Cycling the length of the Outer Hebrides has been a recognised exploit among our pedalling friends for a while and in 2017, building on the success of this idea, a complementary walking trail was inaugurated. Officially this now runs from the Community Centre on Vatersay to Lews Castle at Stornoway, a modest amble of just 247 km (155 miles).
It’s then another 48 km to the Butt of Lewis, but who wouldn’t want to walk to what, according to the Guinness Book of Records, is the UK’s windiest place? Unmissable. When I arrived on Barra it was blowing a wild hoolie and lashing down with rain, hence I obviously decided to further extend my Hebridean Way experience to the southernmost point of the inhabited islands at Vatersay South Beach. Who wouldn’t?
All in all, I walked around 300 km (188 miles). The trail is waymarked, excessively so in some places, less impressively so in a few other places where you could really do with waymarks. Lots of smart, expensive footbridges have been installed and miles of raised turf path built – a huge effort. A Cicerone guide (Walking the Hebridean Way by Richard Barrett) has been published and LDWA members can download GPX waypoints. There’s very little elevation and because the islands are quite small the trail is rarely far from various main roads, along which little buses scuttle with surprising frequency. Other than on West Harris mobile signal and Internet are amazingly good. The people everywhere are pleased to see walkers and completely delightful. What’s not to like? Ahem – the weather?
Getting to the Outer Hebrides is itself a bit of an adventure. You can fly to Barra if you don’t care about your carbon footprint, or indeed your beach wheelprint. People come from all over the place to experience the world’s only scheduled flight that literally lands on the sands. Personally I’d get the train from Glasgow to Oban along the West Highland Line, which is famous of course for its extensive views.
At Oban one embarks, rather romantically, upon the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry to Barra, perhaps wondering in passing why, rather than the small ferries you may have seen plying around the Inner Hebrides, this one appears to be a large sea-going ship.
Do not rely on the CalMac timetables, things change in the Hebrides. Always check the sailing time for your actual day of travel and if possible buy a ticket in advance via their website, it’s very easy. Due to a ship shortage, my sailing had been brought forward two hours and check-in was due to close seven minutes before the train from Glasgow arrived! A cunning plan indeed, but a nice thing about CalMac is they are very responsive on Twitter. Following @CalMac_Updates enabled a dozen anxious train passengers to hear that the ferry would in fact wait for our train, which had been delayed by cyclists failing to stow their bikes in the officially approved manner.
Unfortunately this meant no fish and chips at Oban, but looking at the weather forecast I suspected this may have been a good thing. French people in J’m l’Ecosse baseball caps had taken no chances and purchased huge carrier bags of seafood, oysters, mussels, clams and goodness knows what other rubbery-looking delicacies, which they were consuming on deck with both gusto and wine. Scottish people (and me) walked past them sniffing dubiously and going ‘eeuw’. I had stomach-soothing Mac’n’Cheese in the nice onboard café.
The crossing was rough as old boots; once we left the sheltered Sound of Mull the bow was plunging into huge waves like that of a destroyer. I dread to think what happened to all that seafood in those French tummies. I’m not the best sailor myself and I was approaching my comfort limit as the ship nosed into the sudden and welcome shelter of Castlebay harbour, which does indeed have a castle in its bay.
The thing to do on arrival is scuttle out of the horizontal rain into the lovely community shop, Buth Bharraigh, next to the Castlebay Hotel, which after Easter is often open until 7.15 pm! Here they will sell you a digestion-calming mug of tea and let you charge your phone, depleted by anxious on-train tweeting. Their impressive crafts and gifts are a little early in your trip to buy but they also sell vegetarian and other non-mainstream provisions, thoughtfully complementing rather than competing with the Co-Op which is a little further down the road towards Vatersay. These included the best date slice I’ve ever had anywhere. I also bought some locally-made Buttery Rowies which turned out to be a very useful camping food despite basically resembling croissants trodden on by an elephant.
In fact the shopping in Castlebay is great and subject to opening times there’s no reason not to support businesses here instead of stocking up in Glasgow or Oban. There’s a hostel too, and even a tiny toffee factory and I love toffee. Allegedly the music nights in the pub are great too, in fact all sensible people stay the night in Castlebay and get the bus to Vatersay the next morning. Unfortunately I’d arrived on a Saturday and there are no buses on Sundays, as is universal throughout the Outer Hebrides. Hence I bent my head into the hoolie and trudged southwards, my thumb out hopefully. After a considerable trudge through considerable rain I was kindly picked up by two members of the legendary Vatersay Boys folk band who, with what I subsequently found was characteristic Hebridean kindness, took me all the way to Vatersay South Beach where I planned to start my long walk north.
