This is a story of Ian and Katie Palmer's return to the Outer Hebrides, after eight years away. Written by Katie.
8 years ago we spent a week on the Outer Hebridean island of Harris and vowed never to return. Not because it was bad but because it was so good. Too good. We had a week of hot, sunny, midge-free heaven-on-earth. Surely any attempt to return would end in disappointment as it could never be that good again.
Well, this Summer we decided to take our chances and booked ferries for a 2-week trip up the Western Isles from Vatersay in the South to Lewis up at the far Northern end. Plan A had been a trip to the French Alps but for various reasons, we were going with Plan B. We knew this meant forgoing the obvious weather-related advantages of Plan A but after our previous experience, maybe, just maybe it wouldn’t be too bad…
We started by driving up to Oban and camping overnight before making the 5-hour ferry journey across The Minch to Castlebay on Barra. I’d searched online for places to park the van overnight near Oban and had found forums full of angry comments about people not using a proper campsite. Having experienced a lot of this anti-van attitude whilst doing the North Coast 500 (much of which is sadly pretty well justified), my heart sank. Wild camping in Scotland is legal, I know we do it responsibly but the last thing I want to do is rile the locals. We did eventually find somewhere suitable (a few miles from Taynuilt on a tiny parking area over a causeway) but I wondered what the situation would be like on the islands.
I needn’t have worried. One of the best things about the Outer Hebrides is their forward-thinking attitude to campervans. Rather than ignore the issue then suffer the grief of people parking where they’re not wanted, the whole chain of islands offers free or very cheap designated parking places specifically for campers (as well as plenty of regular campsites). You know the ‘No Overnight Parking’ signs you often see in lay-bys elsewhere in the UK? Well here, they are regularly missing the ‘No’ part.
Facilities range from just a gravel bay to places with bins, taps and even toilets and hot showers. You’ll need to take cash (many places have an honesty box and suggest a £5 or £10 donation) and make sure you have a stash of pound coins for the showers. It felt like the best of both worlds – picturesque and largely very quiet spots which were cheap yet still made a small contribution to the local economy whilst avoiding the risk of getting shouted at for being in the wrong place.
Not only were you made to feel welcome to camp but the locals generally couldn’t have been nicer. The entire road system round the islands is predominantly single-track with passing places so there’s a lot of waving going on but people wave hello as you drive through the villages! When stopping to use the facilities at Berneray Harbour, we were asked to wind down the window and were expecting a ‘you can’t park here if you’re not using the ferry’. In fact, the man in question just wanted us to know that there was a fresh water tap next to the terminal building if we needed to fill up!
So, onto the islands and the adventures awaiting. Type ‘Outer Hebrides’ into Google and you’ll find pictures of endless, empty, white-sand beaches with turquoise waters that look like someone’s gone totally overboard with the photo editing filters. They haven’t. That is exactly what they look like and when you glimpse one for the first time, it takes your breath away.
It is a great place for kayaking, paddle-boarding and even surfing when the wind doesn’t blow the waves into mush. We found decent waves behind the airport at Barra (worth visiting in itself as the only place in the world to use a beach as a runway for commercial flights). There are other good surf spots on North Uist and Harris/Lewis (see Magic Seaweed for more info’).
It is a fantastic place for coastal walks and there are a few more mountainous areas (Harris being the best) although much of these can be boggy and pathless, making fell-running awkward and mountain biking near impossible. Notable exceptions include The Old Post Road to Reinigeadal and the double/singletrack near the Eagle Observatory on North Harris, both of which make fun mountain bike routes. The former really was a gem of a ride, starting on the old ‘Postman’s Path’ that skirts the shores of the sea loch at Urgha. There are small stretches of quiet road before a fun, grassy, singletrack descent with stunning views of the coastline. After a bit of a carry up from the shore, there’s a final smile-inducing descent, which drops you back down to the road and your starting point.
Harris is also where you’ll find the highest mountain trails for walking although there are smaller but noteworthy routes on the lower islands. High winds meant we missed much of the South Uist range but could recommend both Rueval (a short walk with amazing views on Benbecula) and Eaval on North Uist. The latter isn’t a huge mountain but requires a lengthy walk in as the road stops a good hour from the lower slopes. The terrain is extremely boggy, rutted, slippery and generally not easy underfoot but the views from the top are incredible. You are high enough to see the island of North Uist in its entirety and it’s only from this perspective that you can truly appreciate what a weird landscape it is, made up of dozens of both sea and land-based lochs. There are so many that’s it’s hard to make out whether you are looking at a land mass covered in lochs or a series of tiny, interlocking islands.
The mountains make up a relatively small proportion of the land compared to the flatter, coastal terrain but even the less adventurous beach walks have their own appeal. Eriskay on a sunny day is a joy to walk round with seals sunbathing on the rocks at low tide and the wild, white Eriskay ponies grazing on the slopes of Ben Scrien.
With all that beauty, we found ourselves wondering why everywhere was so (relatively) quiet. There aren’t many places where you don’t feel you have the beach/trail pretty much to yourself. We soon found out and here’s a clue – that fabled Harris weather of 2014 really wasn’t the norm. Or maybe we got unlucky but whichever it was, the majority of the trip was spent battling strong winds (sometimes 40mph+) and seemingly never-ending rain which at times was torrential.
Cycle touring is really popular and many people come over to ride the 184-mile Hebridean Way. I found myself in turn feeling envious and sorry for the tourers who on a good day looked like they were having the best fun (it must surely be the ideal way to see the islands) but on a bad day, were barely able to pedal into the wind. We brought our tent (an Alpkit Ordos 2) and, having weathered a storm inside it more than once before, were confident it would stand up to the battering of the elements. We, on the other hand, probably wouldn’t so chose the wind-stopping comfort of the van instead.
Determined not to let the weather stop play entirely, we put on either Alpkit Filoment padded coats or Gravitas/Balance waterproof jackets (sometimes both at the same time) and headed out regardless. These bits of kit really did enable us to feel comfortable being outdoors when the squalls were raging but with only 3 dry days in 14, I could see how the Hebrides can be an unforgiving as well as a beautiful place. You could argue that it’s part of its wild appeal but it can also make it more of a challenge than you’d ideally want on a relaxing holiday. However, if you can accept the challenge then there’s a lot of charm to be found on this unique little string of islands. And besides, 2014 proved that you can be lucky with the elements.