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Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Western Isles 2009 - Harris and Lewis

The ferry trip from Berneray to Leverburgh on Harris was enjoyably picturesque, wending our way past the islands through the many navigation channel marks, in ever changing sun and shade.

Once ashore we turned left to find Leverburgh Stores and stocked up with food, they also have Calor gas and fuel pumps and a gift shop upstairs. Not as welcoming as we had found elsewhere - the wine and spirits are all behind a seperate counter, so don't ask for a bottle unless you are ready for the cold eye of scrutiny! GPS: 57.7700 N, 7.0147 W

Now we doubled back towards the east coast and Roden to see St Clements Church - burial place of the MacLeods of Harris. Built between 1520 and 1550 it is now maintained by Historic Scotland. As bleak and plain as you can find, but well worth a visit for its atmosphere.

St Clements Church, Rodel

Looking for somewhere for the night we drove down to the picturesque Rodel harbour, graced by a recently refurbished hotel. As far as we could ascertain the hotel was closed for the season and we settled ourselves in the seafront car park. Just as we were getting the tea ready a police car arrived and we started to have second thoughts. But, they were only checking the property and didn’t give us a second glance. GPS: 57.7370 N, 6.9630 W

Sunrise at the Rodel Hotel

Rodel harbour

After a fine start the wind and rain returned, we didn’t venture far, and later with another gale imminent we squeezed the van into a small quarry above Loch Roghadail. Here, we not only managed to get some shelter, but also a reasonable TV signal, so Sue could watch her beloved “Strictly”.

Next morning, dull and overcast but only raining slightly, we left our snug little pitch in the old quarry and went back to the ferry terminal to top up with water again.
The sheep and greylag geese were obviously aware that it was Sunday and seemed quite disgruntled that we had the temerity to break up their little clan gatherings on the tarmac.

The hose this time was lying over the jetty wall, its end submerged in the sea, and as Sue discovered when she lifted it up, pumping fresh water full bore into the “oggin”. We can only assume that someone was filling their boat and was too lazy to put it back when they had finished. Our good deed for the day was to leave it back on the reel and firmly shut off.

Continuing northwards along the coast we passed by the huge sand dunes of Taoibh Thuath and the Isle of Harris Golf Club course, perched on the cliff top. A couple of small laybys, marked as parking on our map, offered some fine views for a lunchtime stop.
The picnic spot at Scarasta was small and fenced off with a very small access obviously designed to discourage motorhomes attempting an entry.

The campsite at Horgabost

At Horgabost we turned into the entrance for the beach and joined up with Liz and Roger. The tarmac area with portacabin toilets and showers is now designated as a campsite, but at this time of the year there seemed to be no warden, only an honesty box at the gate, the damp and soggy notice asking for £10 per night.

From Traigh Niosaboist beach at the campsite it’s only a short walk along the road to Traigh Sheileboist and the spectacular Traigh Losgaintir. This is a cockle pickers paradise and we saw some well organised pickers right out in the middle of this vast expanse of sand. We think you’d need to take some local advice if contemplating the same, it would be all too easy to get trapped on the incoming tide. A lot of the sand was very soft and hard work on foot.

The view to Traigh Losgaintir

On the north side of the beach there is a narrow road which takes you through the small hamlet of Losgaintir to a small car park at the end. However we noticed some new “Grand Designs” being built, with views down to the sea. The owners were obviously already flexing their muscles, as we passed a bold new notice by a picnic spot announcing that “Overnight parking was discouraged” and later another proclaiming “No unauthorised parking beyond this point”. When we finally got to the beach car park the toilet block had been roped off.

Moving on to Tarbert, the old fishing port and ferry terminal that connects North and South Harris, we stopped for a few goodies, a visit to the tourist office and the famous Tarbert Stores – one of those wonderful and increasingly rare old hardware stores where you can find anything if you are prepared to look hard enough.

Tarbert Stores - step inside, you won't believe it!

A few miles out of Tarbert you can turn left off the A859 to Hushinish, a tiny beachside hamlet with car park and public toilet. This drive is not for anyone in a hurry, spectacular, but narrow, tortuous and with some very steep inclines.
Incongruously we came across a brand new tennis court in the middle of nowhere, built and run by a local charity and available for hire “everyday except Sundays”. Then out of the blue, Amhuinnsuidhe Castle appears, with its private gardens and waterfront. It claims to be one of the finest sporting estates in Scotland.

A wet and windy Huisnish

After a rather windy night we made the return journey and headed north. If we were in any doubts that the Harris and Lewis landscape was very different to the other islands, they were now thoroughly dispelled. When you start seeing roadside “piste” markers you can be sure the hills have become mountains. Harris becomes Lewis as you enter the Griamacleit National Park and descending again we passed the tip of Loch Seaforth before turning right onto the B8060 to Loch Erisort. Shortly after we found a handy picnic spot with car park.
GPS: 58.0804 N, 6.5641 W

The next day we explored the area known as the South Lochs, taking in Cromor, Gravir and Lemreway. Some lovely and unusual scenery, but not recommended if you are in a large van. There are some stores and an interesting little museum at Ravensview.
GPS: 58.1065 N, 6.5339 W

Thereafter we headed to Stornoway to top up with LPG Autogas and a farewell night out with Liz and Roger. There are two large National garages in Stornoway, both sell Calor gas but only one has Autogas.
GPS: 58.2082 N, 6.3763 W

We failed to find the self service laundrette in the Bayhead Bridge Centre on our first circuit (it does exist) and found ourselves directed to the “Pressing Matters” Laundry in Inaclete Road. They were happy to let Sue load the machines herself though - once she had been vetted by the large German Shepherd resting her chin on counter.

