Numerous rocky islands and hidden rocks make the ferry ride from Berneray to Harris quite the obstacle course. It is, apparently, Scotland’s most torturous ferry route. The ferry was swinging round left, right, left, right all over the place to get to Leverburgh on the other side. Once again it was mercifully calm making for an enjoyable hour long early evening crossing.
Harris and Lewis are, in fact, two parts of one island – the division something to do with a falling out in the MacLeod clan back in the day. Leaving the ferry terminal we struck out towards the west side of South Harris to spend the night overlooking a sandy beach and to watch the sun sink below the horizon.
The first thing that’s immediately obvious about Harris in comparison to the islands we have visited so far is that it is very hilly with more than thirty peaks above 1000ft. And we could see them too which was a bonus. The weather on our first foray onto the island was kind enough to allow me to do a thirty mile circular route on the bike to take in east, west and south Harris. And what a fabulous ride it was too in bright sunshine with just a light breeze. The up and down east coast road gives fantastic views of all the sea water lochs and freshwater lochans and there are plenty of artists studios dotted along the route to waylay you.
With golden sandy beaches to my left and rolling mountain peaks to my right the west coast scenery is superb with some interesting quirky looking holiday lets.
We spent the evening parked up at one of the camping spots provided by the West Harris Trust overlooking the beach at Luskentyre. £5 for the night paid either by paypal or you can send a cheque or cash to them.
What more could you want to end a perfect day? A cracking view sitting outside on one of the benches.
After a couple of days on Harris it was on to Lewis. It started off well with afternoon sunshine accompanying us on the drive across the peat bog landscape to Stornaway. By the time we arrived in Stornaway, the largest town on the island, the rain had started. We weren’t feeling the love for Stornaway in the rain so after a quick pitstop to fill up with LPG, do the weekly shop at Tesco and eat take-away fish and chips we headed further north.
In windy, grey, rainy weather Lewis is, we felt, a tad grim. The endless barren peat bog with nothing much to break it up other than housing strung out along the main road wasn’t doing much for our morale. We did have a nice walk though around the headland at the Butt of Lewis, the northern tip of the island. It was misty but miracle of miracles there was no wind. Considering it has been mentioned in the Guinness Book of Records for being the windiest place in the UK I guess we were extremely lucky.
I know when I started on this trip to Scotland I said I wouldn’t moan about the weather. But….. ..more rain followed. The west side of the island, though, did provide a few distractions on a rainy day. We stumbled across a Moor Sheiling built in 2017.
Most crofters had their own sheiling (5-7 miles from home) where some family members, typically mother, grandmother or aunt with the younger children would migrate to from May until July taking their cattle with them for summer grazing. A simple dwelling with earth floor, peat fire and bed.
Geàrrannan Black House Village, a cluster of nine restored thatched crofters houses, gives an insight into what blackhouse village life was like.
The second house has been restored to its condition at the time it was abandoned.
Of the nine black houses, one is a Youth Hostel, another four offer self catering accommodation and the others are an interpretation centre, museum, cafe and finally…….loos!
There is definitely more to see on Lewis particularly on the western side around Uig but not enough time and too much rain put paid to that. We were supposed to be doing a complete tour of Scotland on this trip but time is running out as we’ve spent three weeks on the Western Isles already.
After a bike ride from Tarbert to the island of Scalpay, connected to Harris by a single track bridge, it was time to get the ferry across the minch to Skye.
Across the causeway from Eriskay brings you into South Uist, home to long, white, sandy beaches on the west coast and rolling peat moors, inlets and rocky hills on the east coast. There are sooo many deserted beaches on these islands. Waking up in the morning and rolling out of the van straight onto a sandy beach all to myself to do my morning exercise routine has been another highlight of our trip. Swinging about a couple of little yellow dumbbells whilst watching sanderlings skitter up and down the shoreline or listening to a couple of terns squawking their displeasure at having unwanted company sure beats wiping down the sweat of the previous occupant on the equipment at my local gym before using it. Of course I don’t do this routine every morning as I’m really not that disciplined but when I do remember to do it and make the effort it is always worth it…….even more so on an empty beach without curious onlookers making me feel acutely self conscious and ridiculous…….except on one occasion when two gorgeous coffee and cream coloured young bullocks watched me with expressions that distinctly said WTF?
