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.
Feumaidh mi ruith!