A TOUR OF THE OUTER HEBRIDES (5 days on North Uist, South Uist and Barra)

I’ve split this up into our first 3 days on North Uist, then a separate link to 2 days on the other islands.We visit these islands every summer – they are of endless interest to anyone who loves wild and beautiful places. For our 2 days on South Uist, Eriskay and Barra see:A Tour of the Outer Hebrides ( South Uist, Eriskay and Barra)

Day 1: An easy short hill walk and some truly beautiful beaches

Lingeigh beach

A 9.30am ferry to North Uist from Uig,  meant a super early pack up of the tent as we had a good 1.5hr drive ahead of us. Skye is big! It was an easy 40 minute walk back to the car and with all the food eaten and the wine well and truly drunk, our rucksacks felt much lighter – even if I didn’t given what I’d munched my way through:( But what a fabulous first evening it had been, with a sunset over the Black Cuillin mountain range which was ethereal in beauty. And people complain about Skye being busy! We had that whole area completely to ourselves.For more on our first night above Camasunary on Skye see:A TOUR OF THE OUTER HEBRIDES(Part 1)

The drive to the north of Skye is stunning also  – all Skye drives are – even if hitting the main road at Broadford again does feel like a sharp jolt back into civilisation; people, cars, buildings, shops, houses…

Near Luib on Skye

 

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View over Uig harbour, Skye

But the biggest thrill of all is when we pull into the ferry queue at Uig, knowing the Outer Hebrides are only a short sail away. As ever, the harbour area was going like a fair, family cars loaded up to the gunnels with bikes and luggage, seagulls wheeling and crying overhead, the air smelling of seaweed and the cold northern ocean. Then the ‘Lord of the Isles’ rounded the Uig headland, in her distinctive black, white and red Caledonian MacBrayne livery, the most handsome of any ferry I’ve seen throughout our world travels. We could hear the echo of instructions being given to passengers on board to disembark, first in lyrical Gaelic, then in English ,  a sure sign we were in the western Highlands.

Puffins from the ferry

And  a very pleasant sail it was, birdwatching from the deck with a big mug of tea and a bacon roll, spying some fluttering puffins and a few snow white gannets plummeting like arrows into the ocean to catch fish. There were rafts of razorbills and guillemots, floating on the choppy sea and diving underneath the waves at our approach. An occasional shearwater skimmed the surface of the sea majestically,  on sword-thin wings. Fulmars swept past at eye level,  like miniature albatross.Some great views of Skye too….

Black Cuillin
Neist Point lighthouse

 

Lochmaddy

The final 15 minutes of the sail, as the ferry makes it’s way towards tiny Lochmaddy, the ‘capital’ of North Uist, is my favourite approach to any Hebridean island. The landscape is so beautiful and wild – much emptier, less green and lush than Skye, very different –  with its undulating heather moorland and the shapely, rocky low hills of North and South Lee and Eaval dominating the skyline.

The approach to Lochmaddy

With family connections to the island  – my grandmother and her ancestors all came from here  – I always find myself very emotional as the familiar landscape unfolds before me (and  I am worse when I am leaving it.) Overcast skies and some hefty showers had now given way to sunshine and scudding cloud and it looked like my No 2 Bucket List ‘To Do’ item for this trip was on  – hiking to the summit of tiny North Lee. I always imagined it would be a fantastic viewpoint for relatively little effort (and the relatively little effort bit always scores highly in my book:))

walk start

 

The start of this fairly easy walk of 10km (6miles) round trip is signposted only 10 mins drive from the ferry. It is a wonderful walk , under huge Hebridean skies and across moorland studded in summer with fluttering bog cotton.Direction posts mark the whole route, so it is easy to follow.

n uist landscape

Much of the Uists are flat brown heather moorland (purple in July and August) , dotted with an infinite number of lochans studded with white water-lilies.

South Uist and Skye July 2012 372

The lochs themselves reflect the colour of the ever changing skies – dark and brooding or a shimmering blue. Endless miles of dazzling , deserted shell sand beaches line the west coast. In contrast, the eastern shores are rocky and indented with myriad sea lochs and here lay the 263m humps of North and South Lee and highest of all, Eaval (at a lofty 300m). It is a very ancient landscape and something inside me responds deeply to that; I felt similar in the Namib Naukluft desert in Namibia, the world’s oldest desert and I feel it often travelling throughout the west of Scotland. It is the ‘auld country’ indeed, once part of Greenland and Northern Canada and Norway rather than England or mainland Europe.

