Western Isles Trip 2009

This is a re-publication 8th September 2018

Vatersay, Barra, South Uist, Benbecula & North Uist

Saturday 18 July

9:00am

Set off only bike from the flat early to catch the 10:30 train from Glasgow Queen Street to Oban.

I hadn’t tried cycling with my full panniers and dry bag so I was full of trepidation. The short cycle went without a hitch and it wasn’t long before I was on my way on the three hour train journey.

At Oban I got my ten quid ferry ticket to Castlebay on Barra.

I eagerly waited on the ferry to arrive.

2:30pm

As the ferry approached I got chatting to Celia and Dan, a couple who had made the incredible journey all the way up the East coast from London to Edinburgh. Now they were on the last leg of their trip, heading for Lewis then Skye and Mallaig.

As the ferry got closer I pointed out the porpoise playing about in the bow wave. Lovely to see as I’d never witnessed the spectacle before.  

We tied up the bikes on the car deck of the ferry and made our separate ways to the upper decks.

I made my way to the top viewing deck to watch departure. The wind and rain started to make themselves known.

3:40pm

We started the five and a half hour voyage between Ardnamurchan and the Isle of Mull. It was funny to witness all the mums running with cameras to photograph Tobermory, no doubt to satisfy the kids craving for all things Ballamory.

Oban and the Hebridean Sea. The Caledonian McBrayne ferry “Lord of the Isles” sets sale to Castlebay on Barra.

For some reason I now felt I was in self sufficient mode. This would mean I’d fail to take advantage of the canteen or any other food source.

As we headed into open sea the weather was improving. This raised my hopes for a pleasant arrival on Barra.

The afternoon sun glittered on the sea to the West while the island of Eigg slipped past to starboard.

The hills of the Outer Hebrides gradually appeared out of the haze.

9:30pm

As we slipped into Castlebay it was time to return to the car deck to untie the bikes and say hello to the couple I met on the pier in Oban.

The cars rolled off and the bikes followed up the steep slope of the terminal. As I turned left toward Vatersay I wished Dan and Celia a pleasant journey

The sun was getting low and it wasn’t long before I hit the steep gradient on the way to Vatersay. As I mentioned before, I hadn’t tried taking the bike out fully laden and this small hill proved quite testing only ten minutes into my island trip. I wearily made it to the top and stopped to rest and take a quick photo of my first view of the isthmus south of Barra. It was bathed in beautiful golden light. Recovery complete, I coasted down the even steeper side of the hill toward my intended camp sight for my first night.

Vatersay
Looking down from Barra toward Vatersay shortly after bearthing.

I crossed my first causeway, it was short but took me from the Island of Barra to Vatersay. Took a right turn and headed along a track past an old abandoned house only to be stopped in my tracks by a gate pronouncing ‘No Camping Beyond This Point’. The map had not warned me of this. Light was fading and the bright evening was rapidly disappearing with rain clouds rolling into the bay. Time to put my tent up. It wasn’t where I intended to pitch but the light was fading and the win and rain was picking up. Once the tent was erected I boiled up some water and prepared my evening meal. The weather worsened and the seals I could see bobbing in the bay were keeping a watchful eye on me. They were probably thinking amongst themselves that this idiot didn’t know what he was letting himself in for.

I tucked myself in for the night hoping things would improve by morning.

Day 1 – Sunday 19th July

I awoke to the sound of the wind rippling the tent and driving rain hitting the seaward side. If anything, the weather had got worse. I had breakfast of granola bar and a cup of tea then decided to cross the gate which had stood in my way the night before. Walking further I came to a second gate. This one read rather ominously ‘Beware of the Bull! If bull charges, put you head between your legs and kiss you arse goodbye’, and next to it a pair of red trainers tied to the fence. Ignoring the warning I passed through the gate into the field. My GPS stated my intended first pitch was just one hundred meters further. Walking toward the sea I did see a herd of cows in a corner trying to ignore the rain, I kept a wide berth as I aimed for the beach. This isolated bay was beautiful but was taking a battering from the Atlantic. Large waves rolled in slamming into the headland, maybe it was for the best I hadn’t camped here. After taking in the view I returned to the tent taking care not to attract the attention of the cows.