With the vans tucked up against the sea wall in the carpark, we had a couple of jars in the McNeils Irish pub and then, warned off the Balti house on the waterfront, had an excellent curry in the County Hotel.

The Herring Fisherwoman one the waterfront at Stornoway

Stornaway museum is worth a visit, excellent displays covering the archaeology, social, domestic and economic history of the islands.

Having seen Liz and Roger onto the ferry, our next idea was to visit the Eye Peninsula east of Stornoway and see Tiumpan Head. The sea was already breaking over the road as we crossed the narrow isthmus and we began to wonder if this was a smart move. There is a small public parking area by the lighthouse high above the sea and we squeezed up against the cliff, feeling that we were relatively sheltered.

A walk to the crown of Tiumpan head was rewarded with some fabulous views over the peninsula, the only snag was staying on my feet (and catching my breath) in the buffeting wind.
As darkness enveloped us a cacophony of barking dogs broke out, they seemed to be coming from the lighthouse buildings – looked like we were to have our sleep disturbed!
The van was far below the loom of the light, but the sailors in us enjoyed looking out, watching the beam sweep around, rhythmically pulsing, comforting, like a heartbeat.

Tiumpan Head in the morning sun

The wind was still strong in the morning, but we were treated to a bit of sunshine. The dogs started barking again at dawn and the “lighthouse keeper” was soon out walking them, one at a time. He gave us a cheery wave and a "Good Morning". Every dog was a different breed and we watched with increasing amusement as one followed another, we lost count as he exercised over 20 animals, he had a mornings work it seemed. (In fact the building is a now a dog kennels, the lighthouse itself is not manned)

The B895 up the east coast peters out just beyond Tolsta at the aptly named “Bridge to Nowhere”. Built in the 1920’s by Lord Leverhume, it was part of a grand road scheme that ran out of steam, or at least money. There is a large car park there, where it is recommended you leave your vehicle if you want to see the bridge.

Nearby is Traigh Mhor, another fabulous yellow sand beach with a small car park and public convenience. GPS: 53.3611 N, 6.2160 W.

In the realisation that our leisure battery wasn’t going to get us through another night without a charge and the weather being a bit inclement for generating, we decided upon Laxdale Caravan Site, just outside Stornoway. (£13 inc. electricity off season).
GPS: 58.2268 N, 6.3918 W.

It being Saturday, there was of course another imperative – the next dose of “Strictly Come Dancing”. Despite 45 digital channels coming in BBC 1 was unwatchable, but fortunately for my sanity, the campsite owner allowed Sue (and me) to watch SCD in the bunkhouse, as no residents were using it.

Sunday was a day of endless rain, we got the laptops out, then I watched the Abu Dhabi F1 Grand Prix in the bunkhouse whilst Sue put the Sunday roast in the oven. We followed that up with a local Stag Bakery rhubarb pie and cream – “handsome”, as they say in Cornwall.

Monday brought a sunny morning at last, though the temperature had dropped 5 degrees.
Back in Stornoway there is a massive brand new COOP supermarket by the post office - big stock up, then back up the A857 to Barabhas and the long straight run to Port of Ness. Here there is a small harbour and a lovely beach, complete with peaty coloured waterfalls, staining the harbour water a deep rich brown. Parking is limited however and after chatting with a local we pitched up in front of the "Sulair" restaurant overlooking the harbour (closed and up for sale).

Port of Ness harbour

From Port of Ness, it’s a relatively short hop to the Butt of Lewis, the most northerly tip of Lewis. Looking west and north, there is nothing at sea until North America and the Arctic respectively.
The craggy rocks and sea stacks north of the unusual red brick lighthouse are awe inspiring and stomach turning if you creep to the edge for a closer look.

Stomach churning views at the Butt of Lewis

We explored a little more, investigating the small but quaint Port Sgiogarstaigh south of Port of Ness, then settled ourselves in the Dunes Park near Traigh Shanndaigh for the night.

Good morning Bunny!

In the morning the rabbits were out in force as we walked to the beach in the cool sunlight, I’ve never seen so many bunnies, popping their heads out of their burrows to watch us walk past.

Cold, clear, salty air

Thundering Atlantic rollers filled the air with a salty tang, what an invigorating way to start the day.

Now, the long trek back down the west coast, picking up the A858 and onto the famous Blackhouse at Arnol.
For hundreds of years, man and beast shared the same dwelling on these islands, as elsewhere, but when the last inhabitants of No 42 Arnol finally vacated their thatched stone residence in the 1960’s, it was given into the care of the government and is now maintained by Historic Scotland.

