All good things come to an end and so it was with my week in the Hebrides. Our boat left for Ullapool early afternoon so we spent the morning wandering round the ground of Lews Castle, visiting the very good small museum and “supporting the local economy”.
Lews castle overlooksStornoway from across the harbour, standing in its impressive grounds. It was built between 1844–51 as a country house for the drug baron Sir James Matheson, who had purchased the island a few years before. The Matheson family sold the estate, including the mansion tto Lord Leverhulme in 1918. William Hesketh Lever was a Bolton lad who, at one time, lived in the same street in Wigan where I used to live (not at the sme time, I would add!). But, that isn’t is main claim to fame! He founded the industrial giant, Lever Brothers, manufacturer of, what at the time was a revolutionary product, Sunlight soap. He was something of a philantropist and is well known for his Port Sunlight “model village” that he had built on the Wirral for workers at the company’s main production plant.
He had a grand plan for the Island, intending to industrialise and, as he saw it, modernise and bring the island into the 20th Century by reviving and modernising the fishing industry. However, the population, who were mainly crofters, didn’t wwant to become industrial “wage slaves” and resisted his plans. This, together with economic factors which led to a decline of the fishing industry, meant that he wasn’t able to realise his ambitious plans. The outcome was that, rather than sell it on to another landlord, Leverhulme gave the castle and his Lewis estates to the people of the Parish of Stornoway and in 1923 the Stornoway Trust was set up to manage the new public estate on behalf of the community.
The grounds are an outstanding example of a mid-to-late Victorian ornamental and estate landscape, with fine elevated views over Stornoway and beyond to the sea. Carriage drives and an extensive network of paths provide access through and around the grounds, creating numerous circuits and providing a variety of vantage points.
Rain was in the air, and I was keen to look around he modern museum so, after reviving ourselves with a coffee in the cafe, we took a look around the exhibitions which explored life on the Hebrides.
The star exhibit had to be the 6 Lewis chessmen, loaned to the museum by the British Museum
After looking round the museum and the ground floor of the house, with a couple of hours before the ferry was due to leave, it was time to have a look around the town centre shops. Stornoway is quite small and, although there were a number of shops catering to visitors, it isn’t particularly touristy. A few final purchases were made – I bought some cards by local artists, ideal for upcoming birthdays.
Then it was time to rejoin the minibus which was waiting in the queue for the ferry. We timed it well as the rain was coming in and not long after it started to absolutely chuck it down. We said our goodbyes to John, our guide, who was returning to his home in Marbhig, and we were joined by Mike, who was to drive us back to Inverness
It rained throughout the crossing so we stayed inside the boat, where we had a brew and a bite to eat and chatting until we reached Ullapool. It was then on to Inverness which took less than two hours. Four of our party were taking a train back to Edinburgh so they were dropped off at the station. That left three of us who were staying overnight in Inverness. Liz and Ria were staying in a B and B more or less round the corner from my lodgings in the Premier Inn, so we arranged to meet up for a last meal together.
Liz was on the same flight to Manchester as me so we arranged to take a taxi to the airport together and split the exorbitant fare. Initially we were told that the flight was delayed but it left on time and we actually arrived in Manchester early. We got through Terminal 3 without any trouble then said our goodbyes as we parted. I waited for me lift and arrived home in good time to catch the Challenge Cup semi final against our local rivals on the TV. It was a tight match but a good result! An ideal end to a great week.
Our next destination was somewhere I was particularly keen to visit – the The Calanais Standing Stones. They stand on the outskirts of the small village of Calanais (Callanish in English) on the western side of the island so to reach them we had to drive through the increasingly heavy rain along the A858 which traverses the boggy interior of Lewis.
The monument is in the form of a cruciform with a central stone circle. All the stones are Lewisian Gneiss. It was erected about 5,000 years ago, during the late Neolithic era and pre-dates Stonehenge. This area was clearly of major importance during pre-historic times as there are a number of other circles nearby – 11 other circles and 9 individual standing stones have been discovered within a few kilometres of the main site.
