MistyNites

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Archive for the tag “Outer Hebrides”

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.

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.

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