The Arnol Blackhouse with its peat stack

Apart from the animals living inside (which made it warmer) the extraordinary element of its design is that it has no chimney for the peat fire that burned constantly on the floor.
The upside of this is that the accumulated smoke killed bugs and the smoke laden thatch made excellent fertiliser for the fields when it was replaced. The downside, as you can experience for yourself as you enter in, is the dense, choking smoky atmosphere – by modern standards it beggars belief that people could happily live out their lives in such conditions. No wonder lung diseases were so common.

The everburning peat fire fills the air with smoke

Cutting the peat to keep this endless cooking and heating fire burning occupied about a month of the crofters labour - around 15,000 peats would be required for a family of four per year, the stacks of peat ready for the winter as big as the house itself.
A piece of living history and well worth a visit.

Continuing west along the A858 is Loch Shiabost, a fine beach separated only by a sand bar from the fresh water Loch a Bhaile which flows under a low bridge into the sea. A great spot for wildlife (we saw flocks of geese, oyster catchers and ringed plovers, though never the elusive otter).

Further along is the Norse Mill and Kiln which is also worth a look, if not just for the beautiful trek to it over the heather covered moorland.

Symphony of blue by the Norse Mill car park

Next up, Loch Dhailbeag, an inland loch a few yards from another spectacular beach, we stood and watched the surf for some time. Good spot from which do some walking.

At Dhail Mor bay is a steeply sloping car park and a huge cemetery, but also a public convenience and some more ruined blackhouses.

Finally the Blackhouse village at Garenin Na Gearrannan. This is a complete settlement in a lovely coastal setting that has been restored and maintained as near as possible to an authentic village. There are holiday lets and a bunkhouse.

The Blackhouse village at Garenin Na Gearrannan

We chatted to a local gentleman there and he encouraged us to go to Carloway community hall and join in the fireworks celebrations that evening.

Looking for a pitch for the night we parked near the picnic site by the river, under the shadow of the road bridge - not an ideal site next to a recycling skip, but it would do.
It was now bitterly cold but we togged up and walked up to the village hall. A bit early, we made a small cash contribution to the festivities and before we knew it were helping to lay out chairs and tables in the hall for the refreshments. Some local ladies arrived with steaming cauldrons of homemade soup and hot dogs. I had the chicken vegetable and Sue the minestrone, "eh by gum", it was good!

Out in the field was a huge prepared bonfire, thoroughly soaked by the rain. The Fire Brigade turned up in all their kit to make sure nothing got out of control, but despite endless pyromanical attempts to coax a fire, we had to watch the fireworks without its welcome warmth. Doh!

Awoken by torrential rain hammering on the roof and windows, we watched with fascination as the river alongside rose, first by inches and then by a foot or more. Then we decided it was time to leave, transferring to a small quay by Loch Charlabhaigh.

The beautiful tranquility of Loch Charlabhaigh

When the weather improved the full beauty of this loch was revealed. We walked along to the fishing jetty and talked to a local fisherman, who with great good humour revealed how his income had been decimated by the recession (with drop in demand and hence price for his shellfish) and the fuel price rises. As all fuel has to be brought to the islands by sea they are hit by a double wammy as the oil price goes up.

Walking back we watched herons feeding on the banks

Dun Charlabhaigh is a mile or two south of Carloway. This is a good example of a broch or stone roundhouse, dating from about 2,300 to 1,900 years ago. It’s in a great setting on a hill and remarkably the characteristic double wall is still intact, you can walk up the steps as the inhabitants would have done all those years ago.

The remains of Dun Charlabhaigh

The iconic Callanish Stones were next on the list (who can forget the sight of the comedian Billy Connolly dancing naked amongst them!). Being Sunday the visitor centre was closed, but the upside was that we virtually had the place to ourselves. A bright but blustery day and our isolation enabled us to feel some of the magic that this monument bestows.

Callanaish - where's Billy Connolly?

My next brainwave was a cosy pub lunch in Stornaway and we took the old moorland route, the A858 back to town. A little rough in places, it’s still a great drive for the sheer isolation.

A Sunday lunch in Stornoway is an elusive pleasure. After asking in several town pubs, gathering numerous blank stares and unproductive whispered conversations, the prospect seemed even more diminished.
Eventually a passerby directed us to “HS 1”, a bistro bar in the Royal Hotel in Cromwell Street, where I probably had the steak pie and chips to beat them all. It’s apparently a local's favourite and deservedly so. The only other place to eat on a Sunday is in the Cabarfeidh Hotel on the other side of town.

An enjoyable diversion nonetheless and we stocked up on gas and fuel again before taking the easy route west to Uig and Bernera.
Turning off the main road onto the B8011, the landscape changes subtly again. A wilderness of lochs, moors and mountains, but somehow different from what we had seen before. Finding a pitch for the night was easy. A walk in the twilight, orange sun glinting off the deserted lochs, rewarded me with an indescribable sensation, a boost to the spirit.

