Explore the remote beauty of the Western Isles on the 240km Hebridean Way and discover spectacular landscapes, abundant wildlife and rich Gaelic culture.
WORDS Mark Rowe | PHOTOGRAPHY Steve Morgan
You can easily feel quite lonely, quite quickly, in the Outer Hebrides. On balance, I find this a positive experience. I've walked for barely 15 minutes from Leverburgh, landfall for ferries on the southern coast of Harris, and already I'm on an isolated moorland path, cutting across deep peat. The path is visible ahead, weaving and contouring through a valley to the skyline, and the sight of seeing exactly where I will walk for the next hour is both enticing and exhilarating.
I'm embarking on a slice of the Hebridean Way, Scotland's newest long-distance footpath. From the remote Bagh a Deas, or South Bay on Vatersay, this magical route nudges its way north through the Outer Hebrides, a chain of islands with fantastically resonant names: Barra, Eriskay, South Uist, Benbecula, North Uist, South and North Harris and Lewis. After 240km/149 miles, it tumbles through the grounds of Lews Castle into the port of Stornoway. You can of course head from north to south, though this will generally involve walking into the prevailing and sometimes uncooperative weather systems to be found in this outpost of the UK.
Along the way, walkers can confidently expect to encounter red deer, golden and sea eagles and enjoy world-beating beaches in complete solitude. The trail scuttles across sea-level causeways and two delectable ferry journeys. The landscape is contrary, flitting from grassy flatlands to jagged coasts where lochs drill deep into rocks that date to Precambrian times. At its heart rise the siren-like peaks of the North Harris Hills, standing like watchmen over much of the walk.
This is also a deeply ritualistic landscape, holding some of the oldest Celtic monuments on Earth, and many fractured, deserted townships. At the same time, crofting and the church are very much alive, and Gaelic is increasingly spoken by both old and young. All in all, you are left with an extraordinary, pulsating feeling of seeing into the past.
Funding for the £1.4m Hebridean Way project came from the Western Isles Council, the European Regional Development Fund and Scottish Natural Heritage. The Way involves newly laid tracks and existing routes, but is waymarked with the Hebridean Way logo along its length. ‘The desire, the long-standing aspiration has been there for a decade,’ says Johanne Ferguson, the Way's project manager for Scottish Natural Heritage. ‘There are other long distance paths in Scotland and there was a rather obvious gap.’
Cutting across the moor from Leverburgh, I reach the crest of the pass and my first ‘wow’ moment. Beaches and dunes merge into one another, as though I'm gazing at a slightly out of focus picture. To the south are the sands of Northton, a township also known by its Gaelic name of Taobh Tuath. The tide has receded to conjoin the beaches right through to the hamlet of Scarasta to the north, where the dunes wobble out at 90 degrees towards the sea, the grass on their ridges creating the appearance of a giant caterpillar. From the ground up, the colour scheme is sensational: strips of green, yellow, blue and the metallic shades of the brooding Harris hills. Piping oystercatchers and lapwings engaged in spiralling aerial battles criss-cross this canvas.
The coastline drama is unrelenting. Waymarkers cross the moorland above the sea but instead I drop down to the coast and start to give the beaches marks out of ten. Several – Scarasta, Northton, Mhor and Iar – get a perfect 10, as do the vast sands of Luskentrye, liquid as the sea and shimmering silver, gold and buttercup yellow. Another beach, Niosaboist, wide but narrow and gazing deep into the hills, gets a Spinal Tap 11.
Across the bay, in the hamlet of Luskentyre, I pick out a tiny cemetery perched beautifully above the dunes. This kicks off a slightly morbid if fleeting theme, as I leave Luskentrye by an old walkway known as Bealach Eorabhat – the Coffin, or Corpse Road – a track that took the 19th century dead from the stony east coast to the thicker soils of the west for burial. I see why this was necessary as I ascend the track and step back almost three billion years in time.
Giant, immovable rocks burp out of the ground, from a landscape that has proved undentable by humans. The rocks here are Lewisian gneiss, a metamorphic rock among the oldest on the planet. The gneiss is hard, acidic and impermeable, which means that the deep seated U-shaped glens, rocky summits and boulder strewn hillsides along this section of my walk have changed little since the last ice age 14,000 years ago.
