Imogen and I are big Hebridean fans. These small, rugged, windswept isles protrude from the North Atlantic off Scotland’s West Coast, forming a fascinating archipelago that could easily provide a lifetimes worth of exploring from a yacht or via the simple but intrepid means of walking their varied coastline and hills. Scotland’s 6000 mile coast represents some 69% of the UK total, much of this distance is lapped up by the circumference of the hundreds of isles and islets of this majestic Celtic land. But what should constitute an ‘official island’?; inhabitation?; access by regular passenger vessel?; a certain land-area threshold? This is a question upon which I often ponder, after all, our seven global continents surely find themselves surrounded by the vast ocean covering over 70% of the surface area of the Earth. This statistic reminds us of the supremacy of the seas over land, something to which we should perhaps pay more critical attention to in these times of ecosystem collapse and multiple environmental crises. Hamish Haswell-Smith, in his book ‘The Scottish Islands’ settles upon a figure of 162 ‘official’ Scottish islands. Ever the seeker of such categorisations, I first made acquaintance with this book in the Knoydart Pottery and Tearoom, Inverie, after a Munro bagging expedition on the Knoydart peninsula in 2011. Immediately absorbed by the beautiful maps and sketches, Haswell-Smith was soon crowned as my Munro of the Scottish marine world and copy earned itself a place on my bookshelf.
Anyway, on to our Hebridean honeymoon. On Monday 25th April 2016, after our most wondrous wedding weekend in the small village of Glenuig by Lochailort, Imogen and I set out with Lindsey and Liz for Fort William. After relatively benign springtime weather the week prior, overnight the weather had swung round to a brisk northerly flow, with a wintery feel on the wind that would only become amplified throughout the week ahead! We had an emotional departure on the CityLink bus from the less than inspiring Fort William bus station for the 1.5 hour trundle down the coast road to Oban. The wedding weekend had just been everything we ever hoped for and now it was just the two of us, setting out to the far western frontier of the UK.
Oban is one of the major departure ports for the Hebrides, with the majestic black, white and red funnelled vessels of the Caledonian MacBrayne Steam Packet Company (or CalMac Ferries these days). The busy port of Oban serves no-fewer than eight of the isles. Our vessel was the 13:40 departure for Castlebay (Barra), served by the MV Isle of Lewis. The Oban-Castlebay route is the longest ferry route on the West Coast with a journey time of just under 5 hours. For the first couple of hours, the vessel plies the fjord-like Sound of Mull, with the spectacular mountains of Morvern and Ardnamurchan to the north and the Isle of Mull to the South. After Ardnamurchan Point, the vessel jettisons out on a north-westerly trajectory into the open Sea of the Hebrides. The flat isles of Coll and Tiree are visible to the South, whilst the rugged Small Isles and jagged Cuillin of Skye form the northern skyline. At first, the Isle of Barra is barely visible but it’s mound-like profile gradually becomes more apparent way ahead of the bow. The Minch gives a real feel of open ocean, with gannets gliding with the vessel and shearwaters and petrels fluttering by close to the water. Despite the strong wind, the sea state was only moderately rough for our crossing.
