'' If you look at a map of the world, you will see in the left hand upper corner of the eastern hemisphere, two islands lying in the sea. They are England/ Scotland and Ireland. England and Scotland form the greater part of these Islands ... The neighbouring islands which are so small upon the map as to be mere dots, are chiefly bits of Scotland '' - Charles Dickens 'History of England'.
It is these 'mere dots' my Deer Blogfans that we need to have a little chat about. They are collectively known as the Outer Hebrides. Hebrides is derived from an ancient Norse word meaning Isles next to the sea and that is precisely what they are. They form a convenient protective reef against Scotland's West coast. The last post of European civilisation, next stop New York harbour!
As I look back on the mural of our journey, our modus operandi of the Road Trip is certainly what brought the whole undertaking to life. It is a different approach from the mainstream, it gets the most out of these beautiful, challenging and extraordinary places. From the vantage point of our car we could nestle in all sorts of niches and secret spots, come and go as we pleased, it really was the freedom of the Islands.
I feel I need to point out that Road Trips don't just happen, they need a little forethought, ingenuity and a few little finishing touches. Here is where Deb comes into her specialised sphere of activity, practical and frighteningly organised, the back of our Citroen Xsara Piccaso became decked out with memory foam, a craftsman made solid Pine work surface replaced the parcel shelf, care of her Father. Every space was utilised for shelving giving it a homely sense of accessibility, yet we never felt cluttered up. A good roof box is also a vital commodity.
|The Back-up Team|
|Attention to detail !|
When touring the Islands you are at the mercy of Calmac Ferries because they have the monopoly. In my experience it can be frustrating trying to harmonise ferry times with your requirement. I was even poised to leave a comment in a Suggestion Box but thought better of it, 'Calmac Ferries- dedicated to making your trip as difficult as possible!' When it comes down to it though the whole service runs on demand, if nobody wants to go to an Island at a certain time they wont run the service. However I think they need to pull their socks up and run me about whenever I feel the need!
Oban and the Isle of Barra
On reflection our first night's stop wasn't that particularly scenic, it was at the services on the A66! Not really a secret spot but it did give us ample opportunity for a saunter around Oban. This place really does grow on you, a comparatively late starter but now justly proclaimed to be the Sea Food Capital of the Highlands . A delightful array of shops form an arc around the harbour that nature has kindly provided . We bought an enormous Lobster without a thought of how we were going to eat it, you see it was just prior to the crossing to Barra, a journey of about two and a half hours. Although we were well kitted out for cooking and dining in the car we weren't that culinary enough to prepare a Lobster, who cares we were on Hebridean air!
|Oban at it's best.|
|Be happy at your work!|
We crept into Castlebay under the cover of darkness. Providence was kind to us in the guise of an upended J.C.B bucket that doubled up nicely as a table, we eat alfresco,the ambient light from the pier augmented the warm unruffled air, of course complimented by a shimmy of Glen Morangie, a splendid petit dejeuner. The odd car went past, people waved. If that was in Lincoln we would be taken for a couple of Drongo's but on the Isle of Barra its all the right ingredients for a sumptuous repast.
I was a tad concerned when I encountered something I had never been faced with before, dreaming while I was still awake!!! I asked myself had I inadvertently eaten some Dead Men's Fingers? Or were some toxins having a bizarre effect on my brain? Was I losing my marbles? Or had I not paid my sleep debt? My biggest concern was I didn't want to be found mindlessly roaming around hills like King Henry VI! Thankfully even under the dark cloak of night we found a perfect spot overlooking Love Heart ( Borve ) beach, the unrelenting steam hammer effect of the restless sea pounding the sand was gratifyingly hypnotic, fragments of the dream of wake were soon submerged in the ocean of sleep.
What a joy it was to open your eyes at first light to a wild deserted beach, to break our fast on porridge and drink the coffee of Barradise. Even a swaddling band of cloud couldn't hide the searchlight of the sun, a profundity of ultramarine sea gradiated into the turquoise of a peacock's feather.
|View from our bedroom window|
|R.P.S red patch somewhere.|
|Love Heart Beach|
With my hand on the steering wheel of adventure we took time to explore some of the sleepy bays down the minor roads. Fishing boats and oscitant seafaring paraphernalia languished unabated in drowsy contentment. Around Cockle Strand a quality of light obtained that I have never experienced before, the sun hung like a Chinese Lantern shining through a floating gossamer of mist. It couldn't fail to awaken the artistic eye in anybody, that is providing of course you give yourself time to linger in these places of such breathtaking tranquillity.
