My end of trail adventures, then further down a few thoughts on the trail itself and how it might be walked more sensibly.
Day 14 – back to Stornoway.
Not Back to Stornoway, which is an actual bus journey on Lewis, but strictly Eoropie to Stornoway, back down the A 857 on service W1 which takes all of one hour to back-button two long days of hiking. That’s if you’re observant and alert enough to actually board the bus.
I woke in good time and was ambling towards the village when I once again encountered my Norfolk birding chums in a smart Freelander, out early to check around the lighthouse for vagrants other than me.
They kindly put me onto a Glaucous Gull that was investigating the dead Dolphin on a nearby beach.
Perhaps more usefully, having failed to spot any birds they then came back and gave me a lift to the bus stop, where consequently I stood for half an hour happily watching Arctic Terns.
The bus timetable is baffling and it would require extensive study with an OS map and possibly a Gaelic gazetteer to work out the exact route taken by this elusive and infrequent vehicle. Having neglected to make this effort, I was standing on what turned out to be the wrong side of the concrete shelter when I was shocked to see something looking very like a bus whizz past me without stopping.
A lady of respectable years came jogging towards me, accompanied more slowly by a large and friendly dog. “You’ve missed the bus!” “Uh-huh? Oh, thanks.” “No, no, you’ve MISSED THE BUS!” “Oh, dear. When’s the next one?” “Five-thirty!” It was eight-thirty in the morning*. “Follow me!!” She jogged back into her driveway, from which she promptly re-emerged at the wheel of a tiny car, “it’s going round the townships, we can catch it up at the main road!” We drove like the clappers, overtaking antediluvian tractors and dodging sheep, and indeed I could see the bus in the distance making its complicated rounds before nosing back out onto the main road, just as she dropped me at a stop a little way down it. I didn’t have time to thank her properly but I did pat the dog quite a lot, which was actually unavoidable as it occupied most of the car.
*in summer there are six buses a day so this would have been less of a problem.
So there I was back at Stornoway in time for a late breakfast, which I scrounged from the very friendly and laid-back Heb Hostel in exchange for popping a bit of spare change into the kitty. I was determined to celebrate finishing the trail with a posh dinner, hence I also needed to wash my clothes which were encrusted with peat and unusually aromatic.
They took a while to dry and there were lots of interesting people to chat with so it wasn’t until lunchtime that I ventured out. Stornoway has a lovely arts centre and easily enough interesting shopping to while away a sunny afternoon, especially if it’s a Saturday when there’s a craft market in which I had an interesting chat with a man selling beautiful hand-tied fishing flies, also rods and reels very cheaply. The latter he buys online and imports directly from China, to the Outer Hebrides.
Next time I hike there I’ll carry one of his collapsible rods; he claimed that on “quite anarchic” Lewis anyone can fish for their supper in any loch without any kind of licence (this, he warned me, is NOT the case on Harris, though). I’m not much of a shopper, especially when I’ve only got a rucksack, but I did buy some beautiful Harris Tweed offcuts from the charmingly bonkers Lewis Loom Centre. Offcuts over a certain size qualify for ‘genuine Harris Tweed’ labels, which are handed over with quiet ceremony from a discrete drawer, as if they were masonic insignia.
On a Saturday night Stornoway is pretty lively and the best restaurant, Digby Chick, was full. I had to be in the second-best Royal Hotel by six for an unbooked table; by seven they were full too. The food was lovely and when they did fill up half the diners were, like me, in outdoor gear so don’t be put off by the posh ambience.
In the Heb Hostel there’s a whiteboard upon which Tosh, an excellent guitarist and singer, advertises his gigs; this night’s was at the Lewis Bar which, as his wife laughingly warned me, is ‘not the most respectable pub in Stornoway’. After a couple of pints at the Edge of the World, where I was myself prevailed upon to play the guitar, quite badly after two week’s hiking, I went and had a look. From the outside, like many Scottish urban pubs, it was indeed slightly intimidating but inside it was packed with a very mixed crowd and perfectly jolly. A young man with the body of a concrete bus shelter and the face of a bare-knuckle boxer played the accordion beautifully; when I plucked up courage to tell him so at fag break he smiled radiantly and thanked me in a soft, quiet voice. I then went on to another pub at which there was an excellent live rock band; Saturday night in Stornoway is brilliant, and how else would you properly end the Hebridean Way?
Thoughts along the Way
Firstly, thoughts on perhaps walking the trail more sensibly. Unless you’re tougher and more weatherproof than I am, I’d be tempted to take the first few days more slowly and spend a bit more on accommodation. I’d arrive on a weeknight and stay at Castlebay, probably at the Dunard Hostel. Then perhaps find somewhere dry to stay at the north end of Barra, near the ferry. There’s a BnB at Ardmhòr, or I’d even be tempted to skip the last trek over the hill above the airport (or do it the next morning) and instead walk down the main road to the Heathbank Hotel at Northbay. Unfortunately it’s a long, long extra walk to and from the Scurrival campsite north of the airport but it’s been well reviewed and is allegedly a great place to see eagles etc. You could try hitching there, perhaps from the airport café.