The Isle of Barra / Eilean Bharraigh
Our first stop, for two nights was the Dunard hostel in Castlebay. Barra is one of the smaller, more compact of the Western Isles, with most of the habitation following the island ring-road. The centre is rough heather moorland, with a collection of interesting looking hills; Heabhal 383 m, with its unexpected ‘Madonna’ statue lurking on the southern slopes above Castlebay, Hartabhal 356 m and Beinn Tangabhal 332 m being some of the highest. The influence of the Old Norse in the names of geographical features and place names is a strong feature of life on the Hebrides. Given our limited time on the island, we opted to save the hill bagging for a future visit. After a fresh evening stroll around Castlebay on Monday with all the layers, hats and gloves piled on, we settled in for the night at the hostel. Tuesday was our only full-day to explore Barra. Firstly we set out on the clockwise bus around the island as far Borve on the West. From here, we followed the coast and had our first of many sand blasting experiences on the windswept Bāgh Halaman (bay) before continuing back to Castlebay for lunch in the relative shelter of the hostel. The Hebrides have mostly excellent, affordable bus services, coordinated centrally by the Western Isles Council. Local transport exactly as it should be. A shame this is not the case in most other parts of the rural Britain! For the afternoon, we caught another bus out from Castlebay, across the causeway leading to the Isle of Vatersay. This small hamlet located at the southern end of a narrow isthmus between two spectacular sandy bays gives a real impression of the land that time forgot. The painted wooden panel houses, add a Nordic feel to this remote outpost; the southernmost inhabited place of the Outer Hebrides. We had several hours before the last bus of the day so took a stroll up towards the nearby Dun (burial ground) followed by a traverse of the western Bāgh Siar. Despite the unrelenting NW gale, we were optimistic that the extreme north end of the east facing Bāgh Bhatarsaigh (Vatersay Bay), tucked below the high ground of Heiseabhal Mōr would provide sufficient shelter from the northerly onslaught to enjoy the April sunshine. This proved correct, and also presented an opportune moment for the first of only two successful entries to the sea that we managed on our trip! It was a perfect, albeit very brief dip into the clear waters fully wet-suited up from head to toe of course. On Tuesday evening, we visited the Cafe Kismul down on the harbourside back in Castlebay for a curry; the only cafe serving Indian cuisine in the Western Isles perhaps?
Wednesday morning, we were on the Barra clockwise bus again, heading for the ferry slipway at Aird Mhor. The bathtub-like CalMac ferry across the Sound of Barra shuttled us across to Eriskay, with great views of all the islets as well as the large expanse of sand of Tràigh Mhòr on Barra, famed as the only airport in the UK featuring a beach as the runway. A Flybe twin-otter was stationed ‘on the sand’, resting between runs to Glasgow.
The Isle of Eriskay / Eiriosgaigh
The next five islands, Eriskay, South Uist, Benbecula, North Uist and Berneray constitute, under the Haswell-Smith classification, one contiguous island-by-definition. This is due to the construction over the years of a series of causeways, providing ‘dry links’ between them all. It’s just as well, as a period of time studying the Ordnance Survey maps of these islands reveals as much fresh and salt water as land. Indeed, it’s incredibly difficult to the segments of land that are attached or indeed detached. Our time on Eriskay amounted to little more than an hour or so awaiting the onward bus connection North. It was around lunchtime, so we took up a draughty but well positioned bench on the picturesque sands next to the quay. We were soon in transit again, in a very modern, comfortable and warm minibus, zipping across the long causeway leading to South Uist.
South Uist / Uist a Deas
Generally speaking, the Uists are characterised by long sandy beaches with dunes, backed by flat machair grassland on their western (Atlantic) sides and rockier uplands on their eastern (Minch) sides, incised by multiple sea and fresh-water lochs. South Uist fits this characteristic most conformably, with most of the human settlements lying along the spine road that largely traverses the fertile machair of the west. The ‘town’ of Lochboisdale makes exception to this, and adds a significant little detour onto the bus journey northwards. As with many of the larger Hebridean settlements, Lochboisdale is a rather spread out and mismatched assortment of lochside buildings serving the various island needs, having originally built up around herring fishing. A daily CalMac ferry now links the Lochaber port of Mallaig with Lochboisdale. Back on the main spine, our destination of the day was the hamlet of Tobha Mor or Howmore. This one-night stop featured our first stay in one of the hostels managed by the Gatliff Hebridean Trust. The hostel at Howmore is a quaint Hebridean blackhouse with thick stone walls and a thatched roof. After claiming beds at the hostel (not really required as there was only one other person in), we set off to local hill, Hatharsal (a lofty 139 m) with trig point view towards the high hills and glens surrounding Beinn Mhor and also the Loch Druidibeag National Nature Reserve. Aside the view, we also spotted a Golden Eagle soaring at a fair distance but the distinctive white patches on the wing undersides were just visible. After cooking a rather rationed meal of consisting of hostel leftover pasta with a makeshift tomato and cheese sauce (due to being fairly low on supplies), we headed off to the open sands of Bun na Feathlach for a windswept evening jaunt. Showers coming in off the sea had turned the high hills white with snow and there was a strong stench of rotting seaweed on the wind.
