Vatersay to the Butt of Lewis via the Hebridean Way

Date walked: 08/07/2017

Time taken: 12 days

Distance: 300km

Ascent: 5315m

This walk was completed in July of 2017. The report then sat on my laptop in an almost-completed state for months until I got round to finishing it. I hope it will be valuable for those planning to follow this route themselves: I've been careful to include issues and interesting features of the route. The route is new, and Visit Outer Hebrides have been made aware of a number of problems, described below. Hopefully some of these will be rectified this winter.

As the ferry docks in Castlebay the drizzle is already starting to descend, the kind that's going to soak everything before I start. The forecast is for it to worsen, the last bus left an hour ago, and my planned overnight camp on Bhatarsaigh, the most southerly of the inhabited Western Isles, is two hours away. (Note that place names in this report switch pretty promiscuously between English and the native tongue of the islands.) I waterproof up, and start walking. Hitching is relatively straightforward up here, but I don't want to get straight in to a bad habit. The Butt of Lewis is twelve days away, and I'm on the edge of the North Atlantic. This is unlikely to be the last rain, and may not be the last storm.

Coming over the south-east shoulder of Beinn Tangabhal the wind is in my face, and drops only slightly as I lose altitude towards the causeway onto Vatersay. Somewhere off to the right is part of tomorrow's route, but I pass it in the horizontal drizzle. I sense the storm approaching as the wind rises. Ten minutes after I pass the causeway I move out of the way of another vehicle on the single track road. This one doesn't pass, but stops next to me. The driver winds her window down and offers me a lift.

I look out towards the Atlantic and the approaching storm and haver. I'm determined to walk the full length of the islands, but I haven't technically started yet, and with the weather set to change from grim to worse I'm liable to end up soaked through and heavy before I start. The rucksack goes in the boot.

In the few minutes up the road I'm given advice on good camping spots, an up-to-date weather report, and a warning that there is a large party of cyclists behind me. I'm dropped near the community hall, where there is a café during some daylight hours and washing and lavatory facilities. There's one two-person tent by the road, which is one too many, and I slip off into the dunes, finding a spot where the wind is at least broken. The tent goes up in a hurry, and I soon tuck myself into my sleeping bag.

The storm wakes me intermittently, but the rain has subsided by the morning. I rise early, and do the half-hour walk to Bagh a' Deas toward the south of the island. The first part is a road walk through the dunes and the small settlement, near to which the raspy call of a corncrake greets me, then through a couple of fields of curious, easily spooked cattle, through another, smaller dune system, then down a beach to the Caolas Shanndraigh separating Vatersay from abandoned Sandray, Pabbay and Mingulay.

Sandray is now uninhabited by humans.

I'm aware I'm about to start a long walk that, if I pay attention, will take me back through time as much as through space. Even I find it hard to picture just how old parts of the Na h-Eileanan Siar actually are. One way I've figured out how to make sense of it is to equate time to distance. Let's say one kilometre equals ten million years.

On this scale, the length of time back to the construction of the broch at Dun Carloway on Lewis is about twenty centimetres, roughly the length of my boot. One footstep takes me back to the construction of the stone circle at Callanish. At the top of the wave line is a line of sea foam a few millimetres wide, a width about equal to my own existence.

A few steps away from the waves takes me to the end of the last glaciation, when the retreating ice uncovered bare rock on these islands. By the time I leave the dunes I've passed the entire 200,000-year history of the human species.

It takes under half an hour to return to the tent, amidst grass a mid-green speckled with white clover and yellow buttercup under scudding clouds. I rake out stove, gas, cooking pot, noodles, lighter and carry them all to a spot above a deserted beach, rushing with Atlantic breakers. I swear quietly. There is no sign of the cutlery I could have sworn I put in my cooking pot. This hitch is thankfully solved, after I slurp down some broken noodles with the help of my camping knife, by a couple of people, those using the tent I passed the previous night, out exercising their collie companions. The former are gracious and helpful enough to give me a spare, forestalling a detour into Castlebay Co-op.

The tent in the dunes on Vatersay

A good spot for breakfast.

They comment on their surprise at my quick disappearance on arrival, and inform me that the area around the community centre “looks like a refugee camp”. This proves an accurate assessment. Several tents have been erected next to it, the area around the sink in the community centre where I fill my water bottle is being used as a drying area, there are bags of food on the floor, and I must assure the people of Vatersay that I was not responsible for the mud tracked into the lavatory. The cyclists I talk to are friendly enough, planning on being in Stornoway in fourteen days, and seem impressed that I propose to be at the Butt of Lewis on foot in twelve.

With all the social interaction I'm later setting off than planned, but follow the road back around the southern side of Vatersay, a low hill to one side, a beautiful bay to the other. Black and white oystercatchers wheep in alarm as I pass. After the road curves around I can see Castlebay in the distance, the ferry just setting out for Oban. I have to get out of the way of a huge tour coach, far too big for the narrow, single-track road.

I reach the causeway over to Barra after about an hour and a half, looking up at Beinn Tangabhal and the steep slope over its western shoulder, past the Allt Chrysal. I've done about six and a half kilometres, barely worth the mention. By my timescale, this equals about 65 million years, close to the time of what might be considered the worst single day in Earth's history. The planet has been hit by bigger rocks, but in the late Cretaceous period there were higher life forms to be obliterated. An asteroid about the size of Barra hit the planet and finished off many already stressed ecosystems, wiping out all but a few of the dinosaurs, those that eventually evolved into modern birds.

The route leaves the road at a spot marked on Ordnance Survey maps as Allt Chrysal or Chrisal, but it's known locally and to archaeologists as Allt Easdail. The eponymous waterfall is further up the hill, but there is a history of settlement here dating to the neolithic, and a series of sign boards summarise what is known about the site, excavated in the 1990s.

The remains of the Iron Age roundhouse at Allt Easdail. Vatersay is in the background.

From here the route is waymarked by posts over and around the western side of Beinn Tangabhal. There is no proper footpath, and the markers are perhaps further apart than they really need to be, but it's hard to get lost if you have a map.

Let's play "Find the Routemarker!"

There is more than one in this photo.

Weather conditions slowly improve, brightening from drizzly showers. Eventually I climb over the bealach and follow a gully back down to the Atlantic shore, stopping once to refill a water bottle from a minor stream. I stop for noodles after this strenuous stretch on lichen-covered rocks, grey gneiss almost covered in yellow, black and assorted shades to cream, above the sea, close to the Iron Age hill fort of Dùn Bàn.

I had second breakfast here. Dùn Bàn is in the background.

Very little actual rock is visible in this photo.

I'd have stopped there, but there are a couple of humans exploring it, and I've had quite enough social interaction for one day. A dozen or so cormorants dry themselves on the promontory, looking almost primeval.

Cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo). Close examination of this photo suggests this may be a breeding site.

Loch Tangasdail. I detoured slightly to the south of the route shown in the guide here, although I was following waymarkers.

From here I make my way out to the road at Tangasdal, following it past a small campsite, where I refill my water bottle from a standpipe, then away from the coast at Borgh, heading into the hills that make up the middle of the island. This area is apparently known for raptors, and is one stop on a bird of prey trail that covers much of the archipelago.

