Cycling the length of the Outer Hebrides has been a recognised exploit among our pedaling 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 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 was waymarked, excessively in some places, less impressively in a few other places where I could really have done with waymarks. From following the Trail Officer on social media I know this has been much improved since. I came across smart, expensive footbridges and miles of raised turf path built; creating and maintaining this trail has been 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 intertidal sand. 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, observing with casual interest that unlike the funky little CalMac ferries that potter 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. I’d 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! However CalMac 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, which had been further delayed by cyclists failing to stow their bikes correctly.
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 had purchased huge carrier bags of seafood: oysters, mussels, clams and goodness knows what other rubbery-looking delicacies. These 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.
Sensible people stay the night here 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, sticking my thumb out hopefully.
Getting off the Outer Hebrides at the other end is straightforward, even on Sundays. 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 I didn’t trust the connection. In fact, I’m pretty sure the coach had waited for the boat. The Sunday morning Citilink bus was very full so buy a ticket in advance, I would, again that’s easy online.
You can wild camp pretty much anywhere but you’ll need bombproof gear as 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 into early June is normally the best time. Sadly in 2018 all the flowers were three weeks late, so I saw hardly any. After mid-June the midges will be out, 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 had plenty of space. Directly on the trail I spotted hostels and/or bunkhouses at Castlebay, Howmore (the Gatliff Trust’s blackhouse, a must-visit), Carinish, Leverburgh, Drinishader, Tarbert and of course Stornoway.
However the locals seemed to have noticed the development of the trail and were 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 another hostel 2 km off trail on Berneray and a third via a scenic detour adding 7 km overall at Rhenigdale.
At first sight this trail doesn’t apppear arduous with only 5300 metres (17,500 feet) of ascent, less than half that of the Pennine Way. You’re never far from the sea and in fact mostly 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’d be on all fours, weeping.
In 2018 shopping and refreshment opportunities were still rather widely spread in the Outer Hebrides and north of Benbecula Sundays were 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.
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.
Day 1. Vatersay Causeway, across Barra, ferry to Eriskay, wild camped at West Kilbride (South Uist), about 27 km.
Four islands in one day was a bit daft but that’s how the oatcake crumbled. Supper in the Am Politician pub on Eriskay.
Day 2. Kilbride to Howmore, a long but completely flat 30-odd km on South Uist.
The Hostel at Howmore is wonderful. Otherwise no facilities whatsoever on this stage apart from a 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 had good facilities but was quite exposed to the wind. The adjacent Dark Island Hotel did decent food.
Day 4, Shell Bay to Carinish (North Uist), about 27 km.
I was soaked and chilled by the time I got to friendly Moorcroft Holidays where their bunkhouse was full – I should have booked. They kindly let me use a Hobbit House at a single occupier discount.
Day 5, Carinish to Beinn Mhor, about 31 km.
Breakfast at Langass Lodge then lunch at Taigh Chearsabhagh Arts Centre, Lochmaddy, which is a little off the trail although the shop at Lochmaddy is more or less on it. Wild camped on the north slope of Beinn Mhor for a bit of shelter.
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 but the weather was appalling and my additional walk to Berneray’s famous West Beach was deeply unpleasant. A really excellent dinner in the bistro though.
Day 7, Berneray to Horgabost, about 16 km.
An early start for the ferry to Harris where the community shop at Leverburgh is visible from the trail. Then a short but tiring distance over tough terrain. At the friendly and beautifully located Horgabost campsite there was a lifesaving hot food van, but it closed at five and wasn’t open on Sundays.
Day 8, Horgabost to Tarbert, about 27 km.
Tarbert had excellent facilities including the friendly, good value Backpackers Stop Hostel and the Hotel Hebrides for good food even on Sunday evening (but not late, I’d 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 stock up at Leverburgh.
Day 10, Baile Aileen to Achamore, about 17 km.
A slog through bleak terrain, relieved by breakfast at Baile Aileen. At Achamore having missed the bus 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 left Callanish at ten to ten and got me back to Achamore in barely fifteen minutes. Then it was easy road walking into Stornoway 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. Wild camped in warm sunshine on Tolsta Head.
Day 13, Tolsta to the Butt of Lewis, about 25 km.
Between two easy sections some of the most arduous terrain of the entire exploit. Other than a toilet at Traigh Mhor no detectable facilities once past the community shop at Tolsta although there’s allegedly a small café at Port of Ness. Wild camped at Butt of Lewis, then bus back to Stornoway the next morning.
All in all it was fairly manageable despite the weather. If that’s inspired you to find out more, now’s your chance to read my occasionally entertaining trail diaries…