Island fling in the highlands

 

FRANCIS BRADLEYbraves the elements to savour the rugged beauty and the wide open spaces on the Outer Hebrides

THIS WAS so familiar. I’d been here before. The same lake and pond-speckled landscape, the machair, the rugged coastline and all the signage in Irish – well, sort of. This was northwest Donegal or west Galway around Ballyconneely, but the sky seemed bigger here, much bigger – and the Gaelic was different too.

Walking through Prestwick Airport on arrival, the first poster that caught my eye was “Welcome to Scotland – Fàilte gu Alba”. Where did that accent over the “a” come from? I’d been to Scotland many times before and couldn’t but acknowledge the link between Scottish and Irish Gaelic, but this was the first time I noticed that strange accent. I was heading for the Uists – the southern portion of the chain of islands that forms the Outer Hebrides or the Western Isles as referred to by local government types.

My advance research had been patchy, but I did know that I was heading into a sparsely populated area – 26,000 people in the 220km length of the islands that make up the Outer Hebrides, with only 4,500 people scattered between the Uists (North and South), Benbecula and Eriskay. This is an area with a strong Gaelic heritage – 75 per cent of the population in the Uists converse in Gaelic and there is a strong ceilidh (céilí) tradition with pipes, accordian and fiddle. But, of all things, it was that back-to-front fada that grabbed my attention – it looked like a typo. However, first impressions can be dangerously inaccurate.

I was full of pre-conceptions. The islands lie further north than Ben Nevis, the highest mountain the UK. There would be those indescribable, hairy types in indescribable, hairy skirts with those screeching octopus thingies under their arms, forever eager to rend your eardrums with a version of Scotland the Brave. Also, Scotland had experienced its harshest winter in years. I was travelling to the islands in March! What was I thinking?

Back to Prestwick Airport, strange fadas, metal-grey sky, horizontal wind and rain, and a totally inadequate train station – there were more than 100 people packed into stairwells sheltering from the elements. Then, arriving in Glasgow in similar weather, I had five hours to kill before my connection to the Uists. The plan was to take in a few of the sights or go on the city bus tour, but the weather had dampened my enthusiasm, so instead I took a 12-minute saunter to Sauchiehall Street to see the Willow Tea Rooms designed by local architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh – well worth a visit. The Willow name comes from Sauchiehall which in Scottish Gaelic means “alley of the willows”.

Later, flying northwest from Glasgow, the weather gradually improved and the physical features of the Uists were revealed. Lakes – so many lakes – deep inlets, very few roads, and causeways linking the islands. The terrain has been described as a flooded landscape resulting from the retreat of the glaciers and offers excellent fishing.

Landing on Benbecula, which lies between North and South Uist, I noted that the signage was “as Gaeilge” and in English. The high point of the island is Rueval at 124m and, as with all these islands, is deeply carved on the eastern side with many long, tidal lochs and an abundance of inland lakes and ponds. As you move west, the boggy terrain surrenders to a “machair” plain before ending at sandy beaches. A machair is a fertile, low-lying grassy pasture which is good for cultivation – market gardeners would be familiar with this – and the high fertility is due to the high seashell content. In summer, these areas can be a riot of colour with wild flowers.

Our guide for the weekend was James MacLetchie, a former countryside ranger on Uist who has developed a huge passion for wildlife and the environment and now works as a freelance guide and tourism consultant. He is one of the first 10 travel ambassadors in the world for the International Eco Tourism Society. With this kind of expert guidance, it is hardly surprising that the weekend turned into a concentrated education into the natural wonders of the flora and fauna of the Uists.

The first overnight was in the Polochar Inn, which boasts an unrivalled setting at the southernmost end of South Uist, overlooking the Sound of Barra. Nearby, there is a standing stone which may have been used as a marker by sailors and fishermen on this dangerous coastline. Our first excursion took us over the causeway onto the island of Eriskay where James introduced us to the unique, attention-seeking Eriskay ponies. These animals roam freely and particularly enjoy the company of humans for an ’oul scrounge and a bit of an ’oul pat.

On a historical note, Eriskay is where Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Jacobite claimant to the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland, made his landfall in 1745 on the western beach called Coilleag a’Phrionnsa. The islands are the focus of a BBC2 series presented by Monty Halls., a former Royal Marine officer turned marine biologist, who has moved into TV production with series such as Great Ocean Adventuresand Monty Halls’ Great Escape.With Halls taking up the position of voluntary countryside ranger, the main themes of the series are wildlife, sustainable tourism and promoting the diverse environment. Our guide, James MacLetchie, features in the series.

During the series, Halls created new waymarked trails and James led us along one of these to the top of Ben Scrien, the highest hill in Eriskay. From here we got panoramic views across the Sound of Barra and towards Rhum and Skye across the Minch, the cantankerous stretch of water separating the Outer Hebrides from everything east of them.