Borgh and Beinn Tangabhal (background)

The first bird of interest here is another calling corncrake from the long grass in the fields to the south of the minor road. They're shy and hard to spot at the best of times, and won't show themselves while making their odd rasping call. I've heard them rarely, and seen them much less. I'm pleased to find that the first part of the route through the hills here has been surfaced – clumsily in places, but the work has been done. This enables me to keep my eyes peeled for wildlife. Apparently there are merlins up here, but I'm not lucky enough to see one. A couple of ravens fly over, croaking. A look up provides me with another treat. It's a big bird, much larger than a common buzzard, with a fan-shaped tail, soaring high above me: a golden eagle. I watch until it vanishes behind the hill to the east.

The route goes through the bealach here. If you bring the photo to full size you can see a couple of waymarkers.

The surfaced trail ends abruptly at a fence, where it takes a sharp turn east through a small bealach. This is a slog through heather, interspersed with bog, full of sphagnum and both species of sundew, following the fence line for most of the route, not far from a stream from which you can extract water, and my pace slows dramatically before I hit a bulldozed track past the island's reservoir and on to a road briefly before another walk across moorland. The last couple of kilometres to the ferry are equally unremarkable along a minor road.

Round-leaved sundew (Drosera rotundifolia). Much of this route is marshy.

I've missed the last ferry by about half an hour by the time I arrive at the harbour. I find a good spot for the tent behind the waiting room. The fence has been broken down where it meets the sea, and I swing round without getting my feet wet before erecting the tent, having dinner, watching for birds and otters, and listening to the seals.

Overlooking An Caolas Barrach, a Special Area of Conservation for its marine life.

I'm up in good time for the morning ferry, using the observation deck in the usual manner but with no sightings of great interest. I opt to skip the shower at the little harbour at Ceann a' Ghàraidh on Èirisgeigh, a decision I'll come to regret, before walking along the beach to the island's only substantial settlement. I'm roughly twenty-five kilometres into my walk at this point, so on my geological time scale I'm at about 250 million years. At this time on Earth, life on the planet faced its greatest ever test, the Great Dying, as volcanic-induced climate disruption drove around ninety-six percent of species to extinction.

The Loch Alainn prepares to return to Barra.

Eriskay's geology is considerably older. Nothing appears to be open in the village, even the pub, named after the SS Politician, a cargo ship that famously ran aground here in 1941, before the islanders salvaged much of her cargo, which included 260,000 bottles of whisky. The next few kilometres are a fairly tedious road walk, but I encounter a man, a boy and a very nervous collie. Most dogs like me, but this one is very uneasy. I'm immediately told there is “nothing wrong with her a good boot up the arse won't cure.” I ask if she's a rescue, internal alarm bells ringing. She isn't, but I'm assured she has never been abused, by someone who thinks “a good boot up the arse” might be a cure for anything.

I quickly take my leave of this one person who will turn out to be the only genuine arsehole of the entire trip, eventually passing a café linked to a campsite at West Kilbride. The campsite appears to be relatively quiet: I don't know enough to recommend it, but it might suit some walkers. The only customer in the café, I have some soup and a sandwich on a picnic table outside, taking a break from the usual tedious rucksack fare. A friendly waitress fills all my water bottles, leaving the rucksack heavier than I like. The trail finally leaves the road a few hundred metres further on, where I pick up the Machair Way following a footpath between the sea and some fields. I ignore the inn at Pollachar, which doesn't look welcoming to a sweaty hiker, then head into the machair.

Signs like the one on the left are found on various parts of the route. The Hebridean Way connects several existing footpaths, and these signposts are worth looking out for.

Machair is an internationally rare habitat, almost restricted to the west of Scotland, a low-lying grassy plain, with nutrients added by wind-blown shell and seaweed dug in by early farmers, the grass kept short by low-intensity grazing. Sandy soils retain nutrients poorly, and the habitat is deficient in cobalt, copper and manganese, restricting cropping opportunities. While I trust my purifier to handle bacteria, I'm glad of the tap water. I can see just how much sheep- and cowshit must be in the lochans. There are as many flowers as promised in this anthropogenic, or bovogenic, habitat. Clover, both red and white, is especially popular with bumblebees (including moss carder and the rare great yellow), but yellow buttercups, corn marigold and lady's bedstraw are common along with delicate white eyebright, and there is a healthy orchid population (including some real rarities). The range of flowers changes along the coastline, dependent on local conditions and the history of use of the land.



...and yet more flowers...


...most of the way up the coast.

White-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus lucorum), I think, on white clover (Trifolium repens). I did see some more interesting bees, but failed to take good photos.

I could easily have spent several days on this leg of the walk. The flowers bring in the invertebrates, along with the small birds, little brown jobs like corn bunting with their jangling call, meadow pipit and skylark with their characteristic song above the grasses, wheatears with their distinctive white flash by the tail, reed buntings with their black heads in marshier areas, as well as larger species like curlew, the calls of which haunt this coast, and lapwing, with their flapping flight. All of these attract predators like merlin and hen harrier. On the way home I learned that a good morning on the bus can provide a list of forty different bird species.

A few hundred metres further up I run into a day walker coming the other way, and we exchange the usual pleasantries. She tells me that there is an archaeological excavation under way on the promontory of Orasaigh, and the team seem enthusiastic about explaining what's going on. It's off-route, but part of the point of visiting these places is to gain a picture of their history and culture, so I follow a track closer to the shore before meeting a small cluster of shipping containers that have been repurposed as a site office and store.

Orasaigh from the south.

This turns out to be only the latest in several years of digs on the site. They've previously uncovered one mound that would shortly be lost to the sea. Here they have two trenches open. One is clearly the remains of an Bronze Age roundhouse, and they are able to show me their only artefact, the shattered remains of a pot. The other is guesswork. It may be the remains of field clearance, and there are signs of agriculture here up until quite recent times, although most field clearance seems to have gone into walls. The shape suggests it might, with a lot of luck, be a full-scale Viking ship burial, but they won't know until they finish digging.

The archaeological dig site on Orasaigh.

I soon rejoin the official footpath, and head north, passing a radio transmitter and a graveyard. Hidden in the dunes is another Bronze Age site, this one with interpretation boards. It's thought there are probably many more of these sites, but they're buried under the sand. The site does, however, fit into a landscape that includes the structures being excavated back up on Orasaigh. We might know more when excavations have finished.

The remains at Taighean Cruinn Cladh Hàlainn.

From here the trail takes you through the dunes to avoid a golf course that has vandalised the machair, but dunes are hard to walk through, so I detour down to the beach. I encounter a woman coming the other way, carrying a full trekking pack, and we greet each other as fellow long-distance walkers. She sounds English, and is clearly surprised to see someone trekking in a kilt. She's met one man, a few hours ahead of me, also heading for Stornoway.

I wish her well and head north, up a beach deserted by humans, but heavily inhabited by black-and-white oystercatchers, their alarm calls telling me their territorial boundaries. By the time scale established earlier, somewhere up here, around the 43-kilometre mark, life first made it onto land. The rest of the day is a long, pretty much flat walk, where I mix beach with machair. South Uist is an island clearly divided into two, with low-lying fertile machair to the west, and rocky high ground to the east. Off route there is a museum with a café that I visited on the way home, and that I recommend, should you have the opportunity.

Seemingly endless flowers, or seemingly endless deserted beach. Take your pick. Barra can be seen in the distant background.

On our geological scale I'm at about half a billion years ago, when the first vertebrates appeared, separating for ever those who carry their major nerves in their bellies from those of us who carry them in our backs.

There is a tricky stretch about a kilometre before Howmore that requires me to navigate a faint path through heavy cobbles with tall vegetation dominated by species with deep tap roots like thistles, as well as an old barbed-wire fence I have to duck under. There is a small hostel here, but I erect my tent in the dunes above a deserted beach. The main problem with finding a suitable camping spot lies not so much with finding flat ground as avoiding a place where the oystercatchers become upset.

