Outer Hebrides Holidays – The Best of the Western Isles
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Outer Hebrides Holidays and an Outdoor Adventure on the Islands
It will surprise none of my regular readers that I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for the Outer Hebrides. Soft spot may be underselling it slightly; more of a deep emotional attachment and lifelong adoration that has graduated this year into an unconditional love. It’s a place that calls for a thesaurus as I seek out the adjectives – there must be one! – that will do justice to these islands that form the north western limits of Scotland and that simply have no comparison with anywhere else in the world. For my spring 2018 visit, I teamed up with Visit Outer Hebrides to assist in the production of a video – which you can watch in full here – that showcases the Western Isles at their very best. Now that the video is hot off the presses and ready for devouring for Hebridean holiday inspiration, here is my look back at one of the most exhaustingly thrilling experiences I’ve ever had.
While I have travelled the length and breadth of the jewelled chain of these islands on many occasions – including this year’s wanders around North Uist’s beaches and South Uist’s peaks – I have never been so bold as to take all of them on in one five-day run. Our filming group were engaging in a range of outdoors activities across the chain, giving even this seasoned traveller a new appreciation of what you can get up to out here. Here’s the run-down:
A region that has always offered an appealingly contrasting partnership with the broad expanses of sandy magnificence found further south, North Harris’ contribution comes in the form of gripping landscapes. A tightly packed array of peaks hold centuries’ worth of geological mystery and remote secrets. Its barren, rocky terrain seems more suited to other planets. And the coastal, tucked away highlights receive little of the fuss reserved for the relative celebrities of Luskentyre, Seilebost and Scarista further south. In short, this is the stuff of dreams for lovers of the lonely outdoors.
It has never been lost on me that North Harris always looks like a bit of a nightmare for distance cyclists heading up and down the length of the Outer Hebrides. Long, steep ascents and unforgiving roads would see even experienced pros panting and counting down the seconds. Take things off-road however and the challenges suddenly take on the opportunity for plenty of thrills as well. Forming part of the Hebridean Way, the routes are long and varied and, under the expert care of the Scaladale Centre, offer yet another perspective on these parts. Great gear, friendly guidance and phenomenal backdrops….I approve.
Coasteering and Wild Camping
One of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. Getting wet-suited up and ready to jump in and out of the sea onto fairly inhospitable rocks looks in no way a good idea to your average traveller – but coasteering is one of those activities that can positively astonish you. Literally just a case of working your way around the coastline, clambering and swimming as needed, there’s also the thrills of cave exploring and cliff jumping along the way. Just in case you were getting bored. With a backdrop of the empty island of Scarp on one side and the spectacular Hushinish Beach on the other, our eventual sunset moment shared here ended one of those pinch-yourself days. To then tuck in to a beach barbeque and pitch up beach-side tents for the night (another service provided by Scaladale) just seemed, well, greedy. Emotionally powerful stuff I have to admit – it hit me that my bond with these islands had just deepened yet further. And that’s something to treasure.
Now, was it a comfortable sleep? In truth, despite the crashing waves outside and with my hand on my heart, it was not. But, seriously, does it really matter when you wake up and this is the first thing you see?
Dominated on a human level by the airport and geographically by the lonely rump of Rueval, little Benbecula separates the Uists and is generally a victim of passing traffic headed up or down the Hebridean island chain. What I had never considered in my many short visits, however, was the prospect of horse riding on its west-facing sands. The Uist Community Riding School caters to all levels of riding enthusiasts and – as pretty much complete beginners – it was a bumpy but oddly surreal experience for our filming group. Another pinch-yourself moment as it dawns that this could be a once-in-a-lifetime event.
Speaking of….I never thought I’d find myself indulging in some art on a Hebridean beach. Having never exactly possessed any gift in this department, the image of myself sat on the sand expressing my creativity on paper was not one I’d have put together. But there are no limits in the Outer Hebrides and if ever there was a place to wing it and test your boundaries, this is it. My friend, and fellow VisitScotland Ambassador, Ellis O’Connor is a North Uist-based artist specialising in contemporary landscapes. Surrounded by raw beauty on a daily basis, Ellis is probably the first person I think on when it comes to admiring the relationship that us humans can have with our natural environment. It’s immersive for her and I can see how much inspiration she draws from it. And, under her supervision, I put together something that might just about pass as a whirlpool, if I was being generous. Check out her work here before she becomes really famous and it costs a fortune.