Benbecula / Beinn na Faoghla
Next morning was the coldest of the whole trip. The cool airflow had brought a light dusting of snow overnight down to sea level and the high hills of South Uist were in winter raiment. We were headed north again, but not this time by bus. We wandered back up to the junction where the Howmore lane meets with the Uist main spine A-road (that super-Hebridean highway which is often single track with passing places :-). We were picking up bikes for two days from a cycle hire shop. After half an hour getting fitted out with bikes, helmets, panniers and locks we pedalled back to the hostel to load our gear before setting out northwards. There was not much of South Uist left before the causeway and indeed, much of northern S.Uist consists of water; the Lochs of Druidibeag and Bi are both traversed via embankment and causeway. Our last stop on S.Uist was a little roadside supermarket at Carnan, where we stopped for a much needed chocolate boost.
The next causeway led to Benbecula, and our first stop was indeed, another supermarket. An important part of a cycle tour being, of course, a tour of the supermarkets of an area. A well stocked Coop at Creagorry enabled us to stock up on all manner of luxuries for the forthcoming overnight stop at Baile nan Cailleach. This named place sits on the southern edge of another of the larger Hebridean towns, Balivanich. The small cluster of buildings at Baile nan Cailleach are largely sheltered from the Atlantic by a high dune system behind the lovely sandy beach of Culla. Balivanich, however has all manner of facilities; a Bank of Scotland, Hospital, large supermarket and even another of the Hebridean airports. The town’s population has built up around a military base. The island of Benbecula was yet another one night stop on our northward voyage and we were staying in Nunton House hostel, a lovely, recently refurbished stone farm house with incredibly comfortable beds. In fact, it felt more like a holiday property than a hostel, particularly given that we had the run of the place to ourselves. It also has a great library and I lost myself in a book about the remote island of St Kilda for an hour or so. To follow the trend of the prior night, we once again headed out for a sunset-time wander along the beach and dunes. The only thing lacking so far was the sunset itself; the frequent cloud banks rolling in on the brisk norwester had thus far blocked our view of the sun hitting the Atlantic horizon. The deep hues of purple and the odd shaft of sunlight through the cloud made for an equally majestic setting though.
It was now Friday 29th April and we were saddled up and off northbound once again, into another strong headwind. After winding through Balivanich and around the extensive Benbecula airfield, we were well on the way to the next long causeway, leading across the vast tidal flats leading to North Uist. Of course, it wouldn’t be the Uists without several other islands and islets being spanned in the process (the flat, wet but habited Grimsay is just clipped by the spine road whilst the uninhabited but undulating Ronay lies off to the east).
North Uist / Uibhist a Tuath
Next up, North Uist. Our visit was relatively short, although the passage through presented us with three options; the eastern A-road via the town of Lochmaddy, the western A-road generally following the coast and linking multiple crofting hamlets or a short-cut across the centre of the island on a lane named ‘Committee Road’ that gently climbs up and over the bleak moorland of Maireabhal before dropping back to the coast at the lovely tidal bay of Trāigh Bhālaigh. As our island destination for the day sat across yet another causeway to the north and the headwind was ever prevalent, we opted for the most direct route, albeit with the moderate climb. The moorland would at least provide for a variety in the terrain after many kilometres of coastal farmland along the southern end of the island. At the interestingly named Claddach Kirkibost, the community centre provided an opportunity for a brief stop. It was a shame that we had already had lunch as we missed out on the cafe. The climb up to the grand summit of 43 m above datum was soon accomplished and provided our final view southwards, along the rocky spine of Uists to the rounded hills of Barra off in the distance. Looking beyond the 3 km freewheel ahead was the open blue sea of the Atlantic, and our first view of the hills of Harris. Within a wee while, we joined the coastal A-road once again whilst skirting the picturesque Trāigh Bhālaigh. After passing an aptly positioned Hebridean blackhouse, providing a perfect photo opportunity with the white sands of the tidal bay and island of Vallay beyond, we reached the hamlet of Sollas complete with another convenient Cooperative Food shop. With our panniers re-stocked with supplies and our leg muscles replenished with chocolate, it was onwards and north-eastwards. The road to Berneray was sneakily undulating for a coastal road, skirting several heather clad-knolls and crossing many burns draining the inland lochs. The final point of interest on North Uist was Dūn an Sticir near Port nan Long, just short of the Berneray causeway. The Dūn is a circular fortified habitation, a common feature of the historic Celtic landscape. The Hebridean Dūn are commonly found on small manmade islands within lakes and the ruins of Dūn an Sticir fall perfectly into the description. A short rocky causeway leads out to the island that once housed the fort.
