My Life in Motion

Archive for the tag “Benbecula”

Na h-Eileanan Siar – Part Two

It is a strange concept to be amongst fellow countrymen and yet not to understand their language, such is the decline of the Scottish Gaelic. Once a common and widely spoken language (particularly in the north and west), it was bred and beaten out of some speakers as well as replaced for purposes of trade and commerce, first by Scots, and then by English. It hangs on for dear life in places, but aside from a few key words, place names, and the bilingual signage in the north-west of the country, most of the Scottish populace do not speak it, and so generation by generation, it seems almost doomed. As it was, I was in the heart of the Gaelic community, out in the Outer Hebrides (Na h-Eileanan Siar). I’d spent the previous few nights based in South Uist, and now it was time to head further north to a new base.

As a lover of the outdoors, there was simply too much to explore in this bilingual frontier on the Atlantic coast off Scotland’s mainland. Although the main trunk road, the A865 carves a direct line north, there were so many side roads leading to beaches and bays and rocky coastline that I was constantly weaving my way west then east in a zig-zagging fashion as I explored these hidden pockets. I was initially greeted by a rainbow through the dark clouds, but eventually the clouds broke apart to reveal some sunshine. South Uist is linked to the island of Berneray by one of a series of causeways that link the island chain. The eastern half is pockmarked with waterways, a cluster of freshwater and seawater. Between the different islands, some of my memories are a little blurred, and I cannot remember which bay or beach was where, but one of the walks I did on Berneray was up Rueval (Ruabhal in Gaelic), the highest point of the island at a mere 124m (407ft). It was hardly taxing but the view at the top over the island and beyond was beautiful. I could still see the storm clouds to the south that I had left behind and the sun glistened on the waterways beneath me.


I took a side road to the island of Flodda, a small island with just a handful of buildings and the odd ruin. Back on the main road, more causeways took me to the neighbouring island of Grimsay and then onto North Uist. Dotted between the sporadic houses and farms there was the occasional ruin here and there. Some of them were old cottages or farms, others were of more significance such as the Trinity Temple. Near here was the exposed and wild expanse of Baleshare’s beach, another island reached by a causeway. On a sunny summer’s day, many of Scotland’s western beaches would rival any of those paradise-inducing photographs of worldwide beaches: pristine sand and unspoilt. But for the frigid sea temperature and biting wind that often accompanies these beaches, they are still worth the visit, and often because they will be empty apart from the local wildlife. Under the dulling sky, these places can feel wild and battered, but in fact that is exactly what I love about this part of my homeland.


The eastern half of North Uist is again pockmarked with waterways. Taking the A867 towards Lochmaddy, I continued past the harbour settlement to continue on the A865 that circles past these lakes and inlets. At the turn-off onto the B893, I passed houses here and there, nestled near some beautiful beaches, before reaching yet another causeway to take me to Berneray, the most northern of the linked islands. Beyond here is Lewis and Harris, linked by a ferry run by Caledonian MacBrayne. The Lobster Pot Tearoom which was closed whilst I was visiting, has a sign outside which has become quite famous and is a good indicator of the local humour when it comes to the region’s notorious weather extremes. Past Blackhill, I took the road to its end and then it was time to get out on my feet and explore.


Cutting first across beach and then through farmland, I ascended the hill of Beinn Shleibhe which although not particularly high gave a viewpoint across to the nearby islands of Boreray, Pabay, Harris, Ensay and Killegray. I saw one other hiker far ahead of me, but otherwise I had the whole place to myself. Cutting down the other side of the hill, I stumbled onto another of the island chain’s beautiful beaches. After following it for a while, there was a natural curve creating a corner, which as I came around it, I was stopped abruptly in my tracks by the sight of an otter running out of the sea and rolling around in the sand. This is the only wild otter I have ever seen, and I was so transfixed and in the moment that I dared not move to take any photographs. To this day, the memory is still a very clear image in my head, and I stood for some time watching it roll in the sand to remove the salt from its fur, and then it duly skipped off up the nearby sand dune. Eventually, I cut up a gap through the sand dunes myself and followed a vague track back to the road where I could reach my car from.


Having had a fantastic start to my last day in the Outer Hebrides, I felt rushed in the afternoon to explore the rest of North Uist. Back on the A865, I passed more beautiful sand right by the road where it was clear people took their cars onto the beach. It was tempting but I didn’t want to risk getting stuck. Further on, towards the west, I reached the turnoff to Solas beach. Out on a peninsula, this whole area was beautiful even as the rain threatened to encroach. With sandy beach on both sides, there was plenty of reason to get out of the car and go for a walk. With the hours creeping on and the weather deteriorating, I found beach after beach after beach as I continued on my way, and I wished I had had more time to spend here. Eventually it was time to leave the western coast behind, and after stopping in at the St Kilda viewing platform where I couldn’t actually see St Kilda because of the advancing rain, I returned to the guesthouse I was staying in and had a wander around the farmland and beach nearby as the sun lowered.


That night I treated myself to an expensive dinner at a fancy restaurant near Lochmaddy. Driving home in the dark can be dangerous around these parts and I could see why when a female red deer jumped onto the road in front of me out of nowhere and proceeded to prance down the verge ahead of me for some distance before eventually disappearing into the darkness. The next morning I had a ferry to catch and a long drive to the east to reach my home at the time in Aberdeen. I always spend ferry crossings out on deck to watch the world go by and was rewarded by some porpoises riding our wake. Returning to Uig on the Isle of Skye, it was grey and overcast. I spent a large chunk of the day taking detours and side roads round Skye, visiting Waternish, Durnish and then taking the long detour to Elgol across the water from the Cuillin Range. Amidst a break in the grey clouds, the sun shone here and I stopped often to take in the changing view as I retraced my steps back to the main road. Despite Skye not being one of my favourite islands, I could see the appeal.


I took yet another detour down the long road towards Armadale. Although a ferry to the mainland leaves from here, I wasn’t catching it, but instead wanted to visit a part of the island that I didn’t think I’d been to before. The area around Isleornsay was especially pretty, but eventually I had to push on. Crossing over the Skye bridge back to the mainland, I reached Eilean Donan Castle, probably the country’s most famous and most photographed castle aside from Edinburgh Castle. That evening, the water of Loch Duich was calm providing a reflection of the castle that sat regally under the grey sky. I stayed at a b&b in the middle of nowhere to break up the journey, and the following day I negotiated the competitors that were cycling around Loch Lomond in the rain. By the time I reached Carr Bridge for a late lunch, the river Carr was in good flow from all the rain that had fallen of late. Beyond here, there was just the familiar drive through the mountains to return home to Aberdeen.



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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