Here is an account of my Hebridean holiday. I usually write up the diary when I stop at the end of the day. The date heading are indicative and show when I wrote the piece.
Monday 4th August 2014
16:57 I’ve fed on the now expected macaroni cheese, wandered the deck of the boat, tried and failed to log in to the Calmac wifi and now I’m hiding from the wind topside with the loud whine of American tourists permeating the throb of the engines.
Welcome to my holiday!
It all started a bit later than usual. I let the Scotrail telesales talk me into catching the later train than I normally would have. Presuming it would be on time I’d have ten minutes to get to the ferry. I thought it was worth trying since it meant leaving at 12:21 rather than 8:30 or so in the morning.
Well, the train was on time and after a pleasant trip from Glasgow, up through Loch Lomond and on to Oban (spent chatting with and elderly couple). We pulled into Oban station at 15:28. I then realise I have to collect my bike then get to the pier. The carriage was packed full of dithering oafs but I grabbed my panniers and jouked out of the first doorway I came to, then jumped back in, further up the train to get my bike. I was becoming panicked. I strapped my bags onto my bike without too much care and pushed myself off the platform towards the pier. It was at this point I came a cropper, failing to gain any forward momentum, I sat on my bike and immediately fell on to my left knee with the fully laden bike landing on top of me.
I gathered myself and whisked down to the waiting boat. ‘Where are you going?’ the guy collecting tickets shouted. ‘Barra’ I replied desperately. ‘Get this man a boarding card’ he instructed a work mate. In the moment I waited, I looked down at my knee and there was blood. I ignored it and got myself and bike onboard. The boat pulled away before I’d reached the passenger deck. I waited in the small shop come bar behind a couple of fannies arguing about a round of drinks, wincing at the mild discomfort in my knee (and at my fellow passengers) I purchased a small first aid kit (I’d already packed one, but it was in my panniers on my bike on the car deck – along with warm clothes!) Lesson learned. Don’t panic, it only makes the situation worse. Anyway, time to relax.
The boat is full of Americans, some genealogy trip going on by the look of the t-shirts they are wearing. Lots of Clan McNiel caps and conversations.
Attention goes back to my knee. My leg is feeling a bit stiff. I’ve now cleaned it up a bit. It’ll be interesting to see how it reacts to a week of wild camping.
17:13 Tobermory is sliding by the port side. I wander the deck and take a few snaps. The weather has gone from crisp sunlight to hazy grey now.
Tuesday 5th August 2014
8:19 I’ve been awake for a few hours on and off. I awoke to the sound of drizzle on my tent. Its been coming in from the sea in bouts, gradually intensifying then fading to nothing. A constant breeze keeps delivering these sets of drizzle. They keep coming, no sign in the sky of a break.
Last night I made good time from the ferry, leaving Castlebay at 21:00 and arriving at my favourite spot at 21:30. I got the tent up right away and brewed a coffee. Vatersay does not look to be as busy as it was last year. I set up my camera to try some star shots as the weather was bright and a half-moon was in the sky, however as soon as I lay in my sleeping bag, I knew I was there for the night. A good and deep sleep ensued.
Thinking of heading to Smercleit and the Polacharra Inn today. Will have a wee lie-in though and see if this weather breaks. The drizzle just intensifies.
12:51 Lunch at Barra Airport. I’ve just experienced one of the wettest bike rides ever on the way up from Vatersay and up Barra’s West coast.
I had packed the tent during a very brief respite in the rain, I even managed to dry it out thanks to the strong wind. Leaving just after 10:30 I made it up the length of Barra in just over an hour and a half.
I stumble into the busy airport café and removed my sodden jacket and gloves. I was soon tucking into a tasty hot soup, with a scone and cup of tea for after.
I’ll head for the 15:45 ferry at Ardmhor and then on to Polacharra. Not sure if I’ll get the chance to dry out today. I stare out at the cockleshell runway and the rain, enjoying the comfort the hot tea provides.
