A Circuitry of Ways Old and New

My ‘Landranger 13’ map of ‘West Lewis and North Harris’ shows no road reaching down the peninsula west of Loch Seaforth’s mouth. This is because I bought it for a trip to the ‘islands’ of Lewis and Harris in 1985 before a road had been built. I Lived in Devon at that time and remember experiencing a topographical shock on arrival: so much bare rock and brooding moorland. I felt uncomfortably exposed after the round, green hills of home.

Back then we took the post bus west from Stornoway, and south along the coast to the end of the road at Brenish to begin a walk through the remote hills and glens of west Lewis. In the notebook I’ve recently rediscovered from that trip, I observed of the postbus journey: ‘…stopped at every house and tiny post office to deliver papers and post (many thrown out of window). Many people cutting their hay with scythes and then banking it over fences or small ricks to dry. Also lots of peat cutting going on – great banks of it outside each house. There’s absolutely nothing here except small crofts and sheep.’ Amidst the words I’d drawn small pencil sketches.

That evening, on the slopes of one of the steep hills high above Brenish, where we’d been caught out by severe weather, I made a sketch of the tent wedged between rocks, lashed with rain. A puzzled sheep looks on. The next night we camped in roofless buildings at Kinloch Resort, emerging the next day into Harris bewildered, having been besieged by wind, rain and midges, to plod soggily along the Huisinis road, where we were called in across the peatland by a Mr MacDonald who sat us down with coffee, oatcakes and cheese before driving us to Tarbert. In subsequent days we walked further south onto the white beaches and effervescent machair of west coast Harris where the weather improved and I relaxed.

For some reason it took me 30 years to return to these islands two summers ago for a short summer cycle-tour. I sheltered for two nights at the Gatliff Trust hostel in the village of Rhenigidale at the ‘new’ road-end, waiting for a storm to pass. This road had been built between the creation of my peat-smudged, ragged-jacketed map 13, and my new sheet 14 ‘Tarbert and Loch Seaforth’. From a high point on the main road between Stornoway and Tarbert (A859) a single-track road plummets southwest to sea level for Màraig, and a turn-off climbs at an incredible gradient through carved rock to find the high plateau of the peninsula, trickling along under the wedge-shape of the hill, Tòdun. Then it once again careers (if you’re on a bicycle, anyway) to sea level at the village, now linked by tarmac to mainstream life.

These maps are a joy to study, especially if you are able to mentally convert tight, contoured clusters and twisting headlands, a pebbledash of blue, the scribbles of crag, cliff, outcrop, all the inlets, airds, and islands, into three-dimensional topography. Even better though, is to go there.

This time last year I wrote for Walkhighlands about the joy of spending early January amidst the scalding, short light on more Northern Islands. But the island this time is Harris. The light here in early January was quite different in quality but nevertheless, with a clear sky, it excited the land into chromatic brilliance. The oblique angle of the sun drenched dormant copper grasses, and shimmered off so much knobbly, exposed rock. And of course the abundant lochs, lochans, puddles, as well as the ever present sea, all reflected the sky to double its power.

Three of us and two dogs set off from Rhenigidale, striking northwest up the rough, seaward ridge of Tòdun, the stand-alone hill on the tip of that peninsula. There was barely a path; heather and rock and a sense of where feet and hooves may have found the way before. The climb was, in both senses, breathtaking. And it was a reminder of the rewards of gaining height, especially when it’s also steep.

An animate map unfolded around us as we climbed. Loch Seaforth gradually revealed its grandeur; at first a fjord running parallel directly below us, bearing up toy fishfarms. Further height revealed it slinking radiantly away up to Seaforth Island and then kinking impressive length northeast to curl around the complex hills of Pairc. The loch concludes dramatically at its northernmost end in a T-shaped tail reminiscent of a humpback-whale’s, where seafarers might find the Siophort, or ‘safe harbour’, of its name ten miles or so inland. It was perhaps the apparent conclusiveness of this stretch of water, only six miles from Loch Resort in the west, as well as the sudden rise of rock walls and mountains, which led Lewis and Harris to be thought of as separate land masses.

When we paused for breath and turned, the Shiant Isles appeared to our east, skiffed with light cloud. At the summit (528m), Clisham and the hills of West Lewis rose up, reminding me of puddling my way through that roadless fastness in August, 33 years before. The whole glorious arena of hills was aggrandised by a sculptor’s light.

In order to take a circular walk, we now descended Tòdun’s gentler northern slopes onto a rolling plateau. The route could equally begin at Màraig at its northern point ahead of us, just below the A859, or even at Urgha, its southern point just east of Tarbert. Now, instead of going as far and as low as Màraig, we walked westwards across-country, skirting to the north of Strathabhal (389m) to intercept the path between Màraig and Urgha. Grasses coated this plateau, coloured and toughened like a red deer pelt in winter – bleached at the battered surface but betraying, closer to the skin, rich russet colours and tangles of damp moss. And just as I was enjoying this visual onslaught, the dogs alerted us to a group of deer, pausing on the rise above us to regard our pathless progress before turning their heads and hooves gracefully to the south.

