Western Isles 2016

Vatersay beaches

OK, it was July when I visited the Hebrides, and its now December and almost the next year, but what can I say. It took me a while to retype my handwritten scrawl from my notebook and of course I had too many photos to choose from. But here they are and I hope you like them.

Friday 8th July

8:21 Train from Glasgow to Queen St. I had worried about access to the train platform as the station had been undergoing renovations, but the lift down to lower level took my bike and bags with ease. There was a slight delay to the arrival of the train due to flooding, but only by 15 minutes or so. I’d left plenty of time for my ferry in Oban so had no concerns about making it on time.

The views from the train were drizzly and grey, but as usual the lochs and hills around Arrochar looked sublime with mist draped smokey looking fjords. Cutting through the hills to Loch Lomond, small dapples of sunshine skipped across the green hillsides. Signs of a breezy weather front arriving became more obvious, indicated by the waving trees.

Arrival in Oban was late, and I still couldn’t help checking my watch even with an hour to spare. After previous close calls, I’m understandably paranoid about missing the ferry…

I took a stroll around town in what had become relatively balmy weather conditions. My walk finished back at the pier, with 40 minutes till departure. The crew however were keen to get the bikes loaded and it wasn’t long before I was onboard. I was first on the empty ferry and I made my way up to the top deck of the “Isle of Lewis”. I’d never been on this boat. A new rout between Lochboisedale and Mallaig had reopened and I’m sure the “Lord of the Isles” would now be playing that route.

It was still sunny and I was hoping it would follow me throughout the trip.

The passage up the Sound of Mull was smooth, but the grey drizzle made a return. I spent most of the journey inside staring out of the large viewing window of the observation deck, apart from a brief visit to the restaurant for some “Calmacaroni”.

Once in open waters, the waves were more pronounced and unusually, I started to feel a bit queazy.

Drawing in to Castlebay the sun came out once more. It was now 6:30pm, so plenty of time to get to Vatersay. My first chain slip happened however on the steep exit road leaving the ferry terminal. I was using a brand new Marin bike, which had developed a twist or some other fault with its chain in the week preceding. However this was better than taking my other Revolution bike that had a cracked frame. This is another story however.

It was 10 minutes to the top of the steep hill on the road to. Vatersay and soon I was over the causeway and another 25 minutes to get to my first camp spot. I was shocked to discover so many people there, but more shocking than that was the closure of the public toilet for renovation! I’d actually contributed to a petition for this as it’s a great resource and a place to get fresh water from a tap which I’d planned to use on arrival. I’d have to go and buy some bottled water the next morning. Luckily I had enough to brew up a cup of tea or two.

I spent the rest of the evening photographing sea spray and the sunset in the West bay. This entry in my journal was written in the remaining light at 23:15 with the sound of rolling waves and the croak of a corncrake in the distance. Most of the people have left and the are just 2 camper vans keeping me company on the machair. The weather was fair and I wondered what tomorrow would bring.

Saturday 9th July.

I was rudely awoken around 4am by hard rain drumming on my tent. It was too good to last. I had a brief glimpse out of the doorway of my tent to confirm the obvious deluge. I buried my head into my sleeping bag to deaden the incessant sound. I never really went back to sleep, but decided at 7am to start packing from within the tent. By the time I was loading the bags onto the bike, the rain had stopped. All that was left was a mist muted landscape. This still looked great in photos though.

I wouldn’t take too many opportunities to stop as I planned to make the Ardmhor ferry at 11:10. I couldn’t remember how long this journey should take.

I was over the big hill and back in Castlebay to get water at the co-op then set off up the west side of Barra. I took a mental note to spend a bit more time here if I come back this way, I always just passed through on previous trips.

In the end it took just an hour and a half and I had some time to kill at the ferry terminal. So, I brewed up a coffee to warm up from a drizzle sodden ride and waited for the ferry to make its appearance through the mist. We cross from Barra to Eriskay, passing an old tall ship looking very much like the Marie Celeste in the ghostly gloom. I would find out later the was Clearwater Paddling, an organisation that take people around the waters of these Hebrides.

Landing at Eriskay it was raining persistently and I made the 30 minute journey to The Polachar Inn where I persuaded them to make me scallops from the evening menu as I was too early. After lunch and a dabble on the wifi, I headed north through South Uist on what was the wettest cycle of my life. Despite waterproofs, I was soaked through. Even my pockets were full of water. I pushed though, without stopping, passing many of my favourite haunts, Daliburgh, Kildonan and eventually crossing the causeway into Benbecula. I did stop briefly to pick up some chocolate before continuing into Liniclate and Shellbay campsite. The lady running it recognised me too despite my drowned rat appearance.

