…in which I encounter an underwhelming loch, an unexpected bap, unwakeable bairns and an unholy shack.
Day Nine – Tarbert to near Baile Ailein, about 33 km in all.
One slightly unappealing aspect of the Hebridean Way is that at first sight there seems to be a lot of road walking. Much of this is not as bad as it looks on the map, as several of the main roads have been improved in recent years and sections of their old carriageway left alongside. These are very useful for walkers although I doubt it was deliberate. I’m guessing it’s more a reflection of a Hebridean allergy to unnecessary tidying, borne from the fact that for a third of the year if you step outside your house to do a bit of tidying you get picked up by the hoolie and flung into the Minch.
Strolling onto Lewis along the A 859 you do have to stay alert as the large, warm, dry, comfy-looking buses that whizz along it to Stornoway (did I mention those?) take no prisoners, although allegedly they may stop and take walkers if you wave despairingly enough.
We Hebridean Wayfarers are made of stronger stuff, aren’t we? Yes, and a good job too, for now we must venture into the mysterious Aline Community Woodland. This section starts brightly enough along a nice, friendly trail but soon acquires a strange post-apocalyptic atmosphere. There are freaky rustlings, apparently bottomless swamps edge the path and most of the trees are skeletal and stone dead. Your neck hairs prickle, you fear if you glance upwards you might catch the Sauronesque eye of whichever necromancer has vindictively blasted this landscape. Fear not, there is a biological explanation for the weirdness.
The larva of the rather pretty Pine Beauty moth Panolis flammea likes to eat two kinds of pine tree – the native Scots Pine Pinus sylvestris and the imported American Lodgepole Pine Pinus contorta. Among Scots Pines it’s kept in check by lots of native predators, but these fail to thrive on foreign pines, allowing the moth free rein. Guess what the Forestry Commission planted at Aline? Lodgepole Pine, and as if trying to grow in a benighted swamp wasn’t challenging enough for a lonesome pine far from home, the implacable munching of the unpredated very hungry caterpillars finished them off.
The forestry professionals abandoned their blighted project to the local community, which is now making a determined and very impressive effort to reinvent the forest for biodiversity and leisure. What I found most interesting though was that, if you look more closely, quite a few of the apparently dead trees are actually regenerating from their bases into a kind of pine scrub. I’ve also read that where Lodgepole plantings have managed to establish, predators have latterly moved in and eventually attained a balance with the moth (Hicks, Barry; Leather, S. & Watt, A. (2008). Changing dynamics of the pine beauty moth Panolis flammea in Britain: The loss of enemy free space? Agricultural and Forest Entomology. 10. 263 – 271).
While munching a clandestine hard-boiled egg, in the rain, utterly alone, in a moth-eaten swamp miles from anywhere, I reflected that before too long the Aline Community Woodland may well develop into one of Scotland’s most interesting ecological experiments. You get that kind of quality thinking time on the Hebridean Way.
Many people assume, by the way, that trees don’t grow naturally in the Outer Hebrides but in fact pollen deposits show that up to about 8000 years ago the islands were wooded. The extent to which they should be re-afforested, if at all, is a live issue; you can read the Western Isles Woodland Strategy here. Don’t read it now though, or you’ll miss the extensive views from Grimacleit.
As if the ecology wasn’t thought-provoking enough, we now encounter a singularly impressive and extremely long boardwalk. You can bound along this pretty fast, although if you’re a larger-boned hiker with a heavy pack I’d keep to the edges; it’s only made of ordinary decking and batten and in places it’s quite high off the ground and rather springy in the middle. Goodness knows what will happen when it starts to rot.
At the end of the boardwalk I met two hikers from Surrey who’d randomly chosen to walk the trail north to south. By now the weather had deteriorated into typically relentless Hebridean drizzle, driven into every crook, nanny and crevice by a steady south-westerly air movement. Not being a Gaelic speaker, I don’t have fifty words for ‘wind’, sorry. The three of us stood for a while, in the rain, dripping and thoughtful, just for a bit of company. It was only four in the afternoon but they were already tired and looking for a campsite. ‘Does this boardwalk mean the next bit’s very swampy?’ I nodded gravely, not to mention damply.
Then, after another couple of kilometres of waving at warm, dry bus passengers whizzing along the A 859 it was time for another raised turf path.