I've camped in worse spots.

After the straightforward walking through the machair the northern part of South Uist is harder going. There is a mostly well-surfaced footpath through the internationally important bird reserve at Loch Druidibeg, although a couple of the earlier stretches require a quick look around to check the route. The lochs are worth investigation through binoculars, but sensitive species nest here, so sticking to the path is important. Some birds of prey are also seen here, but luck isn't with me.

The nature reserve at Loch Druidibeg.

After a few kilometres I hit a minor road and take a sharp left. There is then a road walk, much of it next to the main road, before a detour up to a statue of a saint overlooking the Atlantic. The Uists remain predominantly Catholic, with a clear distinction between them and the Presbyterian Harris and Lewis. This isn't really my thing, so I quickly follow a well-surfaced footpath across the moors.

On our geological time scale the rock that makes up the hills to the south was already incredibly old when, round 650 million years ago, some models suggest that most of the Earth was covered in ice. Life, evidently, survived, and it may have been the trigger for the Cambrian Explosion, when multicellular life suddenly proliferated, with multicellular animals possibly originating from a single common ancestor. Yes, I know: there is method in these comments. I'll get to the point. Patience!

For the second time in three days the footpath hits a barrier, this time a bridge, and simply stops, the route being taken up by marker posts. This is mostly straightforward point-to-point walking, but it's very marshy. The odd bootprint shows few people come through here. It's just featureless bog, meandering past the odd lochan.

There is a footpath here, I swear! If you look closely, you can make out a waymarker.

At one final bridge I suddenly pick up another surfaced footpath, which takes me under the towers of the three wind turbines that comprise the community wind farm. Up here the weather closes in again, and I waterproof up, and follow an unpleasant gravel track, surfaced for the heavy machinery needed to install the generators. It's fast but painful going, until I descend again to a road.

I work out the next couple of kilometres from the description in the Cicerone guide. I turn right at a disused quarry, picking up a boggy footpath. It's raining properly by this time, a steady and annoying fall, but the footpath appears to be a straight one. It's only partially marked on the Explorer map, and I expect to hit a fence line, which turns out not to exist. There may be waymarkers here but, if so, I fail to fine one in the murk. I find myself in front of someone's house, mutter something profane, and try to detour through the bog. I promptly find myself hip-deep in the mire, with my trekking rucksack still on my back, running through my swearword vocabulary in half a dozen languages.

The gate mentioned in the Cicerone guide does exist, but I have no idea whether or not there is marked footpath between this and the quarry. If so, I didn't see it. There is a boggy one running in a straight line from the quarry, but it must divide somewhere. It may be more obvious in better conditions.

Having fished myself out and found the road I head down into Carnan, slowly drying out. I find a good general grocer here and go looking for a late lunch, hoping for resupply. I'm reminded of the cultural differences here. The goods on sale are familiar, but very much geared up for locals, not hikers looking for something lightweight to put in a rucksack. Of the language being spoken around me I recognise only a little vocabulary and a few loan words. The woman at the checkout turns out to be fluently bilingual, and I'm able to put myself together a fresh lunch before pressing on across the causeway to Creagorry on Benbecula. There is a Co-op here, with a mainland feel that actually grates on me, but I'm able to resupply among the tourists and cyclists. A large, friendly dog takes one look at me and decides to say hello by running on to the road. Safely back on the pavement I make a fuss and have a nice chat with her human before making my way up to Liniclate.

Signposting is missing here as well, and a look through binoculars suggests there is no way out of the field that the Cicerone guide leads you in to. A local man asks if I'm lost, which I refute (I know precisely where I am), but acknowledge that my way forward is a little unclear. He has seen a number of people with maps entering this field, wandering round and leaving by the same gate. The guide apparently leads to barbed wire. I detour past the hotel a couple of hundred metres further on.

From here the walk up towards Baile a' Mhanaich is straightforward. It's simply a matter of following the coast to the headland, then pretty much due north, but the easiest walking is on the damp sand of the beach. It's clearly best to walk along the tide line, not just because the sand is firmer, but because oystercatchers and smaller ringed plovers that run across the sand have bred here, and they and their young clearly still make this home. It's easy to count oystercatcher territories, because one pair will settle before the next starts up their wheep-wheep-wheep alarm call, a tone that was intermittently irritating yesterday, but quickly becomes extremely annoying. Before I arrive at the road I can hear music from somewhere. It becomes clearer as I approach Cula Bay just outside the town.

A full-scale beach party is under way. Surfboards are actually stood up in the sand. The “music” can be heard over two kilometres away. This close to habitation I want to find a discrete spot in the dunes, but that's too close to the racket. Instead I find a place towards the south side of the bay, hoping I'm not about to be alarm-called off by the birds, and erect the tent against the evening's offshore wind. I eat quickly and prepare to turn in. Just before sunset the whole area around Balivanich is treated to a heavily amplified rendition of the closing song of a popular Scottish rock band. Then, thankfully, I'm back to the sounds of the wind, waves, gulls and the odd screech of a tern.

The wind settles by the morning, and I awaken to the stench of rotting seaweed, which the wind had been blowing away the night before. I take the tent down in a hurry, trying not to gag, and have breakfast further down the beach. Visibility is excellent, and I can clearly see the low-lying Heisker, or Monach Isles, off to the west.

I'm low on fresh water, and I can't see a standpipe in the cemetery I pass (which is medieval in date, and worth a quick detour), or outside the visitor centre at Baile nan Cailleach, which doesn't open for more than another hour. Apparently soft fruit was once cultivated in a walled garden near here and I wonder just what the soil would be like were it not for the endless livestock.

The next hour involves a slow road walk. A local man, taking out a bin, is kind enough to refill an almost empty water bottle. The temperature climbs slowly, as does the road, mostly over moorland, across the main road south, and past the council's recycling site. Just beyond this it peters down to landrover track. Here I run into a small, elderly local woman, a Gael almost to the point of stereotype. She's friendly, and I like her instinctively. She introduces herself as Kate, and we pass the time of day: she gives me the kind of route information known only to locals, corrects some of my Gaelic pronunciation and teaches me a few handy phrases.

A track leads up Ruabhal from next to the loch, at the bottom of which I briefly encounter a woman and a couple of dogs. The climb is easy and straightforward, less of a challenge than Arthur's Seat, but the highest point on Benbecula, with excellent views, the Monach Isles still clearly visible.

The view from the summit of Ruabhal. If you view the photo at full resolution you can make out the Monach Isles.

The route down the hill is more poorly waymarked. There are poles, but this is another place where there just aren't enough. The route crosses an isthmus between two lochs, eventually coming out at a road, but it's two kilometres of heavy going, mostly over boggy ground. There may be a straight route, but I wish you luck in finding it.

The next seven kilometres have the opposite problem. I'm back on road, crossing the causeway to North Uist via Grimsay and a number of smaller islands, little more than skerries. At low tide it's sand to the side, but while I'm there this is under water. Much of the causeway is single track, and I have to jump out of the way when a fire engine howls from just behind me.

The remains of a chambered cairn lie just off route to the north, but this is a site I've visited before, and I don't linger. I'm hopeful that the “hotel” at Carinish lies more towards the “inn” end of the scale, perhaps with bar meals with fresh salad, but it is not to be. I've missed lunch by only a few minutes, and it's intimidatingly posh. I don't hang around, and leave most likely unseen by the staff.

