The beach at Traigh Mhor is one of the best spots for cockling on Barra – but not when it’s doubling as the island’s runway. Signs warn you to stay off the shore when the windsock is flying.
“Careful, the sand’s a bit sticky today.” The pilot was helping an elderly man down the rickety steps. You don’t hear – or see – that at Heathrow. The plane had touched down in a flurry of sea spray, the Twin Otter’s propellers whirring, the engines sputtering as it bumped along the ridged sand.
Barra is the most southerly island in the Outer Hebrides (there are around 200 in all but only 10 are inhabited). These far-flung chunks of barren rock are separated from the mainland by the mean-sounding Minch (a churning strait almost twice as wide as the English Channel). Frequently battered by Atlantic breakers and ferocious winds, when the weather sweeps in it’s bleak. I’ve been on the islands when the rain has sheeted-in horizontally like machine-gun fire, the horizon lost in a washing-machine spin of steel-grey waves.
But when the wind stills, the sun breaks through and the machair – a sandy carpet of grasses and wild flowers – is in bloom, it’s an idyllic place. Powder-white beaches backed by grassy dunes and lapped by turquoise waters lack only the heat – and crowds – of the Caribbean. There was a mini scandal at the end of last year when a Hebridean beach was spotted in a holiday brochure masquerading as a stretch of sand in Thailand.
Monty Halls, TV presenter and marine biologist, also notched up a glamorous beach landing recently, speeding across the Sound of Barra from the Uists in his rib. “It was magical: we had one of the only resident pods of dolphins in the UK playing around the boat for about 40 minutes.” Monty spent six months out here last year filming his second Great Escape series.
In the first series, he took on a croft in Applecross on the west coast of Scotland – and the area saw a tourism increase of 1,000 percent. This time he was working as a voluntary ranger for the Uists and Barra – and the islands are hoping for a similar response this summer.
Around 200,000 tourists currently visit the Outer Hebrides each year. This string of rocky outcrops stretches for 130 miles and is blanketed in heather and pocked with peat bogs. A handful of the islands are now linked by causeways making them easier to explore – Berneray, North Uist, Grimsay, Benbecula, South Uist and Eriskay – althoughwe’re still talking single-track with passing places. Barra, dangling off the bottom, is a short ferry ride away, as are Harris and Lewis to the north.
Each island has a distinct character. North Uist is flat, and peppered with trout-filled lochs and archaeological sites. Benbecula has been blighted by the army base and airport – although it still has pockets of charm. South Uist and Eriskay have a gentler aspect and rolling hills. Barra is a pint-sized beauty with toy Kisimul castle in the harbour and over 1,000 species of wildflowers.
Our New Zealand
Visitors are drawn to the islands for the wildlife – and wild beaches. This is one of Britain’s last real wildernesses and the perfect place to see golden eagles, puffins and basking sharks.
“This is our New Zealand. Every nation needs a wilderness and this archipelago is ours,” Monty had told me when I’d met up with him and James MacLetchie, the original countryside ranger, at the end of last year.
The largest colony of grey seals in Europe (40,000) can be seen on the Monach Islands. The RSPB reserve at Balranald on North Uist is a stronghold of endangered corncrakes. In soft, green South Uist, the Loch Druidibeg Nature Reserve is one the largest breeding grounds in the country for greylag geese.
“One of the highlights of my time in the Hebrides was getting close to nesting sea eagles,” Monty told me. “They’re the fourth largest bird of prey on Earth so it was pretty special. Seeing otters was also amazing. I’d waited so long to catch a glimpse of them.” It’s not always so hard: signs on the road in the Uists warn of otters crossing.
James was showing Monty the ropes. He was the ranger here for five years but now works as a guide after the islands lost funding. One of the aims of the programme was to raise enough money to reinstate the post permanently. “If these islands belonged to any other country on Earth, there would be a full-time ranger here,” Monty exclaims in disbelief. We were walking along Poll Na Crann beach on Benbecula with his big black mutt Reubs as he systematically scanned the shore for beached whales and seals.
The islands are also rich in folklore. Poll Na Crann is the setting for tales of selkies, mermaids and murdered nuns. In 1830, apparently, some young boys spotted a mermaid playing in the waves and threw stones at her. Her body was
found on the sand the next day. And in the 14th century a group of crofters accused the nuns of witchcraft because the cows had stopped milking, and tied them to the rocks at low tide. The seaweed still looks like their curled up fingers gripping onto the rocks as they drowned. It also gives the beach its local name, Stinky Bay.
Living the dream
During filming, Monty lived on North Uist in an old blackhouse owned by the local laird. A few of the other crofts that scatter the islands are finally starting to be renovated, mainly for holiday lets, now that there are grants available to help.