After our first night on South Uist the fickle hand of the weather had us scuttling off to Lochboisdale on the other side of the island to seek some refuge from the wind which had battered us overnight at our exposed position right behind the beach. As I’ve mentioned before high winds have us praying that our roof vents will still be intact when we wake up in the morning. Being made of plastic they really aren’t the best and the wind manages to get under them constantly making them rattle. Tim has solved the problem on three of them with a simple system of elastic bands and suckers to hold them in place but we have one which is a wind up affair with an integral fan within it which makes it impossible for that solution to work without taking it to bits and punching a hole through a fly screen. On the second night of the ruddy thing rattling and constantly waking us up Tim got up in the early hours to deal with it. I woke up a few hours later to find the temporary solution in place. Mmm, not ideal but it did give us a few hours of uninterrupted sleep.
Cable ties have sorted the little blighter out now. We can’t open it or use the fan and the fly screen is in tatters but that’s the price we have to pay for a better nights sleep and it’s preferable to a hole in the roof.
Once at Lochboisdale we found some shelter behind a couple of containers in the harbour and sat out the inclement weather until it was time in the early evening to visit the hotel bar, sit round an open fire and upload the last blog post. As there are next to no trees on the islands I asked the lady behind the bar if it was expensive to import wood or coal. She said they buy a tonne of coal at a time which a few years ago cost them £700 but now costs £1300 and they sometimes mix it with peat if they’ve cut any that year. Peat used to be an important natural fuel source here on the islands but now electricity, oil and gas have largely taken over.
A couple of days later we were waylayed by the most perfect pile of peat we’d ever seen before. It was a work of art I tell you.
We had to stop and take a photo of it. The owner of the house was pottering about outside and after checking it was OK to take a photo he very happily answered all our questions about it. He gathers it once a year from the moorland which has been allocated to him and it takes six people just one day to cut enough peat to supply his home with free energy for cooking, hot water and heat for an entire year. After it’s cut it’ll take him three to four days of numerous trips to get it back to the house where he spends the next two weeks of his spare time building his masterpiece to dry it out before it can be used. Marvellous. The actual pile in the pictures is half of what it was and he showed us a framed picture of the completed work of art.
He also told us all about how the peat is cut and showed us the tools they use which he keeps submerged in water all year round. We were so glad we stopped and it is good to see an old tradition alive and well.
Two consecutive days of clear dry weather had us out on the bikes again. Apart from the punishing wind it really is a great place for cyclists and we’ve seen many a happy smiling cycle tourer blasting along with a tail wind heading north. Those heading south are generally grimacing but I’m sure they’re enjoying every minute of it. For us, as we are doing circular routes or out and back routes, it’s fifty fifty for the wind with or against us…..grimace on the way out and smile on the way back.
A day of walking followed where we had intended to walk to Uisinis Bothy and back on the eastern side of the island but was curtailed when we realised, when the path fizzled out after an hour or so, that we’d taken the wrong fork earlier on so retraced our steps and spent a while listening to the birds over a long lunch overlooking the sea.
The cycle of the weather has been such that a couple of days of decent weather have been followed by a wet and wild one. Either a library or a museum come in handy on those days. The Kildonan Museum on the A865 is a very pleasant place to while away an hour or so followed by coffee and cake in the attached cafe. It tells the story of Island life through its exhibits, collections and pictures.
Benbecula gets quite an unkind write up by our guide saying ‘the only reason to come to Balivanich, Benbecula’s grim, grey capital, is if you are flying into or out of Benbecula airport, or you need an ATM or supermarket’. As the weather had closed in again with mist and drizzle I confess we did what most people probably do and that is drive straight across it to get to North Uist. It is apparently pancake flat but we couldn’t tell as the mist denied us seeing it. We did stop at the Co-op to do our weekly shop though to spread our spending on all the islands less one feel left out.
North Uist is more of the same landscapes as we had seen on South island but I don’t mean that in any disparaging way at all but I’m running out of superlatives to describe how fabulous these islands are.
