The Uists in Summer

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.

A Hebridean ferry crossing

We’ve just got back from a week’s holiday on South Uist in the Outer Hebrides. Hopefully more blog posts to follow but I had to write about the ferry crossing on the way home; I don’t think I’ve had a more lovely one!

We caught the very early morning ferry from Lochboisdale to Mallaig, getting up at 4:30am to pack the last bits into the car and make the 15 minute drive to the port. The day started dull and cloudy but as the ship (the Lord of the Isles) pulled away the sun started to break through the cloud, although the thick haze never lifted completely. The Sea of the Hebrides was as flat calm as I ever recall seeing open water. The ripples weren’t strong enough to break the surface and it had taken on a liquid glass appearance. This meant that we could see far further across the water than normal and the wildlife wasn’t obscured behind waves as it so often is; even individual birds hundreds of metres away could easily be picked up with the naked eye.

Having seen cetaceans before in this sea, including on the way across at the beginning of the week, I was hoping for more and there was no disappointment. We saw common dolphins four times during the crossing and a couple of pods of porpoise. The dolphins were leaping clear of the water as they chased across the flat calm sea while at times they circled around catching fish. The porpoise, however, we more subdued in their movement, simply breaking the surface and rolling down again, often barely noticeable. 

The birds were equally special. At first there was some arctic terns slowly flying out to sea but there were many more birds to come. I saw my first ever storm petrels, as they darted swallow-like, close to the surface of the sea. I’ve helped to install nest boxes for them but never seen one before – they were lovely and so much easier to pick out against the calm waters.

More spectacular were the Manx shearwaters. Large flocks of them sat on the sea, feeding on the surface but they lifted almost swarm-like as they were harried by the skuas after their catches. They raced across the water, escaping their tormentors and eventually settled back on the surface again.

The were groups of other seabirds, often gulls and fulmar, fishing around concentrations of fish, with gannets plunging in from above. There were also auks everywhere; individuals fishing, sitting on the surface and long chains of birds racing across close to the water. We saw guillemots, black guillemots, razorbills and puffins for much of the way across, often dipping below the surface as the ship passed by.

All the sea life was laid out in front of the stunning backdrop of Skye and the small isles (Canna, Rum, Eigg and Muck) as well as the Outer Hebrides disappearing in the mist behind us.

I generally love a ferry crossing but this was was spectacular!

Isle of Mull – An Autumn Treat

It’s taken me an age to get around to writing this post – must try harder! Towards the end of October I returned to the scene of some of my happiest times during my year off in 2011/12; the Isle of Mull. It wasn’t the first Scottish Island I’d visited, Islay and Jura came first, but this really was the place that kicked off my long, interrupted, odyssey around the Hebrides and Northern Isles.

I had promised myself not to return to previously visited islands until I’d been to all the larger islands or archipelagos but I had a choice – Shetland in October or a return trip to a previous spot.  Of those I’d been to before, Mull was an easy choice; it’s relatively easy to get to, it’s less exposed than others to those autumn storms, and it’s just that little bit more cosy than some of the others.

I’ll stop talk about ‘I’ now as there were two of us on this trip, and that was another reason for choosing Mull. One of us hadn’t been there before and it was somewhere I had a good chance of playing the ‘Wildlife Guide’ for a week having previously spent a fortnight getting to know the place very well, or at least some of the best wildlife-watching spots.

The route to Mull was quite simple for us, up the M6 to the Border, past Glasgow and over the Erskine Bridge and then alongside the lovely Loch Lomond. Just past the northern shoreline, we turned left and headed west to Oban, where was found a lovely bright autumnal day. Having arrived early for our booked ferry we tried to get on an earlier one but in the end we were grateful that we didn’t. The short crossing to Craignure, only an hour, was spent up on the deck and we were given a spectacular view towards the setting sun with light shining between the heavy, brooding, rain-laden clouds.

Another reason for deciding on Mull was the cottage we found. I can very honestly say that it was the best holiday cottage I’ve stayed in and by quite some margin. That’s no reflection on some of the other great places I’ve stayed, rather it’s just that the Old Little Theatre at Dervaig is unique. We arrived as dark was descending so we didn’t get a great view of the outside but on opening the front door and walking in, it was even better than the photos had shown. It was once the smallest professional theatre in the world and, essentially, just a small stone garage-type building. Now it has been extended with the addition of several modern rooms at the front and sides, to make a stylish but quirky holiday home. Whilst it is in many ways very modern, it still has little touches of its old use with theatrical flourishes and artefacts dotted around the inside. The single bedroom has a huge floor to ceiling picture window which enables you to lie in bed looking out across a lovely wide, flat-bottomed river valley. The place is just about perfect!

