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Na h-Eileanan Siar

With around 14,000 years of known human habitation, Scotland has an extensive history. With so many events to choose from, it’s understandable that the school curriculum falls short at teaching an adequate amount of it. When I was at school, most of our history teachings were focused around the first and second world wars, and whilst I’ve extensively travelled my homeland and visited historical sites of interest, I’ve felt that my knowledge of the Scotland of the past has been very fragmented and jumbled. Even last year when I was playing tourist in my country of birth I was made quite aware of my lack of awareness of how the various historical events related to each other. In a book shop in Ullapool, I found Neil Oliver’s book, A History of Scotland, and over a year later I am finally ploughing through it. Whilst the age-old habit of naming children the same as their relatives has made it hard to follow who did what at times, overall it’s left me with a much better understanding of why Scotland is the way it is today. It is incredible to think the differences that could have been if just one or two battles had swung a different way or if one or two key people hadn’t been such a pushover or in contrast so defiant. The fate of the Gaelic  (pronounced Gah-lick) language is one sad example, a fading remnant of a once stubborn independent sector of a once ununited nation.

Reading this, I was reminded of a holiday I took back in 2010 to the Outer Hebrides (Na h-Eileanan Siar), a wild and rugged stretch of islands off the country’s west coast where the Gaelic language is holding on for dear life. Living at the time in Aberdeen, I had to drive the whole width of the country just to get to the Isle of Skye, my stepping off point for the Uists. Ask many a tourist (and Scot for that matter) and Skye is often lauded as their favourite of the islands. But not me. I think perhaps because every visit I’ve ever made there has involved torrential rain, or maybe it’s simply that it can’t compete with the experiences and memories I’ve gained on several of the other islands. Whatever the reason, it will never be my favourite Scottish isle, not even close.

 

I ate dinner at Portree in the setting sun and pulled up to my hostel on the hill overlooking Uig in the descending darkness. I’ve stayed in so many hostels over the years that only a handful of special ones stick in my mind, and this is one that has faded into nothingness. I remember nothing of the inside but the next morning under a cloudless blue sky, I definitely remember the view from outside overlooking the harbour below. I had some time to kill before the ferry departed so I took a drive east to Quirrang, a distinctive rocky landscape that featured in the movie Stardust. Despite the sunshine at Uig, this side of the island was cloaked in patches of cloud, lending a dramatic sky to the dramatic landscape. I continued round to the Old Man of Storr, another of Skye’s famous geological features, where I took the path up to its base. Soon though, it was time to return to Uig, board the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry and set sail to Lochmaddy on North Uist.

 

My plan on arrival was to drive the chain of linked islands as far south as I could get and gradually work my way north to get the ferry back nearly a week later. And so I found myself checking into a former old folk’s home that was now masquerading as a hostel, just outside of Lochboisdale on South Uist. It had been raining the whole way down and still it rained some more. I had arrived on a Sunday, a traditionally holy day of rest here in the religious west. Until relatively recently, and against a lot of local backlash even flights to the island chain on Sundays were prohibited and at the time of my visit, businesses closed their doors (a practice long since abandoned in the cities and towns of the mainland) and the place felt deserted. With the wind and rain howling outside I felt like I was in a frontier land, wild and abandoned as it was. Eventually though, I could remain holed up no longer, and geared up with waterproofs and an Ordinance Survey map, I found a local walk to kill some time. I got utterly drenched and met just one other person but as somebody who often craves solitude away from the noise of my daily life, this was perfect. Not put off by the bad weather, I headed up another walking track behind Lochboisdale where the mist and rain swirled around me obscuring my view.

 

The following day gave promise of better weather. I headed south across the causeway to Eriskay, the most southern of the linked islands and parked up in the queue for the ferry. There’s something so endearing about this old fashioned jetty style where it’s first come, first served. I’d made sure I was there early to guarantee a spot on the ferry, and with my car holding my place, I climbed the nearby hill to take in my surroundings and watch the ferry come in. The sun was out for the crossing to Barra and it remained dry the whole day I was over there.

