Outer Hebrides: Berneray to Eriskay

After weathering Storm Ali during our recent trip to Orkney, it was probably fitting that Storm Callum arrived at the end of this week’s journey south through the islands of Berneray, North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist, and Eriskay.

Overview: 6 days, 147 miles

At the end of our last post, we were sitting at the ferry terminal at Leverburgh on South Harris, our booked 09.35 crossing on Sunday having been cancelled due to bad weather. Luckily, services did resume later in the afternoon and the 17.35 crossing to the small island of Berneray was much smoother than we’d expected.

Berneray was a really picturesque little island, quite flat and very green, with a fabulous overnight stop at the local harbour, five minutes or so down the road from the ferry terminal:

Thankfully, the islands of Berneray, North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist, and Eriskay are nowadays all connected by causeways, so we had no more ferries to catch until our return to the mainland.

The landscape on North Uist was different again from what we’d seen on the other islands: lots of blanket bog and small freshwater lochs scattered all around the place. We soon passed Dun an Sticer, a circular fort dating back to 1000BC on a small island in a loch:

Heading around the island anticlockwise, we had a look at RSPB Balranald. There’s a small unmanned building there with wall displays and leaflets. We picked up a leaflet that promised all manner of exciting wildlife sightings…..

We now had one of the more interesting moments, shall we say, of the trip so far. You know how men always have something to say about women’s parking skills? Well, it turns out that men aren’t immune to bad parking moments:

There was no way that SOK was going to climb out of that ditch under his own steam…. Luckily, the ditch wasn’t a couple of centimetres deeper or narrower, and SOK was unscathed (motorhome body repairs can be eyewateringly expensive). Providence even sent a very nice chap with a pickup along a few minutes later, who very helpfully tugged SOK out. Tourists, eh……

Just down the road, the small town of Lochmaddy had a very good little centre with a small museum and a café with wifi. The museum didn’t have a lot in the way of artefacts; it was mainly residents’ recollections of growing up on the islands, a collection of items local schoolkids would put into a time capsule for 30 years, and a very odd arty film that involved a young woman dragging a huge pencil around the landscape. The wifi was very welcome. We’ve only had two evenings with internet in the whole of our stay on the Hebrides, so it was good to be able to catch up with all those junk emails needing to be deleted.

Just outside Lochmaddy, we visited Langass Woods, which a lady had told me about in the loos at the café. The woods themselves were planted as an experiment in 1969, with a combination of conifers native to Alaska and Canada chosen to see how they would do in the bleak conditions here. More recently, some more local species have been added to the mix. It was nice to see trees again after all this time!

The woods are the final resting place of Hercules, an 8ft 4in grizzly bear. Mark remembers Hercules being well known for wrestling with his owner, Andy Robin, who bought him for £50 as a cub back in 1974. Mark suspects that he might have seen Hercules on Blue Peter as a child.

I’m a few years younger than Mark and I have no childhood recollections of famous wrestling grizzly bears….. Anyway, getting back to the tale, Hercules was on the Outer Hebrides to film a TV advert for Andrex loo roll in 1980 when he escaped and was on the run for over three weeks. It was probably at this point that the good folks at Andrex realised that labrador puppies would be a whole lot less hassle in future……

Hercules’ escapades did his career no harm at all, and he apparently even appears in the Bond film Octopussy – something to watch out for next time Octopussy hits the Boxing Day TV schedule…..

Apparently Hercules did visit the islands again after his escape, and each time, he would bounce off the ferry all excited. After his death, he was buried in Langass Woods and, more recently, a 7 foot tall statue erected (no, I don’t know why they didn’t just go with an 8ft 4in statue…..). Here’s Mark stood by Hercules’ grave:

A little bit further up the road, we stopped to have a look at Barpa Langais chambered tomb:

On the other side of the hill to the tomb is Pobull Fhinn stone circle. The builders of this circle first had to create a level platform on the hillside by moving huge quantities of earth. They nearly did it: they’ve ended up with a “stone oval” which measures 37 metres in the East-West direction but only 30 metres in a North- South direction.

Of 48 original stones (not evenly spaced), around half are still standing.