There are many visitors despite the weather. Some continental and more American families. The kids looking in wonder at the tiny portions the café has provided them with.
I killed a couple of hours at Ardmhor, before the ferry arrived. As with the rest of the early arrivals I used this time to dry out some clothes and wandered around in my bare feet, attempting to prevent the rot from setting in. It did stay dry, but threatening. I changed the dressing on my knee, it needed it too!
The small ferry departed on time at 15:45 and we were on Eriskay at 16:20. It takes me less than an hour to cross the causeway and onto South Uist and the Polacharra Inn where I order my much anticipated trio of Eriskay Scallops. This time served with a vanilla and caviar velouté. I’m writing this as I wait. I wonder if it’ll be too fishy? Had to go for it though, its tradition!
The scallops were a success. The velouté was creamy enough and the accompaniment of potatoes and veg made this a hearty meal. Ideal after a wet day such as it had been.
I spent a good while supping two pints, reading (The Laxadale Saga) and occasionally checking the weather outside, it was dry, but grey.
Once finished, I made my way along the shore to Smercleit where there was one camper van. As I was erecting my tent the rain came on again! Just in time, my tent was up and bags inside. It was only around eight but that was me for the night. Listening to some podcasts, I drifted off to sleep.
Wednesday 6th August, 2014.
7:30 ish, I awake and the sky was still thick and grey. I had a lie in, knowing I was on South Uist and in for an easy day cycling up to Benbecula. As I lay in, the heat in the tent rose and by 9:00 after a few naps I stuck my head out into hazy sunshine. It looked like it was going to be a cracking day after all.
After a cup of tea and a granola bar I took a few photos, then I set off to Daliburgh where I make my pilgrimage to the beach past Clahd Hallan. What a day!
Sun is shining and I have the beach to myself.
13:00 I head back up the path and on to Kildonan Museum café for a toastie. After lunch I leave the Museum around 14:20, heading North. Later I notice the turnoff for Loch Sgioport. I decide to take a look. Its four miles, maybe I can make this before Benbecula.
I meet some little Shetland Ponies (are there any other sorts?) on the way, including a cute foal who sneaks up behind me while I’m taking photos of the adults.
The mountains rise up and the road takes me over moor and loch. Its stunning, however I’m starting to get a bit nervous about the weather. I’ve had the sun on my back all day and now (15:30) it looks like the clouds are building to the South. I decide to scrap Sgioport, maybe tomorrow. I turn around and make my way toward Benbecula and Shellbay campsite.
I arrive at the campsite at 16:30 and after a quick chat with the owner I set up my tent quickly then take the short ride out North to Culla Bay. The weather was still dry but I felt a few spits and spots. After taking in the stunning setting I aim for Shellbay where I go over the large dunes to the beach. I spot a large bull seal basking on a weed covered islet in the bay.
The tide is out and I can see the sun is lining the large clouds over the ocean in silver.
19:30 I go back to my tent, have a much anticipated shower, then off to the Dark Isle Hotel for a cheeseburger with a side order of wifi (and a couple of pints). Some loudmouth squaddies from the military installation soon repel me from the bar with their questionable antics.
Thursday 7th August 2014
I awake the next morning at Shellbay and to my delight the view from my tent door is blue sky. I feel the heat rising in my tent. I get up around 9:00 and what I hadn’t noticed from my tent was the ominous black cloud heading this way from the South.
I stick on a brew and start to pack the tent away, but before you know it the cloud is on top of me and with it a howling wind and unforgiving torrential rain. Thankfully I have not taken down the tent yet and I dive head first to escape the squall. I’m soaked and seem to bring a load of weather with me into the tent. It feels like a scene from ‘The Perfect Storm’ with water spilling through the doorway.
Ten minutes pass while I presume the worst, a gale howls and torrents drum on my tent. The rain eases and I stick my head outside. Blue sky! My stove has been blown out in the deluge, so I restart my brew and wait for my tent to dry, which isn’t long in the sunshine.
