THE BEST OF NORTH UIST AND BENBECULA

lagoon beach
Traigh Iar walk

The Outer Hebrides are a place apart and of all the very different islands that make up that 130 mile chain, none has touched my heart more than North Uist. I will admit to a family connection in the past (my maternal grandmother was born here and her ancestors too) so perhaps genetic memory is also at work.There is something about the flat machair lands – the wildflower strewn, scented grasslands at the back of the dazzling shell sands; combined with the heather moorland, dotted with countless lochans ( more water than land it seems);the low shapely hills that rise from a bed of the world’s oldest rock, the highest barely a 1,000 feet – that I can’t get enough of. It is hauntingly beautiful, at times bleak and harsh and windswept, but more often heart- breakingly lovely.

langass stone circle
Langass stone circle

A warning  – any new visitor MUST get off the main road which runs from Berneray to Eriskay, to find what really is the most memorable. To my eyes, modern farming and house building has not been kind to many parts of the Uists and these are islands farmed to an extent that perhaps Skye or  Mull or Harris are not. Driving through little settlements – with some of the loveliest, friendliest people imaginable, many of whom are true Gaels – they often look untidy, dull and grey. I find myself getting irritated that more care is not spent in keeping house grounds and gardens in good order; in sprucing up the tired looking pebble dash bungalows. Of course this exists in any area but is more noticeable perhaps because of the bareness of the landscape.Certainly more and more of the old blackhouses ( thatched roof, thick whitewashed or stone walls, tiny windows) are being restored as holiday accommodation and these look wonderful.

trad croft house
Vallay

I wish also that, as in parts of Ireland, there was a commitment to replacing the miles of ugly barbed wire fencing with the beautiful stone walls which are still visible.

But that’s me wanting a Utopia. And I don’t live there; I’m looking at it through the eyes of a regular visitor who loves the place and just wants to see it get even better. When all is said, this is a love letter to an island of my heart and I hope many more will begin to enjoy the sheer beauty it offers all year round.

THE FERRY FROM UIG ON SKYE

Skye Cuillin from the ferry

This is the most direct ferry route, taking only 1hr 40 mins. It’s a beautiful sail, giving great views of Skye’s spectacular coast and , if clear, mountainous Harris on the horizon too. The sail into Lochmaddy itself, North Uist’s tiny main village, is gorgeous. One thing I love about all the Caledonian Macbrayne journeys is, the recorded safety message is by a chap with a beautiful Gaelic accent which to me, puts me in the Hebridean mood immediately!

Lochmaddy itself has accommodation, a couple of hotels, a small shop, doctor’s surgery etc.Taigh Chearsabhaigh is a small Museum and Arts Centre with a café which has some nice cakes and well priced light lunch options. A recent visit to the Lochmaddy Hotel revealed an excellent selection of cakes (several Gluten Free) in their pleasant bistro area.

North Uist can also be reached from Harris via the Berneray ferry, or from Barra or South Uist,via ferry from Oban or Mallaig.

Sailing into Lochmaddy

LINGEIGH/HORNISH BEACHES (Traigh Lingeigh and Traigh Hornais)

Lingeigh beach

These two stunning shell sand beaches (traigh pronounced  ‘try’ means beach in Gaelic) lie only a 20 min drive from Lochmaddy on the B893 to Berneray. Take the turn off left to Clachan Sands Cemetery at the top of the hill on the main Berneray road. The road is good all the way to the new graveyard but deteriorates into a sandy, rubbly track beyond that. It’s entirely possible to drive this last short section but take it easy in a saloon car. There is a wide grassy parking area at the end of the track overlooking Lingeigh Beach, around 1.5miles of white sands lapped by opalescent water. Lingeigh tidal island lies offshore and is reachable on very low tides via a strip of sand.We usually just walk part way or all the way along to the beaches end, which is out of sight.

There are lovely views from this far end too, on a low promontory, looking across to Berneray and Harris.

Hornish beach

A short walk on the other side of the spit of land at the car park lies equally glorious Hornish beach which goes on and on. North Uist’s other white beaches at Grenitote and Udal are visible across the shallow aquamarine seas.