|a floating gossamer of mist|
|oscitant sea faring paraphernalia|
|gather up as many orange balls as you can!|
As the spindle of time turns slowly you sometimes notice things that would otherwise pass you by, a specific example comes to mind as we meandered around the north end of the Island, congregations of Snails on fence posts! The circuit of fence posts criss crossed for several hundred yards yet the tops of the posts were adorned by hoodlings of Snails. Several theories have been put forward to explain this sustained phenomena, far too numerous to mention here but they all fall into the penumbra of uncertainty. If any Blogfan out there can successfully explain the science behind this strange occurrence I'm willing to reward you with a signed copy of my latest book 'How to win at Clock patience - technique and tactics'.
Still rambling around the coves and bays on the north coast we came across a pier and one or two outbuildings that had long fallen into desuetude but one nearest the road, that was now more like a track, hadn't. It was a public lavatory! Right in the middle of nowhere some random Loo's. But it got better, in the little rest room annex was a kettle and stove! That to me belied the sociability and conviviality of the inhabitants of Beautiful Barra.
|as the spindle of time turns slowly...|
|Game of chess anyone?|
By necessity of the ferry our stay on Barra was bookended by visits to Castlebay. I will never tire of seeing it's fairy tale Kisimul Castle ( known as the Castle in the sea) gradually come into view as the road loops round, it is an arresting sight. It has to be said that in the fourteenth century you wouldn't have been drawn to the McNeils by their humility, a Herald would appear give six fluctuating blasts on the horn and bellow out '' here ye people of the nations, the great McNeil of Barra has finished his dinner, the people of the nations may now eat'! As a mark of respect we felt compelled to have our lunch at the Island's Indian restaurant that could only be called the 'Kisimul'.
Eriskay, South Uist, Benbecular, North Uist and Berneray
Moving along the canvas we now come to the cute little Isle of Eriskay. It is formed by two knobbly peaks, Ben Srien ( 185m ) in the north of the Island and Ben Stack (122m ) in the south, both rising proudly out of the sound of Eriskay. From the summit of Ben Srien I don't think there is anything on the Island that you can't see but I always love to see those green cottage dotted slopes of sheep cropped grass. Overhead the romping clouds trigger a changing play of light that only a September evening could afford. Eriskay has the hallmark of individuality, apart from it's inexorable link with 'Whiskey galore' it is very much an Islanders Island.
|romping clouds trigger a changing play of light|
Over the causeway on to the next part of the collage we come to the Uists, North and South with Benbecular sandwiched in between. Horizons instantly widen as the sea stretched out its slender grey arms to the plaintive blue sky. The key to discovering these Islands is to get yourself off the main road that makes up the spine of the Islands and roam some of the minor roads and tracks, converted Blackhouses with thatched roofs still grace the shore of some of these bays. The roads can be a bit frustrating because they rarely intrude on the privacy of the miles of white shell sand, flanked by it's own tribute band the stunningly beautiful machair grassland.
|converted Blackhouses with thatched roofs still grace the shore of some of these bays|
We accessed the coastline at the tiny hamlet of Caisteal. It appeared to be the natural dumping ground for various types of Seaweed. For me, being here gave you the scent of the sea but even the locals refer to this spot as 'Stinky Beach'! The evening light had turned the seaweed and sand into a symphony of pinks and blues. If we were in England these crimson skies would promise a good tomorrow but we're not in England so no such promises are made... or broken.
|The secret to exploring these islands is to get off the 'main road'.|
|world's most difficult jigsaw puzzle!|
That night we got ourselves tucked away near a small causeway overlooking Loch Bi amid a helter skelter of a Western Isles sunset. Paintbox colours in vaults of fragmented pastel stretched across the big skies like pieces of a broken stained glass window. I stood with a shimmy in hand inextricably drawn to the ripples floating across the emerald waters of the Loch. What else could I do but jot down a few lines!
|Loch Bi ripples float across the water|
|vaults of fragmented pastel|
Ripples on the water
See the ripples float across the water
paradise is further down by the shore
wasn't we here some years before?
Harris Tweed is the cloth she's wearing
raiment fine for a Lady who cares
onwards from Barra who could want for more
we carried the Isles in the back of our car
see the ripples float across the water
beautiful days in the mural of our journey
paradise is further down by the shore.