Next morning I’d get the first ferry to Eriskay and spend the day exploring there, with a climb up Beinn Sgiathan for the view and lunch at the Polly. At teatime, armed with grub from the Eriskay shop, I’d scamper over the causeway to DJ’s campsite at East Kilbride, which sounds great. On North Uist I’d be tempted to find somewhere sensible to stay at Lochmaddy, then walk over to Berneray the next morning, stay in the bunkhouse by the shop and spend the afternoon exploring. On Harris if the weather’s good I’d investigate a possible detour up Clisham, possibly at the cost of a bus ride past Grimacleit. The bus detour to Callanish is a must if only for the café and in anything other than perfect hiking weather I’d get the bus from Stornoway to Tolsta.
On the trail itself, I can’t decide whether the Hebridean Way will become a classic with the legendary allure of the Cape Wrath Trail, which I loved and would do again in a wink, or of the Pennine Way, which I consider my hiking home. For one thing, you don’t really gain any height. To be fair, there’s only one insignificant summit on the CWT, but I feel this could be given further thought on Harris, where height is certainly available (I gained some by accident, and on balance was glad). Had I been luckier with the weather on Barra that would have been one of the best days, simply due to the elevation.
Influencing my opinion, though, is the fact that I live on the North Norfolk coast. I can take or leave beaches; I have them at home. Many visitors to the Outer Hebrides are impressed above all by the beautiful beaches and you certainly see a fair few of those along the Way. If you live inland, or if wild and remote beaches are just your bag, this will be more of a strikingly memorable walk for you than it was for me.
Also, walking up a string of small islands, each with a distinctive character and with a sense of genuine remoteness among a pretty wild ocean, is an experience otherwise unavailable in the UK and hard to find anywhere else. This uniqueness of the trail is certainly appealing. And, although new, it’s by no means a redundant or even bogus trail, like so many that are springing up in England. It makes sense, both in concept and (mostly) on the ground. You do feel its logic as you walk it, it has a certain cultural and even spiritual authenticity. It has heft. It’s long enough to be a meaningful achievement but never intimidatingly remote and it’s not so long that you have to quit your job to do it. It’s actually just right for a two week holiday.
The weather in the Outer Hebrides is self-evidently problematic; were this not the case, thousands of people would be queuing up to live there. After a whole day in the wind, it can drive you slightly round the twist to have to camp out in it as well. Having said that, I observed, rather enviously, on Twitter that almost immediately after I’d walked the trail the weather turned far, far better, and since my departure it’s been mostly beautiful! You could be much luckier than I was. I was also disappointingly too early for wild flowers – Spring in 2018 was around three weeks late everywhere in the UK. A bit later in the year, or in another year, you could have a life-changing walk through unforgettable floral gorgeousness.
The waymarking is a curate’s egg; generally competent and often greatly appreciated it’s a bit excessive on some otherwise unspoilt sections and unhelpfully absent from some tricky interfaces between roads and open land and from some baffling mazes of crofts. Quite a few marker posts have already fallen over, particularly on wet peat and in sand dunes; they’ll need constant maintenance to remain useful. Had there not been markers, I’d have had to navigate a lot more; with them, I was able to walk most of the trail very lazily and in the more challenging weather I was very glad of this. However the Hebridean Way experience has now set in stone my prejudice against the proposal that arises every so often to waymark the Cape Wrath Trail – I’m now completely convinced that to do that would ruin the experience of walking Scotland’s wildest trail for zero gain.
Above all, my memory of the Hebridean Way will be of the niceness of the people I encountered. Hebrideans are almost comically kind to strangers, and not at all in an overweening, stand here for an hour while I tell you my life story kind of way, but in an understated and gently practical way I can only describe as ‘neighbourly’. Apart from their individual niceness as human beings, to an extent I expect this reflects a culture of neighbourliness imbued by a harsh environment.
Scottish poet John Burnside recounts in his remarkable book I Put a Spell on You how a Scandinavian philosopher friend taught him about this, in an understated, neighbourly way. The more remote your habitation, it was gently explained, and the harsher your environment the more you need a good relationship with your neighbours, be they miles away. You may despise their opinions but there will come a time when you need a jug of their diesel, their shovel, their spare potatoes, just their human company. It’s a common mistake to think humans can escape other humans by moving outwards, to the edge, over some kind of threshold. In the long term only the urban affluent can afford to ignore a needy-looking neighbour or passer by, and I hope that despite the advent of cars, convenience food and Calor Gas the tradition of not doing so never leaves the Outer Hebrides – it was certainly both a great help and an affecting revelation to this oldie outdoors.