 

Barra is a rather small island but big enough that I was glad to have my own wheels to explore it. I went for a beach walk and passed the beach runway of the local airport, the only airport in the world that has scheduled flights land on a beach, and up to the peninsula beyond where I took another walk. The rugged beaches of the wild west coast seemed positively bustling compared to the quietness I’d experienced so far. There were so many places to stop and stretch my legs. The sky was turning grey as I continued south, taking the turning down a rural road to reach the causeway for Vatersay, yet another island in the expansive chain. The beach here was beautiful and almost empty but the wind was bitterly cold, and with lots to see, I couldn’t stay as long as I would like.

 

Castlebay is the main settlement on Barra and it was so busy I struggled to find a place to park. It was a strange contrast to the rest of the Outer Hebrides, especially as there were even coach parties of tourists here. I didn’t have time to visit the castle on its rock promontory out on the bay (hence the name), and in the end I didn’t stay here long due to the parking problems. I wound my way north up the east coast, stopping often to soak up the view, before taking the ferry back to sunny Eriskay, where I made use of the evening light to explore the coastline around the causeway and the south of South Uist.

 

There was more sunshine the next morning, and I made the most of the morning light to explore Lochboisdale’s shoreline. From there I headed to the beautiful and extensive sandy beach that spans almost the entire west coast of South Uist. It was windy but gorgeous and there was barely a soul to be seen for miles. Exposed as these islands are, the vegetation is low to the ground, exposing everything to the full brunt of the Atlantic weather. With only a handful of hills in the lower half of the island chain, they are a generally low-lying landscape, and with both salt water and fresh water in great abundance, these islands are a bird-watcher’s paradise. There’s also plenty of farmland here, as harsh as the growing would be, and I spotted the distinguishable Highland Cow which is a very hardy species of cattle, as well as the equally hardy Clydesdale horse.

 

Loch Druidibeag contains an RSPB reserve where it is possible to see a lot of waterbirds, and beyond here there was plenty of opportunities to get out and stretch my legs. The apparent desolation belies its beauty and my trip so far had firmly planted this part of the country as one of my favourite parts of Scotland. On a stormy day, I’m sure this place can seem harsh and intolerable, but on a dry autumn day, it beguiled me. It was a struggle to make it far along any road here without finding yet another spot to stop for photographs. There was so much ground to cover. I ventured east to the coastline and further north to the statue of Our Lady of the Isles, a large granite depiction of the Virgin Mary, before returning to Lochboisdale for my final night here. The rest of my trip was to be spent to the north, as equally enchanting and as beautiful as I’d become accustomed to in the last few days.

Journeys in the Homeland

As a child, many of our family holidays were to places within my home country of Scotland. As an adult, whilst eagerly heading off on adventures on foreign shores, I’ve always made a point of travelling across my homeland as well, revisiting favourite places and discovering new locations. Whilst I have my favourite places on the mainland, my absolute favourite parts of the country as a whole are out on various of the islands dotted up the west coast. I have lugged my trusty tent around a few of them, done road trips on a few others, and a few more still have been the destination for day trips. My passion for the country is yet to dwindle.

I spent 23 years of my life living in a suburb of Glasgow, the largest city in the country. Whilst not having the visual appeal of the capital city, for me it is the city to go for shopping and socialising. I love it. I do not, however, love its weather. The Scottish weather is not the most reliable at the best of times, and whilst I have many memories of gorgeous sunny days, I have a lot of memories of grey, dreich winter days where the rain slams off the streets. Contrast this to my home for the subsequent 5.5 years in Aberdeen on the east coast (Scotland’s 3rd largest city), where it is much drier, and the sun shines for longer. Whilst Aberdeen gets bitterly cold in winter, and gets a good covering of snow, it is complimented by beautifully crisp, clear days where the sun bounces off the snow, making it truly sparkle. Where Glasgow won out, was with its locality as the gateway to some fantastic areas of the west coast: the Trossachs, Loch Lomond, and the islands of Arran, Cumbrae, Gigha, and further afield to Oban and beyond. I missed the ease of access to the Western Isles and the Firth of Clyde islands when I lived in Aberdeen, having to chug across the width of the country to get out to these. Having said all that, the Cairngorm Mountain National Park was within an hour’s drive from the Granite City, and I used this as my playground for hiking and camping as often as the weather was reasonable.