North Uist landscapes

 

For details of the superb walk we had up North Lee, see: WALKS ON NORTH UIST (North Lee)

The views from the top were wonderful, giving us an eagle’s eye view of the myriad lochans and sea inlets which make North Uist more water than land.Though we had it dry, big showers were sweeping across our destination tonight   – a wild camping spot we have used for many years now beside the stunning and virtually deserted Lingeigh and Hornish beaches.

Lingeigh and Hornish Beaches

Lingeigh

Now, my usual default mental state took over; a tendency to fret needlessly. Would we get the camping pitch we wanted over at our favourite spot?? It HAS got more popular over the years ( if I see 5 or 6 other people on the beach, I call it busy. But I need to put ‘busy’ into perspective here.) Chris, who never worries about ANYTHING, told me to relax, it would be fine.

And  – it was. This is such a superb area of North Uist that it is officially recognised as one of Scotland’s ‘Most Outstanding Landscapes.’ Photos will do it more justice than any number of words.

Hornish

 

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The Tent .North Uist
Our camp

Curry and rice for dinner that night, cooked on the faithful Trangia stove. Then a seat overlooking the beach with some tumblers of wine as we watched a lovely pastel sunset unfold.Fell asleep to the sound of oyster catchers piping and the soft crash of the surf.

sunset over lingeigh

 

Day 2 Hornish beach and an east coast Boat Trip

Woke early to a beautiful sunny morning. Spent an hour just strolling along neighbouring Hornish beach then made some tea and sat looking over Lingeigh. Two German women walked past our tent and we waved hello. One of them came over to chat and explained that it was her first visit to the island and she had fallen in love with it. Her friend – she pointed to the other lady who lingered a little distance away – was so overwhelmed with the place,  she wanted to live here. Under these sunny skies, I couldn’t blame her – it looked like paradise!!  Of course, it can all look very different under gloomy skies, driving rain and gale force winds. Bleak and forbidding  – but it’s a contrast I enjoy ( though not in the tent!).In fact, the rain came on heavily very shortly after this, so we took ourselves off to Claddach Kirkibost and its excellent community café. We travelled the long way round the coast, instead of using the Committee Road which cuts inland. That latter hill road – where lie hundreds of little stacks of peat, cut for winter fuel – is a good place to spot hen harriers and short eared owls on the hunt.

 

A latte or two and some home made carrot cake later and before we knew it, it was 12noon.With rain still pitter pattering on the picture window, lunch seemed a good idea. Plus,that homemade tomato soup smelled good. The centre is a simple,  very ‘local’ place to be, with Scottish country dance music and Gaelic songs playing quietly in the background. The girls who work there tend to be Gaelic speakers and I love the sound of their voices. I feel as if I’ve come home somehow, despite knowing very little Gaelic. Genetic memory perhaps? Chris of course (his full name is actually Criosdean, a Gaelic name and pronounced creeshchin) grew up in South Uist speaking Gaelic in addition to English, something I envy him for.

Lady Ann Boat Trip

At 2pm, we were booked onto the Lady Ann boat trip, a two hour wildlife cruise which weaves its way through the otherwise inaccessible east coast of North Uist.I had always wanted to explore this coast, with its myriad green, heather topped islets and dark sea inlets overlooked by the pyramid of Eaval. A brief spell of sunshine as we drove down to tiny Kallin harbour, had now given way, unfortunately, to drizzle, but we turned up anyway , ready and willing. No one else had cancelled and the trip was full (it’s a small boat which takes 12 people) – hardy people holiday here, not put off by some wet weather!

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Within 10 mins of getting underway, we spotted a sea eagle sitting quite nonchalantly on a rock just a short distance from the boat.Great excitement!

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It took off as we approached and we followed it, as it flapped lazily up a narrow sea inlet,  then got fed up with us and headed inland across the moorland. The next two hours were so full of interest and loveliness, despite the poor weather. We watched dozens of red deer , accompanied by this year’s fawns, grazing on the tiny islets.Their coats were such a gorgeous colour, dark amber.

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Then two herds decided to swim across to another island, something I’ve never seen before. Black throated divers watched our approach at one point, wonderful birds with stunning plumage. Known as Loons in the USA,  their call is the most mournful, otherworldly sound.Soul tingling. Normally we would expect to see golden eagles on this trip, as they nest close by but they tend to shelter in very wet weather. Then off we headed into the open ocean with the chance to spot cetaceans including dolphins and orcas, but this time, no luck. The scenery was as impressive and wild as I’d hoped; so much so that I want to do the trip again, in better weather.

