FIVE DAYS ON SKYE AND THE OUTER HEBRIDES
If you are visiting Scotland and you wish to see more than Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Inverness you should visit the isles, especially Skye and the Outer Hebrides. There are a lot to choose from and many of them hold treasures woven into the very (tartan) fabric of old Scotland.
In typical fashion, the United Kingdom has made naming its own country as complicated as possible. I am of the opinion it was entirely so they could correct people when someone inevitably makes a mistake. “Oh, forgive me for intruding. So very sorry, but I do believe you’re referring to the British Isles, not Great Britain. I’m quite sure you will realise the importance of the distinction. blah blah blah.”
Skye is the largest of several islands making up the Inner Hebrides which are separated from the Outer Hebrides by The Minch. Together they are known as (drum roll please) The Hebrides which, together with various other islands, form the Western Isles. This is how I understood it. However, after a bit of research, I found every part of this is contradicted by others, some of whom refer to the Outer Hebrides as the Western Isles while others say only The Hebrides are the Western Isles, while the other islands further south are excluded. I gave up at this point.
“The solution is simple, foolish man!” I hear you cry. “Just call the islands by their individual names.” I would, but… Most people would think the Isle of Harris and the Isle of Lewis are two separate islands. They aren’t. Which, to my obviously limited understanding, rather contradicts the very definition of an island. So they…well IT, is generally referred to Lewis and Harris; Lewis in the North and Harris in the South. See? Overly complicated. Anyone would think the Scots are looking for shit to argue over.
The Isle of Skye is separated from the mainland by a narrow channel, spanned by an award winning bridge, aptly named The Skye Bridge, which sets down momentarily on the much smaller isle of Eilean Ban before arching over to Skye.
Our small convoy made our way across, using the afore mentioned Skye Bridge, to Carbost on the banks of Loch Harport, a sizable inlet of either the Sea of the Hebrides or the Little Minch. That’s right. I don’t know where the seas start or end either. I’m comfortable in assuming neither does anyone else.
Staying at a comfortable bunkhouse called the Old Inn, we were treated with views over the loch as the sun very slowly set at 8:30PM. I say very slowly as the sky was still fairly bright at 10PM. Ahh northern summers.
The following morning we visited the Fairy Pools, arriving relatively early and hiking up the easy trail toward this rather popular spot. The Fairy Pools are very nice. The surrounding hills and mountains can make you feel small and powerless as clouds gather at the summit, threatening to dump rain then deliver freezing winds, even in late summer. The river runs through small gorges and down enchanting waterfalls. There are several pools where you can swim, for those who wish to lose all feeling in their extremities in the icy water.
In my opinion, the perfect time to visit these pools must be early morning, on a clear summery day, with a nice breeze blowing. There are a few reasons for this. Early morning to beat the influx of tourists. If it is raining, which seems to happen 50 weeks of the year, the river can flood and getting to the pools can be difficult. Summer, because in winter, you will likely have about 3 hours of weak daylight. And you want a breeze because in summer there are midges.
Unfortunately, there were no fairies. Disappointed again.
For those lucky enough to have never experienced midges, allow me to provide a simple description. Midges are tiny, flying assholes, which evolved to have the single, driving desire to ruin beautiful moments, much like other people’s children and wet dogs. Want to sit outside to eat breakfast during that golden moment as the sun peeks over the surrounding hills in the east, casting its luminous glow across the loch? Well too bad, because midges. Want to take a moment during a long walk to sit beside a river and eat your packed lunch, maybe kick off your hiking boots and soak your feet in the cool, mountain-fresh stream? Nope, sorry. Midges. They land on you, eat you, then you itch.
The beaches on all of the isles were nothing like the rocky, grey coastline I was expecting. I had it firmly in my mind I would be clambering over slippery rocks down to equally rocky beaches and dull, grey water, but on all of the isles there are long stretches of white sand and clear blue water, mimicking the tropics, with one important difference: the temperature.
While on a recent trip to the Philippines, we bathed in 28 degrees of liquid luxury. Beaches on the Scottish Isles are fed by the Atlantic and the North Sea, neither of which are renowned for temperate bathing, instead being home to large icebergs. The water around the United Kingdom is relatively temperate though, as the North Atlantic Current brings warm water over from the Gulf of Mexico. It is fresh and invigorating, words I use instead saying it is fucking freezing. I encourage you to go for a swim, if only for a moment…and only if it is safe to do so. No dying of exposure then blaming me.
DUN ARDTRECK RUINS
The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 was enacted to ensure the people of Scotland have statutory access to Scotland’s outdoors, on the condition the rights are exercised responsibly, people’s privacy, safety and livelihoods are respected, and Scotland’s environment is maintained. It is more commonly known as the “right to roam”. In its simplest form, you can go anywhere outdoors, with a few exceptions, such as people’s houses and gardens, or military bases. On top of this, a land owner must manage their land with regards to public access.