The track heads off across the moor from what's described in the Cicerone guide as a children's playground, but it looks much like someone's front garden. There is no way marking, either where the track leaves the road or where the track divides (take the left fork).

Well, this is helpful, not. You need to go left here.

I eat in a more salubrious environment than the hotel dining room, glad to be off my feet. After this navigation is as simple as it gets: there is good footpath here after the landrover track peters out, mostly in the form of raised turf. I pass several lochans that make good places to refill water bottles, which is as well, because it's a warm afternoon. This heather moorland appears to support little wildlife, however. There are some meadow pipits, and a solitary golden plover, too far off for a good view.

There are better views over the sea lochs as I approach Langais. I've been in this area before, when a female hen harrier with an almost-grown fledgeling made it clear by mobbing that I wasn't welcome. She wasn't as intimidating as the bonxies I've met elsewhere but I did accept this was her territory and left anyway. This time I only see one hen harrier, again an adult female, hunting over the heath.

I haven't walked that far today, but the heat is getting to me, slowing my pace to a crawl. The hotel at Langais is almost as intimidating as the one at Carinish, and I don't loiter here, either. The path takes me close to an old conifer plantation, then out to the remains of a stone circle. I start looking for a sensible camping spot, regretting not using one of those next to the burn just before Carinish. There is nothing suitable on the heath that covers most of the slopes of Beinn Langais. I'm also aware I'm approaching another long stretch of road walking. As I climb, a pale short-eared owl quarters the ground, seeking dinner.

The stone circle at Langais.

There is a small woodland on the north side of Beinn Langais. This was commercial forestry, but it was an unsuccessful experiment that has been taken over by the community, with slow replacement with native species that seem to be doing better than the imported conifers. This is the last resting place of Hercules, a tame grizzly who once escaped during filming on Benbecula. I remember Hercules from when I was growing up, as he lived not far from me when I was a child in Stirling. There is a life-size statue and a plaque, not far from which I find a flat spot for the tent.

The memorial to Hercules the bear. If you turn right and follow the footpath there is a sheltered camping spot, although it's badly midge infested.

The main problem, given that the wind has dropped completely, is going to be the midges. Sure enough, they're on me as soon as I start to erect the tent. I find my midge hood, switch the kilt for trousers, and separate food and cooking equipment from everything else, moving around as much as possible in order to confuse the little fu... sorry, suckers.

Things are no better first thing the following morning, and I strike the tent in near-record time, swinging down to the road. A couple of hundred metres away is a chambered cairn, which is worth a visit, but is another site I've seen on previous visits.

There are showers and other facilities at Lochmaddy, but there is a two-hour hike to get there, all of it along a road. According to the map, you leave the main road for the old one after a kilometre or so. There is little traffic first thing in the morning. I take the left turn shown in the guide, and find myself facing the gate to a quarry. This is not the first time the Cicerone guide has been wrong, but it's also clear that Comhairle nan Eilean Siar have simply looked at a map, and not bothered to check either the situation on the ground or their own planning records.

Er. Not this way, then.

I find a gravel side-road a couple of kilometres down the road, considering that if I'd been going the other way I'd have needed to backtrack or slog across the moor. The terrain is low-lying, almost flat, and basically one big bog, with nothing of interest. Eventually, after a tedious walk, I approach the outskirts of Loch nam Madadh. There is a village shop, already open, a community centre with a museum, post office and café, and a small tourist information centre, all still closed, a CalMac office and a marina. A helpful member of staff at the CalMac booking office gives me directions to the showers.

By the time I'm clean the community centre is about to open, and I post the used maps home to myself. The walk so far has had its issues, which I expected, but I'm mostly enjoying myself, to the point where I very much want to keep going. There is the part of me that wants to go off and have an adventure, in the sense of heading for New Zealand, on foot. That will take thought and planning, although when I get into conversation with the Postmaster she's encouraging of the idea. In the meantime, I suppose I can walk home.

I add it up in my head over coffee. I assume I want to avoid the West Highland Way, which would be shorter, but will be full of tourists. I can get the ferry from Stornoway to Ullapool. If I remember correctly, it's about ten days from Ullapool to Fort Augustus, then another two days over the Correiyairack Pass to Kingussie, three more through the Cairngorms via Glen Feshie and Glen Tilt to Pitlochry, a week to Milngavie, then three days mostly along the canals to Edinburgh. Allowing for weather, it would take about a month, of which I could cut maybe five days by walking straight south via the Garrison.

That's on top of the total of twelve days for the planned walk, with no maps. It's tempting, but we all have responsibilities.

The cyclists I ran into on Vatersay turn up, and seem to have multiplied. We have a friendly chat, and I'm later getting out of the café than I really want to be, and by this time weather threatens. I stop at the community shop on the way out, hoping for a bit of variety, but I've thankfully planned for the likelihood that it won't be geared up for walkers (it's not). The friendly woman behind the counter switches from the pleasant lilting tones of her own language to talk to me in English. I'm only a few hundred metres out of town when the rain hits.

I waterproof up. Between here and Berneray the official trail covers a lot of exposed ground, including a couple of hillsides. It's marker posted, but prior experience on the route tells me that if there is more terrain with widely-spaced marker posts I could find myself in difficulties in bad weather. The guide book mentions that after rain parts “could be very wet underfoot”. I'm reluctant to do the road walk, and if I wasn't booked in to the backpackers in Tarbert to do laundry I'd just return to the café and wait for the rain to subside. As it stands, I really need to be on Berneray tonight.

I start trudging as the rain sets in to a steady drizzle. Half an hour out of Berneray lie the remains of the Iron Age Settlement of Dun an Sticir, with ruins on islands in a tidal loch connected by causeways, now a tricky rock-hop over slippery, uneven stones. This provides the only real excitement of a tedious hike along a road and past overgrazed fields.

The remains at Dun an Sticir.

I find myself on Beàrnaraigh na Hearadh in good time for the last ferry, the rain easing off around the same time. I like Berneray. It's a island that very much has a human scale, with some great camping spots in the dunes. There are, however, several more hours of daylight, and I decide to press on. The ferry drops me in Leverburgh in time for dinner, but the Butty Bus is closed, and the restaurant is busy, and it's made clear to me that a solitary hiker is not a priority in terms of service. The concept of “vegetarian” is also very much an afterthought.

Having no desire to add to the islands' overfishing and overgrazing problem, I silently wish them a fridge failure, and head up the road. If the book is accurate, I can be in the dunes behind Scarista Beach by nightfall. I cook myself some noodles, and follow the single-track road around the loch. A clear signpost leads off to the left, following a trail past Loch na Morecha and through the Uachdrach Pass. It's more dull moorland, but at least I'm finally off the blasted road.

The start of the approach to the Uachdrach Pass.

This starts well, the first stretch being well surfaced turning to some carefully constructed raised turf.

If it's like this for the rest of the way over the pass, I'll be fine.

I have a definite sense, however, that whoever built this footpath started out with enthusiasm, and became bored. As the path rises into the pass it becomes heavier and heavier going, leaving me walking from one dry mound to the next.


Made it!

By the time I reach the bealach the bad weather has broken, the sun is close to the horizon, and I miss waymarkers in the glare, finding myself on the wrong side of the burn and up against a sheep fence.

Tràigh Sgarasta is down there. I just have to get down in one piece!

According to Cicerone there is a gravel path down here, but even following those markers it only exists in the mind of the author. From this point I lose altitude faster than I lose the light, hitting the road at dusk. I'm on familiar terrain now. A signpost leads off into the dunes not far from a derelict bus, again away from the route shown in the guide, which follows the road as far as Sgarasta Mhòr, about 1500 metres away.

