Exploring Harris and Lewis with Wilderness Scotland
It’s maybe the best feeling there is. Top of a mountain in one of the world’s most emotionally-charged places, in good company, a little sunburnt (what?!?) and surrounded by breathtaking island beauty. Those that know me or that are familiar with my travel ramblings will be unsurprised to learn that the Outer Hebrides have a very special place in my heart. Hyperbolic and a tad mushy as it may sound, there is something overwhelmingly captivating about this far-away little segment of this fabulous country. When the opportunity to join a walking tour of Harris and Lewis with Wilderness Scotland came up, a free week appeared as if by magic in my packed travel diary.
I love hiking, always have and always will. Ditto for the Western Isles. Throw in a lovely bunch of travel companions, the organisation and experience of a leading outdoor specialist and I’m there with bells on. Spread over the course of a very busy week, this extended walking tour is perfect for those with an existing love or interest in the area or – having heard tell of its unmatched magnificence – the desire to be properly introduced. Here’s a breakdown of the tour and a proper look at some of the best walks in the Outer Hebrides.
Best Walks in the Outer Hebrides
Clisham – North Harris
The only place to start, this beauty is the highest point in the Western Isles and has been a bucket-lister for me for some time. I know Harris well. I know and love the beaches of South Harris, the lunar landscapes in the north, the constant whiff of Viking and Gaelic presence in the air and the lure of the local seafood and gin (Harris Gin, dear god by the way) hubs along the way. But Clisham delivers something very different to my mind’s eye view of the place. Powerful and mysterious, it proudly glares down on passers-by on the A859, calling out to be conquered.
At 799 metres (a Corbett) it’s a challenging climb and, although popular, is not one for beginners. The initial ascent is clear but steep from the car park and heading to the north east of the main road. With views improving by the step you’ll be beside yourself on summiting – skirting around dramatic loose rocks and with the whole island in view. While most will take the return route by the same way, we make a full day of it by continuing on the obvious horseshoe shaped ridge. The 4 peaks that we took in present very different views throughout and with Golden Eagles looming overhead, beaches visible to the south and spirits high in the group, even an ordinarily challenging descent is full of fun.
Ceapabhal – South Harris
Short but oh so incredibly sweet is this absolute beauty of a walk in the turquoise beach lovers’ mecca of South Harris. A rough and steep ascent from the village of Northton (passing the odd Highland Cow or two between pants), it is tough on the limbs but suitable for most levels of hiker. Ceapabhal boasts one of the most impressive backdrops you’ll find – with North Uist, Taransay and even Skye and St Kilda (on a very clear day) joining the plethora of beach porn on display in all directions.
Following completion of the ascent, we took the long way home via Toe Head and snaking all the way around the coast of the peninsula with the just stunning Scarista on our left. 20 degrees, clear skies, good company, kilted (of course) and with views I’ll never forget – so ends maybe the best outdoor day in Scotland I’ve ever had. For more of my favourite hikes around Scotland, read this.
The walk to Bosta Beach – Great Bernera
Harris doesn’t quite hold all the trump cards when it comes to beaches and Bosta is up there battling it out for the top spots without question. We took on this route as an easy introduction on arrival in the Outer Hebrides with the beach being the prize on completion. Starting at the Community Centre just past Breacleit, the route is a low level wander across the western coastline of Great Bernera and is the most straightforward of the walks on this list. Allow 2-3 hours.
The magnificent beach faces across the water to Little Bernera and an Iron Age settlement was uncovered here in 1992. Building remains dating from the 6th to 8th Century AD add further interest to another of the gems of the Outer Hebrides. I took the opportunity to go bounding about gleefully (I do that a lot in these parts, can’t be helped) in the overlooking stretches of coastline in search of the best angles. What a feeling! You remember the Flashdance video? Yeah. That. In a kilt.
Muladal, Ulabhal, Oireabhal & Cleiseabhal – North Harris
Here comes an intense day so pack your stamina. You’ll have earned your dinner at the end of this peak marathon that starts by the roadside halfway along the B887 road to Hushinish on the west coast.
It would be fair to say you can expect to have this route almost, if not entirely, to yourself. Which is half the charm. We picked one of the windiest days of the year to take the 4 peaks on and it made for some interesting shapes as the full force of nature had its way. The summit of Ulabhal was particularly gobsmacking as a sheer drop provides one of the most dramatic vistas imaginable. Throw in distant views of Luskentyre beaches and add this to the list of truly stunning Scottish climbs.
