I first went to the Hebrides in 1965 with the Schools Hebridean Society (SHS). I was captivated by a slide show given by a school classmate about an expedition he had been on to South Rhona. I think it was the combination of adventure in a remote and beautiful place with an absence of schoolmasterly or parental supervision that attracted me. There were of course adults in charge, but they were not authority figures and once I arrived on Raasay, it became apparent that the enjoyment of the experience came through comradeship among peers and an intimate experience of somewhere quite wild and very beautiful. Although it rained solidly for the first of our two weeks at Brochel, I was not put off and the emergence of the sun in the second week introduced me to the magic of Hebridean weather with its big skies and extraordinarily clear light.
By 1969, I had been on a second SHS expedition – to Rhenigadale, Harris in 1967 – and this had instilled in me an enduring fascination with the Outer Isles. The skies seemed if anything bigger there – perhaps it was absence of high mountains – and the sense of remoteness greater. So, at the age of 18 when I was looking for a challenge, nothing appealed more than to travel the length of the Outer Isles on my own. I already had experience of hitch hiking in Europe, so the challenge of getting there without much money did not daunt me.
Hitch hiking to the Hebrides
On 16th July, I take a Southern Region train from my parents’ hometown of Dorking to Waterloo, then the tube to Hendon Central where there is a convenient slip road onto the recently extended M1. From there it takes me eight hours to hitch to Glasgow where I spend a rather noisy night in the Salvation Army hostel. I then hitch from Glasgow to Mallaig and, three days after leaving home, catch the ferry to Armadale on Skye. The real adventure has begun!
My time on Skye is very wet. I camp in the rain at Ardvasar and then for ten shillings take the bus to Broadford Youth Hostel. The following day – a Sunday – I walk ten miles trying to hitch a ride, eating lunch in the driving rain and eventually getting a lift to Portree and from there to Uig Youth Hostel where there is a warm boiler that allows me to dry my bundles of wet clothing and myself! Neither of these youth hostels exist now. And even then, when the YHA had a much greater number of hostels, there was only one in the Outer Isles: Stockinish on Harris, also now closed. The Gatliff Trust had – and still has, much to its credit – hostels on Harris, Berneray and South Uist, two of which – Rhenigadale and Howmore – I have experience and fond memories of.
Midsummer’s day 1969 is wet and windy and I spend the morning in the ferry waiting room by Uig pier. The TV there is showing pictures of the first astronauts landing on the moon, which has happened the previous day.
Lewis and Harris
The crossing to Tarbert is good – it has stopped raining. I take the bus from Tarbert along the beautiful but perilous Golden Road to Stockinish YH. There are seven other hostellers plus an absentee warden. We make friends around the smoky old fire and keep bumping into each other during our travels through the isles. There are very few tourists as such in the Outer Isles in those days. My journal reminds me of the dangers of romanticising youth hostelling as I spend most nights sleeping on the couch in front of the fire to escape the snores of fellow hostellers. I revisit beautiful Rhenigadale, site of an SHS expedition in 1967 – at the time the village is inaccessible by road and getting there involves a seven mile walk from Tarbert, most of which is on a narrow path across the hills with a couple of arduous climbs each way. I also walk across the peat bogs to the west coast where with a couple of fellow hostellers I take off my boots, roll up my trousers and run along the gleaming white sands. We make surrealist sculptures out of flotsam and jetsam, then hitch a ride back to Tarbert on the back of a council lorry. After a pint at the Harris Hotel, I hitch back to Stockinish and, in true sixties style, with three other hostellers, go down to the sea, burn incense, eat mint cake, drink coffee and talk into the long, luminous dusk. It is still light enough to read outside at 11pm.
I hitch to Callanish on the west coast of Lewis where I camp next to the then unfenced Standing Stones and visit Dun Carloway, an impressive double-walled broch built in the first century AD. En route I stop for lunch at the Doune Braes Hotel, the only pub on the west coast of Lewis – and therefore an important establishment. It is an all-male drinking house selling quite unpleasant-tasting beer, but come the evening it is always packed. Having been there for a drink after supper one evening, I get lost on my way back and spend hours wandering around the peat bogs in increasing darkness, eventually rediscovering my tent just before midnight! Even then, it is not completely dark.
Another extremely atmospheric place I visit on the west coast of Lewis is Garenin, where there is a village of black houses leading down to a beautiful bay, described by someone as ‘the end of the world’. Watching the Atlantic rollers crashing on the rocks and the blue sea stretching away for miles, it feels like that.
Lewis and Harris are staunchly Protestant and the Sabbath was then – and I believe, still is – observed strictly. Most activity apart from going to church is discouraged. So I spend Sunday reading and writing letters in my small tent, especially as the wet weather does not tempt me to go out.
