Trail of the unexpected: Outer Hebrides

Lost in the Western Isles

In the paw prints of a dog called Reubs, Lucy Gillmore hikes the Uists and Barra

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

Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: Dining Room Head Chef

    £32K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Dining Room Head Chef to work for one of ...

    Guru Careers: Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Chef

    £27K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Che...

    Guru Careers: Events Coordinator / Junior Events Planner

    £24K + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an Events Coordinator ...

    Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: Chief Executive Officer

    Salary 42,000: Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: The CEO is responsible ...

    Day In a Page

    Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

    Please save my husband

    As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada
    Birthplace of Arab Spring in turmoil as angry Tunisians stage massive sit-in over lack of development

    They shall not be moved: jobless protesters bring Tunisia to a halt

    A former North African boom town is wasting away while its unemployed citizens stick steadfastly to their sit-in
    David Hasselhoff's new show 'Hoff the Record': What's it like working with a superstar?

    Hanging with the Hoff

    Working with David Hasselhoff on his new TV series was an education for Ella Smith
    Can Dubai's Design District 'hipster village' attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?

    Hipsters of Arabia

    Can Dubai’s ‘creative village’ attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?
    The cult of Roger Federer: What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?

    The cult of Roger Federer

    What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?
    Kuala Lumpur's street food: Not a 'scene', more a way of life

    Malaysian munchies

    With new flights, the amazing street food of Kuala Lumpur just got more accessible
    10 best festival beauty

    Mud guards: 10 best festival beauty

    Whether you're off to the Isle of Wight, Glastonbury or a local music event, we've found the products to help you
    Unai Emery’s passion for winning and eye for a bargain keep Seville centre stage in Europe

    A Different League

    Unai Emery’s passion for winning and eye for a bargain keep Seville centre stage in Europe, says Pete Jenson
    Amir Khan and James DeGale’s remarkable Olympic performances were just the start of an extraordinary journey - Steve Bunce

    Steve Bunce on Boxing

    Amir Khan and James DeGale’s remarkable Olympic performances were just the start of an extraordinary journey
    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf