Isles of Harris and Lewis: A walk on Luskentyre Beach

Pulling the door firmly closed behind me, I leave the cottage and am buffeted by the keen wind as I move away from the shelter of the building. It was warm inside but now out in the open there is a chill and the breeze cools me as I make my way down the gravel drive to the narrow single-track road. I cross to the gate, lifting the latch and pushing through, closing it behind me again. Down the grassy slope alongside rows of headstones spaced across the short-clipped lawn of the graveyard. All around the gulls are crying their screeching calls, chasing each other and playing in the turbulent air. I approach the second gate, going through, but struggling to close it properly, the two parts not lining up until finally the metal clank of the latch slots into place. 

I’m now out onto the dunes, pale, almost white sand held in place by tall stands of beach grass. In amongst the rolling hills are two grazing ponies, one grey, one white, their long pale manes and tails being gathered up by the wind. One looks up as I pass but it soon returns its head to the grass, pulling another mouthful and slowly chewing away. The going is soft but down a slope I’m soon onto firmer ground of the beach. There is crunching beneath my feet as I step on a shell-covered surface and I have to shade my eyes as the sand blows across the flat open expanse. I turn away and make for the headland with my back to the onrushing wind. Out here, the sands are of differing shades, yes, there is the pale cream and white but there is also steel grey and black mingled in amongst. The wind has created swirling patterns from the different shades, a myriad of shapes set only for a few hours before they are covered by water and eventually renewed with different patterns.

The tide is on its way in but it is slow running and there is still an hour or more until it is at its height.  Depending on the day its waves can break all the way up to the base of the dunes or it can fail to take away the footsteps of the day. As the water spreads across the low flat sands, piping oystercatchers stand as its edge, gradually moving closer inland as the waves slowly make their way towards the land. Sanderling and ringed plover also forage at the water’s edge, scuttling to and fro with the movement of the waves. They take to the air as I approach and drop down a little way further along the beach. They lift several times as I make my way along the water until eventually tiring of my presence and arching around me to move back to where I first met them.

The footing is firm down by the water, the sand made solid, some of it rippled, some of it smooth. I turn past the headland and the wind drops, the waves take over as the dominant sound; this part of the beach is met with strong forces of the sea with great breakers rolling into the sands. A large log is being rolled up and down as each band of rushing water meets the land. The bark has been stripped away and the revealed wood has been worn smooth by this same action over uncounted days.

Behind the beach, the land rises steeply to a peak and as the air rushes up the face of the mountain it condenses, creating great billowing clouds that trail inland. With the light from the dipping sun shining orange on the slopes, the land looks to be alight with flame and plumes of smoke.

Looking out to sea, Taransay looms large but further behind are the great hills and mountains of North Harris, a line of splendid peaks spreading off into the cloud-filled distance, their summits obscured. The sea between me and the far off coast is simmering with the wind, white water breaking away from the beach. As the waves peak, momentary glimpses are seen of rafts of duck, scoters and long tails floating out the winter in relative shelter of the great bay, their calls occasionally being brought inshore on the wind. I listen out for the wildest sound, the divers, but there are none to be seen or heard.

As the sun drops slowly behind the off-shore island, the shadow creeps up the beach, turning the steel shaded sands to a deepening blue and the gold into caramel. Finally, even the top of the peak it unlit and the darkness creeps in, brought on more quickly by the gathering rain clouds. There is one last pattern in the sand amongst the prints of man and dog; unseen a wilder animal walked along the beach, an otter searching along the water’s edge, gone now but its feet and tail gave it away.

I turn for home, up the narrow stream-bottomed valley and up and out into the open, past the small lambing fields. There are the first drops of moisture on the ever strengthening wind and I have to walk more purposefully to counteract the gusts. Eventually, I come back to the view from the cottage, overlooking the cemetery and vast sands beyond.

 

Isles of Harris and Lewis: The Coffin Road

The land is bare, like in one great sweep a giant hand has wiped away the trees. Bare, cracked rock dominates; the meagre soil that clings on in between the great slabs of stone supports only tough grasses and spindly heather. Spring has yet to reach these parts, out in the extreme far north-west, the islands on the edge, the lands with nothing between them and the new world. In the early summer, the machair is resplendent with flowers and in the autumn the heather blooms across the hillsides, but now, it is a scene of dull browns, made darker by the low, dense cloud hanging heavy over the hills and glens.

