The Western Isles offer some of my favourite walking anywhere and walks on North Uist are the cherry on the Hebridean cake. Soft, wildflower strewn grasslands (machair), heathery moorland, gentle low hills, dazzling white beaches and emerald seas, larks singing overhead, hardly a soul about– I’m often lost for words to describe it all. Like anywhere of course, it is all seen at its best under sunny skies but I would always bet on better weather way out west, than around the mainland. Skies here are so huge, you can just about see tomorrow’s weather, today.
We had arrived off the ferry from Skye after a journey of low cloud and mist; gloomy and grey at best. Mind you, the journey was enlightened by the sight of dolphins hunting furiously a distance from the boat, clearly having found a shoal of fish. Spotted a lone porpoise too – they so often seem to be on their own. Snowy white Gannets dived occasionally, the odd Skua patrolled menacingly, ready to take the fish from the beak of a Guillemot or Gull; a few tiny Puffins dived quickly as the ferry disturbed their rest on the choppy ocean. Fulmars and Kittiwakes drifted past on the breeze. Plenty of interest for wildlife enthusiasts during the 1hr 40 min crossing.
Groundhog Day but in a good way when we arrived at Lochmaddy, the cloud much higher, the sky brighter and blue skies out west! That has happened so often on our trips out here, it’s like entering another world.
Got ourselves settled into our self -catering apartment in Effie Macquien’s lovely house at Balranald – a delightful Gaelic speaking lady who has lived all her life on North Uist. Her home , Cnoc Nan Uan , means the Rock of the Birds, well named as its sits next to the RSPB reserve in this lovely, western side of North Uist just a 25 min drive from the ferry.
After a cup of tea and a ‘socially distanced’ chat, we headed out at 2.30pm to walk to Scolpaig bay, which I’d never visited.
No official parking but it was easy enough to find a spot a short walk away from the good farm track at the start of the walk. This leads down to Loch Scolpaig with its lovely Victorian tower on a tiny island. Blue skies, larks singing their little hearts out above us so sweetly, a curlew calling mournfully, the air fragrant with the scent of Clover, Tormentil, rare Marsh Orchids, Harebells, Birds Foot Trefoil, Heathers, Bog Myrtle: summer in the Hebrides, there is nowhere to compare. The islands provide the greatest wildflower show in the UK and the Uists and Tiree offer the best of that.
Summer is when the water lilies come into their own on the lochs too…
In no time, we were on the rocky coast itself, so good to be beside the endless ocean and the broken, rocky coastline. I always know when Chris is really happy because he starts scouting around for ‘good camping pitches’ – inspecting little patches of ground to check how level they are. From a distance, anyone seeing him would deduce he was one of those Rare Breed spotters, looking for the Great Spotted Bumblebee or suchlike.
Scolpaig bay was very sheltered, with a lovely crescent of sand. Not a soul around.
Then a wander on the beach before heading up onto the machair again and an easy climb up the gentle slopes of the little hill itself. There was a small memorial cairn to a lady who had loved this place, a simple rough stone embedded in the moorland with a plaque. It always makes me think – 20, 30 years hence – this place will be as it has been for centuries and we will most probably not be here to see it. A sad, painful thought for who needs heaven when it here all around us in this life, now?
Early-ish July and I was surprised at how much heather was starting to sprout but then we have had a very warm, sunny spring and early summer. Best I ever remember – typical and very cruel, given the severe restrictions of lockdown!
In no time we were up on the wide summit, dotted with Bog Cotton fluttering white in the breeze. A fine panorama opened up across Vallay tidal island (tomorrow’s walk), all the way to Harris, interspersed with the curving strands of Malaclete and Grenitote.
We could just make out distant St Kilda and Boreray on the horizon, World Heritage Site islands with an Ultima Thule quality about them. A Stone Age landscape edged by 1,400 foot cliffs, unbelievable that people lived there for hundreds if not thousands of years. The last 36 inhabitants were evacuated in 1930 as life had become too harsh and unsustainable.
For more on our amazing and quite tough day trip out there see:
Much easier to be descending Beinn Scolpaig’s north side, towards a couple of shell sand beaches.
However, our way was blocked by a large herd of Highland cattle, with particularly enormous horns – they are gentle beasts but some had calves and my father always warned me that a cow with a calf was much more dangerous than a bull. Like all cattle they were very curious, staring up at us as we approached; one or two moved towards us, no doubt thinking we were the farmer coming to give them extra feed. It did make them a bit intimidating! Even Chris decided that rather than brazen our way through waving our sticks if needs be, we’d be best detouring altogether which suited me down to the ground. Cattle can be unpredictable with youngsters about and we didn’t reckon these were very used to people generally anyway.
So a seat on the beach it was, glad to get out of their way only to find another 3 meandering about the beach itself and which all turned to stare at us! They were now blocking the route we’d decided on next – foiled again.
After a cup of tea from the flask and a KitKat, we gave this little nosey group a wide berth and managed somehow to get over a barbed wire fence (I hate these things, they litter the islands. Oh for a return to lovely stone walls.) The only gate we spied had another cluster of cattle grazing round it.
Back now on a good track which took us past the pretty thatched cottage at Griminish which featured in Monty Hall’s TV series The Great Hebridean Escape. It’s now a holiday house and as they say ‘nae cheap!” Griminish means ‘Grimm’s Headland’ – perhaps an ancient Viking who used to own land here. Old Norse as well as Gaelic names feature heavily in these islands given the Viking occupation.
Up past Loch an Eilean and Loch Olabhat, beautiful soft landscapes, little shaggy brown wild – looking Hebridean sheep dotting about, an ancient breed.
Then past the stone ruin of a once- substantial farm and we were on the main road again with a mile or so to walk back to the car. It’s a very quiet single track road at the best of times so no difficulty as such, but always hard on the feet and legs, pounding on tarmac.
We passed a huge boulder dedicated to Donald Mor Maclellan. ‘Mor’ means big in Gaelic and he certainly must have been that to have lifted this to arm’s length (1876.)
A great easy walk, one to do again and again. Our second time on the summit of this little rolling hill and hopefully not our last.
A good dinner that night after a jaunt down to Grimsay, 25 minutes away where the excellent Kallin Shellfish cafe and shop is; cocktail crab claws, langoustines and hot smoked salmon from North Uist’s pristine waters.Gorgeous!