You see some curious things when out either walking or cycling. From a couple of fields away, through the binoculars, I spotted a sheep with all four legs in the air. I dimly remember reading something somewhere that said if a sheep is on its back then it’s not that way deliberately and will die if it’s not turned over. Well we got to her and got her turned over but she was too weak to get up so we went to the nearest house to let them know.
The very friendly lady who answered went next door to talk to who she thought was the owner. We didn’t linger around as there wasn’t anything else we could do so hopefully she was saved. I looked it up later and, when the sheep is in the upside down position like that, it’s the gasses in their stomach from all that grass eating that swell up and eventually press on their lungs eventually suffocating them. They don’t get into that position on purpose but it can happen if they are carrying lambs or their fleece is heavy with water.
Another curious sight also involving sheep happened after we’d done a long walk around the peninsular at Granitote. Traigh Ear beach at low tide is a vast expanse of hard packed sand. Just as we were finishing our walk we watched a ewe with her two lambs trailing behind her wander down onto the beach. She then just kept going. And going . And going. She was on a mission. She must have walked a mile or so to get to the grass on the other side of the bay. Obviously ‘the grass is greener’ isn’t just a human thing after all.
Later, when the tide had come in creating a vast expanse of knee deep water, the farmer with his dogs, rounded up his flock and walked them all down into the water where the dogs held them there for about ten minutes or so. They were only in up to their knees so I doubt it was a swimming lesson. The dogs looked to be thoroughly enjoying racing around in the water making sure they kept together. They then all ambled back up the beach to recommence eating grass. Maybe the salt water stops them getting foot rot?
The final island before getting the ferry across to Harris is Berneray linked by a causeway to North Uist.
It is just a wee thing measuring two miles by three, with a population of just 140. It is just delightful. I think it could be my favourite island so far. Mind you, that could be because the constant blasting wind we have had everyday had finally tempered down to a light breeze and we could actually hear the silence . I even had a burnt face by the end of the day. Sun burn in the Outer Hebrides. Who’d have thought?
The little museum run by volunteers tells the story of island life with hundreds of donated photos to peruse. Seals bask off the rocks close into the shore without seemingly a care in the world.
As our friend Chris would say………..happiness on a stick!
Time for a ferry ride to Harris and Lewis, the last island we’ll be exploring on the Outer Hebrides.
The forty minute boat ride to Eriskay with a tail wind and sunny skies, making it actually pleasantly warm out on deck, proved to be a very enjoyable one with seals spotted basking off the rocks. Such is the fickle nature of the weather here that the ferries were cancelled the following morning due to inclement conditions (aka: it was blowing an absolute hooly). If you get some bright weather here you have to make the most of it immediately as it’s sure to change in a matter of hours…….or minutes. I’m not whinging, just making an observation.
In the week or so we have been on the islands we have had sunshine, wind, rain, wind, cloud, wind, mist, wind, drizzle, wind, sunshine, wind and wind. As you can see the wind has been the only consistent element within the mix. The windswept look is definitely ‘in’ up here. Again, I’m not moaning I’m just letting you all know that even though it looks all sunny skies in the photos they don’t portray the full picture so to speak. I’m not about to go out taking pictures of greyness just to show the other side of the weather and anyway even if I’d wanted to I can barely get the door of the van open at such times. It’s too windy.
On these occasions (about fifty fifty so far) you’ll find us hunkered down in the van, in our sleeping bags, reading our kindles whilst gently swaying in the gusts. ‘3’ doesn’t seem to have reached the islands as our mifi hasn’t had a signal since we have been here. It has actually been really good for me to have an enforced lay-off from the internet as I’ve enjoyed reading a whole lot more when I’m not constantly distracted by the thoughts of ‘oh, I just need to look up such and such’. There’s too much else to look at anyway. For example, last night I spent a good couple of hours just enjoying watching two Hebridean lambs frolicking around together on the grass outside the van. They were having a whale of a time skipping around playing together it was just a joy to watch them. It had me thinking out loud ‘do only lambs miss out if they don’t have a sibling or do they make friends with other lambs’………..’what, like on Fleecebook’………..très drole Tim, très drole. The two were joined by another two later in the evening which, I guess, answered that question.