I packed things back onto the bike and contemplated what to do today as the seals looked on. I had intended to spend the first day exploring Vatersay before heading back up through Barra, but with these conditions I decided to just head south and stay for a second night on this island.

Vatersay
My first view of this beach. The Eastern facing bay on Vatersay. Even in the rain, he beach looks tropical.
Vatersay
The Eastern facing bay on Vatersay.

2:00p.m.

The road south kept me on the leeward side luckily but I was still intermittently dealt a strong headwind on my route. I eventually turned a bend to see a typical Hebridean beach scene. Even in the downpour the beach was snow white with turquoise water, this is where I would stay tonight. I hand’t traveled long, not even an hour but the wind was strong, I had no agenda other than taking in the experience so soon I had my tent up, had lunch of a cup-soup and Mars bar then started exploring the shore. I had stopped near the closed information site which had water and toilet facilities so it made for an ideal stopping point but it was the geography that was the main draw. The spot I had chosen was an isthmus that bisects the island of Vatersay. A sandy bay on the West and east sides, two beaches for the price of one. The West side was being hit by the weather so after visiting the shore here, picking up a few moment pebbles and checking out the memorial stone for those lost on a stricken ship I returned to the eastern bay to explore the strand-line and take in the ambience. The tranquility was broken when I came across what seemed like a mummified seal. It had obviously been washed up several days before and had been got at by the gulls.

About half way along this beach I was photographing a ringed plover when in the background I spotted a disused lobster reel washed up. Inside I noticed something moving. On inspection it tuned out to be a little wheatear, a bird about the size of a starling, which was obviously becoming distressed about its capture and the incoming tide! I dragged the creel out of the sea and slice open the rope cage. An old couple who I recognised from the ferry approached at this time to see what I was up to. We parted the cage and let the little bird fly out over the bay to freedom. “That was your good deed for the day” said the old lady. I was glad I had been carrying a sharp knife as I’m sure was the wheatear.

The machair and flora of Vatersay.

I later decided to take the bike and visit another bay to the south, this was another location chosen from google maps. Unfortunately I failed to find the road and gave up rather quickly deciding to head back to the tent.

That night the wind and rain really started to pick up. An old fella further down the machair had a tent that seemed to be holding up well to the wind, mine however was rattling with a loud ripping noise.

Day 2 – Monday 20th July

3:30a.m.

The tearing noise of the wind rudely awoke me from my sleep. The tent was flapping uncontrollably. Some of the guy lines had worked themselves loose. After tightening I decided it was time to try the facilities. The weather was so bad I could have spent the rest of the morning in the security of the toilet! I decided however to return to the tent. I don’t know how, but I did manage to drop off again.

inside my tent
The view inside my Helium 200 tent. A view I’ll have to get used to over the coming week.

9:00a.m.

Decided, against my better judgment to get up and make a move. The wind was still howling and to make things worse I spilled my cup of tea. A nightmare when it took so long to boil in the storm.

I met the old fella from down the machair while filling up my water bottles. He commented in the wind last night keeping him up. I was glad it wasn’t just me.

10:30a.m.

I finally set off north toward Barra, dreading any decline in the conditions. Leaving Vatersay across the causeway I once again hauled myself up the steeper side of the hill I crossed on the first night, stopping twice this time to catch my breath.

The freewheeling down the other side tested my brakes but brought me quickly to Castlebay in a deluge…..

My mood was low at this point. I stopped and sheltered in a broken old bus shelter and watched some unenthused tourists spill out of their coach to take a boat ride out to the castle. I didn’t envy them.

I contemplated either taking the big ferry up to Lochboisdale and skipping out the rest of Barra and Eriskay, or even making a break back towards the mainland. This would be giving up though. Not what I was here to do.Anyway, the next ferry wasn’t till tomorrow. I asked the guy in the terminal building which would be the least painful journey, east or west coast. East being more hilly, west facing the brunt of the Atlantic storm. He suggested west. So with nothing left for it I set off.

best seat in Scotland
The best view in Scotland

Following the road south, then west I turned into the wind and slightly up hill to skirt around the western side of Barra. Passing a hotel and many potentially idyllic beaches but for the weather. I plodded northward past Borgh and Craigston until I came across a rather bizarre sight. An aged grotesque sofa from the seventies perched atop a headland with the most wonderful heaving sea as a backdrop. I stopped to take some shots when it became apparent that the locals were preparing a large bonfire on the sand complete with seating in the form of this sofa to make the spectacle a more comfortable experience.

