New Year on the Dark Island of Benbecula, Outer Hebrides

Walk Start : Isle of Benbecula Landfill Site (yes, really!) Just off the A865 and signposted Rueval Walk

Distance: 2.4 miles there and back total. Ascent: 127m

Rating: Stunning…a 5 out of 5 walk for views

With a few days on North Uist over New Year, I was able to indulge my love of some of the Outer Hebrides tiny wee hills which nevertheless pack a big punch.None more so than Rueval on Benbecula, the island’s only hill, 124m high but offering a truly magical view over a unique landscape and giving superb perspectives of the Skye Cuillin and if clear, the other worldly island of St Kilda.

Rueval
Rueval

Benbecula and Rueval have been immortalised in one of Scotland’s loveliest songs – ‘The Dark Island’ – which, incurable romantic that I am, easily reduces me to tears.The song itself was written by a Benbecula man , dreaming of being on Rueval.This is the first verse: 

Away to the west’s where I’m longing to be, 
Where the beauties of heaven unfold by the sea, 
Where the sweet purple heather blooms fragrant and free, 
On a hilltop high above the Dark Island.

Rueval, with Hecla and Ben More behind
Rueval with South Uist behind

We sailed away to the west – somewhere I also always long to be – on a blustery day of showers with the bow of the ferry pitching WAY down into a trough before rising again. It was Friday Dec 30 and the 1hr 50 min crossing was of endless interest. Here,Waternish Point and Dunvegan Head on Skye:

Dunvegan Head and Waternish Point


Waterstein Head and Neist Point and Rum
Skye from the ferry

It’s also wildlife central in the ocean up here and we were treated to a large school of dolphins on the hunt off Waternish Point.I failed miserably to capture them part from this one photo:

Dolphins off Waterstein Point
Common Dolphins off Waternish Point from the ferry

One briefly surfaced quite close to the ship and the gold striped markings down its side revealed it to be a Common Dolphin. A terrible name for such beautiful creatures; there’s nothing common about them! In fact, until recently they were fairly rare but apparently, increased sightings are being linked to the seas around the UK warming up.They are much smaller than Bottlenose Dolphins and travel at great speed(no wonder it was nigh on impossible to photograph them! A good excuse…

A howling gale and rain had swept over the islands on our first night followed by a big temperature drop and we’d woken to the island covered in snow.Even the beaches were blanketed, quite an unusual sight out on the islands…

East coast Berneray
Berneray and Harris under snow

Hogmanay was spent on Berneray wandering up another wee gem, Beinn Shleibh(93m) with stunning views to Harris.It’s one of my favourite walks anywhere.

Near Leverburgh on Harris
Isle of Harris from Beinn Shleibh walk

Today, New Year’s Day , the dizzy heights of Rueval called, followed by an explore of Loch Druidibeg on South Uist, a great area for wildlife but also, to me, just one of the loveliest places in the Western Isles.

Benbecula is, if possible, even flatter than North Uist so its highest point is visible for miles! Even from Skye, looking across to the Outer Isles, the little bump of land above the ocean that is Rueval is very distinctive, out of all proportion to its lowly height.

We set off in the car from our lovely , cosy cabin at Grenitote on North Uist’s west coast, taking it easy as the roads each morning were quite icy and ungritted.

Half an hour later we reached Beinn na Faoghla – Benbecula’s Gaelic name – which translates as the Hill of the Fords. Two major causeways connect the island to North and South Uist and Grimsay, so it is described as a stepping stone to these islands.Much of the snow of Hogmanay had already gone though ice remained.

With the return walk to Rueval being less than 2.5 miles, if I was calculating ‘bang for your buck’ , this in some ways unremarkable hill , would be right up there. For years, on multiple trips to the islands, somehow (unforgivably) we’d ignored it until one afternoon a few years ago, we decided to wander up to its summit and were wowed by the views.

As we crossed the second causeway, we had a fine view across Kyles Flodday to Rueval’s soft, rounded outline. 

Rueval
Rueval across Kyles Flodday

We parked just beyond the Waste Disposal site off the main road – not the loveliest of starts but soon left behind. Actually, negotiating this first section of the completely ice covered tarmac road was probably the dodgiest part of the walk!  