Back to Eriskay. Although only measuring just over two miles by one it does have some interesting stories to tell. Probably the most famous was the sinking of the SS Politician in 1941 on her way from Liverpool to Jamaica which inspired Compton Mackenzie’s book Whisky Galore. 264 000 bottles of whiskey were on board at the time. Great, finders keepers thought the islanders but Custom and Excise officers thought otherwise and nineteen islanders were found guilty of illegal possession and imprisoned in Inverness.
The only pub on the island, the Am Politician, has one of the original bottles. An Olde Worlde pub it is not but it is welcoming and has a conservatory that heats up nicely when the sun is out which it was when we were there. Handily, it also has free wifi which was pretty fast so I could upload my photos and the last blog post. If you have a dog though there is no room at the inn as they aren’t allowed in which is a shame as with all those deserted beaches to play on I can see why dogs would choose the islands as a holiday destination. Equally the Polachar pub on South Uist (owned by the same people I think) doesn’t allow dogs in either which is a shame if you are either a dog, have a dog or are a dog lover.
As an aside, we went to the only pub on Barra at Castlebay and hardly flinched when we were charged £9.80 for two pints as we thought it must be the going rate for the islands. Later though, and after a change of barman, we were charged £7.20 for two pints of the same beer. Mmm, odd. After being charged £6.80 for two pints in the Am Politician the beer barometer says that £9.80 was extortionate and we will be more vigilant next time.
Another of Eriskay’s claims to fame is that Prince Edward Charles Stuart, or Bonnie Prince Charlie to his friends, landed on the islands main beach in July 1745 at the start of his campaign to regain the throne of Great Britain. Following his defeat at the Battle of Culloden in April 1746 he fled into hiding on the Outer Hebrides with a price of £30 000 on his head. After a couple of months keeping a low profile he escaped to the Isle of Skye helped at great personal risk by Flora MacDonald. You can follow his story by visiting various places associated with him on the islands along the Bonnie Prince Charlie Trail.
We walked up to the top of Ben Sciathan, the islands highest point, which gives views as far as the islands of Skye, Rhùm, Tiree and Coll. We were lucky to have clear weather even if it was a tad blowy. The semi wild Eriskay ponies that roam free on the island can, apparently, often be spotted grazing in the centre of the island around Loch Crakavaig which is the islands only source of fresh water. Alas, we didn’t spot them.
So that’s Eriskay. Onwards now across the causeway to South Uist.
Arriving on the bonny bonny banks of Loch Lomond just north of Balloch on a calm day in bright sunshine I just thought why? WHY? WHHYYY? Why have I never been to Scotland before now? What have I been doing all my life to not have experienced this before? What was the matter with me? I’ve been all over England and Wales and parts of Southern Ireland so why did I leave out Scotland? Strolling along the Loch shore into Balloch I started to lament all the missed opportunities over the years.
With all the rugged hills in the distance contrasting with the stillness of the loch I almost felt like I’d found my spiritual home. I’d been living half a century in the Westcountry when I should have been born in Scotland!
Two days later my questions were answered. Scotland isn’t green for no reason. Plenty of rain helps to keep it the way it is. After a bracing windy walk across the hills near Oban the rain came in and stayed for twenty four hours. Ah yes, I remember now, that was why I’d never been to Scotland before, the unpredictable weather.
Living in the South West it’s a looong drive to the Highlands and every time we’d mooted about doing a tour of Scotland for a one or two week holiday we’d always decided against playing Russian roulette with the weather and opted to visit areas closer to home. Why we were put off by the drive really is beyond me as Tim had many a family holiday in the Highlands in his younger days travelling from Devon with half a dozen other family members crammed into a Hillman Imp borrowed from the next door neighbour! With more modern transport and road networks it’s hardly the end of the earth but we always found an excuse to go somewhere closer to home.
We had originally planned to ‘do’ Scotland last year but chickened out and went chasing the sun instead. This year, though, we are ready for it! Fear not, I am not going to be a whining, whinging, moaning Minnie about the weather whilst we are here. We are embracing Scotland and all the wild weather it has to throw at us. The waterproofs are out, we’re layered up and we are ready.
Our first stop in Oban served as a jumping off point for visiting the islands of the Outer Hebrides. Over two hundred islands make up the Western Isles as they are officially known with just a handful being inhabited by the 28000 or so hardy residents. The plan for the first couple of weeks is to island hop our way from South to North taking in the islands of Barra, Eriskay, Benbecula, South Uist, North Uist, Harris and Lewis before jumping across to the Isle of Skye for a week or so.
