With restrictions easing and in need of a change of scene, we looked at destinations where both our interests could be satisfied – birds for him and hills for me. Of course over the years these interests have melded and while I am far from an accomplished birder and he sometimes prefers to sit (in a northerly gale sea-watching), it is not generally hard for us reach agreement. The Uists became our favoured choice, we found a place to stay and booked the ferry crossing. Neither were trouble free. We travelled North stopping for lunch at Low Newton-by-sea and then overnight with friends in Edinburgh. The next leg of our journey took us to a hill side off the river Dee and from there, because of a change in the CalMac time table (a regular feature of their service) we left a day early for Oban and the spectacular 7 hour sea crossing to Lochboisdale. Our return was similarly stepwise, stopping for a lovely lunch with friends in Doune and then overnight with other friends in Edinburgh. We had not realised quite how much we had missed the proximity of others. Being able to scan someone else’s bookshelf, stand at another’s kitchen counter, sit and chat in a different living room or garden, is transformational!
The view of Beinn Mhòr from our rented house at Staoinebrig, S. Uist. The garden went all the way to the water and included a rusty old beat up car complete with what looked like bullet holes!
An evening stroll from the house, to the accompaniment of at least two Corncrakes! They make a distinctive noise, like drawing a stick over a hard comb, twice in succession. We made way for a ginger haired shepherd, his flock and sheep dogs. The crofts, cars and other debris in the back ground are typical of the island.
Our local beach, at the Bornais end, was teeming with waders: sanderling; turnstones; and dunlin. Along with the rusting cars, old fridges and abandoned farm equipment, there were other equally powerful remnants of the island’s habitants, including the washed up remains of a whale. A fine resting place if ever there was one!
We did a wonderful walk around the island of Berneray, black skies in sharp contrast with the white sand beaches. On the north eastern corner lies a cemetery. Marked only by stones, are the graves of commonwealth soldiers. I have not been able to find out why these burials happened here or who lies beneath. Would families members know, were they told? Unrecognised people in the ground of a foreign land for which, willingly or otherwise, they had given their lives. For these poor souls, while incredibly beautiful, this probably cannot be considered a fine resting place.
From our house we could see Beinn Mhòr, the highest peak on the outer Hebrides. We waited for the best weather to climb her. It was touch and go. There are no foot paths. It would be very easy to get lost in cloud, the mountainside can disappear in seconds. The route to the top follows an arrete which caused an attack of vertigo in one of us!
On the north west side of N. Uist lies the island of Vallay, which is accessible in fair weather at low tide. The island is awash with wild flowers. Its western side has spectacular beaches perfect for a picnic and swim! But the interior is disappointing, filled as it is with cattle and all the paraphernalia that comes with farming – barbed and electric fences, plastic silage bags and unnatural ‘improved’ grassland where Machair should be, a rare and delicate grass growing on shell sand. At least the farming is not as intensive as it could be, but no doubt it impacts on wildlife and habitat. Facing the main land on the south coast lies the ruin of a large house once lived in by textile factory owner Erskine Beveridge. We spent some time trying to see the Corncrakes we could hear rasping close by. On crossing a barbed fence at a broken down style, I got a whopping electric shock that hurled me to the ground. The wire was not marked as live. Walking in the Outer Hebrides is clearly not encouraged, live wires, broken styles, no footpaths. Perhaps this keeps the place free of too many tourists. We saw no other people on this day.
Loch Aineort lies in a spectacular valley at the foot of Beinn Mhòr, just the other side of the ‘main road’ from where we were staying. We had been alerted to it by a birder we met on the beach at Berneray. At the end of the road, the land owner has planted a garden which has matured over the years and, unusually, has an array of welcoming footpaths! We returned to this place a number of times, firstly to spot otters and subsequently to walk and to sit, brew up and enjoy the spectacular scenery.
One wet afternoon we stopped on the road side, threatening clouds meant we did not wander too far from the car. We dropped down on the beach at Stinky Bay on Benbecula, and sat for some time watching waders at very close range, they appeared totally undisturbed by our presence.
On our last day, under a blanket of thick cloud, we drove south and over the bridge to Eriskay. We stopped for lunch at Am Politician, wishing that ours could do better. After an excellent meal of hand caught scallops for one and battered monk fish for the other, we set off walking around the bay. It began to warm and clear. Eriskay has a very different feel to S. Uist. It appears almost touristy, with upmarket accommodation, some remarkable and others a disgrace!
We spotted something that looked a bit like a foot path but of course turned out not to be, and then followed our noses through bog and bush to the high point of the island. Views from the top of the shallow waters between the islands were sublime.
The village shop did not have any Magnums, so clearly Eriskay is not that touristy after-all!