The conditions were not as terrible as I had feared and I continued up the coast passing Allasdale, before heading inland to cross back toward the eastern side of Barra. Heading toward Cuir with the high hills flanking me the road rose upward slightly and passed some remote lochans where believe it or not the sun attempted to make an appearance. This was short lived but I now had the wind at my back which helped somewhat and I was soon traveling downhill toward Northbay on the coast.

12:30p.m.

At the bottom of the hill taking the left fork in the road I went north toward Ardmhor, passing the turn-off to the ferry I’d be taking later. It was nearly lunchtime, I was a bit soggy and I’d been told I could get refreshments at the Airport further along this road.

Barra Airport
Barra Airport

Barra aerodrome is an amazing place, one of the few working airports with no permanent landing strip, the aircraft landing instead on the firm beach comprising of billions of crushed shells, not sand as such.

Tràigh Mhòr as the beach is called locally was a positive oasis in the blustery weather. As rounded the corner it looked like a scene from Close Encounters. Winnebagos, camper vans and tents lined the shore as if expectant travellers awaited visitors from some distant planet. The truth wasn’t far off. Of course as well as witnessing the planes coming in to land on the shore and taking off again, the occupants I’m sure were making use of the facilities available within the terminal building. I was going to make sure I used them also. Windswept and hungry I dripped my way into the airport where the small departure lounge doubles as a cafeteria. The smell of fried breakfast was tantalising. I could barely contain my excitement as I ordered an all day full Scottish breakfast.

As I awaited my meal I eavesdropped into the conversation of a party of paddlers who had been kayaking around the islands telling tales of Canada and far flung paddling trips, but all enthralled with what they had just experienced here.

My cup of tea and breakfast did the trick, satisfied and reenergised I got back on my bike, ferry bound.

Traveling through brief spells of sunshine I arrived at the ferry terminal. Departure would be around 3:45 so I had over an hour to kill. I entered the terminal building, an accordion lay on the table, the bar was closed, but there was some guy with his nose pressed against a locked cabinet full of chocolate bars. I asked him if I had to buy a ticket here or if I could get one on board, he was bemused, in fact more than that, he could barely speak. It was as if I’d caught him in the act..

He was bemused and could hardly string a sentence together. He shuffled out of the building. As I left shortly afterward, we crossed paths again where he stuttered in a drug addled Glaswegian drawl, “Aye, ye can get yer ticket oan the boat”, I thanked him, noticing the glaze across his eyes, then he returned to his car. You couldn’t see into it either because of the condensation or the smoke that seemed to fill its interior.

2:30p.m.

The wind hadn’t abated but there were tantalising breaks in the clouds. I sat outside attempting to dry out.

Looking back toward the bay and the airport through my binoculars a watched the seals in the foreground basking on rocks. There is a wooden sculpture of playing otters at the terminal so I was on the lookout. No otters seen, but boisterous seals were arguing over basking spots. This was good enough.

I could hear overhead the sound of an aircraft, throttling down. I found it through the binoculars as it seemed to hang in the air, dropping gradually. It touched down on the shore effortlessly and cam to  complete stop at the building where I’m sure visitors and residents disembarked from their trip from Glasgow. I seemed so close yet so far from home at the same time. At least I’d seen an otter, albeit a De Havilland Twin Otter.

The ferry had been sitting for a while and as departure time drew closer the ramp lowered and let the waiting cars and myself on. I left the bike on the car deck and found a seat inside. I looked for a quiet spot but was soon accompanied by my friend from the terminal and his lackeys, all of whom, were as far gone as the first guy. They seemed to be a traveling band going by the accordion, three men and two women, the elder of which was a local as she spoke to another passenger in gàidhlig.

