Back on the big island

This entry is part 9 of 9 in the series Outer Hebrides

Good bye to Castlebay, Isle of Barra

Today has been mostly a Hebridean cruise rather than drive. Nearly five hours on the ferry from Castlebay to Oban, running first across the Hebridean Sea, then through the Sound of Mull and finally crossing the Firth of Lorne. Kind of poetic names don’t you think?

The day started prosaically enough with an early breakfast in the hotel, just managing to beat the coach party to the gun and bag the best service. A 3-mile drive down to Castlebay, 50 mins before sailing, only to find a couple German-registered motorhomes already there. I don’t like national stereotypes, but come on… There was already a large ship in harbour so we were wondering why the ferry was so early, but a peep through the binoculars made it out to be the “Caledonian Sky”, a cruise ship. It started to disgorge passengers into rigid inflatable boats and ferry them to shore even as we watched. That’s something they could do with in Castlebay – a decent jetty to allow cruise liners to dock instead of having to ferry them ashore 8 at a time. As the prophet once said, build it and they will come.

MV Caledonian Sky

Shortly after our ferry, “Clansman” hammered into the bay like a speedboat and executed a 3-point turn to go astern to dock with the ferry ramp. It always impresses me how fast these big ferries go, right up until the last minute. I suppose with bow thrusters and all that gubbins they can easily turn in their own length. “Clansman” had come from Lochboisdale in South Uist, so there was no-one to disembark. I suppose it’s cheaper and quicker to take the little ferry across the Sound of Barra like we did on Saturday. Anyway, they made very short work of loading us and we were underway almost before I was sat down upstairs.

Across the Sea of the Hebrides from the deck of the Clansman

It was quite exciting leaving Castlebay, sailing past Kisimul Castle and out into the Hebridean Sea. Unlike the previous crossing this time the sea was like a millpond, a totally smooth crossing. After leaving Castlebay it was a bit same-y for the next hour, then we closed in on the Sound of Mull. This is a narrow channel with the Isle of Mull on our right and the Ardnamurchan peninsula on the left. Mainland Scotland in sight for the first time in a week! Or ‘the big island’ as Outer Hebrideans call it. In wasn’t long before we were passing within spitting distance of the town of Balamory, or Tobermory as it’s known outside of television. It’s a shame we don’t call as we pass so close by. I suppose it leaves me another island and town to visit another year though.

Balamory, sorry, Tobermory on Mull

There’s hills and mountains all around now and very quickly we seem to come within sight of Oban across the Firth of Lorne. It looks massive compared to the towns we’ve seen this week. Even Stornoway appears tiny by comparison. Once again we belt into the harbour and then I fail to see if we crash in to the jetty or stop in time because it’s back to the car to wait for the signal to leave. I am guessing we didn’t crash though because the there was only a gentle bump to signal arrival.

A familiar name in Oban

You hear stories about people from little islands overcome by the hustle and bustle of big towns when they visit? They’re not joking. One week away and Oban feels like London to the disembarking driver. There’s traffic lights many pedestrians and roads with two (or even more!) lanes. Of course it’s a Bank Hol Monday and it’s fine weather in early summer. Oban is packed with folks! We had fun with this new-fangled thing called finding somewhere to park, but eventually managed it and a look round the town. It seems much busier and more prosperous since the last time I visited – albeit a cold April day some years ago.

Sleepy views in Crianlarich

From Oban a straight run to Crianlarich (I put the satnav on. It said: your destination 42 miles. Turn right in 39 miles). Nice views over Loch Awe flew by at the breathtaking speeds of 50 and 60 mph. We were here in no time and checked in for the final stop of the night. Just 293 miles left to run tomorrow and the weather forecast for the very first time is wet. A fitting epitaph for a magical journey to the isles.

Crianlarich Hotel – our last stop before the run downhill and home

A lazy day in Barra (and Vatersay)

This entry is part 8 of 9 in the series Outer Hebrides

A lazy day in Barra (and Vatersay)
Castlebay, United Kingdom

Castlebay, United Kingdom

Thank goodness a lazy day on Barra without the need to be anywhere particularly at any time. A chance to actually bimble round the narrow roads like a tourist instead of blasting round like a local.