I erect the tent in the dunes behind Tràigh Sgarasta, eat quickly, and crash almost immediately.

Sgarasta is at about kilometre 150 of a total of 300, so making this in five days is pretty good going. Thirty kilometres a day with a trekking pack is a decent average. I'm on schedule for my backpacker reservation in Tarbert. What I haven't accounted for is the following day's terrain.

The dunes behind Tràigh Sgarasta.

The western coastline of South Harris has much to be said for it, with dunes, long beaches and enough hills surrounding the area to break up the landscape with more interest. The sea is shallow and sandy, turning it turquoise in the right light. I set off through the dunes, encountering sheep and cattle. At Sgarasta Mhòr the track returns to the road via a short-cropped field, then through a gate up on to the hillside.

Somebody has erected duck boarding here, but it's a sheep field, and between the sheep and the walkers the approach has been poached to sticky mud, which would be unpleasant even without the trekking pack. I eventually haul myself and half the field on to the boards, remove the muck, and head up hill.

Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate.

Hunt the Routemarker, again!

The first kilometre or so is pretty straightforward, although I need binoculars to locate markers. Then the trail follows the old broken-down wall line, which rises and descends above the road. Sometimes it's easier to stay on the wall, out of the bog, and sometimes it isn't. What's shown as a straight-ish line in the guide is anything but up here, and my pace slows to a crawl. I'm hit by intermittent drizzly showers. Second breakfast happens around kilometre six, having zigzagged probably twice that, before I descend to the Allt Borgh Beag, then slowly climb again over complicated ground above a fence line, then cross the bealach below Cleit Noisaboist.

The recommended route in the guide starts the day's walking at Leverburgh and ends half a kilometre further on in Gleann Horgaboist, near a campsite, and I can see why this is a short day. Anyone thinking you can do four kilometres an hour up here with a trekking pack is fitter and taller than I am, or is delusional (Cicerone editors, I mean you!). I've averaged, by the map at least, about one.

Tràigh Sheilebost

I look up at the slope of the Liana Horgabost, which looks no better than the terrain I've already been slogging over, and suspect that the four kilometres to the track over the Bealach Eòrabhat will take the rest of the afternoon.

My estimate is accurate. None of this is waymarked. I stick close to the fence line, picking my way over the shoulder, dropping to the Abhainn Sheileboist about two hours later. I stop here for a late lunch, before pressing on, taking a sharp left along the end of the fence line and slowly up around the 150-metre contour. Descents are more often controlled slides than walks. Stunning views over Tràigh Sheilebost are spoiled by thickening overcast. It's getting on for 5pm before I finally hit road, achieving what has to be among my worst time and distance ratios anywhere.

I followed the fence line up here. It was not waymarked. The Bealach Eòrabhat is at the centre of the photograph. The good news is that a good track goes over it.

I mutter something rude, and hope there will be no more of this.

The old coffin road, built because the soils on the eastern side of Harris are too thin to bury people, has apparently been much improved. I need to be in Tarbert tomorrow to resupply before the shops shut, because the next day is Sunday, and Harris is a Presbyterian stronghold. Intermittent drizzle turns to proper rain and the wind accelerates. There are no obvious camping spaces in the pass. The path deteriorates from landrover track to footpath, but it has been surfaced, which is just as well as my face huddles behind the hood of my waterproof. I cross the summit, and descend.

It's straightforward, and actually turns out to be well surfaced the whole way down. I hit road, briefly, then swing uphill again behind Aird Mhighe, on a footpath slippery in the wet. Part of me fancies cheating again and following the road, but I need to find somewhere to put the tent, so I follow the footpath up before finding a ledge just large enough for my one-person tent below a large rock outcrop. It's not much in the way of shelter, but these rocks have been around for at least a couple of billion years, and aren't likely to go anywhere.

This passed for shelter.

From averaging thirty kilometres a day, I've just covered about fifteen.

I spent most of the previous day on the edge of two habitats, one relatively fertile to the west, although deteriorating with all the overgrazing, with high ground and rocky outcrops to the east, on which I'd spent more time walking. From the more fragile beauty of the Uists, and a couple of stunning beaches the previous day, the beauty here is more rugged. I'm crossing rock mostly formed between 1.9 and 2.2 billion years ago.

On that scale I suggested at the beginning of this article, I won't get there until tomorrow.

The following day remains overcast, intermittent squally showers preventing much enjoyment and keeping the camera in the rucksack. A week's worth of damp laundry weighs down the rucksack. I press on, on a good footpath that dips and weaves over and around low hills. There is no wildlife in evidence. East of the ugly little township of Greosabhagh, in critical need of a clean-up, there is a couple of kilometres of road walk, passing shallow Loch Phlocrapoil, with several tree-covered islands, followed by another stretch of good footpath, followed by more road, past a series of places weaving Harris Tweed. Some obvious Norse name elements give clues to part of the history of the area.

I'm not miserable, exactly, but it's not a nice day. The footpath around Meavag, a little more than an hour out of Tarbert, is poorly signposted. I find it okay, but it's slow going around the houses as I try to avoid disturbing anyone. Just north of the village I miss a marker in the rain, and stay on high ground when I should have descended, and find myself on my arse sliding through wet grass and heather to regain it. From there it turns out to be an easy path out to a landrover track that eventually rejoins the road.

A friendly chap in a camper van invites me for tea. I'm tempted, feeling downright soggy by this point, but I need to resupply, and if the shops in Tarbert close early on a Saturday I'm going to be screwed. I beg off, and find myself regretting it when I discover the well-stocked general grocer shuts at six.

I treat myself to a veggieburger, chips, salad (salad!) and a pint of a decent real ale in an establishment just around corner from the ferry terminal, an experience badly spoiled by noisy tourists and what appears to be a stag party unable to hold a conversation at a civil volume. Then I check in at the backpacker hostel.

The woman who runs the place is friendly and helpful. The drying room is full, but I'm eventually able to hang my tent up outside on the frame of a new building they're constructing out the back, and arrange to make time for my laundry to be done. Beyond the poky drying room it's difficult to fault. Dorms, apart from those used by couples, are segregated by gender, while the first-floor shower and lavatory complex is arranged for everyone, with complimentary supplies of everything you might need, irrespective of gender. It may be a backpacker hostel, but they've given the place a lot of thought.

The clientèle is dominated by cyclists, although two other walkers are following the Hebridean Way. Both are male, and neither are equipped in a way that suggests they are messing around. The hiker's hobble that you see on the West Highland Way is not in evidence. Guests walk with an easy stride. I'm increasingly aware that the Western Isles are just not geared up for that many serious walkers. I've passed few places that are really suitable for camping. I've had to abandon some to bird alarm calls, although I'm aware many are less discriminating. One spot has barely accommodated a one-person tent. Others, like the dunes behind Tràigh Sgarasta, could quickly become overburdened, and few places, including official campsites, possess laundry facilities, and here they are turning people away.

I resupply at the general grocer, investigating the newsagent, which lacks hiking supplies, on the way. I overspend, packing the rucksack for the three days to Stornoway, adding a good dinner, including a substantial salad, a kilo of fresh fruit, and the makings of a serious breakfast. My body is craving anything but pasta. The backpacker hostel supplies a basic breakfast – toast, (surprisingly good) coffee, spreads and sometimes eggs from their own hens, to which I add beans, tomatoes and grilled mushrooms.

