Recently, my wife and I visited the Western Isles of Scotland for the first time. Taking the ferry from Oban to the Isle of Barra, it would be a two week journey to discover a part of our homeland we had never seen. It's fair to say that this time of holiday isn't about seeking the sun and lazing on a beach, though we were lucky to get a few days when we could do that, but really it was about seeing the sights and watching the wildlife.
The ferry crossing took over five hours and, yup, we headed into a storm. With sick bags at hand, passengers headed for quiet spots while others (including myself) photographed or videoed the rollercoaster ride that lasted about an hour. Giant waves crashed into the ship and worrying sounds could be heard from below deck where the vehicles were stored (which was much ado about nothing as they were secure) with loud banging noises causing concern.
The movement of the ferry was extreme as it veered down into the gaping hole as the waves continued to crash in and around, but during the journey we cauht sight of an Orca heading in the opposite direction followed by a group of dolphins but, unfortunately, it was too unsteady to be able to take any photos but it was a lovely sight all the same.
Isle of Barra
Eventually we arrived at the small island of Barra, famous for the 1950s film Whisky Galore about the crates of whisky washed to shore from a shipwreck. The island is tiny but the beaches would be a taster for what was to come.
We had arrived on the Saturday afternoon and were only going to be on the island for two nights, but it was long enough to get settled, see some of the sights, rest after the long journey and get our bearings.
We were told Vatersay Beach was the place to go. It was a Sunday and, like most of the islands, nothing much would be open, so we drove down the short distance to see for ourselves.
Vatersay Beach and it's pure white sands.
The beach was stunning, though looks could be deceiving. This was no Mediterranean. The water was clear blue and inviting but I was going to stay filmly on terra firma.
The view from Vatersay, looking south.
The other thing to note about the islands is the wind. It is a permanent feature (or was when we there there). No need for a dryer here. It does wonders for your skin.
Living in an exposed land that is open to the elements the buildings tended to be bungalows on open ground. Old and disused cars, tractors, boats and coaches would be scattered to the four winds across all the islands. Rusting remnants left to nature to take care of.
Old crofts were maintained piecemeal with corrugated metal sheets covering gaps, rotting away in a futile attempt against the weather. Some looked uninhabited and only useful to the wildlife.
An old house looks uninhabited and falling apart.
From there, we drove up to Barra airport where the planes use the beach as the landing strip. Ideal if you are just carrying some light baggage but if, like us, you needed enough to last a couple of weeks, then a car was a necessity and hired cars were hard to come by but it was nice to go over and watch one landing and leaving.
Plane taking off from Barra Airport
Obviously there's a lot of wildlife across the islands, so it didn't take long for the birds to appear. The sight of a gaggle of geese wandering up the hill opposite our bothy was a pleasant surprise. The mother and her young were quick to waddle as far from me as possible.
A gaggle of geese across from our pod heading to the hills
Time to head for South Uist and catch the ferry to Eriskay then drive up to our pod near Minngearraidh.
Calmac, as most people know, have been having problems with ferries so it didn't come as a surprise to get a text saying the ferry was broken and they had a smaller replacement. Those who would NOT be getting on the ferry would receive a text! Thankfully we didn't receive the dreaded text and we were off to the next island.
This was a much shorter journey (about 40 minutes) and the run up to our next residence only took half an hour (there's only one main road running the length of the island).
Arriving at South Uist
If the wind seemed strong in Barra, it was blowing a hoolie here. No trees and the Atlantic to drive the wind in, but we were lucky that the sun shone most days and slowly the temperature rose to a balmy 18 degrees.
There were plenty of good walks to take, in particular the RSPB by Loch Druidibeag where we went looking for eagles.
The terrain was a spongey moorland so good waterproof footwear was definately required and you had to stick to the designated path. The plantlife is a microcosm with everything low to the ground but there were flowers everywhere.
Bog Cotton (or Cotton Grass) was everywhere. The texture was just like cotton to the touch.
Plantlife was extremely small to cope with the weather.
The boggy landscape seemed ideal for the birds.
We drove on west to Lochskipport where the road ends, facing east towards the mainland. Islands are plotted everywhere and we watched as a boat headed out towards the fish farms that are common on the islands.
A boat heads out to sea towards the fish farms.
Islands are plotted everywhere in the distance.
