… in which I’m shattered by a ridiculous walkrate and baffled by invisible Corncrakes.
After a Friday night in Glasgow, Castlebay looked rather small and sparsely-resourced, especially through a rain-sluiced ferry window on a grey Saturday evening.
In fact, the tiny capital of friendly, interesting Barra has many attractions, by the standards of the Outer Hebrides. These include a hostel, a pub, a toffee factory, a Co-Op supermarket, an actual castle and a lovely community shop, the Bùth Bharraigh. Scuttle in there out of the drizzle and they’ll do you a nice mug of tea while you get your bearings, as well as selling you the best date slice I’ve ever had and a wide range of other interesting and somewhat alternative provisions. It’s good to support this shop as in 2016 it was threatened with closure. They’re very friendly on Twitter; tell them beforehand you’re coming to walk the trail and you’ll receive an especially warm welcome. For more mainstream provisions, the Co-Op is just a little further down the road towards Vatersay. Subject to opening hours, there’s no need to stock up in Oban or Glasgow.
As I sat enjoying my tea, the rain got heavier, and heavier. And heavier. It took some willpower to abandon the fleshpots of Castlebay and set out towards the start of the Hebridean Way on Vatersay, the southernmost of the continuously walkable Outer Hebrides, ‘continuously walkable’ including two ferries. I was glad of my poles as I bent into the strengthening wind. Surely it wasn’t going to be like this all the way to the Butt of Lewis?
It was a bit of a pull with a full pack up to the War Memorial (my ‘training’ for this walk had been a bit lackadaisical), where the road then dropped me into the full force of the south-westerly that, as I was soon to learn, prevails across these islands. I tightened my hood against the horizontal rain in my face and stuck my thumb out. After a little of the good-natured leg-pulling that, as I learnt on the Cape Wrath Trail last year, prevails in the north-west Highlands, I was kindly invited to sling my soaking pack and soaking self into a Dacia with a Vatersay Boys bumper sticker. This was an especially kind gesture as the Vatersay boys on board had already given exactly the same ride to another HW hiker off the same ferry, who hadn’t paused for tea.
Even more kindly, when I cautiously revealed my intention of starting my walk not from the official trailhead at the Community Centre but from the actual southernmost point of Vatersay, they took me all the way to the end of the tarmac. I was soon to learn that such kindness also prevails across these islands. ‘Follow that road’, said the driver, ‘and you’ll be at South Beach’. ‘That road’ was a grassy, rocky track lined with Primroses and derelict vehicles. I was soon to learn that any faint track along which a Landrover might possibly crawl without irreparable damage is designated a ‘road’ in the Outer Hebrides.
It was May the fifth and by rights my cunningly-timed visit should have coincided with an attractive diversity of wild flowers. Unfortunately, due to the unusually cold spring, everything was about three weeks late and even here in the south of the archipelago only Primroses were out. I say ‘only’ – they were everywhere, countless thousands of pale yellow blooms; grassy Vatersay is truly the isle of the Primrose. Due to the good pasture, it’s also traditionally cattle country; the causeway linking it to Barra was largely built in response to the beasts’ perhaps understandable reluctance to swim across the sound to be sold.
At South Beach the wind eased, a relief to the occupants of a camper van which had been visibly rocking on its exposed perch above the sands. I dropped my pack and picked my way across convoluted, ancient rocks to the southernmost point, not wanting to turn an ankle so early in my exploit. The rain almost stopped for my selfie, which was nice.
Vatersay on a sunny day would be perfect for walking, you can get a bus from Castlebay, the terrain is easy and there’s a waymarked circular trail. But my mission was sterner. It was time to plod back up the road along which I’d so kindly been driven and see how far north I could get before bedtime. The previous night had been a Friday night in Glasgow, so bedtime wasn’t going to be particularly late.
At Vatersay Community Centre where the trail officially starts there are coin-operated showers 24/7 and a café in daytime (in May 2018, the sign said Monday – Saturday 11 – 4, Sunday 12 – 3).
It’s traditional for hikers who aren’t sensibly staying in Castlebay to camp in the dunes at East Beach, out of the wind, but I decided to trudge on a little further to the north-easterly slope just before the causeway, which I’d hoped would be sheltered. Sheltered campsites soon become a slightly obsessive consideration in the Outer Hebrides!
A chap with a large motorbike and even larger tent had already bagged the best location, in the shelter of the stock pen, so after an unsuccessful search for a scenic but flattish spot I ended up pitched rather unsatisfactorily in a dip next to the road.
It was Saturday night, and any Vatersay-bound driver misjudging the sharp bend on a late return from the Castlebay Hotel would have landed their vehicle right on top of my tent. On unpacking my gear, I immediately and irretrievably lost a brand new titanium peg in the vegetation. ‘The first night on a trail is always a shambles’, I consoled myself. At least I’d remembered the scotch.
Day One (proper). Vatersay to South Uist, about 27 km.
I’m the first to admit I scuttled over Barra rather quickly, a constraint imposed on me firstly by social commitments in Glasgow and then by the important need NOT to subsequently arrive on Harris on a Sunday, a day on which there’s nothing edible to buy at Leverburgh or Horgabost. As it turned out, I didn’t miss much of Barra because after a tantalisingly dry start the weather turned abominable for most of this long day. Also it was a Sunday, and as I approached the causeway from Vatersay just after six am the whole place was deathly quiet.
