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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.



Adrian Ham said...

hi guys, planning 2 weeks in the hebrides this Summer, stumbled across your blog - very very nice well written, great photos - no doubt you do it for the enjoyment but you should get a wider audience for this! Yours Adrian Ham, Croydon adrianjham@hotmail.com

Anonymous said...

Well just to say that yoou are a couple of blowbags and berneray hates any type of campers and that includes YOU

Ian and Sue said...

The comment from “anonymous” above has given us some wry amusement in the Christmas period… but for those interested in intelligent debate we offer the following comments:

The Western Isles, including Berneray, are heavily dependent on tourism for the health of their economy.

Tourism is a trade like any other - the visitors bring their money and the destination provides the facilities and services that the tourists require in exchange.

Be it a rented converted Black House, a room in a B&B, a packpacker’s hostel, or as on Berneray, a free to use water and waste disposal facility for Motorhomers at the ferry terminal, these facilities provide the means by which these tourists (of which motorhomers are but merely one category) can enjoy some wonderful scenery, peace, and the almost universally friendly welcome from the local inhabitants.

Motorhomers tend to consume roughly the same quantities of food and drink as other human beings, they also consume fuel in order to travel in their vehicles and energy to keep warm. All this we purchased on the islands.

Despite the widely circulated stories of motorhomers bragging that they spent nothing on the islands, having brought all their consumable needs with them on the ferry, that would be a little difficult to do over the period of eight weeks that we spent there. We also indulged ourselves in the occasional meal in a pub or restaurant, often adding to a very small group of customers in the autumn season and consequently being made more than welcome.

There are unfortunately always a minority in any group of tourists who will abuse their welcome, be it motorhomers who cast their rubbish to the winds, backpackers who light fires and destroy the machair, blackhouse tenants who damage the furnishings or B&B residents who nick the towels from the bathroom!

Motorhomers require extraordinarily little in the way of facilities and services and consequently are very cheap to accommodate, needing only a peaceful place to park overnight and somewhere to draw a relatively small amount of water (per person, per day) and dispose of their toilet waste.

In return, over a period of eight weeks we spent an average of over £275 a week on the islands, a total of £2,200. Multiply that by a mere 10 motorhomers and there is a not inconsiderable sum of £22,000 finding its way into local pockets. An average of a hundred motorhomers on the islands over the year would bring in a sum approaching £1.5m.

One final point. The Scottish Executive is currently reviewing ferry services in Scotland. The CalMac services to The Western Isles are vulnerable because many are uneconomic and money has to be found elsewhere to support them. Despite them being a vital lifeline for the islanders, they may still be cut back.
Hence the revenue from tourists to the islands becomes even more important.

Motorhomers of course, cannot fly to the islands, and pay a premium for often unused space on the ferries. In off season periods when other tourists are not so much in evidence, motorhomers are equipped and willing to come and enjoy the islands, using inter-island ferries as well to and from the mainland.

Gillian Cowan said...

Well put. I very much enjoyed your blog. I'm a regular visitor to my Scottish western isles and also practice a leave no trace policy and make a point to buying everything locally, is that not part of the fun. We have a beautiful tiny classic VW camper. It's a shame people can be rude and so unfriendly. As a Scott who bursts with pride at my wild and beautiful land it makes me sad. Love your writing.
Gill, Ayrshire

Ian and Sue said...

Gillian. Thank you for your kind comments – that was a wonderful and unforgettable trip. With so much travel writing on the net I am still amazed that so many people still find their way to ours and make favourable comments.

I even had the honour of a local artist (Jane Macrae – www.janemacrae.com) request permission to use some of my photos as inspiration for her paintings!

Sadly, for various reasons we have not been doing much motorhoming (or blogging) as of late, but hopefully we will return to the Western Isles one day and still find them as unspoilt and the people as welcoming.

Happy Travels!