Hebridean Adventure / Financial Times
Wind-lashed and weary-legged, we cycle up a headland carpeted in lush green grass and wild flowers to a tall, red-brick lighthouse overlooking a high cliff and the last few rocky outcrops. Beyond, the Atlantic stretches away to the horizon. We’ve finally made it, and we dismount to celebrate our modest achievement with a bottle of Scotch and a flurry of photos.
Over the previous week the five of us — all sixty-something Londoners anxious to prove we are not yet moribund — have cycled, kayaked, swum and walked from the lighthouse at the southernmost tip of the Outer Hebrides (or very nearly) to this one at the Butt of Lewis, the northernmost tip. It was less a holiday than a boot camp for the ageing. It was a challenge that pushed us close to our physical limits, but one whose hardship was mitigated by the stunning views, amazing skies and brilliant light of an archipelago whose 27,000 people are outnumbered by seals.
Had it rained all week, as it might easily have done in this part of Scotland, it would have been a different story: nowhere so beautiful can also look so bleak. But it didn’t, and despite our aching limbs we felt exhilarated, invigorated and, most important, rejuvenated.
The first time I consciously set eyes on the Outer Hebrides was on a transatlantic flight some 20 or 30 years ago. An hour after leaving Heathrow I looked out of the window and saw a string of impossibly lovely islands with bare green mountains and startling white beaches lapped by turquoise waters.
It was a vision I never forgot, so earlier this year I contacted Matt Barratt, a friend who leads outdoor expeditions on Skye, and suggested he devise a trip that would allow a small group to explore them. Make it different, I added. And testing. He took me at my word.
We duly left London for Glasgow one Friday, and caught an early train to Oban in the morning. From there a ferry delivered us to the small, picturesque port of Castlebay on the isle of Barra five hours later. We walked to a clean and pleasant hostel overlooking a squat castle built on a rock in the bay, and after a good night’s sleep we reported for the first stage of our odyssey.
Our goal was to kayak 10 miles down to the tiny, uninhabited island of Berneray at the archipelago’s southern tip. Our genial guide, Chris Denehy, swiftly scotched that idea because of the blustery weather, choppy waters and our inexperience. We instead spent several exhausting hours paddling past a long-abandoned village on Vatersay, the odd otter and various islets covered in shags and gannets, to a seagirt dome of rock and grass called Sandray, which the government once considered using as a site for dumping nuclear waste.
There we camped on a pristine beach, watched a seagull battling a seal for a fish, and collected every last bit of driftwood to make a fire because, like much of the rest of the Outer Hebrides, Sandray is treeless. Our excitement at camping on an uninhabited island was tempered by the rain that sent us scurrying prematurely to our tents. During the night it poured, but we woke to sun, white sand and a dazzling blue sea.
Back in our kayaks, we rounded a headland on Sandray’s south-eastern corner and saw Berneray’s lighthouse in the distance, so we at least set eyes on the southernmost point. We then battled through a serious swell to the south-western corner where we were rewarded with an amazing sight before heading home. Passing through a narrow channel between flat rocks, we found ourselves surrounded by a colony of seals — literally scores of them flopping into the water or popping up before, behind and beside us.
The next morning we took a 30-minute ferry to Eriskay — our last sight of Barra being the beach that doubles as its airport. There we were met by five new bikes, a van full of provisions and Barratt himself, wearing a knowing grin on his face.
We rode round to the north side of Eriskay, where a perfectly good causeway — replete with a sign warning motorists of crossing otters — links that small island to South Uist. We were not allowed to use it. We instead had to don wetsuits, plunge into freezing water and swim across the 1,000-yard channel. I would like to report that we found bottles of scotch from the SS Politician, the ship carrying 28,000 cases of malt whisky that sank there in 1941 and inspired Compton Mackenzie’s book Whisky Galore. Alas, we did not.
We spent the rest of the day cycling 45 miles up the A865 through South Uist and Benbecula to North Uist. It was a delight. The sun shone. The prevailing wind was behind us (don’t even think of doing this journey from north to south).
The A865, despite its designation, was for the most part a smooth, gently undulating single-track road that carried us past moorland, pastures, lily-covered lochs and banks of dog roses, crocosmia and bright red fuchsias. There is no industrial farming here. We saw sheep shearers and peat cutters, and the ruined birthplace of Flora MacDonald, who in 1746 helped Bonnie Prince Charlie escape to Skye in the guise of a maid.