 

Most of the years of my life I have at some point visited the Spey Valley within the country’s original National Park, Cairngorm Mountain. This is one of my favourite parts of the mainland, and I have visited it in blizzards, and fantastic sunny days, and a full spectrum of weather in between. The Cairngorm Mountain range is littered with Munros (a Scottish mountain >3,000ft high), and these are accessible from the Grampian (Aberdeen) side, as well as the Spey Valley to the west. It is home to Scotland’s 3 ski resorts and the 2 highest roads in the country, the most famous being the ‘Cock Bridge to Tomintoul’ Road (the A939), which is usually the first road to close in the country when the snow appears due to it reaching an altitude of 2,112 ft. Incidentally, this is one of my favourite roads to travel along, and is the access road to the Lecht ski resort, but it needs a really sturdy gear box due to an incline of 20-26% depending on the section.

There are so many fantastic hikes in the National Park that I could write a whole separate blog on these. My favourites are to the summit of Lochnagar (3,789ft) which starts in the glorious glen around Loch Muick, a good 1.5hr drive west of Aberdeen with red deer being a common sighting on this hike; the forest of Glen Tanar near Aboyne; the Spey river valley walk; and the shorter walks to Loch an Eilann and around the Glenmore forest at the foot of Cairngorm Mountain. A fantastic trip to do here is a guided walk into the foothills of the Cairngorm range to visit the local population of reindeer. It is a free ranging herd, the only one of its kind in the whole of Great Britain, and they can be seen roaming the mountains in the summer, or lower down in winter, where they come in for a regular feed and an up-close opportunity to hand feed these delightful creatures. A few of the herd tour the UK at Christmas time to pull Santa’s sleigh at parades and festivals.

 

The Isle of Mull and the Isle of Iona west of Oban are beautiful islands to visit, and they both demand to be savoured slowly. Mull is littered with single track road, and the best parts of the island are reached on these. Tobermory, the colourful town on the north-east of the island is famous for 2 reasons: the buildings on the waterfront are all painted in differing pastel shades, and it was also the set for a famous children’s tv programme a few years ago, called Balamory. It is an excellent location to hop on board a boat and go searching for whales and dolphins. I was lucky enough to see a sunfish which is exceedingly rare in such northern waters. On one of my visits I attended a production of Macbeth in the Mull Theatre, situated in the village of Dervaig. At the time it was the World’s Smallest Professional Theatre, with around 32 seats, and being so close to the actors, several of us got regularly sprayed with phlegm as the erudite actors portrayed their characters with immense enthusiasm. It is almost a little sad that this delightful little theatre has been replaced with a more modern, and larger production hall near Tobermory.

 

Taking a long drive to the south-west corner of Mull, the ferry terminal at Fionnphort hails the crossing point to the islands of Iona and Staffa. Staffa is an uninhabited sea stack with the famous Fingal’s Cave, and patrolling the waters around it are the populous basking sharks. These sharks are plankton feeders, and are beautiful to watch trawling the water, sieving the micro-organisms out the water with their giant mouths. I have lost count of the number of times I have visited Iona, and the weather has been glorious every single visit. I love hiking north from the ferry terminal to the northern beaches, and just relaxing as the Atlantic Ocean laps on the shore before me.

