From the lonely shieling of the misty island,
Mountains divide us, and the wastes of seas,
Yet the blood is still strong, the heart is highland,
And we, in dreams, behold the Hebrides
IN all the years I’ve been hillwalking I don’t think I’ve ever been so surprised by a mountain top view. Beyond the flowing skirts of the hill there appeared to be more water than land and trying to count all the lochs and lochans was an impossible task. I gave up after several dozen. And as though to emphasise the watery theme, there, beyond the ribbed coastline, lay the sea – the Atlantic Ocean on on one side and the Minch on the other. It was all quite extraordinary.
The land, not that there was much of it, was no more than a ragged framework holding each lochan in place. And that realisation in itself was extraordinary. The evening before, in Lochmaddy’s Taigh Chearsabhagh art centre I had examined the superbly crafted framework of a suspended Canadian canoe. Beautifully woven from heather, willow and salmon skins, it was explained that the framework was a kind of open vessel for ideas and sensations that represented the material landscape (or waterscape) of North Uist.
Now I was beginning to understand. That canoe framework was a metaphor for the framework of the land that held all this water in place. But it was also the framework of a vessel that carried Andy Mackinnon, curator of Taigh Chearsabhagh and my companion on Eaval, the hill we stood on, on a two-day journey by Canadian canoe across the island with the respected land-artist Chris Drury – a vessel for ideas and revelations that were to be inspired by the journey.
The result of that very physical canoe journey was the Taigh Chearsabhagh exhibition, an art display that focussed on a fascinating collage of photographs and words that remind us that this is an inhabited and named landscape going back to Neolithic times. Naming it, and the language used, embeds it within the culture of the area. Every single loch, island and landscape feature has a name, and using digital technology Andy and Chris Drury recreated an image of the landscape as a lacework of words in Gaelic, Norse and English, naming all the lochs, islands and hills seen from the summit of Eaval.
Eaval, North Uist
Andy Mackinnon lives under the shadow of this hill, which he describes as the “Fuji of the Hebrides”. Although comparatively diminutive Eaval (347m) has a character that’s out of all proportion to its height. Viewed from the east the hill appears, appropriately, as a giant wave about to break over the watery landscape of North Uist. A loch-dodging walk and preamble took us on to heathery slopes before a steeper rock scrambling route took us directly to the summit and the surprising panorama that ranges from the hills of Harris, over the loch-infested waters of North Uist and across Grimsay and Benbecula to the big hills of South Uist and beyond them to Eriskay and Barra. Behind us the hills of Skye and Wester Ross were perfectly clear. It was one of the best hill days I’d had for years.
Not only was it a great walk with an astonishing view but I experienced a deep sense that those revelations on Eaval had given me a greater appreciation of the historic land use of the Outer Hebrides. This curved chain of islands, lying on the very edge of Europe, couldn’t really be described as unduly wild or remote. People have lived and worked here for thousands of years, and they still do. It’s rare to view a scene without a house in it. Only in the hills of North Harris could you come anywhere approaching wilderness.
The view north from Eaval
A number of years ago my wife and I attempted to walk the length of the Outer Isles but gave up after a few days, frustrated by bad weather and too much road walking. But there was something else. Bubbling below the obvious excuses was a sense of disappointment, a gnawing awareness, that the Hebridean landscape was not what I had expected – it didn’t seem wild enough.
Since that abortive journey I’ve learned a number of things. How a mountain bike can made short shrift of road sections; how a glimpse of sunshine is capable of transforming the Western Isles into the most glorious kaleidoscope of colours and rich landscape textures you’ll find anywhere; and how ‘wildness’ can be discovered in the most unexpected places. It was enough to make me want to return, but this time I wanted to link the hillwalking with visits to some historical sites and, at the same time, I was keen to try and discover something of the way of life of the modern Hebridean.
On that earlier journey Gina and I began with a traverse of the little hill range that forms the spine of Barra. That turned out to be the best day of the trip. This time, with a BBC film crew following, I trudged up the main road out of Castlebay to where the south-east ridge of Sheabhal climbs to the highest point on the island at 383 metres. This ridge offered the simplest route to the summit, and we climbed past a statue of the Madonna and Child, a reminder that these southern islands of the Hebrides, somehow, managed to escape the anti-Cathlic curbs of the Reformation.
Beyond the statue we could barely stand upright in the south-east wind, so we tried to tuck ourselves behind the ridge and approach the summit from the south-west. This certainly helped avoid the worst of the gales and gave us a bit of a breather – it was good to take a break and gaze down on the village, its wide bay and the castle that dominates it.
“Bravely against wind and tide,
They have brought us to ‘neath Kisimul’s walls
Kisimul castle of ancient glory”
Kisimul Castle was the ancient seat of the MacNeils of Barra, and the song refers to the MacNeil’s galley, or birlinn, from which the clan dominated these Hebridean seas.
We reached the summit of the hill in just over an hour from the road and could just discern the tail-end of the Hebridean chain drifting off to the south – Vatersay, Sandray, Pabbay, Mingulay and Berneray, names that songs are made of. Another island, to the north of us, has its own song too. We followed the broad ridge north before descending to the ferry to the island of the love lilt –bonnie Eriskay.
The idea behind this journey through the Outer Hebrides, and the television programme that was to be made of it, was to try and link up all the good hillwalking areas in a continuous journey by foot and on mountain bike. That sounds fine in theory but sometimes, just sometimes, the Hebridean weather has other ideas. It’s commonly accepted that the wind is a constant companion on the Outer Hebrides. It also rains now and again, and that’s what put the kybosh on my plans to climb Bheinn Mhor and Hecla, the big hills of South Uist. The weather was just too grey and miserable for filming. But all wasn’t lost – we discovered an interesting alternative. We crossed the causeway between Eriskay and South and the film crew took my bike while I set out to hike the length of the superb Machair Way, a new 20-mile route that runs up the west coast between Smeircleit and Aird a’Mhachair through the delightful machairs of South Uist.