My early start is sabotaged by a series of conversations, from the encroaching storm, to the related matter of route planning, to the copy of Nan Shepherd's Living Mountain that another guest is treating herself to. If I could write like Shepherd I'd walk professionally. Most of the cyclists are heading north, into the teeth of a strengthening wind, up That Hill Out Of Tarbert, a vicious climb over a few short kilometres.

Given the weather, already turning blustery, I seriously consider diverting to the near-legendary Gatliff Hostel at Reinigeadal, but that's only a ten-kilometre walk.

Thus, after a couple of kilometres I turn north up Gleann Lacasdail, a classic U-shaped glacial valley. A noticeboard blames the wet peaty soils and the lack of vegetation on the hard Lewisian Gneiss. I squash a flash of anger. If this is a complete explanation, how is it that there are scrubby trees on the small island in the loch, and indeed the islands in Loch Phlocrapoil and elsewhere? There are deer here on North Harris, but few on South Harris. I'm all for the support of indigenous people and traditions, but as anyone with more than a patchy knowledge of Scottish history knows, intensive sheep grazing is a relatively recent introduction to the cultures of the Highlands and Islands. It's not merely that the sign is misleading in a way that's obvious to anyone willing to observe and think for thirty seconds, but that it serves certain interests.

The foot of Gleann Lacasdail. If you look carefully, there are trees on the islands in the loch.

I have seen some interesting wildlife here, but I wouldn't call it “abundant” in the way the tourist office wants me to think. Some places I've walked have been interesting. Others have been, frankly, dull. The explanation is “sheep” and “cattle”, whose manure makes much water feel undrinkable despite the purifier. The fleeces are pretty much worthless. The money is in meat and subsidy, the nutrients from these impoverished soils shipped off to meet demands from the privileged and entitled.

Land reform has taken many communities from under the heels of lairds, but it's done little to solve the environmental problems faced by these islands. Until the complete history is told, there is no prospect of restoring the environment.

I squash my frustration, and set off up the glen on a good footpath, crossing the bealach at its head around an hour later. I exchange pleasantries with a friendly Belgian couple heading for Reinigeadal and round in a circuit, and avoid someone on an MTB.

This looks like it's turning very promising. To be more exact, it's promising a storm.

Looking back down Gleann Lacasdail during a brief break in the weather.

There is a short road walk before I pick up the deteriorating old road, parts of which are collapsing into bog.

The view from the old road.

Rugged, open views are partially spoiled again by the incoming weather. The trail descends towards the head of Loch Seaforth, an inferior attempt at a fjord.

The head of Loch Shiphoirt from the remains of the old road.

The scrubby woodland shown on the map at Aird a' Mhulaidh is unsuited to good shelter. It's early afternoon, but the forecast storm is approaching quickly, and I need to find privacy before erecting the tent. If there is nowhere suitable on the commercial forestry-clad lower slopes of Griamacleit it could become a miserable afternoon. A sign just after the Abhainn Bhìoigadail welcomes me to Lewis.

A couple of hundred metres off the main road is Loch Ille Chìopain, where I find a flat spot. It's partially surrounded by commercial timber, mainly Sitka spruce, one of my least favourite trees. Commercial timber plantations have been bunged on peat elsewhere, and done better than the trees here. Many were killed after a population explosion in the pine beauty moth (Panolis flammea). The poor soil and the moth get the blame, but I suspect the situation is complicated. In semi-natural pine woodland these and other herbivores are controlled by a major carnivore, various species of wood ant, unsuited to closed-canopy Sitka spruce plantation.

That is to miss the point, however. Deep peat holds a great deal of carbon in a fairly stable form, provided it doesn't dry out and burn. Planting trees on deep peat actually releases greenhouse gases.

The rain arrives with a vengeance, and I'm thankful of the shelter. I hunker down in my sleeping bag with my ereader and wait it out. From averaging thirty kilometres a day to Sgarasta, I'm down to a fraction over twenty-five. The trudge round the western part of South Harris probably couldn't be avoided. The short day to Tarbert was about logistics. Now I'm sheltering from weather.

The track up Griamacleit. Note the dead Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis).

The following day I find surfaced footpath up Griamacleit, but the surroundings are uninteresting. There is a decent view over Loch Shiphoirt, and I keep my eyes peeled for the local eagles, but unsuccessfully.

Loch Shiphoirt, from the summit of Griamacleit.

A deep burn, brown with peat, provides fresh water. At the foot a long stretch of duckboarding has been carefully constructed by forced labour conscripted through Stornoway JobCentre, and I make good time following this and then the old road until it meets more newly-constructed path over the moors, requiring the avoidance of mud.

Well-constructed duckboarding, probably the best-constructed footpath of the entire trip. Perhaps Comhairle nan Eilean Siar can pay the dole conscripts who built this to upgrade some of the other footpaths. Yes, pay!

My pace slows past Loch Stranndbhat, over boring moorland. I scan for raptors, but my luck has not changed.

An easy stretch of gravel track peters into more inadequate waymarking, Ahead of me, out of signalling range, a figure appears to be trying to locate the unmarked trail. He gets it right. I get it wrong, and find myself slogging over saturated ground before the topography informs me I've overshot. I retrace my steps, picking up a trail that appears to have been constructed by driving heavy yellow machinery over it, with inevitable consequences on conditions underfoot.

Golden plover (Pluvialis apricaria) and its peeoo call are common in upland and exposed areas.

Where I rejoin a minor road signs advising of the fines for fly tipping appear to have been ineffective. I descend into Baile Ailein, hoping the reported community café will be open. The village itself seems to have higher standards of cleanliness than whoever has been doing the dumping. The community centre is, by island standards, quite a substantial complex, although the architect lacked imagination. Someone leaving the office informs me the café is closed, but there is an art gallery with a café attached about half way to Laxay.

This is the main road to Stornoway, and the path is separated from it by a painted white line, but I make my way down it without incident. A sign eventually announces an art gallery, B&B and “snacks”. I fancy more than a snack, but decide to investigate anyway. Part of the point of this exercise is to explore local culture.

The gallery is a simple annex on the main house. I enter to find the premises deserted. The paintings are beyond my budget, and I'm not enough of an art critic to recognise quality. It is, however, the kind of thing I'd display at home, reminding me of photographs in a gallery on Westray on Orkney.

The place is run by two people who seem to have settled here. I'm not good at judging things socially, but a snack and coffee turns into a three-hour blether, and more coffee. In her near-obsessive focus on her art I recognise a kindred spirit. They've done their share of proper walking, too. His first lightweight tent was the same as mine, the sturdy Saunders Jetpacker. The sun is heading for the horizon before I return to the road, skipping a two-kilometre detour.

In retrospect, if I hadn't stopped I might have been tempted to press on from Laxay, and the wood just outside Laxay is probably the last camping spot for several hours. I erect the tent quickly next to midge-infested meander of a small burn.

It's down equally fast the next morning. The marked track around the loch is nonexistent, and I have no interest in slogging through probably tick-infested heather. The Cicerone guide says the author found himself walking through the woods and, sure enough, I easily find the gate, rejoin the trail, and head up across the moors.

This footpath consists of more raised turf, but it's among those parts of route where such construction is already sinking back into the bog. My main memory is the horseflies. They've been a nuisance elsewhere. Here they're a plague, stabbing a proboscis into my skin without anaesthetic and without warning.

I assume they feed on sheep when they can't get hiker.

A cleg-infested bog.

