… in which I see Sea Eagles, view viewpoints, shop in shops and have a nice little sit down in a wee hoose.
Day 12, Stornoway to Tolsta, about 23 km plus 2 km onto Tolsta Head.
I strolled through suburban Stornoway, buoyed up by warm sunshine, by the copious cereal and toast included in the price at the Heb Hostel and by the strange exhilaration that comes from stepping blithely out onto a walk described in the guidebook as ‘optional’, just because you can. At least, you hope you can.
It sounds silly, but I remember this walk along the ordinary pavement of an ordinary suburban road much more vividly than I now recall some of the more remote sections of the trail. There were hugger-mugger homes of all configurations, not just isolated cottages, and there were streetlights. There was a normal petrol station, a big supermarket, schools, even a hospital – it was like a strange dreamland. Normally-dressed people were going to normal work. I fell in with a young schoolteacher recently arrived from Devon who seemed delighted with his lot; nicer kids to teach, a better life for his own, and Devon isn’t exactly an urban wasteland
After a while, quite a while in fact, the suburbs peter out and you’re back in the Outer Hebrides.
Once north of Stornoway you’ve left the official Hebridean Way walking trail behind you. Hence you can’t blame the trail pixies for the fact that this entire day is nothing but road walking, although the hope remains that they’ll eventually get their pixie act together and sort out something more interesting. The scenery is generally low-lying too, so there’s not much in the way of views. Quite honestly, if the weather is foul I’d strongly counsel you just to get the bus to Tolsta; walking this road in heavy rain would be a waste of suffering. As it turned out I was blessed on this day with exactly the weather I could have done with back on beautiful Barra. Also, an advantage of walking on a road is that one encounters multiple shops, for multiple lunches.
By the time I got to Back I’d already been overtaken by two Porsches and several Range Rovers and I was starting to suspect that north Lewis might well be the more upmarket end of these islands. At Back Post Office an impressively glamorous woman hopped out of a sparkling clean white Range Rover to buy a few items. Only as she pulled out did I notice her car was left-hand drive and had California licence plates – how on Earth did that get to Lewis? (I’ve subsequently met a man who once worked at a small airport in Essex, spending much of his time driving the cars of Arab princes on and off private transporter planes, so I suppose that’s how).
Back Post Office is great and I was delighted with my authentic lunch which included some genuine Hebridean barley bannocks. These were rewarding in flavour but alarming in texture, the kind of thing Tibetans probably ate back in the day, or possibly used to tile the roofs of their hovels. Delicious, I should think, warmed with butter or broken into soup. A little challenging in isolation.
Other than shops and posh cars, the main attractions along this long and undulating road are the various memorials to the Lewis land raiders; I recommend the book The Soap Man by Roger Hutchinson if you want to know what this was all about – interesting times. There’s a big cemetery for pondering mortality, a beach if you fancy a paddle and a small wetland where I bagged Sedge Warbler as a trail tick. There are also a few sections where you can leave the new road and walk along the old carriageway through the moorland – I wasn’t variously alert or brave enough to follow all of these but with hindsight (literally) they all looked as if they would work out and give welcome relief from the traffic.
At Traigh Ghriais I noticed some very promising-looking trees at the head of the river valley and sure enough it was indeed here that I finally saw not one White-tailed Sea Eagle but a pair, soaring up slowly and magnificently together out of what was clearly perfect habitat. Strangely, they were accompanied by a Sparrowhawk that soared up with them but always at a respectful distance, like a small, attentive, courtier to a king and queen.
Tolsta is bigger than I expected and many of the houses have been nicely done up – north Lewis certainly seems to be where the money is and no surprise either as around here the scenery quite suddenly gets very pretty, blue sea, tall cliffs, extensive views. The Community Shop is open ten until five, Monday to Saturday. Having spotted its useful advertising on the road, I pushed on downhill to find it and buy further provisions, assuming I’d be well away up north before it opened the next morning. I was pleased to find it has one of the instant hot drinks machines that seem ubiquitous in Hebridean village stores – a diligent Nestlé rep has done an excellent job up and down the islands. The coffee from these is pretty egregious, but the cocoa is nice.
