24/02/2021
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Discover Scotland by campervan on a Hebridean adventure

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See also: Campervan: Travel and Destination Guide

This trip took place prior to the coronavirus pandemic. We are publishing it for your enjoyment and to help you plan your future trips. Readers must follow the latest government advice before leaving their homes:  gov.uk/coronavirus

 

Words & Photos Felicity Martin

Vatersay, the Outer Hebrides

What a view! The turquoise sea lapping golden sand and shading to aquamarine in the depths could be the Aegean, but the land is far too green. This is actually the far northwest of Scotland. I’m on the high point of Vatersay, the southernmost inhabited island in the long chain of the Outer Hebrides.

I have climbed over ground speckled with pink lousewort and heath spotted-orchids to gain this panorama, which includes the Isle of Barra and Castlebay, the port we sailed into yesterday. Stella, our WildAx Constellation, is one of several campervans tucked below me beside Vatersay Hall.

This modern community facility sits on a narrow strip of green that forms the waist of the H-shaped island.

Cropped short by a few grazing cattle, the green sward is machair – grassland naturally fertilised by the lime of shell sand. It is composed as much of wildflowers as grass, with starry white daisies and yellow splashes of buttercups, bird’s-foot trefoils and the last blooming primroses.

It is a thin skin of vegetation, broken in places into sand holes hollowed out by the persistent wind.

Visit Scotland's Western Isles by ferry

Two nights spent here prove a wonderful start to our campervan trip travelling the length of Scotland’s Western Isles on a Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac) Hopscotch ferry ticket. We take advantage of the showers, toilets and café at the hall then leave a donation before driving back over the causeway to Barra to empty our toilet cassette at the CDP (chemical disposal point) by the CalMac office.

This facility is available at many of the ferry terminals, as listed on a leaflet that becomes our bible, because it describes locations of most of the services campervanners will need here.

In Castlebay, I take a boat trip out to Kisimul Castle, which stands on a rock in the middle of the bay, before we lunch on excellent curry in Café Kisimul and do some food shopping. On the west coast, we stay at Wavecrest Campsite, a flowery field beside a bay where seals bob and terns dive.

The owner is very chatty when he calls after finishing his shift on the Eriskay ferry.

Wavecrest is on the edge of Borve, a typical crofting township that is a scatter of grey and white single-storey houses, spread across a green landscape like building bricks randomly scattered by a child’s hand.

Post and wire fences mark the long rectangles of individually owned crofts, rising in parallel lines from the dunes up to the hills. The delicate machair and the rough hills of rock and peat are unfenced common grazing, where each crofter is allowed a certain number of livestock. No one makes a living from crofting, but it is a way of life.

Barra's beach airport

At low tide, the largest shell sand beach on Barra – Tràigh Mhòr – dazzles white in the sunshine. Wind socks flying at either end denote that it has become the runway for the island’s airport for an hour or two.

We arrive in time to see a Twin Otter landing in a plume of spray. The changeover of passengers and baggage is quickly accomplished, then the engines are restarted by hook-up to a battery in a wheelbarrow. After the aircraft takes off over our heads, yellow-jacketed men remove the windsocks and the beach is open again.

 

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Barra and Eriskay

At Eoligarry, in the north of Barra, I walk up a hill behind the campsite for a fabulous view over uninhabited islands to Eriskay and South Uist.

We pay a visit to ancient St Barr’s Church, where Compton Mackenzie, the author of Whisky Galore, is buried in the churchyard. A corncrake walks across the road on our way to the pier, where Ronald cheerily greets us as we board the ferry to Eriskay. We spend the short journey on deck watching seabirds.

Eriskay is just the right size to be a fictional island. From the top of its high point, Beinn Sciathan, the eye can encompass its whole extent – rough headlands, white sand beaches and scattered houses.

Off the beaten track

The spine road up the islands was routed through here in 2002, with a ferry pier in the south and causeway in the north.

Before that, Eriskay was hard to reach; a half-forgotten place on the edge of imagination. No wonder when the SS Politician ran aground it took a while for the authorities to react to stories of locals salvaging cases of whisky from the wreck. The event offered Compton Mackenzie a rich vein of myth and reality around which to weave his comic novel Whisky Galore.

