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Scotland~Western Isles by ColinG
Submitted By: karenc Date: January 30, 2010, 7:29 AM Views: 1292

Scotland's Western Isles

by ColinG

Our quest to discover the parts of Scotland that we have never visited continued in May/June 2005 with a trip to the Western Isles in search of white sand beaches, big skys and wildlife including the extremely shy Corncrake.
I decided on an itinerary based on two nights on Barra, two nights on Benbecula and two nights on the Isle of Skye.
The ferry trip from Oban to Castlebay on Barra is five hours and is a suitable start to the adventure. The first three hours is in sheltered waters down the Sound on Mull and passing Ardnamurchan Point out into the Little Minch with views of Skye, the Small Islands (Rum, Eigg and Canna), the Treshnish Island and Coll. In good weather conditions the islands on the Outer Hebrides come into view in the distance from near Ardnamurchan after 2 hours sailing and it is difficult to believe that it will take a further 3 hours to get there, but it does!

Sound of Barra

Castlebay, Barra

Cille Bharra, Barra

Barra and Vatersay
Barra is a small compact island 8 miles by 5 miles and even at 20mph you can drive to all parts, with stops wherever you wish, in less than half a day. But this gem of an island encompasses all the features we were anticipating to find in the Western Isles. The sense of humour of the locals was best captured by the sign in the Castlebay Co-op window which said "Open except when closed".
Vatersay is joined to Barra by a short man-made causeway. The walk around the southern part of the island starting at the narrow neck between two glorious beaches was absolutely unforgettable.
The area to the north of the island at Eoligarry overlooking the Sound of Barra has beautiful scenery and the 12th century ruins of Cille Bharr chapel and cemetery.
Oystercatchers were in great evidence on the beaches and rocky outcrops and every patch of Yellow Flag Iris plants seemed to conceal a Corncrake even in the centre of a housing 'estate' in Castlebay.

Eoligarry Harbour, Barra

Traigh Mhor, Cockle Strand and Barra Airport

South Beach, Vatersay and Sandaray

Kisimul Castle Sunset, Barra

Eriskay and South Uist
The ferry from the north of Barra takes 45 minutes to get to Eriskay landing close to the beach where reputably Bonnie Prince Charlie landed from France before leading the '45 Jacobite Rebellion. We walked along the lovely peaceful white strand to the crofting township and after lunch in the Am Politician pub, (named after the stricken ship with a cargo of whisky immortalised in 'Whisky Galore' by Compton MacKenzie) I climbed over the col to a small lochan and spotted a group of eight wild Eriskay Ponies and a lone Golden Plover.
Eriskay is joined to South Uist by another causeway. The landscape is noticeably different here with extensive peat bogs with large areas of brackish water and sparse crofting communities. We stopped at Flora McDonald's birthplace and immediately noticed that there were dozens of Redshanks and Lapwings around. Farther north the large hills of Beinn Mhor and Hecla to the east of the island give way to the vast fresh water Loch Druidibeg which is a nature reserve and breeding ground for wild Greylag Geese.
The full length of the west coast of South Uist is one long white sand beach with occasional access restrictions due to Army missile firing operations. The far north west corner, Ardivachar Point, also has some of the oldest rocks on the British Isles, about 2 billion years old.

Beinn Mhor & Hecla, South Uist

Eriskay and South Uist

Prince Charlie's Strand, Eriskay

Benbecula, Grimsay, Berneray and North Uist
Unfortunately the glorious weather we had experienced up to this point disappeared overnight when a large Atlantic Front brought grey skys and continuous rain for 60hours during which my Canon did not leave its bag. Nonetheless we explored these islands from the dry cocoon of our car. Benbecula is fairly flat and featureless, at the north the road becomes an almost continuous series of causeways and bridges for several miles passing Grimsay without realising it on the way to North Uist.
Even in the rain the birdlife on North Uist was spectacular and we had close views of Snipe on fence posts, a Red Throated Diver on the small lochans high on the peat moors and a hunting Marsh Harrier.

Atlantic-Front, Benbecula

Travel Tips
Access: Calmac ferries Island Hopscotch Route 15 covers Oban- Castlebay, Barra - Eriskay and Lochmaddy - Uig. The Skye Bridge connects Kyleakin to Kyle of Lochalsh and is now toll free. Fuel is very expensive on the Outer Hebridean Islands (apart from peat) so get tanked up before you board the ferry at Oban!
Alternatively there are airports on Barra and Benbecula with daily flights from Glasgow scheduled according to the tide conditions on the Barra runway!

There are few major hotels but plentiful small hotels, B&B and cottages are available. We booked in advance through Scotsell who provided an excellent service. Castlebay Hotel on Barra was homely and comfortable with an enviable position overlooking Kisimul Castle and with excellent fresh local seafood on the menu. The adjoining bar is a veritable institution which comes alive after 2200.
The Isle of Benbecula Hotel at Creagory is recently refurbished to a high standard with excellent food again and a good stock of Hebridean beers and Malt Whiskies.
On Skye we stayed at the Cuillin Hills Hotel at Portree which was palatial in every respect.

When to go
You cannot get further into the Atlantic than the Western Isles and consequently the only predictability about the weather is that it changes quickly. Spring time has the attraction of the Machair, breeding birds and long daylight hours. Winter is inhospitable with hardly any daylight hours and the extreme Atlantic storms of January 2005 were still fresh in the memories of the locals when we were there, a terrifying experience by all accounts.

Here are some basic stats about our week's trip:
The round trip from Bradford was about 1300miles plus three ferries and we visited ten different islands.
In all we spotted 65 different bird species and heard the corncrake at many locations but did not see one!
We saw seals and a basking shark but missed out on otters, dolphins and whales.
It was only 'dark' from about 2400 till around 0300 each night. Sunset was about 2230 and I did not see the sun rise even when the sky was cloudless.
From the Barra -Eriskay ferry we could see as far as the Kintail hills a measured distance of over 60 miles. And from the 'Our Lady of the Isles' statue at about 50m above sea level on Ruival, South Uist we could see St Kilda an estimated distance of over 50miles.

OS Landranger 18/22/31 sheets and Explorer sheets 452/453/454

Web Links General information about the area including accommodation. Caledonian MacBrayne ferry timetables, fares and Hopscotch ticket information. An independent travel agency specialising in the Scottish Islands. RSPB reserve at Balranald North Uist. Information about Barra and Benbecula Airports and flights.

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