With Christmas upon us, it now feels an age since our summer trip to the Outer Hebrides but the memories remain vivid. Our week staying in a croft cottage on South Uist was spectacular in so many ways and deserved a much quicker blog post but such tasks have been on a back burner this year. Finally, I’ve written the post and, hopefully, the coming year will have many more.
We travelled up to South Uist via a night in Fort William and the CalMac ferry from Mallaig to Lochboisedale. Our cottage was only a 15 minute drive from the ferry, located in the very far south-west of the island; much further south and you meet the causeway across to Eriskay, from where you can catch the ferry to Barra.
The village where we stayed, Smercleit, like many settlements in the Outer Hebrides, is formed of single homes or small collections of houses, spread over a wide area, rather than more clearly defined villages on the mainland. Our cottage stood alone down a gravel track, set back from two road-front houses and the beach beyond them. It stood on a small island above the surrounding wet pasture, which was dissected by drainage channels and punctuated by small lochans and the remains of old crofts. Looking behind the cottage, the land eventually started to rise into the southern hills between Lochboisdale and Eriskay. They are not high, only 243m at the most and tiny compared to those further up the island; the highest being Beinn Mhor, standing a 620m. Out to the front, looking south west, was the Atlantic Ocean, but with a glancing view of Barra too.
The wildlife of the rich, wet pastureland around the cottage was almost immediately visible. That first evening there was a short-eared owl patrolling in front and around the house and snipe ‘chipping’ in the long grass and ‘drumming’ overhead. Drumming snipe are one of my favourite wildlife sights – the sound not unlike a comb kazoo as the bird drops quickly through the air vibrating its wing feathers. There were other birds too, easily seen with a walk along the quiet road behind the beach front; plenty of starlings, lapwing, redshank, swallows and the ever watchful and noisy oystercatchers.
There’s one word that it synonymous with the Outer Hebrides at this time of year: machair. The low-lying sandy and rich coastal pasturelands are at their best in June and July with the scent of their flowers drifting across most of the islands. Away from the damp pasture, the machair coats vast areas on the west coast of the islands with the flowers spreading from the sea to the bottom of the eastern hills and mountains in some places. The land that run at right angles from the central spine road towards the sea put you right into the middle of the scenes with sandy tracks then leading off through the flowers. I’ve visited the islands a few times before but always at the wrong time of year for this seasonal spectacular – this time, at the end of June and beginning of June, we hit the perfect moment for the flowers to be at their peak.
However, the Uists do not just have flowers out on the Machair; the harsher moorland areas were surprisingly rich in flora too. A walk around the national reserve Loch Druidibeag revealed great numbers of orchids, the scale of which I’ve seen nowhere else.
Like so many remote islands, the landscape is dotted with abandoned houses and farmsteads and in the case of the Uists, abandoned vehicles left to decay on the machair. I often feel drawn by the signs of people being taken over by nature and disappearing into the landscape and these islands are full of such sights. Some of the abandonment is very old but even with relatively new vehicles left out in the fields, nature hasn’t taken long to take control, with a few becoming homes to small flocks of starlings.
As with most of my trips, watching wildlife was a big part of the experience. Many of the birds we saw may have left the area now, replaced by winter visitors or other passing through on their autumn migration from the high north.
There was one particular summer visitor to the islands I’ve wanted to see for many years but they can be particularly challenging. Gone from the vast majority of their former range, populations of concrakes hang on in some of the Scottish islands and the Uists are a particularly good place to find them. We were driving down a single track road one sunny lunchtime when we saw partridge-like birds walking along the road. We immediately knew what they were and as we came to a halt, they jumped into the long road-side grass. However, they didn’t go far and were quite obliging in providing us with very close views from within the car. We eventually got out but they slinked off further into the long grass, not to be seen again.
That wasn’t the last time happened upon them. We didn’t see them again but we heard them several times at the RSPB’s Balnarald reserve and while out walking along an area of Machair – the video below recorded their instantly recognisable call.
We saw 75 species of bird over the course of the week with plenty of species of note. We particularly went to see those species of the remote areas of Scotland; those of the moorland, the lochs and the sea. There were red-throated divers, eiders, Manx shearwaters and storm petrels, there were white-tailed eagles, hen harriers and peregrines, dunlin, common sandpipers and curlew, and there were arctic and little terns, and great and arctic skuas, and twite and wheatears. All in all, a great range of birdlife amongst quite spectacular scenery.
Perhaps the most spectacular of all the scenery is down on the coastline. The Uists are home to some of the most fabulous beaches in the UK and, for the most part, even in summer, you may find you have vast areas of sand to yourself. We were very lucky on the days we went for beach walks in that the sun shone strongly with very little breezy giving fairly balmy weather for the Outer Hebrides.
The Uists, North Uist and South Uist with Benbecula in the middle, are 54 miles, or just under 1.5 hours to drive north to south. Staying at the very bottom of the islands, it was a long drive to the top each time we went and I’d perhaps suggest it’s better to stay in the north of South Uist or the south of North Uist, to provide better access to the islands as a whole. For me, Benbecula perhaps has less to offer in wildlife and scenery terms but it well worth a look around and certainly should just be pass through on route between the Uists. In fact the causeways that join the three islands together are good places to see wildlife from, although our otter targets never appeared when we were looking.
Overall, if you like remote islands with few other people around, beaches to yourself and scenery and wildlife to linger long in the mind, the Uists need to be on your holiday list.