Great Bernera was linked to the rest of Lewis in 1953, the bridge a breakthrough in civil engineering in the UK in that pre-stressed concrete girders were used for the first time. The residents were apparently so desperate to close the 150m gap that they threatened to dynamite the cliffs on either side to build their own causeway!

Breacleit is the main hamlet on the island, the Post office has some fuel pumps and also allowed us to fill our fresh water tank.

At the north tip of Bernera there are some lovely beaches and the remains of an Iron age village exposed by a storm in 1993. The wind battering the van and the track laden with cow pats, we drove to the end, then squeezed ourselves down into the tiny car park in front of the cemetery by the beach.
Pulling on the handbrake, I looked up to see a shiny and very large hearse poised on the rise above us, two pairs of imperious eyes staring down, threatening to turn us, and our van, into vapour. Oops!
A rapid exit ensued, graced with many apologetic nods as we squeezed our way passed thirty or so cars and vans containing the rest of the mourners in their Sunday best.

We crept back later to see the excellent replica of the iron age dwelling, which has been built to show what life would have been like, alas it was locked up.

After a night by the road, we drove in brilliant sunshine and crystal visibility up the side of Loch Rog Beag - some glorious vistas, but hard for the camera to do them justice.

Loch Rog Beag

Turning right just past Miabhaig there is a marked circular scenic route which takes you past the beach of Traigh Na Clibhe which has a small parking area, through Bhaltos and Cnip to what is known locally and marked as Reef Beach. Here there is a campsite run by the local crofters, a small toilet and shower block by the car park.
We elected to stay on the car park as we were the only “campers” around. The machair was showing much evidence of damage where tents had obviously pitched for a long time, killing off the grass, and then the resultant erosion - it makes you wonder how long this privilege will remain for us to enjoy.

It’s a wonderful beach all the same, white sand, gently sloping, changing its topography with each tide as the streams find a different route to the sea. It’s also sheltered, the islands offshore providing a beautiful backdrop as well as protection.
We walked over the dunes to Cnip, a crofting settlement with its own rocky beaches and small harbour.


The next morning again dawned bright and clear but cold, our gauge indicated it was just above freezing, but ice had formed at the edge of the river flowing to beach. A fabulous morning, the sand had a crust of frost on it that crunched and broke like snow, and we discovered Otter tracks, the distinctive five toed imprints accompanied by a set of miniature ones.

Ice on the river flowing onto Reef Beach

A super couple of days - when the weather broke again we completed the circuit and moved on to Timsgearraidh and the Uig community stores, a well stocked COOP with fuel pumps and Calor gas. GPS: 58.1959 N, 7.0093 W

We explored as much as we could of the surrounding area, the highlight being the rocky foreshore and landscape at Mealastadh, below the village of Breanish. There is an honesty box and a notice citing “no objections to people parking and camping”.

Highland cattle graze near Mealastadh

By the vast Traigh Uige beach there is another crofters campsite and a public convenience. On the road to the campsite is a wooden sculpture of one of the famous Uig Chessmen – made of walrus ivory and probably 12th Century Norse in origin, they were discovered in the spring of 1831 by Malcolm Macleod in the sand dunes of Uig Bay.

The trip up to Gallan Head was a disappointment, it’s basically an untidy cluster of old military buildings, most of them in disrepair. The Gallan Head Hotel and restaurant claims an enviable reputation, but despite the revamping of the building the surroundings don’t really do it justice.

Now it was time to make tracks, but not before an overnight stay at the Loch Erisort Inn, where we enjoyed a fine meal, good company, and in the morning a fascinating demonstration of a restored weaving machine by the man whose months of dedication had bought it back to life.

All his own work - and can he make it fly!

Before returning to Tarbert, we drove the Harris east coast Golden Road (it really is signposted thus!). We had been warned off it by magazine articles, but it is (now) really no worse than many other trails on the highlands and islands. It is however, very long - allow a day if you intend to properly enjoy its stunning scenery. Asking a local why it was called the "golden road", the reply came back, quick as a flash: "because it cost so much to build!"

After a night in the car park at Tarbert, we caught the early morning Calmac ferry back to Skye (£43.80) and regretfully made our way back to Cornwall.


Friday, 15 January 2010

Western Isles 2009 - North Uist, Berneray

North Uist followed the now familiar pattern of South Uist and Benbecular - fertile machair grassland on the west coast and the rocky landscape of fresh and seawater lochs on the east coast.

Crossing another modern causeway from Benbecular we headed for the west coast and rejoined Liz & Roger on the gravel beach front at Baleshore. From there we had another lovely but breathtaking trek along the beach. Strolling back to the vans, the low sun gave some stunning light to the beach
GPS: 57.5268 N, 7.3828 W

Late evening sun at Baleshore

We decided to take a look at Loch Euphort - take a right turn off the A867 to Lochmaddy, shortly after the Post office and Stores at Clachan.
The weather alternated between sunshine and rain, but we soaked up some more sumptuous scenery, travelling to the end of the road where Loch Euport is at its widest and there is a small but interesting scuplture, then back a bit for lunch on an old abandoned jetty.