After a lazy brek we started out by heading out to the tiny island of Vatersay – our tenth and last island on this trip, so something of a milestone. For the record they were (north to south) Lewis, Harris, Berneray, North Uist, Grimsay, Benbecula, South Uist, Eriskay, Barra and now Vatersay. If I had got up early this morning I *could* have taken a boat ride out to the abandoned island of Mingulay, but I think I’ll leave that for another year!

Vatersay is connected by a causeway to Barra, so there’s only the man-made strip of tarmac to negotiate and suddenly the word ‘narrow road’ becomes entirely redefined. Previously I was of the opinion that if they had spent a little more time with the stone grader and a little less time concreting in ‘passing places’ signs, there would have been a lot less need for said signs. Here they seem to have forgotten a deal of the passing places, never mind the signs. But we follow the track for several miles until it peters out in a magnifcent curve of white beach, which seems to be highly popular with the camping and the kayaking crowd. There is also what looks like the world’s smallest post office, being pretty much a garden shed. Closed of course since it’s Sunday.

Retracing our tracks we come across a memorial to a crashed Catalina flying boat from WWII. Not only is there a memorial stone, but a large amount of the aircraft is still scattered across the hillside just above the sea.

Coming back off Vatersay, we again diverted down the airport road, but not stopping this time – the airport was actually closed on Sunday – straight on to the little harbour at Eoligarry. This is almost impossibly pretty, and we spent a while there just taking it in.

Lunch was back at the hotel; it was on our route and we didn’t fancy the Cafe Kismul again and didn’t know where would be open. It turned out there was a nice little cafe in the children’s centre next to the leisure centre, but we didn’t know that then. But after lunch it was on to Castlebay and a date with Donald MacLeod and his boat to Kisimul Castle. I have always fancied a look round there and it was surprisingly bigger than I expected inside. It’s been acquired by Scottish Heritage who are assessing it before deciding how to restore it. Meanwhile there’s a strong smell of tantalised timber as they have been spending a deal of money re-tiling and re-flooring.

A good couple of hours round the castle and Castlebay and we were ready for home the long way round (looping all round the island). In Northbay , over the harbour from the fish processing plant, we came across a community garden centre which was worth looking at. Nothing was bought though! Finally back to the hotel for dinner – we have an early start tomorrow to catch the long-haul ferry back to Oban and the mainland.

Down to Barra

This entry is part 7 of 9 in the series Outer Hebrides

Down to Barra
Borve, United Kingdom

Borve, United Kingdom

The final island ferry ride today as we head over from the Benbecula and the Uists to Barra and Vatersay. But first we have South Uist to look round on the way down!

Leaving the Orasay Inn, and paying due respect to the shrine of Our Lady of the Something or Other at the crossroads, we took the turning left and south for the first time. A short distance down the road was the ruined village of Milton, which was the birthplace of Flora MacDonald. Flora was the girl who helped Bonnie Prince Charlie to escape the English after the battle of Culloden, and is of course a national heroine as a result. There’s not a lot left of Milton these days, just some ruins and outlines where the village stood, though there is a monument where it’s thought Flora’s house was.

Further south from there is the town of Lochboisdale, which is yet another ferry port. This time the ferries make the long haul to Oban instead of Skye – a sure sign we’re getting further south. You can also catch a ferry here to Castlebay in Barra, but it’s quite a long crossing as it has to circle the island, so we’re not going to do that. So we had a pot of tea in the the Lochboisdale Hotel and continued southwards, crossing the causeway to the island of Eriskay. This is a tiny island with just a few residents, but from its lowest tip you can catch the ferry for the short (40 min) hop across the Sound of Barra to our final island stop at the Isles of Barra Beach Hotel.

We only have a short wait for the ferry (actually, it was waiting for us but the crew were having their dinner). There’s only a handful of cars and bikes to make the crossing, which takes just 40 mins, but turns out to be incredibly interesting. All around gannets dive for fish and as we come close to rocky outcrops we can see basking seals.

There is only a short drive from the ferry port to our hotel, so we quickly check in then head out to Castlebay just down the road. It being Sunday tomorrow, we’re somewhat concerned that everywhere will be closed and if we don’t see it today then we won’t. Castlebay is really busy with a couple of coach parties. However, we manage to walk round the town, visit the heritage centre (quite interesting) and take tea and a bun in the Cafe Kisimul. Castlebay is of course the place where “An Island Parish” was filmed, and it’s amazing how many things are recognisable. On this short visit I spot the owner of the Cafe Kisimul, Donald MacLeod the boatman, Father John-Paul’s car and I even pass Scraggie Aggie on her way back from the Co-op!

