An early breakfast on the Tuesday of my holiday in the Hebrides, before we were picked up for the drive to Uig to catch the ferry over to Tarbut on the Isle of Harris. We’d had two good days walking in (mostly) fine weather on Skye but now the skies had turned grey with rain in the air. It stayed changeable for the rest of the break.
Harris isn’t a true island as it’s part of the same land mass as Lewis. Harris occupies the more mountainous part of the island. In the past, travel between the two “islands” would have been difficult – even today there is only one road that connects them – and so there were effectively two communities isolated from each other.
The ferry took about 2 hours to sail across the grey seas of the Minch. We disambarked and then parked up. There had been a request by some of the party to call in at the Harris distillery and the Harris Tweed shop, both of which are by the ferry terminal, “to support the local economy” as Liz, one of our party, put it!
The Harris Distillery, which likes to call itself “The Social Distillery”, was founded in 2015 by a US-born musicologist, Anderson Bakewell. Intending to provide local employment it started off with a staff of 10 people and today employ almost 40 permanent staff. The aim is to create a Harris malt whisky, something that hasn’t been made legally on Harris before. The single malt will be bottled as The Hearach – the Gaelic name for an inhabitant of Harris – but as it needs time to mature in the cask it is not expected to be on sale for a few more years. In the meantime the distillery has produced Harris gin, for which they use nine botanicals, including local sugar kelp, that, we are told, ‘capture the elemental nature’ of the island. In it’s distinctive bottle it’s become quite a trendy tipple. I wasn’t buying as I was flying back to Manchester, but I had an idea for a birthday present…..
Shopping done it was back in the mini bus and then drove along the west coast of South Harris which is particularly noted for its beaches. We weren’t there to sunbathe – which is just as well given the grey skies and cool temperature – but to do some walking. The roads was narrow and mainly a single carriageway with passing places, but traffic was very light. We drove past the large beaches at Luskentyre and Seilebost and pulled into a layby just after Horgabost where we “disembarked” and crossed over the machair on to the sandy beach of Traigh Iar.
At the end of the beach we climbed a low hill up to the large prehistoric standing stone, known as the Macleod Stone. Erected about 4,500 years ago it stands 3 metres in a prominent location on the headland.
From the beach and the headland there were good views over the sea to the island of Taransay, Britain’s largest unoccupied island, about a mile off the coast, which was the location of BBC’s documentary series ‘Castaway 2000‘ .
We took a slightly longer route back to the minibus, with views over to Horgabost beach,
passing through a field of cows and their calves. One of the cows took a close interest in our party and get closer than comfort to some of the group.
We got back in the minibus and drove further down the coast road to the small settlement of Taobh Tuath (known as Northton in English) where we stopped at a “honesty shop” where we purchased some pasties and pastries for our dinner. We then set off on another walk over the machair towards the headland, crossing a couple more smaller, stunning sandy beaches
Our objective was a ruined late medieval chapel of Rubh’ an Teampaill.
There used to be a village here which the chapel would have “served”,. Another example of a Clearance settlement. The population were evicted in 18th Century.
Right next to the chapel there’s the remains of a Broch, an Iron Age round tower,
the stones of which were probably used in the construction of the medieval building.
Returning to the minibus we set off back to Tarbut where we had a table booked at the local hotel. To get there we took a diversion driving down the “Golden Road” that winds and twists between the rocks, lochans and rugged coastline on the eastern side of South Harris. It allegedly got its name because of the high construction cost. Before it was built there was no proper road on this part of the island and travel was difficult leaving the small settlements isolated from the rest of Harris. Many of the people evicted during the Clearance of the more fertile land on the west coast ended up here having to try a scrape a living on the barren rocky land.
Returning to the main road we stopped at a small gallery of the Hebridean Design Company near Tarbut, owned by Doug, a friend of our guide, where we were able to reinvigorate ourselves with a coffee. The gallery specialises in artistic glassware and rather original designs embroidered onto Harris Tweed. More “supporting the local economy” was in order!
Back in Tarbut we enjoyed a meal at the Hotel Hebrides Restaurant before returning to the minibus and driving along the spine road, across the mountains, onto Lewis and onwards to it’s capital Stornoway where we were staying for the second half of our trip.
We’d been promised a fine day for the Monday when a longer walk was planned, but it was grey and overcast when I woke up. It stayed like that during a long drive across the island, taking about an hour, to Broadford where we stopped to stock up with supplies for our dinner. A gang of workmen beat us to the sandwich counter and nearly cleaned it out leaving us a limited choice! We grabbed most of what was left! There was a strong, cold wind blowing offf the sea and I was beginning to doubt that I’d brought enough layers with me.