I put my already soaked tent and took my drybags into the shower block where I had the best shower ever, warming me up and invigorating me. Back in the tent I tried to hang damp clothes, I doubted they would ever dry as the weather showed no signs of abating.

After a change into dry clothes, I made my way to the Dark Isle Hotel for some dinner and wifi. The rain was so intense that by the time I had walked the 2 minutes it takes, I was once more completely soaked through.

A few hours passed as I nursed a single pint waiting for my socks and trousers to dry. There hadn’t been so much in the way of sight seeing this day, more of a personal challenge. I sat and pondered whether or not to stay in Benbecula while the next 2 days of equally wet weather passed. I’d have to play it by ear…

Sunday 10th July

Sunday didn’t start well . Heavy showers woke me at 2am. Daybreak saw some relief, although it was still grey, so I set about hanging my wet belongings, hoping the breeze would dry them out. Waterproof trousers and cycling shorts, just about. Socks, pants and shoes…no chance! This meant wearing wet shoes, but also carrying damp underwear, wherever I went.

I brewed up, then took a short walk with my cup of tea over to the dunes to ascertain what the weather was doing. I had already paid to stay another night at Shellbay, so was thinking of taking a short bike ride to some nearby lochs I saw on the map, or stop by at Culla Bay and take some pics. It was noon, as I wrote this in my journal, it was a slow start to the day. The poor weather was accompanied by. Throbbing headache, and not for the first time. This had happened previously when I had not drunk enough water the previous day. Easily done, when you just put your head down and push through the bad weather.

Waiting out the weather and the drying process for the top i was wearing – body heat seemed to be the best drying method if you can bear it.

So as it turned out, I didn’t visit the lochs I’d seen on the map. Due to a wrong turn I think, the road just seemed to peter out. I turned the bike around and visited Culla Bay in Nunton.

It felt quite warm, though overcast and the ever-present threat of more rain. I chatted with an old fella who was visiting from Yorkshire. His son lived here and he came to house sit and walk the dunes.

I followed the bay to the South and came across a little raised mound of turf which had some otter sprains deposited on top. So I decided to sit for a while, waiting and hoping to capture a Hebridean otter. No luck I’m afraid. I would have to make do with the Glaswegian otters in the river next to my flat.

After a little further shore exploration, I cycled back to the campsite, parked the bike and crossed over the large dunes to photograph the seals that often bask in the estuary. There was one harbour seal hauled up on a rocky outcrop, so I slowly made my way down to the tide line and along the edge of the water, slowly creeping closer, feigning disinterest. It was well aware of my presence and kept glancing over it’s shoulder, checking on my progress. I inched closer, keeping my eyes averted and looking down. When I looked up once more, it had gone, slipped into the water without a ripple.

I waited a short while only for it to pop up in the water directly in front of me, its little head didn’t make much of a subject, but I took the shots anyway.

So it was a quiet day. I once again finished the day with a visit to the Dark Isle Hotel for scampi and a pint. Wearing more damp clothes to surreptitiously dry them out in a warm environment. Fearing the worst, I even asked the hotel receptionist, how much a room in the hotel was. Pushing this defeatist attitude to the back of my head, I went back to my tent, positive, the weather would improve in the following days. I’d head back south tomorrow to Daliburgh, then, partly due to the change in ferry routes, I hoped to see more of Barra. On previous trips, I’d always returned to Oban via Lochboisdale on South Uist, but now the only way back to Oban is via Castlebay, Barra.

Monday 11th July

Liniclate to Daliburgh. I awoke to a drizzly day with wind coming from the west. The large wind turbine indicating the direction. I set off from Shellbay after a refreshing shower around 10am. Stopping briefly at the Puffin Craft Store, an old converted Post Offfice. After a purchasing a small souvenir gift, I stepped back out into the rain and low cloud. I have worn my waterproofs since Saturday on Vatersay. They were dry on the inside now at least.

After leaving Benbecula across Loch Bee and arriving on South Uist once more, I stopped to buy some camping gas, just incase the small canister I brought ran out. The next stop was not much further along the road. I decided to take a closer look at the large modernist statue of Our Lady of the Isles. A beautiful representation of Mary and Christ. Her serene gaze looks out over the machair towards the sea. Completed in 1957, the artist Hew Lorimer gave her the face of a local hebridean woman. I took some shots around the the statue with the landscape backdrop lurking below a heavy curtain of mist and rain.

My next stop after much more pedalling was the Kildonan Museum for lunch. The adjoining cafe was alway. A nice place for lunch.