The central circle comprises thirteen stones with a central standing stone. The cross is formed by five rows which connect to the circle – two of these running parallel to each other creating an avenue.
Today we think of Lewis and the other Scottish Islands as isolated backwaters, but in Neolithic to probably right through to the Medieval period times this was far from the case. Travel overland was difficult but communication by sea was much easier. The islands of the Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland were at the heart of the sea lanes and trading routes. The presence of numerous prehistoric monuments like the Calanais stones and ancient structures such as the the many brochs on the islands is evidence that an advanced society developed on the islands during the Neolithic period. But why they built monument such as those in the vicinity of Calanais remains a mystery.
The original plan for the afternoon was to set out on a walk on the coast from Calanais, but with the weather having a turn for the worse we settled in the Visitor Centre and warmed ourselves with a brew!
Rejoining the minibus we drove a few miles further up the coast to take a look at another ancient structure, the Iron Age broch of Dun Carloway. Although a ruin, it’s an impressive structure which stands on raised ground overlooking the nearby countryside and the sea. Unfortunatly, it is undergoing restoration and much of it was shrouded in scaffolding, but it was still an impressive sight.
This impressive example of Iron Age architecture may have been designed to make a bold statement of status, wealth or power. It was also easily defended, sitting high on a rocky outcrop, with wide views for miles around.
The broch tower is in an excellent state of repair. It’s the best-preserved Iron Age building in Lewis, and at 9m tall, one of only a handful of broch towers surviving to near its original height.
The collapsed area of wall reveals a perfect cross-section of the broch. Its main features include:
– a double-skinned wall with two tiers of internal galleries – a ground-level low entrance passage into the broch – a small cell, possibly a guard-room, off the passage – a stairway that originally led to the upper floor(s) – a stone ledge, or scarcement, on the inside face of the wall which probably supported the upper floor
Looking down from the monument, close to the modern buildings, we could see the remains of a “Blackhouse“. The walls apparently intact and still at their original height, but with the thatched roof well gone
We returned to the minibus and set off back to Stornoway, taking the ‘Pentland Road’, over the peat moors, which follows the route of a proposed railway from Carloway and Breasclete on the west coast to Stornoway. The railway ran into legal and economic problems and was never built. Driving across the moors we passed evidence of former shielings and old and new peat banks, but there were no settlements until we neared Stornoway. The general feeling of the group was that it would be very unfortunate if the mini bus had broken down on this desolate wilderness! Fortunaely, we made it back in one piece!
The weather forecast for the last full day of my Hebridean adventure wasn’t promising and most of the group certainly didn’t fancy a long walk trudging through heavy rain. So our Guide had a proposal for us. Although he was English – from the flat lands around Peterboropugh – he had married a local woman and lived on a croft in a small, remote village in the South Lochs area on the east coast of Lewis. He suggested we drove over there and he’d take us on a shorter walk and show us around the area. This seemed like a good way to learn about the real way of life in a crofting community so we enthusiastically agreed!
Marbhig (Marvig in English) is on the coast and is one of 11 crofting villages which are part of the Pairc Estate which is connected to the rest of Lewis by a narrow neck between Loch Seaforth and Loch Èireasort. The villages in the south of the estate were “cleared” in the 19th Century by the then owner of Lewis, by Sir James Matheson, who’s made his fortune selling opium to the Chinese (they’d call him a drug baron these days), so all the inhabited villages are in the north of the huge estate. In more modern times, the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 gave crofting communities the right to buy out their landlords and in 2003 the Pairc community decided that was what they wanted to do. The Landlord, who was an English businessman, resisted the transfer and it took a determined effort by the Pairc Trust that had been set up by the community, including legal action, before they were succesful in 2015. (More detail of their struggle can be read on the Trust’s website). The Estate is now run by the Trust on behalf of the community Pairc which has an active volunteer community which runs a shop, petrol station, museum, hostel, polytunnels, village halls, playpark, cemeteries and grazings.