Getting off the Outer Hebrides at the other end is relatively straightforward, the ferry trip from Stornoway to Ullapool is quite a lot shorter and connecting Citilink coaches then take you to Inverness. I got the early ferry and chose to spend most of a day in Ullapool as it’s an enjoyable place to visit even on a Sunday (for example, somehow it supports not just one but two excellent bookshops) and more to the point I didn’t trust the connection. In fact I’m pretty sure the coach had waited for the boat to come in. The Sunday morning Citilink bus was very full, so buy a ticket in advance, I would, again this is easy online.
As far as the practicalities of the trail go, you can wild camp pretty much anywhere but you need bombproof gear, the wind can be fierce and the rain torrential. A surfer on Harris told me he’d twice seen his local campsite entirely flattened by a 70 mph gale in July! May is normally the best month and I’d say the last two weeks of May into early June the absolute optimum. Sadly this year all the flowers were three weeks late so I saw hardly any. By mid-June the midges will be out and in summer you’ll need industrial strength repellent and quite possibly headnets for walking to be tolerable.
Single nights in BnB’s are extremely hard to find in May but if you need a shower the few legitimate campsites with such civilised facilities had plenty of space. Directly on the trail there are hostels and/or bunkhouses at Castlebay, Howmore, Carinish, Leverburgh, Tarbert and of course Stornoway but the locals seem to have noticed the development of the trail and are already responding by building additional hostels and bunkhouses, including on Berneray and at West Kilbride (South Uist). The former hostel at Lochmaddy was closed (May 2018). The Gatliff Trust has additional hostels 2 km off trail on Berneray and via a scenic detour adding 7 km overall at Rhenigdale. Curiously, there are no SYHA hostels in the Outer Hebrides.
At first sight this trail doesn’t apppear arduous with only 5300 metres (17500 feet) of ascent, less than half that of the Pennine Way. You’re never far from the sea and in fact for most of the Hebridean Way you’re walking at or near sea level. The highest point is only around 160 metres asl. The air temperatures you’ll see forecast in May will look very benign, rarely dropping below 5º C at night and in daytime reaching more than twice or even three times that.
Despite all this, a lot of the trail feels very arduous, mainly because it’s so boggy and often uneven. By the way, I ignored the (in my opinion) silly warning in the official leaflet that you must walk this trail in boots. In line with my personal policy explained elsewhere in this blog, I walked the whole thing quite happily, if very soggily, in permeable mesh trail shoes. However I found my trekking poles were absolutely essential on the uneven ground and at times I did feel thoroughly (once or twice miserably) cold.
What neither the guidebook nor the weather forecast really prepares you for is the implacable wind, often accompanied by days of drizzle and further enlivened by fierce outbreaks of lashing, heavy rain. After a couple of hours walking in Hebridean conditions the wind chill becomes noticeable and after eight or ten hours it becomes very fatiguing. Even at the low elevation and despite the winds being almost always southwesterly and therefore not especially cold, I found I routinely needed an additional layer of clothing compared to what I’d needed on either the Scottish National Trail or the Pennine Way. Although the wind often drops in the evenings, it can then pick up and get very strong and cold during the night. I had to close peg (and double peg) my flysheet to exclude it and on two nights in early May I was a bit on the cool side in a three season sleeping bag.
Remembering the wind, and recalling the short time I spent walking head-down into it on Vatersay, leads me to state that I would personally not even consider walking this trail north to south. The wind is strong but it’s fairly consistent in direction, almost always between south and west. Heading north it’s pushing you along, but after just a couple of days trying to hike southwards with a full pack I think you’d be on all fours, weeping.
Shopping and refreshment resources are rather widely spread in the Outer Hebrides and north of Benbecula Sundays are still a problem; you will need to carry food although other than on Sundays it’s actually possible to get a bus to a shop from almost anywhere along the trail. There are no buses on Sundays and on that day even Stornoway Tesco is closed, the few and again widely-scattered upmarket hotels are your only sure bet for a meal on the Sabbath (and for most of this trail you will be filthy). See my detailed blogs for more resource information (when I get round to writing them). Here’s my itinerary. It started a bit eccentrically, then got more conventional.