Mrs Buchanan, the owner of the campsite offers to make me a coffee, I thank her and tell her I managed to make my own.
Once my dry tent was packed I bade farewell to Shellbay and Benbecula, cycling South.
10:30. The going is hard due to a strong South Westerly wind, really hard. Officially the weather report had said 15 miles per hour. It felt more like 30 though and it never eased up!
About an hour in and I take the left turn towards Loch Sgioport. The road I half heartedly explored yesterday. The road had stunning views, like a geographical cross section of Scotland. The mountains had stunning cliffs accented by the raking light hitting them through the clouds. No habitation that could be seen but the odd peat cutting and lots of lochs. Perfect trout fishing I imagine, surrounded by ling and purple heather. There is even a forest, or as near as damn it. Some Scots Pine and rowan as well as the odd monkey puzzle tree. The sign said four miles, but it feels longer in the wind. Eventually the road starts dipping to the sea. The road gets rougher. I then pass engineers discussing the state of the road. Then, suddenly the road is broken, a deep puddle splits it and then a strange human hewn gorge that the road passes through. I follow it down, taking a switch back to the sea loch. The whole place seems abandoned, Signs of an industrious past, in the form of piles in the sea where a pier once stood. Iron hooks and manacles embedded in the rock show where ships once moored. There are houses scattered within the landscape and at the head of the lock a trawler sits aground, sitting at the foot of someones smallholding. A strange, sad but beautiful place.
I return to the main road after an hour detour and make my way to the Kildonan Museum. Once there I tuck in to my order of pie, beans & chips before hitting the last stretch back to Daliburgh beach.
The wind is still strong but the sun is shining. I stuck to my usual routine of sitting and pondering nothing while staring out to sea. Quite a few people were on the beach, making the most of the strong sunshine. By 17:30 they are all gone. I’m watching massive cumulonimbus clouds passing from Barra to Eriskay then over South Uist. Luckily I’ve been in a gap between the clouds all day and have remained dry. I stopped earlier and asked the Island to be good to me, and apart from the wind, it certainly was.
I did look around for an alternative pitch for my tent as the wind was incessantly strong (and loud). I even cycled around the modern cemetery just to find some shelter from that wind. When it blows loudly in your ears all day it starts to drive you a bit nuts! In the end camp was in the same spot as last year, right at the shore, behind a dune. As soon as the tent was up, the wind abated. Sunset was at 21:30 and I got the obligatory sunset shots a half hour before. I had a peaceful night with no wind to speak of.
Friday 8th August 2014
5:30a.m. Got up early and the weather was fair. Usually as I leave it’s quite driech, but this time Uist bid farewell with a lovely sunrise. I didn’t bother with a brew this morning as I was looking forward to a full Scottish breakfast on the ferry.
9:00 Onboard ‘The Lord of the Isles’, breakfast was lovely. Now I’m just hoping the ferry makes it on time for the 14:41 train from Oban. That should get me to Glasgow at a more reasonable time than the usual late arrival.
I spent the voyage reading my copy of ‘The Laxadale Saga’. As we neared Oban I was getting more nervous. It was looking less and less likely we were going to arrive on time to connect with the train. As we came into Oban harbour there was a queue at the information desk. People were asking if the train would wait – it would not. We all missed our connecting train by four minutes. A panic to get on the ferry and now a panic getting off! What made it worse was having to wait for all the cars to disembark. The train station was to be my home for the rest of the day. I had my bike booked on the train that had left without me. The next train at around 18:00 was fully booked. I waited for a last-minute space, to no avail. I booked myself onto the 20:40 train to Glasgow and went for fish and chips as much to pass the time as to sate my appetite. After a long and gruelling wait in Oban my train finally left with me and my bike on board and about six other passengers. The customer service guy at Oban said goodbye and wished me luck. We’d spent around five hours in each other’s company.
I finally rolled into Glasgow just after midnight and took the weary cycle home in the dark. Finally I was home.