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.

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!