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.

Outer Hebrides: A day on Mingulay

I’m so far behind my blogging at the moment that I’m writing a post about a previous holiday when actually on the next one. This current trip follows on from so many now to the west coast of Scotland; a place I’ve grown to love for its remote and stunningly beautiful islands. Sat inside sheltering from wet and blustery autumn day on the Isle of Skye, it’s seems hard to write about a summer’s day back at the beginning of July – although that day did have a hint of autumn about it, come to think about it.

Staying on the Outer Hebridean island of South Uist for a week, we wanted to take a boat trip to an even more remote island. There are a few to choose from including St Kilda but we decided instead to go to Mingulay at the southern tip of the archipelago (only Berneray is further south).

First we had to make a 40 minute ferry journey between Eriskay (joined to South Uist by a causeway) and Barra. Usually this crossing of the Sound of Barra would have provided great views of the islands but due to COVID-19 restrictions passengers had to stay within their cars for the entire trip. Not that walking around the ferry would actually have given us much of a view, however, as the clouds on this summer day were shrouding the ferry and the surrounding sea and land.

On arrival on Barra, we drove one half if the road that loops around the island and arrived in the main town of Castlebay still cloaked in cloud. This didn’t look promising for our trip but as we waited at the small marina the cloud started to lift a little; the gloom remained but it didn’t obscure every view.

We were welcomed aboard ‘Spirit of the Hebrides’ by the Hebridean Sea Tours crew for 30 minute from Barra to Mingulay. The boat was comfortable and stable as it powered across the open sea, helped by the good conditions. The water was almost bubbling with birdlife all the way to the island with auks, cormorants and gulls flying in groups or fishing alone on the surface. There were lines of gannets too, skimming low over the sea and we had a glimpse of a possible albatross tagging on to the back of one of those groups.

As we neared the island, we entered Mingulay Bay and moved slowly over towards the rocks on the northern tip of the beach. Anchored to the seabed, the boat sat still as the crew unloaded an inflatable at the back and half the passengers disembarked and were taken across to the shore, making the sometimes nervy step onto rocky land. We immediately headed up the grassy slopes above our landing place to seek out the puffins. Once halfway up the hillside we sat and waited for them to come in to land. They almost immediately started to appear but flew onwards, both above and below us, and sometimes straight past our heads. It took a while for them to get confident to land with people close by but eventually they were popping into and out of their burrows all around us.

After a while, we decided to take a wander down to the beach and up to the abandoned village. The island has no resident population after the final permanent inhabitants left in 1912. The island was not cleared like so many old communities around the Highlands and Islands; this was a much later and voluntary, if to some reluctant evacuation, when the last remaining families decided that a better and easier living could be made elsewhere. Mingulay was a tough place to live and as numbers dwindled the living became even harder. Other nearby islands had natural harbours and landings from which to load and unload boats; Mingulay does not and could be cut off for months at a time.

I find the old abandoned islands and villages of Scotland, as can be seen in some of my other posts, fascinating and hugely magnetic. There is something I can’t quite explain that draws me to them. I find silence where communities used to thrive, or survive, is almost tangible. There is a spirit to these places where the human past is being claimed by nature as the signs of former habitation slowly melt into the landscape.

The island around the bay is one large amphitheatre with four peaks along its outer edge. The sandy beach at its centre, on a clear day, reflects turquoise up through the lapping water but for most of our four hour stay, the sea remained a dark steel blue grey. Occasionally, the sun would start to break out through the dominant cloud to reveal the true colour of the bay but it was soon obscured again as the cloud got its way. As we sat having our lunch by the old school house, a sailing ship came in to moor while we were distracted by the old village, giving the island an even greater feel of times long gone

All too soon, the time had come to return to the boat but having made a more confident return by the inflatable, we didn’t sail straight to Barra but had a tour around the other side of the island, unseen as we approached in the morning. Away from the green eastern-facing slopes of Mingulay, the island is rocky with high, precipitous cliffs, towering dark and foreboding over passing boats and ships. I’ve seen quite a lot of sea cliffs around the UK and further afield and Mingulay has some of the most spectacular I have been fortunate enough witnessed. They seem almost endless at times and so steep that you have to be careful not to fall backwards as you stare vertically upwards. They are covered in seabirds from guillemots and razorbills, fulmar and kittiwakes to shags, cormorants and puffins. The cliffs are patrolled by gulls and great skuas picking on unsuspecting nests as they pass. Just as we left the island behind a white-tailed eagle appeared and made is purposeful way along the cliffs looking for its next meal.

The sights, sounds and smells of the cliffs were a spectacle like few I’ve seen and the cliffs made all the more ominous by the dark looming clouds above. As I’ve written before of other sea cliffs, these are probably not the spectacle they once were with many seabird populations in serious decline compared to the historical scales but it was a privilege to see such a place while such large numbers of birds are still there.

Just to add to the great day, the cliffs were not the last spectacle. As we made our way back to Castlebay, we were joined by a pod of common dolphin, playing in our wake and riding the waves alongside us. They were distant at first but as we slowed, they soon caught up and we had a good ten minutes of action. Unfortunately, we had eventually to leave them behind and return to the marina – some of us had a ferry back to Eriskay to catch. 

As we retuned to the ferry slipway and waited for our crossing, the sun started to break through the cloud and patches of the Sound of Barra took on its stunning turquoise shimmer. In the distance, the were grey seals hauled up on sandbanks and we could hear their eerie calls washing over the water – quite a lovely way to end a day in the wilds of the southern Outer Hebrides.

P.S. Whilst this post is really about the Mingulay and it’s wildlife, I can’t not mention that up on that grassy slope watching the puffins, I proposed to my girlfriend, Sarah, and got a positive answer! Mingulay will therefore always be an even more special place to us and this gives us another reason to return in the years to come.

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!