On the east of Harris, a small collection of houses intermittently lines the narrow bay. Out on the edge of the water, one of the boulders, tumbled down from the slopes above, has a common seal dozing atop, almost unnaturally straight when a sprawl would seem more comfortable. The wind is light and there are only the merest of ripples on the loch’s surface, a few paddling birds dot around, too far away to distinguish. 

There seems to be a little living to be had here, fishing but not much else; they were sent here from the more fertile west, banished in favour of sheep. The ground is so thin and poor that little grows here but at least there is shelter, protection from the worst of the winter storms surging in from the Atlantic west. But survive here they did, for decades, they lived off the plenty of the sea and what they could meagrely derive from the land.

However, when survival came to an end, as for each one, in turn, it did, they had to return west to be sunk into the deeper ground, so shallow was the soil in the east. Their last journey was across the narrow pass, a rise between the two sides of the island, from the barren to the rich, a reversal from life to death.

The final journey was by hand and by shoulder, starting in the village and ascending up the slopes and through the high valley. There was no well worn path, just rock, stream and mire. The struggle in life became a struggle through death for the bearers, but bear it they did. The solemn procession stumbled, sank, tripped and drenched their way up through the sodden pass. With death coming more in winter than in summer, the task of taking the Coffin Road in the darker, colder, windier months, must have been harder still and some of the dead, so it is said, didn’t make it to the other side, planted on the way, where the depth of the soil allowed.

On cresting the last rise, the view opens up and down below, further still, lie the vast, effervescent sands of Losgaintir. Now, the westerly wind would hit them with full force, pushing their heads lower as they struggled to keep their feet on the uneven ground. Downward they would trudge, still no path and still only treaterous footing beneath. The miles were few but long and energy sapped as the hill began to flatten out and the ground became firmer. Alongside the bay, the procession continued around numerous small headlands until, at last, the cemetery came into sight. Only now for the empty shouldered trudge to return over the hills, with the gulls incessant calls at their backs to hound their departure from their former lands.

The first walk I did in Harris was one I had planned to do when I stayed in North Uist a couple of years ago; there’s a ferry linking the two islands but I didn’t get round to going across for the day. I used the excellent Cicerone book ‘Walking on Harris and Lewis’ as my guide – this is one of a vast series of great books covering many locations with detailed directions and an Ordnance Survey extract for each walk. As I was staying at Luskentyre, a good two and a bit miles from the route, I decided to start from my cottage and extend the walk from almost nine miles to nearly 14. The day started off bright but as I walked along the undulating and twisting road, the cloud closed in with a slight hint of moisture in the air. Joining the route at the far end from the suggested starting point actually made sense to me as it saves the best bit to last and it also gets what is a bit of a unpromising traipse along the route of the former main road between Tarbert and Leverbrough.

Once off the road, you drop down a side road into the old township of Aird Mhighe, the starting point for the Coffin Road. From here there is now a good path all the way across, laid with gravel in places and stone channels for the frequent streams; there are also marker posts at useful intervals. It’s not a particularly hard walk now, relative low-lying compared to many of the mountain walks further north but it’s easy to see how those coffin-bearers would have struggled all the way across without the modern path. There is certainly a sense of desolation as you get to the top of the pass, nothing in sight apart from rocky and marshy hillsides. However, without a solemn duty myself, cresting the last rise through the pass was a delight as the Luskentyre sands were laid out below. The sun had come out as I walked up the track and it dazzled as the tide had gone out to reveal the sands of differing shades of gold, cream, steel. The water, as it laps across the beach is of the most incredible colours, ranging from dark blues and greens to an almost electric turquoise. Heading down the hill as the Coffin Road comes to an end is on a better made track and eventually meets the main north-south road again. I crossed it and walked back along the lane to Luskentyre – views of the beach and its bays all the way home. 

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North Uist: Post-Dusk Chorus

Standing on the doorstep, the moon shining down and lighting up the nocturnal world, it is my hearing that draws attention not my sight; silence but for the birds.

Sheltered from the strong wind but it has ceased and I walk out, crunching on gravel, to the edge of the plot. Overlooking the low, shallow bays, I listen to the post-dusk chorus.

There’s a nervous lapwing out in the dark, wary around its nest and the skittish redshank piping alarm at some movement on the shore.

Further from the water, a harsh growl is let out by the short-eared owl and the snipe drums its wing feathers as it floats to the ground. Back to the sea and the oystercatchers join the lapwing and redshank in calling at an unseen peril.

The sounds of the wild are completed by the mournful curlew as it lifts and glides off into the distance, its crying echoing around the bays.