This was a great opportunity to walk through one of the most beautiful landscape features that exists in Scotland and in high summer the machair boasts one of the greatest wildflower displays to be found anywhere in the British Isles. The flowers change as the season progresses starting with the yellow tints of Buttercups, Marsh Marigolds, Yellow Rattle, and Kidney Vetch then progressing through pinks and purples as the season moves into August. The plants flourish in the machair because the soil is rich in lime and if you’re lucky you’ll find relatively rare species too, like Irish Lady’s Tresses, Orchids, and Yellow Rattle. The adjoining meadows are also rich in the likes of Red Clover and Scottish Bluebells.
But what is machair, and what makes it such a distinctive landscape feature? The word is Gaelic, meaning an extensive, low-lying fertile plain. It’s also become a recognised scientific term for a specific coastal feature, defined by some as a type of dune pasture (often calcareous) that is subject to local cultivation, and has developed in wet and windy conditions. This coastal strip generally runs from the beach to where the sand encroaches on to peat further inland. It’s one of the rarest habitats in Europe, found only in the north and west of Britain and Ireland. Almost half of the Scottish machair occurs in the Outer Hebrides, with the best and most extensive here in the Uists.
It was invigorating to walk north with the stormy seas to my left and the south-westerly wind blowing me up the entire length of the Machair Way. Another causeway took me over to Benbecula where I took to the bike once more, making my way across the island to North Uist and and my mind-stretching appointment with little Eaval.
After Eaval it was on the bike again and over the causeway to Berneray then onto the ferry for South Harris. Some of the best cycling of the trip then took me past the magnificent shell beaches of Sgarasta and Luskentyre to the start of another long walking trail – the 26-mile long Frith-Rathad an Hearadh, or the Harris Walkway. I’d officially opened this route back in 2003 and I was looking forward to its variety; the climb over the spine of the island by an old coffin route to the east coast where the land is so rocky that people used to have to carry their dead to the more fertile soils of the west coast for burial. A combination of quiet roads and old tracks then took me through the area known as The Bays up to Tarbert and the start of what was once described as the finest footpath in Britain – the trail to Rhenigidale
In 1962 Herbert Gatliff, a wealthy benefactor and a founder member of the Youth Hostels Association, bought an old house in Rhenigidale and opened it as a hostel, the first of the five Gatliff Trust hostels that still exist in the Western Isles. You could only reach it by narrow footpath or boat and the facilities were basic. Despite that almost a hundred people stayed there in the first year, and many more were to follow. Today there is a road that runs to the village, robbing it of its unique claim to fame as the UK’s most remote settlements, but it’s still worth a visit.
As I crossed over the high pass between Trolamul and Beinn Tarsuinn the Shiant Islands appeared below us, like great shark fins rising from the waters of the Minch. The path descended to the head of Loch Trolamalaig in a series of a dozen tight hairpin bends to where a wooden bridge crosses the stream at the head of the loch before the path climbs again, out of the narrow glen and above the sea loch to the cleared village of Gary-altoteger.
I was tempted to linger here for a while, to try and imagine what life must have been like in such a place – indeed, to try and imagine what it must have like to be evicted from such a place! But time was against me. I briefly visited Rhenigidale, well aware I had a 3-mile tarmac trudge up the glen to Loch Maraig and my next hill climb, to An Clisham, at 799m the highest hill in the Outer Hebrides. And what a marvellous little hill this is. View it if you can from the south, ands gaze up into the impressively rocky Coire Dubh and its three summits of Mulla bho Dheas, An t-Isean and An Clisham itself. Most folk climb up its south ridge from the old Whaling Station at Bunavoneadair, on the Hushinish road and the advantage of starting from this point is that you can traverse the three tops in a fine horseshoe route, descending via the broad Tarsaval ridge. I still wanted to traverse the three tops that rise above Coire Dubh but I wouldn’t be returning to the starting point again.. My plan was to hike on north from the summit of Mulla bho Dheas into the wilds of North Harris. This was the wild backpacking section of my journey, wandering through the magnificently remote hills of North Harris, camping for the night near Kinlochresort with only a herd of deer for company and realising why this area should become Scotland’s next National Park. The estate is now owned by the local community and the North Harris Trust has lost no time in making it clear to the Scottish Government that they would like to see National Park status for their area. At the moment they have to convince the windfarm-infatuated Western Isles Council that it’s a good idea and that won’t be so easy, but the people of Harris have sent out a very clear signal that they want new life and prosperity for one of Scotland’s most fragile island communities. National Park status could go a long way to achieving that.
I caught up with the film crew next morning, on the B8011 road from where I cycled to the standing stones at Callanish then up the west coast of Lewis to the northern tip of the island, and journey’s end, at the rocky, gull-infested Butt of Lewis. It had been a magnificent journey and as I paused below the lighthouse at the northern point of the Outer Hebrides I reflected on the diversity of the landscapes I had passed through, the wealth of the historic and archeological sites I had visited, the cultures of the islands that are so different from anything to be found on the mainland, and the excellence of the hill walking to be found here. I was also very aware that I had missed much, that there were still some great areas to visit, and I was glad of it. That means I have to return and I’m already looking forward to it.
The Hebridean Trail was broadcast on BBC Scotland on 27th December 2010. The DVD of the programme is now available from http://www.mountain-media.co.uk
Journey’s end at the Butt of Lewis