Hebrides: Day 4

After a leisurely breakfast and departure from Sorrel on Day 4 (20 August) we paid a visit to the MacGillivray Centre at Northton in light drizzle, then took a short drive up the coast back to Horgabost and afterwards retraced our steps to ‘Seallam!‘ in Northton to be there when it opened at 10am.

We enjoyed the Hebridean exhibition and particularly the St Kilda special collection which had added poignancy for me because of my long-held desire to visit the archipelago, ideally this year (which did not happen), and of course because 29 August just a few days ahead of our visit would be the 79th anniversary of the evacuation.

We then headed back to Leverburgh to await the ferry to take us across to Berneray and North Uist. As we were in good time we popped into the ‘Butty Bus’ and said hello to Bob. He was delighted to see us and made us very welcome.

The weather cleared as we were waiting for the ferry, with patches of blue sky becoming ever more evident – almost sufficient to make a pair of knickers for the Queen (favourite saying of Craig’s mother, apparently). So eventual departure gave us a splendid backdrop of the south Harris hills around Leverburgh bathed in glorious sunshine and mixed cloud, and thus it was for the entire hour’s crossing to Berneray.

For those who aren’t familiar with this ferry crossing, the Sound of Harris is only a couple of miles across but its very shallow, especially at low tide. The CalMac ferry weaves a tortuous route through navigation channels avoiding reefs and rocks, islands and navigation markers. Goodness know what it must be like for the man at the tiller at nighttime, but in daytime the twists and turns make for a fascinating crossing with new vistas opening all the time.

After we arrived on Berneray we set off north to explore this small and delightful island with wonderful views across the sound back towards Harris, and then crossed over the ‘new’ causeway to North Uist. The weather was glorious, breezy but sunny blue skies and scudding high level cloud occasionally obliterating the sun for a few minutes.

Once we reached the circular island road, we set off in an anticlockwise direction, intent on visiting the Isle of Baleshare before we reached the Isle of Benbecula. Not far along the A865 the most amazing sandy vista opened up in front of us. A truly stunning bay of white sand of seemingly limitless size. We couldn’t see the sea (the tide was out!).

We reached a parking place at the shoreline by Grenitote where several cars were parked and got out for a leg stretch and a Kodak moment.

We immediately spotted a Land Rover whizzing across the bay, headed in our direction, and then it forged a tidal stream and several large puddles and eventually drew up alongside us. The driver’s window was wound down and he said to me “That was great fun!” and with a big smile, drove off.

I should say at this juncture that I’ve often thought my family motto should be “If it’s there, drive up it.” Marion would certainly agree, because that’s what I always seem to be doing when she’s with me…

I said to Craig, “Right, that’s us too then ….!” and off we set for a ‘desert safari’. We forged the river and set off across the beach which must have been about 1-2 miles across, and then on a track through sand dunes beyond which led to a second bay of similar dimension to the first. Oh what a fab time (including more than a few Kodak moments). See video clips here and here!

on the beach

We made it back to dry land without mishap, but wreathed in smiles … A quick stop for comestibles was made at Sollas Co-op and then we enjoyed a lovely alfresco lunch at Malaglate on the machair overlooking another delightful sandy bay to a distant isle with two large and ruined properties on it.

After lunch we made steady progress southwards via Balmartin, Baleshare and Balivanich (Isle of Benbecula) and onto our final island for the day, South Uist.

Getting rather tired by this time we decided to head straight for our hotel, the Borrodale at Daliburgh. It is one of three in the southern isles owned by the same company. I had stayed at the Dark Isles Hotel a few years ago on my first visit to South Uist, it was pretty average – a typical coach tour type hotel. This accommodation had been booked for us by VisitScotland and I rather hoped to find Borrodale an improvement on my memory of Dark Isles!

Well my review of the Borrodale on Trip Advisor will tell you what I thought of the hotel!

