Hebridean Hop 10: Tarbert to Lochboisdale

Monday 6th August 2018

Ferry approaching Leverburgh

We never tired of watching ferries. Our hotel in Tarbert was right next to the pier and we could see the boat coming in as we had dinner. (It wasn’t such fun hearing it leave early in the morning though.) Very convenient, too, for our onward journey you might think, but no. That was the Skye ferry and we were off to South Uist, so we had a drive to Leverburgh first.

This was a short journey – just an hour – on a much smaller ferry. We were first on and first off, and slightly alarmed at how close our car was to the ramp, especially when it started to descend for arrival and we could see the sea!

Although our ultimate destination was South Uist, the ferry deposited us in Berneray leaving us several more islands to cross. This is another change over the last few decades –  more causeways have been built. When we island hopped in 1989, North Uist, Benbecula and South Uist were already joined, but new causeways north to Berneray and south to Eriskay have extended the chain.

But first things first – lunch! As I’ve mentioned before, the number and quality of cafés in the Hebrides has increased markedly since our previous visits, and all that we tried were excellent. The Berneray Bistro was no exception.

As we’d not been to Berneray before, we decided to take a walk here before moving on and chose the South Berneray loop. This took in machair (a fertile mix of sand and peat, often covered in wild flowers in summer) and both rocky and sandy beaches.

We passed another of those lovely coastal cemeteries and a memorial to Angus MacAskill, the Nova Scotia giant. The plaque records that Angus was born in 1825 and grew to 7 feet 9 inches in height “without pathological defect”. He emigrated to Canada in 1831, achieved many feats of strength and is remembered as “a kindly and just man and a humble Christian”.

After our walk, we drove straight through North Uist and Benbecula – we would return to explore them later in the week – and made just one brief stop in South Uist.

Our Lady of the Isles, at 30 feet tall the largest religious statue in Britain, stands proudly above the road. But wait, didn’t I say we were in Presbyterian, Sabbatarian country? Well we were, but the southern parts of the Outer Hebrides are firmly Roman Catholic.

Close by is a Ministry of Defence missile testing range, and there is a political as well as a religious significance to the statue. In the 1950s, the MOD proposed a much larger range covering much of Uist, including a military town and facilities for building missiles. Islanders worried that this would destroy much of their way of life, culture and language, and resistance was led by Canon John Morrison, the local parish priest, who then became known as Father Rocket. It was he who commissioned and raised funds for the construction of the statue which was designed by Hew Lorimer and dedicated in 1958. The islanders were partially successful – there is a military presence, but smaller than the original proposals. The Madonna remains as a reminder to the army that there is also a spiritual world as well as their militaristic one.

After admiring the statue, we headed off to our hotel in Lochboisdale, our home for the next week.

Hebridean Hop 9: Scalpay and Hushinish

Sunday 5th August 2018

Sunday dawned wet. Bad news if you are looking for shelter on a Sabbatarian island where nothing will be open! We started with a walk round Tarbert, which took about two minutes, admiring the new distillery building (closed of course). There was nothing for it after that but to take a walk and hope for the best. In the end, we were lucky: the rain went off and we had a great day.

Scalpay

First we went to Scalpay, a small island to the east of Harris which, until 1997, required a ferry to visit, but which is now connected by a bridge. When it was formally opened by Tony Blair in 1998 this was the first time a serving Prime Minister had ever visited the Outer Hebrides, which seems rather shameful to me.

Our object was to walk to Eilean Glas lighthouse, according to our guidebook the most picturesque of all the Outer Hebrides lighthouses. It was certainly the first, the original tower being built between 1787 and 1789 by Thomas Smith, father-in-law of Robert Stevenson the first of the Stevenson lighthouse-building dynasty. Robert Stevenson himself added the present tower in 1824(Robert Louis Stevenson is also from this family.)

As we looked around, I was intrigued to see that there was still a set of washing poles on the green area behind the living accommodation. There are some Victorian washing poles on Glasgow Green, and I would say these are at least as old.

We had walked out to the lighthouse via the “tourist path” of about a mile. We took a more circuitous route back along the south coast and across open moorland. Although part of the Hebridean Way, the signage was, to say the least erratic, but the wind helped by blowing us most of the way back.

Hushinish

From Scalpay, we drove west to the Hushinish peninsula. A winding, up-and-down single track road runs for 14 miles to the end, with some surprising sights. First was a rather elegant chimney, the remains of a Norwegian whaling station built in 1912. Even more incongruous is the tennis court, the only one in Harris and, allegedly, the most remote in the world. It just wasn’t possible to stop on the road to take photographs of either of these, but the next day we visited the community shop at Leverburgh where there was a display of tapestries of Harris history which included them.