One thing to mention is that if visiting the Outer Hebrides, you do need the appropriate footwear. This is the start of the path to the stone circle:

Finally on North Uist, we had a look at Trinity Temple.

This is a medieval monastic site that, according to Gaelic tradition, was a particularly significant centre of learning. The signs at the site call it “a college of European significance” and the leaflet we got from the tourist office says that it’s “possibly Scotland’s oldest university”.

We didn’t pay Benbecula the attention it deserves. With poor weather and no suitable places to park up for the night, we pressed on to South Uist.

On our way south, we came across a 30ft high statue on a hillside. With no information at the site, we had to look it up online later to confirm that it is indeed a statue of Mary and Jesus, was erected in the 1950s and paid for by public subscription. The question “why?” remains unanswered…. Mark reckons that Jesus is holding his mum’s crown on to stop it blowing away…..

We found a really nice, isolated spot to stop for the night by Loch Druidibeg. Here, the RSPB promised birds of prey. We didn’t see any but were happy with a sighting of a stag instead.

Overnight, the wind got up again. That wasn’t on the last forecast we’d seen the previous morning at Lochmaddy. What had been on the forecast was gale force winds on Friday, so our tentative plan for Wednesday was to continue to the end of the road at Loch Sgioport, then return to the main road and head down to Lochboisdale. There, we’d be able to double check the updated forecast and then maybe get a ticket for the Thursday morning ferry crossing to Mallaig….

On reaching Loch Sgioport, on the eastern shore of the island, we parked and walked down to a small jetty. According to the RSPB, “otters can be seen from the pier, close enough to observe without binoculars. Keep quiet and calm and they may fish on, undisturbed”. It was a very scenic spot, but there were no otters….

Fom there, it was only a short drive down to Lochboisdale. “Come back closer to 5pm” said the man in the Calmac office, “we don’t know what’s happening yet”. So we headed off to look at the far south of the island and then across to the nearby island of Eriskay.

The scenery down here was really pretty:

Eriskay is pretty tiny, so it didn’t take us long to drive around.

We didn’t see any of the famous Eriskay ponies, though thankfully we’d spotted some the day before on South Uist:

The causeways did remind us very much of driving round on Orkney. This is the causeway from Eriskay back onto South Uist. We never did see any otters crossing, or indeed any otters doing anything else during our time on the Outer Hebrides (despite the RSPB helpfully pointing out that there are more otters per square mile here than anywhere else in north west Europe).

Mark did finally spot a white tailed eagle, though, and sped acoss the causeway to the small parking area at the far side for a better look. It turned out that there were two eagles sitting on rocks in the sound between the islands.

Returning to Lochboisdale, we received the bad news that there was to be no ferry on Thursday morning (though the weather forecast still looked ok at that point), and with gale force winds still forecast, no-one was expecting there to be any ferries on Friday. All we could do was book ourselves onto Saturday morning’s crossing then try to find somewhere reasonably sheltered to park up and wait out the storm.

As it happened, there was an OK spot on the far side of the harbour, with a good view of our waiting ferry.

Two days of hanging around whilst waiting for “Storm Callum” to pass actually went very quickly. We don’t do it very often, so there was an element of novelty to sitting reading a book as the van shook around and rain pelted the roof…

Normal service thankfully resumed this morning (Saturday), and we caught the 06.20 ferry from Lochboisdale which arrived at Mallaig just before 10am. There’s only one ferry a day on this route, so getting up at a godly hour and taking a later ferry wasn’t an option….. Overall, we’re glad we visited the Outer Hebrides. I can kind of see why a lot of people move there, though I think we’ll just stick to visiting…..

7 comments

  1. How the hell did you manage to get SOK into the ditch, Mark? 3 point turn gone wrong? What are the chances of a pickup trick arriving just when you need it?

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    1. Mark’s pleased that he’s in good company. I’m sure there are plenty more members of the “reversed motorhome into a ditch” club out there 😀
      We’ll have to have a look at Hercules on Youtube next time we have wifi. I don’t want to (knowing that it’ll be unattractive) but I just know I won’t be able to stop myself…..

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