Loch Euphort

Backtracking some more we picked up the A865 again and headed north to the Balranald Nature Reserve. There is a pub and a grocery store with fuel pumps on this road, also the Hebridean Smokehouse, which is worth a visit, you can watch the fish and scallops being prepared and read up on the history and techniques. We thought the smoked salmon pate was particularly good.

The RSPB centre at Balranald is noted for its management of the endangered Corncrake and has some excellent displays on the local wildlife as well as the importance of traditional crofting.

At the end of a long and very lumpy track (not recommended for large vehicles) there is a small car park by the beach. A walk around the coastal reserve revealed a number of inquisitive seals, popping up their heads to gawp at us.

Amazing mackerel sky at Balranald

Later on, in their own explorations of the machair, Liz and Roger came across some bones lying on a freshly exposed edge. Liz, a physiotherapist, recognised these as being human and they phoned the police. Later still, we had the drama of the police arriving and being taken to inspect the bones, who decided they would get an expert to make an analysis.
A few days later Liz phoned back and was told that the bones were Late Bronze Age, they had stumbled across an ancient grave or burial pit.

Now the weather had turned grey and wet again and we headed back down the A865 to make our way to Lochmaddy. The lady who ran the Clachan Post office store turned out to be a Caravan Club member and was only too happy to let us have some water from her outside tap. They also sell Calor gas. We duly stocked up with water, food and gas and said a cheery goodbye.
GPS: 57.5543 N, 7.3311 W

Langass Lodge from the outside is an unprepossessing hotel and restaurant tucked up a narrow lane, but within walking distance of the Langais Stone Circle and Chambered Cairn. Inside however, the newly extended hotel exuded a warm and welcoming ambiance and we lingered for a lunchtime pint before trekking out in the drizzle to look at the stones. Great views from the lounge, over the soggy purple heather down to the loch.
GPS: 57.5655N, 7.2886 W

Stone circle amongst the soggy heather

The Barpa Langass Chambered Cairn is the largest and most complete burial chamber in the Western Isles. There is a large visitors car park directly off the main road and on our arrival it was deserted, but the driving rain dissuaded us from walking any further and after a quick photo of the information board we moved on.

Some more excitement on the road as we saw a Red Deer stag and his harem of hinds in the bracken. Fortunately, there was a part of the old road still accessible and we managed to pull off for a longer look. A thrill to see him so close, displaying all the arrogance of a such a beast in the rutting season.

A Deer Stag checks us out

At Lochmaddy we checked out the new ferry terminal, but despite what we had heard, we could not find any facilities for obtaining fresh water and waste disposal, apart from some large bins. However, after some enquiries at the tourist information centre we found a usable tap down at the old harbour. The Lochmaddy stores have some fuel pumps, so we topped up and also bought a nice piece of local lamb for Sunday lunch.

Down on the rocks near the tourist centre is a remarkable cement sculpture of a mackerel, picked out in all its glory with shells and stones and coloured glass.

Is it a rock - is it a mackerel?

Heading off northwards again we turned off the A865 towards Loch Dheoir, along this road we found a freshly made tarmac carpark, which although sloping quite steeply did provide us with an overnight spot.
GPS: 57.6432 N, 7.1008 W

A walk along the road in the morning towards Bagh a Chaise revealed some evidence of the poverty and abandoned dreams that you see from time to time on the islands. Hauled up in a small cove lay a large modern fishing boat that had been grounded or damaged in a storm, it had been stripped of its engines and other useful bits but otherwise left to rot, presumably there was no money to repair it.

Stripped out and abandoned fishing boat

In a field was an old caravan and hut that had once been a home, the wind had flayed the windows and panels from the walls… as in other abandoned croft houses we had found, domestic goods and chattels still lay around.
In front of the shattered caravan was the engine and suspension of a car, the bodywork long since completely rotted away, disappearing into the grass.

The weather brightened again and we turned off the A865, crossing the causeway to Berneray to use the facilities specifically provided for caravans and motorhomes at the ferry terminal.
Still with some of North Uist unseen we turned back, stopping briefly for photos at Port nan Long and a look at Dun an Sticr - two islands connected by stone built causeways in a tidal loch. During the Iron age, more than 2000 years ago a massive dun or broch was built, which would have been occupied by the local chieftain.

Port nan Long in the late afternoon sun

Then we found our way down a long bumpy stony track to Clachan Sands. There are a couple of picnic tables here and access to the beach, and what a beach – Traigh Lingeigh, Traigh Hornais and Traigh Bhalaig all run into each other, miles of flat, white sand beach. At low tide it is possible to walk across to the island of Otir Mhor.

Traigh Lingeigh

Liz and Roger joined us again, it was a fine clear evening and staggering back late, after yet another cheery meal, we gazed upwards, gobsmacked at the brilliance of the star-spangled sky. The Milky Way, so often invisible elsewhere, shone like a fabulous silver band, stretching the full span of the celestial orb.