The rain came and went, mostly came; the turf path rose and fell, mostly rose. The famous memorial to the land raiders was invisible in the mizzle. Every potential campsite was a quagmire, as usual, but suddenly just past Loch Stranndabhat I spotted a tiny, flat and miraculously dry patch of ground. Suddenly, on looking up after dropping my pack, I saw a Golden Eagle circling high above me. “I’m not dead yet”, I cried. Well, it’s not every day you talk to an eagle in Norfolk.
My pitch felt a bit close to the trail for comfort, especially as I could see parked cars further along, but just as I got the flysheet up two fishermen came stomping past my tent, chatting noisily and completely failing to notice either it or me. I relaxed and bedded in. There was plenty of cooking water from the adjacent Abhainn Mhor and I had some emergency freeze-dried camp grub, a beef stew with potato, courtesy of Summit to Eat. The texture of freeze-dried potatoes is always odd, more like tofu really, but I don’t mind that at all and this was a pleasant meal with only recognisable home kitchen ingredients and a clean, clear flavour including detectable white pepper; I really enjoyed it. The rain eased off, thank goodness, my site was sheltered and I still had one miniature of the late lamented Virgin Trains’ free scotch. Life was good, by trail walking standards, and I had the marvellous Loch of the Cuckoo to dream of.
Day Ten – the debatably fabulous Loch of the Cuckoo to the definitely fabulous Callanish, about 18 km of walking plus a hitch or bus from Achamore.
The night was mostly dry and my campsite sheltered; I slept well and awoke excitedly early, I could hardly wait to see the Loch of the Cuckoo. The sky was grey. So, it turned out, was the loch.
OK, OK, the Loch of the Cuckoo is so utterly unexciting that by the time I’d trudged round it I was positively looking forward to the fascinatingly misaligned footbridge and the entertaining village dumping ground, as advertised in the guidebook.
In fact the most exciting aspect of this section is that when you get to Baile Ailein some wag has spun the trail signs around, so they point in completely the wrong directions. I admit that raised a grim smile, but a café would have been a lot more life-enhancing at this point.
Imagine my further wry amusement at encountering instead a laundrette.
Otherwise I’m afraid the east end of Baile Ailein is pretty quiet at eight on the morning, and the trail here involves yet more trudging along the main road. After a while, though, I came across an unexpected sign claiming the availability of Art, BnB and Snacks, not necessarily in order of importance. I nosed up the drive.
“Oh dear, we don’t open until ten”. It was 8.30. Gloom. “But come in anyway, we’ll see what we can do”. Joy! Cafetiere coffee and bacon and egg bap-shaped joy! The proprietors of Island Arts are completely loveable, in a slightly eccentric and unhurried way, and it’s well worth popping in. It wasn’t the cheapest bacon and egg bap I’ve ever had, but then you don’t see pigs in the Outer Hebrides and it was certainly one of the most welcome. In fact it was very sweet of them to do it at all, especially as they were already busy feeding BnB guests.
I would fortify yourself in any way you can at Baile Ailein, because otherwise that’s it for resources until Stornoway, if you stay on the trail, although (spoiler) I intend shortly to propose to you a MORE CUNNING PLAN.
After the odd and pointless diversion at Loch na Deasport there is yet more main road, until you reach a completely anonymous small building that turns out on close inspection to be the Laxay telephone exchange mentioned in the guidebook. Here you’re supposed to head for the hills, and goodness knows a Hebridean Way marker would be rather useful at this point. All you actually see is signage for a Laxay Community Walk (or Trail, I can’t remember which).
Approaching Loch na Criadha I encountered a familiar-looking tent. It contained the elusive D, cosily out of the drizzle and breakfasting on noodles. I tactfully refrained from scoring bacon and egg bap points. “Giving up”, he announced, “had enough of %$£*ing rain. Gonna head back to the road and get the bus to Stornoway in a bit”. I wished him well, insincerely, the cheating busmonkey, and plodded on around the loch and uphill onto the next section of the trail, which looked not unlike this…From time to time the weather brightened up, and the trail looked more like this…But I mean, basically, the whole of South Lewis is, like, bleak as old boots.
