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Inspirational Islands, sometimes wearisome walk

Inspirational Islands, sometimes wearisome walk


Postby Stephcart » Sun May 29, 2022 10:09 am

Route description: Hebridean Way

Date walked: 25/05/2022

Time taken: 16 days

Distance: 251 km

Ascent: 4855m

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A walk linking 9 islands of the outer Hebrides (10 if you count Harris and Lewis as 2, as many of the locals seem to do- although they are parts of the same landmass) using 6 causeways and 2 ferries is a fabulous concept, and is a great way for a first time visitor to see The Outer Hebrides.

Each island has a distinctive feel and personality. Vatersay, the southernmost of the route (although there are a few islands beyond it) is hilly with silvery golden beaches, and a café in the community hall adjacent to the first route marker makes a good start. The route here avoids the hills and stays on the quiet tarmacked road.
2022-05-11 Vatersay South Beach.jpeg
Vatersay Bay at the start


Barra has rugged hills and boasts the highest point of the whole walk at about 300m and a couple of other climbs, and a number of places to stay. Castlebay, where the Oban ferry arrives, is not on route, but there are a couple of buses daily that will take you from there across the causeway and to the start in Vatersay (alternatively it’s about a 4.5 mile walk).
2022-05-10 Barra View eastwards.jpeg
On Barra Looking Eastwards


Leaving Barra by ferry the route moves to Eriksay , a scenic hilly lump of an island, crossing a fine silver sanded beach and over some low cliffs and cutting through some houses to reach the causeway to South Uist. On Eriksay you pass a pub, Am Politician which remembers the SS Politician which came to grief in the sound between Eriksay and South Uist with some 40,000 cases of Scotch Whisky on board that became salvage for the locals, inspiring the book and film Whisky Galore.
2022-05-12 Coilleag Beach Eriksay.jpeg
Coilleag Beach Eriksay


Walking Conditions change for much of South Uist. The central islands of the Outer Hebrides are geologically divided east and west. The hills are on the east side, while the west is a sandy and relatively fertile plan known as The Machair. Here the walk follows the low level west side, walking on, or above, sand dunes and beaches and often around the edges of fields cultivated for potatoes. There is pasture too, and cattle and sheep. Near Daliburgh some prehistoric ruins are passed which are the only place in the British Isles to date where mummified remains have been found. At the north end of South Uist the walk along the coastal machair is interrupted by an MOD missile range, and the walk moves eastwards to zig zag through the (very) marshy centre of the Island, passing Our Lady of the Isles, a Christian statue, and a small wind farm of 3 turbines.

A causeway takes you on to Benbecula, which is a largely flat island, perhaps no more than 10 miles long. Much of the route is back to the coast, with 3 pretty silver sanded beaches to walk along, though care is needed to avoid an occasional band of rotting seaweed, which can smell quite unpleasant (and which gives one bay the local nickname Stinky Bay). Eventually the path cuts inland and climbs the high point of the island- Rueval, at 124m. While this may seem modest it gives great views over the myriad lakes of the east side of the island, the hills of South Uist behind you (with a distant Barra beyond), those of North Uist ahead some other smaller islands of the chain off the coast, and Skye across the sea to the east. The causeway to Grimsay is reached after crossing moorland.
Grimsay is a small and low island that the route barely touches. There is the option of a 6 mile detour to explore the island full, but the Hebridean Way spends no more than half a mile here before the next causeway to North Uist.
Route Bridge in North Uist
2022-05-18 Bridge in middle of nowhere North Uist.jpeg
North Uist Bridge


North Uist is a larger island. While it has both machair and some rugged hills the route avoids both for much of your time here, and instead takes a boggy route across the centre of the island which rolls over the flanks of a few low hills and skirts a sea loch to reach Langass , which for a few house hamlet boasts a hotel, a prehistoric burial chamber (off route) a partly standing stone circle and a coniferous plantation- the first woodland of the walk. While the route skirts the wood, a detour into it reaches a wooden sculpture of a large bear, Hercules, who escaped his handlers while filming a TV commercial in the 1980s and was discovered weeks later many miles from where he escaped having lost half his body weight. The bear recovered to live for many more years, and appear in the James Bond film Octopussy. From Langass underfoot conditions change to old tarmac, as the original single track road is used to Lochmaddy while traffic uses a new road. This passes across moorland, the rugged hills to the east as a distant backdrop and with the occasional loch breaking the nearer heathered monotony. The route reaches Lochmaddy which is a delightful village with a daily ferry to Skye and turns northward. After climbing to near the peak of Bhienn Mhor (190m) there are spectacular views of the next island, Berneray, and across the sound of Harris , with its numerous small islands and rocks, and the rugged hills of Harris beyond. The sea colours here are quite exceptional with vivid blues and greens and this is one place to plan to pause a while to take things in.
2022-05-18 Beinn Mhor looking N to Berneray and distant Harris.jpeg
Looking north to Berneray and Harris