“I’ve always wanted to live in a little thatched, whitewashed cottage on a Scottish island,” he told me. “I’m living my dream.”
On North Uist, I had stayed in Langass Lodge but for a weekend trip to Barra I rented a little whitewashed cottage. Rubha Charnain is in the village of Bruernish on the east coast and belongs to a German artist, Anke-Beate Stahl. Princess Diana’s mother spent two summers here. Its other claim to fame is that it featured in the opening scene of Whisky Galore, the Ealing comedy based on Compton Mackenzie’s novel about the SS Politician, the ship that sank in 1941 just off Eriskay with its cargo – 20,000 cases of whisky.
Mackenzie loved Barra and built a low-slung white house, Suidheachan, here in the 1930s overlooking Traigh Mhor. He is buried just to the north in the cemetery at Cille Bharra in Eoligarry.
Rubha Charnain dates to 1935 and is all white tongue-and-groove walls and bare floorboards – seaside chic. There is no television, just an open fire, a creaking bookshelf, stacks of board games and the sound of the sea. It’s right on the water’s edge and the views across the bay are mesmerising: you can watch the fishing boats head out to sea in the morning from your bed as you sip a cup of tea. There are no streetlights – just a sky full of stars.
Holidaying in the Hebrides is a bit like stepping back in time to childhood summers filled with rock pooling, sandcastles and cockling. “When the tide comes in, the cockles rise to the surface and the noise they make sounds like the squelch of a peach in cream,” an old shopkeeper had told me. Just rake the wet sand to unearth them. Or look for a strand of green weed sticking up through the sand. The weed gets caught in the cockle’s shell and you can just scoop them out with your finger.
There are plenty of adrenalin-fuelled pursuits on the islands: surfing, sea-kayaking, kite-surfing, mountain biking, abseiling. And more traditional activities: fly-fishing, walking and wildlife watching. But somehow it’s the retro-appeal that leaves a lasting impression. Gaelic is still spoken here and the ancient crofting traditions continue to be part of everyday life: seaweed gathering for fertiliser, peat cutting, wool dyeing and fishing.
The best beaches
One of Monty’s tasks while he was on the islands was to waymark a number of new hiking trails and compile a booklet of his six favourite walks, the money from which will go to local environmental projects. On Barra he plotted the route with Jonathan Grant, another ex-ranger.
The Barra loop is a four-mile, three-hour trek graded two paws (Reub’s terrain guide spans one to five paws). The walk starts at St Barr’s church in North Bay, then follows the road to a patch of woodland planted by Lady Gordon Cathcart in the mid 19th century, continuing along the side of Loch a Duin, now the island’s reservoir. The dam submerged a dun (2,000 year-old iron-age fortification). The posts that Monty hammered in lead you along a grassy path on the other side of the loch. Scrabbling through the heather to the top of the ridge you get sweeping views to Skye.
When it comes to walking, however, you can’t beat a long blustery beach. Monty’s favourite? “Solas on North Uist. I ran along it everyday and the surfing is phenomenal.” Anke’s favourite? “Vatersay, the island south of Barra and connected via a causeway, has wonderful beaches (Traigh a’ Bhaigh for sandcastles and Traigh Siar, the west beach, for beachcombing). On Barra we love swimming at Cliat Beach (Traigh Chliait) because it is half-moon shaped, relatively sheltered, always empty and there are caves at the end of the beach that you can explore at low tide.”
Traigh Mhor has to be a contender, of course. However, the airport is on the east coast of a narrow spit of land and behind it, over a series of monster sand dunes is Traigh Eais. Atlantic breakers pound the sand of the longest beach on Barra. You can smell the sea and taste the salt on your lips. It is empty, wild and windswept.
But then Traigh Mhor is great for cockling, perfect for plane-spotting – and probably the most romantic landing strip in the world…
This old sporting lodge was once part of the North Uist Estate. There’s a stone circle in the grounds and views over the sea loch to Ben Eaval and the Minch beyond. The restaurant serves venison from the surrounding moors and Hebridean lamb (the original black sheep). Fish and shellfish are also a speciality – the hotel has its own lobster pots and boat.
This charming little cottage is at the end of a singletrack lane – there are more sheep than cars on the road. It has white wooden walls, an open fire and sea views. There are buckets and spades in the hallway and you can fish from the rocks at the bottom of the garden, but there’s no television.
Two traditional white, thatched blackhouses with jaunty red paintwork around the doors and windows overlook the Sound of Harris. There are four similar hostels in the Outer Hebrides run by the Gatliff Hebridean Hostels Trust.
THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN ISSUE 34 OF COUNTRYFILE MAGAZINE. TO NEVER MISS AN ISSUE SUBSCRIBE TODAY!
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