Turning back, we headed west to the main road. It had been a good three hours walking and we were ready for a bite to eat but not before passing bye the wild ponies that roam the lands, reminding me of a trip to the New Forrest many years before.
Wild ponies eat the grass, a foal amongst them.
Flora MacDonald's Birthplace
Almost diagonally across from where we stayed was the birthplace of Flora MacDonald. We had previously visited her grave on the Isle of Skye so this kind of completed the circle. A tall cairn-like structure stood in the middle with a plaque surrounded by the stones that made up the shape of the croft with a gap to where the doorway would have been.
Plaque explaining the birthplace of Flora MacDonald
The remains of the croft where Flora MacDonald lived.
A view that has probably changed little since she was a child (minus the house and pylons, of course)
Isle of Lewis
We left South Uist and headed on north to the Isle of Lewis and Harris and this time there were no problems with the ferry, which would be taking from Berneray to Leverburgh.
Leverburgh in the distance.
Once we were off the ferry we were desperate to get a bite to eat and it didn't take long to find a fantastic cafe/restaurant with adjoining craft shops to stop at. The cafe had a veranda that looked over Scarista Beach which was just jaw dropping to view.
Scarista Beach on the Isle of Harris
The wind had eased up and the sun was out and so was nice to sit back and just enjoy the scenery without a care in the world.
On we headed to Mangersta on the west coast where we had a pod lined up and hosted by a lady by the name of Tosh. She was an absolute delight and I would highly recommend (you can view it here on airbnb) if you ever think of visiting.
It was about a two hour drive from the ferry but the roads were good, so it was a dawddle. Beaches stretched all the way up the west coast with a cove near to where we stayed. A local store and petrol station were nearby and I always made sure the tank was full.
As soon as we arrive, we dumped the cases and headed straight out for a walk to the cove with the coastline to our right. There's nothing like sea air to cleanse the head. It was beautiful.
The view from our pod in Mangersta
Stacks hug the coastline
Reaching the hilltop, we could look over to the cove and the stacks out at sea. Ahead stood a tall cairn with the mountains in the background. That'd make a lovely photo.
A cairn sits atop a hill with the mountains in the background
Our meander took us across the sandy beach and we continued till we arrived at the road which supposedly would take us back around to our pod, so we continued on up the road. We'd been walking for nearly an hour and started to think maybe we had taken the wrong route. We seemed to be walking further from our pod. Anxiety set in that maybe we were going the wrong way and, with the tide starting to come in, we'd be caught on the wrong side and end up walking for miles.
So we doubled back. We might be able to cross the cove beach before it was too late. It was all downhill towards the beach, so back we went only to notice a herd of deer watching us. Suddenly we realised they were everywhere.
Wild deer watching us
Deer on the hilltop
Eventually we got back to the pod, knackered. We'd only intended to go for a short walk and ended up being out for hours.
The Blackhouse and the Callenish Stones
The next day we wanted to really pack a lot in. We had a plan. We'd be travelling up the west of the island and there were a few places to try and see. Our journey would take us up as far as Arnol then from there we'd head back south and visit the locations we wanted to see. The sun was out and there was a mild breeze. Perfect conditions.
Map from Mangersta to Arnol
Arnol is literally a street that comes to a dead end. A few houses are plotted around and the path leads out to a cliff edge. The house, with a small shop for buying your ticket, is run by Historic Environment Scotland.
A typical Blackhouse.
Explanation of the Blackhouse:
The floor was generally flagstones or packed earth and there was a central hearth for the fire. There was no chimney for the smoke to escape through. Instead the smoke made its way through the roof. This led to the soot blackening of the interior which may also have contributed to the adoption of name blackhouse.
Interior of a Blackhouse where the peat is stored.
Blackhouse with raised wall to protect from the elements. Piles of peat lie to the side.
Entrance to the Blackhouse
Opposite the Blackhouse stood the remnants of original houses. The one thing you notice is how low they are and how small the people must have been.
Exterior of original Blackhouse
An illustration of how low the doorway is.
Adjacent to the original Blackhouses stood another old house but this one was designed and laid out as if from the 50s/60s. As you entered, you stepped back in time and there were many recognisable items that I remember seeing at my grandparents. A bar of Fairy Soap, a metal bread bin which apparently are worth over £50 these days (supporting my theory that you should never chuck anything away.