Returning to the minibus we drove down a narrow lane to Strath Suardal where we parked up near the ruined former Parish Church of Cill Chriosd (Christ’s Church) and graveyard. There was still a cold wind – although not as strong as by the coast – but there were signs that the cloud was beginning to clear.
We booted up, wrapped up, and set off down a path on to the moors, following the route of an abandoned railway line that at one time was used to transport marble from nearby quarries which had been in use until the early 20th Century.
Further on, athe OS map showed that we were walking through a wooded area, there wasn’t a tree in sight. Just lots of peat bogs.
The path headed towards Loch Eishort – a sea Loch
As we approached the shore we could see the Isle of Rhum on the horizon.
Close to the shore we could see the remains of a ruined crofting settlement. This had once been the village of Boreraig whose population had been forcibly removed during the Highland Clearances – a notorious event in Scottish history.
In the 18th and early 19th centuries landowners, particularly Clan chieftans who had been absorbed into the British ruling elite following the Battle of Culloden, livng extravagent lifestyles accumulated large debts so looked to maximise their income by raising their tennants rents. However, they soon discovered that they could make more money by establishing large-scale sheep farms on the land. To achieve this they brutally evicted their tennants, who scraped a living by crofting, small scale fishing and gathering kelp from the sea shore. Families were forcibly ejected from their homes and, in some cases the thatched rooves were put to the torch. Often the landlords “offered” “assisted passages” for their tenants to emigrate, notably to Canada, and Australia. In practice, the landless tennants had nowhere else to go so had little choice but to board the ships the landlords arranged to carry them away. Conditions on the ships were poor to say the least and many of the passengers died of disease or hunger before they reached their destination.
Boreraig was one of the last village to be “cleared” in 1852 by their landlord, Lord Macdonald. His motivation, apparently, was ‘benevolence, piety, and humanity … because they were too far from the church‘. (source : https://canmore.org.uk/site/11562/skye-boreraig). Nothing to do with naked greed, then! Today the remains of the tennants’ homes bear witness to the tragedy.
After a short stop to contemplate the ruins, the injustice, lack of benevolence or piety and the inhumanity, we carried on along the shore of the loch, stopping after a while to eat our dinner on the rocks overlooking the water
We carried on, gently climbing and then turned a corner to be greeted by a view of the Black Cuillins – clear of cloud (well almost completely clear) for the first time during our stay on Skye.
These iconic mountains are composed of gabbro, a coarse igneous rock, also found on Carrock Fell in the Lakes which I’d climbed a few weeks before. The Black Cuillins, though are almost certainly well out of my comfort zone these days.
The weather continued to improve
The geologist Sir Archibald Geikie witnessed the forced evictions from Suisinish: ‘As I was returning from my ramble a strange wailing sound reached my ears at intervals on the breeze from the west. On gaining the top of a hill on the south side of the valley, I could see a long and motley procession wending along the road that led from Suisnish. It halted at the point in the road opposite Kilbride, and there the lamentation became long and loud … Every one was in tears; … and it seemed as if they could not tear themselves away. When they set off once more, a cry of grief went up to heaven; the long plaintive wail, like a funeral coronach, was resumed; and, after the last of the emigrants had disappeared behind the hill, the sound seemed to re-echo through the whole wide valley of Strath in one prolonged note of desolation’.
Taken from “Western Seaboard: An Illustrated Architectural Guide”, by Mary Miers, 2007. Published by the Rutland Press http://www.rias.org.uk
Carrying on along the path, the rounded hills of the Red Cuillins began to dominate
I could probably manage to climb some of these if I put my mind to it!
The path continued on towards the loch shore and then veered off and joined the minor road to Broadford. A mile or so along the tarmac, dodging a few cars, and we were back at the ruined church and graveyard.
It had been a good, walk with great views and historic interest.
We all changed out of our boots and drove back to Portree where we parked up and headed off to the pub for our evening meal. I snapped this view across the loch towards the mountains from the car park after our meal.
A good way to end our last full day on Skye. We had a ferry to catch the next morning.
It had started to rain as we left Inverness, and was drove down the increasingly winding road alongside Loch Ness, past Fort Augustus and over the bridge to Skye the rain became heavier and an increasingly strong wind began to blow. So when we reached the island the rain was coming at us horizontally and visibility was so bad that it was impossible to see the mountains. We drove around for a while and then our guide, John, decided he’d drive us over to the Coral Beach and see whether the conditions were good enough for a short walk. We were lucky. The rain had all but stopped, although there was a strong wind. Undeterred, we booted up, donned our waterproofs and braved the conditions.
