the east coast towards Stornoway. On this wild east coast of Lewis, there’s a 12.5 mile footpath between Skigersta and New Tolsta. Anthony was planning to wild camp at some point along this route, then complete the walk the following day.
The path along the east coast was originally planned to be a road, providing a direct route between Stornoway and Ness. The project was financed by Lord Leverhulme, but he didn’t get far before local resistance to his fishing industry plans caused him to withdraw from the Outer Hebrides. One prominent remnant is a substantial bridge over a gorge near New Tolsta, which the locals have nicknamed ‘The Bridge to Nowhere’.
The W2 took quite a convoluted route to Barvas, turning down all the various side roads to collect passengers – the buses must provide a vital lifeline to people without cars who live in this area. We arrived in good time at Barvas Junction, and soon picked up the W1. This again took a convoluted route, diverting down all the side roads along the way. Eventually we reached Eoropie at 11:24am, where both Anthony and I disembarked.
I wanted to walk the full coast path to the Butt of Lewis, so took a longer route than Anthony, who simply walked the mile along the road directly to the lighthouse. The clouds had now vanished and the sun had come out – this was shaping up to be a wonderful end to the trip! The path skirted around the edge of some sand dunes, past the end of beach, then climbed up to follow a route along rocky cliff tops.
I stopped at a memorial to a tragedy which occurred here on the 5th of March 1885. The fishing fleets of Ness had set off in calm weather in the morning. But by afternoon, fifteen miles out to sea, they found themselves caught in a terrible gale and headed for home. Unfortunately the Port of Ness harbour was inaccessible due to a low tide and strong waves. Some boats headed twenty miles south for Broadbay to safety, while two boats rounded the Butt of Lewis, seeking shelter on the west coast at Eoropie.
As these two boats made for land, the villagers who’d come out to bring them in, could only watch helplessly as the boats were grounded and their crews were taken by the waves. Each boat lost their six men to the sea, all twelve men from the village of Eoropie. The body of one man was washed ashore, but the rest were never recovered. All of these men of Ness were capable sailors and experienced fishermen.
As I followed the coast path, the sea cliffs became increasingly spectacular – testimony to the elemental power of the storms that batter this coast. These are some of the oldest rocks in Europe, formed in the Precambrian period, a mine-bending 3000 million years ago! The cliffs here are festooned with hundreds of seabird nests, mostly fulmars, with the rocks stained white with guano – a scene reminiscent of St Kilda. Carpets of pink sea thrift extended across the grass at the top of the cliffs.
The lighthouse on the Butt of Lewis was designed by David Stevenson and built to aid shipping in the 1860s. Unusual for a lighthouse in Scotland, it’s constructed of red brick, and is unpainted. The station was automated in 1998, one of the last to have been converted. I was unsurprised to bump into Anthony at the lighthouse, and I sat down next to him to have lunch. I had intended to catch a 1:59pm bus from Port of Ness back to Stornoway, but the weather was so nice, that I decided to aim for the later 3:37pm bus.
Anthony was walking the same way as me, but I set off first. From the very northernmost point there was a clear view out to sea, and a view of Sula Sgeir, some forty miles offshore. There’s an ancient tradition where the men of Ness, take boats out to Sula Sgeir every year to collect and smoke young gannets, know as guga. This meat is regarded as a delicacy, although it apparently is an acquired taste!
In the autumn of each year, a group of ten Nessmen set sail for Sula Sgeir. They stay for about two weeks in stone bothies and kill a maximum of 2000 young birds. Working in pairs, the men take the fledglings from their nests with poles, catching them around the neck with a rope noose, then killing the birds with a blow to the head. They bring their catch home, where the demand is often so great that birds have to be rationed to ensure that no one goes without a taste of guga. In 2009, a single guga fetched £16.
The hunt, which would otherwise be illegal under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, receives an annual licence from the government, the only such exemption in Britain. SNH, which is now responsible for granting the licence, states that the hunt is sustainable, although it has been criticised by animal welfare groups.
As I rounded the Butt of Lewis, there was a fantastic view of mainland Scotland, including the distinctive silhouettes of the mountains of north-west Scotland. Suilven was particularly prominent, looking like a fairytale castle. The route soon left the lighthouse road, and continued along the east coast on grassy terrain. The first part was a bit uneven, walking across old lazy-beds. This was a beautiful stretch of coast, and with the bright sunshine it was particularly impressive.
I had to keep an eye on the time, so was walking fairly fast. Anthony was following at a slower pace some distance behind. Up ahead I saw a remarkable-looking island connected to the mainland by an impressive looking footbridge. This is Dùn Eistein (pronounced Esh-ten), the ancient stronghold of the Morrisons of Ness. It’s a grass-topped steep-sided sea stack, separated from the mainland by a precipitous ravine twelve metres deep and wide. The foot-way of the bridge was a metal grille, and crossing it was a vertigo-inducing experience, nervously watching the waves crashing below.