Interior of 50s/60s house
A small bed behind the curtains
From the street you could then walk out over the moorland to the cliff edge where another RSPB site was located. A popular place for bird watchers. Again, there was a signed path to follow but typically there was a couple ahead of us who had digressed from the path and were walking towards a small loch to get a closer look. There they were trudging over the land oblivious to any damage they might be doing to the plantlife and, in all probability, clearing any birds that might be there as they verged closer!
We headed across to the cliff where we could watch the birds nesting on the stacks.
The white plummage of the birds nesting on the rocks gives away their spot.
It had already been a fair bit of walking so we were ready to head towards our next destination and stop of for something to eat.
At Garenin, just south of Arnol, stands another Blackhouse village but this is much larger, with some of the houses available to rent. The village was more populated with visitors than Arnol and there was a nice cafe to replenish after the walking.
The Blackhouse village which also offered holiday accommodation
Narrow paths between the Blackhouses
View out to sea from the Blackhouse Village
It was easy to imagine what life must have been like all those years ago, but a hard life. Very picturesque in the summer but it must have been wild in the winters. I'm not sure I could have lived that life.
The Callanish Stones
Our next stop was the Callanish Stones. Older than the pyramids, I'm told which is just mind blowing! The good thing about visiting them is that, unlike Stonehenge, you can still walk right up to them and touch. I guess some people get very 'spiritual' when they are there but, again, it's just awesome to be standing there by such ancient monuments and try to imagine when it all began.
The Callanish Stones stand tall
We'd had a good venture through the Blackhouses and the Callanish Stones, so it was time to continue south to Reef Beach: one of many stunning beaches in the area.
Reef Beach is one of the larger beaches and it was nice just to relaxe after all our walking. Small islands could be seen off shore and the water was emerald blue and as clear as glass.
The surf comes in on Reef Beach
Reef Beach stretches across with clear blue water as clear as glass
Cliff Beach offered a good spot for surfers and there were a few challenging the waves. I'd been told that surfers from Hawaii had visited and discovered the need for wetsuits.
A surfer holds his balance at Cliff Beach
The waves crash towards a bird walking on the sand.
A bird stands on the rock as a wave crashes over
We'd packed a lot into the day and we were ready to head back. I was satisfied I'd managed to get a lot of photos and we'd learnt a lot about the island.
The Golden Road
It was a Sunday and nothing was open, so we decided to take a run down the Golden Road. Now they may call it that but it's anything but 'golden'.
Map showing the route of the Golden Road
Single track road for most of the journey, it winds up and down and in and out with hardly a place where you can stop. It would be a brave soul who took a journey through this land in a large camper van (and we passed one making the journey, so it is possible). Make sure your car is filled with petrol, especially on a Sunday (although when we got to Leverburgh there was a self service petrol pump).
It was certainly picturesque but there was only one spot where I managed to find a decent place to park and take some photos, but the weather was grim this day so it seemed more like an endurance test than a relaxing Sunday run. Still, we did it and it could be ticked off as an achievement.
Looking out from the Golden Road
On we continued till we came to the gothic St. Clement's Church in Rodel. Built in the late 15th century for the chiefs of Clan McLeod, it is 'atmospheric' with it's stone carvings on the wall and a staircase that leads up the tower. Good and evil are prominent in the messaging of the carvings which, I guess, went into putting the fear of God in the locals.
St. Clement's Church on the Golden Road
Stone carving of an angel and a demon with the angel holding a sword
Whoever this headstone was for, it was probably a sailor
We continued, circling around the south of the island and back up the west coast on the same journey when we originally arrived on the island. We had gone full circle and seen a fair amount of the south of the island and Harris.
West Coast Sea Trip and Birds A Plenty
We took the opportunity to take a trip out to sea on a rib trip (power boat) to catch the wildlife. It was a couple of hours hugging the coastline. I hoped we might see some dolphins in passing but it was not to be, but we were taken to some nice spots and were able to watch a variety of birds (I'm no expert but Shags, Cormorants and Gannets were the most common) and we got good sightings of large groups of seals. My zoom lense came in handy for some of the photos I took.
Seal with a newborn pup which had only been born earlier that day and not even ventured into the water.
We're being watched
A young seal rolls in the seaweed
We headed towards a cave and the smell of the birds just hit you.
