…in which I variously pay homage to a frisky bear, a murderous skulker and a pestiferous mollusc.
Day 5, North Uist, Carinish to Beinn Mhor, about 31 km.
Waking early from a deep sleep in my compact but miraculously draught-free Hobbit House, I checked my feet had not become enlarged and hirsute in the night. Due to my policy of walking wet-footed (see Waterproof Hiking Boots) they were instead acquiring their normal on-trail resemblance to peat-stained papier maché.
A fierce wind was still lashing the campsite as I ventured up to the shower, noting the shambolic state of some late arrivers’ tentage. As I then enjoyed microwaved porridge and coffee, feeling a very smug and upmarket Hobbit indeed, it dropped quite suddenly. By the time I’d walked up to the A 865, the sun was peeping out. On these islands, the weather can completely change in just a few minutes.
Iain at Moorcroft Holidays had kindly tipped me off that almost immediately after leaving his campsite, Hebridean Wayfarers will find a clear trail sign leading them away from the road. Clear, but confusing as the route in the book is quite different.
Both the Cicerone guide and the LDWA GPX points take you about 1500 metres further north-west to Carinish (where, by the way, the Temple View Hotel’s menu looks sufficiently amazing to be well worth a 3 km walk on a fine evening).
The good intention of the official sign is to take you instead through a recently planted Community Forest, which is indeed interesting, but even more confusing as the waymarkers vaporise just when you most need them. Unhelpfully, by the way, Loch Euphoirt is not named on the map in the Cicerone guide, but it’s where you meet the B 894 at about 832 628.
Initially the walk was straightforward; the bushes around the lochans were chinking with Stonechats while chinks in the clouds increasingly revealed a coy but brightening sun that I’d thought I might never see again. As part of developing the woodland, several walking trails have been installed and the question soon arises, which of these is the Hebridean Way?
Don’t ask me, I’m none the wiser, but I suspect that ‘if in doubt take the left fork’ might be sound if counter-intuitive advice. I of course took a right fork over an alluring boardwalk in what seemed a sensible direction, and I ended up in a strange and trackless landscape.
It seemed as if there’d been plenty of budget to dig holes for trees, but the budget for actual trees had run out. Consequently, at the north end of the plantation the moor is now pockmarked with hundreds of water-filled holes which don’t make walking any easier.
Despite having mislaid the trail I wasn’t technically lost as I had the GPS of course and Beinn na Coille was clearly visible. I pushed on in vaguely the right direction, only to then encounter a tall and entirely impassable deer fence. I needed binoculars to spot a ramshackle stile, some way to the East.
From here I tripped, blundered and squelched my way back to the trail by following the blue blob on my phone, which always feels a bit pathetic but without some kind of GPS device this deer fence could present a brief but diverting navigation challenge in foul weather. When you do finally find the trail again, it’s a well-made and dry raised turf path which seems to be coming from your left. Coming, in fact, suspiciously along the bearing of the original route shown in the guidebook.
This begs the question, would it not be much easier to ignore the HW trail signs and carry on up the A 865 onto the original route? I can only tell you that by following the signs I got to enjoy an hour of baffling boggeration that was bearable in the strengthening sunshine but would have been quite trying in the previous day’s weather and positively bamboozling in fog.
On the B 894 is an exceptionally lovely pottery that’s well worth a visit, and I live in North Norfolk where there’s umpteen craft potteries. The work in this one was really special, although, as I suggested to the proprietor, a few bags of Barra Tablet or some other comestible might usefully prise a few quid from passing hikers unlikely to stuff their rucksacks with weighty ceramics. Yes, as usual, I was hungry, in fact as I passed Loch nan Smalag I’d started to fantasise for some reason about fish and chips. Suddenly a fish as long as my arm leapt out of and back into the loch in a dramatic arc of sparkling water, as if to make some sort of point.
Around Langass Lodge is another community woodland that’s considerably more established and was ringing with birdsong, although our deer at home in Norfolk would just chortle at the collapsed gate in the expensive fence and simply saunter into the wood through it.
After my friendly reception at the Oykel Bridge Hotel last year I’d resolved to try my luck again for breakfast leftovers at what sounded like a very similar establishment. Having worked as a general dogsbody in a small, upmarket country hotel, I can tell you that the outcome of any off-menu enquiry like this will be something of a lottery, depending on who’s on duty.
At the Langass Lodge I again drew a winner in the form of a completely charming young lady who kindly interrupted her scheduled work to sell me a bacon butty (with random stray sausage and tomato), lovely cafetiere coffee and a big hunk of freshly home-made nutty cake in a bag for later.
The bill was eleven pounds, obviously more than you’d pay in the Pen-y-Ghent Cafe but for the inconvenience caused and the civilised ambience I didn’t begrudge a penny and took care to leave a tip – as I say, I’ve worked in a small hotel. For hikers passing the lovely Langass Lodge at a more sensible hour, coffee and cake is available on-menu from ten each morning (or possibly ten thirty, I forgot to photograph the sign).
It was a wrench to leave this haven of gentility but my reward for doing so was warm sunshine, something I’d almost given up hope of encountering in the Outer Hebrides. The Pobull Fhinn stone circle looked a tad underwhelming so instead, heartened by better weather, I strode off trail and up to the surprisingly boggy summit of Beinn Langais in order to admire the extensive views. No, really this time.
There’s a gate through the deer fence on the south-west side of Langass Woods that leads you onto a beautifully-lit woodland pathway like a cathedral aisle, past some large rocks with interesting cup and ring carvings.
The advantage of this route is unexpectedly encountering the actual last resting place of Hercules the Bear, whose strangely poignant story is readily available elsewhere.
It’s also told on information panels in a cosy hut on the sheltered north-east edge of the wood, in which (shhh…) a hiker (or two friendly hikers) could comfortably sleep, at the slight risk of being locked in by some of the numerous children who visit this pretty and well cared for community project. Or possibly by a frisky phantom bear.
The strong sense of a community interacting with the land that prevails in this part of North Uist develops further on emerging from the wood as the 8 km of tedious road walking that then follows is lent sociocultural interest by what are clearly well-organised and carefully allocated peat diggings. Up to his ankles in inky sludge among the first of these stood a venerable gentleman, leaning on a peat spade in the manner of a man who might perhaps cut a peat, at some unspecified time, in some as yet undetermined future.
I’d very much wanted to try and speak a little Gaelic on this trip, but after hours wasted on YouTube nothing had stuck. I’d also been told that it’s a very courteous language with numerous hierarchical modes of address and in which it’s possible to cause unintentional gross offence. This chap looked harmless enough and was furthermore now up to his shins in peat which would introduce a certain delay into his running after me. The possibility of his decapitating me with a deftly-flung peat spade seemed low, due to his being about a hundred years old and having only one good eye. Consequently for the first time in these islands I plucked up all my courage and tentatively stammered “Ciamar a tha sibh?” I was irrationally and disproportionately delighted when he immediately replied “tha gu math, tapadh leat” just like they do on YouTube.
Having exhausted my Gaelic, I asked him, stupidly, if he was cutting peat. Fixing me with his one eye, he patiently explained that no, a machine cuts the peat nowadays, he was just digging a wee drain. As he seemed content to gently sink into his wee drain rather than actively dig any more of it, we fell to pleasantries during which he revealed that he had family in Norfolk whose forebears had emigrated. ‘What, they came back to Norfolk from America?’ ‘No, no, they emigrated to Wick’.
Buoyed by the fine weather and my stunning linguistic skills I bounded along the old lane that shadows the A 867 into Lochmaddy, observing in passing that even by Hebridean standards ‘Calm’ wasn’t much of a metropolis. ‘Still’ was even less impressive. By the time I got to ‘Quiet’ I’d figured out that whoever’s in charge of place names in North Uist likes to mess with hikers’ heads.
The landscape here is completely extraordinary and the atmospheric effect is enhanced by the occasional truck bowling along the otherwise largely invisible main road. You could be anywhere – Montana, Kazakhstan, Patagonia – and without even needing a passport. Not that I’ve been to any of those places, but now having been to North Uist I kind of feel I don’t need to.
The trail barely touches Lochmaddy which is frustrating as it’s a substantial village with excellent facilities although sadly at the time of writing no longer a hostel (the former Outdoor Centre was still closed in May 2018).
A brief diversion downtown brings you to a small but friendly and well-stocked supermarket, a longer one (and feeling much longer than is suggested on the sign) to the swish Taigh Chearsabhagh arts centre where there’s a café, WiFi and loos. I had a nice late lunch here but didn’t linger as the weather forecast was diabolical, promising south-westerlies to 45 mph from teatime. Here’s what the sky looked like when I emerged:
The next section is really archetypal Hebridean terrain although rounding Blathaisbhal was made rather tricky by massive water engineering works, through the barriers and multiple dancing diggers of which I was kindly shepherded by the foreman who’d on my arrival been attempting to shorten a blue pipe about a foot in diameter with a tiny hacksaw.
At the Aileodair picnic site an interpretive sign promised regular Eagles and Otters. We have Otters at home but I’d badly wanted to see Eagles and was despairing at their absence. I was also getting tired and keen to camp but as you pick your way through the multiple lochans here the terrain is implacably flat and wet and the watersides all looked worryingly tidal. I resolved in the end to stiffen every sinew and cross the bealach between Beinn Mhor and Beinn Bhreac in order to find a sheltered campsite on the north-easterly slope. A bit of a climb late in the day, but I was driven uphill by the rapidly strengthening wind.
Fatigued, I stomped irritably around the far side of Beinn Mhor inspecting one alluring flat area after another; they were all quagmires. By the way, anywhere flat enough to pitch a tent in the Outer Hebrides is invariably a quagmire, unless it’s a sand dune or solid rock. Eventually I pitched camp on what was merely a squelching swamp. Luckily I had a bin bag to sit on. At least there was a view of the next island and I was out of the raging wind, although every so often in the subsequent night the hoolie would somehow reach a long arm around the mountain and ruthlessly tickle my tent, like a clumsy drunken uncle tormenting a sleeping toddler.
Day 6. Berneray, about 5 km of trail plus about another 10 km of wind-blown off-trail madness.
It’s six am in a remote corner of North Uist. I wake in a swamp, at a strange angle. Further sleep is impossible with the wind worrying the tent like a terrier. The guidebook says “make time to visit the Fort of the Skulker”. Gordon Bennett, must I?
As it turned out, the Fort of the Skulker is quite cosy, by Hebridean Way standards, and perfect for breakfast although the access causeway looked worryingly tidal.
This compact and bijou stronghold is said to be between two and two and a half thousand years old. I bet they wished they had cocoa and malt loaf in the bronze age. Malt loaf they might have had, I suppose, but not cocoa. They probably ate the lichen, for vitamins. Except they didn’t know about those. Get on with your walk, Andrew, what is this, a day off?
Well, yes, this was supposed to be my day off. Everybody had told me how nice Berneray is, furthermore it’s quite a walk from where the Hebridean Way briefly touches the island (even more briefly than it touches Eriskay) and the Gatliff Hostel, so you may as well make a day of it and explore the island, especially its extensive machair and the world-famous West Beach.
My first exploration on Berneray was of the CalMac ferry terminal building which again has very useful loos and WiFi although sadly not the heating, power and hot drinks of it’s Barra equivalent.
At the ferry terminal there’s also one of the tastefully rusted Hebridean Way markers. Why it’s here I don’t know, perhaps this is the halfway point. One might think it would make more sense to put this sign at Lews Castle, which is supposed to be the official end of the walking trail, but there we are.
My next stop was the village shop, where the assistant was oddly reluctant to engage with me as I picked a selection of edibles from the shelves she was busily trying to stock up around me. It was only when I asked at the till for a coffee that I discovered this was due to it being only half past nine, and they don’t open until ten. She still sold me a coffee, which wouldn’t happen in most English village shops. I whiled away half an hour drinking this in the doorway, then enjoyed an excellent bacon butty in the bistro, also booking myself in there for dinner, my long-anticipated Friday night treat.