3:45p.m.

I sat back, doing my best to avoid contact with the motley crew and stared out of my porthole at the passing scenery. As we ploughed through the rough sea we passed small islands and I was amazed to see these tiny islets populated by hardy sheep, obviously put their by farmers maximising the available land.

Forty five minutes later I was on Eriskay and was rather dismayed to lay eyes on the road out of the ferry terminal. Yet another steep road lay ahead. So I chose this time to gather myself and top up my water supply, then bit the bullet. Head down with made up songs in my head I slowly made my way up the incline. Eventually I turned a sharp left and it wasn’t long before I was biking along the cliff top looking down at the beaches and waves.

Eriskay is a small island to the bottom of the main group of islands connected by a long causeway. It didn’t take long before I’d passed through Eriskay and was crossing this causeway. The full force of the Atlantic wind was hitting me from the left and I was sure at any moment a freak wave would take me out. My bike slowly weaved its way on to the island of South Uist, “Failtè gu Uibhist a Deas”

5:00p.m.

The weather was still rotten and the rain hadn’t stopped. I had however a plan up my sleeve. At home before leaving I had read about the Polachar Inn. Renowned for it’s seafood I was planning  a visit to try out the hand dived scollops. I figured I was just under an hour away and it was all the motivation I needed to get my head down and trudge on through the rain and strong head wind. Going was slow the sky was lead grey and the rain was whipping into my face and the breakfast I’d had earlier at the airport had well and truly worn off. I was famished.

A sign post showed Pol a’Charra down the road to the left, this took me down to the sea, another left turn and I was there. Relief, food and shelter at last.

6:00p.m.

The bar was quiet, one or two staff, one local and some holidaying school kids watching cricket on telly.

Shedding my wet jacket and day pack, I sat down to review the menu with a refreshing pint of lager shandy. Scallops seemed like a fair weather luxury, the beef casserole with soup starter and cheese-cake pudding appealed to me in my sodden state.

As each course was brought out I stuffed my face. The onlooking residents must have thought I hadn’t eaten in days. I can honestly say it was one of the most satisfying meals I’d ever eaten and definitely the largest cheese-cake I’d ever tackled.

I relaxed with my second pint and listened in on the conversations in the bar. A group of older gents had arrived and were regaling each other with their fly fishing stories as well as gleaning local knowledge from the barman and local propping up the bar.

I asked for a weather forecast and advice on where to pitch up for the night. The barman who had just returned home from university in Glasgow told me anywhere on the machair further along would be suitable and that the weather was de to clear up that evening. I bid them farewell.

Dried out and sated I set out back up the road then parallel to the shore along the border of farmer’s fields. Twenty minutes later I realised I wasn’t going to escape the offshore wind, but the sky was brightening for sure. So, fighting the wind I put up my little tent only for the owner of the field I was standing in to pull up in his van and warn me that I’d get blown away if I stayed there. He informed me of a more sheltered picnic area further on. I thanked him and disassembled the tent, slightly frustrated as I was losing the light.

It wasn’t long though after cycling further across the sandy soil of the machair that I came across the picnic area.

A car had pulled up, but it was time to pitch the tent and settle down for the night.

8.30p.m.

The tent was up and time to brew some tea, only to find I’d lost my cup in the quick move. I backtracked my route and thankfully found it on the path.

My neighbour, parked up in his car (from Spain I think) was still present and it looked like he was planning to stay the night as he was brushing his teeth. I took a stroll down to the shore to watch a wonderful sunset in the vastly improving sky. My hopes for the next day were high but I was tired, time to hit the hay.

Day 3 – Tuesday 21st July

9:00a.m.

I awoke to a breezy, sunshiny day. My neighbour was still parked across from me and a couple of motor homes were trundling down towards the site. One of them pulled up close by and the driver approached me and asked what I’d been doing. A pleasant enough chap, he even offered me a cup of tea. I declined as I had my routine and my own brew was on its way. He did mention he was on his way up to Benbecula, where he had been going every summer for the last few years. He suggested the campsite there. I would wait and see.

I packed up said my good-byes and proceeded up the sandy path, across farm track and up to the main road. The day was good.

