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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.



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