As I approached the museum, the sun started to break through the cloud and it wasn’t long before I stopped to change out of my waterproofs and into shorts at long last. The forecast looked good, with bright weather and blue skies coming in from the west over a bright Atlantic ocean.

At the Kildonan Museum I did notice a new exhibit in the car park. It was a Burlin (Scottish long-boat) or similar old water going vessel. It looked like it was still a work in progress.

The cafe had a make over of sorts and the menu had gone a bit more upmarket than before. It no longer did pie, beans and chips, the dish I’d been fixated on for he whole pedal down. I cant explain how disappointed I was! That’s the price of progress I suppose. I opted for a cheese and ham toastie instead, it did the job.

Daliburgh Beach

After lunch it wasn’t long before I was back in Daliburgh. Stocking up on snacks, including a cornetto ice cream, I made for the beach at Clahd Hallan. I spent a relaxing afternoon on the dunes and in the sand. By dinner time I had boiled up a packet of chicken tikka with rice and after eating i visited the local hotel, the Borrodale for a couple of pints, a packet of crisps and some wifi. This luxury of sitting in pubs with all the mod cons, is not one I have allowed myself on previous trips, opting for self-sufficiency over comfort satisfied my survival mentality at the time. Now though, I choose to share my adventures over social media while spending some of my pounds with local establishments.

On leaving the Borrodale, I realised one down side of spending the evening indoors, was missing what had been a pretty spectacular sunset. The red hues of the sky were just dissipating as I made my way back to the sandy road to my camp spot.

As I passed Loch Hallan, I heard a loud crack! I thought for a moment it was a puncture. Then a second CRACK! Looking ahead, I saw a man and young girl shooting rabbits, at least I hoped that was what they were aiming for. It seemed remarkably close.

I got down to the dunes and there was a car parked there, where I had intended to put up my tent. So I stopped short and set up camp back from the shore (and the wind). As I settled down to sleep, I realised I’d caught the sun and was a little red with sunburn. How quickly the weather can change, from sodden to burned in day.

Tuesday morning was a little misty but dry enough. That was until I reached Boisdale on the way south. From here to Eriskay the rain started again and once more reached for my jacket.

The main highlight on this stretch of road was a short eared owl flying across my path. Searching for voles in the early hazy light.

After making my way across the Eriskay causeway, there was a lot of huffing and puffing to make it over the steep road to make it in time for the ferry. I got there with 10 minutes to spare and on top of that, the weather was improving.

It would was around 9am when the ferry landed back on Barra and the airport opened at 10am when I planned to have breakfast. I parked the bike and took my camera over the large dunes to the long white sand beach beyond. As I tried to capture some fulmars nesting on the cliffs at the south-west end of the beach, I had failed to notice a large stream of cattle making their way down the dune path I had taken, towards the sea. The lead cow going in the water up to her knees. The rest of the herd weren’t so keen. And I wasn’t too keen to walk back through them. Especially since they had young calves with them. I skirted around them and sheepishly climbed back up into the dunes, hoping the steeper and higher I went, the less chance an irate cow had of pursuing me. The lead cows watched me intently but happily were more interested in their bathing session. They must do this purely for pleasure, s there was no seaweed or sustenance I could see that they may be after. Maybe its just the salty water and air they like and who doesn’t like a paddle?

By the time I made it the airport, the cafe was open. I went for the full Scottish breakfast with a pot of tea. Very satisfying and very tasty!

On leaving the airport I noticed a large flying object coming in over the water. Not a plane, but a bird. A big bird. Could it be? I quickly dismounted my ride and scrambled in my pannier bags for my camera. Fixing on the 70-200 plus 2x extender. A white-tailed eagle soared in and followed the dunes, immediately it was mobbed by a common buzzard, this gave a great comparison of relative sizes. Through the lens it looked like it could have been an immature eagle, as the tail wasn’t particularly white looking. It also looked rather unsightly and scruffy. Almost to the point where you wouldn’t expect the creature to be able to stay aloft. Like a flying Jim Henson creation I thought to myself. This could have been more to do with the evasive manoeuvres it was having to take to avoid the pest of a buzzard. A stunning encounter, and my closest view yet of this amazing bird.

So I made my way back down to the west side of Barra with the sun on my face, stopping every now and then to take pictures of the stunning beaches. Eventually stopping at Bagh Halaman, a gorgeous white sand beach down from the Isle of Barra Hotel. It could have been mistaken easily for Australia or the Caribbean.