The morning dawned with a sky of stunning intensity, from pale lilac on the horizon to the deepest sapphire blue above, the merest wisp of cloud ghosting in the distance. With Sue still snoozing I scrabbled over the rocks to the beach.
There was only the lightest of breezes, in the endless run of sand around me the only marks were the deep imprints of solitary cattle and the fragile signature of seabirds.
Breathing in the chill air, completely alone in the piercing sunlight, with only the sounds of the sea in my ears and not a sign of humanity to be seen, was an elemental, energising experience.

Traigh Hornais

Breakfast over, we walked a mile or two and back again, ours still the only footprints - absolutely marvellous. Out came the fragrant Salar smoked salmon for lunch, served up with celery and apple salad, chopped cherry tomatoes and citrus flavoured cous cous - equally wonderful.

Another cold night and it was time to seek out some more gas, back on the A865, this time heading west. At Ahmore is a vehicle yard where they keep and maintain the road gritting lorries for the island, it is also a gas depot, though finding someone to sell us some was initially a challenge. The house to the right of right of the depot is the place to go (cheapest gas yet!) They also have a water tap they will let you use. GPS: 57.6474 N, 7.2712 W

At Solas there is a good sized Coop supermarket and after another stock up we continued past Traigh Bhalaigh with views of the island of Vallay/Bhalaigh in the distance. Lovely coastal scenery and the unusual vision (for the Western Isles) of wooded hillsides inland.
Loch Scalpaig has an interesting tower or folly set in the middle of it.

The Tower in Loch Scalpaig

Almost back to Balranald, we came across a picnic spot near Traigh Stir. There were a few cattle grazing so we had to take care to close the large steel gates properly. This is a great spot yards from a super beach, and thanks to the communications tower on the nearby hill, not only did we have an excellent phone signal for connecting to the internet, but digital TV as well. Sunday began a glorious sunny day, another fabulous beach walk, topped off by watching Jenson Button win the F1 World Championship in crystal clear digital (and a roast Uist Lamb dinner courtesy of Sue and our SMEV oven).

The Atlantic rollers crash in on Traigh Stir



The small Isle of Berneray lies at the northern end of the Uists, again connected by a causeway. It's a delightful little island (roughly two miles by three), with two main beaches, a small harbour, a cafe/shop, post office and a collection of little hamlets. There is even a crofter who stocks Calor gas, though he didn't have any 6 kg bottles at the time of asking.
Quite a few old stone crofters cottages have been restored, most for holiday rent, including a bunkhouse hostel with a cute straw otter on its thatched roof.

Berneray's amazing ochre coloured seaweed

Typical Berneray hamlet

Liz and Roger had spent the weekend on the east beach, so after a pump ‘n dump at the ferry terminal we joined them there.
This is a long sandy beach with high dunes and plenty of parking on the machair. It’s a very popular spot in the summer, but has been a bone of contention between the community representative, who has welcomed motorhomes to the island, and an individual who bought a property at the northern end of the beach. Apparently, this incomer even went so far as to set up a website warning off potential campers, but has since been dissuaded from such adverse actions. Liz actually spoke to the gentleman, but he didn’t appear reformed or repentant.

Bernerary's east beachThis late in October, it was actually quite mild (12 C) and we were the only vans parked up.

For a bit of exercise on a blustery day, we packed up a lunch and walked to the top of Beinn Shleibhe for some stunning 360 views. In an old ruined "Black house" we the found bones of a sheep still laid out as it died, just a wool scarf remaining.
From the peak it was a gentle scramble down to the west beach, fabulous flat white sand stretching uninterrupted for 3 miles. Seals and Eider Duck kept us entertained, then we made our way back over the huge expanse of machair and around the Loch Bhrusda reservoir.

The next day, the sun was out again, the bikes came off the rack and we explored the other end of the island, sampling the toasted sandwiches at the Ardmaree stores and café.

A bit of Hebridean wisdom outside the cafe

Deep dunes at the south end of the west beach

Stone the crows! Yet another perfect day, somebody said it was BBQ weather and so it was, the gas BBQ came out and two kitchens went to work to produce a fine spread. We actually sat there in our T shirts, basking in the sun – in late October!!!

The next day, on our way to the ferry for Leverburgh on Harris, some seals finally came close enough for a decent photo at the little seal watching area.


Sunday, 10 January 2010

Western Isles 2009 - Eriskay, S. Uist and Benbecular

The Sound of Barra ferry trip from Barra to Eriskay normally takes about half an hour, it took us a bit longer punching into a short swell and a stiff wind. Price for a 5- 8 metre van £41.30.

The terminal on Eriskay has a toilet block with shower room (£1 if you need one), and a toilet waste disposal point and water tap for campers – a welcome and thoughtful facility.

The Sound of Barra ferry arrives at Eriskay

Eriskay is a tiny island and within minutes we were driving past the community centre and shop, before turning left at a standard "P" parking sign and a sign for the Am Politician pub. "The Politician" was named after the Harrison Line ship that foundered with all the whisky (and a lot of other goodies) that were “rescued” by the local inhabitants.
Unfortunately we had just missed the first ever “Whisky Galore” festival - 3 days of events, whisky tastings and ceilidhs, plus of course, another showing of the film! Curiously enough, and presumably to the Eriskay islander's chagrin, this event was held on Barra, proceedings kicking off at Kisimul Castle.