Eventually I blundered down the long slope from Oidreabhal across the Allt nan Torcan to Achamore, where the raised turf path continued westwards past Loch Acha Mor to the left. To my right and up the slope between me and the road there were houses with fenced gardens. I then discovered that if you sleepily continue too far west along the alluring turf path, you’ll then find it’s quite impossible to get through these fenced gardens uphill to the road, which you do need somehow to attain.
If you go all the way to the west end of the village you’ll be some way past the Pentland Road and indeed the bus stop. Instead, you need to stay alert and head uphill at the very first sign of civilisation. I failed to do this and after repeatedly heading uphill to encounter only unclimbable fences bounding very private-looking gardens, I had to retrace my steps, through what even by Hebridean standards were a series of LOLbogs requiring ideally webbed feet to negotiate. A Hebridean Way marker would be SO USEFUL at this point!
Imagine my chagrin at observing, while lost in a maze of fences, the last bus to Callanish bowling along the road above me! D’oh and Double-D’oh! Yes, my cunning plan was to divert from the trail to the legendary Callanish, for a slap-up lunch in the visitor centre and to see the awesome standing stones. Not necessarily in order of importance. The last bus to Callanish passes through Achamore at 13.06 (service W2, correct July 2018) which had I not dallied over my bap and failed to navigate the fences would have been perfect timing. As it was, when I finally found my way up to the A 858 I had to stick my thumb out.
At only the third time of asking I was picked up by a chatty young chap on holiday from Edinburgh in an alarmingly clean car. “Erm, anywhere along this road would be great, please”. “Och, I’ll take you to Callanish, I’m just driving round so the bairns get some sleep”. I peered into the back seat and there were indeed two small children, mouths open and completely blotto. Lacking offspring, I found the idea that they would only sleep while being driven around surprising, but he cheerily assured me this was indeed the case and furthermore that his wife, shopping in Stornoway, was jolly glad of this brief respite from their otherwise perpetual wakefulness.
Meanwhile I was wondering what to do with my soaking wet pack, always a problem when hitching. From bitter experience I dislike putting anything in the boot of a stranger’s vehicle, so I simply dandled it on my lap as if it were itself an oversized toddler. On arrival at Callanish after just ten minutes at what seemed an incomprehensible velocity (probably all of forty miles an hour) my lap was as damp as if a quite large toddler had lost control of its bladder.
The café was packed, mostly with very friendly American folk enthusiasts on a coach tour of the Celtic fringe involving scenery by day and music by night. Their Irish lady leader was not only a cultural entrepreneur but a cybercelt to boot, actively campaigning on social media from an unlikely café in a remote corner of Lewis for the right result in her country’s forthcoming referendum (which went her way). After queuing for ages I had excellent fish and chips, and cake, and tea. And more tea. And more cake.Hoping for eagle tips, I got talking to a chap with Zeiss binoculars at the next table who certainly seemed to know his birds. “Don’t suppose you know T?” I enquired, name-dropping a distinguished Lewisian ornithologist of my erstwhile professional acquaintance.
A distinguished-looking gentleman turned round in his seat and said “hello Andrew”. His houseguests turned round too – well-known Norfolk birders who live just a couple of miles from my home! “Will you be in the brass band at the village fete this year Andrew?” It was a great lift to my spirits when out of this surprise encounter I gained a kind offer of a sofa to sleep on at Port of Ness, should the weather turn really foul further north. At Callanish the weather was at that moment brightening. In fact the sun was even peeping out, though the wind was still keen and cool.Another great thing about Callanish is that there are lots of corners to tuck away a tent, although quite reasonably they don’t like you camping among the stones themselves. I found a perfectly sheltered and even quite flat patch of positively verdant grass, down by the loch, and pitched camp in warm sunshine.
There are disadvantages to camping among long grass in Scotland. Towards dusk I sleepily observed a tick laboriously clambering up my mesh inner tent, to my relief on the outside. I’m afraid it didn’t make it to the top.
Day Eleven – Achamore to Stornoway, a leisurely 12 km almost entirely along roads.
The café at Callanish doesn’t open until ten, and the bus back to Achamore goes at 09.50. As I’d been hoping for a large latte and a home-made scone for breakfast, this seemed to be a problem, except that in the Outer Hebrides these things often turn out not to be problems at all. “Och, I get here at nine, I’ll put the coffee machine on, just knock on the window”. What nice people.