Berneray / Bernera
There are two islands that go by the name of Berneray in the Hebrides; one forming the southernmost, yet uninhabited island in the chain; the other jutting out from North Uist into the Sound of Harris. It was the latter that provided the end of the road for our hire bikes from Howmore (S.Uist). Our one-night stop on Berneray was at the Gatliff hostel, superbly located on the end of a promontory with views across to Harris and Skye. It was a busy scene at the hostel, as a voluntary work party was in residence. The mortared blackhouse walls were shining a brilliant fresh coat of white paint against the deep blue of the sea and sky beyond. The work party were a friendly bunch and provided me with a glass of red wine to accompany our evening meal. The only downside of our base for the night was its distance from the Berneray ferry slip, itself 4 km back along the road at the causeway. Whilst this seemed insignificant relative to the 55 kilometres of Friday’s cycling, it presented a less welcome 45 minute early morning tarmac trudge for Saturday’s 07:15 CalMac ferry departure northward across the sound.
Harris / Na Hearadh
Technically not the Isle of Harris, but often called as such, Harris certainly presents the most undulating of terrain on the Western Isles. Harris was perhaps the most anticipated of the Hebridean Isles for me, as I’d heard great things and seen wonderful photographs of pure white sands backed by high hills fluted with deep glens. It certainly did not disappoint. The crossing from Berneray landed us at Leverburgh, the port and village located at the extreme South of the island. Leverburgh is also the port for tourist boats heading to the isolated and majestic island of St Kilda, some 50 km further West out into the wild north Atlantic. Upon arrival in Leverburgh, the onward bus for the town of Tarbert was ready and waiting at the top of the slip. It was wild, windy and cool so we boarded onto the warmth of the smart new minibus right away. From Leverburgh, two roads lead north to Tarbert, traversing the west and east coasts, before merging once again at a narrow isthmus that houses the loch’s and town that go by the name of Tarbert. Our bus took the western coast via Northton and Seilibost with views of their respective vast expanses of Hebridean white sand. We found ourselves in Tarbert not long after 09:00 although it felt much later given the hour at which we had set off from the Gatliff hostel on Berneray.
We had a hostel in Tarbert for the night and were able to check-in early and drop much of the heavy gear. Despite being the main ‘town’ on Harris, Tarbert is little more than a cluster of a few shops a small tourist office and a few obligatory Harris Tweed outlets. We had struck a deal in advance to hire some bikes for the day. The hire shop was not your average bike hire outlet with all the latest in cycling gadgetary. It consisted of what seemed to be an old hardware store last decorated in the 1950’s, now gutted with a jumbled fleet of tatty old Halfords mountain bikes propped up around the interior. A range of other bike bits and bobs; a cobweb-bound helmet or two, lone spanner set or random collection of bike lights lay around on windowsills littered with flakes of peeled paint. The custodian was a very welcoming lifelong Harris resident, of course very appropriately tweed-clad, who had opened up especially for us (we were early for the tourist season after all). After trying several bike and helmet combinations we settled on our steeds for the day and were soon pedalling off uphill and out of Tarbert, battling into the all too familiar headwind that had characterised the trip. Our original aim had been to follow the winding road west along Loch a Siar to the picturesque hamlet of Huisinish. A mere 15 km in a direct line from Tarbert, this quantity of kilometres of course does not do justice to the formidable, undulating and incised nature of the section of coast along which this small road runs. All things combined, it was clear from an early point in the day that reaching the magical Huisinish might have to be reserved for a future visit with some combination of less headwind, more suitably geared bikes or even mechanised transport (the bus doesn’t run along to Huisinish on a weekend). Even so, we had a lovely bike ride and made several stiff ascents followed by long and winding freewheels. En-route we passed the derelict Hebridean whaling station of Bunavoneader, active in the first half of the twentieth century, a sobering reminder of the brutal cetacean slaughtering that once characterised these shores. Next up there was probably the most windswept tennis court in the British Isles, Imogen having the claim of having played tennis there on a former visit. Beyond this is the deep incision to the Harris Hills of Glean Mhiabhaig, on land managed by the North Harris Trust. To the north tower the great peaks of An Cliseam (at 799 m, the highest mountain on the Outer Hebrides) and it’s relatives. A stalkers track leads off northwards through the great glacial cleft to a reliable Golden Eagle nest viewing site. Onward and upward again, we passed the now-closed primary school at Cliasmol, formerly the ‘smallest school in Scotland’. What a place to spend the first 7 years of your school career, perched proudly on a heather clad promontory with the most glorious of western vistas out towards the sound … with its multiple islands. Shortly beyond this point, we abandoned the bikes in a roadside ditch and scrambled up to a prominent lookout for lunch (using the lee of a boulder for shelter). We made this our turnaround point. Having expended quite enough energy battling into the wind, we could now look forward to it assisting, somewhat, our return pedal to Tarbert. It certainly seemed quicker on the way back.