I made great progress in the sunny weather, for once the breeze was from behind. I traveled up through North Boisdale passing until reaching Daliburgh, the crossroads where I found a supernmarket and stocked up on a few essentials and lunch. As I packed my bike a local taxi driver came over to discuss my disk brakes on my bike. “Amazing” he exclaimed, “soon they’ll have hydraulic ones”. Courtesy prevented me from telling him they were already widely used.

I set off north but was soon distracted to the western coast again by tourist signs pointing out the archaeological site of Cladh Hallan. The only place in Britain where prehistoric mummies had been discovered.

Prehistoric settlement
Cladh Hallan is an archaeological site on the island of South Uist in the Outer Hebrides in Scotland. It is significant as the only place in Great Britain where prehistoric mummies have been found. Excavations were carried out there between 1988 and 2002.

Back down farm track and passed a graveyard and into a landscape of machair covered sand mounds lay the remains of this ancient habitation. Circular in appearance you could imagine these low lying houses being occupied a hundred years ago, not thousands. It was a beautiful setting in which to have a home. No doubt it would be a different scenario in the winter time. I continued down the track to the shore to have my lunch of roast beef sandwich and an ice-cream for pudding. It was a lovely site with the beach stretching north and south as far as you could see. The sun was still shining. I must have spent a good hour just enjoying the beach and the views south towards Barra and the horizon to the far west.

12:45p.m.

The sand on the beach stretched on forever so I thought considering I’d be passing back this way on the only road I’d travel up the sands leaving the return journey to the road, giving me a change of scenery. I set off on the firm white sand, it made for a good traveling surface even with a fully laden bike. I did have to be careful making sure I avoided any soft patches.

cycling on the beach
Cycled about 3 miles of shore line on the firm sands of South Uist avoiding the undulating road.

The beach ahead went on and on with the sea on the left and high dunes to my right I had to make sure I didn’t become trapped and have to back track all the way back. I used the large radio mast at Daliburgh and the peaks of the hills in the east as a reference and found a track on my map that would lead me back to the main road. The dunes were so high now I could not see the exit from the beach and the headland was rapidly approaching so that I would soon run out of beach. Using the compass and map I figure I had an ‘out’ over the dunes, but now they were about five meters high with no access through them. So, I got off the bike and climbed the dunes. The short scramble to the top revealed an overgrown track, part of the Machair Way walk, but I could also see over the top of the grasses the roof of a motor-home. This must be the road, or an abandoned vehicle in a field. A distinct possibility I thought. I slid back down the dune and prepared for a ‘portage’. Removing each satchel from the back of the bike I took each one, as well as my back pack up to the dune top path, returning I zig-zagged by bike up the face of this steep and high dune eventually getting it to the top. I re-loaded the bike, put on my back-pack and carefully made my way along the overgrown path until at last I saw the motor-home sitting on a road, thankfully. Unfortunately this lay on the other side of a high locked gate. Time again to unload the bike. I slid the bags under the gate and manhandled the bike over a large style. At last I had my access to the main road.

At the junction with the main road I laid down the bike to check my route. Shortly afterward I head a “Hello!” as two cyclists passed by. They stopped and approached. It was Celia and Dan whom I had met at Oban and said goodbye to on the ferry. They told me that during the bad weather they had been holed up in Barra in a hotel. They had left there this morning to make use of the good weather. They had done in a morning what I had done in the bad weather over a few days. Once again the campsite at Benbecula came up in conversation. That’s where they were heading. They were definitely making a push northward. I however wanted to see more of the island, so once again bid them farewell and told them I planned to visit the Kildonan Museum.

The museum was only a short cycle away, but in that time I was noticing a change in the weather. Wind was coming from the north and the sky was clouding over.

The museum was small but fascinating. It gave an insight into the lives of the Islanders who lived here in the past. From prehistoric to present day.

I continued northward into the worsening weather, mostly wind but rain was threatening. The cycle got harder as the wind increased I hoped as I approached Benbecula the flats would make life easy as the last of the South Uist roads were quite hill. I knew Benbecula was low lying so it should make for easier travel.