But perhaps Eriskay is more renowned for its association with a certain book by Compton MacKenzie called Whisky Galore. In 1941, the SS Politician struck a rock off the east coast of Eriskay. The ship was bound for the US with a general cargo which included approximately 200,000 bottles of whisky. With such a prize within their reach, the local population claimed an unexpected bonus, particularly during the years of privation caused by second World War.

After lunch in the Lochboisdale Hotel on South Uist, we were off to see the Cladh Hallan archaeological site, which is the only place in Britain where prehistoric mummies have been found. The Macdonalds of Clanranald were a powerful clan that held large tracts of land on the mainland as well as in the Hebrides. South Uist was Clanranald territory and the Clanranald Stone – the family crest cut from sandstone from the Isle of Mull – resides in the Kildonan Centre, a heritage and cultural amenity which includes a museum, craft shop, a room for ceilidhs and an archaeology room. South Uist is also the home of Hebridean Jewellery, with unique designs in silver and gold by John Hart.

That night we stayed in Langass Lodge located near the end of a sea loch in the southeast corner of North Uist. Once a sporting lodge, the hotel enjoys a growing reputation for its culinary exploits and the local fishing must be pretty good if the evidence of the catches at the hotel is anything to go by.

Next day it was off to Balranald RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) Nature Reserve. The information centre is open all year and this reserve might offer the best chance you will ever have to hear or see corncrakes. To the north of the Uists lies Vallay Island, a haven for wildlife and surrounded by the sea. At low tide you can drive or walk to the island across Vallay Strand, but this can prove to be a white-knuckle ride for some even if you are following a knowledgeable guide. Abandoned since 1945, the walls of the deserted ruined mansion of Erskine Beveridge, one of the first and most significant archeological excavators in the Outer Hebrides, still stand. Christian chapels, Viking middens and Neolithic duns are also located on the island.We lunched in the Claddach Kirkibost Centre which serves as a nursery, cafe, provides internet facilities and hosts live events in the summer months and where local produce is also made.

The day’s final outing brought us past the ancient folly of Dun Scolpaig. Built around 1830 over an Iron Age dun on a small island in Loch Scolpaig, the tower was commissioned by Dr Alexander MacLeod to provide work for the purpose of famine relief. The day finished off with our guide teaching us the principals of otter spotting and how to identify otter sites, trails, slides and freshwater bathing pools. This otter trail lead us to the dramatic sea caves and sea arches of Scolpaig – a great place to watch out for puffins, gannets and whales.

Our last day saw us up at 7am with the merciless MacLetchie leading us out on a hunt to spot the elusive otter. We had caught a glimpse of these shy creatures earlier in the weekend and it was possible that this early morning excursion would afford a more substantial sighting. There had been a severe drop in temperature overnight and the ground was frozen in places. The sky was electric blue and cloudless, and the sea lochs were flat calm – not a breath of wind. Alas no otters, but who needs them when nature quietly displays its beauty like this?

Go there

Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) flies to Glasgow from Dublin, Cork and Shannon. Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies to Glasgow Prestwick from Dublin, Belfast and Derry. Flybe (flybe.com) and Loganair(loganair.co.uk) fly from Glasgow to Benbecula Airport. Caledonian MacBrayne Hebridean Clyde Ferries (calmac.co.uk) sail from the Scottish mainland to the islands.

Where to stay

The Polochar Inn. Polochar Lochboisdale, South Uist, 00-44-1878-700215, polocharinn.com. Four star

rating, however three stars would be more realistic. Good food produced with a sense of adventure by chef Iain MacRury. Standard doubles from €102.

Langass Lodge. Loch Eport,North Uist, 00-44-1876-580285, langasslodge.co.uk. Hillside location, rated three stars but veering towards four. Excellent dining overseen by chef John Buchanan. Kingsize doubles from €125.

Lochboisdale Hotel. Lochboisdale, South Uist,00-44-1878-700332, lochboisdale.com. Premium double with sea view €68 pps, BB. Listed as a two star.

Getting around

Distance is measured in minutes rather than miles here. You are no more than seven minutes from a beach from any point in the Uists. Car hire is available from Benbecula Airport.

If you want the assistance of a local guide, look no further than James MacLetchie of Hebridean Adventures, 00-44-7543-094491, hebrideanadventures.co.uk/ about.html.

More information Lochmaddy Tourist Information Centre. Pier Road, Lochmaddy, North Uist, 00-44-1876-500321. Open April to October.

Lochboisdale Tourist Information Centre. Pier Road, Lochboisdale, South Uist, 00-44-1878-700286. Open April to October.


Francis Bradley was a guest of VisitScotland. visitscotland.com.