A word about the hotel. Frankly it’s in a stunning location next to a beach overlooking the Atlantic. It must be wild in a storm, but today it’s basking under the sunshine. Ok, it’s windy, but then it’s always windy here!

But that’s it for today. Tomorrow we have a quieter day on Barra including a wee trip to our last island, Vatersay.

Exploring the middle Uists and Benbecula

This entry is part 6 of 9 in the series Outer Hebrides

Exploring the middle Uists and Benbecula
Lochmaddy, United Kingdom

Lochmaddy, United Kingdom

Safely based in the Orasay Inn on the shores of Loch Charnon means that today we could explore some of the middle islands more fully. After breakfast we hit the great north-south road and retraced yesterday afternoon’s steps uphill and back towards Berneray. First stop was the ferry port of Lochmaddy in North Uist, arriving just as the giant CalMac ferry to Skye was in (yes, just like yesterday in Tarbert on Harris). There was a nice little museum, gift shop and cafe in Lochmaddy in which we wiled away a happy hour or so.

Back on the road it was north, north, north over the causeway, past the landing ramp from yesterday and on to the island of Berneray properly. On the east shore, after taking a series of increasingly narrow roads, we finally came to a car park by a vast curve of beach. There were probably half a dozen people in the whole area, and I never caught sight of more than two at a time. It seems incredible that something that would be fought over on the English mainland should be so deserted here.

After a good bit of beach combing, we headed back the way we had come, but at the bottom of the Berneray road, instead of turning left for Lochmaddy and home, we took the right fork round the top of North Uist and the ‘long way’ back. We seemed to spend ages driving past endless beaches interspaced with rocky shores, all of them deserted and basking in the sunshine, until we eventually turned off the road to climb up the steep sides of Cleitreabhal a Deas towards the radio masts and frankly very military-looking radar dome on top. The military clutter stopped us going too far, but at a viewing station part way up we looked back out towards the Atlantic to clearly see the silhouetted islands of Boreray and St Kilda. Turning 180 degrees towards the other side of the island, it was just possible to make out the faint blue outline of Syke, many, many miles away across The Minch.

Soon after, a large dark bird lazily circled overhead, moving away from us further up the hill. It was obviously a large raptor, easily recognisable by its size, soaring flight and wide, outstretched wing tips. I had my suspicions, but it wasn’t until an hour later at the RSPB nature reserve down by the shore at Balranald that the visitor centre identified it for us. Yes, there were a pair of Golden Eagles nesting nearby on the hill, currently raising a single chick. Obviously super thrilled to catch sight of one of those.

From Balranald (and another breathtaking white beach), we completed the circle by visiting the chambered neolithic tomb at Barpa Langass. It’s quite a hike from the car park, so I was slightly disappointed to find the interior of the tomb closed off for safety reasons. Ah well, cannot win them all.

Heading back south, we took another looped detour by the airport on Benbecula. It looks very large actually, though I think a lot of that is due to the presence of a military base alongside the airport. No flights came or went whilst we were there though. From there it was just a 20 minute ride back to the hotel and a nice tea.

Island hopping south

This entry is part 5 of 9 in the series Outer Hebrides

Island hopping south
Carnan, United Kingdom

Carnan, United Kingdom

Another travelling day today as we move from the north of Lewis, right down through Harris, over the Sound of Harris, through Berneray, South Uist, Grimsay and Benbecula, to the top tip of North Uist. It sounds a lot when put like that, but it’s only about 70-80 miles in total! Of course that involves a ferry crossing and numerous single-track roads, so it’ll eat up most of the day.

We didn’t check out of the hotel until quiet late, instead having a lazy breakfast and a last walk round Stornoway before departing. Not quite as sunny a start today either, with lots of big fluffy clouds about between the blue. The road was the route same as yesterday – unavoidable when there’s only one route anywhere – but still just as stunning. Places seemed to come up much faster now we knew where we were going and what to expect. We pulled into Tarbet just as the ferry for Uig was leaving, and boy it looks huge in that tiny inlet. They back out though at what seems like incredible speed, so must have done it a few times.