What this means as a traveller is you can walk anywhere you want, providing you’re not peeping into windows, stomping on poor Mrs MacLeod’s roses, or look like you’re stealing military secrets. This is perfect as there are a lot of interesting places to explore and the only way to get there is through people’s property.
We followed signage pointing to a lighthouse at the entrance to Fiskavaig Bay on Ardtreck Point. We wandered through paddocks in knee deep grass, ignoring the scattering, black-faced sheep bleating at us weakly, until we reached the cliff top. Unsure of what we were looking for, we did find the ruins of what I now know was Dun Ardtreck. This was a D-shaped, fortified place set upon the clifftop, overlooking the bay. Charcoal from within this semi-broch has been carbon dated to 115 BC, while in other parts, pottery fragments were dated to the 2nd century. For us, it was a nice place to sit for a while.
From the clifftop, you are gifted with views towards Ullinish and across to the Isle of Wiay. Houses, made small by the distance, huddle against the cliffs in their small communities. I felt a moment of jealousy; it looked a peaceful and elegant lifestyle in its simplicity, until I sank laces deep in sheep droppings on the way back to the car and I remembered that no matter how pretty, every place on earth has shit to deal with.
STAR GAZING; ABOVE AND BELOW
While there is still some light pollution from the small town and the mainland, our group wandered down later that night to the pier in Carbost, to lay down and gaze into the heavens. We counted shooting stars while pointing out constellations and tracked satellites passing silently in front of the cloudy streak of the Milky Way. Living in a city, I miss seeing the stars.
Then we noticed the twinkling lights in the water. If you have never heard of or seen phosphorescence in the water, I recommend you investigate some more and, if possible, keep an eye out for it. It is truly something else. I have been lucky enough to see it a few times now and it always gives me a childlike delight.
OLD MAN OF STORR
The following day, we drove up the coast, through the larger town of Portree to the Storr. It is not a store. There is no store there. Nor is there an old man. Well, there might be, but not one for which the Old Man of Storr would be named.
The Storr is a rocky hill overlooking the Sound of Raasay. The Old Man of Storr, is a basalt column, poking up like a thumb from the rocky hillside. In fact, one of the legends states this is the thumb of a giant who became buried here. Scots love their giant stories.
This is a tourist hotspot and for good reason. The views here are spectacular. Even partway up, you can see out to the Isle of Raasay and the Isle of Rona. The first part of the trail has been paved and zigzags its way through gates towards the rocky cliffs. After a certain point though, the paving ends and the trail turns into a staircase of uneven rocks and gravel.
There are a number of outcrops that are climbable and the photos from here are awesome. Take note of the signage and keep an eye on the cliffs as rocks do fall on occasion.
UIG, THE UISTS, AND HARRIS
The next day we drove to Uig and caught the ferry across to Lochmaddy on North Uist. With the better part of a day on these islands before our ferry in the afternoon, we drove south. There are three large islands connected by a main road and several bridges. While there isn’t a great deal to see on the islands, there is the chance of seeing sea otters. At least that is what the signs suggest. We didn’t though.
It is easy to see in this expanse of sheep paddocks, that these islands are slowly dying. After the battle of Culloden, the highlands and these isles, were systemically cleared of the ancestral people; their lands given to English gentry who saw little value in crop farming and moved towards rearing sheep. Soon, this land that once housed a thriving and self-sufficient people, was left sparsely populated. Even the famous and highly regarded Harris Tweed was not enough to maintain a healthy economy.
Sadly, the aging population is dwindling. The youth move away, heeding the call from the rest of the world, rarely to return. Houses and land is for sale all over the isles. Tourism is now offering an injection into the economy which will hopefully continue.
Should the zombie apocalypse finally hit though, I imagine these isles will become havens for the uninfected.
AM BOTHAN; LEVERBURGH, HARRIS, SCOTLAND
After stopping at a rocky outcrop in Blackhill to take some very lucky photos of grey seals, we caught our ferry over to the Isle of Harris.
The Am Bothan is a bunkhouse in Leverburgh and I really liked this place, with its comfortable spacious lounge, warm looking fire and a kitchen that had everything you might need for a hostel meal. Even the creepy figure sitting the overhead dinghy didn’t take much away from it. I just liked it and if I ever choose to revisit the edge of civilisation, I will happily stay there again.
You can tell the mountains of Harris are some of the oldest in the world. They are rounded mounds instead of jagged peaks and the soil has eroded from the hills. I am no geologist, but that is how I see it. They look old. While so much reminds me of New Zealand, those hills and mountains are definitely not like New Zealand.
There are almost no trees on either island, having all been cleared to make way for farmland. While there are some efforts to reintroduce trees to the islands, the ideas are apparently met with indifference by landowners.