A large cave like something out of a fantasy movie
The cave was filled with Shags and Cormorants. It was obviously breeding time with lots of chicks feeding.
A Shag cranes it's neck as it looks for potential food.
Chicks with their parents in their nest.
Gannet flying close to the water (not an easy shot with the boat and bird moving)
A cormorant flies past our boat
Gannets catching fish from the sea
A large flock of geese swim past
A Heron watches
The sea trip had been excellent and I'd got some good photos, though it'd been difficult with the movement of the boat and maybe the next time we'd try and get the trip for dolphins and whales, so it was time to head back but not before stopping of at Gallan Head at the tip of Aird Uig.
Here we could stop at a cafe then head up to the tip where there was an old RAF Radar Base. The land and buildings had been sold to the public so some looked like they were used for storage.
It was another spot reputedly good for whale watching, but nature doesn't always fit in with your agenda so there was no action this day, but the cafe was excellent where the owner cooked the food to order and it was well tasty.
Disused radar station at Gallan Head
A stone circle had been created with a very 'new age' feel.
Stone circle in Gallan Head
We had managed to see a lot of Lewis and Harris and it was time to move on to the last part of our tour but before we left, we took a last walk in Mangersta and tried to find the bothy that had been built in memory of Linda Norgrove, who was tragically killed in Afghanistan. We had a map to provide directions and we headed off. The sun was setting and the sky was clear.
We passed the best road sign ever created offering us directions to her, there and nowhere.
Not the most reliable road sign but amusing all the same.
We continued on and passed a nice little art installation embedded in the side of a ditch, with a hand pouring a wine bottle onto a stone.
And off we continued over fields and fences towards the cliff trying to figure out where the heck we should be going. Now I should mention at this point that I have an abject fear of cliff edges. They petrify me. If I even see someone getting close to the edge I get palpitations all calmess dissipates.
So where we were heading was exactly that. The bothy sits on the very edge. To make matters worse the clear blue sky evening had morphed into bleak dark skies and the heavens suddenly opened and I mean it pelted down!....and we were not dressed for this downpour. The wind was picking up and we were closing in on the cliffside.
For all we tried, we couldn't find it. I knew we were close but I wasn't going any nearer to the edge. It was the only time it had rained this heavy and we just had to give up. We were drenched and we had to make the long trudge back to our pod. Never mind. Maybe another time (because we definitely hope to return).
We'd had a great time in Mangersta and our trips around this part of the islands. We sat and had a cup of tea with our host, Tosh, and her husband and thanked them for the brilliant time we'd had but it was time to move on to the final part of our journey. Stornoway was waiting for us.
I was surprised to find out that Stornoway only has a population of about 6,000 (excluding the rest of the island). For some reason I always thought it was bigger.
I had booked us an apartment in Church Street, which is mentioned in one of the crime author Peter May's books. That was a nice bonus.
I found the town to be very nice with it's old stone buildings and picturesque harbour looking over to Stornoway Castle.
By the harbour is the art installation dedicated to HMY Lolaire, an admiralty yaught that sank after hitting the rocks known as The Beast of Holm, with the loss of over 200 men.
The art installation of Lolaire
We wanted to head to the most northerly point on the island at the Butt of Lewis, which was only about an hours drive. There stood the lighthouse looking out to the Atlantic.
Lighthouse at the Butt of Lewis
A typical church with it's bell tower found all over the islands, on the road that connects Stornoway with the Butt of Lewis
From there we headed back down and to the eastern peninsula of Portvoller, a hotspot for dolphin and whale watching.
Lighthouse at Portvoller that is now a dog kennel/sanctuary
We were lucky to see some Minke in the distance but only with the binoculars. They were too far to take some photos, but two days earlier we'd heard the place was crammed with dolphins and whales, so I'd recommend this as a spot. I'd recommend Hebrides and NW Scotland Cetacean Sightings on Facebook as a source of info and photographs.
A small village on the edge just north of Portvoller
Our last port of call was to go for a meal at the Harbour Kitchen, which I'd highly recommend, finishing our meal off with cocktails in very convivial surroundings.
We'd reached the end of our tour. It had been brilliant and we'd done a lot, seeing places of interest and historical, the wildlife and the scenery. The weather, in general, had been kind to us but it was the beaches that really hit the spot. Hopefully we will be able to return some day.
For more you can visit www.hereandback.co.uk
All the best