A short, steep, boggy descent took us off the plateau into Glen Lacasdail to the west. We touched down onto a path leading south to a low bealach and blinked as the Loch glittered molten white light ahead, ragged shorelines kinking between steep walls of rock towards a narrow-throated exit to the sea. A line of wet path shimmered alongside the western shore. After the rough-going of the first couple of hours, our feet made a welcome strike of connection on this well-made path, the logic of its line reassuring us of the sturdy benefits of an old, well-travelled path ahead. On such a peninsula of contorted hill, rock and bog, with its only road so very recent, such old ways were until recently the only way to travel out of or into these coastal villages, or to transport tweed woven here, other than by sea. The rest of our day would now be on such robust, trust-inspiring ways, lending an enjoyable sense of history to the day’s walk.

About a kilometre before Urgha, we crossed a small bridge connecting a near meeting point of two isthmuses, and via a new path to the next trailhead four miles from home. At first traversing moorland and following the driest line, this raised causeway took us east to a high bealach (290m) between Trolamul on our left shoulders and Beinn Tharsuinn on our right. Then it would return us, in a dramatic and pleasing fashion, to Rhenigidale along what was a vital artery between villages and is now known as the ‘postman’s path’. It was taken by generations of postmen three times a week carrying heavy bags as well as lists of shopping for the grocers in Tarbert, supplies which would later be delivered to the villages by boat. What probably started as a rough and difficult to follow route, was upgraded to an engineered track by the Parish Council in 1912. The community-owned North Harris Trust have now restored it for walkers to enable us to enjoy the scenic and historic route. But it is now less of a necessity.

Kenny Mackay, postie from 1975 to 1987, tells in his book (‘Rhenigidale – A community’s fight for survival’) of the long fight for a road in and out of the village which would allow children to be bussed to school rather than walking five miles and crossing the high bealach in all weathers. It would also enable supplies in more easily, and make health emergencies less catastrophic. It’s a story reminiscent of ‘Callum’s Road’ on Raasay and other villages in the remote Highlands and Islands. In 1851 there had been 15 houses and a school. In 1891 the village still housed 97 people. Inevitably the numbers fell away dramatically during the 20th century as life became predicated on road transport, on being connected to the ‘motherboard’, until the village was effectively rescued as a viable place to live by the agreement to build a road, completed and opened in February 1990. Although the number of residents had fallen to 11 in the late 1980s, with the road, telephone, broadband, it has now increased to 17, including four children.

At the bealach cairn we paused for a bite to eat and to savour views of the way ahead around a writhing coastline, where low sun highlighted furrowed lazybeds and a sense of past community. The breeze became brisk. We greeted six young men from the west of Lewis, arriving raggedly on the way back to their transport after an overnight stay in the abandoned village of Mollingeanais on the southern shore of Loch Trolamaraig. We were charmed by their adventure, by this apparent homage to their own land despite the evident unfamiliarity of some of their party with mountain walking. By that stage, the light was thickening, so instead of diverting to Mollingeanais ourselves we took the direct route, dropping towards the axe-cleft of Glen Trolamaraig and faced with a formidable wall of rock; Tòdun’s unfamiliar and very different south-western side.

To reach the footbridge at sea level, the path descends in a steep series of switchbacks to cope with a precipitous gradient. For me this was the highlight of the walk, dramatic and thrumming with a sense of past footfall and bodily effort. The V-shaped inlet of the Loch lay jade-coloured directly beneath us, the path was gloriously well-graded and trustworthy. It reminded me of the heightened pleasure of walking medieval ‘Mozarabic’ paths in south-eastern Spain as written about in Doubling Back. They were engineered with steps to cross the steepest of ravines, zigzagging like this, safely and in sympathy with the scale and rhythms of the human body, especially when carrying crops or tools. This descent, or ascent, on the postman’s path is known in Gaelic as the ‘sgriob’ which seems capable of taking a number of meanings depending on who you ask. It can mean ‘the furrow’, which is also possible to interpret as a track or line or zigzag up a rock face. Or it can mean a ‘slide’. Take your pick. Perhaps it depends on the conditions underfoot!

As the light altered again, colours muted. And with the air cooling further, we climbed more gently around the rugged coast glinting with boulders of gnarly gneiss. Near the end of the path we paused at village ruins. One building had been the village shop; stone-built gable ends were all that remained of a largeish house. Soon afterwards we reached tarmac and the final plummet to the cluster of current homes which constitute Rhenigidale. It was good to see roofs, lights on, and a sign to tell us that eggs were for sale: a refreshing sense that the village is part of a wider circuitry of lives and ways, even in the dead days of January.

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You should always carry a backup means of navigation and not rely on a single phone, app or map. Walking can be dangerous and is done entirely at your own risk. Information is provided free of charge; it is every walker's responsibility to check it and to navigate safely.