Isle of Harris/ Lewis
The Hebridean collage now changes dramatically as we cross from Berneray to Leverburgh on the southern end of the Isle of Harris. On a brief recky on the top deck of the ferry you could see the early morning sun making circles on the water but more to the point as I look towards our destination I see that the Hills are back in business! Our heart is on Harris, not just because it is wild, free and beautiful but it is completely free of Clan Munro and almost free of Clan Corbett. With this unsavoury thread of tourism ruled out there are no Kleptomaniac Top Tickers walking the Hills to death just so that they can put a tick in a box!
Leverburgh is a scattered community, I'm not sure if it even qualifies to be a Village. at any rate you get the feeling that it has seen more prosperous times. Instead of taking the coast road to Tarbert we decided to explore some of the lesser known minor roads and what a pivotal decision that was. If you look on the O.S map L.R.18 there is a road just before the school, about fifteen miles in length that connects you back up to the A859 about five miles short of Tarbert. We nicknamed this road Rocky Mountain Way. The landscape changes instantly becoming remarkably lunar! Everywhere bare lumps of rock have covenanted with each other against being smothered by any form of foliage. Rain water gathers in a diaspora of peat lined lochs, houses are scattered wherever there is a surface flat enough to support them.
|'Albeit through rain lashed windows !'|
Whatever the weather you should be fortunate enough to spot a Heron. The Heron is the Queen of the Loch and the Guardian Angel of those numerous Trout ringed Lochans. A graceful bird, elegant in stature and shapely in flight. It's wings swish rhythmically to the slow movement from Schubert's String Quintet. However don't be fooled by her sleek statuesque innocence, when she wants feeding the Queen is as judicious as an arrow fired straight from a Longbow!
There are a plethora of Art Galleries, Craft Studios and cottage Farm Shops offering their produce to passers by. A Gallery we found to be a bolt of inspiration was at a converted church at Finsbay called Mission House Studio. Their calling was an evocative blend of Black and White photography with Studio Ceramics. The redolent nature of the land of Harris is a consistent running theme though all of their work. We viewed it as Art not as a market campaign but as a pure form of expression. From this point on we were motivated to experiment with Black and White photography ourselves.
Tarbert certainly doesn't lose it's charm with age and hopefully it never will. Harris Tweed and Knitwear have upped their game by transposing the sales goods from the revered original shop to what was the cold and dank warehouse, now unrecognisable due to being tastefully refurbished. An astute move, we should have seen it coming. With the refit being augmented by a glitterati of Books and C.D's it doesn't get much better than this!
But there have been more developments, on securing our parking spot to satisfy our abstruse desire for Harris Tweed our attention was diverted to a new building on my left, the Isle of Harris distillery! What's all this then? Well the second distillery on the Outer Hebrides is under way. Ten million pounds has already been pumped into the project and in just ten short years you will be able to experience a dram that I'm sure will reflect the beauty and vigour of the Island.
I don't know about beauty but the rain was now coming down with vigour. We were on our way to Rhenigadale to book in at the Hostel and do a walk so I was hoping the wild weather was going to blow itself out but that hope was fading fast yet in spite of the driving rain we were still constantly pulling over trying to take photos albeit through rain lashed windows! Another weather a different artistry..
|another weather a different artistry|
Rhenigadale is the epitome of glorious isolation, notwithstanding this tiny isolated community recently held out her withered hand to Mother Civilisation hencewith a new road that connects it to the A859 and by extension the outside world was constructed. I bear no malice! Rhenigadale comprises of a smattering of harled cottages above and around a narrow inlet in which boats are moored.
|Rhenigadale... harled cottages above and around a narrow inlet|
The Hostel was sold to Deb as being modern, I can't believe she's fallen for my 'take' on things yet again, on reflection the word 'modern' was perhaps stretching the line of ambiguity a bit far. Seriously though this academy of Gatliffe Hostels are a credit to the spirit of the Islands in providing a roof over your head, warmth and the basic facilities. As we yarned the night away with like minded people I'm sure the mould had moved further up the wall!
When we first arrived at the Hostel I noticed that none of the incumbents could venture beyond the four walls without a volley of expletives! I recalled the words of local hill walking legend James Hogart (Speedy) who uttered the immortal words ''rain wont kill you''! That was to be our recondite but let's be honest nothing erodes morale like heavy rain. Our response to the rain was commendable considering we were both soaked to the skin within a hundred yards of the Hostel. We paid the price for wearing second rate gear, Scottish weather takes no prisoners!