After a comfortable night in the Tarbert Backpackers hostel, with yet another dormitory to ourselves, we headed out early on Sunday morning, this time on foot. Sundays in the Hebrides are very much still a day of rest, the Sabbath is still widely observed and most shops and services don’t operate. This was not a problem for us as we would be spending the day walking over the rough moorland in a southwesterly direction from Tarbert to the small crofting village of Luskentyre. Whilst the hills we would traverse only just break the 500 m contour, the terrain was almost entirely pathless heather and peat bog interspersed with metamorphic rock bands and thus incredibly hard going. Indeed, upon reaching the first summit of Ceann Reamhar 467 m, it felt like we had climbed a Munro. From here we traversed westwards along a broad ridge to the final and shapely summit of Beinn Dhubh 506 m which forms the backdrop of the Luskentyre Sands. It’s a direct southwestward descent from here to the dunes backing the beach, overlooking the uninhabited island of Taransay, of Castaway 2000 fame. Luskentyre Sands themselves wrap around an extensive dune system that forms a good windbreak to oncoming weather systems for the former crofting hamlet. At low tide, the outlet of the Lacasdail river is reduced to a narrow, sinuous channel that separates Luskentyre Sands to the north from the sand spit of Seilibost to the south. Upon reaching sea level, we traversed the sands around the point, whilst a ferocious wind whipped up the surf. The soft white sands provided a good break from the rough open heathery slopes of Beinn Dhubh. The next weather system was marching rapidly coastward and soon arrived, blasting us with a peculiar mixture of sand and hail. The 1:50 OS map marked an interesting but unexplained (in the key) short black bar crossing the channel of Lacasdail river at the low water mark. I was keen to investigate, but it would have involved around a kilometre or so of head on hail and sand blasting so we decided to turn our backs to the storm and head shoreward to the shelter of the village and our B&B. For our final night on the Western Isles, we enjoyed the cosy comfort of the Luskentyre Lodge.
Monday was a day of sunshine and sharp showers with the wind continuing to make its presence known. We started out from the lodge on the lane leading inland along the Lacasdail estuary until the point at which it is crossed by a bridge to join the main Lewis-Harris spinal route. From here we turned seaward and westward again as we had a few hours prior to the lunchtime bus back north to Tarbert. This gave us time for a brief visit to a Hebridean art/craft gallery followed by a full circuit of the Seilibost sand spit. Our second and final chance for a bracing dip in the sea presented itself with some welcome shelter provided by the rocks at the southern end of Seilibost beach. These provided a good windbreak for changing into the wetsuit and a large patch of blue sky overhead made for all but spring-like conditions. The next squally shower was on the horizon and marching shoreward with haste. Swim successfully complete, we retreated to the shelter of the rock barrier with that warming feeling of accomplishment before making our way over to the main road for the bus back to Tarbert.