The beach, which is just north of Dunvegan on the north side of the island, is made from crushed white coral like Red Coralline seaweed, (also known as Maërl). On a sunny day with the waters turning bright turquoise it looks like something you’d expect to see in the tropics. Not so much during our visit, mind!
It’s a very popular tourist attraction. But on a wet and windy day we had it more or less to ourselves, although there were a small number of brave soles leaving as we arrived and a few others arriving as we were returning to the minibus.
The first section of the beach is covered by black rocks. We made our way tentatively across them, trying to avoid slipping
and then walked along the sandy shore and then climbed the Ghrobain, a small hill at the end of the beach.
It was a bit of a struggle to avoid being blown back down again but from the summit we had a good view over the deserted sands.
We descended down the steep slope of the hill and headed back to the minibus. It was time to make our way to our accommodation. Our group was split between two outstanding B and B’s. I was staying at Ronan House, where I had a twin room to myself and access to a guest’s lounge with a view over the valley and nearby loch.
I had a shower and changed, and not long after the mini-bus returned to collect us and take us to Portree, the main town on the island, for our evening meal.
The forecast for the next day promised a major change. We kept our fingers crossed!
I’ve wanted to visit the Scottish Islands for a long time but never got round to actually organising a trip other than an abortive visit to Arran which had to be cancelled due to an impending storm. But now I’ve got more time on my hands I decided I really ought to sort something out. One of the problems was deciding where to start – which islands should I visit, where should I go and what should I do when I got there and where should I stay? To resolve these questions I took inspiration from John, the husband of Anabel the Glasgow Gallivanter, who had joined an organised cycling trip along the length of the Outer Hebrides. So I looked at the available options and booked a week’s walking holiday on Skye, Harris and Lewis with Hidden Hebrides, who specialise in small group trips. They organised everything (except my journey too and from Inverness where the group gathered to be transported to Skye) – transport, accommodation, meals and routes – which really took the stress out of the holiday and meant I could really relax and enjoy myself. The only thing they couldn’t organise, of course, was the weather and as this was the Hebrides we had a mixture of brilliant sunshine, wind and rain! There’s a lot to write up about this trip so this post will provide a quick overview.
I’ve never done a group holiday before so was a little worried about whether I’d be the odd one out and whether I’d get on with the other people in the group, but there were no problems. There were only 7 of us (the maximum on Hidden Hebrides holidays is 8) and we all had something in common – a love of walking. There were 2 Scottish couples who were close friends but this didn’t create any difficulties. The other two members of our party, were like me, solo travellers – one Dutch and one Brit who had, until recently, lived in Manchester. Everyone mixed and gelled very well.
I travelled up to Inverness by train – An Avanti Pendolino to Edinburgh where I transferred to the Scotrail train to Inverness. It was a full day journey and the second leg took longer than the first, but that was compensated by the excellent views out of the window as we made our way relatively slowly with regular stops via Perth and then through the Cairngorms.
A slight delay meant I arrived in Inverness just after 5 pm. I checked in my hotel – the Premier Inn beside the river Ness – and, as it was a beautiful evening – took a walk along the river to the Ness Islands before my evening meal.
The next day wasn’t so nice. It was a grey start with rain promised and the latter started as I made my way to the station to join our guide and the rest of the group.
After the introductions we loaded our gear into the mini-bus and set off on the road to Skye. The rain got heavier and heavier during the journey which took us along the banks of Loch Ness (no monster seen – the weather was far too miserable so it must have stayed down in the depths of the loch!) and then on to the Kyle of Lochash where we crossed over the bridge onto the island. On the way, we stopped off at Eilean Donan to take in the view of the castle which has featured in films and TV programmes including the well known Highlander film while we ate our sandwiches. It’s very picturesque, even on a miserable day
After returning to the mini bus it was only a short drive before we were on the Isle of Skye where the weather continued to deteriorate until we were being battered by horizontal rain and strong winds.
We drove around for a while but the rain and low cloud meant there was little we could see of the the high mountains and the conditions were not conducive for enjoying a walk. Nevertheless, we managed to get out of the van for a walk on the Coral beach when the rain eased up. It wasn’t half windy though!
It was good to get out and stretch our legs and enjoy some fresh (and it was fresh) air and the scenery was pretty good, despite the conditions.
Returning to the van we drove over to our accommodation for the first 3 nights of our break. The group was split between two B and Bs and I had a room in the really excellent Ronan House, a real 5 star stay.
After we’d had time to settle in our Guide, John, returned to pick us up and with the rest of the group we drove over to Portree, the main town on the island, where we had a superb meal at the Cuchullin Restaurant on the main square.
After a good night’s sleep and an excellent breakfast, the early mist started to clear, promising a fine day – a complete change compared to when we arrived.