Pre-Day. Vatersay South Beach to Vatersay Causeway, about 5 km. This came about because I arrived on a Saturday evening, and there are no buses on Sundays. Consequently I hitched to the southernmost point of Vatersay then started walking back. By bedtime I was just south of the causeway back to Barra and wild camped by some stock pens at the roadside.
Day 1. Vatersay Causeway, across Barra, ferry to Eriskay, wild camped at West Kilbride (South Uist), about 27 km. It was a bit daft ticking four islands in one day, but that’s how the oatcake crumbled. Supper in the Am Politician pub on Eriskay, wild camped at West Kilbride about 300 yards before a legitimate but less sheltered campsite where they’re presently (May 2018) also building a small hostel.
Day 2. Kilbride to Howmore, a long but completely flat 30-odd km on South Uist. The Hostel at Howmore is wonderful and a compulsory stop. Otherwise no facilities whatsoever on this stage apart from the Co-Op 2 km off trail at Dalabrog, so you’ll need to carry food.
Day 3, Howmore to Shell Bay (Benbecula), about 25 km. The legitimate campsite at Shell Bay is pretty exposed to the wind but the proprietors are very sweet and the adjacent Dark Island Hotel does fabulous, good value, hikers’ grub.
Day 4, Shell Bay to Carinish (North Uist), about 27 km. The weather was appalling and I was soaked and chilled by the time I got to the friendly Moorcroft Holidays. Their bunkhouse was full (I should have booked) but they let me use a Hobbit House at a single occupier discount price of £40. This was the most I paid for accomodation on the entire trail, but it was totally worth it!
Day 5, Carinish to Beinn Mhor, about 31 km. Breakfast at the lovely Langass Lodge, then lunch at Taigh Chearsabhagh Arts Centre, Lochmaddy, which is a little off the trail (but the great shop at Lochmaddy is more or less on it). Then a rather wild and woolly stretch of North Uist. I’d hoped to hack on to Berneray but it was just too far, I wild camped on the north slope of Beinn Mhor which gave a little shelter from the ferocious hoolie.
Day 6. Berneray, about 5 km of trail, plus another 2 km each way to the hostel. This was supposed to be a bit of a day off, many people having told me that Berneray is well worth exploring. Unfortunately the weather was appalling and my additional walk to the world-famous West Beach was a deeply unpleasant experience.
Day 7, Berneray to Horgabost, about 16 km. An early start for the ferry to Harris, then a short but exhausting distance over some of the most arduous terrain on the whole trail. At the friendly and beautifully located Horgabost campsite there is a lifesaving hot food van, but it closes at five and is not open on Sunday. Be prepared for time-consuming access problems getting through the crofts from the trail to the campsite.
Day 8, Horgabost to Tarbert, about 27 km. First section again very arduous. Only very slightly off the trail is the excellent community shop at Leverburgh. Tarbert has excellent facilities including the friendly and good value Backpackers Stop Hostel and the Hotel Hebrides for good food even on a Sunday evening (but not late, and I would check by phone).
Day 9, Tarbert to approaching Baile Aileen, about 27 km. Wild camped west of Baile Aileen. Absolutely no facilities all day, so carry food.
Day 10, Baile Aileen to Achamore, about 17 km. A slog through bleak terrain, relieved by a most unexpected breakfast at Island Arts, Baile Aileen. At Achamore I hitched a lift off the trail to Callanish, which is a must-see, and enjoyed a slap-up lunch in the visitor centre before wild camping by the loch just below it.
Day 11, Achamore to Stornoway, about 15 km. The first bus leaves Callanish at about ten to ten, and gets you back to Achamore in barely fifteen minutes. Then it’s easy road walking all the way into Stornoway, you’ll be there for a late lunch. I stayed at the rightly legendary Heb Hostel, stuffed my face in the chippie and joined a team that came second in the pub quiz at the Edge of the World brewpub (two points in it, we was robbed).
Day 12, Stornoway to Tolsta, about 23 km plus 2 km onto Tolsta Head. This stage is entirely road walking and along quite a busy road too, but this does have the advantage that there are several shops on the way for provisions. I wild camped in warm sunshine on Tolsta Head, which was amazing and made up for the dull walk.
Day 13, Tolsta to the Butt of Lewis, about 25 km. Between two easy sections, some of the most arduous boggy terrain on the entire trail and absolutely no facilities anywhere (there’s reputedly a small café with limited opening hours at Port of Ness but I didn’t see it). However the weather was kind and the Butt of Lewis is perfect for wild camping.