Cycling the length of the Outer Hebrides has been a recognised exploit among our pedalling friends for a while and in 2017, building on success, a complementary walking trail was inaugurated. Officially this runs from the Community Centre on Vatersay to Lews Castle at Stornoway, a modest amble of 247 km (155 miles).
It’s then another 48 km to the Butt of Lewis, but who wouldn’t want to walk to what’s allegedly the UK’s windiest place? Unmissable. When I arrived on Barra it was blowing a wild enough hoolie and lashing down with rain to boot, 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 in some places, less impressively in a few other places where you could really do with waymarks. 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 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 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 extensive views.
At Oban one embarks, rather romantically, upon the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry to Barra, perhaps wondering why, rather than the small ferries that ply around the Inner Hebrides, this one appears to be a large sea-going ship.
Don’t rely on the CalMac timetables, things change in the Hebrides. 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. 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 passengers to hear that the ferry would in fact wait for our train, 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 might be 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 gusto, and wine. Scottish people (and me) walked past them sniffing dubiously and going ‘eeuw’. I had tummy-settling Mac’n’Cheese in the nice onboard café.
The crossing was rough as old boots; once we left the sheltered Sound of Mull the ship was plunging into huge waves like a destroyer. I dread to think what happened to all that seafood. 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, which does indeed have a castle in its bay.
The thing to do on arrival is to 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 but they also sell vegetarian and other non-mainstream provisions, thoughtfully complementing 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 resembling croissants trodden on by an elephant.
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. I bent my head into the hoolie and trudged southwards, thumb out hopefully.
Getting off the Outer Hebrides at the other end is 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 and more to the point I didn’t trust the connection. In fact, I’m pretty sure the coach had waited for the boat. Having said that, the Sunday morning Citilink bus was very full, so buy a ticket in advance, I would, again that’s easy online.
As far as the practicalities of the trail go, you can wild camp pretty much anywhere but you’ll 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 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 repellent and possibly headnets for walking to be tolerable.
Single nights in BnB’s are very hard to find in May but if you do need a shower the few legitimate campsites with such civilised facilities had plenty of space. Directly on the trail I spotted hostels and/or bunkhouses at Castlebay, Howmore, Carinish, Leverburgh, Drinishader, 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 a hostel 2 km off trail on Berneray and another 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 few high points are generally around 160 metres asl with just one exceptional 270 m to get you in the mood on the first day. The air temperatures you’ll see forecast in May will look 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 does feel arduous, because it’s boggy and often uneven. I ignored the (in my opinion) silly warning in the official leaflet that you must walk this trail in boots. In line with my policy explained elsewhere, I walked the whole thing happily, if soggily, in permeable mesh trail shoes. However I found my trekking poles were essential on the uneven ground and at times I did feel thoroughly cold.
Neither the guidebook nor the weather forecast really prepare you for the implacable wind, often accompanied by drizzle and enlivened by fierce outbreaks of lashing rain. After a couple of hours walking in Hebridean conditions the wind chill becomes noticeable. After eight or ten hours it becomes quite fatiguing. Even at the low elevation, and despite the winds being almost always southwesterly and so 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 strong and cold during the night. I had to close 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.
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 opportunities are rather widely spread in the Outer Hebrides and north of Benbecula Sundays are still a problem; you will need to carry some food although it’s actually possible to get a bus to a shop from almost anywhere along the trail. However there are no buses on Sundays and on that day even Stornoway Tesco is closed, a few upmarket hotels are your only sure bet for a meal on the Sabbath (and you’ll probably be a bit grubby). 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. 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.
Day 3, Howmore to Shell Bay (Benbecula), about 25 km. Two supermarkets directly on the trail. The legitimate campsite at Shell Bay is exposed to the wind but the proprietors are very sweet. 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 accommodation on the entire trail, but it was 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 shop at Lochmaddy is more or less on it). Then a wild and woolly stretch of North Uist. I’d hoped to hack on to Berneray but it was too far, I wild camped on the north slope of Beinn Mhor, for a bit of shelter from the hoolie.
Day 6. Berneray, about 5 km of trail, plus another 2 km each way to the hostel. This was supposed to be a day off, people having told me that Berneray is well worth exploring. Unfortunately the weather was appalling and my additional walk to the famous West Beach was deeply unpleasant. Excellent dinner in the bistro, though.
Day 7, Berneray to Horgabost, about 16 km. An early start for the ferry to Harris, where visible from the trail is the community shop at Leverburgh. Then a short but tiring distance over some of the toughest terrain on the whole trail. At the friendly and beautifully located Horgabost campsite there’s a lifesaving hot food van, but it closes at five and isn’t open on Sunday. Time-consuming access problems through the crofts from the trail to the campsite.
Day 8, Horgabost to Tarbert, about 27 km. First section again quite arduous. Tarbert has excellent facilities including the friendly, 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 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.
Day 11, Achamore to Stornoway, about 15 km. The first bus leaves Callanish at ten to ten, and gets you back to Achamore in barely fifteen minutes. Then it’s easy road walking into Stornoway, you’ll be there for a late lunch. I stayed at the rightly legendary Heb Hostel.
Day 12, Stornoway to Tolsta, about 23 km plus 2 km onto Tolsta Head. Entirely road walking, but with 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 of the entire exploit. Other than a toilet at Traigh Mhor no detectable facilities once past the nice community shop at Tolsta which doesn’t open until ten (although there’s reportedly a small café with limited opening hours somewhere at Port of Ness). However the weather was kind and the Butt of Lewis is perfect for wild camping. Bus back to Stornoway the next morning.