Walk of the month

South Uist: Find liquid refreshment on a wild isle

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Laced with lochs and lapped by the ocean, this Hebridean outpost exhilarates Mark Rowe

For somewhere so full of bird life, the silence on South Uist can sometimes be resounding. Perhaps it's all the peaty soil that deadens nature's background chatter. A swan skims down on to Loch Druidibeag and paddles away silently, unruffled, its neck long and stiff, its body still, as if dragged along by an unseen underwater pulley.

Silhouettes of houses the size of pinpricks stand on the horizon, separated from me by moorland and a huge sky. To the north, I'm overlooked by a military radar station. I pass a picked-clean sheep's skull. This is the edge of the British Isles, and it's heartening to discover that the place actually looks the part.

A little irritatingly, the spongy goat track evaporates intermittently as I make my way between the two arms of the loch. Druidibeag is a national nature reserve pockmarked with Lilliputian lochans, where ducks trundle back and forward aimlessly.

Putting my ear to the ground, I can just hear the cotton grass fluttering in the wind. Tormentil, a delicate yellow, four-leafed flower, adds a splash of colour to the peaty landscape. In August, the heather quickly turns purple, smothering the landscape in a fragrant haze. The description "more loch than rock" has often been used for the Outer Hebrides: the water creates a liquid light that bounces off the land, up to the sky and back again. This crystalline air seems to magnify the folds and creases of the overlooking mountains Hecla and Ben Tarbert.

It's easy to eulogise about South Uist. But living here has always been hard, even before the 19th century clearances that saw families evicted, and the land turned over to sheep farming. Religious faith burns strongly here, not the wee-frees of the northern Hebrides but Catholicism: just out of sight, below the radar station stands a monumental figurine of Our Lady of the Isles.

But the walking is exhilarating. I've now left the moor behind and I am striking out on an arrow-straight path to the coast. The sea remains out of sight, shielded by a shallow uplift of lush green flanks, until I am upon it. This coastal grassland is known as machair, and at this time of year it undergoes a metamorphosis as amazing as anything in a caterpillar's repertoire. For most of the year machair can resemble a golf course, close cropped with perhaps just the doughty yellow-red bird's foot trefoil, also known as bacon and eggs, to dilute the endless green. But in the second half of summer this fertile soil is transformed by sprouting wildflowers, such as the foam-like Lady's bedstraw, with seemingly millions of minute yellow flowers.

The tide is out, so I walk along the beach, close to huge raised beds of exposed, and stinking, seaweed. This shoreline has always been a rich source of material for the business of everyday island life. Until the 1960s mattresses were made from seaweed, beds from driftwood. Along the coast, tradition has seen islanders gather dulse (a seaweed, good with butter or as a broth) and carrageen, a delicate seaweed used for milk pudding.

To the south, distant views opened up the hilly islands of Eriskay and Barra before I turn north once again, walking parallel to the coast but a little further inland, along the edge of the machair. I pass the remains of four ancient chapels and churches at How More, also known as Thoba More. These fragmented ruins are the most important Christian sites in the Outer Hebrides, dating back more than 1,000 years.

The scene is one of undulating flatness, as if gentle waves are rolling along just under the soil. The birds are noisy enough here, oystercatchers zipping back and forward with their pig-like squeals. Lapwings arc through the skies, before spiralling in a corkscrew plummet to ground.

Standing here, it isn't hard to imagine the emotions of people who had been tied to this land and were forced to leave. Many eulogised the landscape and way of life after they left, and that emigration resonates even today. Once my walk is done, I make for the Kildonan Museum, a few miles further south on the island. Kildonan is an excellent place to learn about the history of South Uist – and grab a much-needed cup of tea.

Many eulogies of those whose left are recorded, including one from an Allan MacPhee: "Land of bent grass, land of barley, land where everything is plentiful and young men sing songs and drink ale. If I had as much as two suits of clothes, a pair of shoes and a fare in my pocket I would sail for Uist." Today, ferries and flights make the task of reaching South Uist all the simpler, but I find the magnetic pull on visitors such as myself is just as strong.

The details

Distance: 16km/10 miles

Time: Four hours

OS Map: Explorer 453, Benbecula and South Uist

Route: Start at the car park by Loch Druidibeag on the B890 (grid ref: NF 790382). Follow the track to the double gates marked "self-guided walk". Climb over and follow a goat track by fence for 150m to a gate. Turn sharp-right along the track, which intermittently peters out as you walk between two raised mounds. Keep the houses, on the skyline to the north-west, in view. The track becomes more distinct and passes through three gates then bears right between two houses to a gate marked "self-guided walk" and the A865. Cross over to the shoreline. Bear left for 2km past Sgeir Dhreumasdail to the large bay of Bun na Feathlach. Walk up the track to the old chapel and bear left along the Machair Way past Drimsdale House for 3km. At the third lane (grid ref NF758398) turn right, cross A865 and down B890 to the car park.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Mark Rowe travelled by Caledonian Sleeper (08457 55 00 33; scotrail.co.uk/caledoniansleeper) to Inverness and by ferry with Caledonian MacBrayne (0800 066 5000; calmac.co.uk) from Uig on Skye to Lochmaddy on North Uist.

Flybe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com) serves the neighbouring islands of Barra and Benbecula from Glasgow, with connections to a number of regional airports.

Bus W17 (www.cne-siar.gov.uk/travel) runs from Berneray to Eriskay and stops at the junction of the A865 and B890.

More information

visithebrides.com; visitscotland.com

Life and Style
love + sex
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle 0 Man United 1: Last minute strike seals precious victory
Life and Style
Tikka Masala has been overtaken by Jalfrezi as the nation's most popular curry
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Seth Rogan is one of America’s most famous pot smokers
filmAmy Pascal resigned after her personal emails were leaked following a cyber-attack sparked by the actor's film The Interview
Benjamin Netanyahu and his cartoon bomb – the Israeli PM shows his ‘evidence’
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
Life and Style
A statue of the Flemish geographer Gerard Kremer, Geradus Mercator (1512 - 1594) which was unveiled at the Geographical Congree at Anvers. He was the first person to use the word atlas to describe a book of maps.
techThe 16th century cartographer created the atlas
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
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

    Recruitment Genius: Product Advisor - Automotive

    £17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to the consistent growth of...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Automotive

    £18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity exists for an ex...

    Recruitment Genius: Renewals Sales Executive - Automotive

    £20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity exists for an ou...

    Recruitment Genius: Membership Sales Advisor

    £18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Day In a Page

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot