…in which the weather gets better, the going gets tougher and I get loster.
Day Seven – Leverburgh to Horgabost, 16 km.
Hitching to the Berneray ferry left me there with most of the hour I’d allowed for the walk from the hostel to kill, but this was no bad thing as the little terminal building has the only free WiFi I found on the island and the electronic noticeboard was still warning of disruption due to bad weather. That did seem unlikely, as the wild wind had expired overnight and the Sound of Harris had settled into probably the closest it ever comes to resembling a millpond. Sure enough, the MV Loch Portain puttered in bang on time for her 07.15 departure to romantic, rugged Harris, over which the sun was coyly but steadily brightening.
The Loch Portain is a remarkable ferry, by the way; because the Sound of Harris is so shallow and full of hazards she uses Schottel pump propulsion, whatever that is, and takes a very strange dogleg route. She does this reliably and with aplomb but don’t rely on her for breakfast – the snack machine was empty and the drink machine dispensed only some rather peculiar black tea.
Never mind, I told myself, the famous Butty Bus will be open at the harbour. I’d checked this out, the owner being very responsive to Facebook messages, and shaved a whole day off my original schedule to make sure I didn’t get to Leverburgh on Sunday, when it’s closed. It was definitely Saturday when I found the bus, just to the left of the ferry jetty, but a hand-written sign said ‘gone away to recharge batteries’. Ah well. The big coffee shop/restaurant at the harbour, highly recommended by several hostellers, doesn’t open until lunchtime. Hence there now followed a hungry trudge along the road into downtown Leverburgh.
Luckily, just a couple of hundred yards past where the trail turns off into the hills, there’s the easily visible and excellent community shop where you can buy pretty much anything and everything, including hot drinks. This though is also closed on Sundays and there’s no food at Horgabost on that day either. A pizza place at Northton is allegedly open on Sunday but that’s 2 km from the trail and silly timing unless you can somehow hitch back there from Horgabost in the evening.
All in all, Sunday is a pretty tricky day for a hungry backpacker to arrive on Harris. If you can’t avoid it, you’ll probably need to have bought two and a half days worth of food from the Berneray shop. Another possible strategy is to telephone the Horgabost campsite and speak nicely to the lovely Lena – she very kindly suggested that if I did have to arrive on a Sunday and could let her know in advance, she’d leave me out a food parcel and I could just put the money for it in the campsite honesty box. Did I mention Hebrideans are nice people?
Anyway, it wasn’t Sunday, so after a classic hiker’s breakfast of pies and cocoa eaten sitting in a car park, it was back to the trail. And suddenly back, one might think, to the Scottish Highlands.
My biggest frustration so far was that I’d failed to see an eagle, of either species. The Outer Hebrides are supposedly infested with them and everyone I’d met had assured me I’d definitely, definitely, see one on Harris. My hopes rose at evidence of some pretty hardcore scavenging, but the only birds I actually saw were a few Meadow Pipits.
At the top of Gleann Uachdrach I failed to see the trail; distracted by the sudden view of beautiful Northton Bay I blundered straight down towards the sea as if towards a mirage. Don’t do this – I ended up in some tricky terrain and had to turn back. You need to keep your eye on the tumbledown fence slightly uphill and to the left. This will suddenly and unexpectedly morph into a new fence with a shiny new gate, through which the trail passes in a counter-intuitively western direction before picking up the waymarkers again to the north.
The reference to a ‘good gravel path’ in the Cicerone guidebook here is very confusing – there’s no sign of such a path until you’re almost at the road and the marker posts don’t take you along the Abhainn Nisishee at all but on a higher, wiggly route around and through the old lazybeds.
The lazybeds are quite moving; they must have taken such a huge effort to make, furrowing the rocky, unresponsive ground with primitive mattocks and dragging massive creels of kelp from the beach. They also remind us that this part of Harris was for centuries productive and populated, until some particularly mean and harsh clearances in the 1830’s. At this point, though, it’s difficult to remain cast down by weight of history or even lack of eagles, due to the uplifting panorama that presents itself ahead.