Bike on the beach in Barra

I shot some video, took some pics, then mad my way back to Castlebay and treated myself to lunch at Cafe Kismul with scallop pakora (Awesome must try dish). I then moved next door to the post office for coffee and banana loaf cake and of course, to make use of their wifi to update my Instagram feed. I couldn’t ask for more. It was sunny treats on the table with the most beautiful surroundings.

I popped into the supermarket for some supplies before making my way over that demon hill yet again to reach Vatersay, where I’d decided home would be for my remaining days on these islands.

The tent was pitched at my usual spot, I didn’t feel hungry after the amount of food I’d consumed throughout the day, so I sat for a while on the sand, then went for a wee lie down inside the tent.

It was still light at 9:30pm, so with my camera I made my way to the west bay before deciding to climb the hill that sits above Vatersay. It was pretty easy-going and the views towards Sandra and beyond were truly breathtaking. The low sun gave a purple and magenta tint to the sky, while the machair and beaches below seemed to glow.

At the first summit I could also see back into Castlebay where the ferry was berthed, ready for its morning departure.

As the sun was setting, I reached the second summit and trig point. I sat and took it all in photographing the sun’s rays radiating from behind large puffy clouds. The beams terminating on the surface of the sea like large spotlights.

There was still plenty of light remaining to make my way down the hillside. I passed the disjointed remains of a lamb, maybe the remnants from an eagle’s feast? Who knows?

Wednesday would be my last full day. After my hill walk last night I discovered as I expected, a tic on my knee, I swiftly pinched the little critter out of the skin and flicked it out of the tent. I lay in till around 10am and made my way on foot to the south of the island for a walk up Am Meall, a small hill on the South East tip. On entering the township of Vatersay, I was joined by a border collie who would be my companion for the following 2 hours or so. We scaled the hill together then visited the small bay below where i had an all to brief but chilly swim in the turquoise water. We then explored the ruins of a small abandoned homestead called Eòrisdale. On returning to my camp spot I hastily jumped on my bike and made for Castlebay. This was the only way I could shake off the old dog and prevent her from spending the afternoon outside my tent waiting for my return.

Once in town, I made for the Post Office again for wifi and scones this time. It had been another beautiful sunny day and I was now so glad that I had come back on to Barra and Vatersay. As I’d always passed through on previous trips.

Returning to Vatersay for the afternoon, there was no sign of the dog. That was until I visited the west bay to take photos. I noticed the dog with a bunch of surfers. It looked like she’d made more friends. In fact I’m sure she makes new friends every day. I spent the rest of the evening photographing the beach, including the women surfing there, adding a human element to my usual landscapes. And yes, I did ask if it was OK to photograph them. In fact one of them reached out to me later through Instagram and filled in on the surfers and even let me know the dog was called ‘Honey’ and she was a girl. I’d been referring to her as a ‘he’ on Instagram. She seems to be well-known on the island.

I returned to my tent only to find some neighbours had pitched up right beside my tent – why? There was plenty of room on this Island and this dad with two kids parked up right beside me. Maybe I’m just antisocial and admittedly I took a small amount of pleasure when a gull swooped down and stole one of the fish they were cooking for supper. I turned in as I had an early start in the morning.

Tent on Vatersay

I was out of there at 5am next morning and on the 8:10am ferry. On the return voyage I saw a pod of dolphins making their way to Barra and my first minke whale (possibly a second too), there were several other unidentifiable cetaceans making waves in the waters between the islands. The rest of the journey was peaceful on an empty boat. I barely ventured outside watching the world go by through the large viewing windows.

When I arrived in Oban I was left deflated when I found out that the train strike had extended and there would be a replacement bus back to Glasgow.

As I had posted an Instagram highlighting my dilemma, I was pleased that Lucy @loosemoose took a lunch break and came by to visit. We chatted about the islands and cycling and how the summer had been so far. This made waiting for my bus a much more pleasurable experience.

In the end, the bus back to Glasgow was probably more comfortable. It wasn’t slower and getting the bike on and off was no issue. It maybe helped there was just a handful of us on board. I cycled from the centre of town back home to the south side in daylight, which isn’t usually the case. Unloading my bags and emptying the sand out of everything I was ready for a bath.

It would only be 3 or 4 months before I’d write-up this experience, but I was posting the images on Instagram for a good few weeks after.

2 thoughts on “Western Isles 2016

  1. What a fantastic blog – never knew you had one. Loving the pictures and thoroughly enjoyed reading through some of these articles whilst l avoid editing a client session 😉
    Looking forward to reading more of it later.

    1. So glad you like it Katrina. Its really nothing more than a personal journal. However its also a bit of a creative outlet when it comes to words and pictures. I just like the process of putting something down for posterity. Which I had the gumption to do more on it though!

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