The causeway to Berneray takes the route straight to the ferry terminal, but continuing on to have a look at this small island’s village and bay is recommended. The ferry crossing to Harris is spectacular too, as the boat has to weave its way between islands and rocks.
Harris is the rugged, almost mountainous, section. It has a small machair, and the sands here are golden rather than silver. The route goes through the hills, and at times can be very boggy. One section, between the wonderfully named Scarista and Seilebost is 6 miles without path- navigation is make your own way between guideposts across rocky and boggy moorland, and here a navigational device, or compass with large scale map are recommended. Views of the beaches and bays below are spectacular, if the weather allows you to see them. Suddenly from Seilebost the underfoot conditions improve markedly. For 23 miles the route follows The Harris Walkway, opened in 2001, following old coffin carrying routes, old school routes and other laid paths, so while the route might be waterlogged by wet weather it is generally not boggy. After crossing the hills to the rocky beach-less east coast of the island it continues north to the beautifully set village of Tarbert, built around a narrow isthmus that separates the sea lochs, East Tarbert and West Tarbert. From Tarbert the final section of Harris is the best of them all, aside a long narrow loch, between hills, climbing a col to pass into more hills and onto the main road briefly, then re-meeting the road again above Loch Seaforth to follow it down to the border with Lewis.
2022-05-21 mid Harris scenery.jpeg
Mid Harris


As Harris is mountainous, Lewis is rolling moorland. A walk through the Aline Community Woodland- coniferous trees suffering badly thanks to an insect parasite- is on good path or boardwalk. Then the route loops off into bog, only to return to the main road. The route here, in a wet May, is exceptionally boggy. A typical path construct is the “double ditch path” where parallel ditches are dug and the turf from the digging piled onto the middle to make a path. This may be a traditional path construction for the islands, but for a moderately well used path in wet conditions on boggy terrain they are often poor walking. The central path chews up and can be very difficult and boggy underfoot and sometimes the whole path sinks beneath water- meaning that you have to bog trot though the marshland aside the path.
2022-05-19 Walking the Harris Bog.jpeg
Waterlogged double ditch path


Unfortunately the route bypasses two monuments nearby- one to the people of the Hebrides for not betraying Bonnie Prince Charlie despite the bounty on his head, and one for those who protested against landowners plans to change the use of the land. The route also misses the Callanish stone circle which is about 6 miles to the west of Achmore, although an occasional bus from there will get you to see this spectacular stone circle. The final 9 miles to Stornoway (for ferries back to the mainland) is on an old surfaced road. While still used by cars it is a quiet road across moors. Finally through the grounds of Lews Castle to the finish just below it. The museum at Lews Castle is well worth a visit to see six of the Lewis Chessmen- 800 year old intricately carved chess pieces found in sand dunes at Uig, Lewis- the museum also has an excellent café.
2022-05-25 Stornoway Harbour.jpeg
Stornoway harbour at Finish


The walk is a fabulous way to discover the Outer Hebrides but there are some negatives:
• Frustratingly the walk is routed away from some of the historic monuments a visitor would want to see.
• On Lewis there are some loops into marsh and back to the road that seem gratuitous- there perhaps only to make up distance.
• For about 50 miles of the 156 the route crosses boggy moorland, sometimes without a path, and often with the “double ditch” path which occasionally sinks into the mire. While this might be regarded as typical underfoot going to a Munroist , a long distance trail walker might find it more challenging than many of the paths they might be used to- particularly after a spell of wet weather. It can be tough going- allow plenty of time, and don’t over distance in your planning. Consider using walking poles.
• In a couple of places the path is covered in plastic lattice, which can be very slippery for hi-tech rubber soles.
• If using buses, beware they do not run on Sundays- indeed cafés, shops and petrol stations all shut on Sundays as the Islands still observe the Sabbath (most strictly in Harris and Lewis).
• Hotels are good quality, but expensive, and are often the only places to eat out. Look out for mobile catering vans (particularly on Harris/Lewis) which can provide good food at reasonable prices.
• While The Offcomers official guide is excellently put together with lots of valuable information on where to eat and stay, such information is likely to go out of date, so check facilities you might wish to use before you travel. The guidebook does have an occasional habit of ending sections in places which are remote, with no accommodation, or transport access – so in reality you cannot end there.
• Prepare for bad weather- it can be wet and is often windy. The rain on the Outer Hebrides can come in many directions- both horizontal and vertical!
• Be aware of ticks. Both my wife and I acquired one of these unwelcome guests in Lewis despite wearing full waterproofs.
• Waymarking is reasonable, but there are some places where it is missing or not visible, so a map and compass or navigational ap is necessary (and be aware that not every part of the walk has phone signal).

2022-05-25 Peat Cutting on Lewis.jpeg
Peat Cutting is a common site

Our approach was using one car (parked at the finish of each leg) and buses, but on Sundays, as no buses run we planned loops or there and back sections. Car ferries arrive at Barra (from Oban), hop between Barra and Eriksay, and Berneray and Harris, and return from Stornoway to Ullapool. They worked well, and we not that expensive.

I would give some of the boggiest sections a miss next time, but this is a good walk.
Stephcart
Walker
 
Posts: 6
Joined: May 31, 2021

Re: Inspirational Islands, sometimes wearisome walk

Postby briansolar1 » Tue Jul 05, 2022 10:40 am

Very useful summary of the positive and negative features of the route. Thanks!
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briansolar1
Ambler
 
Posts: 28
Munros:143   Corbetts:222
Grahams:217   Donalds:30
Sub 2000:130   Hewitts:26
Wainwrights:18   
Joined: Oct 19, 2010
Location: Black Isle, Scotland

Re: Inspirational Islands, sometimes wearisome walk

Postby Smoggiewalks » Sun Aug 07, 2022 9:03 pm

Great summary of the trail. Was going in 22 but now 2023 if calmac can sort the ferries out.
Smoggiewalks
Mountain Walker
 
Posts: 6
Munros:4   
Hewitts:73
Wainwrights:11   Islands:3
Joined: Oct 13, 2018

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