The road now ran parallel to a small river, then the next surprise loomed as we passed through an archway and found ourselves at the front door of a castle. Amhhuinnsuidhe was built by the Earl of Dunmore in 1868, and has counted JM Barrie (author of Peter Pan) among its guests. Through another arch, the old stables held a shop with an honesty box where we were able to buy drinks and snacks. Even on a Sunday.

The road ends at the small settlement of Hushinish itself with its gorgeous sandy beach and (a final surprise) a beautiful new visitor centre with toilets and showers for campers. You can just see it centre-right below.

I was very impressed with the work of the North Harris Trust which has owned and managed the land for the community since 2003 (Scalpay became part of it in 2013). Tourists benefit too from its efforts (such as the path to the lighthouse and the new visitor centre). If (when) we return to Harris I would love to spend more time here. Although we enjoyed our walk round the headland at the end of the Hushinish peninsula, there were other trails leading off the road, including one to an eagle observatory, that I would like to have explored. However, it was time to head back to Tarbert for dinner and to pack up. The next day we were leaving for another island.

Hebridean Hop 8: the Bays Road

Saturday 4th August 2018

From the Bays Road, South Harris

We were on the move again! To a hotel just 16 miles up the road. Why was this? Well, in February I couldn’t find suitable accommodation in Harris for the five nights we were staying there and had to book it in two blocks. February for an August holiday! How things have changed. On our last island-hop in 1989 we booked the ferries on a Thursday and set off on the Monday, booking our accommodation as we went. Mind you, my standards were lower then. We even spent time in a tent.

Rather than drive 16 miles up the west coast, we took the long way round back down to Rodel and up the east coast on the Bays Road, the C79. Bearing in mind that the main A road was mostly single track, you can imagine how small a C road was.

Unlike the fine sandy beaches of the west coast, the east coast is rocky and strewn with boulders left over by the Ice Age. Parts of the landscape were used to depict Jupiter in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Nevertheless, there were several galleries and cafés along the road so we didn’t go hungry, and we got a few short walks in before the rain became torrential. And we found a lovely, romantic bench.

Our room in Hotel Hebrides in Tarbert, Harris’s largest village, was a modern contrast to the chintz of Scarista House, but just as comfortable.

The next day was Sunday and we were still in Sabbatarian country. Nothing would be open, so we had to hope for good weather. But would we get it? Read on!

Hebridean Hop 7: the beaches of West Harris

Friday 3rd August 2018

Sandcastles, Luskentyre Sands

In contrast to the previous day, we had no rain at all as we set off on a series of short beach walks, although the cloud never lifted far enough to clear the tops of the hills as you can see above.

We started on our own beach, Scarista, just across the road from the hotel. While John contemplated whether to paddle …

… I was looking for interesting textures on the sands.

Next, we moved on to Traigh Iar (traigh means beach) and climbed a small hill to Macleod’s Stone, an imposing prehistoric standing stone.

On the way there, we had driven past a sign mentioning the magic word “lunch”, so we backtracked and made a real find. Too new to be in our guide-book, the Machair Kitchen is part of a complex owned and managed by the West Harris Trust on behalf of the local community. Talla na Mara, Gaelic for the “Centre by the Sea”, houses a café, exhibition, performance and events spaces, offices and artists’ studios. We certainly enjoyed lunch with a view.

After lunch, we went on to Luskentyre, home of Harris’s most famous beaches. A circular walk took as round a headland via the beach and back along a minor road.

The trees probably give a hint as to the direction of the prevailing wind (and my hair often ended the day looking much the same shape). It was very windy all the time we were in the Hebrides, but we were actually grateful for that because it kept the midges away. And here’s another picturesque cemetery – who wouldn’t want to spend eternity with that view?

By the time these posts are at an end, you will probably be sick of beaches! However, the next day we explored Harris’s east coast which is completely different.

Hebridean Hop 6: Rodel

Thursday 2nd August 2018

St Clement’s Church, Rodel

On our first full day in Harris we followed the main road to its end at Rodel (Roghadal) and St Clement’s Church. Built in 1520, the church saw only 40 years of service before the Protestant Reformation, after which it fell into ruin. Rescued 250 years later by Captain Alexander Macleod, who then owned Harris, it is now maintained by Historic Scotland.

The Macleod tombs inside are richly carved, especially that of Alasdair “Crotach” (“humpback”) Macleod who had the church built. The carvings behind his tomb are intricate and include a birlinn (highland galley) setting sail and an angel casting incense to the winds.