After passing loch Druidbeg I stopped at the bottom of the road leading to the monument of Our Lady of the Isles. I put on my waterproof and had a quick snack and drink before the road down to the causeway leading to Benbecula.

The flat ground was no relief unfortunately, this only allowed the wind to gather strength and I found the going hard.

I would have liked to explore this area a bit more, but the weather was closing in and I had the campsite fixed in my head as a place to stop for the night.

5:30p.m.

The endless road across the water was monotonous, but I just had to keep pushing. I was now hungry and there seemed to be less places to wild camp due to the water and exposed nature of this island.

After a brief rest stop from the wind in the lee of a Co-op supermarket I was soon approaching Shell Bay campsite under the shadow of a huge wind turbine.

The campsite was busy and I went to pay only to be told they were fully booked. However they would check. Luckily they had just received a cancellation and my booking was taken. I was the last spot. I was shown where I could put up my tent. Behind the shower block, not too far from the bins. I didn’t complain though, I was just glad to get rested and put up the tent.

After my evening meal, boil in the bag again, I took a walk over to the shore. This was behind huge dunes and opened up into a huge inlet that split Benbecula from South Uist. The beach was a peaceful spot although there was the intermittent whoosh of the turbine. I took this quiet time to decide that this would be the farthest north I would camp on my trip. Since tomorrow was the half-way point, I would leave my panniers and take the bike into North Uist and explore what I could without the burden of heavy bags. I would camp here for a second night then head back down the road in one day. Satisfied with my plans I headed back to the camp site, had a welcome shower and got my head down in the buffeting tent. This was quite easy thanks to technology. Snug in my sleeping bag I listened to the radio for a brief weather forecast then a video on my iPod before sinking into a lovely sleep.

Shoreline at Benbecula
Wind generator near Shellbay campsite Benbecula.

Day 4 – Wednesday 22nd July

8:30a.m.

I woke to another bright day. Dew was heavy on my tent as I had breakfast of granola bar and tea. Today I would leave the bags and head north, maybe even try and reach Harris. I would at least aim for Lochmaddy in North Uist.

I set out on the road backtracking slightly before I could go north. This took me through rolling roads and bog land. I passed a short eared owl, quartering his territory and continued uphill eventually coming to reaching a viewpoint overlooking North Uist with the Harris hills in the background. I freewheeled down to sea level again where it wasn’t long before I was crossing another system of causeways. In this good weather it was great to be whizzing across roads in the sea and the desolate yet beautiful landscape.

I had noted a stone circle on my map and decided I could visit this on the way to Lochmaddy. I wasn’t long in North Uist before I was once again distracted by a signpost to Grimsay. This is another island on the east coast. There was promise of a tearoom and possibly a good place to stop for lunch.

Grimsay
Grimsay on North Uist.

The winding road took me through farmland, bogs and fantastic rock formations with fingers of the sea reaching far in. Little farmsteads with fishing boats nearby yet no view of the sea direct. This place is gorgeous in the sun. It was the fishing port of Kallin I was now heading for. Up and down, on roads cut though the bedrock I entered the port and cycled right on to the jetty where where fishing boats were tied up and the deep green sea sparkled in the sun. I took a moment to stop and take self portraits in this lovely location.

Grimsay, Kallin Harbour
Grimsay
Grimsay, Kallin Harbour

To the south, the blue sky persisted and the sea continued to sparkle. However, to the north the sky had darkened. I made my way up from the bay with plans to reach Lochmaddy. It wasn’t long before the darkness in the sky started to concern me. A flab of lightning followed by the inevitable low rumble of thunder. Things were not looking good. I continued on and the drizzle turned to rain. I cycled on toward a huge ‘tornado ally’ style anvil head cloud. Hecla was off to the north east with my destination behind it, a few hours cycle, but as I reached the main road the rain changed to something akin to the almighty tipping a bath tub over my head. Never have I seeen so much water fall out the sky. As I approached the junction I decided to take hide in a bus shelter (not for the first time on this trip). I watched the storm pass over the breadth of the island. From west to east. East was my intended direction. I would be peddaling under a continuous storm cloud.