After a nap we were ready for something to eat and found a half-decent (not the best but no means the worst – that accolade belongs to Thurso) fish and chip shop nearby. It was remarkable for having a filling station attached to it (rather than the other way about, the pump controls were on the counter of the F&C shop). We drove onto the machair and enjoyed a fish supper looking north with the Atlantic ocean on our left.

Before retiring for the night we decided that we’d attempt a side trip the next day to visit Barra and Vatersay if we could get a ferry place. The weather forecast for the following day wasn’t particularly good, rising winds were predicted which didn’t augur well for a smooth crossing, and rain was anticipated also. But neither of us had been to Barra previously and so we decided we’d do it if we could.

to be continued/…

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Hebrides: Days 2 & 3

“A description of the Outer Hebrides of Scotland”

240px-OuterhebrideslewisFollowing in the illustrious footsteps of Martin Martin in 1703, two weeks ago I was delighted to undertake on a snap return visit to the Outer Hebrides after an absence of five months, accompanied by friend Craig Stevens. I tweeted the journey with pics and map links.

The weather forecast for our trip did not bode well. Rain, rain and more rain according to Tomasz Schafernaker. And so it turned out on Day 2 as we headed north from Annandale Water in the border to Cairndow at the head of Loch Fyne for a lunchtime dining experience at the famous oyster bar.

After a swift but satisfying lunch we set off for Uig (Isle of Skye) via Inverary, Connel, Fort William and Kyle of Lochalsh. The rain sluiced down for most of the journey, and was compounded on Skye by low cloud such that the Cuillins were entirely obscured from view – much to Craig’s annoyance as he had wanted to see them up close!

Time was tight. I knew it would be a long long drive from Cairndow to Uig and we had a deadline, the 6pm ferry sailing. Travelling at sometimes breakneck speeds rather than the gentle bumble we had anticipated, and getting held up at various points by grockles and roadworks, we did however make it to Uig with just five minutes to spare before check-in was due to close. At which point we learned that the ferry was running half an hour late and hadn’t even arrived!

Once we were on board and departed from Uig, we made a beeline for the cafeteria and enjoyed a CalMac macaroni cheese (me) and chicken curry (Craig). These two dishes are legend on CalMac services! Both were scrumptious, although there was a problem with the curry as the chicken hadn’t been properly cooked. This was rectified swiftly and very professionally by the kitchen.

When we arrived at Tarbert on the Isle of Harris the low cloud remained. It was a murky drive over to the west side but once past Luskentyre the cloud lifted somewhat, although drizzle continued until we reached our overnight destination, Leverburgh.

We checked in to Sorrel Cottage for two nights around 9.15pm and took ourselves to bed for an early night. It was lovely to discover several tweets from islanders welcoming me ‘home’.  Next morning was wet again, but with a promise of some improvement (thankfully).

We drove up the Golden Road on the east side of Harris, back to Tarbert and thence headed to Stornoway on Lewis. En route we stopped off for a cup of coffee with SarahMac at Grimshader; it was lovely to catch up with her news though I was disappointed that N wasn’t there!

We met up with former colleague Myra at Comhairle nan Eilean Siar and took her to lunch at the Woodland Centre at Lews Castle Park. It was great to see her and to catch up on all the CnES gossip.

After dropping Myra back at her office we set off for Carloway. En route we paid a quick visit to James Smith’s Oiseval Gallery at Brue as I wanted to purchase a copy of his magnificent Achmore photograph to frame as a memento of my six months living there last winter.

Craig had particularly wanted to revisit Dun Carloway Broch and we arrived in glorious sunshine. It was rather breezy (understatement) though. What a difference to the last time we had been there – he’d had the place to himself in January, but not in August!

Reaching Breasclete we dropped in for a flying visit to The Soaplady at Hebridean Soap. Linda was delighted to meet ‘The Blessed Craig’ and proceeded to give him a demonstration of soapmaking and cutting which he enjoyed enormously. Various purchases of soap and knick-knacks were made.