Outside, there are interesting carvings too, including bulls’ heads, a man wearing a precursor of the kilt and a squatting female figure which looks more pagan than religious, perhaps a “sheela na gig”. Readers of a sensitive disposition need not follow the link!

This was the first of many graveyards we spent time in. Some of the stories told on the stones are heart-breaking. Here lies John (Iain) Morison, a noted hymn-writer. Later in the day, we visited Seallam! Visitor Centre, another excellent small museum with a large section on emigration (both voluntary and enforced). One of the panels tells the story of what happened to his widow and children after his death in 1852.

Or what about the MacDonald family with one son drowned at 11 and two of his siblings lost in young adulthood? Or Angus MacLean, pre-deceased by two wives and two children? Life was hard.

What next? A walk out to Renish Point. Here I am climbing away from the church. Perhaps you can detect a tiny bit of reluctance in my body language already? It looks clear enough here, but it was starting to rain.

From the top of the first hill, we could see our destination. Renish Point is the longer of the two headlands below.

The natives seemed friendly. Just as well, I don’t like the look of those horns.

For trudging over the boggy, tussocky headland, we were rewarded with extensive views as you can see. Or not.

Here I take my hat off to fellow blogger Andrew of An Oldie Outdoors who preceded us to the Outer Hebrides, but in the opposite direction and on foot. The weather was not always kind to him and he made the ironic phrase “extensive views” his own. Many of the walks we did were on the Hebridean Way and tended to be as boggy as this one. I could not do this day after day carrying my belongings and knowing I had to rely on my feet to get me to my bed for the night. I use the word “bed” in a fairly loose way. I don’t count beds in tents as beds.

As for us, we got ourselves back to Rodel as quickly as possible, stopping to admire its small harbour before we left. Our guidebook refers to the “former” Rodel Hotel here, but we were pleased to see it was being restored – another indication of the upsurge of tourism and increase in prosperity on the islands.

Returning to the car, we made that stop at Seallam! mentioned earlier. (Seallam means welcome in Gaelic, and it certainly was.)

Then it was back to Scarista House to dry out, eat a delicious dinner and sleep in those comfy, comfy beds again. No, roughing it is definitely not for me!

Hebridean Hop 5: Stornoway to Scarista

Wednesday 1st August 2018

After three nights in Stornoway we were moving on to the Island of Harris, but as we weren’t due at our accommodation, Scarista House, till 5pm we had most of the day to explore a bit more of Lewis. We detoured from the main road to the South Lochs, a sparsely populated area now but once a network of small communities.

We stopped in Kershadar (Cearsiadair), home to the Ravenspoint Visitor Centre, a wonderful place in a beautiful lochside location with a community shop, self-service café, and small museum in one building, and a hostel next door. Highlight of the museum was this travelling pulpit which was wheeled around the countryside while churches were being built in the 1870s so that the population would never miss a Sunday sermon. Perish the thought!

From here, we drove to the small village of Orinsay (Orasaigh) from where we could walk to one of the abandoned settlements. It was a rough, boggy climb with a sense of complete isolation.

This particular village, Steimreway (Stiomrabhaig), was actually abandoned twice, firstly in the 1850s as part of the Highland Clearances. After the First World War, pressure on land prompted requests to resettle it and permission was granted by the landowners in 1921. However, no roads were ever built and access was only on foot or by boat. Eventually families drifted away, and by the end of the 1940s Stiomrabhaig was deserted again. I can’t imaging living in those conditions, however beautiful the setting.

Back on the main road, we headed for Harris. What makes an island? You’d think it would be surrounded by sea, but the islands of Lewis and Harris inhabit the same landmass and crossing the border is hardly noticeable. However, the terrain quickly changes – North Harris is much more mountainous. In the past this would have been a substantial natural barrier to travel, possibly explaining why it was regarded as a different island.

Scarista House, our destination, is on the west coast of South Harris. Excluding the detour, it seemed a quick journey. 29 years ago we travelled the same route when the entire road was single track with passing places. Now, in many sections but not all, we had the luxury of a lane going in each direction, another big change which we noticed throughout the islands.

We were still very glad to arrive. Although I would not choose a chintzy bedroom myself, there was something very welcoming about this one with its big, fluffy duvets. The food was excellent too (proper dishes for vegetarians which weren’t pasta or risotto), and as a bonus the house had a resident cat, who was quite sweet when she bothered to wake up. (She wasn’t allowed in the room I’ve pictured her in. Did she care? You decide.)

We have never stayed in Harris before – in 1989 we just got the ferry from here to North Uist – so everything about the next few days was new to us. But first we needed a good night’s kip in those comfy beds …