Just past the cemetery is a small parking area just yards from the beach, with fabulous views out to sea. GPS: 57.0813 N, 7.3112 W

A perfect pitch, five minutes walk from the pub!

Happily ensconced, we retired to the pub and had an excellent meal of local langoustine, then lumps of local monkfish in batter with chips and salad, just £15 a head.
The Politician is decorated with memorabilia of the ship and flies the Harrison Line flag in the garden. They even have what is said to be an original whisky bottle, though unfortunately not with the original contents!

The next day, cosy in our motorhome hide on the machair, we watched birds, seals and even a porpoise or dolphin going about their business.
Then we walked along the beach towards the ferry terminal to look at a cairn commemorating Bonnie Prince Charlie's secret landing in 1745. The cairn is a recent addition, built by local school children in 1995.

The cairn to commemorate Bonnie Prince Charlies landing

After lunch we had a look at the small harbour, somewhat forlorn, the keel and engine of an old fishing boat disintegrating on the shoreline, a closed oyster business and sacks of abandoned winkles.

Old fishing key on Eriskay

The causeway to South Uist

The weather began to deteriorate, we had been warned in the pub that a strong gale was imminent. We went back to the terminal for a pump 'n dump and then back to our beach side pitch on the machair. Liz and Roger joined us in the van for a jolly meal with music from the MP3 player and by late evening the wind had risen enough to be bouncing us around on our springs. We cleared up and decided it would be prudent to move somewhere more sheltered.

Oops! The engine kicked over a few times and then expired - a somewhat tired battery, plus winter driving conditions and an evening running the MP3 through the CD player had been too much for it. Snag was, it was now pitch black outside, the rain was lashing around somewhere near the horizontal and we were side-on to the full force of wind. Doh!!
Attempting to run the generator in those conditions was out of the question, there was little chance I could keep it out of harms way in the penetrating rain.

A very sleepless night ensued - by 0400 we had given up the struggle and were eating ginger cake and drinking coffee. By then the van was subjected to a full gale on its side, the van rocking vigorously, windows flexing inwards, spindrift white across the crests, squalls bringing drenching spray. What a battering - though a tribute to the van, it rolled with the blows, surviving unscathed.

There's a howling gale outside!

At first light, the rain had mercifully stopped and I only had the spray to contend with. The geny came out and in the lea of the van it charged up through our internal battery controller. By 0845, engine started, we moved to shelter by the ferry terminal. Blocking our escape were some Eriskay ponies, sheltering in the lea of a wall, they really didn't want to move!

Eriskay ponies are not the slightest bit interested in motorhomes!


Liz and Roger awoke startled to find us gone - had the wind been blowing offshore they would have been peering over the edge of the dune! Having looked at their text messages, they came to join us.
In front of the cliff and head on to the wind, in relative calm, we downed one of Liz’s bacon sandwiches and fell into a blissful sleep.

Next day we awoke to glorious sunny skies, still and calm – is this the same planet? Thanks to the tap at the terminal the van got a thorough hosing down with fresh water, we lived to fight another day.

South Uist

Poll a Charra, South Uist

So, across the causeway to South Uist, more spectacular shoreline, piercing sunshine glinting off the sea, rocks and damp seaweed.
We found our way to the Polachar Inn, a beachside four star inn and hotel dating from 1750, and indulged ourselves with some fabulous bowls of seafood chowder, I think there must have been a pot of cream in each one. GPS: 57.1050 N, 7.3579 W

South of Loch Boisdale, we came across some restored crofter cottages for holiday hire, and at North Glendale, the “Listening place” sculpture, a low stone wall facing the loch with metal tractor seats to admire the view and listen to the sounds of nature. Inset into the wall are engraved slabs of Gaelic poetry (with English translations)
GPS: 57.1365 N, 7.3081 W

Loch Boisdale from North Glendale

Lochboisdale was once a major herring port and is the main settlement on the island. At the ferry terminal, there is a water hose and toilets, though we couldn't find any dedicated toilet dump.

Near the ancient Wheelhouse remains at Cladh Halainn we found a quiet pitch for the night.
GPS: 57.1699 N, 7.4031 W

After another excursion, taking in Eriskay community stores for some more gas (only £19.99 this time!) we drove up island to Howmore, a windy spot overlooking the bay. Here are the Tobha Mor ancient chapels.
GPS: 57.3018 N, 7.3908 W.