The guidebook now tells you to walk 2 km along the A 859 but in fact there are some slightly confusing waymarkers that lead you off the road out into and among the dunes. It’s well worth this slight detour to spend a little time actually walking on the famous shelly beaches of Harris, especially if the sun is out.
Getting back to the road at Scarista is even more confusing but then Scarista House is pretty obvious and the trail sign to the south-east easy to spot among the cottages. Then there’s a bit of a pull uphill, accompanied by a distinct feeling you’re entering more rugged terrain. The several sheep skeletons encountered on this section enhanced that feeling, in fact I felt inspired by the first horned skull to perform a brief shamanistic blessing of the route (otherwise know as taking a comedy selfie for Facebook). It’s a good idea to focus some energy here though as the next part of the trail is really quite arduous. Especially if the sun is out. You remembered to fill your water bottle at Leverburgh shop, didn’t you? Ahem.For a second time the Hebridean Way now follows a partially collapsed old stone and turf wall. Some of this you can walk along the top of, but there are many gaps and impassable sections as well as numerous bogs unpredictably on either side. What with all the hopping on and off the wall and the ploughing through thigh-deep vegetation to avoid treacherous-looking swamps, it’s slow and surprisingly hard going. Sixteen kilometres may seem like a lazy day but by the time I got to Horgabost I was shattered, and that was in nice weather.
I felt a bit lame too as along here I’d met a very interesting man, walking the trail southwards, into the wind, in his eighties. A friend of the late eponymous Herbert Gatliff and personally involved in setting up the Hebridean hostels, he claimed to be camping out but in what sort of shelter I couldn’t fathom as his old-school canvas rucksack was absolutely tiny. Probably a binbag. He was gnarly as an eighty-something nail and made me feel a fraud claiming I do a bit of walking, let alone writing about it.
It was in a frazzled and thirsty state that I arrived at the top of the Horgabost road, only to find it completely impossible to get to from the trail through the crofts. I tried several lines of approach but all were blocked by fences. Finally I plucked up courage and walked right through a yard packed with an extraordinary collection of derelict vehicles and other bizarre junk, to a junction of fences where through binoculars I’d spotted a possible crossing point.
Unfortunately just at that moment the crofter came up the road and was most displeased to see me about to scale his fence. There followed a certain amount of shouting, mostly by him – I find it best to just stand there looking pathetic and dumbfounded at such moments. Moaning inchoately as if about to expire can also help, and if forced to speak I generally shrug a lot and adopt a heavy but unidentifiable foreign accent.
This gentleman was very much of the view that the crofts here are PRIVATE LAND and that THE WALK DOES NOT COME DOWN THIS ROAD. The fact that almost everybody who walks the Hebridean Way will at this point want to get down the road to the campsite means that here we have a serious access issue, one that the Trail Officer whom I recently noticed being recruited on Twitter will need to get to the bottom of if there isn’t to be unpleasantness going forward. I stood my ground affecting incomprehension, then suddenly thought of trying ‘I’m very sorry, I was just trying to find the way to Lena’s campsite’. At this inspired name-dropping, my interlocutor relented and reluctantly beckoned me over what had clearly in the recent past been a stile, but he wasn’t at all happy about it.
When Lena had mentioned ‘the food van’ at her campsite I’d envisioned a sort of mini-grocer on wheels selling simple camping grub. When you get to Horgabost the exact nature of the reputed van remains a surprise until the very last second, because it has its back to you as you approach it along the A 859.
It’s a HOT food van!! And not just any hot food van, a really rather good one. In May 2018 it was open until five, Monday to Saturday only. Check the opening times and for goodness’ sake don’t get there too late, or you will roll on the ground in front of it gnashing your teeth and weeping inconsolably, not least because I’ve told you the menu includes an all-day breakfast and a steak and onion panini. No, I didn’t have both, but with the latter I did have more than one cup of tea. And more than one pudding.