On Dùn Eistein are the remnants of buildings and a defensive wall on the landward side. In 1999 the Clan Morrison Society of North America organised a campaign, raising £20,000 for a preliminary archaeological survey of Dùn Eistein. Negotiations with the Glasgow University Archaeological Research Division led to an agreement to carry out the work. The first phase in the year 2000 involved a preliminary survey of the island which focused on the Dùn, the stone wall facing the mainland, and the other stone habitations on the island. The second phase, in May-June, 2001, consisted of a geophysical survey. In 2002 a track to the Dùn was completed, and a footbridge was constructed to link the Dùn to the mainland.
Anthony caught up with me as I left Dùn Eistein. I speeded onwards, now following a track towards the Port of Ness. Near the end of the track are a couple of prehistoric standing stones called Clach Stein. I’d heard there was a good cafe at the Port of Ness, and checking my watch there would be just enough time for a cup of tea and a cake.
Cafe Sonas (https://en-gb.facebook.com/Cafe-Sonas-at-Port-of-Ness-Beach-and-Harbour-369978956368578), was a friendly place and I wished I could have stayed longer to sample some of their seafood dishes. They said that the W1 bus didn’t come right down to the harbour, and I would have to walk back up to the last road junction. Just as I was leaving, I bumped into Anthony for the very last time, wishing him luck on his coastal walk to Tolsta.
The bus showed up early, but the driver didn’t want to pick me up – he was going to do a circuit around some of the side roads before picking me up around 3:37pm. I was pleased to see the bus come around again, since it would have been a long wait for the next one at 7:24pm! This was the school run, with lots of school children getting off at various points on the way back to Stornoway.
The bus arrived at Stornoway bus station at 4:28pm. I had hoped to do some shopping in Stornoway, but all the shops looked to have shut at 4pm! I headed to the Heb Hostel (http://www.hebhostel.com/home.html) and was given a very warm welcome by Tosh, the father of Christine who runs the hostel. Tosh insisted on giving me a complete guided tour of the hostel, including the dorms, the lounge, showers, kitchen and various unusual structures in the garden. The cost to stay was £18, plus £1 for a towel. Included in the price was breakfast cereal, milk, toast, jam/marmalade, tea, coffee and sugar.
The building is 200 years old, and retains many period features including the Victorian era staircase, balustrades, fireplaces, skirting and architraves. A classical guitar was available to use in the lounge, so I improvised another capo, and spent a good hour singing songs.
There were some interesting characters staying at the hostel, including a guy who was teaching bagpipes to local school children. I’d originally planned to find a pub to get some food and beer, but the people at the hostel were friendly and it was nice to stick around socialising with them. I got takeaway fish & chips from a shop near the hostel, and in the queue chatted to the local pastor. He mentioned that he was working on projects which showed the church in a positive light, to counteract the prevailing negative view of the Presbyterian churches, such as their opposition to work on Sundays.
The fish & chips were delicious, and were definitely a good choice. Around the kitchen table I chatted with a guy from New Zealand, Blake, and a lady from Italy, Camilla. There was also a German lady working at the hostel, but frustratingly I’ve forgotten her name. She kindly shared out some white wine, which then gave me a taste for drinking some more. I offered to get some drinks from Tesco, and took orders for beer and cider.
The Tesco in Stornoway has probably the most extensive opening hours of anywhere in the Outer Hebrides, opening at 6am and closing at midnight, apart from Saturday when it closes at 10pm, and Sunday when it doesn’t open at all. It was a surreal experience going into such a large brightly-lit superstore, after only visiting tiny shops for three weeks!
The beer and cider went down well, and it was a nice relaxed evening. After everyone headed to bed, I took a shower, then went to bed myself. The morning ferry was at 7am, with check-in closing 30 minutes before departure, so it would be an early start.
By the morning the weather had changed, with heavy rain sweeping in – this would last pretty much all day, only easing off in the evening. I walked with Camilla down to the ferry terminal and bought a ticket for £9.20. The boat was huge – larger than the Oban-Castlebay ferry, and made a very smooth crossing to Ullapool. I found a table with Camilla, and she went off to get drinks, while I stayed with our luggage.
Camilla said that she was heading for Aviemore, where she’d spend a few days before travelling back to Italy. I suggested that she head up to the Cairngorms, and explore Rothiemurchus Forest, Loch Morlich and Loch an Eilean. I recommended staying in Ryvoan bothy – she was really keen on this idea, looking up the information from the Mountain Bothies Association website on her phone, and trying to find an online map.