The CalMac ferry from Tarbert to Uig on Skye is the shortest crossing of the Minch at just 1 hr 40 minutes. The MV Hebridean Isles made easy work of the short passage of water and from the rear deck the shapely form of the Hills of Harris made for a scenic backdrop. The uninhabited Shiant Isles lie just to the north of this section of water and are well known as a sea bird nesting colony. I kept my eyes on the water for the colourful streaked-bills of the puffins that return to these islands each spring in their thousands. No such luck on this occasion but there were good displays from the gannets, petrels and shearwaters.
Skye / An t-Eilean Sgiteanach
The village of Uig surrounds the perfectly u-formed incision of Uig Bay at the northern end of the island of Skye. The precipitous coastline of stacks and steep scarp of Tertiary volcanic origin is backed by the similarly imposing Trotternish Ridge that rises immediately behind the bay. The transition from the Outer Hebridean to Inner Hebridean landscape represents a significant shift in geological terms; from some of the oldest (300 million year old) to youngest (60 million year old) rocks in Scotland. Uig was our destination for the night prior to making the long trip South back to Lancashire on the Tuesday. The ‘Cowshed’ hostel in Uig was a bustling scene, full of young travellers reminding us that we were back on the ‘highlands and islands’ tourist route. Unfortunately the pub in the village was shut but we settled for a final-night meal in the very satisfyingly-Scottish, tartan carpeted Uig Hotel which was probably more in-keeping with tradition. Next morning, we hauled our luggage for the last time back around the bay to the ferry terminal in order to pickup the CityLink bus for Kyle of Lochalsh. It’s a short run from Uig into the Skye ‘capital’ of Portree. Onward and Southward, the main road weaves its way around the Cuillin Hills at Sligachan and on through Broadford to the humpbacked Skye Bridge that makes easy work of the narrow tidal strait of Kyle Akin. Indeed, it is the presence of this permanent link of concrete and steel, completed in 1995, that leads to Skye no-longer qualifying for official island status in the Haswell-Smith classification. The CityLink bus continues to Glasgow via the West Highlands, but the town of Kyle of Lochalsh is also served by rail from the Highland Capital of Inverness. We were keen to be forgoing a further 5 hours on board the bus by switching over to the train however we were soon to discover that it was not quite the end of the road-based journey for us. A truck had come off the road and was precariously overhanging the railway where the two run side-by-side along the southern shore of Loch Carron, thus closing the line. So it was back on a (rail replacement) bus for the short run over to the station at Lochcarron where another incoming train was turned around for our trip back to Inverness. The minor delay waiting for the bus at Kyle meant we missed our connection on the Highland Mainline at Inverness but luckily the next one was only an hour or so later. We were soon passing the familiar scenes of the Northern corries and weaving our way along the meandering course of the River Tay into Perth and onwards to Glasgow for the short cross-city walk to Central station and the final sprint South over Beattock and Shap.
After just over a week on these windswept isles on the extreme western edge of Britain, adjusting back to a life of traffic, supermarkets and desk based work took some dedication. Existence on the islands had felt like a battle against the elements and we had become accustomed to leaning into the wind to maintain a level footing. Whilst memories of this trip conjure up imagery best described by adjectives such as bleak and desolate, the Hebrides are possibly some of the best islands in the world. The unique blend of Scottish Gaelic heritage with a pinch of Norse influence gives these islands a strong cultural appeal. The vast, open landscapes and seascapes make the Hebrides a place where big sky and it’s ever changing weather and colour dominate. For me there is just one small discomfort with the Hebrides; the severe lack of tree cover. By comparison, even Uig Bay on Skye with its scattering of bear-branched birch trees felt lush with vegetation. Whilst many parts of the windswept, salt blasted machair-lands of the west would never have supported significant mixed forest development as on mainland Scotland, peat hags with exposed stumps and branches stand like tree-graveyards – monuments to a past, more forested era. In common with similar initiatives elsewhere in the Highlands, community land buyouts such as the the West Harris Trust are beginning to restore this imbalance. Our walk out over the moor of Cnoc na Cloìche near Tarbert included crossing a large fenced area of young mixed saplings. The work of community land trusts coupling Ecological restoration with re-population of the crofting landscape offers a bright future for these beautiful extrêmit-isles of the North Atlantic.