The modern pebble-dash bungalows and many abandoned crofts randomly scattered across the countryside somewhat mar its beauty, as does Europe’s largest missile-testing facility, but to the east we enjoyed pleasant views of mountains and to our left tantalising glimpses of wild beaches and deep blue ocean. There is practically nowhere in the Outer Hebrides without some sort of sea view.
We spent the night at the Tractor Shed — a cluster of cosy, turf-covered huts overlooking an expanse of rich coastal grassland known as machair. As Barratt cooked dinner, the owner, a retired maths teacher called Duncan Griffiths, taught me to listen for rare corncrakes in the machair.
We woke the next morning to headlines heralding London’s hottest day on record and lashing rain. No matter. Griffiths took us to a neolithic burial mound and an Iron Age farmstead — the stone circles of its walls still clearly visible in the grass. We then climbed a hill to inspect a 5,000-year-old burial chamber known as Barpa Langass and, nearby, a 3,000-year-old stone circle called Pobull Fhinn. The Outer Hebrides are littered with ancient standing stones, burial mounds, fortified brochs and duns.
At noon, in true Hebridean style, the sky miraculously cleared. We cycled along a deserted lane around the northern coast of North Uist that was, we agreed, the most beautiful ride we had ever done. We then discovered, at Sollas, the most beautiful beach we had ever seen — though in truth everyone you meet in the Outer Hebrides has their own favourite beach.
A path led across an expanse of lush grass, through a bank of sand dunes as high as a house, to a perfect ellipse of bleached white sand massaged by ripples of aquamarine water. There was not a soul in sight. We stripped to our underwear and plunged in, shrieking with laughter.
I hoped that swim meant we would not have to swim across the 900-yard channel from North Uist to another island called Berneray where, in 1987, a youthful Prince Charles worked incognito as a crofter (where else in the UK could he have done that?). Again, there was a perfectly good causeway. But Barratt decreed otherwise: on went the wetsuits and a markedly less pleasurable 40 minutes in the water ensued.
We stayed that night at a hostel converted from a traditional Hebridean crofter’s “blackhouse” with thick stone walls, a thatched roof held down by nets and stones, and breathtaking views across the Minch to Skye. Barratt cooked again, for there are few pubs (but many chapels) on the Outer Hebrides. Another guest serenaded us on his accordion.
At 7.15 the next morning we caught a 40-minute ferry across a choppy sound to Leverburgh on South Harris, where we devoured bacon and egg baps at the harbourside “Buttybus”. We needed the fuel. Harris boasts beaches and views every bit as stunning as those of the Uists, but it is relentlessly mountainous.
We cycled four miles up one hill, lunched in Tarbert, then laboured up another never-ending hill to the foot of An Cliseam, the Outer Hebrides’ highest peak at 2,621ft. Barratt made us climb it, of course. It was steep and boggy. As we neared the top we were lashed by winds of elemental ferocity, so strong they all but knocked us over. Over every ridge another ridge appeared, but from the top we were rewarded with panoramic views of a world of sea, sky and rock — of Skye, of mainland Scotland, of Ben Mhor and Thacla on faraway South Uist.
We finally came to rest that night in another charming little whitewashed hostel, this one seven miles down a slender ribbon of tarmac at Rhenigidale.
A tiny clutch of cottages at the head of a narrow sea inlet, Rhenigidale has just 13 permanent residents and was accessible only by boat or foot until 1990, when it became the last community to be linked to the UK road network. There is still no WiFi or mobile phone signal, but Katie Langley, the hostel’s warden, now gets Tesco deliveries from Stornaway, 40 miles away.
The tyrannical (but really rather wonderful) Barratt did his best to break us. The penultimate day featured 35 miles of cycling, a five-hour yomp across the remote, boggy interior of Lewis, and a swim across Loch Langabhat, pushing our clothes before us in dry bags. We stopped, only briefly, to admire the Outer Hebrides’ most famous archaeological site — the standing stones at Callanish, which are older and, to my mind, more impressive than Stonehenge.
We spent our final evening at Gearrannan, a cluster of blackhouses that were abandoned in 1974 but have since been finely restored. There we sat happily on a bench, drinking wine as the reddening sun sank slowly towards the sea on one of those endless, northern summer evenings. No midges disturbed the peace of that lovely setting. Indeed, we had encountered none all week.
The last morning reminded us how fortunate we had been. From Gearrannan to the Butt of Lewis was 30 miles. Barratt had naturally arranged a strong headwind to punish our aching limbs. It was wet and cloudy, rendering the moorland bleak and desolate. But we slogged on, and as we rode triumphantly up to the lighthouse the sun broke through, transforming a grey, monochrome world into a blaze of colour to herald our arrival.