Up south. Down north. That’s Hebridean-speak. Don’t ask a local for directions in the Outer Hebrides unless you want to wind up confused. To an outsider, it might sound barmy but, my guide, James Macletchie, told me with a shrug: “It’s to do with the hills.” The islands to the south are more rugged and mountainous, tapering down to the loch-pocked peat bogs of the pancake-flat North Uist – known as the island of the three hills.
An Ordnance Survey map and compass will overcome any directional difficulties, of course, as will a new walking booklet written by the marine biologist and TV presenter Monty Halls. He spent six months in the Outer Hebrides last year. He lived in a restored blackhouse on North Uist with his big black mutt, Reubs, as part of his second series of Scottish adventures, Monty Halls’ Great Hebridean Escape, now showing on BBC2.
In the first series, he tried his hand at crofting in Applecross on the west coast of Scotland. For his Hebridean jaunt, he worked as a voluntary ranger on the Uists and Barra. This encompasses the string of islands that make up the southern part of the Outer Hebrides (the northern portion is the single landmass of the Isle of Harris and the Isle of Lewis). From north to south, the islands are Berneray, North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist, Eriskay and Barra. The job of looking after the 60-mile stretch of wilderness used to be James’s until funding ran out. One of Monty Halls’ aims was to try to raise enough money for the post to be reinstated permanently.
“Any other country would employ a full-time ranger here if the islands belonged to them,” Monty told me as James and I tramped along Poll Na Crann beach on Benbecula with him. “This is our New Zealand. Every nation needs a wilderness and this archipelago is ours.”
The Outer Hebrides comprise a 130-mile long string of heather-sprung rocky outcrops in the North Atlantic. The islands are nearer to the south-east coast of Iceland than to London. They are separated from the mainland by the Minch, a swirling strait wider than the English Channel. Of the 200 or so chunks of rock poking out of the waves, 10 are inhabited. Gaelic is still spoken here and the old crofting traditions, from peat-cutting to seaweed gathering, are part of everyday life.
Around 200,000 visitors are drawn here each year. Some are attracted by the wild, white beaches. But the main draw is the wildlife: everything from basking sharks to bottlenose dolphins, red deer, otters and native Eriskay ponies – which wander wild along the lanes. This is also prime birdwatching territory. The RSPB reserve at Balranald on North Uist is one of the last strongholds of the corncrake, and provides a chance to see golden eagles and sea eagles. In South Uist, the Loch Druidibeg National Nature Reserve is one of the country’s largest breeding grounds for the Greylag Goose.
Causeways link the islands from Berneray to Eriskay, making it easier to get around, while Barra, hanging off the bottom, is a short ferry ride away, as are Harris and Lewis, “down north”. A good way to explore the islands is to walk.
One of Monty’s tasks was to waymark a number of new hiking trails and compile a booklet of his six favourite walks; any profits go to local environmental projects. “They will eventually become part of a long-distance walking trail,” James said. “There have been plans afoot for many years to create a ‘Uist Way’. Monty’s routes will hopefully encourage people to explore the islands’ rich heritage and wild coastline.”
The walks are graded with Reubs’ paw-print terrain guide: one paw means the going is easy, five paws and you’ve picked a challenging route. They take in a mix of craggy hill, moorland and beach walks, with Monty highlighting places for wildlife viewing or of historical interest. Most of the walks are circular, but he adds a Hebridean-style disclaimer. “Most of the walks are very easy to follow, but expect to get moderately lost every now and then!” I did.
I trekked the Barra loop, which Monty waymarked with another ex-ranger, Jonathan Grant: a four-mile trek graded two paws. Barra is home to 1,000 species of wild plants and 150 bird species. The walk starts at St Barr’s church in North Bay, surrounded by the walls of a 19th-century kelp factory, and follows the road to a patch of woodland planted by Lady Gordon Cathcart in the 19th century. It continues beside Loch an Duin. Veering off-road at the head of the loch, the route takes you on a grassy path on its other side. A detour brings you to Loch nic Ruaidhe where a girl drowned herself after betraying her family to the son of the MacNeil clan who slaughtered them as they slept.
As I tramped through the wiry heather, looking over the sea to Skye, a rusty barbed wire fence reared up across the path. I scrabbled to the top of the ridge. The fence snaked across the summit. The waymarking posts, however, had disappeared. There was nothing else for it. Gingerly, I scaled the fence and slithered downhill towards the coast road.
The other walks begin on Berneray, a nine-mile, full-day romp around the island, past common seals basking on the rocks, a Viking court and along one of the most beautiful stretches of sand in the Outer Hebrides: West Beach. Next up is North Uist, the largest of the islands, although a third of its area is taken up with freshwater trout-filled lochs (this is prime angling territory). The walk here is around the Udal peninsula, taking in sand flats and machair (a sandy carpet of 200 or so types of wild flowers and grasses) and a handful of archaeological sites.
Benbecula has the only linear route, with suggestions to add in a gallop along the sand flats and a boat trip to the harbour at Kallin.
South Uist is a five paw-print schlep up along the rugged ridges of Beinn Ruigh Choinnich and past the cave where Bonnie Prince Charlie was said to have hidden after the failed Jacobite Rising. The start is not the best, Monty admits: “A bit wet underfoot in summer, it might be worth taking a snorkel in the winter.” But from the summit “spread before you are South Uist, the Sea of the Hebrides and the Isle of Skye”.
The walk on Eriskay starts and ends at the Am Politician pub, named after the whisky-laden ship that ran aground off the island in 1941, immortalised in Compton Mackenzie’s novel Whisky Galore!. It also takes in Prince’s Strand, the beach where Bonnie Prince Charlie first set foot on Scottish soil in 1745. This is a land as rich in stories as it is in scenery and wildlife.
‘Monty Halls’ Great Hebridean Escape’ is on Wednesdays at 9pm on BBC2