Having decided to give Callanish a miss because of the likely numbers of people to be found there, we headed straight Achmore. It was great to see Sundown again, but more particularly to look across the moor to the mountains of Harris. Oh how I miss that view, though now I have it immortalised on a James Smith picture.

And then it was time to head back to Sorrel Cottage. Stops were made on the way for Kodak moments and a walk on the machair at Seilebost. We had booked to have dinner at The Anchorage at Leverburgh Pier which had been recommended to us.

We feasted on fresh as can be seafood. Five minute lobster at The Anchorage doesn’t just mean its been cooked for five minutes. Five minutes before that it was living in the sea, having been fished out of a creel especially for Craig’s order. For myself I tried whiting for the first time – delicious.

After watching the sun set over the Sound of Harris (only marred to some extent by low cloud), we headed back to Sorrel pretty exhausted after a long but rewarding day, looking forward to crossing to North Uist on the morrow.

to be continued …

You can view a photograph gallery of our trip at http://gallery.me.com/x333xxx/100160.

Green light for Sunday sailings!

calmacI’m delighted to have learnt that Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac) have signalled the commencement of Sunday sailings to the Western Isles, despite objections from Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (CnES) and the Lord’s Day Observance Society.

The development was announced yesterday on Hebrides News.

For those not in the know, Sunday sailings to/from the isles of Harris and Lewis have been an extremely contentious issue for years.

You may agree or disagree with the whole situation but life will go on regardless. Gods can be worshipped by whomever and wherever they choose, a basic freedom of a democracy held dear in this United Kingdom as well as elsewhere.

Personal choice and freedom to choose is so important … parents help their offspring to develop in life with skills that enable them to make informed and good choices. Imposing a will without good reason will likely backfire.

The local authority CnES has always purported to represent the views of the populace but this has never been tested by asking that population whether or not they wanted Sunday sailings. Instead a significant number of councillors, plus the Lord’s Day Observance Society, all with entrenched views about Sabbath observance and island tradition, have prevented the economic development of the islands by stifling any possibility of seven day sailings.  It could all have been resolved so easily by holding a local referendum: ‘do you favour the introduction of Sunday sailings or not?’. A ‘no’ answer would have strengthened the comhairle’s policy position, and a ‘yes’ would have given the comhairle a strong signal that it’s policy was not in line with its residents’ wishes regarding ferries.

The overbearing paternalistic stance of CnES and LDOS has certainly backfired on this occasion, and I – for one – am delighted.

The lack of a Sunday service has meant that, until now, islanders could not get to the mainland for a weekend away without booking additional time off work except if they flew (but flying is not always convenient or suitable), nor could visitors spend a weekend in the islands for the same reason. On the face of it a Sunday ferry appears quite a trivial point, but the economic impact on individuals and the island economy is significant and this decision will bring tangible benefits that far outweigh the entrenched view about sabbath observance (one which is not entirely accurate either).

CalMac said the decision followed extensive consultation.

The new service will initially follow the timetable of the Saturday afternoon sailing – departing Stornoway at 1430 BST to arrive in Ullapool at 1730 BST then leaving at 1815 BST arriving back in Stornoway at 2100 BST.

Chairman Peter Timms said the company had tried to find a way to meet its legal obligations and respect local traditions.

He said: “We believe we can achieve that by operating one return trip a day, departing in the afternoon and returning late in the evening. This will minimise the impact on the culture and amenity of the islands, while at the same time providing economic and social benefits. We remain acutely aware of the sensitivities surrounding Sunday sailings, but we cannot operate unlawfully nor fail to provide lifeline services when there is a growing demonstrable demand from the communities we serve.”

The comhairle said it was dismayed by the decision to sail between Stornoway and Ullapool.

In May, BBC Alba reported that state-owned CalMac viewed Sunday sailings to and from the mainland as “inevitable”. At the time the ferry operator said it had been told it would be unlawful to refuse to run a service because of the religious views of just part of a community. Pro-sailings campaigners sought advice from the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

I look forward to being able to return to Lewis and to take advantage of the new, enlightened ferry service opportunities.