Unfortunately the clifftop crofts hereabouts are not walker-friendly and it’s a bit disappointing to find there’s no scenic short cut back up the hill from the shop to Tolsta Head. While trying to verify this, I was generously offered a lift by a former truck driver from Oldham.
Quite elderly and with a car that was more of an ecosystem than a mode of transport, he’d led a most interesting life and I got the impression a chatty, well-travelled Lancastrian could easily experience a slight conversation deficit, retired up here among more reserved Lewisians. I should have given him more talktime, in exchange for the lift, but after a whole day of roads I was anxious to regain springy turf under my feet, to see the sea and to find somewhere to stick a tent up. I was subsequently more anxious to realise that, distracted his kind offer of transport, I’d forgotten to refill my water bottle at the shop.
Once through the gate and down the slope onto the boggy trail, Tolsta Head itself is blessedly unspoilt and the clifftop scenery soon becomes quite spectacular.
Boggy the terrain may have been but there was no flowing water anywhere. I was just resigning myself to a rather soupy bedtime cuppa when luckily I came upon a slow but clear trickle that eventually filled a small bottle. By the way, personally I wouldn’t drink free range water on the Hebridean Way without first eliminating its invisible residents in some way – farm animals are everywhere. Even on wild and woolly Tolsta Head there was a flock of small but exceptionally wild and woolly sheep – their coal-black lambs were shy but super-cute. The sun was warm and the air still, by Hebridean standards, but I would nonetheless have preferred somewhere unboggy and slightly sheltered, as well as vaguely flattish, to camp. Every patch of raised ground was occupied by pairs of Great Skuas that had bagged all the dry knolls in the middle of the head as if they were sunbeds.
Three quarters of the way along the south side of the head, I spotted an unlikely picnic table that someone had adventurously installed in what looked like an idyllic nook, some way down the precipitous cliff.
Slithering down to this table, I found the little sheltered dip next to it was bone dry and perfect for a small tent. My reward for the whole day’s road walking this ‘optional extra’ hike from Stornoway had involved was my most enjoyable camping night on the entire Hebridean Way.
I boiled my bog water and treated myself to a curry, courtesy of Summit to Eat and their freeze-dried Chicken Tikka Masala. This was delicious, although surprisingly soupy and I’m sure I measured the water correctly. You could virtually drink it, but the flavour was great, clean and clear, with detectable lemon and no weirdness. To be honest I’d expected very little of these camp food samples I’d kindly been given, but they were really rather nice.
This is a pretty extraordinary place to camp and yet it doesn’t feel particularly remote. For one thing, when the haze lifts you can see Stornoway airport from your tent, and for another it has excellent mobile Internet so you can share the view with friends and family. Before bed, I went for another walk, to give them value for money.
Day 13, Tolsta to the Butt of Lewis, a mildly adventurous 25 km.
I woke to a still morning and while chewing meditatively on a barley bannock at my private picnic table I enjoyed brief views across the Minch to the mainland and its various Munros. Possibly including Suilven, but I’m a little vague on views at that time of day. Also I had a lot of chewing to do.
The road continues past Tolsta shop and out to Traigh Mhor. If it’s windy and you don’t fancy Tolsta Head, there’s plenty of sheltered camping in the dunes here and even a legitimate toilet of some mysterious kind.
The metalled road peters out hereabouts but still a good gravelled track, presumably the bridge builders’, winds around a sheltered loch that’s popular with camper vans and again has some tent-friendly terrain. At the Bridge to Nowhere I acquired possibly my most interesting bird record in the Outer Hebrides – one lonely Woodpigeon, flying around the bridge in confused-looking circles. Have a look at the BTO density map here if you’re not sure why that’s interesting.