The trail rises and falls, over dryer hills before dropping down to marshier areas that make for slower going. Eventually I hit the road at the small settlement of Acha Mòr, below a tall radio mast. The bog-slogging is over for the day, but I now face around forty kilometres of road.

The first part of this is an uneventful walk over more moors. A few local people have installed modern shielings, apparently as mansheds or places for summer getaways. There is no obvious wildlife and no great beauty. It's the same kind of landscape I've been covering for several days.

A sharp right turn takes me onto the road into Stornoway, past a loch, and the main landfill site above the town, both busy with gulls. I see approaching hikers from some distance. This turns out to be a couple of men, apparently a father and son, doing the same route the other way, but skipping the two days from the Butt of Lewis. This is day ten, and these are the fourth and fifth people I'll meet walking the whole route.

I give them what I hope is valuable information, and head for Lews Castle. This is a short walk down lanes through a mixed semi-natural woodland, probably more biologically diverse than most of the moorland I've traipsed over. The castle itself, now part of a complex including a community college, is an anticlimax. It currently marks the end of the route, and I assume there's a marker somewhere to match the ones on Vatersay and at Leverburgh, but workers are erecting big marquees for an imminently forthcoming music festival. There is also a chain refreshment outlet masquerading as a coffee shop.

It dampens the sense of achievement, and I head downhill in the direction of the town. A bridge crosses a stream leading to the harbour, where I find a proper coffee shop, and celebrate with a decent brew.

There is, however, a difference between walking the Hebridean Way and walking the length of the inhabited islands. There is a shower block near the harbour but, by the time I've finished my coffee, checked my email, recharged the essential ereader and resupplied for the last fifty kilometres, it's ten minutes after six. This is the point at which I discover that the shower block is locked at six.

Like all Scottish towns Stornoway has a surfeit of pubs as well as a number of other places serving food, but I end up in An Lanntair, a cinema with an art gallery and café, scouring the menu for whatever has the greatest quantity of fresh vegetables. A friendly Australian woman tells me I have a twin brother on the other side of the world. This isn't news – I met an Aussie man a few kilometres south of Fort William last year who certainly would have passed for a cousin. Irrespective of this, we end up chatting over food and ale. She has come up to volunteer at the music festival in return for a free ticket, to find the organisers have partially reneged on the deal, and she's making other plans. She tells me that she was talking to an Englishman who had informed her that Lord Leverhulme, who purchased Harris and Lewis just after the First World War was “inspirational". He certainly inspired the islanders to get rid of him.

I'm delayed further by welcome conversation with an assortment of dog walkers. With one, a retired geography teacher, I have an interesting conversation about the uses and limitations of maps, a subject I need to address with the people behind the Hebridean Way. Thus, by the time I turn north up the coast the sun has set and it's getting dark. There are no campsite options in evidence.

I pass the woods by Tunga, finding nothing suitable, following a major road by Hebridean standards. Someone driving a white van stops to ask if I'm okay, heading down the road with no obvious end in sight. I reassure him, wish him well, and carry on through the village, feeling increasingly footsore with all the road walking.

Half an hour down the road, opposite a sports centre, there is a beach backed by dunes. It's located too close to the road, but I make do. It's getting on for eleven before I have the tent erected. Having eaten well at An Lanntair I crash immediately.

The beach the other side of the dunes I camped in.

The following morning I learn this area was a hotspot for the land raids of the early twentieth century, when crofters returning from the battlefields of the First World War faced broken promises and a vision of the future not shared by Lord Leverhulme, who owned Harris and Lewis. There is a monument to these brave men at Col, and a larger one between Am Bac and Graias.

The monument to the brave land raiders who faced down the laird in the early twentieth century. There are two others that I know of on Lewis.

Between the two is a community shop and post office, where I post half a kilo of maps home to myself. The other side of Bail' Ùr Tholastaidh is a pathless stretch with an abysmal reputation, and shedding the extra weight seems to reflect intelligence.

From the memorial there is a boring ninety-minute road-slog to the outskirts of Bail' Ùr Tholastaidh. Here the road narrows to a single track. There is a small community shop, but it's not suitable for resupply. A side road further up leads down to a beach, but it's busy with tourists with their glorified horse-boxes. Almost at the end of the road is another spot popular with tourists who have come all this way to sit on the beach.

Leverhulme once had ambitions to have a road built across the moorland to the north, but it got as far as a bridge here, known as the Bridge to Nowhere, before being abandoned. A gravel path leads a few hundred metres further, along which I meet an elderly gentleman out getting some exercise. He gives me a final warning about ground conditions. This next stretch has a bad reputation and more weather approaches. For the moment, it's still a nice day, but it's clouding over, and I sense the weather could change very suddenly.

The Bridge to Nowhere.

The Middle of Nowhere.

I bid my brief companion farewell next to a small burn, and set off alone across the moor. It's clear from the start that walking straight between markers is going to be impossible, making the distance on the map considerably shorter than the one on the ground. I find myself walking between areas of dry, higher ground on hillocks by way of boggier stretches. Very few people are mad enough to come up here, and it's rare I find so much as a bootprint. The line of posts leads straight across the moor, while the map tells me I should bear more towards the clifftops around Dun Othail, which my (admittedly shoddy) Gaelic translates as “Fort Fun”, which seems unlikely to be correct (somebody by all means correct this!). The wilder spot behind it references the Sidhe, the land spirits of Highland folklore. A line of mounds is shown on the map, and I'm unsurprised that the ancestors of the Gaels who live here regarded this as Sidhe territory, not a place for humans. This wilderness demands respect from the traveller here, and there is one word for both; and that is “fey”. There are few birds, although a couple of Arctic skuas with their pointed tails fly over, heading out to sea, and the cloud thickens.

Some edjit brought some sort of four-wheel-drive up here.

The cloud does indeed thicken very suddenly, but it's well over an hour before I descend into a ravine carved by two rushing burns that meet not far from where they flow into the sea. It's botanically much more diverse that the surrounding landscape, and I wonder whether a survey might turn up something interesting. There is some evidence here of human activity. There is even a shieling further up that appears to be in irregular use. Every walker has to come through here, whether they follow the cliff tops or the markers, and there is faint footpath and what looks like a deer trail near the burn. I find a spot just large enough for my one-person tent, deep in the gully, hoping it won't flood. It's late afternoon, and not yet raining, but I don't want to be crossing more of this moorland in bad weather. The weather turns from nice afternoon to downright unpleasant in under thirty minutes.

Further up this ravine there is one spot just big enough for a one-person tent.

The storm hasn't blown itself out by the morning. I eat in the tent and wait it out before packing up under scudding clouds. For a while the going isn't too bad, skirting lochs, mostly over firm terrain. Then ground conditions deteriorate to appalling. For perhaps a kilometre I negotiate hummocks each surrounded by heavily eroded wet peat. Predicting which parts are solid enough to take my weight takes even more time. Off to my left a pale-morph Arctic skua harasses a nesting raven, in a long series of strafing runs. The raven, out of sight, croaks loudly, while the skua screams in what sounds like anger, but seems more likely to be intimidation.

This is shown as a heritage footpath, but I'm pleased the road never happened. This is not even a place for anything like a “proper” footpath. It's a place for humans to pass through, and that only if they can do so using their own physical resources.

In the distance I observe a cluster of sheilings, a good navigational mark, crossing a burn and the last of the bad ground for the trip. I finally pick up a footpath, which hits a muddy bulldozed track leading to more sheilings and a couple of broken-down buses. Beyond this is gravel track, which improves to road on the way in to Lionel, a small village of scattered houses. In the distance I can see the lighthouse at the Butt of Lewis.