Although not far from Stornoway “as the crow flies”, we had to take a circuitous route, initially on the Island’s main road which ran along the north shore of Loch Èireasort, before turning down a minor road that ran along the south shore and then taking narrow roads that wound around the rocky landscape to near the village. On the way we stopped off at the shop / petrol station/ museum / cafe / hostel run by the community at Ravenspoint on the shore of the loch. We had a look round the small museum, which has an interesting small local history collection, including extensive information on family history in the Pairc villages, and then bought a few gifts in the shop (“supporting the local community” as Liz, one of our party, liked to put it).
Then we carried on towards Marbhig.
We parked up by a small loch just outside the village and then proceeded on foot. John, our guide, gave us a “guided tour” telling us about the history, the crofting way of life and some storied about local personalities – including a certain Rob!
Each of the crofts that make up the village have an allocated strip of land that stretches down to the sea loch. This was so the crofters could subsist by fishing as well as farming the land. Traditionally, crofters raise animals and grow vegetables, while coastal communities supplemented this by fishing and gathering kelp. Today they’re likely to have other sources of income, so John has a joinery business while his wife works for BBC Alba (the Gaelic language service).
The traditional form of heating was by burning peat, and peat cutting is still practiced today. We saw evidence of this during our time on the island- both old, disused peat banks and others that were currently in use with the peats piled up ready to be taken away. However, other fuels are likely to be used today (although still supplemented by burning peat).
There weren’t many boats on the loch – fishing is no doubt much less important for the modern crofters and other residents of the small village. But there is a boat yard on the loch shore which specialises in repair and maintenance of vessels.
The picture below shows John’s croft. Those are his sheep. You can see that the land has ridges and furrows due to the traditional farming method. These are the “lazy beds” (feannagan in Gaelic), also known as ‘ridge and furrow’.
Low trenches were dug with spades at about three foot intervals with the extracted sod and dirt piled in between creating the raised beds. The beds were then enriched with some form of fertiliser depending on the resources at hand e.g. manure, rotted straw, sea weed. This method was well suited to locations lacking warmth, deep soil, and drainage……… The raised beds are drier and therefore warmer than the moist flat ground around them. The beds warm up more quickly in the morning and retain heat longer. At night they protect crops from frost by draining the denser cold air into the ditches and compared to flat fields. According to both researchers and farmers, lazy beds reduce labor time and raise the yield per acre
We walked up across the field towards john’s house to be welcomed by his collie – not much more than a puppy it kept us busy playing “fetch” for a while.
John then invited us into his home, beautifully renovated inside, where we met his wife, born and bred in the village and now working as an Executive Producer for BBC Alba, who treated us to a welcome brew and homemade scones and jam.
We then walked back to the minibus. Driving back along Loch Èireasort I spotted something in the sky. We stopped as it flew over – another White Tailed Eagle.
The weather during the morning hadn’t been as forecast – there was hardly any rain. That all changed as we drove away from Pairc on to our next destination.
The weather on the Wednesday of my Hebrides trip wanted to remind us that we were in the Western Isles! We woke to grey skies and as we drove over the peat moorland that covers the interior of Lewis we were battered by the rain. We were heading for Uig, the largest and most sparsely populated district of the Isle of Lewis (not the port on Skye where we’d boarded the ferry the previous day) for a walk along the cliffs near the small village of Mangerstra.
We didn’t have time to visit, but booted up, donned our waterproofs and set off up the road
After a couple of kilometres we left the tarmac and headed down a track that took us towards the Mangerstra and the cliffs beyond.
After a short climb we were up on top of the cliffs. The rain had eased off as we walked close tot he edge taking in some pretty spectacular views
After a while one of the party spotted a curious little structure close to the edge of the cliffs.
We climber down and had a look inside.
The bothy was constructed by John and Lorna Norgrove, of the Linda Norgrove Foundation which was established in October 2010 in memory of their daughter Linda, an aid worker who was killed during an abortive rescue attempt after she was kidnapped in Afghanistan.
The bothy is an original memorial to Linda in a very spectacular location and can accommodate up to 3 people overnight. For us it was a welcome shelter as a rain shower swept in.