With six full days on the island, we spent them looking for wildlife and at the scenery, despite the mixed weather. The rain and wind with some occasional sunnier weather were not exactly unexpected conditions for the Hebrides in the autumn. Our first full day was our only really perfect one, weatherwise, and our visit to the main town, Tobermory, included a sit on a quayside bench in the surprisingly warm autumn sun. We then did a big loop of the island driving around clockwise on the main road down towards the Ross of Mull before turning right onto the north side of Loch Scridain. There are actually two loops, a northern and a southern, which intersect at a short cut-through from Salen on the east coast to Gruline on Loch Na Keal on the west coast. On that first day, we did both loops, driving almost the entire road around the island but missing out the Ross. This then became a familiar route with parts of the loops done most days in amongst other activities. 

For much of the route around the island, the road picks its way along the edge of sounds and lochs, sometimes coming inland to rise up through mountain passes. The road is often just a single track with passing places but there are sections of standard single carriageway along the east and southern sides of the island, making journeys a little quicker than along the west and north coasts. The scenery is dominated by hills and mountains as well as the hugely indented coastline. There is a mixture of green pasture and high grassy hillsides with many of the valley bottoms swathed in damp oak woodland. The autumn had brought an orange and yellow tinge to the views with the oaks and larches vibrant amongst the rusty-turned grasses and bracken. 

For me, the most memorable moment of our rambling journeys around the island was on the last day. We were getting a bit desperate in our searching for an otter; we’d looked in all the places I’d had success before but without even a momentary glimpse. My otter-sense, which has worked very well on Mull and Skye preciously, was letting me down. We’d stopped at a pull-in to the north of Salen quite a few times, or so it seemed, but we had to give it one last chance. The conditions were just about perfect for otter spotting; a low tide and still, calm waters. We spent a little while scanning the water and were just about to give up when I spotted some movement in between some little, seaweed topped islets. I thought it would probably be just a rock, again, or another sea-going Mallard but after blinking a couple of times I was sure. The three little blobs in a row were unmistakable; an ottery head, back and tail. It didn’t take long for it to roll head first/tail last down under the surface and disappear. We thought that might have been it but we spotted it again a minute or two later coming around the far side of the larger of the islets. There we watched it for what must have been at least an hour; otters seem to have some kind of time-bending capabilities. It spent a lot of time climbing on and off the seaweed covered rocks and fishing in the shallows. At one stage a group of Brent geese approached but were soon paddling off when they spotted the otter close by. Eventually, we had to leave and we moved on as the otter disappeared below the surface and behind the islets again.

That spot north of Salen was like looking at one of those nature reserve information boards that has the view painted behind a selection of all the creatures you had even a slight chance of seeing but usually don’t. In this case, we were blessed with a view of so many of those creatures actually out there where they are supposed to be. In addition to the otter was a wide selection of birdlife. From the waders feeding at the water’s edge, curlew and redshank, and the range ducks, including mallard, widgeon and a solitary eider, to a few gulls and the ever-present herons. The corvids were there too with quite a few hooded crows picking amongst the seaweed and a raven cronking overhead. A few more water birds were dotted about with red-breasted mergansers in the outfall from the river into the sea and that small group of Brent geese passing through on migration. In the trees around where we were standing were newly arrived winter thrushes, with the redwings ‘seeping’ and fieldfares cackling. I have to admit, I do keep a record of the wildlife I see, not just birds but mammals, butterflies and amphibians too. I do so, not simply to have a ever-growing list of ticks, but to note just how rich, or otherwise, an area’s wildlife is. At that particular spot, I could see from all the species, just how rich in wildlife a place Mull really is. All the scene really needed was an eagle or two to fly across above us, and it would have been complete; if we’d stayed a bit longer, maybe we’d have see one!

The other memorable mammalian moment was on the second full day on the island when we went on a three hour boat trip from Tobermory Harbour out into the Sound of Mull and and beyond towards and past Coll. We spent quite some time looking for groups of feeding seabirds and finding many, with large groups of gulls and auks feeding on fish at and below the surface. Suddenly there appeared a minke whale amongst them and we watched for quite a few minutes while it surfaced and dived. The scene of the whale and the feeding birds was made even more wild by the sense of being surrounded by so many of the Scottish islands; Jura, Tiree, Coll, Barra, South Uist, Eigg, Muck, Rum and Skye as well as the Ardnamuchan Peninsula.

Our trip was slightly hampered by me being ill throughout the stay and we didn’t do much walking at all because of that but it was lovely just to drive around the island stopping at familiar spots to look at the scenery and watch the wildlife. Eventually, our time on the island had to come to an end and it was with heavy hearts that on a dark morning we closed the door to the Little Old Theatre behind us. I usually avoid talking about the journey home from holidays but this one was particularly memorable. The sun rose just as we got to the ferry terminal and the light revealed glassy still waters and snowy mountain tops. As we pulled out of Craignure, Mull looked fabulous in its autumn finery. Once on the mainland, the scenery was just as spectacular with deep valleys swathed in rusty yellows and oranges with snow scattered over the peaks. It was hard not to want to stop every mile or so to get out and stare at the views but it was a long journey home and we had to press on.

I don’t like to pick favourites amongst the Scottish islands, they are all beautiful in their different ways. However, Mull was an easy choice to return to and it turned out just about a perfect decision.