The path gently rises to disclose views east across the Minch, to Skye, the Cuillin and north to the Applecross and Torridon ranges. I pick out one of a pair of golden eagles that nest here. I drop down to an idyllic bay where for a short while I follow quiet roads past the minutiae of life, lines of washing drying outside remote homesteads. A highlight among these highlights is the impossibly gorgeous Loch Phlocrapoil, which is filled with sponge-like islets. At last, my route tumbles out above vast Loch Tarbert, a sea loch that leads into the ferry port of the same name.
Laying the path
I meet up with Chris Ryan, a local walking guide who runs Hebridean Holidays and who is palpably excited that the route is becoming a reality. ‘I think there is nowhere else in the British Isles that matches this place for scenery and wildlife,’ says Chris, who has been pushing for a Hebridean Way since 1997. ‘It’ll be brilliant for tourism; there are no negatives. I would put money on you seeing a sea eagle. You will see two or three red deer, possibly ten. If you are interested in unspoilt places, this is truly wonderful. The culture sets its apart too, it is so important here. There is an unhurried place of life. There is no better place to walk in wonderful scenery and escape the rat race.’
A cautionary note before you lace up your boots: while the tracks have now been laid, the walk officially opens next spring, and Scottish Natural Heritage asks that walkers endeavour to contain their enthusiasm until then, essentially because these new paths require late autumn and winter to bed in among the peat and moorland. Johanne says she is ‘99.9% certain’ that all bridges will be in place by next spring, but – mindful of the truly foul Hebridean winters that can delay or undo outdoor labour – she asks walkers check before setting off.
The route's developers have put a lot of thought into making those paths resilient to walkers and, more to the point, the weather. In places they are gravel; elsewhere, across the vast Hebridean peat moors, hikers are aided by raised turfed paths, created by digging either side of the track and laying this spoil down on the track. ‘It makes it easier to walk across the haggy moors,’ says Johanne. ‘It's a difficult habitat to walk across because you are using so much energy.’
The particular circumstances of crofting ownership also threw up some unique access difficulties. Crofters not only have their own smallholdings, they can exercise their right to graze of a portion of common land under a system known as apportionment. ‘Sometimes people were not against access, but you only found out belatedly that paths went through an important part of their land,’ says Johanne. ‘It can be hard to know where land is apportioned as it can look unused, and isn't marked on maps. You can plan the route, but when you get there you find a fence right where you want to go. But most people have been happy with the route going through their land.’
I'm encouraged to see that the Hebridean Way will drive a local public heath agenda too. ‘This may sound counter-intuitive as we live in such a glorious part of the world,’ says Johanne, ‘but we have a problem with walking locally. Everyone has to use their car to get anywhere, to the shops, school, work. So we hope the Way will encourage people who live here to walk more.’
In a walker's land of plenty, one quandary Johanne and her colleagues have faced is just what to bypass. The obvious omission is the Standing Stones of Callanish on the west coast of Lewis. I have a few hours before my flight home, so make my way there. A hauntingly spectral quality attaches itself to these 5,000-year-old stones; the gneiss here is fine-grained, pea-green and in places, finger-thin. Johanne talks wistfully of a future western arm of the Hebridean Way, taking in Callanish. ‘But that involves some very difficult off-track terrain,’ she explains. ‘Waymarkers get knocked over by deer, and if you can't read a map or compass then you would quickly get into real trouble. We felt that was a distance too far for the average walker.’
As funds allow, the route will extend to the Butt of Lewis at the northernmost point of the isles, and Johanne expects islanders to develop loops and side tracks off the main route to attract hikers. She hopes that, rather than striding at pace to tick off another long-distance path, hikers will linger, explore and soak up the wider cultural elements to these magical isles.
‘It's atmospheric, it's exhilarating, you get these huge weather patterns coming in,’ she says. ‘We have so much history and archaeology; it would be such a pity to just rush from one end to the other.’ You could march the whole thing in 10 days, she says, but far better to take a fortnight and pause. ‘It would be a real shame if you rushed through and missed out on all these things.’
- TIME/DISTANCE The Hebridean Way is 240km/149 miles in total. The typical time taken to walk the route is 14 days. It is possible to walks various stretches of the route – this feature covers 42.7km/27 miles from Leverburgh to Tarbert, which was accomplished in two days.
- MAPS OS Explorer 455 South Harris; OS Landranger 18, Sound of Harris; OS Landranger 14, Tarbert & Loch Seaforth.