The campsite is informal and inexpensive, especially for two sharing a tent. The showers are in old shipping containers at the beach end, where there’s also a tiny shop in the mornings in summer with some basic food. The beach is lovely and on this particular evening it was sunny and by Hebridean standards windless – there were even people swimming, admittedly Scots, and in wetsuits. You can camp in the dunes if you prefer, but it would be very rude indeed not to pay the campsite fee especially as Dave and Lena are so nice. A very pleasant end to one of the tougher days on the Hebridean Way.
Day Eight – Horgabost to Tarbert, 27 km.
The last thing I need at seven in the morning is an interaction with a grumpy crofter so, very reluctantly, I headed north-east along the A 859, trying to spot a way off it so I could pick up the trail again on the north side of Beinn Sheileboist. It was several hundred yards before an unpromising-looking gate opened into a field, at the top of which I could see a larger metal gate leading onto open land. I gave it a try.
Finding the best route upwards was tricky with a couple of tumbledown fences to cross but as much by luck as navigation I stumbled upon the trail markers at 057 966 where they sensibly cross a damp but flat bealach with a tiny lochan, before descending to Abhainn Sheileboist.
It was lucky I did so as otherwise I’d almost certainly have missed my first sighting of a Golden Eagle – while I was slithering down Beinn Sheileboist towards the footbridge it flew southwards up the burn below me, the first time I’d ever seen a Golden Eagle in flight from above. Half a minute later and I’d have missed it, but that’s how it is with eagles. It was wonderful. The footbridge, by the way, is also rather impressive and shows that considerable money and effort have been expended on this trail.
It’s a tidy pull up the side of Carran alright, also the trail is a little obscure and in places even steep. The views from the shoulder are OK though.
The trail is even more obscure on the descent eastwards, in fact I lost it by impatiently dropping too far south. Don’t aim for the building with the red roof (which is new and so not on most maps). You will end up in some of the most aggravatingly difficult downhill terrain I’ve ever stumbled, tripped and cursed my way through. Try to stay on the north side of a mysterious fence, which I failed to spot from above, the descent should there be much easier.
At the top of the Coffin Road I was surprised to encounter D, a fellow trailwalker with an enormous backpack I’d met on the ferry from Oban. I hadn’t seen him since Vatersay until he suddenly turned up at Horgabost, too late for the food van and confessing to having got the bus on two of the foulest days (one advantage of the Hebridean Way is you’re never far from a road, so it’s very easy to dip out in extremis). ‘How did you get here? I enquired, as his tent had been firmly pitched with no signs of life when I’d left the campsite. ‘Along the road. Tough climb over Carran?’ ‘Yes, thanks for asking. Where’s your pack?’ ‘Hidden by the road. I’m getting the bus to Tarbert’. What happened to C, who was on the same ferry with an even bigger pack, remains a mystery.
The Coffin Road brings us to the East Bays, in the 1830’s an inhospitable place with no shelter and nothing to eat but limpets and kelp. Here the cruelly evicted crofters of fertile West Harris were forced to settle, building stone huts, making lazybeds on any tiny patch of ground that wasn’t solid rock and rapidly learning to fish. It must have been a desperate time, but now the East Bays of Harris is one of the trendiest, artiest places to live in the entire Western Isles, as evidenced by the chi-chi houses around Loch Stocanais.
Mind you, I didn’t see many of these as I made a bit of a navigation error and went up much too high. It all started to go pear-shaped when the trail sign leading off the road to the south was much further east than suggested by either the map or the LDWA waypoints.
I couldn’t see the ‘faded signboard’ mentioned in the guidebook, and as for “go up the hill and through the first of many gates to pick up the yellow-topped marker posts” – forget it. For one thing, unless I’ve gone colourblind the posts here are marked with BLUE.
For another thing, there is no gate. And for another – DON’T go uphill, unless you want to have to climb over loads of fences to get back down to the trail after much confused wandering around bleak rocks interspersed by comedy bogs. I would follow the fence round to the right, if I were you, but that’s not what I did, oh no, I obediently went uphill despite having to climb over a rusty fence to do so. The fence should have been a clue, really, as the Harris Walkway is a long-established trail.
