Words: Ian Cormack (SUP Ecosse)
Pics: Carol Anne Crawford
Embarrassingly for somebody who was born in Scotland and now once again lives in Scotland and has a love of the outdoors I had never actually been to the Hebrides. In fact that isn’t entirely correct as I did momentarily stop at Benbecula airfield once when an aircraft I was travelling on developed a fault and had to emergency land for a repair!
It was only when I started looking at a long overdue summer trip out that way that several confusing facts began to appear. The Southern Hebrides are furthest south (obviously!) and consist of a number of islands the more well known being Jura and Islay. The Inner Hebrides are further north and consist of Coll, Tiree and Mull plus many of smaller scale. The Outer Hebrides are the furthest north and consists of a huge number of islands the main and most well known being North and South Uist, North and South Harris and Lewis. Harris (north or south) are not actually Islands in themselves but are part of Lewis which is correctly called the Isle of Lewis and Harris. Confused? Stick with it.
To make the issue even more head scratching the main island group of the Outer Hebrides are also known as the Western Isles. I only had a week free where as you would need a minimum of two to completely do justice to the area so for the purpose of this article I shall be concentrating solely on the Islands we visited namely (from south to north) Barra, Eriskay, South Uist , Benbecula, North Uist and Berneray.
In total (including the sea gaps ) these islands are approximately 70 miles long with the largest being South Uist at 22 miles long and Eriskay is the smallest being only about 3 miles long. Eriskay’s main claim to fame is the movie Whisky Galore but more about that later. The western facing coasts are all exposed to the Atlantic and so years of continual storms have created pristine lengthy beaches backed by high wide sand dunes whilst the eastern coasts (facing back towards the Scottish mainland) are way more sheltered and so have rocky high sea cliffs with hundreds of small sea loch inlets. It therefore makes sense if you were looking for surf or flat water beach and lagoon paddles you would head to the west coast, for inlet exploring the east would be the best option. This isn’t a great issue as on average the islands are only about 5 miles wide. If neither of the above options take you fancy for a day’s paddling there are also hundreds of freshwater inland lochs to explore. It’s a safe bet if you put a map of the Hebrides on the wall and threw a dart at it looking for some water to play on you have a 70% chance of hitting some, you have a 100% chance of hitting somewhere near water! Of course if you wanted a day off paddling there are a number of significant hills on the islands with elevation of 500 metres plus. If you don’t fancy hillwalking we found the massive beaches hard packed enough to walk and cycle along in most places and considering the whole west coast of South Uist is a beach some 20 miles long there is something for everyone.
The main towns are Castlebay on Barra, Loch Boisdale in South Uist, Balivanich on Benbecula and Loch Maddy on North Uist. It’s no coincidence that the main populated areas also happen to be the ferry terminals served by the vast Caledonian MacBrayne service. Castlebay (Barra) is served by the Oban ferry. Loch Boisdale is the served by Mallaig and Oban ferry but seasonal variation on timetable. Lochmaddy is served by Uig ferry from Skye all daily while Barra to Eriskay is served regularly by an almost hourly ferry. A ferry at Berneray also connects to the remaining Hebridean Islands which are in turn linked to Ullapool by ferry.
From Eriskay heading north the islands are all joined by causeways and the backbone of the island group is the A685 which connects them all together with various arterial roads along the way allowing access to the coastlines east and west. For the most the A685 is a single lane road with passing places literally every 100 metres. There are the occasional stretches of 2 way road but don’t expect dual carriageways or motorway driving. The traffic seems to flow very well despite the narrowness with everyone taking a turn at pulling in and waiting. Over the course of a week I must have waved to everyone on the island at some stage or another and it becomes such a habit even on the two way stretches you end up waving to people heading in the opposite direction.
Benbecula has an airfield and Barra has the famous beach runway so flight times are dependent on tides with flights from Glasgow airport. An average flight from Glasgow costs about £80 and hire cars are available on the islands.
Phone signals are surprisingly sporadic which can be a positive or a negative depending on your reliance on the outside world or how often you need to check what your friends had for breakfast that day on Facebook. Workable signals tend to be around the more built up areas whilst campsites, hotels, cafes and holiday cottages seemed to have their own WiFi spots as well as the ferry ports. There are sufficient number of hotels, self-catering cottages and serviced campsites and wild camping is allowed – the downside being it denies the local economy of some income. A word of warning. We booked a luxury caravan to base ourselves out of only to arrive and find the owners interpretation of luxury and ours were polar opposites. We were lucky as we managed to then base ourselves for the first few days out the excellent Barnald campsite in the north west of North Uist before moving south to the pristine Seal Cottage at Loch Ayenort after they experienced a late cancellation. This unexpected change to our holiday plan was actually a blessing in disguise at Barnald allowed us easy access to the north of the islands and Seal Cottage ideally situated to explore South Uist and Eriskay.
You may need to plan ahead when it comes to food, cashpoints and probably more so fuel which is approximately 20p per litre more than the mainland. Having said that we assumed food would be more expensive but the island supermarket chain are not significantly more pricey than the mainland and all had cashpoints. According to the local businesses and the ferry CalMac the tourism figures are rightly increasing as more people holiday at home.
Given the limited time we were there I opted to try 4 spots on 4 different days to paddle. Firstly we went to the perfect beach of Berneray’s west coast and everything (except the surf) was perfect. Next I chose Kirkibost inlet on the west of North Uist. Kirkibost is an island in a shallow sandy lagoon with dunes in the region of 10 metres high. Once again the water was crystal clear and even though I was in about 2 metres of water the whole way around the 5 miles paddle never lost sight of the seabed. Loch Ayenort was on our doorstep at Seal Cottage and a nice looking seawater inlet with seal colony (who would have guessed?).
On the map it has a narrow gorge which opens to the sea on the east of South Uist but when I got there it was about 200 metres wide and small eddies and whirpools were being whipped up by the tide. Estimating the flow to be about 3kts I drifted out the gap, took some pics and battled back through the gorge. On my return I chatted to a local gamekeeper who went out his way to tell me how dangerous the gap was in an almost sea shanty type way describing 12 knot tides and biblical whirlpools. I must have missed them on my route.
Lastly I chose Eriskay because of the Whisky Galore connection. Maybe I was hoping to find some 80 year old whisky at the wreck site of the SS Politician that sank there in 1941. The story of the wreck and how the locals has stolen the whisky cargo from under the customs noses is well known and was turned into a book and an Ealing film of the same name in 1947. Suffice to say after years of pilfering not only was there no whisky left, there was no wreck left! Happy I had satisfied my curiosity in just finding he wreck site (there is very little info on its exact location seeing as it doesn’t exist anymore) I did the next best thing and collected a massive amount of huge unspoilt shellfish amongst the rocks which went down well that night with a glass of wine.
All in all a week was nowhere near enough to explore as much as we would have liked, and we didn’t even include Harris and Lewis. What the week out there did confirm is we definitely need to go back as it has something for every paddler. Getting there is now much cheaper since CalMac lowered the prices and there was more than enough places to eat, sleep, shop and refuel all at reasonable prices.
Seal Cottage can be found at http://www.uistself-catering.co.uk
Balranald Campsite is at http://www.balranaldhebrideanholidays.com