As the rain eased off we carried on along the cliffs for a while before stopping for our sandwiches, sheltering behind rocks as another heavy shower swept in.
As we were eating some of us spotted something in the sky – a large bird with wings that resembled barn doors. It was a Sea Eagle (also known as a White Tailed Eagle). We watched it as it swooped across the sky before disappearing further along the coast.
After walking a little further along the coast we cut in land across the peat moor, joining the track that took us towards the village of Mangeresta
Looks like one of the locals has had a little mishap!
We passed through the village and carried on along the narrow road heading back towards where we’d parked up. The party started to split up and I found myself at he back with Ria, the Dutch member of our party, as we were taking in the views. Suddenly we spotted a shape in sky the distance. A Sea eagle, perhaps the same one we’d seen before. We stopped to watch and Ria produced a pair of binoculars from her pack. After a while a second one appeared! We stopped for a while to watch them swooping through the sky close to the coast. The rest of the group, further along the road, missed out.
Carrying on the cloud appeared to be starting to clear and the Uig hills, which had previously been largely hidden by the low cloud, became visible.
After a while we descended back down the hill towards the minibus, taking in the views of the white sands of Uig beach.
We dumped our packs in the back of the minibus and John our guide suggested we might want to walk over the beach while he drove the minibus further along the coast where he would meet us.
It’s another spectacular beach with a vast expanse of golden sand. It has a particular claim to fame as it was here that the Lewis Chessmen were discovered in 1831 by Malcolm MacLeod, a local crofter. The 78 intricate individual pieces made from walrus ivory and whale teeth had probably been carved in Trondheim in Norway during the 12th century. Nobody knows why they ended up here.
Malcolm’s family were soon “cleared” from their homes and he ended up selling the chessmen for £30 – a lot of money for him but a paltry sum for such exquisite objects. The majority ended up in London in the British Museum, with a small number in Edinburgh. A small number have been loaned to the museum in Stornoway, and we were able to see them later in the week.
Unfortunately we didn’t find any pieces as we walked across the beach. A pity as the last time one was sold after it was discovered in a drawer in Edinburgh, it went for £795,000. A bit more than Malcolm received.
The tide was out so there was a vast expanse of sand to cross. I was interested in the rock formations. The geology of Lewis is dominated by Gneiss, one of the oldest rocks on the Earth, formed up to 3 billion years ago.
John made it easy to find him!
We returned to the minibus and drove back over to Stornoway where there was time to shower and take a short rest before heading out for a very decent curry at a local hostelry.
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.
On Sunday during my stay on Skye the early mist started to clear, promising a fine day and, indeed, the weather got better and better during the morning.
After breakfast the minibus arrived at the B and B ready to drive us to the start of our walk. We collected the rest of the party who were staying in another B and B and drove to Portree where we stopped at the Co-op to pick up some sandwiches and supplies for our dinner (midday meal!!). We then headed along the Trotternish Peninsula and just past the small village of Staffin turned down a narrow road which eventually climbed steeply to the starting point for our walk in the Quiraing.
The Quiraing is a giant landslip on the eastern face of Meall na Suiramach at the northern end of the Totternish ridge caused by volcanic rocks sitting on top of a softer sedimentary layer. The softer rocks being crushed by the pressure from the heavier rocks above. Like Mam Tor in the Peak District, it’s still a “live” landslip and the road up to the car park, which continues over the mountains to the other side of the peninsula, requires frequent repairs. The car park was busy as, with its dramatic landscape, it’s something of a honeypot and it was also a Bank Holiday weekend.
After parking and booting up we set out
Our route took us along a path along along the clear path below the high cliffs, a little rough in places, which climbed gradually giving views over the dramatic rock formations.
After a while we reached a steep path which climbed up on to the top of the ridge and we doubled back, still climbing. On a beautiful morning there wer fantastic views over to the mainland and the Western Isles which stretched out along the horizon.
It was a little boggy on the top of the ridge, but nothing too bad and our boots coped, but I imagine that it would be rather a quagmire after any serious rain and during the winter.