Although I usually HATE trips by ferry I was actually quite looking forward to the nearly five hour journey to Barra across the Minch at the southern end of the Isles as for the first half of the journey the boat meanders through a narrow stretch of water flanked on one side by the coast of Western Scotland and on the other by the islands of Mull and Coll. We’d been lucky that the weather had cleared up and was clear and sunny for the trip over giving us fabulous views all around. Once out into the open sea though my queasiness took over and I spent much of the time outside on deck trying not to bring up the contents of my lunch.
Arriving on the island in the early evening it struck us almost immediately that the bobble hat is alive and well on Barra. They are everywhere! Barra is certainly a bijou island at just eight miles long by four miles wide but it is known as the Western Isles in miniature boasting sandy beaches backed by machair, Gaelic culture, prehistoric ruins and a few mountains thrown in for good measure……….and……..quicksand!
Over the last week we have got out to explore Barra by boot and by bike. Nearly all the roads are single track but with passing places every few hundred metres or so and little island traffic it has been completely stress free getting from place to place. Everyone seems to drive at a sensible speed and gives a little wave on passing which is all very civilised and a welcome change from our usual type of driving.
One of the islands claim to fame is that the airport that sits on the edge of Traigh Mhór bay is the only beach runway in the world receiving scheduled flights. It is quite the attraction. The runway is tide dependant and the public aren’t allowed on the beach when the windsocks are flying. Whilst we were walking on the other beach behind the airport a little twin otter plane circled above us in the squally wind and rain getting ready to land but because the dunes are in the way obscuring our view we didn’t see it touch down on the sand. When we arrived at the airport cafe fifteen minutes later, the place alive with steaming waterproofs and steaming people, the three cheery ladies working at the cafe were belting out Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I will survive’. I guess it must have been a bit of a bumpy landing.
The plane taxis right up to the airport building to drop off its passengers where they can then take a short walk to the bus shelter around the side of the building which also doubles up as the baggage reclaim. Fantastic.
We whiled away a couple of hours over coffee and cake drying out and soaking up the jovial atmosphere of the place only leaving after the plane had taken off again.
We’ve tramped around various areas of the island in some interesting wild weather but we’ve enjoyed every minute of it. The beaches are some of the best we have seen on our travels so far with the ground up sea shells giving them their distinctive light colouring. Learning that the crushed cockleshells are used to make harling (the rendering used on many Scottish houses) changed my opinion of what I deemed to be ugly pebbledash which I had assumed was imported in.
Cycling round the island yesterday in beautiful sunny weather was an absolute treat despite being against the wind for half of it. Stopping to take photos at low tide with the seaweed revealed captured some of the iconic views that the islands are famous for.
So far our Scotland trip has already surpassed our expectations and I’m still bashing myself over the head for not having visited before.
Today we hopped onto the ferry which took us, in the warming sunshine, across the water to Eriskay where we docked forty minutes later scraping our back end on the tarmac coming off the ferry (roll eyes). It doesn’t take much of an angle to ground out the electrics on our tow bar!
Ah yes, the blog. I’d conveniently forgotten about ever having written a blog once we’d got our four tyres and four feet back onto UK soil. In my head I’d given myself permission to have a holiday from the blog whilst back visiting family and friends but with it now being three weeks to the day that we arrived back in the UK I guess my holiday is now, strictly speaking, over. So, as it’s raining and I have a lovely view of a Scottish beach framed by the vans rear window which just happens to be next to the bed, I thought I’d do the next enthralling blog instalment from the comfort of my bed. And why not?
It’s hard to believe that three weeks have disappeared so quickly but they do say time fly’s when you’re having fun. And we were having fun. Friends and family in the west country to meet up with, appointments to attend and old haunts to check out. Then the trip ‘oop north’ to catch up with my parents and enjoy some home cooking, a free washing machine and a couple of pets to stroke. In fact the free use of the washing machine turned into a complete service wash and iron. It’s the first time our clothes have had an iron run over them in over two years. If we had more in the way of clothing we’d be saving them for ‘best’ but as the service wash constituted half our wardrobe that’s not really practical. Even the bedding and tea towels underwent the same treatment….imagine. Thank you Mum for all the home cooked meals and for doing our washing with such love and care. I must say I’ve never seen Tim’s underwear looking quite so, well, flat!