After a coffee in Tarbert, it was an all-too-quick drive through the stunning (and now sunny) scenery to Leverburgh and an hour’s wait for the ferry. Not wasted as I checked the pictures taken so far today and started writing this blog. The Leverburgh-Berneray ferry is quite small in comparison to the ones we have seen so far and there wasn’t a massive queue to get on. There’s very little ceremony with the loading, and you’re allowed to sit in your car on the open deck if you like. The first surprise was the journey across the Sound of Harris is tortuous in the extreme, with the ferry weaving back and forth across a seemingly unbroken blue sea. The chart in the passenger lounge with the ferry’s route marked on tells a different story, with shoals and reefs everywhere, and hence explains the zig zags.

When we finally reached Berneray at the tiny hamlet of Borgh, there was just a slipway and a CalMac waiting room to greet us. The problem with being early for these ferries though, is you’re first to board and also first to leave. Brilliant if you like a queue of local van drivers behind you pushing like crazy to get home for their tea. Bad enough on normal roads, but big not fun on single tracks with passing places, especially when you’re not sure where you’re going! Eventually I managed to let them all by and the rest of the drive to the hotel was completed more sedately, enjoying the view.

And it is a brilliant view of lochs, beaches and mountains. All of these islands are connected by causeways, and we despatched them almost too quickly to keep track. It wasn’t long before we were turning off the north-south road for our accommodation at the Orosay Inn, overlooking Loch Charnan.

Tomorrow there’ll be a chance to backtrack slightly and actually explore all those island. Hopefully the weather will stay fair for us.

Exploring Harris

This entry is part 4 of 9 in the series Outer Hebrides

Exploring Harris
Tarbert, United Kingdom

Tarbert, United Kingdom

Well today has been interesting. Yesterday I was impressed by the wild picturesqueness of Lewis, only to have that completely ripped up and stamped upon by Harris. The place is just impossibly pretty, especially with the endless sunshine that we’re seeing so far this week.

Today’s plan was to check out Tarbert, the principal town of Harris located about 40 miles south of Stornoway, and also visit a recently-opened Harris Tweed shop a bit further south from there. Well the drive to Tarbert was easy enough – fast roads again with only a slight slow down for some roadworks which we had to negotiate in convoy behind a ‘pace vehicle’. The only thing that separates the ‘islands’ of Lewis and Harris is a range of high hills, so it wasn’t long before we were dropping down the other side. Perhaps because they don’t have so many articulated trucks, the Hebridean roads sometimes take a very literal approach to crossing hills, going straight up and down at some impressive angles rather than winding back and forth along the count ours like they do on the mainland.

Tarbert turns out to be very small indeed. The ferry for Uig on Skye departs from here (and indeed, it’s the shortest ferry crossing you can do to get to the top two islands in the Outer Hebrides). The harbour is quite small, and the gear for loading cars on to the full-sized ro-ro ferry that crosses from here to Skye is impressively large in the setting. We looked round Tarbet and partook of a pot of tea and we were under way again by 11:30. The road on from Tarbert narrows dramatically – a proper island road, single-track with passing places. Just an handful of miles and we were turning off on to an even smaller and windier road to Drinishader and the Harris Tweed shop located in an old school.

Drinishader was a nice little hamlet and the shop was really well organised and run. We ended up buying perhaps a little more than planned, but hey, we’re not here every day. Rather than head back the way I had come, I completed the loop of the little road back to the main road. That was fun because it was so tiny and twisty and impossibly picturesque. There are lots and lots of little houses and communities out here. I am not sure what everyone does for a living, but the place where they live is beautiful.

Back at the main north-south road, only half the day was done, so we kept going south to check out what looked like a very large beach on the map. Not long after, descending out the hills… holy molly, that’s a beach and a half. It was a place called Tràigh Losgaintir leading out to the Sound of Taransay (Taransay is the island used in the TV series “Castaway”, which we have to blame for Ben Fogle). The tide was out and there were miles and miles of white sand and not a soul in sight. I stopped for some pictures alongside a Swedish couple (or at least their Volvo number plates read ‘S’). “Wow”, we both said.