From the hill’s summit we make a direct descent to the village, eyes fixed on Eriskay’s pub, Am Politician. Its modern exterior belies the fact that behind the bar is an original bottle containing whisky from the shipwreck. We lunch here and read information on the walls about the dramatic events that unfolded on a stormy night in February 1941.

On to Uist and Benbecula

South Uist is a long island with contrasting east and west coasts, both of which we explore. In the centre, Kildonan Museum gives us a fascinating insight into crofting, local crafts and many aspects of island life, as well as Prince Charlie’s travels around the Uists.

He landed on Eriskay in 1745 and returned in 1746 after his unsuccessful campaign to reclaim the throne for the Stuarts. He dodged government troops for two months before escaping ‘over the sea to Skye’ with Flora MacDonald.

Orasaigh, a tidal island

In the west we walk out to Orasaigh (Orosay), one of many tidal islands with the same name. At low tide we stroll across firm sand, strewn with vivid pink and green seaweeds. Smart ringed plovers and black-chested dunlins poke for food around the wrack-covered rocks, while brown female eider ducks and their tiny fluffy chicks bob on the edge of the sea.

At the foot of the hillock, redshanks and oystercatchers rise out of the thick vegetation and make warning passes low over us. From the isle’s grassy twin summits, barely 30m high, we can see for miles across the flat coastal plain to the rough dark hills guarding the east coast.

By contrast, the road past the RSPB reserve at Loch Druidibeg to Loch Sgioport, on the eastern seaboard, winds over rock-strewn moorland. We see several birds of prey – hen harrier, kestrel, short-eared owl and distant eagle – and have close encounters with free-roaming Shetland ponies.

Beautiful Benbecula

A causeway leads us onto the next island, Benbecula, where I climb Ruabhal, its highest hill. A polka-dot landscape of moorland and lochans stretches to a crumpled coastline sprinkled with islands. It’s difficult to see where fresh water gives way to salt, except in the north where a great extent of wet sand between Benbecula and North Uist catches the light.

North Uist

Another causeway carries us onto North Uist, where we stay at a peaceful campsite on Balranald RSPB reserve. Two large lapwing chicks search for insects just behind our back door.

On the waymarked walk around the reserve we have close views of oystercatchers, ringed plovers, dunlins and arctic terns. Inland, we see more hen harriers and a short-eared owl hunting.

Further north, we search for the extremely rare Hebridean orchid that only grows on North Uist. It looks similar to the early and northern marsh orchids, which we have been seeing in vast carpets, but has large, purple markings on its leaves. We get wet feet fording a stream, but eventually find Hebridean marsh-orchids in flower. 

Exploring Harris and Lewis

To reach Harris and Lewis, two large islands that share the same land mass but are separated by mountains, we drive onto Berneray for an hour’s ferry journey to Leverburgh.

In the southeast of Harris we visit the historic church in Rodel, which was built for the MacLeod chiefs in the 1500s. Further into the interior we wander through a world of rock and bog, stepping between the flowers of insectivorous sundew and butterwort. It feels as if we are walking on the bare bones of the land as we follow a rib of stone that outcrops between water lily pools.

The west coast of Harris is totally different to the east, with vast beaches backed by dunes and flowery machair. We take our time to explore, starting with a spectacular walk at Northton, followed by coffee and cake at Temple Café and a visit to Seallam! Visitor Centre.

The centre has fascinating genealogical and cultural interpretation, including an exhibition about St Kilda.

Many large estates on the islands are now in community ownership and we are grateful to both West Harris and North Harris Trusts for the facilities they provide.

Wild camping at Seilebost School

We stay at one of the signed wild camping spots on the Luskentyre road and on a pitch at Seilebost School, where we add frog orchids and numerous golden plovers to our wildlife list. Seilebost, Luskentyre and Huisinis all have world-famous beaches, where the retreating tide leaves behind acres of dazzling sand.

On our hottest day, we walk from Miabhag on the Hushinish road up an impressive valley to an eagle-watching hide, where we see a golden eagle circle a few times before soaring down the valley. Sea eagles are also often seen here. The surrounding Harris hills look magnificent, but we are running out of time and still have Lewis, the largest island, to explore.

Shopping at Stornoway

We visit Stornoway to resupply and have a quick look at Lews Castle. Built for Sir James Matheson, who bought the whole of Lewis in 1844, it gives us a flavour of how the aristocracy lived.

Then we head west and up the coast, visiting several tourist sites, starting with Callanish Standing Stones, Scotland’s equivalent of Stonehenge. Next comes the Iron Age fortress of Carloway Broch and a restored Norse mill and kiln.

We also explore Gearrannan Blackhouse Village and the Blackhouse at Arnol, where a smoky peat fire is burning in the middle of the floor. So many eras of history, from prehistoric monuments to traditional homes, are preserved in the distinctive local stone. Lewisian gneiss, with its pink, white and grey swirly patterns, is one of the oldest rocks on earth.

Exploring Lewis on foot

We complete our trip with a walk around the northernmost tip of Lewis from Ness. The distinctive smell of guano blows up over the clifftops, alerting us to a seabird colony before we gain a view down to white-streaked ledges, crowded with tiers of guillemots and kittiwakes.

Closer to, pairs of fulmars croak excitedly and jostle their tubenose beaks together in greeting when one returns to the nest.

The cliffs grow higher and the sea wilder as we approach the apex of our journey – the Butt of Lewis Lighthouse. Here, on the brink of the vast Atlantic Ocean, we reflect on our journey.

With non-intensive farming, both nature and people seem to be thriving on the islands, especially since many communities now own their own land and are building houses to reverse the long-standing decline in population.

The wildlife has been abundant; so many wildflowers and different species of bird, as well as porpoises and dolphins that we’ve seen from the ferries. We’ve loved our time here and hope to return one day.

 

Plan Your Campervan Trip

The Outer Hebrides leaflet ‘Guide for caravans, campervans and motorhomes’ is absolutely invaluable. It includes places to stay, where to find fuel, chemical waste disposal and showers as well as tips for driving on single-tracks roads and advice for wild camping, for example:  visitouterhebrides.co.uk/planning-your-trip/motorhomes

Find places to stay on Harris
westharristrust.org/camping
north-harris.org

The various Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac) Hopscotch tickets cover all permutations of ferries out to and around the islands. They have the advantage that you can book all the days and times of travel in one go and know your place is reserved on those sailings.

On board you can take dogs onto decks and into designated lounges, but not into the restaurants:  calmac.co.uk

We travelled with a full tank of gas then refilled at the only LPG pump in the Outer Hebrides, at Campbell’s Service Station, Cannery Road, Stornoway, Isle of Lewis HS1 2SF  01851 702127

Gaelic is the first language of many islanders, although everyone speaks English. Road signs generally have the Gaelic first in large print followed by the English versions. In Gaelic ‘bh’ and ‘mh’ are normally pronounced as a ‘y’, the common ‘aigh’ ending as ‘ay’ and ’s’ as ‘sh’

 

We stayed at

Vatersay Hall Cafe
Isle of Vatersay HS9 5YW 

Wavecrest Campsite
Borve, Isle of Barra HS9 5XR
wavecrestcampsite.co.uk

Croft No 2 Camping and Caravanning Club Certificated Site
Scurrival Point, 2a Eoligarry, Isle of Barra HS9 5YD
campingandcaravanningclub.co.uk

Balranald Hebridean Holidays
Houghharry, North Uist HS6 5DL
balranaldhebrideanholidays.com

Clachan Sands
Port nan Long Isle of North Uist HS6 5AY
(Keep driving on track past the cemetery)

Seilebost School
Seilebost, Isle Of Harris HS3 3HP
westharristrust.org

West Harris camping spot on Luskentyre road
westharristrust.org

Eilean Fraoich Camp Site
North Shawbost, Isle of Lewis HS2 9BQ
eileanfraoich.co.uk

 

Our campervan

Citroën Relay LWB named Stella, with a 2.2-litre engine and six-speed gearbox

Conversion type: WildAx Constellation 3, by Yorkshire-based WildAx  wildaxmotorhomes.com
Owned: since 2015 (from new)
Layout: Front lounge
Travel seats/berths: 3/2
What we love about it: Stella is big enough to have all the home comforts we need for longer trips but still small enough to take on narrow single-track country lanes, so it is the perfect go-anywhere campervan!

This trip took place prior to the coronavirus pandemic. We are publishing it for your enjoyment and to help you plan your future trips. Read the latest camping travel advice here.


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