The ferry arrived at 9:30am in Ullapool, where the Citylink coach was waiting. I’d booked this in advance for £13.50. The coach departed at 9:50am, and took a familiar route up to Braemore junction, past the Beinn Dearg group and the Fannichs, before descending down to Inverness. We arrived at 11:10am and Camilla bought an onward ticket to Aviemore, departing at 1:15pm.
I’d been given a recommendation for the Rendezvous Cafe in Inverness (http://rendezvous-cafe.co.uk) and decided to go there for lunch; I said that Camilla was welcome to join me. Fortunately the cafe had some gluten-free options, since Camilla is gluten intolerant. I ordered a bowl of soup, a vege sausage baguette and some chai tea, Camilla ordered mushrooms and egg on toast, followed by lemon cake.
After eating, I went with Camilla to find somewhere that had an Ordnance Survey map of the Cairngorms. The tourist office had sold out, but we managed to find the right map in WH Smiths. I showed Camilla the location of the bothy, and the paths that she could explore in this area. I made sure that she got back to the bus station for her bus, then headed off to find somewhere to shelter from the heavy rain. My bus was not until 7pm this evening.
In the Eastgate shopping centre, I found a stall selling home-baked cakes – these would be perfect for the people at work. I also found a well-stocked Waterstones and purchased a book containing a detailed history of St Kilda. To while away the afternoon, I found another cafe, this one in a Victorian arcade, called The Little Teapot (https://www.facebook.com/TheLittleTeapotInverness). They were about to close, but said I could stay and read my book while they cleaned up.
After the cafe closed, I headed to the Hootananny pub (http://www.hootanannyinverness.co.uk), which I’ve visited many times before, and always had a good experience. They weren’t yet serving food so I bought a beer. A lady went around putting ‘reserved’ signs on the tables, but made it very unclear where I could and couldn’t sit. After moving twice, I found a free table. Next I ordered fish & chips which came out quickly.
Lastly I went to buy another pint, but was startled when the barman refused to take a Scottish £5 note, saying that paper notes are no longer accepted. I protested since the £5 note had been given to me as change at this very bar! The barman said “nothing to do with me mate” and walked off. Eventually I spotted the barman who’d originally given me the note, and explained to him what had happened – he swapped the note for a plastic one without question. After this experience, I definitely won’t be coming to this pub again. The staff have a forced jollity, but appear indifferent to their customers.
Just before 6:30pm, I left the pub to catch the megabus to Glasgow at 7pm (total cost to London £58). Once the bus reached the Cairngorms, the rain had stormed, and evening sun was lighting up the wooded hillsides. There was a glimpse of the Cairngorm northern corries, still with some patches of snow. I relaxed, reading the St Kilda book until the bus reached Glasgow Buchanan bus station at 10:30pm.
After an hour wait, the sleeper bus boarded at 11:30pm. The driver announced that this was one of the last services, and the sleeper bus was being cancelled due to falling demand, rising costs and increasing competition from budget airlines. This is a real shame, since it was significantly cheaper than the sleeper train, and a very convenient way of reaching Scotland by travelling overnight.
The bus arrived on time around 7:20am at London Victoria, and after freshening up in the toilets, I walked to Victoria railway station, where I took a train to Clapham Junction, then changed for the train to Southampton. I was home before 11am.
I was amazed that the journey through the Outer Hebrides had worked out so well – the plan was so intricate, with multiple transport connections, and all had worked out perfectly. The weather was largely fine and settled, and although it did deteriorate into the third week, I managed to avoid most of the rain. Even without the St Kilda excursion, the holiday would have been amazing, and it was a real bonus that the weather had been settled enough to make the crossing to this remarkable archipelago.
The landscape was incredibly diverse, definitely the most varied that I’ve experienced in a single trip. The chosen route picked out some of the best scenery that these landscapes have to offer, but left much to explore on future trips. The accommodation was excellent, particularly the unique Gatliff hostels, Uisinish bothy and the boulder cave by Sròn Ulladale. The combination of hostels and wild camping worked out really well, the hostels were a great place to meet fellow travellers and share information. I also found the local people to be really welcoming, friendly and helpful.
There’s still plenty of places to visit in the Outer Hebrides, and I could easily design a second trips visiting all the things missed on the first trip. On the internet there’s a video of the great jazz musician Duke Ellington being interviewed; in response to the question “I heard you played piano”, he says “no, this isn't piano, this is dreaming” (https://vimeo.com/55565898). I feel a similar way about my journey through the Outer Hebrides: “this isn’t travelling, this is dreaming”.