What I will say, though, is that having foolishly and confusingly taken the high road I was rewarded with remarkable views to the east, which you wouldn’t see at all while strolling serenely along the official trail. It would be horrid up here in a hoolie though.
What with Carran, the Coffin Road and now my erroneous high level excursion above Loch Stocanais, a pub at Kyles Stockinish would have been a fine sight. A pub anywhere would have been a fine sight, a café, a tea van? Nope, there is nothing whatsoever to drink or eat along this entire 27 kilometre walk, certainly not on a Sunday. You have to be entirely self-sufficient until the magical Xanadu of Tarbert, towards which you are now half way, whoop! And if that wasn’t enough encouragement, you’re about to step onto one of the most beautiful, moving and remarkable treasures of the UK’s built heritage – the Scholars’ Path.
In fact I was moved almost to tears at the thought of all the wee scholars trudging along this bleak trail in snowstorms and gales, little shawls flapping, little blue hand in little blue hand. Every day, miles and miles in all weathers for a bit of basic education and betterment and with very little to eat as a daily reality rather than a recreational choice. I imagined the big scholars carrying sticks to ward off the hungry eagles trying to pinch the littlest, until it occurred to me that when the path was laboriously built, around 1900, the eagles had probably all been shot by Victorian trophy hunters.
This path was built by harsh sabbatarians who believed literally in hellfire and heartily wished it upon minor transgressors, yet they also believed firmly in a better future for their families in this world and they laboured more mightily and in harsher conditions than I can comprehend to bring that future about. To me, the Scholars’ Path on Harris is as valuable and inspiring a construction as any cathedral. It also happens to be very pleasant to hike along.
The guidebook warns us that Greosabhagh is “memorable for the number of abandoned vehicles and general untidiness”. Judge for yourselves.
To be fair, it seems to be the haunt of some active scrap dealers, so active in fact that they were actively transporting a truckload of scrap metal on the Sabbath, surely unthinkable a few years ago. If people want to drive around in vehicles, the scrap has to go somewhere. It was also heaving with birds, as is so often the case with scruffier human habitations, not only Sparrows but Cuckoos, Robins, Dunnocks, Blackbirds and my first Song Thrush on the Outer Hebrides. The little scrubby islands in the loch were alive with Chiffchaffs and just a couple of weeks later the scrappers’ sheds would have been surrounded by yellow Flag Irises.
There was also my first Japanese Knotweed on the Outer Hebrides, where on Earth can that have come from? Yes, I know, Japan. From this cheery shambles the trail takes us along the so-called Golden Road which on a Sunday in spring must indeed be one of the poorest value for money roads on the planet. Nose to tail camper vans in summer though, I’m told.
There’s a scenic detour past Loch Plocrapool, where Angus made a wet proposal to his Athole.
Drinishader is more substantial than it looks on the map; there appears to be a private hostel here which might be an option if you can’t hack it all the way to Tarbert, and the tweed place allegedly has a drinks machine, but not on Sunday. At Meavaig the turning off the road is signed and there are trail markers, but soon these inexplicably peter out. I suppose the post pixies thought that nobody could miss the obvious path along the shore of Loch Ceann Dibig. Well, guess what…
Don’t head up high to the left here. You’ll get another great view, but you end up having to slither down steep craggy stuff to regain the laughably obvious trail, which keeps low at all times and at one point is actually below the high tide line.
I can’t explain how I managed to go wrong again, other than I must have been a bit tired. So much so that I then completely missed the detour off the road on the way into Tarbert!
After this day, Tarbert will look like the most magical, miraculous metropolis you’ve ever seen.