It's early afternoon, and apparently there is a café at Port Nis. Experience suggests it's anyone's guess whether it's going to be open, but I head for the harbour, finding the premises open and fairly busy with tourists. I make a refreshment stop that turns into two coffees. The Butt of Lewis is little over an hour distant, and my legs appreciate the break after the trudge over the moor. I retrace my steps for a couple of hundred metres, past a row of cottages and turn right up a hill. There is a large concrete structure, apparently derelict, of uncertain purpose near where a dry track leads off across the last bit of moorland.

It's a twenty-minute walk to Dùn Eistean, a medieval fort associated with the Clan Morrison. It's accessed over a steel footbridge with a drop to deep water. A few fulmars nest on the cliffs here. Back on the mainland, high ridges and furrows testify to a time before overgrazing.

Dùn Eistean

A fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis). Commonly mistaken for gulls, these birds are close relatives of albatrosses. The chicks regurgitate stomach contents when deterring potential predators.

Rigs testify to a time, before overgrazing, when crops could be grown here.

The end of the walk, in sight!

A natural arch...

... and a sea stack on the coast.

The final easy amble up to the lighthouse at the Butt of Lewis follows a single track road, almost an anticlimax.

Nearly there.

The lighthouse and its associated complex, more or less abandoned since automation, are not accessible to the public, but there is one final fake-rusted metal Hebridean Way marker. Still, I'm quite chuffed with myself. On a map, the inhabited Western Isles measure about two hundred kilometres, but I've walked closer to three hundred. I've crossed hills, dunes and bogs, slogged along roads, faced blazing sunshine and summer storms, and done it with minimal support, in the face of grossly inadequate services for what's supposed to be a national trail.

Made it.

On the scale of time we started with back on Vatersay, this is equal to about three billion years. About three billion years ago organisms had evolved to utilise photosynthesis, but there wasn't a lot of oxygen in the atmosphere. Life's first big crisis, weathering the effect of what's a poison to these organisms, happened south of Stornoway, two and a half days ago. There were organised cells but on our scale the first sex, in the sense of two organisms exchanging and recombining genetic material, happened somewhere in the proximity of Scarista Beach, halfway to Vatersay.

The beautifully banded, folded rock in front of me, being used as a nest site for assorted descendants of the dinosaurs, mainly gulls, several fulmars and the odd cormorant, was formed about three billion years ago.

Three billion-year-old metamorphic Lewisian Gneiss, formed when oxygen was a poison to be got rid of, being roosted upon by dinosaurs with wings.

I camp overnight here, watching fulmars and gannets around the cliffs, and fending off a couple of herring gulls with designs on my dinner. In (rare) calm conditions this might be a good place to sea-watch for cetaceans (orcas were reported off New Tolsta a few days previously).

There is loads of space to camp here.

You just have to watch out for the odd scrounging dinosaur (a herring gull (Larus argentatus)).

The nearest public transport is at Eoropaidh, a couple of kilometres down the road. A bus will take you straight to Stornoway, from which there is a ferry to Ullapool. The problem with this route is that the only public transport from Ullapool is a coach that is likely to be fully booked in summer. I took shorter legs down the west coast of Lewis, taking in Dun Carloway, the Gearrannan Blackhouse Museum, and Callanish, before overnighting on Berneray (where there is a hostel, and space for tents nearby and more space in the dunes in the west of the island), and another museum visit on South Uist. In practical terms this requires a three-day journey to Edinburgh, but I thought it worthwhile to see some interesting places missed out on the walk.

The ruins of Dùn Chàrlabhaigh, which are worth a visit.

I'm aware many people will read this on the basis of planning their own trip. I'm not going to discourage anyone from attempting it. The route is navigable, and it has many redeeming features, not least the fact that you'll see pretty well all the habitat types on the islands, but there are many issues with it. Much of the route is hard going, involving tedious slogging over near-featureless moorland between points of interest. Waymarking is typically patchy or non-existent, sometimes in places where it's very much needed. There were several occasions when I found myself needing binoculars to find the next route marker, and several more where I missed them entirely. Some parts of the route are awkward in poor visibility. There is a lot of road-walking, including about forty kilometres between Achamore and New Tolsta alone.

Resupply can be tricky, and is really only practicable at the Co-ops in Castlebay and Creagory, the general grocer (A D Munro, I think) in Tarbert and in one of several shops in Stornoway. Most cafés on the route are unlikely to be open, and several places listed in the Cicerone guide as spots for refreshment are unlikely to welcome sweaty, muddy walkers: this includes the hotels at Carinish and Langais, and The Anchorage in Leverburgh, where I certainly wasn't welcome in the restaurant (the Butty Bus across the feeder lane for the ferry closes early, not waiting for the last ferries, and is basically a chippy). Island Arts Gallery and Coffee Shop just outside Baile Ailean deserves a positive mention for breaking the mould and for its scones and hospitality.

A water purifier is essential equipment. Patchy waymarking probably necessitates possession of a guide book (currently the only one available is by Cicerone, but this still has problems) and Ordnance Survey Explorer maps are often extremely useful.

If the route becomes popular enough to support infrastructure, the number of walkers will pulverise long stretches from wet ground into deep mud, commencing with pathless areas, followed by the raised turf. Frankly, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar have failed to properly consider the implications of their plans. I know that they hope for extensions and detours at a later date, but I question the proposal's viability. I have the sense that the project was completed on a tight budget, with EU funding for critical infrastructure like bridges, which are marked accordingly, and it seems unlikely the route would have happened without it. Some path construction has been done well. In other stretches it's shoddy to non-existent. I'm not advising anyone not to do this walk, but I would advise you to be aware of what you're letting yourself in for.

On reflection, I don't think upgrading the footpaths is advisable. Many of them probably can't be upgraded to the standards found on other long-distance footpaths simply because of the underlying terrain. Part of what makes the Western Isles unique is that parts of it are hard to access.

This is not the West Highland Way, which many abandon or return home hurting: this is harder. It was still, some of the time at least, fun.

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Comments: 3

Pitlochry to Forres, via the Cairngorms and Dava Way

Date walked: 22/06/2017
Distance: 140km
Ascent: 1600m
Comments: 3
Views: 7465

Cairngorms traverse - Blair Atholl to Kingussie, and detours

Attachment(s) Munros: Beinn Bhrotain, Càrn an Fhìdhleir (Càrn Ealar), Mullach Clach a' Bhlàir, Sgòr Gaoith
Date walked: 25/06/2016
Distance: 160km
Ascent: 2750m
Comments: 2
Views: 3945

Bearded Wanderer

Location: Fife
Interests: I'm one of those endlessly curious types who will be distracted by anything from plants, to birds, to a good museum or archaeological site. I'm happy in most terrestrial habitats, although the less human interference the better.
Activity: Hill Bagger
Ideal day out: I'm a great lover of epic hikes, taking in the wild, remote and inaccessible.
Ambition: Walk to New Zealand!

Long Distance routes: West Highland Way    Dava Way    Fife Coastal Path    Forth & Clyde and Union canal towpath    Great Glen Way    John Muir Way    Three Lochs Way    West Island Way    Berwickshire Coastal Path    Rob Roy Way    Arran Coastal Way    Hebridean Way   

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Trips: 2
Distance: 440 km
Ascent: 6915m


Trips: 1
Distance: 160 km
Ascent: 2750m
Munros: 4

Joined: Oct 21, 2016
Last visited: Apr 11, 2024
Total posts: 18 | Search posts