Setting off
Setting off


I’m interested in the meanings of the Norse and Gaelic names of hills and places and Chris suggested that Ruabhal (giving it it’s Gaelic spelling) might translate as reddish or brown hill.It’s certainly covered in plenty of heather moorland which in January was a rich tawny and gold.

After the short bit of tarmac , the track is a good one though today it was very icy too.Not a huge problem but the ground was rough on either side so it was a case of skipping about trying to avoid the worst. I’ve always had a respect for these underfoot conditions, ever since hitting black ice while cycling to work and ending up going flying, never so glad that I was wearing a helmet when my head glanced off the pavement. 

Loch Ba Una was reached after 20 mins of ice dodging, just after we passed a neat pile of peats on the moorland.

Peat stacks
Peat stacks for winter fuel
Almost at the start of the hill track
Loch Ba Una appears after 15 mins


Looking down at the start of the track up
Above Loch Ba Una

They seem to add a timeless quality to the landscape, evidence of a task completed by people for thousands of years and still such a feature of the Western Isles.

The start of the hill path is unmissable and is also marked with a Hebridean Way signpost, so up we headed onto another wide but very boggy track.I’d hoped the icy temperatures might have firmed it up but it was as soggy as I remembered!

Marker posts for the Hebridean Way long distance route

Still,who cared when it was all looking so beautiful? Great views of Skye were opening up almost immediately too.The Black Cuillin were now the very opposite of their name, absolutely solid with snow and looking particularly majestic.They were getting swept by hefty snow showers, adding to the drama.

Skye Cuillin from Rueval
Skye Cuillin appearing

Macleod’s Tables were very clear too, towering above Waterstein Head.What a coastline Skye has!

Macleod's Tables on Skye
Macleod’s Tables

It was a steady, short ascent and we were the only people on the hill.

After about 20 mins on the hill path, we reached the roomy summit.

Near the top with Eaval clear on right
Eaval appearing on the right

Chris striding forward…

Looking north over N.Uist

The 360 degree views were just as stunning as I remembered. Benbecula itself was more water than land…

Below lay countless freshwater lochans, one of the glories of this part of the world that makes the landscape almost shimmer.The rock is Lewisian Gneiss so the east coast is knolly, a bit like a flatter version of the Far North and Assynt with endless little bays and inlets.The coastline must run to thousands of miles. I just find it mesmerising somehow, incredibly beautiful.

Benbecula
Benbecula…the Dark Island

Eaval, North Uist’s highest point at a relatively dizzy 300m, looked wonderful and brought back memories of our walk onto its spectacular summit last May.

Eaval and South Lee.Harris hills under snow in distance

To the south, across hummocky moorland and silvery lochans, lay Hecla and Ben More on South Uist.

To the west, we were both astonished to see an absolutely snow covered St Kilda.It’s always special to see Hirta but I’ve never seen it blanketed in snow.It always looks very distant on the horizon but it looked so incredibly near today rather than 45 miles away across the Atlantic.

A snowy St Kilda
St Kilda/Hirta snow clad
St Kilda under snow - a first for us

North Uist ‘s west side was all shallow turquoise waters and huge, endless white beaches beyond the flat machair lands, the fertile side of the islands.

Harris’s mountains were still thick with snow…

Harris zoomed from Rueval
The Isle of Harris in snow

South lay the shapely outline of Hecla and Ben More on South Uist.I love that name – Hecla – which is old Norse for Mountain on the Route to Purgatory or perhaps Hell Mountain! Oof…that’s certainly a name and indeed, the initial walk in to that area below Ben More is as purgatorial as you can get if there’s not been a heatwave to dry it out. 

Hecla and Ben More, South Uist


Hecla has a twin on Iceland, but it’s such a young mountain that that Hekla with the slightly different spelling, is still a very active volcano.

So much to admire but yes, it was difficult for the eye not to be drawn constantly to Skye, with the Cuillin looking so atmospheric, snow showers wrapping the peaks in cloud then clearing again.

The Black Cuillin in snowy raiment and showers

The lighthouse at Neist was clearly visible and it struck me that anywhere else, Macleod’s Tables would perhaps be more celebrated in their own right but they tend to be overshadowed… 

Neist Point Lighthouse zoomed…

Benbecula's east coast, Neist Point, Waterstein Head and Lighthouse


Rum and Canna were just visible under cloudier skies to the south…

Rum and Canna hazy to the south from Rueval

We got ourselves out of a snell wind and hunkered down in the heather to enjoy a sandwich and some oranges and just enjoy being at the top of the Dark Island.