I unfolded my map while sheltered trying to come up with an alternative route and as the rain blobs bounced all around me I could now see to the south west the horizon was shimmering in the sunshine. This was where I had come from. Looking to were I was heading, the hills had disapeared a d the sky was black. I decided that this would be the apex of my trip, time to head south and start my journey back.

I left North Uist and back into Benbecula. I took a western Coastal route passing the airport and Uachdar I stopped in the Spar supermarket at Balivanich for supplies.

Marion Dean
Who was Marion Dean?

At Nunton I pass the old steadings, an old seat of Clan Ranald, Flora MacDonald’s lot and the cemetery of Teampall Mhoire which has been in use for so long that the ground level comes up to the top of the doors of the ruined building.

Continuing on I thought I’d stop for lunch on the beach at Culla Bay, so I crossed over the machair field, only to find I was being followed by a car containing an old guy gesturing for me to stop. We pulled up and the old fella went on to tell me I was crossing his vegetable patch. I couldn’t see any sign of vegetables but we spoke for a good half hour. He told me of his apprenticeship years, working in Glasgow and sharing a freezing flat. The cold seemed to be his abiding memory of the city he hadn’t visited for many years. He directed me to the beach where I settled down to eat.

Culla Bay
Bay near Nunton, Benbecula

The bay was lovely. White clouds whipped high in a blue sky. Very different from an hour or so previous. Through my binoculars. I spied the distant Monach Islands and their lighthouse. Even more distant were reefs with white waves breaking on the horizon. For a moment I imagined they were some sort of leviathan far out to sea. Your eyes play tricks on you, especially when you want to see something.

The bay was being enjoyed by a handful of people and soon the old chap wandered passed and stopped to talk once again, pointing out his son and grand daughter exploring the beach further on. He told me how  as a child he learned to swim in this bay, going the extra mile to tell me he did he’d swim here every summer in the buff!

It was only a short ride back to the campsite where I showered and took an evening walk along the shore. A beautiful evening with the seals basking on rocks and seabirds screeching into the dusk. Here I saw my first Puffin. Sadly though it was dead, having been washed up on the shore. I spent the rest of the evening beach-combing and exploring the rest of the shore.

dead puffin
First ever puffin spotted and it was dead. Predated probably by a gull as pile of plucked feathers were near by.

Day 5 – Thursday 23rd July

10:00a.m.

I packed the bags back on to my bike and finished breakfast, having decided to make my way back down the length of the Island. Looking at the large wind turbine I noticed that the direction of the wind had changed and would be in may face on the return journey. Not knowing how long it would take me, this was slightly worrying. Once on the road though, it was just a case of digging in and keeping my head down.

It was hard work crossing the causeways at Loch Bee, not to mention some of the long seemingly perpetual inclines, but the weather seemed to improve and I felt good.

Loch in South Uist
South Uist Loch

By lunchtime I was at the Kildonan museum. A hearty lunch of pie, beens & chips with a cup of tea restored my energy as I took in the views of the mountain behind the building.

The sun was now out and I headed down to Lochboisdale to check out the ferry situation for tomorrow’s departure. It wasn’t far from Daliburgh, about half an hour across the width to the East of the Island. I purchased my ticket and decided to sit outside the hotel for a pint in the sunshine.

As I supped my pint and reviewed my travels on my map, a local decided to join me. He’d either been in the pub for a while or had been self administering. He asked my plans and I informed him I was returning home tomorrow, to which he took umbrage. “Why don’t you forget work and head up to Lewis the festival?”, “do some whoring & touring” he advised. I explained best I could that my trip was over for now as politely as possible as I didn’t want to offend. My weariness was supported when he went on to explain that he’d bee getting picked up on Tuesday, handcuffed and put on a plane to Inverness at the pleasure of her majesty. He went on to explain that he’d whacked his brother in law over the head with a shovel! “…and not hard enough” he added. I wonder how he is now.