I hitch back to Stockinish YH and again use that as my base for exploring other parts of Harris. I visit Rodel and have beer and sandwiches at Rodel Hotel. I find this an unusual establishment. It has a very ramshackley exterior but is quite smart inside. The lounge has ivy and geraniums crawling up the walls. It has been in business since the eighteenth century but I hear it has now closed. In St. Clement’s Church, I find the Fairy Flag bearer’s tomb and also the gravestone of a MacLeod who married his third wife at 73, had nine children by her and died aged 90! Another port of call is Huisinish, where my ride is provided by a Roman Catholic priest on his way to meditate on Scarp with an artist friend, Andy Miller Mundy. Miller Mundy cuts a distinctive figure with his long red hair and purple trousers, not to mention the two hawks and two ‘hippy’ girls he has with him. I learn subsequently that Miller Mundy’s father used to own the North Harris estate and, much to Andy’s disappointment, sold it to Sir Hereward Wake. I remember seeing Hereward Wake visit the SHS campsite at Rhenigadale in 1967.
I take the ferry from Tarbert to Lochmaddy, then hitch to Sollas and camp on the dunes, where I discover what a wonderful habitat these are for flies! The beach is fantastic and I make the most of it. Back at the tent, flies and earwigs prove a trial, invading even my porridge! Eventually, they get the better of me and I move on to Carinish, near the causeway to Benbecula. I pitch tent opposite the post office, untroubled by flies. However, at 6.00 the following morning, I am awoken by a herd of heifers who are giving my tent a close inspection. The orange flysheet proves almost irresistible to them and only after windmilling my arms for some minutes do they move off, I think, to do mischief to the postmaster’s front garden! The weather turns bad and I gradually make my way down to Howmore Hostel on South Uist. In doing so, I discover that I have crossed a significant cultural divide: South Uist and Barra are Catholic, being among the last remnants of native Pre-Reformation Scottish Catholicism. This means that there is a sort of party feel to these islands after the sabbatarianist culture of Lewis and Harris – and, to a lesser extent, North Uist and Benbecula. Ceilidhs are more common and the people seem more relaxed.
Howmore Hostel, run by the Gatliff Trust, is charming. It’s a converted black house with no water, no electricity nor main drainage, but it does have a nice fireplace where we burn peat – and it is reputed to be haunted! I meet up with a convivial gang of fellow hostellers and my journal records a litany of outings to the pub in Lochboisdale and to a dance in Bornish. We fish and dig vegetables and generally make ourselves at home!
Barra to Shetland
I take the ferry from Lochboisdale to Castlebay. I have friends on Barra who have a house at Eoligarry, near the airport. It is marvellous to have a bath again! We spend days canoeing, ocean watching and hill climbing. My solo adventure is coming to a close, but another SHS adventure is beckoning! I take the ferry from Castlebay to Oban and then hitch to Laurencekirk, just south of Aberdeen. The SHS has decided to mount an exploratory expedition to Shetland and I am to join it. We are to convene in the Scout Hut at Laurencekirk.
The Shetland expedition is another story. I thoroughly enjoy it, but Shetland proves to be unpromising for SHS expeditions and nothing comes of it. The SHS decides to remain true to its Hebridean roots!
On our last night on Barra, we go to a drama in Gaelic and English about the herring girls who prepared the fish for export at the herring stations in Castlebay in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is performed by the Barra Drama Group in front of a large audience in the community hall. It is very informal and eventually turns into a ceilidh with poetry recitals, singing and dancing. Great fun!
We do not sleep much that night as our room is over the bar and they have a special licence to stay open to 1.00 am. To rub salt into the wound, when we get up early to catch the ferry, the breakfast room, which we had been told would be open for us to help ourselves to juice and cereal, is locked and the key cannot be found. Not best pleased we embark on the ferry and are relieved to find the Calmac breakfast is ample and good! The 5 hour crossing to Oban is flat calm and we have great views of Mull to the south and the Grampians to the north.
The drive from Oban to Glasgow is along the busy A82, the last part beside Loch Lomond. Almost as soon as the loch recedes, we enter the greater Glasgow conurbation.
Glasgow is something of a revelation, not having spent time there before. Imposing, opulent architecture, streets teeming with life, edgy, fashionable and very much itself. We stay near the University of Glasgow and the superb Kelvingrove Art Gallery.We are reminded of the city’s links with Irish republicanism when we hear a pipe band approaching and realise it is in support of the IRA. An uncomfortable reminder of unfinished business from the past. But we are delighted by an exhibition on the Art of Comics at the Kelvingrove – I had no idea Glasgow was so central in the development of superhero comics. Frank Quitely, the graphic artist, is a new hero of ours!
Our journey continues south through the Lowlands and the Border country. Much of it in driving rain. We arrive in North Yorkshire through the beautiful Dales. It feels like coming home.
We leave the wide open spaces of South Uist and catch the Eriskay to Ardmhor (Barra) ferry across the Sound of Barra, famous for the 1941 whisky looting episode fictionalised by Compton MacKenzie in Whisky Galore!