The second of the optional days north of Stornoway finds walkers back on an official trail, although not yet officially adopted by the Hebridean Way and, as Richard Barrett mentions in the guidebook, a little obscure in places. There are marker posts and although intermittent these are pretty useful in this bleak and otherwise trackless terrain, especially as the route has a few sudden and counter-intuitive direction changes, avoiding valleys, bogs and cliffs, which could make walking a bearing quite hard. Even the marked trail is pretty boggy, ludicrously so at the north end, but all in all if you’ve walked all the way from Vatersay I think it would be a great shame to miss this final day which, with its wild aspect and dramatic climax, is a much more fitting end to a long trail than a dull stroll along a road into a town. Apart from anything else, it’s the only section of the entire two week hike on which you finally feel you’re in a remote place, away from a road. And yet you can easily get buses from Stornoway to Tolsta and then back there from Ness. Just as I was patting myself on the back for persevering with this mildly adventurous optional extra, the weather deteriorated with the baffling suddenness typical of the Outer Hebrides. The hoolie roared in out of nowhere off the sea, laden with cold, stinging rain. Just when I felt like keeping my head down, the trail seemed to lead upwards, to what looked like a small tumulus or hut circle. To my happy surprise, this turned out to be the very handy Wee Hoose.
Sadly the Wee Hoose is in need of a bit of maintenance, it’s not as waterproof as it once might have been and everyone who walks this trail should remember to carry a small stone to plug one of the many gaps in the walls. I considered donating one of my by now alarmingly rigid barley bannocks to one of the smaller holes in the roof, but I was hungry and so rendered it just about edible by patiently soaking it in my cocoa instead.
The next couple of hours were quite hard work in the bad weather and I fear I missed most of the points of interest, as well as most of the views.
As I slithered down into a sheltered valley (Gil an Tairbh, I think), the sun came out, so I stopped for a break and a bite, and to drip dry a bit into the burn. Subsequently I blundered into one of the boggiest sections of so-called trail I’ve ever encountered anywhere, including even Cape Wrath, real LOLbogs they were and seemingly endless. So amusingly boggy in fact that I used up most of my remaining mobile data bundle to share the fun with my mates, via Facebook Live. They were most impressed when I went in up to my thighs at one point. I’d given up being surprised at the excellent mobile Internet that crops up in the most unlikely locations on the Outer Hebrides and thought I might as well exploit it, in case I got stuck.
Eventually you start to encounter civilisation, in the form of the summer shielings at Cuidhsiadar. These, which include caravans and old vehicles as well as more conventional huts and chalets, are clearly very much in use. One of the structures looked very like a sauna to me, with its chimney and lack of windows. I bet the folk of Ness have some high old times out here on long summer nights. They get themselves out here to cut peat, tend livestock, hang out and party along something called the Lionel Peat Road, which initially looks like any other load of soggy old peat but soon solidifies into quite a dry affair that makes for much easier walking.
The strange, anticlimactic feeling that assails me at the end of any trail came early, pretty much when I hit the metalled road at Skigersta. From here you can get a bus back to Stornoway, so everything else really is optional and requires one last bit of willpower, especially as for once on this generally scenic day there isn’t much in the way of scenery at this particular point (although there is an interesting information board). A few minutes later, though, and quite suddenly you get your first view of the lighthouse, which stirs the bottom of the enthusiasm barrel a little.
Having failed to find the rumoured part-time café at Port of Ness (I should have tried harder, I was later told it’s just a bit further down the harbour road towards the sea) I had a look at Dun Eistean which is actually worth a nose around although the hoped-for Arctic Terns had gone fishing.
As always, the end of the trail comes very suddenly, and there at the lighthouse, to my surprise, was a rusty Hebridean Way sign! So presumably these signs actually belong to the cycling trail, hence the lack of one at Lews Castle. I could tell this because excited trail-completing cyclists kept arriving, as well as endless car tourists, and at one point there was even a bit of a queue to take selfies! Venturing round the corner to put my tent up, I found a party of perhaps over-excited young lady cyclists unselfconsciously taking ‘naked cyclist power stance’ pictures of each other, which was rather educational I must say; these are presumably posted on some kind of social media from which oldies are barred, and a good job too.
As it was late in the day, the bustle eventually subsided and I was left camping completely alone in the perfect shelter of the lighthouse wall. At the Butt of Lewis, so, erm, that was about it, really.