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.