And thank you also to all our other friends and family for fitting in with our tight schedule for meet ups. It still amazes me how we can just slot back in to other peoples lives as if we’ve never been away. Our return this year was made all the more enjoyable as we didn’t have to revisit the question of our ‘stuff’. That was dealt with last year (you can read about it here if you feel so inclined). We’ve had a thoroughly enjoyable three weeks ‘holiday’ but all good things come to an end and as of yesterday we are now back to ‘work’. The ‘work’ being a six or seven week tour of Scotland. It’s a tough job but we’re happy to take it on!
I’m not going to talk about Scotland in this blog post though as we only arrived a couple of days ago. Instead I’m going to give you some thoughts and musings on things that we’ve noticed or had forgotten about on our return to the UK after the best part of two years away from it. Don’t worry, politics won’t feature.
Firstly then, the price of groceries. You’ve never had it so good here in the UK. I can’t say I noticed it last year as we came back to the UK from Spain which was maybe slightly cheaper than here or about the same but this time around we couldn’t believe the difference. Especially things like fruit and vegetables, bread, tuna, biscuits, sweets and cakes. A tin of tuna in Greece will set you back €1.79 (£1.57), here it will cost you a measly 87p. A friend of mine asked what foods I missed whilst being away from the Uk and I think my exact words were ‘nothing really apart from real ale’. Why then did I come out of Aldi with Hot Cross buns, crumpets, decent crackers, savoury noodles, Fox’s Golden Crunch creams, Branston pickle, Melton Mowbray pork pies, baked beans and spaghetti hoops piled high in the trolley? Moral of the story? If it’s out of sight then it’s out of mind. We’ve calmed down now after our binge!
One thing we had forgotten about was that shopping at a supermarket in the UK accompanied by a 7m motorhome is much more of a challenge than we remembered, especially at Aldi or Lidl. The carparks are generally much smaller and much busier than their European counterparts. Unless you shop very early or late in the day then it’s probably best to find another place to park up and walk or find a bigger supermarket. Also, we’d forgotten that it’s not always easy to find any parking at all with a motorhome and that you usually have to pay!
Next up, traffic. There’s probably not significantly more traffic on the roads as opposed to two years ago but the volume of traffic here is much higher and it was noticeable as soon as we rolled off the ferry in Dover. From local traffic to motorway traffic it’s just busy, busy, busy. There are definitely more potholes and some of the driving has been reminiscent of the roads we experienced in Italy. The worst has to be yesterday being shaken to bits whilst circling around the suburbs of Glasgow trying to find LPG. It seems the ‘beast from the east’ has done its worst to the road network.
And finally, my driving leaves a lot to be desired. Apart from the odd occasion driving various cars when on our Helpx assignments I haven’t really driven for the last two years as Tim is driver and I’m navigator. For overall harmony in the van it’s better that way. This, though, has left me somewhat rusty on the old driving front. We hired a car for a week to make it easier to get to friends, family and various appointments and to give Tim a break from driving it was just insured for me to drive. Well, all I can say is my driving skills are now shocking. Dithering at junctions, being in the wrong lane on roundabouts, hesitating before driving round parked cars when you could fit a bus through, passing too close to cyclists, forgetting which way to give way to on a roundabout and not quite making the turn on a mini roundabout and having to reverse are just a few of my motoring misdemeanours. The worst was taking off and driving at least one hundred metres on the right hand side of the road before realising I should be on the other side. Fortunately it was on a very quiet housing estate. Even my navigation skills are shot as I’ve directed Tim to take the third exit on several roundabouts instead of the first as, in my head, I’ve gone round it the other way! Shocking, shocking, shocking. Of course, I’m now thinking should I drive more to keep my hand in so to speak? After witnessing me driving a tiny Toyota for a week I’m not sure Tim would let me loose with driving the van now though.
So anyway, that’s us up to date now and we are thoroughly enjoying being back in the UK and feeling revitalised and re-energised. We’re now getting layered up to take on whatever Scotland has to offer.