There was no reason not to keep going south, so we did, and reached the bottom of the island at Leverburgh in time for a late lunch. This is where we’ll catch the ferry again tomorrow, and indeed we saw the ferry come in. A much smaller ferry this time, it holds just a couple of dozen vehicles and takes only an hour to cross the Sound of Harris. Once the cargo had cleared, we turned our nose north behind them and retraced our steps on the 2 hour drive back to Stornoway in time for tea.

Anticlockwise round Lewis

This entry is part 3 of 9 in the series Outer Hebrides

Anticlockwise round Lewis
Port of Ness, United Kingdom

Port of Ness, United Kingdom

A circular trip round the Isle of Lewis today, taking in many of the sights, especially in the north and west. Surprise number one; Stornoway is actually much more substantial than I expected, with at least a couple of supermarkets and a fairly busy high street. Surprise number two; despite everyone saying the roads will be wee and narrow and slow, they actually turn out to be normal A-roads with fast 60mph sections and slower village sections, just like anywhere on the mainland. Surprise number three; no midges. Not a one.

From breakfast we took the road north as far as we could go. Firstly the right fork to Port of Ness, a lovely little harbour that, if situated just about anywhere more accessible in the British Isles, would be swarming with ice cream vans and parents with their kids. As it was there was just us and a postman on his tea break. From there we backtracked a couple of miles and then took the left fork to the Butt of Lewis, (cease sniggering at the back), the most northerly point on the islands and so a signboard told us, a Guinness World Record holder for the most windy place in the UK. We can attest to its credibility as it was blowing a gale out there, even though the skies were totally cloudless. We were also joined by a couple of other groups of tourists, so we didn’t have the island to ourselves after all.

A cup of tea was starting to beckon, so it was a fast blat down the west coast (yep, A-road) to the Callanish Stone Circles and visitor centre. A welcome cafe here provided sustenance with a view to die for, whilst we waited for a coach party (all off, all on in 25 mins) to see stuff and go. We then hiked up to the largest stone circle which we shared with just a handful of other people. Quite awe-inspiring and a lot larger than I thought it was going to be. Really quite impressive and well worth the visit.

It was a bit of a backtrack of a few miles then to Carloway Broch, a well-preserved (one of the best) iron-age fortified farmhouse we’d passed on the way in. There were limited facilities here, which is why we’d gone by the first time. No-one *really* knows how Broch’s worked, what they were like inside, or why they were built. The best guess is fortified farmhouse-cum-baronial hall, but they must have been impressive structures in their prime. Once again the views were spectacular.

Further up the road was the black house museum, dedicated to the more recent (living memory even) form of dwelling on the island. However, the black houses themselves were under repair, it was four quid each to go in, and we were heritage out by this point, so we elected to give detailed inspection a miss and complete the loop back to Stornoway for a cup of tea.

Tea duly quaffed, we headed out past the airport on to a peninsular road with more epic views, again ending in a harbour by the sea. A slight diversion was made to the monument remembering the HMY Iolaire. This was a nasty story recently mentioned by Neil Oliver in the TV series “Coast”. The Iolair was returning to Stornoway in bad weather at the end of the First World War filled with Hebridean troops, when it ran aground on to the notorious rocks, the so-called Beasts of Holm. Over 180 soldiers who had survived the Great War were drowned, less than a mile from the harbour and home. One of the saddest tragedies of the war, and one of the reasons there are so many cenotaphs and war memorials dotted around the island.

But on that happy note, that’s it for today. Tomorrow we try our luck south with the island of Harris. Bring it on!

Over the sea to the outer Hebrides

This entry is part 2 of 9 in the series Outer Hebrides

Over the sea to the Outer Hebrides
Stornoway, United Kingdom

Stornoway, United Kingdom

I’ve started writing today’s notes in the middle of the Minch whilst our boat, the MV Isle of Lewis bounces and crashes through a rough and broken sea. We’re actually taking it ‘green over the bow’ once in a while and it feels like a proper ship on a proper sea. The purser has told me that yesterday the sea was flat calm, but of course he takes the gloss off my wonder by adding that it can get heck of a lot rougher than this.

