In May/June 2014 I walked the west coast of the Outer Hebrides from Vatersay to the Butt of Lewis. This is a brief account of my treasure hunt.
I overheard an American tourist in our group,
“Gee, I bet it’s great here in summer!”
A few days later we sailed from Inner to Outer Hebrides and I climbed Clisham on Harris and rocky Measibhal on Lewis. The extraordinary views of mountain, lochs and coast infected me. This year, at long last, I returned to walk the west coast of the Outer Hebrides.
In The Timeless Way Peter Clarke describes a fascinating route through the Islands that he rediscovered connecting footpaths and old forgotten tracks into a walk from the Butt of Lewis to Vatersay. Recently I have heard interweb chatter of a “Hebridean Way” a proposed long distance route but have yet to find if this is planned to follow the Timeless Way.
The Timeless Way follows machair paths on the west coast through the Uists but in Harris and Lewis it follows an east coast route missing what to me are the highlights of these islands, the west coast of South and North Harris and the west coast of Lewis.
There are 15 inhabited Islands in the Outer Hebrides and many more uninhabited islands and skerries. I chose to start at Vatersay and work north around the coasts of Vatersay, Barra, Eriskay, South Uist, Benbecula, North Uist, Berneray, Harris and Lewis. Five causeways and two ferry crossings connect these islands.
Left foot wet, right foot dry is the way to walk around the coast of an Island. Anti-clockwise is the devil’s way. Fortunately this meant that the prevailing South west wind would be behind me. For the first 4 days it did not prevail. An icy unseasonable 30 knot north wind nearly turned me around. I have walked in the Hebrides in February gales but pushing into this wind 10 hours a day was harder than any I remember.
The day I flew from Basel to Edinburgh the forecast for Switzerland was 25° and described as “warm”. At the end of my first week in the Hebrides the wind had shifted from the north and the Stornoway forecast was for 12° also described as “warm”. Although I have only lived in the warm south of Germany for 3 years It would be the end of the 2nd week before I had recovered from the chilling and fully acclimatised from a near Mediterranean climate back to the west coast weather I had enjoyed for over 50 years.
May and June are good months to visit the Hebrides if you don’t like sharing your beaches although I am sure even in the school holidays the Hebrides are tranquil by overcrowded Devon and Cornwall standards. Every day that I have a beach to myself I say a little prayer of thanks to Disneyworldland, Alton Parks and Centre Towers.
For 20 years I found the last week of May and the first week of June to consistently have the best weather of the year in the Highlands. In the last 5 years I have fared better in March and April. Whenever you visit you will share the islands with a few visitors who are in the know, birdwatchers, kayakers and cyclists but few if any walkers.
There are some long stretches of road and causeway walking that I found to be unavoidable, but these are single track roads with little traffic and the views and wildlife that you see from these roads are as interesting as any you would see on a mountain trail elsewhere.
I spotted a few dozen touring cyclists migrating north through the Islands and many of the visitors I spoke to were from outside of the UK particularly from Germany and Holland. Many of the English visitors were perched behind tripods that supported telephoto lenses or binoculars. A gentleman from Barnsley was well disguised having painted his huge camera lens in the same camouflage pattern as his clothing. He told me he was watching a stint, in the stinky wrack on the top of the beach, I had to take his word for it as its camouflage was even better than his and it was invisible to my naked eyes.
It is a gentle walk around these three beautiful Islands with their many sandy beaches. I bought meths for my stove in a strange little unsigned ‘local shop for local people’ in an old house in the centre of Castlebay. The woman who served me spent some time looking for the register as she was sure she had to record the details of anyone who bought this spirit.
I walked down to the southern most beach on Vatersay to dip my toes in the refreshing Atlantic and start the walk. I watched a loud mob of gulls flying along the coast behind the small island of Orasiagh, it sounded like they were following a fishing boat that was cleaning nets. But as the mob appeared around the corner of the island I was surprised to see they were not following a boat but were harrying a sea eagle as it flew low across the bay.
I stayed in the busy Dunard Hostel at Castlebay. This is the base for Clearwater Paddling. The staff were busy with the methodical transfer of boxes of food into drybags for stuffing sea kayaks for a coming expedition to some of the uninhabited islands. The expedition menu that they offer made my porridge and pasta diet look a bit pathetic.
On the ferry over to Eriskay I commented on the bitterly cold north wind to a local passenger. He suggested winter was a hell of a lot worse. I suspect even he has to put a jacket on over his t-shirt then.
I had promised to check in my progress but these islands are all part of Orange County. I took shelter from the wind with a coffee in Am Politician on Eriskay, I believe they sell whisky too. The barmaid told me that she had seen customers prop their phones up in the top pane of the most northern window and occasionally be rewarded with a Vodafone signal. Perhaps next time.
Another causeway took me across to South Uist and after briefly heading west the coast swings north for the longest stretches of beach and machair in the Hebrides. As I walked I often turned to look back, doubly rewarded by temporary shelter from the wind and by the glorious view back to the Islands I had already walked.