Beinn Mhor walk (1hr – 3hrs)

Above Lingeigh Beach rise two low hills – Beinn Mhor(190m) and Beinn Bhreac (148m) which can be climbed easily together or separately.Well worth it on a day of decent clarity as the views over beach, coast, islands, Harris and the watery hinterland of North Uist are brilliant.Half an hour to get up Beinn Mhor (the Big Hill) from the abandoned house on the B893 below its easy if boggy slopes (no path, just pick the best ground).The alternative is to drive further along the road and park near a small lochan where there is an ancient Dun or Fort, over 2,000 years old and worth a visit in itself.

Beinn Mhor and Beinn Bhreac from Lingeigh beach

From there, this summer 2020, we followed a faint track, a bit boggy in places but fine in boots, which wound its way easily up Beinn Bhreac (the Speckled Hill) first, for wonderful views.

Harris and Berneray from Beinn Bhreac

We then descended easily, avoiding some slabby ground and picked up a track which made its way up Beinn Mhor.A magical short couple of hours in total, with a  nice picnic lunch at the top.For more on this walk…Walk Report – North Uist’s Beinn Mhor and a little family of otters • Walkhighlands

Being so close to Berneray, it makes sense if time allows to visit this wee gem of an island too.It’s outstanding features are its magnificent west coast beach and the short hike up the grassy slopes of Beinn Shleibh.The views are stunning for very little effort.For more on this walk, which can be made as short or long as wished…A Walk on Beautiful Berneray

Looking across to Berneray from Beinn Mhor

Heading back to North Uist over the causeway it’s worth looking out on the right hand side, xlose to the rocky shore as we have watched otters here.Appropriately, the area is called Otternish – Otter Point!

Langass Lodge and a Stone Circle

From Langass

This is a lovely hotel inside and in a scenic location.It doesn’t look wildly promising initially from the outside but it has been beautifully modernised inside.The Bar Conservatory is probably my favourite place for a bar meal at lunch time or evening.Not cheap but food quality is excellent.

There’s a nice if boggy walk from the hotel out to North Uist’s Stone Circle – Pobull Fhinn or Finn’s People – with fine views to Eaval and across Loch Langass.I’ve seen Golden Eagles here often too and in summer, Otter Walks are led by the local Ranger a couple of times a week.This is all otter country and classic North Uist.

October colours above Loch Langass

The walk goes all the way over the moorland up to a Trig Point and from there, it is a short walk to Barpa Langass, the finest example of a Neolithic Cairn in the Outer Hebrides. At 5,000 years old it is also to quote the excellent walking website walkhighlands – ‘one of the earliest standing buildings in northern Europe.’

barpa
Barpa Langass

North Lee walk (10km or 6miles return)

walk start
North Lee

A great walk with clear signposts indicating the best route over the bog cotton dotted moorland.It is incorrectly signposted as being 10 miles! In May, we didn’t find it too boggy but boots are required.It’s an easy short slog up North Lee itself, no difficulties and the views are stunning.South Lee can be added too. For more on this walk:WALKS ON NORTH UIST (North Lee)

Eaval (10.5km return walk/6.5miles)

The island’s highest hill

North Uist’s highest hill at 347 metres.A bit of planning is required to make sure the tide/loch water levels are right to allow an easy crossing of the outlet of Loch Obasaraigh. Otherwise, it can be well nigh impossible.Easiest in summer but when we tried it in October we couldn’t get across.Views are of course superb from the top and it’s an easy ascent beyond the loch but always feels quite a long walk in.

The road down to Loch Euphort where the walk begins and there is some parking, is also a nice drive in itself. We have stayed in Taigh Dobhrain , an absolute beauty of a cottage right on a small loch. Lovely area all in.

Sunset over Eaval from Taigh Dobhrain cottage

Beinn Scolpaig Loop (8km/ 4.5 miles or less)

Scolpaig Bay

The whole area below this small hill on the island’s north west coast is so lovely and well worth exploring.The beautifully restored thatched cottage that Monty Hall stayed in while filming is at Griminish and is now let out to visitors.For more on this walk/area: WALKS ON NORTH UIST: Beinn Scolpaig Loop (4.5miles)

Balranald RSPB Reserve

For birders, it’s always worth a call in to the tiny whitewashed cottage to see what birds have been spotted by the Rangers. A walk through the machair on a good track takes you to more west coast beaches and a rocky coast.I’ve seen a Snowy Owl once, tucked in beside a fence, slightly off course given its usual Arctic feeding grounds. Corncrakes are heard often here.