Langass Lodge for Dinner

At 4pm we were back on dry land, peeling off the waterproofs and feeling distinctly soggy.We were booked for an early meal at 6.30pm, party animals that we are but honestly, camping has us flaking out at 9.30pm most nights. Age,  I suppose, doesn’t come alone. A very posh woman with an upper crust English accent – one of the owners – led us into the lovely conservatory/bar with its view over the gardens to a sunlit Eaval.

Great quality food as always. A crab claw salad to start then fish and chips for me (I can’t resist this dish if I know it’s top notch fresh) and steak and dauphinoise for Chris.

Later, we wandered out for a walk to the standing stone circle which is a short stroll from the hotel and in a wonderful location above Loch Langass.

I’ve seen golden eagles here often but none were in sight this time.But it was now such a glorious evening after the soggy afternoon that we made a detour in the car up onto the top of Clettraval,  where the radar station is.

From here, there is an expansive view over North Uist’s watery landscape , to the mountains of South Uist and  – way, way south – Barra.Sheep grazed quietly in the utter silence and then my eye caught a light coloured bird below us, with a very distinctive flight, swooping and rising as it hunted over the moorland.It was a short eared owl, a beautiful creamy coloured bird that hunts in daylight. Of course at this time of year, it hardly gets truly dark.

Short-eared owl

 

Day 3: A Walk on the West Beach,  a Neolithic settlement and a beautiful cottage – Taigh Dobrain (Otter House)

lagoon beach

The morning dawned sunny with a good forecast ahead and our plan was to do a loop of the enormous, deserted sands that circle the peninsula around Traigh Iar or the West Beach.  This easy walk would take us onto the beaches out by Udal where there is also the remains of a Neolithic settlement; the turf outlines of a village with shell middens is still visible.Under blue skies, this is another corner of paradise yet there is rarely another soul around.

Beinn Mhor – another short easy walk

After the usual gallons of tea and some tinned grapefruit to keep the scurvy at bay, we firstly headed for a small hill up by Lingeigh again –  Beinn Mhor, or The Big Hill. At 148m it was hardly that but it promised a fine view for minor effort and give how lazy we are getting, that was very appealing. Parking the car at a ruined croft house on the Berneray ferry road near Newton , we made our way through a rickety gate then began to ascend gently up the rough moorland, picking the easiest line. A herd of red deer gazed up in surprise as we crested a small rise, before running off in that airy light-footed way that they have; within seconds they were out of sight. In 25 mins we reached the top and a 360 degree view of islands, white sands, turquoise seas, distant mountains and innumerable lochans opened up around us; it was difficult to find the superlatives to describe it all.Ultra remote St Kilda, which we hoped to visit when we reached Harris in a few days, was also visible on the horizon.

South Harris and the houses of Berneray

 

 

St Kilda and Boreray 45 miles away

A Walk along Traigh Iar (West Beach)

Buoyed up by the walk, we reached the Co-op parking area in Sollas in high spirits and raring to stretch our legs a bit further on this circular hike of 6 miles or so.For details of the walk, one of North list’s finest see:WALKS ON NORTH UIST (West Beach)

We had upped sticks from our camp spot that morning, with the prospect of a couple of nights in a newly available cottage with a wooden deck built over its own lochan. Normally only available for a week in peak season we were lucky to get it for just 2 nights, during the single week it was unbooked. Two or three nights in the tent is about our limit these days; by then we are always lured by the call of a good shower, solid walls and head room!

A very special cottage

And what a wow the house was! Taigh Dobhrain  – or Otter House  – is built into the rock with a turf roof and was absolutely gorgeous inside.A whole wall of picture windows looked out over the water and to Eaval. We just loved it at first sight (and are going back for a whole week in Oct 2018.)

Eaval from our deck

Popped down to Grimsay again over the causeway , to pick up some of the excellent shellfish from Kallin Shellfish, a first class outlet for all things sea foody. Local langoustines (large prawns), lobster, prepared cocktail crab claws, scallops and all at very reasonable prices.

East coast

We made do this time with some langoustines, hot smoked salmon and cocktail crab claws plus a tub of dill marinated herring, a delicious product very popular in Scandinavia and Scotland. Managed to get some decent olive and jalapeno bread , a lemon and jar of mayonnaise from the Coop in Sollas and that was us sorted for our first dinner in Otter House.

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Just relaxed outside on the deck, reading, enjoying some wine and catching up on what was going on with the family at home (thank goodness for wi fi.)Then watched the sky turn pink and lilac and lemon over Eaval as ‘our’ lochan darkened under summer evening shadows.Thank goodness for digital memory cards because I would have run out of film in no time…..

 

Next: a brief visit to South Uist , Eriskay and Barra A Tour of the Outer Hebrides ( South Uist, Eriskay and Barra)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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