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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.



By motorhome said...

very good report. with beautiful places, thank you

Anonymous said...

Wonderful photography

Mark said...

So wonderful! You've just cost me about£500 because I'm going back! I wish I had the time like you to tour things properly.Please check out my blog www.mark-harristweed.blogspot.co.uk You never know there might have been something you missed.