John, our Guide, who decided on the walking route depending on conditions, drove north from Portree, past the Old Man of Storr up to the Quairaing at the northern end of the Trotternish ridge. The circular walk is very popular which isn’t surprising due to the spectacular, rugged and dramatic scenery and the views, on a beautiful day, over to the Scottish mainland and the Western Isles.
After a drive round the northern coast we took a short walk to stretch our legs up the pretty, so called “Fairy Glen” near Uig.
In the evening we had another tasty meal in Dunvegan.
We were promised another good day on the Monday but it started out rather grey and chilly. We drove over to Broadford, where we picked up supplies, and then on to the Strathaird Peninsula. Our walk took us past historic Clearance villages, along a sea loch with views over to the islands of Eig and Rum, and then, just after the cloud cleared and the weather turned bright and sunny, as we turned a corner, we finally got a view of the magnificent Cuillin range of mountains.
We were back in Portree for our evening meal
before returning to the B and B. We had an early start the next day as we had to catch the ferry from Uig over to Tarbert on the Isle of Harris.
The next three days would be spent on Harris and Lewis. Although nominally two “islands” they are actually part of the same land mass, which constitutes the 3rd largest island in the British Isles. Harris constitutes the mountainous southern part of the island with the larger Lewis being flatter (although not exactly flat!) and dominated by peat bogs.
The ferry took just short of 2 hours to reach Tarbet where we disembarked and made straight to the Harris Tweed and Harris Gin outlets which other members of the group were keen to visit to “support the local economy”. After they’d spent their money (!) we set out to visit the renowned beaches of the western coast.
After a drive along the dramatic twisting and turning “Golden Road” on the eastern side of the island – so called because of the cost involved in its construction – and a meal in Tarbert, we drove down the spine road over to Stornoway, the main town on the island, on Lewis where we settled in to our accommodation for the next three nights. Not as fancy as Ronan House, my room was well appointed and comfortable.
The next day we drove through the rain over the peat bogs to the west of the Island and the remote settlement of Uig (same name as the port on Skye) with it’s magnificent beach where the renowned Lewis Chessmen were discovered.
We parked up near the small Abhainn Dearg Distillery and then set out in the rain for a walk along the dramatic cliffs nearby. Fortunately the rain eased off early in our walk.
Returning to our starting point we left our packs in the van. We then set off for a walk across the beach while John drove over to meet us at the other end .
The weather forecast for the next day wasn’t at all promising so no long walks were planned. During the morning, one of the highlights of the tour, was a visit to Marbhig, a crofting village in the South Lochs region of Lewis. Our guide, although British and from the flat lands of Peterborough, had married a local woman and lived on a croft in the village. As we took a walk around the village he explained about the crofting system, the way of working the land, how peat was cut for fuel, the history of the Clearances and the Pairc area crofts. A real inside view.
We had another half day in Stornoway before catching our ferry back to te mainland. We spent it exploring the grounds of Lews Castle, a Victorian Neo-Gothic Stately Home built for James Matheson who owned the island, which overlooks the town
and then visiting the excellent little museum where there were a small number of Lewis Chessmen displayed, which are on a long term loan from the British Museum.
After a visit to the shops in town to “support the local economy” we made our way to join the minibus ready for the ferry journey over to Ullapool on the mainland.
Then we drove back to Inverness for the end of the holiday. The 4 Scots were dropped off at the station to catch their train to Edinburgh while the rest of us were taken to our respective accommodation. We were all staying close to each other so decided to meet up for a final meal.
As there were engineering works on the railway I’d booked a flight back to Manchester from Inverness. This had the advantage of allowing me to return home for the Challenge Cup semi final when we were playing our old “enemy” Saint Helens. I shared a taxi with Liz, who was booked on the same flight. Despite a message to say the flight was going to be delayed we actually left on time and arrived ahead of schedule in Manchester! I said goodbye to Liz and waited for J to pick me up and drive me home. I arrived in good time for the match which, after a nail biting second half, we won!
I’d really enjoyed the holiday. The weather had been mixed, but this was the Hebrides. (I’ve heard that it rains on Harris and Lewis 2 days out of 3!).
I hadn’t done as much walking as I’d hoped, partly due to the weather but also the preferences of the whole group had to be considered. But I had a good time, had seen some magnificent scenery, visited some historic monuments, learned about the history of the islands . I’d enjoyed having some company, making a change from my usual solo walks and trips. I’d definitely consider booking another guided small group walking holiday, probably with Hidden Hebrides (I’d certainly recommend them to anyone considering a walking trip on the Scottish Islands). I quite fancy the Shetlands next!
Well, this has been quite a long summary. Despite that, I’ve a lot more I want to write up to record my memories. So more posts to follow!