It was then necessary to pop into the Coralbox craft shop and say hello to its owner the lovely Eilidh who is very friendly and helpful on Twitter. Sadly I couldn’t fill my rucksack with her well-chosen crafts but I did buy a very nice card for my GF, and for a stamp Eilidh kindly directed me to the awesome Berneray Post Office. This is literally the porch of somebody’s house, in which there’s a mail sorting rack for the whole island and a tiny sales counter. I then discovered it’s actually a bit of a hike to the hostel, and by the time I got there the wind was picking up again.
Again this is a characterful and enjoyable place to stay although less so than Howmore and with the disadvantage of being a long way off-trail. It was pretty full, several of the residents being kayakers unexpectedly driven onto land by the persistent strong winds and rough seas.
As I sorted myself out and dried my kit it filled up further; by lunchtime the common room was packed, the hoolie was once more raging and all the talk was of hunkering down for the rest of the day. Or several days. Some particularly enterprising hostellers had bought a bag of langoustines from a fisherman and were settling in for a seafood feast. The warden entertained us by explaining how the causeway had ruined Berneray – “now you just don’t know who’s on the island at night, anybody can come over”.
I was beginning to wish I hadn’t booked a table at the bistro, as it was such a long walk back to it, but there was no phone signal to cancel. There was nothing for it but to go for a walk. The gale tossed me across the machair towards the West Beach like a particularly weedy tumbleweed. I’d hoped for shelter once I reached the distant dunes but after only a short walk southwards along the famous but not exactly hospitable beach I was once more in the teeth of the wind, or rather the wind and its accompanying buckets of sand were in my teeth. I wouldn’t mind, but we have beaches at home. I hid miserably in the dunes. The wind got stronger and stronger.
Stumbling back across the machair, head down into the hoolie, was a deeply unpleasant experience. The horizontal rain was so strong it drove right through the ventilation zips of my not inexpensive Berghaus overtrousers, which had never previously let me down, soaking my legs. There was slight respite in the lee of the hill behind Loch Bhrusda, where some exceptionally depressed looking cattle were huddled behind a shed. Near the memorial at the Borve road I too found a small open shed and stood inside it for a while, both as respite from the storm and because I was stupidly early for my dinner booking – you couldn’t sit down in there, it was entirely full of fragrant sheep dung.
I finally got to the bistro an hour early and completely sopping wet; they were very good about both even though, to my astonishment on the Outer Hebrides, they had nowhere to hang wet waterproofs. I felt better after a scotch and a bottle of Dark Island in quick succession and the meal was excellent, food as good as you’d get anywhere. I was going to have the langoustines, which were plump and good value, but went instead for the unlikely-sounding octopus salad. Apparently the Outer Hebrides are over-run by a plague of pestiferous octopuses which are pinching all the langoustines from the creels. Normally the fishermen just kill and discard the hapless molluscs, so the Berneray Bistro is enterprisingly making use of them.
The haddock and chips was stunningly good and the dessert was nothing short of amazing, an extraordinary confection of chocolate mousse, brownie and ice cream somehow cunningly enrobed in spirals of squeezy cream. I know, squeezy cream, but this was the Outer Hebrides, in a hoolie. The chef here, and his wife the waitress, both really know what they are doing, to the admirable extent of every winter sensibly decamping to their house in Spain.
The only fly in the ointment was the long walk back to the hostel in the raging storm, but here I was kindly rescued by a sweet couple from Devon who’d noted my damp and hangdog mien on entering the bistro and went out of their way to take me home in their campervan. When I got back to the hostel, the wind dropped with bizarre suddenness and we were all treated to some late evening sunshine. Hebridean weather!!!
Next morning I was faced yet again with the same long walk back to the ferry, but sticking my thumb out was rewarded by a lift in an enviable Landrover driven by a Scottish couple who live in Norfolk! This leads me to my top Berneray tip – there is a new bunkhouse right by the bistro. When I asked about this in the shop I was told that officially it hadn’t yet opened, so imagine my chagrin on finding that the party of cyclists on the next table in the bistro that evening had nonetheless managed to stay there. It should be open by now and although the Gatliff Hostel deserves support the logistics of a short stay on Berneray mean a bunkhouse nearer the ferry could be well worth checking out.