Grimsay/Kallin Harbour

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Grimisay/Grimsay is actually a separate island but linked by causeways to North Uist and Benbecula.

Eriskay 2013 207
Eaval from the causeway at Grimsay

This island gives good access to North Uist’s wonderful and often inaccessible east coast – mile upon mile of sea lochs and islets. From Kallin habour , the Lady Anne boat trip leaves in peak season, one of the best wildlife boat trips I’ve been on and stunningly beautiful too, weaving in and out of this unique landscape. Golden and Sea eagles plus nest sites, Otters, Red and Black Throated Divers, Seals(of course) and swimming Red Deer – plus the chance potentially to see Orca or Dolphins.

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There is an excellent community centre in Grimsay which has significant local records/archive aterial on the island’s past inhabitants and its well known boat building heritage (the Stewart family at Scotvin.)

Traigh Iar and Udal walk (5km – 9km)

lagoon beach

Just the most gorgeous area on a sunny day – outstanding and one of the finest beach walks you could ever hope for.But yes, leave it for a nice day to see it all at its best.The extended walk also passes the Viking site of Udal. For more on our walk here: WALKS ON NORTH UIST (West Beach)

traigh iar
Traigh Iar

The War Memorial

Situated just beyond Clachan on the Lochmaddy road.A beautiful, poignant memorial to the fallen.The names of my two great Uncles who died, so very young, in the 1st World War, Pipers both, are engraved here (John and Murdo Maclellan.)

P1030102
The islands suffered disproportionately heavy losses

Vallay Tidal Island

Needs planning re the tides but this is an excellent walk, which feels very special given the island is so often completely inaccessible.Beautiful beaches, no-one living there now, the ruins of a once grand house and a memorial cairn to the son of Erskine Beveridge who once lived here.For more on this I posted a fuller report on Walkhighlands excellent website: Walk Report – Gems of the Outer Hebrides – North Uist and Berneray • Walkhighlands

The Committee Road

Short Eared Owl

A short cut from just beyond Malacleit (A865) which cuts out the drive round Griminish and Scolpaig(though I prefer this overall.) The road cuts over fairly bleak moorland but can be very good for Hen Harriers and Short Eared Owls.

Clettreval (Cleitreabhal)

South Uist’s Beinn Mhor mountain range

A road climbs from near Tigharry (A865) up to the radio mast/transmitters.There is an info board and viewing area from where St Kilda is often visible on the horizon.Short Eared Owl and Hen Harrier territory too.

Golden and Sea Eagles

These can be spotted all over the island, by the coast, on the moorland, above houses on occasion – anywhere.

Sea eagle

BENBECULA

From Rueval

Anglicised from the Hill of the Fords, it’s taken me a while to appreciate this landscape, given it is flat as a pancake and the straggling townships don’t do it any favours on any first drive through. But get off that main road and some wonderful landscapes unfold. My favourite would be the short easy walk up the island’s highest hill, tiny Rueval. For more on this and its wonderful views and sense of wildness…A Walk to the Top of Benbecula

Also a short drive down to the end of the road at Flodday, leads to a nice short walk to a rocky shore and a chance to see Seal Island.None there when we visited but that was in October and I thought it was a great spot for a summer picnic.

More on specific trips to both islands:WALKS ON NORTH UIST(short ones)

FOOD (my go to places)

Kallin Shellfish on Grimsay for excellent scallops, crab claws, langoustines, lobster, fish of all kinds (usually frozen, halibut, monkish etc.).All from local waters.There is also Kallin Cafe, a simple place which does some good shellfish, fish and chips etc too for sit in.

The Co-op: the best small supermarket  is at Sollas. There is also a good one on Benbecula at Creagorry.

Cladach Kirkibost  – the community centre has been very good in the past for good soup and light lunches, home made cakes in a simple pleasant atmosphere with Gaelic music often playing, thankfully instead of bland pop nonsense. Small shop too.

Taigh Chearsabhaigh –  usually some decent home made cakes, good bookshop and small local exhibition plus arts exhibitions too. Just wish it had more windows!

Grimsay Community Resource

Had some great homemade soup and a cake here. Converted church.

Langass Lodge – excellent food , fine dining too in a lovely atmosphere.

Lochmaddy Hotel – was surprised at the sheer choice of cakes in here, upgraded and looking a lot better than previously.

Westford Inn  – haven’t eaten here yet.

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