SWIMMING AND PORPOISES
In the morning, after a late start, we drove to a small beach near Northton. The decision was made to go for a swim, a choice not shared by the entire group. Still we stripped off, lined up, and ran into the water. Now I will stand by this statement until I die: the only way to enter cold water is at full sprint. No edging in and hoping you will get used to it, breathing out a whine only a dog can hear, that originates in your genitals. Full sprint, leaping over the waves until you’re deep enough to dive under without mashing your face into the seabed. Yes, you will likely make the same sound, but you will be underwater where no one can hear you. By the time you emerge, you can scream out a “fuck” like an adult.
We splashed around, with a great deal of swearing and cursing, mostly from me. Then in ones and twos we dried off and sat in the sun filtering through the clouds, trying to warm up again.
With the strangest stroke of luck, we spotted dorsal fins in the shallow waters of the bay. Without being able to look any closer, they looked like Harbour Porpoises. Several of them swimming back and forth along the beach. While four of our group wandered off to conquer a nearby hill, we sat in the sun and watched the porpoises as the afternoon wore on, happy with the chance at being able to see yet another unusual sight.
ST CLEMENTS CHURCH; RODEL, HARRIS, SCOTLAND
We started out early the next day as we had a long day of driving. Our final day before catching a 3PM ferry from Stornoway to the mainland. A short journey south of the Am Bothan took us to Rodel and the St Clements Church. This church was built in the 15th century by the MacLeods and later restored.
I like visiting historical churches though I am not a religious person. They were obviously buildings made to last, care was taken in their construction and they have been cared for, so you get to see a small glimpse into the past, imagining the men and women who not only worshiped here, but whose lives revolved around this place as a foundation for the community. I like walking through the small passages and imagining how many people have gone before me along these same paths.
It is a nice old church with a small cemetery in the grounds. The door is open and visitors are welcome. It also has rather nice toilets on the road, complete with a visitor book. See for yourself.
We stopped at this beach for a while. Easily one of the most tropical looking, non-tropical beaches I have ever seen. Given I was still cold from the previous day, I did not swim. Others did. It is a beautiful long beach and I found myself mistakenly wondering what it must be like on a hot summer day, forgetting it was in the western isles of Scotland and the 16 degrees we were currently experiencing was likely as warm as it gets.
THE STANDING STONES OF CALLANISH
Callanish is a small village, on the western side of Lewis. Though it is a perfectly nice place, it isn’t, by itself, very remarkable. However it is famous for one thing. On a hilltop close by, are standing stones.
These stones were erected in the Neolithic era, which means around 3,000 BC. Close to 5,000 years ago. They are still standing. You can stand within them and touch them, knowing that 5,000 years ago, someone was placing these stones in this place with a purpose. That thought gets my brain humming.
They are in cruciform, so in the shape of a cross. Before you start imagining this as a Christian site, keep in mind Christianity didn’t come along for another 3,000 years after these were erected.
There are a large number of other sites in the surrounding area, only one of which I was able to see. Many are no longer visible, however they have been marked and documented.
The Standing Stones of Callanish are definitely worth visiting if you are in the isles.
I know. Boring for anyone who has seen one. I hadn’t though. They’re just bogs to most people, but I was able to see a freshly cut peat bog and the peat drying in the sun. While this has been used for a long time as a fuel, its use has some fairly significant consequences on the environment. The peat is a carbon sink and just removing it from the ground is detrimental. In an age when the climate change debate is raging, this is clearly causing some issues.
It is this peat that gives Scottish whisky its distinctive taste, as water from these bogs is used in the distillation process. The smokey, peaty burn that any whisky drinker will recognise.
Aside from that, having heard about peat and peat bogs in countless books throughout my life, it was interesting to see them first-hand.
Lewis is much flatter than Harris and because of this, more of the land is usable. Thus the largest town on the island is Stornoway. We made it with a small amount of time left to board the ferry back to Ullapool on the mainland. Yet again, we were lucky with the weather. The seas were flat and calm, making for a pleasant voyage, made better still by the clear skies and warm sun as we lay on the deck.
I was also lucky enough to experience the worst coffee I have ever tasted. By lucky, I mean from that point on, every bad coffee I have will be drinkable as I will remember how I forced down one much worse on the ferry between Stornoway and Ullapool. Thank you Scotland and the Outer Hebrides for this final parting gift.
THINGS TO NOTE
A word of warning for any technophiles out there. There is limited cell coverage. Internet is slow. Many places have wireless, but do not expect high speeds. You will be much better off leaving the world alone for a while, taking along a good book, some crosswords, and starting arguments with your friends over the rules of Cranium.
The common language on the Outer Hebrides is Gaelic, however everyone speaks English as well. Good luck attempting any Gaelic though. I found it a difficult one to even try.
The Western Isles are a great place to visit, especially if you are looking to get away from everything for a while. I can sincerely recommend hiring a camper, ferrying over and driving through these beautiful islands, enjoying the scenery, the peace and the company of good people. You will not be disappointed.
Happy travelling everyone!