The Hebridean Way goes over Rueval’s summit before dropping down to the moorland again and heading for Grimsay. There is also a snaking track that goes all the way out to the small white sand beach of Roisinish, a LONG way out.

It was a wrench to leave the summit but as ever at this time of year, we soon began to feel quite chilly.Time to head down.

Heading down

But just as we began to descend, a large bird swept high across the moorland ahead of us, then swept round just below the summit, before soaring off to the west. No white tail but we thought it might be a juvenile Sea Eagle due to the sheer size of the wings.

Sea eagle over Berneray
Sea Eagle

Incredibly, on almost every walk we’ve done on the Uists or Benbecula we have had great sightings of eagles.On Harris too.Mull also is eagle central though it is well known for that having , I’ve read, the highest density of breeding golden eagles in Europe.I always think we are so lucky in Scotland to have walks potentially made even more memorable by spectacular wildlife.

The view of the Cuillin was a spectacle too, the mountains rising straight out of the sea, so well seen from the Outer Isles.The light was changing all the time…

Changing light on the Cuillin of Skye

In fact, we were so taken with it, that we decided to try to get an even closer look by driving further south and onto South Uist.Not an easy summit to leave behind but descend we had to.

The main track back to the car

After returning to the car, it was only a short drive to South Uist and we were soon making our way down the single track road to lonely Loch Skipport. Hecla and Ben More looked beautiful across Loch Druidibeg which in my mind should translate as the Loch of the Little Druids but Chris thought this was far too simple. 


Ben More and Hecla from Loch Druidibeg

The road ends at Loch Skipport’s ruined harbour once used regularly by steam ships such as the Dunara Castle and The Hebrides.

Loch Skipport

My grandmother, mother and her family used to travel (steerage!) for 5 days from Glasgow to North Uist, spending three months of the summer up there when they were children.Neighbours on Grimsay with a yawl (who turned out to be the celebrated boat builders on Grimsay, the Stewart Brothers ) would pick the family up, sailing round the indented coastline until they reached Scotvin. What a journey! 

Skye from S.Uist's east coast
Black Cuillin now white with snow

It’s quite sad to see the harbour now, broken and out of use.Roads of course have done away with the need for steamers and sail boats.But the coast is still a stunner, the classic Uist coast of low heather- covered knolls, endless inlets and little islands and views out across the Minch to Skye and Rum.The Cuillin was certainly closer again here and after a quick jaunt onto a little high point, overlooked on one side by Hecla, they really looked majestic.There can be few coastlines in the world that are more impressive than that of Scotland’s West Coast, surely, for shape, colour, variety and sheer beauty.

Macleod's Tables from the east coast
Skye from Loch Skipport



The Skye Cuillin from Grimsay
Ever changing light

A few minutes drive back up the Loch road and we parked then wandered across to a lovely spot by Loch Druidibeg for a while, just admiring the scene.Stags were grazing on a promontory of the loch.

Loch Druidibeg South Uist
Loch Druidibeg


Stags grazing nearby

We were just sitting admiring it all, finishing off the sandwiches, when, turning round briefly I saw a pair of sea eagles, white tails very clear this time, flying over the small hill behind us.Scrabbling to get the camera focused, in a few wing beats they were halfway to the coast.I’ve often thought that winter seems to be a fantastic time to see eagles.I wonder whether it’s the concentrated short daylight hours, reducing the time the birds have to hunt and so increasing the chance of their being seen? Anyway, they were a joy to see.Three eagles on this day alone – BBC’s Winterwatch needs to relocate and get up here!

Sea eagles on S.Uist
Two sea eagles heading for the coast

Then it was time to be off and back to Benbecula before making for Grenitote.The late afternoon light was casting everything in a pastel glow…

Eaval from the causeway
North Uist

Eaval in late afternoon light

We looked back from the causeway once more, admiring Rueval which looked very dark now, set against the sun, the shadows lengthening now as another day came to a close.The Dark Island indeed.

Sun going down over Benbecula
Sunset over Benbecula
Late afternoon light over North Uist

We certainly felt very lucky to have sat once more on the island’s very modest top, not in the season of heather as celebrated in the song, but able nevertheless to enjoy its other worldly loveliness.

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