I had brought a pair of “jellies”, these are diving or surfing mesh shoes with soft gel soles. Their grip on the rocks is second only to studded waders but these are featherweight and comfortable as slippers. I padded 18 miles on the beach that day in these slippers, from time to time to find shelter I followed the slight rabbit tracks through marram grass in the beach dunes and on the soft machair flower carpet.
I was not surprised but was still disappointed to find great drifts of commercial fishing rubbish in the corners that catch the tide.
But I was gobsmacked by the litter beside the roads on all of the Islands.
The population of the Hebrides is only 27,000 and so there must be many uncaring serial litter offenders.
I failed to do justice to the coast of North Uist. To keep on schedule I had to cut the north-west corner. That is fine though as it provides even more incentive to return to this bird loud treasure island. The sounds of the machair at Balranald are extraordinary, geese, drumming snipe, oyster catchers, peewits, corncrakes and skylarks.
Berneray is tacked onto North Uist by a short causeway. It is a beautiful Island of quiet beaches. no through traffic and has a pearl of a hostel on the high tide line.
I spent 2 nights here, the window of my bunk room was opaque from winter sand blasting but I was lucky and the hostel and the weather were quiet.
When I shouldered my pack on arrival at Leverburgh I found that the internal aluminium frame had broken and the sharps ends of the tube had pieced the top and side of the pack.
Islanders, like sailors are by necessity resourceful and fortunately I chanced on a perfect example, Dave the engineer, in a quayside shed. He immediately diverted from the Landrover he was repairing and set to cutting out the sharp ends of the frame and bending and fitting a tube to make a temporary fix. I was on my way again in 20 minutes.
I crossed South Harris over Bealach Eòrabhat the Coffin Route in reverse. This was an easy walk and the path across peat bog has been so well maintained that I had a rare dry feet day. I camped in a small friendly bohemian campsite at Likisto.
I left the next morning at what would have been sunrise had the cloud not been down and it rained nonstop as I walked over the hills into Tarbert on the tiny Island waistline between South and North Harris. I stocked up on pasta, porridge and chocolate in the two shops in town as the next shop would be at best four days walk away at Uig on Lewis.
The road from Tarbert heads northwest out to Huisinis. It is a fekin long road with countless twists and turns and switchbacks. Half way along the road passes through the grounds of the unpronounceable Amhuinnsuidhe Castle.
There are two passes that can be followed north from the coast road that lead eventually to remote Ceann Loch Reasort (Kinloch Resort) but I decided to keep going to see if I could find a route around the coast from Huisinis. Ceann Loch Reasort lies at the head of the sea loch, Loch Reasort, that cuts deep into the mountains and bogs of Harris and Lewis. There is a path from Huisinis as far as the lovely Glen Cravadale.
The map indicated that it should be possible to follow the bottom of the cliffs and climb up just before Taran Mòr at the mouth of Loch Reasort and follow the tops east to the head of the loch.
I contoured around the coast just above the rocks from Glen Cravadale out to the mouth of Loch Reasort and then climbed up between Grobadh na h-Uinneag and Mas Garbh to Taran Mor. I then picked my way between hills, rocky outcrops, bogs, lochs and streams to Dirascal and on to Ceann Loch Reasort.
Unfortunately it was a wet day with low cloud and the visibility was mostly poor.
After fording the river I found a perfect lawn in front of an abandoned croft. When tired, wet and cold you just seem to switch to automatic and in short order the tent was up and I had my dry socks on and was sharing an Earl Grey with the only midges I was to meet of the entire walk. This was the section of the walk I was most looking forward and I was not disappointed. The two days from Huisinis to Tamnavay I shared only with eagles and many watching deer.
The rain stopped in the night and because it hardly gets dark on June nights in the Hebrides I was again up with the sun and underway between 4 and 5 am.
I was determined to push on to spend the night in the spectacular cliff top bothy at Mangersta. There is a striking contrast between the tasteless hill track from Uig and the exquisite stone bothy with its nearby spring built by John and Lorna Norgrove who run The Linda Norgrove Foundation.
This bee hive cell bothy has one bunk and a fireplace.
It is on the cliff edge and the window looks down on the fulmar nests.
From Miabhaig north there is a long unavoidable road stage cutting inland to the head of Loch Ròg Beag. It crosses bleak moorland and cut through by a couple of expensive salmon rivers at Grimersta and Garynahine and then around to the famous standing stones at Callanish.
Fortunately I arrived at Callanish on a Sunday and the visitor centre at this Pagan site was shut for the sabbath. The toilet block was open and as it was a sunny breezy day I took the opportunity to wash my clothes in the small sink and hang them out to dry on their line. I followed the coast north to find a quieter place to camp. On through Breascleit and out past the Omega 3 fish oil factory and north to find a perfectly sized pitch on a tiny island at Stac a’ Bhanain.
This is an interesting and remote coastline. The prussian blue swell rolling on to the rocks was echoed by the frozen waves of lazy beds and I watched as a skua chased and harried a tern in off the ocean around the cliffs and back out to sea before giving up the attempt to steal its lunch.