Vatersay, the southernmost island of the Outer Hebrides or “Western Isles”, is the starting point for hiking the Hebridean Way which will lead us over all the ten Outer Hebridean Islands to the regional capital of Stornoway. Causeways connect some of the islands, like the first stage’s small islands of Vatersay and Barra. Between others, local ferries operate, and the total hiking distance is about 250 km.
On our way to the Outer Hebrides on the very outskirts of Europe, we look back from the Castlebay ferry onto the harbour of Oban. People are sitting outside and enjoying a rare spell of May sun – it will be the largest number of people we are to see for a while. Our destination, Castlebay, is a tiny village huddled around the harbour, with a ruined castle on an island rock in the bay, indeed. From there we walk on for two more hours over empty coastal roads to the even lonelier island of Vatersay.
Wild camping on the Hebridean Way
Early the next day we meet the two other hikers who had been with us on the ferry and plan to hike the Hebridean way. Both hurry off with little luggage to reach the evening ferry leaving Barra in order to make it to their next accommodation. Especially on the southern part of the trail, accommodation options are sparse and timing the hike with the ferry departures is essential. We are less pressed for time as we have brought a comfortable tent and might camp anywhere. We even take the opportunity for a coffee break at the spectacularly situated Beach Hotel although it’s not even twelve when we pass “Britain’s westernmost bar”. It’s the only option to sit indoors for today, and in spite of relatively friendly weather the wind is relentless.
Hebridean hiking companion: the wind!
We had decided to hike, like most people do and the guidebooks recommend, from Vatersay in the south to Stornoway in the north, because that’s supposed to be downwind. And that can be quite relevant for walking, considering the high wind speeds on the Hebrideans. Just this year, however, we hit a week with cold wind coming from the north. Which also means that the rain hits our faces directly – and it starts raining soon, and often, sometimes changing into hail.
That day we still do make it to the ferry from Barra to Eriskay, and camp on the beach near the Eriskay ferry. There even is a HOT (!) coin shower inside the ferry terminal! When we pass Eriskay village in the morning, we can stock up on food in the community store before moving on over a causeway to South Uist.
After some hills and windswept, pathless moors on Barra the day before, South Uist appears almost civilised. We walk along the long, sandy beach or on agricultural paths in the Machair, a low-lying, fertile strip of land. Whenever we meet someone, they invariably stop for a chat. That happens only twice a day or so, anyway. And luckily one of them confirms that we can get water in St Mary’s church a few kilometres down the road (we would have been in trouble otherwise).
Later, hiking through the magical landscape of Loch Druidibeag, we don’t see any druids, but a couple of eagles above us. Later, in a different moor far away from everything, we even disturb a plump bird which we figure is one of the rare and shy cornrakes.
How we do it on the Western Isles!
We are the only passengers. Rain and wind is hitting the bus, and the driver’s radio is yelling “That’s how we do it on the Western Isles” by Peat and Diesel (we bought it later!). We are skipping a few stages of the northern part since we don’t have time for hiking the whole Hebridean Way. For this day we were planning to walk only a particularly exposed peat bog between Laxay and Achamore. But should we really do that in this storm? Eventually we get off anyway, then get lost in the moor for a while, and get very wet and cold – but it was one of the most exciting and memorable days of a very exciting and memorable hiking trip.
In spite of the rain, the hail and the thin ice sheet on the tent at night, in spite of the constant wind and the fact that Natascha hates wind, in spite of the full day it takes to reach a larger city or an international airport, we briefly toyed with the idea of moving to the Outer Hebrides after that hike. Both the landscape and the weather are so intense and expressive that the week felt like a constant crescendo. But, of course, there must be a downside… The winters, the loneliness, and more.
“I never lock my car or my house, this being such a small and close-knit community. But – you would need getting used to the fact that everybody knows everything about you, and they talk about it constantly,”
a local woman who gave us lift explained. In the end we decided against the Western Isles as a living place – but we will be back for sure. Maybe even this summer, once Britain lifts the travel restrictions.
What you need to know for hiking the Hebridean Way
Best time to hike: In theory, the Hebridean Way is walkable year-round. You will encounter strong wind and rain pretty much every time of the year. Avoid summer due to the midges – although some people said because of the wind they are less of a nuisance than on the mainland.
Accommodation: We took a tent and a stove and were very happy with this decision. If you have to rely on accommodation and cafés/restaurants, the hike requires a lot of planning and pre-booking.
Guidebooks: We used the Cicerone Hiking guide “Walking the Hebridean Way” that not only has useful maps and trail descriptions but also good information about flora and fauna. Additionally we had bought the Bradt Guide “Outer Hebrides” which gives more details about history and society on the western Isles. We used it for some days of sightseeing north of Stornoway after the hike.
Reading: If you like crime novels, try the Hebridean trilogy by Peter May.
NB: Our hiking trip to the Hebridean islands was not sponsored in any way and all expenses were paid by ourselves.