About 500 metres from the causeway is the first of many white Hebridean Way trail signs, but then you knew that anyway as of course you’d already spotted it with great excitement on your way down from Castlebay. It points up a steep hill, but fear not, there are interesting archaeological features with informative signage to spuriously delay your ascent. Eventually, though, it is necessary to slither up the boggy slope and contour around the top of the burn before surmounting the shoulder of Beinn Tangabhal.
This takes you up to an exceptional 275 metres asl, which is by some way the highest point on the entire Hebridean Way. It’s all downhill from here. Around 638 973 there’s a discrepancy between the waymarked posts, which contour around the head of the burn, and the LDWA waypoints, which take you further down into its valley. It’s pretty boggy lower down so I would follow the posts (and the guidebook) around the contour.
The descent to Dùn Bàn is actually quite steep, but don’t get excited, there’s nothing else to challenge your ankles until Beinn Mhor on North Uist.
By this point I was once more in the teeth of the wind, and a cold wind too. I’d risen at 5.30 and had only cold breakfast. Even a Great Northern Diver in its unmistakeable breeding plumage, bobbing about in the rocky inlet just before Bàgh Halaman, barely roused my enthusiasm; the only thing that would do that was hot coffee. On a Sunday morning. On Barra. There were no signs of life at the Isle of Barra Beach Hotel, but, curious and ever-hopeful, I pushed the door anyway.
Yes, of course I could get hot coffee at nine on a Sunday morning, even though they didn’t open until ten thirty. No, of course it didn’t matter that I was entirely covered in sand from the knees down. They even kindly let me use the WiFi, from the UK’s most westerly hotel. This is a lovely place and when I grow up I will stay there. When I win the lottery I may, in fact, mostly live there. Indoors. Meanwhile, outdoors, it had started to rain. Quite hard.
Borve and Craigston are infested with Corncrakes, they were craking away everywhere, I must have heard half a dozen. Needless to say, what with the heavy rain on my specs, the wind wobbling my binoculars and the well-known crepuscular behaviour of the species, I failed to see even one.
Grianan means ‘sunny place’, according to the guidebook. Hilarious.
At the A888 by Loch an Dùin a group of soaking cyclists were noisily anticipating the allegedly jolly pub at Northbay but the walking trail eschews such frivolity, taking us instead up and over another boggy moor in order to gain a view of the world-famous Barra airport (where the planes land on a beach, as you’ll be told with great excitement on this island whenever you encounter civilised tourists in dry, clean clothes).
More of a distraction here is the sudden cessation of the waymarks, just when you need them. I found a couple that had actually fallen over, which doesn’t bode well as they’ve only been there for a year or so. Not that there’s any doubt as to the general direction to head in, but there is considerable doubt as to exactly when you need to descend onto the road that leads back to the ferry. Descending too early, as I did, following the LDWA GPX points, necessitates tedious fence-clambering and a hazardous drop down a stone wall onto the roadside. All in all, it was a relief to get to the little ferry terminal building, which looked as if it might give some shelter from the wind.
Imagine my even greater relief to find that inside there was a loo, with hot water and paper towels, a hot drink machine, a sweetie machine, power to charge your phone, WiFi (!) and a heater (!!). More soaking cyclists had arrayed their dripping clothes over the latter. The wind had chilled me to the bone, I gave thanks and praise to Caledonian MacBrayne as I sipped my cocoa and, in truth, was not sorry to see the back of breezy Barra on this particular day. On another day, it would have been unforgettably gorgeous and in another year, probably covered in orchids – I saw numerous rosettes but none yet in flower.
Eriskay seems an interesting, romantic and mysterious island but mysterious to me it remains as the Hebridean Way barely tickles its north-western corner. I see on the island’s Facebook page that, recognising this, there’s a plan to install a bunkhouse that would encourage walkers to linger but there was still no sign of this in May 2018.
The trail does, however, pass through the main settlement which is imaginatively named Am Baile (The Village).
Here, there’s a well-reputed community shop but this is firmly closed on Sundays. Be of good cheer, though, as there’s also the well-reputed Am Politician pub which is very much open and selling hot food on a Sunday teatime. I enjoyed my hot meal there very much. I’d have enjoyed a hot meal of almost anything at this point, although at other points I might have made a few picky suggestions about the cuisine, but for goodness’ sake, a hot meal, in the Outer Hebrides, on a Sunday – miraculous! And reviewing the place as I found it would be useless as it’s about to change hands this summer. All good luck and much success to the new proprietors, the Polly is a great community pub and a vital resource for chilled, hungry Hebridean Way hikers.
By May in the Outer Hebrides you’re not really constrained by day length. It’s still more or less light enough to pitch a tent at ten in the evening. Hence I lingered over my sticky toffee pudding before braving the causeway to South Uist. Again, it was a bit silly ticking off four islands in my first full day, but the thought of facing two hungry days on Harris due to a possible Sabbath issue seven days hence was exercising my mind, not to mention my legs.
It was a bit of luck that the strong wind had swung somewhat westerly, as the Kilbrides, East and West, are completely exposed to the south. I was a bit tired by this point but all along the road from the causeway there is continuous housing, making camping difficult. It seemed a long trudge before the dwellings started to thin out and it was in an exhausted state that I pitched camp in the shelter of a large rock just off the road. The site was wet and slightly sloping, always a pain as I have a very slippery mat, but at least I was out of the wind. With fortunate timing, the rain started to hammer down just after I got into the tent. It hadn’t been my most enjoyable day’s walking, but I’d made more distance than planned and managed to get a hot meal. I slithered around my groundsheet damply, but not entirely discontentedly.