- FURTHER INFO www.hebrideanway.co.uk
- GETTING TO THE WESTERN ISLES FlyBe (0371 700 2000; www.flybe.com) flies from Glasgow and Edinburgh to Stornoway, Benbecula and Barra from £140 return, and £116 return from Inverness.
- GUIDEBOOKS AND TOURIST INFORMATIONThe Outer Hebrides, 40 coast and country walks, by Paul and Helen Webster £6.99, Pocket Mountains Ltd. Outer Hebrides Tourist Information (www.visitouterhebrides.co.uk) is an excellent source of information and accommodation.
- LOCAL RAMBLERS The nearest Ramblers group is the Highland & Islands Area groups in Inverness (www.highlandramblers.org.uk/inverness).
Food and drink
We all like a post-walk piece of cake, and a curious feature of the Outer Hebrides is that the elemental landscape through which you walk is in inverse proportion to the cosiness of the cafes along the way. From Hebridean blackhouse tea to banana samosas and cheeses with names such as gigha old smokey, you get the sneaking feeling that every cafe is seeking to be more twee than their rivals. Good choices include First Fruits Tearoom (01859 502439; www.firstfruits-tearoom.co.uk) in Tarbert; Hebrides Art on the coast at Seilebost (01859 550338) and the Temple Cafe in Northton (7876340416) with views across to Scarasta beach. There's also some excellent places for a more substantial meal, including the Anchorage restaurant ( 01859 520225 ) at Leverburgh pier which does superb fish and chips next to the Sound of Harris; and Digby Chick (01851 700026; www.digbychick.co.uk) in Stornoway, which is a great place to celebrate the completion of the walk. At Northton, near Leverburgh, it's worth the small diversion to Croft 36 (01859 520779; www.croft36.com), a wooden hut with an honesty box offering quality, well-priced fare, such as pasties, crab and cakes.
Other Great Walks in the Outer Hebrides
The Hebridean Way runs up the Atlantic west coast of South Uist where it keeps parallel for much of a 20-mile/32km stretch of unbroken beach and overlaps with the Machair Way. A key feature here is the machair, the sandy, grassy grazing land that blooms with flowers in summer. A good place to explore is Tobha Mor. The ruins are fragmented but are the most important Christian site in the Outer Hebrides, dating back more than 1000 years. Bus W17 runs up and down the spine of the Uists.
- The new raptor trail (http://www.visitouterhebrides.co.uk/see-and-do/trails-and-journeys/bird-of-prey-trail) is self-guided and can be walked, cycled or driven right across the Outer Hebrides. Key birds are hen harriers on Benbecula, golden and sea eagles and short-eared owls.
- Ruevel, Benbecula. The island of Benbecula has been described as "more loch than rock" on account of its sea level landscape. But its singular hill, Rueval, is worth climbing for fantastic views up and down the Outer Hebrides and across to Skye.
- Lochmaddy, North Uist. The coastline around the ferry port is well worth exploring and is part of the Hebridean Way. According to the tourist office, if you walked every inch and indentation of the incredibly crenulated coastline that encircles the port, you would clock up 480km/ 300 miles.
- Good walks over open ground with reasonable waymarking can be found along the west coast of Lewis, particularly along the coast from the Na Gearrannan blackhouses to the beaches of Dhail Mor and Dhail Beag. The W2 circular bus runs past both start and finishing points.
Logical walking daily distances do not always allow you to reach the doorstep of a b&b, a campsite, or the very few hotels on the islands. Instead, says Johanne Ferguson, an informal taxi service will develop, run by willing accommodation owners. "When you get to the end of a day, you can phone the B&B and they will come and pick you up," she says. Camping is a genuinely viable option as Scotland's access laws mean that wild camping is as Johanne puts it, "hunky dory." The machair of the Uists, in particular, is a glorious place to camp and wake up with to the sound of the sea. Horgabost campsite just south of Luskentyre awaits its canonisation in the world's guidebooks of top places to pitch a tent.
You can't fail to notice how widespread Gaelic is across the Western Isles, and for the walker, Gaelic place names are often revealing, or, to the English-speaking ear, can sound extraordinarily romantic. North Uist is a literal translation of Uibhist a Tuath; so to is South Uist (Uibhist a Deas), but this island is also referred to historically as Tir A'Mhurain, or 'Land of the Bent Grass'; a beach or sandy shore is 'traigh'. Benbecula becomes Beinn na Faoghla, or the Mountain of the Ford.