Gearranannan Blackhouse Village and West Lewis
The restored 19th Century Blackhouse Village to the north of Carloway is a favourite with photographers and gives an interesting insight into the life of local crofters and fishermen who would have made a home from this kind of settlement. Well worth a half hour nosey, a coastal walk to explore the area further is well rewarded.
With the drama of the Atlantic for company, the 2+hours route snakes around the coast in a circular trail ending back at Carloway. Look out for the Lewisian gneiss that makes up so much of the rocky landscapes in these parts and the omnipresent Golden Eagles – who have been so ubiquitous on this trip that they are becoming mundane!
Luskentyre – Central Harris
Just to tease, we waited until the final day before taking in the lusciousness of Luskentyre. Widely regarded as the best beach we’ve got, today’s exertion culminated in a walk on the golden sands of this vast expanse.
The walk itself is of Beinn Dubh, a fairy steep and steadily-climbing peak involving some rock clambering but glances to your left of the maze of mini-streams in the sands will keep you going, with a smile. Involving multiple little mounds the route is open to interpretation (there’s no path) but you can’t go far wrong. The starting point is anywhere along the minor road off the A859 and running alongside the beach; the end at the north end of the sand where you can follow the beach all the way back to the start. Food for the soul in every sense. While I did dip my toe, incidentally, it was so excruciating that the process lasted only a few seconds. Okay, not quite perfect, but close.
As with so much of rural Scotland, spring and autumn are the best time to go. Avoiding the crowds but getting the best shot at good weather, you may even finding yourself applying the suncream from time to time.
Wilderness Scotland are very clear about the difficulty levels of the walks on their itineraries and there should be no big surprises. That said it is always important to know your limits and build up some preparation time if you’re not a regular hiker.
You will also be supplied with a suggested kit list of things to pack, a useful touch as there’s lots to consider here. From good quality boots to appropriate baselayers, you’ll make your life infinitely easier having the right clothing, tools and accessories to hand.
Now, important point here. The Outer Hebrides are off the beaten trail somewhat when it comes to hikes and well-trodden routes are rare. With no Munros on the islands, many of the keenest hikers look elsewhere and therefore paths and facilities for walkers are minimal.
For the purposes of this walking tour food, accommodation, transport and entry fees are provided by Wilderness Scotland. Handily this makes it entirely possible that you will hardly have to open your wallet for the duration of your trip. This is potentially a big deal, especially for international visitors, as all those mental currency calculations, attempts to figure out weird coins and notes and the hassle of day-to-day budgeting can be set aside. While not a budget trip, my view is that it does represent good value given the quality on offer in every sense.
You will join a group of like-minded travellers under the supervision of an expert guide. In this case my tour was with Paul, who couldn’t have been better. Representing the face of the company, it’s a vital role and his knowledge, experience, flexibility and personality made the trip really special. A lot of laughs were had within the group – from pulling our hair out at the challenge of someone (anyone!) who would sell us some beer to scouring the landscapes for sightings of spectacular wildlife. Paul had us covered all the way and was constantly attentive to individual and collective needs.
Accommodation was excellent. Provided by Soval Lodge in Lewis it was an ideal base for exploring both Harris and Lewis, with super-helpful staff on hand to provide all the necessary comfort after a long day on the hoof.
Also included as a smashing bonus was the opportunity to get out on the water for some wildlife spotting. A private RIB was provided to take us around the many little islets of Lewis where we spotted Sea Eagles, did some fishing (I was dismal, no-one else was) and cruised along accompanied by curious puffins and kittiwakes.
Aside from the obvious focus on walking and the great outdoors, the tour did also include visits to some of the best historical and cultural attractions on offer. Sunset at Callanish with every hair you’ve got standing on end, a nosey around fantastically preserved Dun Calloway and various stops to ogle over Harris Tweed were all fitted in. A finer week is very hard to imagine.
While I was invited by Wilderness Scotland to join them on this Outer Hebrides trip, I only ever promote businesses that I think are top of the line. In truth I’ve had my eye on them for some time – they have an excellent reputation in the industry and offer a first class range of tours and trips. I have not the slightest hesitation in recommending them to any visitor to Scotland looking for an authentic outdoor experience.
Here’s me chatting a bit more about this area with local islander and friend, Donald Macinnes, on Radio Scotland. Just press play to listen to the recording:
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