Reacing the end of the ridge the path descend steeply down to our starting point. It wasn’t an easy descent as the path was in quite badly eroded in places and wasn’t clear in places. Some sections covered with scree, and I regretted not taking my walking poles out of the back of the mini-bus.
Reaching the bottom of the hill it was time to stop, take a rest, grab a bite to eat and take in the views over the hills and sea at the end of a great walk.
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!
I’ve been absent from WordPress for a few weeks – neither writing or keeping up with reading blogs I follow as I’ve been busy with work ever since Christmas. And after being glued to Zoom all day for meetings and delivering training, I’ve been less keen on spending more time in front of a computer screen during my free time. But work pressures are easing off a little so it’s time for a catch up 😉
It’s getting on to close to a year now since life has been disrupted by the pandemic. We’ve been in and out of lockdown and although I’ve been restricted to local walks for substantial periods I was able to get out to the Lakes and Anglesey during the summer. We haven’t been able to get out to concerts, the theatre, galleries and exhibitions since last March, though and I’ve certainly missed all that. I have sustained a semblance of cultural activity though, as some organisations have managed to run events on-line. So I’ve been able “attend” three virtual folk festivals, Kate Ruby’s Christmas concert and watch a few National Theatre productions . I’ve also been able to “visit” the Hay Festival, the Wigtown Book Festival, the Orkney Science Festival and the Kendal Mountain Festival all of which were run online – events I’d always wanted to visit but have never had the opportunity. Watching on screen isn’t the same as being there, of course. It’s too easy to be distracted when you’re in front of the TV and you miss the excitement of being somewhere different and mixing with other people. But, I certainly wouldn’t have been able to attend most, if not all, of these events if they hadn’t been run on-line.
Another annual event I’ve always fancied attending is the Celtic Connections Festival that’s run every January up in Glasgow. The festival focuses on traditional Scottish music international folk, roots and world music artists with concerts, ceilidhs, talks, free events, late night sessions and workshops too. It always seems like a good way of cheering up the rather dark and dismal days that follow on from Christmas.
Last December I got a tip off from Anabel , the Glasgow Gallivanter that the festival was going on-line and that early bird tickets were available for a very reasonable price of £30 that allowed access to all the concerts. So I snapped one up and was able to keep myself entertained during the dark January evenings.
There were plenty of traditional Scottish and Gaelic bands, playing jaunty music with fiddles, pipes and the like. I was able to watch concerts featuring some familiar musicians like Karine Polwart, Rachel Newton and Julie Fowlis.
The Transatlantic sessions is a project that brings traditional musicians together from, as the name suggests, both sides of the Atlantic – from Scotland, Ireland, Canada and the USA in particular. I’ve watched some programmes on the BBC over a number of years, so it was good to see them performing “live” – with a number of performers on stage in Glasgow with video links to musicians over the other side of the water.
The concert of Quebecois music – Quebecfest – featuring Vent du Nord, De Temps Antan and Grosse Ille was another highlight
But there were new discoveries too – from other traditions and musical genres
Xabier Diaz from the Gallicia region of Spain, backed by a group of female singers playing what must be a rectangular Gallician version of the bodhrán
Fergus McCreadie, a talented young Scottish jazz pianist who plays “an innovative blend of jazz and Scottish traditional music”. Many of his compositions are inspired by the Scottish landscapes, with titles such as Cairn, North, Across Flatlands, Mull and The Stones of Brodgar
Dreamer’s Circus, a Danish / Swedish trio with a contemporary take on traditional Nordic music
I didn’t watch every concert – there were too many, and there workshops too (not included in the festival ticket, though) – but certainly enjoyed the experience. It would have been better to have been there and savour the atmosphere, but that wasn’t possible. But I probably wouldn’t have been able to go up to Glasgow this January anyway so watching on my TV at home allowed me to get a taster. And it’s made me determined to get up there next year when (hopefully!) it will return to being a live event. And an opportunity to meet up with a bloggy friend too, perhaps 😉.