For lovers of dazzling white shell sand beaches, birdwatching and lonely, haunting landscapes, North Uist is the place. I’m a little biased because my mother’s family come from there so the island is in my DNA and exerts a powerful pull through genetic memory. So saying, the island’s north end IS recognised as one of Scotland’s officially designated ‘Outstanding Landscapes. ‘ It is also one of the ‘machair islands’ of the Hebrides, with a west coast backed by soft grasslands, covered in wildflowers. It is one of Europe’s rarest and most beautiful habitats.
We had 4 days on North Uist after our 3 on Skye and the contrast between the two islands – despite being so relatively close – is remarkable.
Day 1: A hike up North Lee and a wild camp above a shell sand beach
On Monday 5 June, we boarded the 9.40am ferry to North Uist and set sail for that island of my heart, under grey skies and a fresh breeze.
We spent most of the 1hr 45min sailing on deck, looking out for whales and dolphins and watching the kittiwakes and fulmars wheeling over the waves.Shearwaters skimmed the surface too and an occasional marauding Great Skua passed overhead, on the look out for easy prey.
It’s a fine sail, passing the tiny Ascrib islands and Waternish Point Lighthouse with the 1,000 foot cliffs of Dunvegan Head always impressive though quite distant.Bought some mugs of tea from the cafe and some bacon rolls and noticed the patches of blue starting to emerge from the gloom.It was looking like my next Bucket List item of hiking up the remote hill, North Lee (or in Gaelic Li a Tuath) might be on.
I always feel emotional as the ferry pulls in to Lochmaddy bay with North Uist’s lovely low hills framing the scene.
It’s my favourite approach of any ferry trip, lonely shores on each side, all brown hummocky moorland and grey rock, occasional patches of emerald green.It’s a hard landscape especially after lush Skye, but to me, incredibly beautiful and much wilder.
It was a beautiful sunny day now so we debated about whether to head for Traigh (Gaelic for beach. Pronounced ‘Try’) Lingeigh’ s white sands to pitch the tent or whether to climb the hill, now, while the weather was looking good.No contest – it had to be the hill!
The start of the walk has an information board suggesting it is a 10 mile round trip to North Lee but this is wrong; it’s only 10km.It has a reputation of being very awkward of access and despite its tiny height – 263m – it’s situation should, I reckoned, give us some wonderful views of the Outer Isles archipelago , Skye and over North Uist’s watery hinterland.
The start of the walk is only 10 minutes drive from Lochmaddy, so by 12 noon we’d parked and got the gear sorted for an afternoon of walking, hoping it wouldn’t be too boggy; North Uist is dotted with thousands of lily-covered lochans and sea inlets.But that means a LOT of damp ground! Stuck my shorts on hoping the sun would last, knowing it was probably tempting fate and off we set.
I loved that walk right away. Sometimes you just do.The moorland was covered in Bog Cotton, white fluffy heads nodding in the breeze.
The track was sheep track – width but incredibly dry and our way was marked with posts, making it easy to follow.We passed tiny lochans with Tufted Ducks and Mergansers.The air was sweet as only the air in the Hebrides and the world’s truly wild places can be.
After an hour, the moorland began to rise but the posts kept us right in terms of the easiest ground up the hill’s rocky slopes.
We stopped to watch a pair of golden eagles circling between the summits of our hill and its neighbour, South Lee, making the most of the thermals.Tried to get a shot but they disappeared over the incredibly wild, rough ground of the island’s uninhabited east coast.It’s a fabulous coastline, only accessible by boat.
In no time we had threaded our way up between outcrops of ancient Lewisian Gneiss, some of the planet’s oldest rock, to arrive at the hill’s summit.
Wow, wow, wow. What a view!
Wild, lonely North Uist in all its watery glory. Lochmaddy was a scattering of white crofts with the main island roads snaking off west and south.Surprisingly, although we were bathed in sunshine, Lingeigh and the west was being hit by rain shower after rain shower – we could see the clouds moving in then clearing before the next one came in.Thank goodness we had delayed going over there!
Drank some much needed water- it was warm up here, sunbathing warm! Had some crisps and chocolate and just marvelled at what was all around us and for such little effort.It was an eagles’ eye view and absolutely glorious.South, we could see Eaval, North Uist’s highest point at around 330m, a beautiful pyramid rising out of the sea.
Then South Uist’s higher hills, Hecla and Ben More, and even Barra’s highest point, Heaval.
To the east, Macleod’s Tables on Skye and Neist Point and in the north, rose the rocky hills of Harris.Crescents of white beaches were visible everywhere -we could even see Luskentyre below North Harris’s distant hills.
We walked over the hill to its northern summit for more fine views, then dropped down following the posts again, to descend via a slightly different route. This took us to a very sad spot, the site of a World War II Air Crash marked by a memorial cairn erected by the people of North Uist.
We briefly looked across to South Lee and wondered whether we should go up that too but we were keen to get the tent pitched – as Chris always says, the hill wasn’t going anywhere.Another time.
Got back to the car around 3.30pm, feeling mighty pleased that another Bucket List item had a big tick against it. A hill I would do again, no doubt. A joy.
By 3.45pm we were at Lingeigh (pronounced Ling – guy) , after a bumpy drive down the rough sandy track by the old graveyard at Clachan.
We have wild camped on this beautiful pure white sand beach for many years now, so it is loaded with memories.It’s a magnificent little spit of machair, where two enormous, deserted shell sand beaches almost meet.The sea is opalescent green.Emerald green islands sit offshore – Pabbay and Lingeigh itself. The mountains of Harris form a shapely outline on the far horizon.
Nice to get set up for two nights, our wee home in this unspoilt, beautiful place.Our third night would be a scrub up in a B&B, Cnoc nan Uan near Balranald RSPB reserve.
Chicken curry and rice tonight which tasted so good, as food always does outdoors.A nice wee swally or three of sparkling wine and all felt very good with the world.However, our attempt at sitting out on the chairs with our books, came to nought as the wind was just too bitter.Went for a final chilly stroll on the beach then retreated indoors! Out for the count by 10pm.Great day.