The track to Mollinganais has views and photographic composition that would make the grade for any Scotland calender.The path seamlessly contours the bowl of Loch Troiamaraig, at it's height it towers over it's pleated waters with entrancing views towards the Shiant Islands. Footbridged streams tumble free from the local hill Todun, Guardian of the Loch, it wasn't exercising it's authority at this point, looking rather distant and remote through swirling sheets of rain. We paused for a while at the well preserved ruins of Gearaidh Lotaigear and deployed our powers of imagination to envisage what life really would have been like here.
|What would it really have been like to have lived here?|
On the return leg we experienced how Hebridean light can be so heart lifting. Whilst gallantly trying to keep our spirits high, a tip of sunshine penetrated the clouds and illuminated a tiny section of ridge, I wasn't sure whether this was just wishful thinking but within seconds the whole corrie was ablaze with spangles of sunshine, not a blade of grass escaped it's mellowing sheen.
|Hebridean light can be so heart lifting|
|not a blade of grass escaped its mellowing sheen|
|the path seemlessly contours the bowl of Loch Troimaraig|
The hills of Lewis and Harris are unique inasmuch as they offer superlative views in every direction yet from a modest height, breaching the sacred 2.500' benchmark but once. I've come to appreciate the best viewpoints tend to come from lower summits. At first light while Deb was still asleep I had a quick raz up the hill at the back of the Hostel. Scamisaig is it's name. At a mere slip of 262m the views down Loch Seaforth were unrivalled, only from here could I fully appreciate it's fjord like qualities. Time well spent I think!
Back on the road a row of gaily painted cottages on the A859 mark the gateway to the B887 and some of the most beautiful scenery you will see anywhere in the Motherland. The road hugs the shore as it twists and turns round many lochs and islets. Bunavoneader is a pleasant little hamlet, perched above a defunct Whaling Station! This was one of Lord Lever's ventures that didn't quite turn out as planned, not many of them did. All that is left now are a couple of disparate buildings and an enormous edifice of a chimney. Well if that wasn't random enough as we continue our leisurely drive through this charismatic wilderness, there at the roadside amidst loch, bog and rock are some Tennis Courts! I couldn't have been more surprised if I'd seen a Pterodactyl flying by. Can things possibly get any more unconventional? Well as a matter of fact, yes they can...
|Just about all that is left of the Whaling Station!|
|heather, loch, bog, rock and... Tennis Courts!|
... the road narrowed even more, resembling somebodies drive. I assumed I had driven off the road and was now on some ones private property, the huge ornamental white gates in front of me confirmed my suspicions but alas no! We were now in the grounds of Amhuinnsuidhe Castle, there are gardens, manicured lawns and a salmon leap! There was even one of the Chaps practising the art of fly fishing, maybe that was his Roller on the drive. The Castle itself was built in 1867 by the second Earl of Dunmore in true Scottish Baronial style and is very impressive. James Barrie stayed here in 1902 when he wrote Peter Pan. You can pretend to be a Laird with seventeen guests and stay here yourself, it will cost you about £35k a week all inclusive for the privilege but I dare say it would be worth every penny.
|I assumed I had driven off the road. Notice the 'Roller' on the drive.|
We put the rest of the road on hold until after we had done the walk to Sron Ulladail. The 'Sron' is the biggest overhang or inland cliff in Britain pitching at around 300m. A hunched figure of primal granite, an imposing sight to be sure but doesn't particularly photograph well. The walk into Glen Ulladail is photogenic, giving you a real flavour of Harris mountain terrain. Four lochs of proportioned elegance curve round to the bottom of the Glen and the foot of the Sron. Hills ranged off as far as South West Lewis in a vanguard filled with September crispness.
|a vanguard filled with September crispness|
|'Sron' actually translates as 'nose'|
Totally 'Ploughboy' was our refection that afternoon, Tomato Soup with a Crofters Loaf. I had the joyous privilege of washing our cutlery in the refreshing waters of the River Miavaig, with that assignment dutifully discharged it was time to explore the rest of this road. Shapes and colours flitted through our lively minds as we saw in the distance a golden arc of sand. This was the beach at Husinuish the B887 terminates here and it has a real end of the road atmosphere. There is an isthmus of land that connects you to a jetty where you can sail across to the uninhabited Isle of Scarp, a handful of tired looking houses and a very clean w/c. I had a shimmy along the shore as the receding tide revealed the bay in it's full glory. The hypnotic to and fro pounding of the waves was to be our pillow for the night, our consciousness went out with the tide!