As it turned out, I so enjoyed my latte and scone, not to mention my lie-in, that I darn nearly missed the bus and had literally to run for it. The driver kindly dropped me at the Pentland Road, denoted by an agglomeration of picturesque signage. This seemingly insignificant highway was a major civil engineering achievement in its day, taking over 25 years to build over some pretty intractable terrain. It is, as the guidebook says, “not without interest” although to be honest you have to be a bit creative in making up your own interest along it. For example, speculating about the success or otherwise of random patches of forestry.
Looking at what the guidebook describes as ‘man-sheds’.
Wondering how far it is to Stornoway.After a while I noticed that one of the ‘man-sheds’ (old shielings, apparently) had a door swinging open, so I nosed inside. In the former kitchen was a spectacular deposit of empty bottles.It seemed I’d stumbled into some kind of party shed, possibly even a satanic shebeen as the occupants were clearly in the habit of using a Bible to start their fire.
Clearly, they know how to have unholy fun on Lewis. For example, further along, a new and beautifully-built stile leads off the Pentland Road onto a trail that heads directly to Stornoway’s landfill site, which was spectacularly infested with Ravens.
By the loch below the tip I was privileged to witness an entire gang of Ravens, abetted by some thuggish Great Black-backed Gulls, confronting a lone Great Skua by which, in the manner of gangsters everywhere, they’d been obscurely offended. A gaggle of Hoodies, half the size of the main protagonists, sensibly hung back out of the way, rubbernecking and muttering nervously.
To my amazement, in the face of overwhelming avian odds the Bonxie was not for backing down, it stood its ground and made like Bruce Lee, it feinted, ducked, dived, pirouetted, shimmied and drop-kicked; it took them all on alone and won, then it had a little preen and flapped off very, very slowly. There’d been nothing to see here, had there, mate? From now on, all Bonxies are respectfully addressed as ‘Mr Lee, Sir’.
If I’ve sounded a little jaded in this post, it’s because South Lewis really is as bleak as it looks. Of course it’s riddled with interesting archaeology and full of botanical interest too. The entwining of landscape, ecology and social history on this trail is genuinely fascinating and throws up intriguing conundrums with respect to how we should now best balance the exploitation and conservation of this remarkable terrain. Nonetheless, walking through the moorlands of south Lewis in cold wet spring weather is pretty arduous and it was with delight that I fell upon a trendy panini in Lews Castle’s delightful café, while wondering where the rusty Hebridean Way end of trail sign might be, at which I could take a trail end selfie.It turns out there isn’t a rusty Hebridean Way sign at Lews Castle, even though it’s supposed to be the official end of the walking trail. None of the castle staff knew this although two of them, to my slight embarrassment, went off on missions to enquire for me (did I mention Hebrideans are very helpful people?) I found out in the end using Facebook Messenger, on which there is a Hebridean Way account via which somebody patiently and kindly responds to such inconsequential enquiries.
The museum here, by the way, is worth a look if you can drag yourself from marvelling at the trees, or restrain yourself from rushing to the rightly legendary Heb Hostel for the free tea ad lib that’s included in the reasonable £19 price. Christine the landlady is completely lovely; her emails are drily humorous, as well as typically arriving almost immediately in response to your lame enquiries and annoying booking changes at odd hours. Her family are delightful, the atmosphere in the hostel is warm and kindly and her Dad, Tosh, has a great repertoire of jokes. He’s also an excellent guitarist and singer, as I was to discover on my subsequent Big Saturday Night Out in Stornoway, of which more in the next post. Oh yes, a true trail-walking fool doesn’t just stop at Stornoway.
This was a Wednesday, though, and so both before and after my haggis and chips, cooked by a friendly Bangladeshi, it was necessary to check into the Edge of the World brewpub for some inauthentically unfizzy ale, thank goodness. Needless to say this deeply unscottish beverage is here brewed by an Englishman.
As luck would have it, it was quiz night, so I tagged onto a team, you can do that in the friendly Outer Hebrides. We would have won, if only one of us had known the name of the new Harris lifeboat*.
Did I mention Stornoway has trees? According to Tosh, ‘when people from Harris come to Stornoway, they say “Och, what tall potatoes” ‘.
*should you ever find yourself in a pub quiz team at Stornoway, it’s the RNLB Stella and Humfrey Berkeley. If you win a free round, mine’s a Berserker EPA. Cheers!