The South Uist Museum is worth a visit. There is some interesting stuff covering crofting, seafaring, the second world wars and of course the "Whisky Galore" incident, with some wonderful extracts from a local paper covering the reminiscences of those caught helping themselves. My favourite quote is from the 66 year old Alistair Ewan Macrae, crofter and fisherman, convicted and jailed in Inverness for six weeks for “salvaging” crates of whisky:

“A fine neighbourly spirit it was. You could drink that whisky and fall asleep, five minutes later you’d wake up again as fit as a deer and be ready to start all over again. It never harmed any of us and there’s many a sad teetotaller in the cemetery who would have been better of for a drop of Polly”

We whiled away a couple of hours before having some lovely fresh salmon and mayonnaise sandwiches in the attached café. There is also a 24 hour toilet here with an outside water tap.
GPS: 57.2210 N, 7.3963 W

Loch Druidibeag

More scenic delights followed, including a trip to the Loch Druidibeag Nature Reserve.
After a windy night near Loch Druidibeag, the day morphed into one of brilliant sunshine, but still with a gusty wind. We stopped off for a look at the iconic statue “Our Lady of the Isles” sculpted by Hugh Lorrimer.
GPS: 57.3428 N, 7.3646 W

"Our Lady of the Isles"

A perusal of our OS Explorer map revealed a pub east of the main road which seemed an ideal base for a cycle ride. The pub turned out to be the noted Orasay Inn, and a word with the young man behind the bar confirmed that we were fine to leave the van in the car park whilst we explored, and stay overnight if we popped in for a drink later.

We headed off towards the Salar Salmon Smokehouse, featured on Rick Stein’s “food heroes”, and purchased a couple of packs from their small sales outlet.
Close by is a fuel depot and the island's power station for when (or if) the electrical supply from the mainland is broken. Cycling uphill and down dale, past a salmon farm, we eventually came to the end of road. Here there was a abandoned croft house with the roof half off, but still with furniture, bedstead and cooker. The sheep were making themselves comfortable inside.

Abandoned Croft house

Then it was back to the Orasay Inn, where we had an excellent dinner of crab cakes followed by lamb shanks in red wine gravy, £40 with two pints each.
GPS: 57.3770 N, 7.2996 W

The following day we explored the west coast a bit, but South of Aird a Mhachair a lot is still marked as "Danger" from military use, but there are some potential wild camping areas.
Just before the causeway to Benbecular there is a café with some public toilets, an outside water tap and a toilet dump, though the sewer cover was padlocked up for the winter.
GPS: 57.3945 N, 7.3328 W

Further along there is the Carnon Stores with Calor gas supplies and then over the causeway a large well stocked Coop store.


Shortly after leaving the Coop we turned right off the main road to Peters Port and driving to the end found a dedicated picnic spot. Timber bollards had been put up to stop it being used as a car/van park but there was just room for a couple of vans in the layby. After Liz and Roger had caught up we walked down to the little port, really no more than a slipway and portacabin.

The Scallop diver returns!

After admiring the view in the fading sunlight we were about to retreat when a couple of cars turned up, one of the occupants of which turned out to be a scallop diver – he was just going out to get some scallops for tea! Half an hour later he re-emerged from the water with a large cage load and after taking what they needed offered the rest to us! Profuse in our thanks and delight we returned to the van and Roger proceeded to shell them by torchlight on a handily provided picnic table.

If you have ever try to shell a scallop you will need a suitable strong but flexible knife to insert into the shell join and cut the muscle away from the inside (without slicing the meat in two!) Once the shell is open the other side can be cut away as well and the edible white meat and coral trimmed from the rest. Don’t try and force the shell open, the strength of the muscle is amazing and if it clamped shut on your fingers you would certainly regret it! For the squeamish amongst you, once removed from the shells, the white meat was still pulsing for a while – can’t get fresher than that!

Roger deals with the live scallops!

The wind rose again to gale force during the night and we drove gingerly over the little causeways that span the lochs back to main road. We had a look at the Shell Bay campsite near Lionacleit, thinking we would stop a night and get some laundry done, however their tumble dryer was out of action, instead we went to a laundrette behind the Bank of Scotland in Balivanich, (£14 for two loads and dry).
Balivanich is the main habitation area of Benbecular, with the airport, military base, hospital and a good selection of shops.

The noted Macleans Bakery was on route back to the A865 so we stopped off for a couple of chicken pies. The wind was now well up, battering the van as we drove South.
Suddenly a Golden Eagle flew right across our path, just hovering on the wind a few metres in front of us - the closest we are ever like to get to one – what an amazing sight, it seemed huge. Needless to say, we were too spellbound to get a photo.

Figuring that we were unlikely to find any shelter that night we decided to return to the Campsite, at least we were sheltered from the sea and could park head on into the wind.
There was one other caravan on site, and at £17!! per night (£7 per person plus £3 electricity), we could see why. There was a sign up banning passing visitors from using the water or the waste facilities which we thought was missing a trick – why not make a small charge instead of turning people away with a gruff notice?

In the morning the grumpy owner told our friends to be off site by 1100 – which seemed gratuitously officious seeing as the site was now empty apart from us.
GPS 57.4250 N, 7.3696 W

At the Maclennans store in Balivanich, we stocked up with the best fruit and vegetables we have seen, as good as you will get anywhere. There is also a wonderful hardware store which sells Calor gas.

Kallin (harbour in the distance)

Heading north, we had a look at Kallin, a lochside hamlet with a recently enlarged harbour and shellfish packing plant, here you can buy all manner of seafood, including lobster, ready to eat.