It’s been a fairly laid back day really. The hotel didn’t start serving breakfast until 8am, and there was a coach party stood waiting, ready like a pack of greyhounds in their traps, to be allowed into the dining room, grab their scoff in their allocated 30 minutes and be on their coach to heaven knows where. We were allowed a more leisurely dining experience and set off after 9am heading for Ullapool by way of Inverness.

The first stop was a wee little town call Carr Bridge, just because we liked the look of the bridge from the car and stopped to see it closer. It turns out to be an old packhorse bridge, built across the river Dulnain in 1717. It was damaged in floods over a 100 years later and has looked like in the photo ever since. Very picturesque and judging by the solitary beer can in the middle, something of a dare for the local youth.

From there is was a fast run along the A9 to Inverness, where we stopped for a drink and a poke round. A nice little town, but seemingly full of people pulling little suitcases on wheels. It”s a main railway terminus and folks seemed to be busy shuttling between the railway and the bus station. There were a few shops to wander round and a Victorian Market to explore (plus drink latte in). All very pleasant. It had gone all grey and cloudy and chilly by this time, so we pressed on a little and soon the nice weather came back to us.

From Inverness the road because a proper windy A-road of the type I was much more expecting to see in Scotland. Still 60mph fast for the most part, but less like a motorway. The scenery was spectacular – much more so than our run through Aviemore and Cairngorm yesterday in my opinion. At one point we came upon the unexpected sight of the massive Glascarnoch hydro-electric dam straddling the valley. Stopped for a look and to take a snap and could hear the echoed thunder of military aircraft somewhere in the glens.

All too soon Ullapool appeared; a seaside town of white-painted cottages basking in the sunshine. We were in time for a late lunch, but really a bit too early for the ferry, which doesn’t sail until 5:30pm. I should have let Wendy look around that heather nursery back near Nethy Bridge this morning!

Still there are less pleasant places to spend a couple of hours than looking out to sea on a sunny Monday afternoon. Eventually the ferry did turn up, and after a very complicated loading plan to get all the vehicles on board, we set off. It was only when we cleared the last headland that the bouncing started. By the time we reached the shelter afforded by the bulk of the island of Lewis, I think most of us were grateful that the seas were calm again. A long wait on the car deck and suddenly we were sprung free on to the streets of Stornoway and looking for the Royal Hotel. It turned out to be pretty easy to find – follow the road from the harbour and there it is. Finally we’re at an actual destination instead of travelling to get there. Tomorrow we get a chance to explore Lewis, the reason we’ve come so far.

(I would drive) 500 miles

This entry is part 1 of 9 in the series Outer Hebrides

(I would drive) 500 miles
Nethy Bridge, United Kingdom

Nethy Bridge, United Kingdom

Whoo, that’s been a heck of a long drive today – 372 miles door-to-door with just over 100 to go tomorrow. Stornoway really is 500 miles away. It wasn’t such a bad drive though, despite the doom-mongers who said it would take forever. Scotland seems to have built a lot of fast road since they last traveled because it was motorway all the way to from Cheshire to Stirling, dual-carriageway from there to Perth, and then fast, straight A-road to on Inverness. Not that I have quite reached Inverness today – stopped on Speyside just north of Aviemore at a wee little place called Nethy Bridge, I chose it because it’s where the local coach tour company call on their way to the Western Isles, and I thought if a coach can do it, I can as well only quicker (maybe).

The weather for the trip can only be described as unseasonable and we were grateful for the air con keeping the inside of the car cool. Our day comprised almost entirely of a slog north with stops for refreshment every couple of hours. When we finally reached it, Aviemore has that slightly startled look that only a ski resort basking in 25 degree sunshine can have. We had tea in “The Winking Owl” which was modelled on a ski chalet and took ages to cook our meal. Nethy Bridge itself consists mostly of a hotel, a pub, a Spar shop and a handful of houses. Oh and the eponymous bridge over the river Nethy of course. It’s not a grand bridge or even large bridge, but it is and old bridge and was designed by Thomas Telford and they seem proud enough of it to floodlight it at night. The Nethybridge Hotel is a grand old-fashioned motor lodge with a slightly run-down air and is at least an order of magnitude larger than any other building in the village. It’s comfortable enough though.

Anyway, that’s the first major travel hurdle overcome. Just a ‘short’ 100-mile trip to Ullapool tomorrow and then a ferry ride across to the island of Harris. Can’t wait!