 

I only discovered the Outer Hebrides 2 years ago. I had been to the Western Isles of Skye and to Lewis and Harris in my adolescence, but I decided to take the long drive from Aberdeen across the width of the country, up the length of Skye and on the ferry out to the chain of North & South Uists, Benbecula, Barra, and Berneray. This region has a strong Gaelic (pronounced ‘Gah-lick’, as opposed to the Irish Gaelic, which is pronounced ‘Gay-lick’) heritage, and the signage is bilingual, with a preference towards the Gaelic. One of the many MacDonald clans can be traced back to the Uists. I spent a week touring the chain of islands, and I’ve never been anywhere so idyllic, so remote, and so far from the stress of suburbia in all my life. It is a very wild and rugged region, and it is exposed to the full brunt of the harsh Atlantic weather. Most of the island chains are barely above sea level for large portions, and the tide has a lot of influence on the coastal landscape. As a result, the place is teeming with shore birds, sea birds, and thanks to a plentiful supply of inland water, wetland birds too, not to mention the birds of prey that these smaller species encourage. I can’t think of a better place to go and watch bird life. The only wild otter I have ever seen was also on this trip. Whilst generally colder than the rest of the country, the Outer Hebrides boasts some amazing expanses of white sandy beaches, many of which stretch some distance. It was on one such beach on Berneray where I was walking along daydreaming, that my attention was drawn to a movement ahead of me. An otter had just returned from a trip out at sea, and it was drying itself off on the sand, rolling over and over and having a full body shake down. I stood quietly watching it for several minutes before it disappeared up the sand dune and over the ridge.

 

Last year, the cogs were already in motion for me to make a move abroad. In an effort to both conserve money whilst taking a break, and to immerse myself in the country I would later leave, I packed up my tent, my stove, and sleeping bag and headed off first to the Island of Arran, and then to the Isle of Gigha. With the exception of the last day on Arran, I lucked out with the weather, basking in the 20s most days, and getting sunburnt on Gigha. Disembarking the ferry at Brodick on Arran, I set off with my 15kg backpack up Goatfell (2,866ft, a Corbett). I was in prime fitness at this point, and although it slowed me down, I amazed myself with how quickly I made it up to the summit. I enjoyed my lunch at the summit, taking in the glorious vista, before heading down the far side and through the glen below to my camp spot for the night. It was only May, not quite in season yet, and I had the campsite to myself. Over the proceeding days, I worked my way south, camping in the forest and enjoying the changing coastal scene. Thankfully the rain only came in the morning I was due to leave, so I managed to get packed up and under cover without getting too drenched.

 

Gigha is a comparatively small island on the exterior side of the expansive Argyle Peninsula. Getting to the ferry terminal is a mission in itself, but once out on the island, I spent several days soaking up the rays and meandering from one end to the other, pitching my tent wherever I felt like it. One of the glorious things about Scotland is the ‘Right to Roam’ Act. Apart from individual properties, most land is generally classed as public, and therefore free access is allowed nearly everywhere. It is also possible to pitch a tent nearly anywhere you please too on the public land, as long as you’re not causing an obstruction or being a nuisance. As a result, I’ve had some glorious nights in my tent in the middle of nowhere, in some wilderness somewhere that I’ve hiked to. Gigha was no exception. I spent each night camped on the shoreline at a different bay, waking up to the sunlight dancing off the gentle water. It was such a relaxing holiday.

 

Unfortunately, my memories of the northern isles, Orkney & Shetland, are very faint, having been there in childhood and never having made it back in adulthood. I can remember visiting puffin colonies, and some incredible archaeological sites in Orkney, mainly the World Heritage Site that is Skara Brae, a neolithic settlement from the BC era. There is not enough space to write about every place I’ve ever visited in my home country, many of which I’ve been back to over and over again, and putting more detail into those places I have mentioned would take an inordinate amount of time. Needless to say, I am proud to report that my home country still remains the one that I have travelled most extensively, and I think it is important for travellers to remember that your home country is well worth exploring too.

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