I was saved from further interrogation from this soon to be ex-fisherman by his friend. He apologised and asked what my plans were. On hearing that I was camping on the West he offered me a spot in his garden and use of his toilet. Very nice though the thought was, the chance of his pal making another visit meant I had to pass and take my chances with the other wild life back at the beach. So I said my goodbyes and made my way to Daliburgh and Clahd Hallan, the beautiful stretch of beach I’d cycled up before. I decided to stay there for the rest of the day. Soaking up the afternoon sunshine, watching people come and go and of coarse, staring out to sea, a pastime I had become very adept at on this trip.

As the evening rolled in, I waited for everyone to clear the beach and planned setting up my tent amongst the depressions of iron-age settlements that cover this area. As darkness settled though a family pulled up in the distance just beside the overlooking cemetery. There they erected their pop up tents and proceeded to the beach. I didn’t think they’d bother me so put up my tent anyway, covering many a rabbit hole. I hope they don’t dig through in the night.

The clouds started to roll in and around eight I lay down to look out to see (once again). As I scoped the waves I thought my eyes were deceiving once again as I saw something moving through the choppy steel grey waves. I lost it and tried to find it again. Was it dolphins? I couldn’t be sure. As i continued to search I spotted some wheeling gannets. This meant a bait ball. Fish being shepherded by something close to the shore. Dolphins! Immediately below the birds, a pod of huge dolphins. I’d never seen them in the wild before but they were massive. I could see them pounding, porpoising and presumably destroying their prey below the surface. They moved up and down the shore line. Occasionally I’d lose them in the binoculars as they were hard to spot despite being so close.

This sighting capped off great evening and a wonderful trip I felt very privileged. It was time to turn in as I wanted to get away early in the morning in case I had any mishaps. So I settled down in my hole in the ground, out of the increasing wind and zipped myself into my sleeping bag for the rest of the night.

Day 6 – Friday 24th July

6:00a.m.

I wanted to leave at seven o’clock so boiled a brew and had breakfast while packing up the camp. The rain was light but wind had picked up. Tea finished I pushed toward the road through the slippery sand. Once up on the main my destination was Loch Boisdale and the ferry terminal. Unfortunately the wind screaming up the valley was once again in my face. Luckily I had allowed for extra time. My ferry wasn’t till nine o’clock. Eventually I made it though, with plenty of time to spare but very tired legs. The little hill entering the town sapping the last of my energy.

It turned out that the proper ferry had been laid up and the slower and smaller replacement ferry Lord of the Isles would be used instead.

Morning of departure from Loch Boisdale.

9:00a.m.

We are loaded on to the ferry where I tie up the bike on the car deck. Making my way up to the passenger deck I head out to the viewing platform at the back. The sun was now out and decided to soak up the sun for the return journey. Plugging in my iPod I sat on the hot metal deck and took in the sights. Blue sea and sky and lots of satisfied tourists with smiles, reminiscing their trip much as I was doing.

Leaving South Uist
Morning of departure from Loch Boisdale.

4:30p.m.

The return voyage went by much quicker even though it had actually taken longer. We were offloaded at Oban where I had some time to waste before getting my train back to Glasgow. It was the Glasgow Fair holiday weekend I think and the town was heaving with day trippers. The sudden increase in people slightly unsettled me. I could have been in a huge metropolis for all I knew. Having this density of folk around was a big change to my past week. I struggled through the town to gt supplies for the train trip and to get a snack. I sat down at the pier with a sandwich and watched the world go by. My train was around six, so I had plenty of time to reacclimatise to people and the mainland.

Oban
My return to the mainland and Oban. It seemed very busy after spending a week in the Hebrides.

6:00p.m.

I was on the train bound for Glasgow, unfortunately so were a coach load of teenagers returning from an outward bound course of some type. I let the general murmur wash over me as I settled back, watching the landscape speed by.

Train journey South
My return from Oban to Glasgow by train.

I was back in Glasgow just after nine o’clock and it was now dark. The short cycle back to my flat took me through a busy city centre with people out and about enjoying their Friday night after work session, then out to the South side and back to the flat.

Panniers offloaded and sat in my very comfortable sofa I felt good, tired and wistful at the journey I’d just been on. I unpacked pebbles, shells and other memorabilia and turned on the T.V. – and relaxed.

One thought on “Western Isles Trip 2009

Comments are closed.