Ah, Barra. You little charmer. While the big brothers to the north get the majority of the travel industry’s interest in these parts, Barra has that digestible ability to cover all the bases. A smattering of peaks in the centre, rough inlets to the east and yet more of those jaw-dropping beaches to the west it falls short in none of the key criteria that Western Isles’ travellers come excitedly seeking.
Kayaking and Snorkelling
It borders on the ridiculous to me that Castlebay’s Kisimul Castle can be circumnavigated by kayak. The brilliant drone footage above shows that I’m not making it up. A stunner of an island fortress with an intimidating aura and defensive purpose, it was with absolute awe that I contemplated seeing this guy from entirely new perspectives. Paddling around the 15th Century Clan MacNeil relic allows for a relaxed and reflective experience and hats off to Isle of Barra Surf and Coastal Adventures who delivered it all with flexible perfection. Pressed for time, we only had enough for one circuit but it reiterated to me the near-effortless appeal of kayak travel. While you can shoot off and stalk the fortress out to your heart’s content, you are equally able to let yourself be lulled by the bay’s natural movement and appreciate the vista of one of Scotland’s great breath-takers.
From their base in Castlebay village, these guys also offer snorkelling activities and this brought us up close with some of the friendly seals that so often descend on our islands’ shallows to see what’s happening with us lot. Seals both Common and Grey frequent the Western Isles along with any number of Basking Sharks, Minke Whales and, of course, the ever-endearing otter. A trip to the Outer Hebrides without seeing at least some of them in action is simply incomplete. Just leave it all to their team and enjoy the springtime machair-strewn landscapes and island haar hanging over the coast.
I’ve been extremely fortunate this year for boat trips. The Corryvrekan, the Isle of May, Bass Rock….all uniquely outstanding and eternally memorable. Right up there with them though was our half-day on the water with Lewis Mackenzie from Fish n’ Trips. With an island accent that would disarm a raiding Viking, Lewis had us all at hello. Clambering aboard, he runs us through the various things we can expect from the day including sea angling, seal spotting, eagle watching and lobster potting. What followed over the course of the afternoon was extraordinary. We witnessed a sea eagle charge from the sky to pluck a fish from the water (a matter of metres away from our boat); puffins and seabirds resting on the countless empty islets off the coast of Lewis; a particularly friendly skua called Barry that accompanied us the whole way in the hope of a feed and a close encounter with a small army of islanded seals in the middle of nowhere.
The hunt for kelp
As if all that was not enough, Lewis is the man behind the famous sugar kelp used by the Harris Distillery and he was good enough to show us the gathering process involved in this vital – and very much in-demand – ingredient. Growing up to 4 metres in length, packed with iodine and capable of surviving for years in Lewis’ off-shore inlets it is sweet and salty in equally perfected measures.
Harris Gin has shot to stardom to become one of Scotland’s most loved. And we should know what we’re on about, we’ve got enough of it. While we all fervently await the whisky that will be flowing in a few years’ time, their gin will have to keep as all sated in the meantime and the Distillery has come a long way in the last few years. I was in the early days of my travel writing when I attended the launch some years ago and was delighted to be amongst the first to understand that there has possibly never been a surer thing than the guaranteed success of this stuff. Deliciously sweet, subtle flavours matched with that priceless island appeal and clever branding will see it become an economic titan I have no doubt. Suitable then that our boat trip ended with a toast. To a great day. To an unforgettable week. And to a truly magical part of the world.
This trip was part of a paid promotional campaign with Visit Outer Hebrides. Funnily enough though, this is a part of the world that I’m not likely to ever exaggerate about and my strong endorsements of the islands are as genuine as can be. All of the activities mentioned were superb accompaniments to the trip and big thanks to our wheels at Bunk Campers, our ferry providers Calmac Ferries and also to the excellent accommodation provided by Howmore Hostel (South Uist), the beautiful and quirky Wee Haven (Benbecula) and the Cabarfeidh Hotel (Stornoway). The meal and excellent service put on by the latter was amongst the best I’ve had on the islands and all are top tips for anyone visiting these parts.
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