Our arrival in Barra is blessed with perfect sunny weather and we make for Barra Airport which is at the north end of the island, not far from the ferry pier, on Eoligarry Sands. There is reputed to be a good cafe at the airport, with views over the sands, and this turns out to be the case. We are lucky enough to witness a plane landing and then taking off. We decide that this will be the way we will come to Barra next!
Barra is small and all of its settlements are located around the coast. To the south is Vatersay, the southernmost island with permanent settlements in the Outer Hebrides. It has been connected by a causeway to Barra since 2004. We explore its dunes and wonderful beaches. I even brave the waters and have a swim. A very short swim! It is cold!
Of all the Islands, Harris is probably the most spectacularly beautiful. Stunning white sand beaches on the west coast, beautiful rocky coves on the east and some impressive little mountains in the north. We walk the huge expanse of sands at Luskintyre – they manage to glow even when the weather closes in.
On the east coast, we watch seals and hope to see an otter.
Now we island-hop by taking the Sound of Harris ferry from Leverburgh to Berneray, which is connected to North Uist by a peninsula. We hope to see all kinds of sea life and we do see lots of birds doing their stuff. No porpoises or whales, though!
North Uist, Benbecula and South Uist are connected by causeways and we are heading for the south of South Uist, a drive of about 50 miles. We stop at Balranald RSPB reserve and again marvel at the beauty of the beach.
We pay homage to Flora MacDonald’s birth place and are watched by inquisitive locals.
Right down in the south of South Uist, overlooking the Sound of Barra, we explore beautiful Eriskay.
On our last day in South Uist, we explore Loch Eynort on the rocky east coast. The last time I was there was in 1975 when I led a camping expedition of teenage boys for two weeks of activities and isolation from the outside world. The campsite is very remote and we scramble over rocks and bogs for a long time to find it. Even when I know we are there, I find that heather and sphagnum moss has taken over most of the site, making it hard to recognise. We hope to spot an otter, but this time our luck is out. One big change to the north side of the loch is the planting of large numbers of trees by Archie MacDonald. This has created a new micro climate and increased the biodiversity of the area. It has also created a perfect environment for midges!
The road from Achnasheen to the Skye Bridge at Kyle of Lochalsh is a stunner. Not fast – it’s single track with passing places in some stretches – but the scenery as you drive alongside the single-track railway line through glens and past lochs is pure Highland magic.
Driving over the Skye Bridge has none of the drama of a ferry crossing and it does mean that Skye is now easily accessible to huge numbers of vehicles, but it is quick and easy. In no time we are enjoying the delights of Sligachan in the pouring rain – great views of the Cuillins!
We stop in Portree and are shocked to find it overrun with tourists. A cruise ship is moored in the bay and a procession of tenders is ferrying the passengers – approximately 1,500 of them – from the ship to the shore. No doubt this delivers a welcome fillip to the local economy but it doesn’t make it a pleasant place to be for any length of time. We buy a bottle of single malt from the Whisky Emporium and escape to peaceful Skeabost where our hotel is. There we find St. Columba’s Isle with its field of gradually disappearing ancient graves. A beautiful and peaceful spot.
The next day we cross by Caledonian Macbrayne ferry from Uig to Tarbert. The sea is flat calm, as I have never know the Minch before, and we sit on deck in the sun. On disembarking, we head straight for the west coast of South Harris and its golden sand beaches. The air is mild and I risk wading in the unusually calm sea. As expected, it is cold! But the beach is awe-inspiringly lovely and after a few minutes we spot porpoises swimming a few yards out. Harris has captivated us again!
The Birnham Oak near Pitlochry is supposed to mark the boundary between the Lowlands and the Highlands. As our introduction to the Highlands, we are privileged to see ospreys at Loch of the Lowes: a chick on its nest with Mum watching from a nearby treetop and Dad dropping a fish into the nest. All clearly visible from the hide, even with the naked eye. Such a thrill!
Pitlochry was once the height of fashion – from Victorian times to the beginning of WWII – when the rich and fashionable came to have Spa treatments and play tennis at the grand Athol Palace Hotel. My grandparents were among them and I have photos from the 30s showing them enjoying tennis parties there. Now it is a mere shadow of its former glory, the town and the hotel catering for mass market tourism and coach tours.
The drive through the Cairngorms introduces us to a barren mountain landscape, awe-inspiring and stern. We eat up the miles on the excellent A9 and soon we’re passing through Inverness and onto Black Isle, crossing the pretty Moray Firth suspension bridge.
Now the landscape changes again as we cross over to the Western Highlands. Craggier, less sculpted and softer. We are staying at the Ledgowan Lodge Hotel in Achnasheen, another place of faded grandeur. It has a quirky charm and the food is good.
Our day is capped off with a beautiful woodland walk by Loch Maree – in the pouring rain. There are even midges! We have definitely reached the Highlands!