|a golden arc of sand|
|The 'Road Trip' way.|
As you unroll the Hebrideaux tapestry even further, West Lewis continues the theme of 'untamed wilderness' in an area known as The Park there are hills that are so hard to access they almost rival anywhere on the Mainland for remoteness, apart from height the only difference is that they don't have a man's Surname attached to them! We had our showers at a splendid Hostel that we found on the B8060. This place really was modern, it was an amalgam of Hostel, Cafe, Grocery Store, Bookshop and Museum! It is called Ravenscroft . From time to time we meet interesting and influential characters on our travels, it was at this Hostel we met our exemplified individual of this trip, Alan Watling. He knew everything about the Highlands, every Hill, Bothy, Hostel, Warden, Island, Uninhabited Island and the list goes on. What he didn't know isn't worth knowing. He is often to be found with his head in his notes at this Hostel.
Some of the minor roads in this area of Lewis are more like tracks but what a delight they are. In September's early Autumn medley shifting shafts of light danced around on a stallion breeze and rainbows pitched themselves in perfect arcs. The question we had to ask ourselves was, were we over the rainbow or just high on Hebridean Air? You see with our new found innovation of Black and White photography we were pulling over to photograph anything from a rainbow to a fence post! Getting to your destination on a road fifteen miles long was taking forever!
|rainbows pitched... in perfect arcs|
At last we reach the estuarine sands of Luskentyre back in South West Harris, a vast and endless expanse of apricot sand, I wouldn't like to get caught in the middle of it though when the tide comes in it comes in like a decree. Through my binoculars I pick out a lone Curfew on a rock. I think the Curlew should be the patron bird of Harris, it speaks of melancholy and solitude. Against this backdrop I had a 'lobster' moment and fell into a musical parallel consciousness, 'The Curlew' by W.B.Yeats , set to music by Philip Hesseltine...
O Curlew, cry no more in the air
or only to the water in the west
because your crying brings to my mind
passion dimmed eyes and long heavy hair
that was shaken over my breast
there is enough evil in the crying of the wind...
I was brought back to reality by those brassier brasher counterparts of the Curlew, Oyster Catchers, like loud mouthed Teenagers only big in a group half a mile away, their raucous sound filled the air. In the distance a solo Courmarant circles the waters looking for a late supper. A stunning place to spend the night.
|endless expanse of apricot sand... when the sea comes in it comes in like a decree!|
Isle of Skye and Rasaay
It was almost the end of the idyll on the busy Isle of Skye, there were certainly a lot more cars, no longer could you just drive along with one eye on the scenery. On the Trotternish peninsular the car in front of me slammed it's brakes on when he realised that the road became single track. I was a fraction late in applying the brakes and with the four circles of the Audi logo getting nearer and nearer I was mentally preparing myself for that sickening bumping and graunching of metal but while Deb stretched the frozen moment with her fear I pulled my ace card, well I actually pulled the hand brake! Apart from a bit of a wiggle from the rear, the car surprisingly to our great relief came to a standstill, though I think you could have only fitted a single sheet of paper in between the two bumpers!
On this peninsular whilst heading for the bridge we had an irresistible call to arms at the mind altering sight of the Quirang. It was a sensational walk amidst scenery more akin to Patagonia than the Highlands of Scotland. Due to the fact there were other things we had planned to do, this walk certainly had to be curtailed so at a strategically placed bealach we were to turn tail but we lacked self control, it was just too good! Mysterious goings on in times past have left a geological splatter of chaos and castellated heights. Understandably it's proximity to the road makes it the Klondike of the Highlands.
|geological splatter of chaos and castellated heights|
We were cognisant of the fact that doing the whole walk came at a price, we were going to have to walk on two roads totalling seven miles the last three on a very steep gradient with hairpin bends, in order to get back to the car park. I detest walking on roads so the only option was to hitch a lift, well two as it happens. The second lift was with some Dutch lads, we spoke no Dutch and they spoke little English but we did both speak the international language of Football!
The Mural ends with a visit to Skye's little Brother, Rasaay, the ninth Island of our Road Trip. It has to be said that Rasaay just isn't cast in the same mould as it's big Brother. On a set of postage stamps I purchased from the general store, local scenes were depicted, there were views back to Skye, a shot of the local shop where we had just been, a row of houses and someone hanging out their washing . This emphasises my opinion that Rasaay hasn't got much to shout about.
|The highlight of Rasaay, the view back to Skye!|
Well there you have it my Deer Blogfans that is where the curtain falls. I do feel an attack of Munrosis coming on so hopefully the next Blog should see us once again heading for the high ground.
Keep the dram alive,
Marconius De Pingworthy 3rd.