A book worm and foodie, studying English Literature at the University of Glasgow, writing about food, books and travel while aspiring to be a writer.

Monday, 31 August 2015

Stay-cation Summer, exploring The Outer Hebrides.

This summer, Calum and I decided that instead of going abroad for a cheapish, beachy type holiday, we would dedicate our escape to exploring more of Scotland.
Coming from Aberdeenshire originally, and living in Glasgow now, I would like to think I have done a fair bit of exploring my home country, but one place I have never been is the Outer Hebrides.
We have all seen the pictures of pearl white sand, turquoise seas and beautiful landscape, places that look distinctly un-Scottish when you are sitting in your tenement flat in a very rainy Glasgow. So, the holiday budget was reallocated, we booked a cottage on North Uist for a week with some time either side to explore the other islands, and we were away.

Getting to the Outer Hebrides is just like getting to Europe. You either fly, or get quite a long ferry. We opted for the ferry, booking an Island hopping ticket working our way up the Islands, somewhat in reverse.
Oban to Barra was the first and longest stint of the voyage, a six hour ferry ride which stopped off at Coll and Tiree. Calm seas, Sea Eagles, excellent breakfast rolls and reclining chairs meant the voyage was very comfortable, with only a little queasiness on Calum's part, which meant that he stayed outside and watched dolphins while I was, regrettably, inside napping.

Arriving in Castlebay, Barra's biggest town, is quite the occasion, as the ferry passes the castle which sits in the bay, and makes it's way into port. We stayed in the Heathbank Hotel for two nights, a charming (if slightly  expensive) little place where we had a lovely room with a great bathroom and there is a really nice bar and restaurant. It was a great base for island exploration, fuelled by our included breakfast (pictured is my delicious smoked mackerel and poached egg).
Barra set the bar for the Hebrides very high. The beaches are perfect, and it was becoming clear that the images that come up on a google search AREN'T edited, the sea really is that turquoise, the sand that perfect and the sunsets that beautiful. Our too short time there was spent paddling, driving around the island, climbing the hill, Heaval, and taking in the astounding views. I had a very surreal 'life moment' at the quaint Barra Pizza, a farmhouse with a pizza oven, where we nearly lost Calum's car to a very big ditch as we got our takeaway. We watched a plane come in and take off from Barra airport, which is what I think all airports should be like. On a beach, with less than 100 people working there and no luggage carousel.

Breakfast at the Heathbank Hotel

The summit of Heaval, Barra

Departing Barra, we got the short ferry to tiny Eriskay. Another stunning place, where Bonnie Prince Charlie first landed in Scotland and the football pitch is one of Fifa's eight remarkable places to play football in the world. The wild Eriskay ponies own the place, and we had a walk around the island and a shandy in the 'AM Politician' beer garden, which incidentally still houses some of the whisky that was washed ashore in 1941 after the shipwreck of the Politician, the inspiration for the film Whisky Galore! set on the island. A lot of history for not a lot of island, definitely worth an explore.

Stunning Eriskay

From Eriskay, South Uist is just a causeway away. The drive up through South Uist to North, through Benbecula, is a scenic journey of wildlife spotting, 'otter crossing' signs, sheep dodging and passing places. This was the start of the cottage phase of our holiday.
We found our cottage through Unique Cottages, a great website if you're considering doing this kind of thing that has a lot of lovely choice all over Scotland. It was beautiful. A renovated, self-catering black house,  only a minute walk away from a huge bay which at high tide was full of beautiful blue water, and at low tide you could walk across to the abandoned tidal island of Vallay and explore the creepy empty mansion with no company other than Highland cows.

Our Cottage
Our week there went far too quickly. Every day was filled with new beaches, birdspotting, walking and miraculously wonderful weather. The wildlife was amazing, Hen Harriers, seals, a Short Eared Owl, countless different seabirds. I never thought I would be a binocular carrying bird enthusiast, but it's hard not to get excited when an owl lives opposite you and you're less that fifty feet from a fluffy baby seal. If you find yourself there, go to the seal point on Flodaigh Island and you will see seals a plenty. On one beach, we stood in awe as an albino weasel casually walked past less that three feet away from us. Bizarre.
We cooked delicious food in our cottage kitchen and had lunch in some adorable cafes, the bright pink cafe in Lochboisdale being our favourite, their homemade ice cream milkshakes the perfect excuse for a wee break. 

North Uist


The abandoned Island of Vallay

When we had to sadly depart the Uists, we hopped on a ferry from Berneray to Leverburgh on Harris. The new island brought a new phase of our adventure, camping, which aside from T in the Park, we are pretty amateur at. We quickly discovered we might need a bit more practice before we attempted wild camping (I for one took a child's sleeping bag that I could barely zip up) so we stayed for two nights on Harris in Minch View campsite. Run by an adorable old woman it is a bit basic and soggy, but has everything you need.

Exploring the island is wonderful, the East coast is rugged and mountainous, with more rock than earth and wonderful sea cliffs. The West coast is flanked by sweeping golden beaches that would not look out of place in the Mediterranean. The weather was wonderful, and one day it was so warm that I sat on a beach sunbathing whilst Calum swam in the sea, and for all it looked like we could have been in Greece. Visit the little island of Scalpay, where you can walk around an eerie abandoned lighthouse, which is both ominous and beautiful.
 We had a meal out in Tarbert one night but my recommendation would be Skoon Art Cafe, a lovely place with a great simple menu and lovely paintings of the island to look at.
Driving from Harris up to Lewis you pass through the mountainous belt in the middle of the islands where a Golden/Sea Eagle soared across our car. We pitched our tent in Laxdale campsite, just outside Stornoway and had two days remaining to explore Lewis.

Tropical Harris

Abandoned Lighthouse, Scalpay

We saw the impressive standing stones at Callanish, the Iron Age village and Dun Carloway Broch. Despite the wind dropping and being eaten alive by the dreaded midgie we spent our last day visiting a lighthouse, and hiding out, trying to spot otters on a beautiful beach, right at the end of the northern road in Lewis. We rounded everything off in the only acceptable way, with fish and chips. 

Then the next morning it was all brought to a rather brutal end, as we got up at 5AM to dismantle our tent in the dark and catch the ferry back to Ullapool, all whilst being attacked by midges. 

Callanish Standing Stones
Otter paw prints into the sea

I could go on and on about The Outer Hebrides and our time there, even more so than I already have. It opened my eyes to another part of the beautiful country we live in both in terms of history and landscape. I could talk you through every single one of the 520 photos I took, or write an even longer, more rambling blog about what to do and where to go, but all I really want to do is wholeheartedly recommend exploring these islands for yourself.

It seems crazy that such a beautiful, diverse place is so close, yet remains unexplored by so many of us. If the beaches that are on The Hebrides were on mainland Scotland they would be filled with hundreds of people on a sunny day, but when you're out walking on the islands you rarely see another soul.

If you're adventure minded, like being outdoors and exploring new places, or enjoyed 'Katie Morag' as a child, The Outer Hebrides offer more than you could ever expect, far closer to home than a lot of similarly impressive destinations. You can rough it and camp in the wilderness, or live in luxury in a beautiful cosy cottage, or do as we did and try and fit a bit of everything in.
There is not enough time, or indeed blog space to truly recount what a holiday like this brings, but I will definitely be thinking again before I book a beach holiday in Spain, when there is still so much of Scotland I need to see. I hope this inspires some of you out there to look into going, I could not recommend it enough.

Lindsay x

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