A bunk in the Backpackers Stop hostel costs £22 and although the place looks a bit scruffy it’s actually great value. For a start it’s right on the trail, easy to find and on the way into town. Trust me, after hiking 27 km of Harris this will feel important. You get not only unlimited free tea and coffee but also bread and jam any time ad lib, which as bread and jam is a staple of my diet I thought was wonderful. You also get WiFi, proper bedding and a big clean towel (extra in most hostels) plus a help yourself breakfast which includes eggs, if the chickens have laid. I also got lucky with the free food box and scrounged an entire tinned dinner, a real bonus, I assumed, on the Sabbath. Plus they take cards. The ‘No Vacancies’ sign was up by the time I’d settled in, so it’s probably best to book. Bafflingly, there were nonetheless three empty bunks in our dorm – no shows must be the bane of a hostel-keeper’s life.
Better and better, as I belatedly discovered, Tarbert has a pub which cheerfully defies Sabbatarianism and even does food on a Sunday evening – I could have survived without my free canned supper. The Hotel Hebrides is quite a boisterous place but has quiet corners; the lights were going off when I left at nine pm so check closing time if arriving late.
Day Nine – Tarbert to Baile Ailein, about 33 km in total.
The name of the next village pretty much sums up how it feels to be trudging up the road out of Tarbert past the council dump and various industrial units, in a grey morning light and with a suspicious hard-boiled egg in your pocket.
Luckily it’s not too far to Lochannan Lacasdail, at which the trail turns off the road into some serious scenery.
Over the bealach the scenery gets even better and if you get any kind of decent morning light the views of Clisham will be memorable.
At the little road up from Maraig I finally found out what the guidebook meant when it mentioned faded Harris Walkway plaques.
From which it’s but a short hop up to our old friend, the A 859. Here, if one was a sensible person rather than a trailwalking fool, and if the weather was decent, one would be very sorely tempted indeed to walk for half an hour along the main road to the car park from which a steep but fast and direct trail supposedly leads to the summit of Clisham, from which the views must be utterly amazing.
I was at the A 859 at nine am, so I could easily have scuttled up Clisham and down again by early afternoon. Then I could have got a nice bus, perhaps to a nice BnB at Baile Ailein or to the Laxay Telephone Exchange prior to camping at nice Loch na Criadha. Dear me, though, I would have missed the wonders of Grimacleit, the Cameron McNeish memorial wishing well, the stunning frontier bridge and above all the completely fabulous Loch of the Cuckoo. As it is, I can hardly wait to blog about these amazing highlights, at this point still marvels yet to come.
Sadly, I am a trailwalking fool, so instead I dutifully trudged on along the Harris Walkway around Cleit Ard, cooking up a cunning plan which I must get around to emailing to the North Harris Trust, which communally owns all this scenery. What they should do is collect all the derelict vehicles from the Outer Hebrides and pile them on top of Clisham, thereby turning it into a Munro and obliging thousands of nutty ‘baggers’ to come and climb it. Has to be a win-win.
Oh look, it’s the A 859 again. And there’s a warm-looking, brightly-lit bus heading to Stornoway. And another one. And here’s what looks like a suburban garden wishing well, covering a faded plaque in honour of the boy McNeish himself, originator of the Scottish National Trail (tips hat).
One good thing about the Harris Walkway is that it does give one the headspace to observe and wonder at the many interesting grooves on the rocks. You may think I’m using the word ‘interesting’ loosely, but these are glacial striations, worn by pebbles dragged along under a moving glacier thousands of years ago. Amazing stuff.
Why, a sensible person asks, would anyone be slithering down a slippery slope covered in Alchemilla mollis by the side of a perfectly ordinary-looking road bridge, and on a Monday morning? Aha, this is no ordinary road bridge! This bridge straddles the frontier, the Abhainn a’ Mhuil. Several times in hostels I heard English pedants complain, as if cheated, that Harris and Lewis are just two bits of the same island. Maybe so, but their peoples have been differentiated over centuries by history, land ownership, politics and psychogeography. And they have different mottoes, which by standing under this bridge up to your ankles in sheep poo you can read. That of Harris is already too faded to photograph, but here’s the one that tells Hebridean Wayfarers they’ve reached the last island, the biggest, the wettest and wildest, the Daddy of the Outer Hebrides – Lewis. Oh lawks…