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North Uist: A Day Exploring

My first full day on North Uist and I spent it travelling around the island and getting my bearings. It’s not a huge place, so after a day spent driving and walking, I’m already familiar with the geography.

One of the main reasons I like to come to places like this is for the remoteness and lack of the hustle and bustle of my usual working week in the centre of Manchester.  However, today was exceptionally quiet.  There were very few people about and I didn’t come across many cars – maybe it’s always like this; I’ll have to wait and see tomorrow!

I spent the morning at RSPB Balranald, out on the western coast of the island.  It has contrasting landscapes with wide, open and flat pasture, sandy beaches and rocky shorelines.  The weather out there changed by the minute; to-ing and fro-ing between rain and bright sunshine, the strong wind blew clouds over so quickly that it was difficult to keep up!  The rain didn’t spoil my visit, however, and I think the weather is all part of the experience and certainly made it memorable.

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I’m a bit early in the year for some of the highlights at the reserve such as rasping corncrakes and the wildflowers of the Machir but I did get some good views of the local wildlife and passing migrants.  There were flocks of golden plover moving from field to field, a couple of great skuas flew along the coast and a small group of barnacle geese lifted and headed north as I rounded of the shoreline.

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After walking along the white sand beaches of the reserve, I headed off on more wanderings around the island and came across the chambered cairn and standing stones at  Beinn Langais.  I walked up to the cairn, then to the top of the hill and round, back via the standing stones, with the weather just as changeable as it was in the morning. From the top of the hill, despite the cloud, there were great views across much of the island and down to the south towards Benbecula and South Uist; on a clear days the sights much be amazing.

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For the last part of the day, I travelled across the minor road that almost splits the island in half (well, more like one third to two thirds) and then headed up to Berneray to what the landscapes were like in the north.  I wasn’t disappointed as the beaches, hills and small lochs were just as photogenic as they were elsewhere during the day.

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Today has certainly whetted my appetite for more wanderings around the island.  After a guided wildlife tour tomorrow, I’ve got a few ideas of where to visit next. I certainly want to visit the islands to the south but there’s so much more to do on North Uist that I may not get around to going to Harris and Lewis at all – perhaps that’s another trip up here already in the planning!

 

Scottish Islands: Outer Hebrides

Following on from my trip to Skye last autumn (as well as a number of other trips before), I’m carrying on with my aim to visit all of the main islands, or groups of islands, around the coast of Scotland. This time, I’m staying on North Uist for a week.

After travelling as far as Fort William yesterday, I made the second leg of the outward journey today. I woke after a pretty poor night’s sleep, having been kept awake by a nearby fairground, then woken at 1:15am by the fire alarm and hotel evacuation, and then delayed from getting back to sleep by the overly loud bathroom extractor fan! However, the freshness of the morning, the bright light and the excitement of the journey ahead soon knocked me out of my drowsiness once I’d had breakfast.

My outward trip to Skye last year used the Mallaig ferry and my homeward journey was mostly in the dark before I passed Fort William. I had therefore never driven the route between Fort William and the Kyle of Lochalsh in daylight; today showed what I had missed! I use the word ‘stunning’ quite a lot in my blogging but it’s a truly perfect word to describe the journey. For someone who enjoys a good, long drive on demanding roads, the journey was just about perfect. As I had set off early, there was little traffic along the way although the intermittent snow, sleet and hail made it ‘interesting’ at times. However, I will remember the journey more for the sheer beauty of the landscapes, washed in early morning light, with dark but broken clouds allowing the sun to break over the deep valleys and the newly snow-dusted mountaintops.

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I arrived on Skye in plenty of time before I had to be at Uig for the ferry, so I drove a little further into the Trotternish area and retraced some of my autumnal steps. Unfortunately, the sea was too rough to allow much of a chance of catching a glimpse of a cetacean or two.

I love a ferry journey and the trip from Uig to Lochmaddy didn’t let me down. I stayed on deck for the whole 1hr45mins; it was cold but the views were worth it. On arriving on North Uist, it was only a short trip to my accommodation for the week; a newly rebuilt stone and thatch cottage, right on the coast. I don’t think I’ve ever been made to feel more welcome by owners of a holiday cottage and the place itself is pretty special; I might be a bit spoilt this week!

I didn’t do too much exploring before unpacking but I did pop out to the shop and slowly drove back, scanning the landscape for interesting wildlife – I was rewarded with a view of a short-eared owl right by the roadside. Unfortunately, by the time I got my camera ready it had flown off somewhat but I still managed to get some shots. As I write this post, there’s actually another one flying past the cottage!

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I can’t wait to see what the week brings!