Hiking the Hebridean Way – Part 1

On the Hebridean Way

As mentioned in the diary of my Black Forest hike (Schluchtensteig), I had planned to hike across the Outer Hebrides for a while, but the pandemic got in the way. Last year (2022) I was finally able to put my plan into action and trekked across the Scottish isles. As usual I kept a daily journal in the form of emails to friends and relatives, and I want to share that diary here along with some of the beautiful images I took on the hike. This time I want to share my experiences with my English-speaking friends as well, and will therefore translate my daily notes.

The Hebridean Way

Ever since my first multi-day hike on the British Isles I’ve booked my travels through Let’s Go Walking, a small British holiday company. Don’t let the 90s vibe of the website fool you – they offer excellent service and are supremely reliable! I regularly browse their available hikes and was thrilled when they added the multi-day Hebridean Way across the Outer Hebrides a few years back.

It is a long hike, my longest yet. The walking route is almost 160 miles, reaching from Vatersay in the south all the way to Stornoway on Lewis. Due to the northern latitudes and maritime climate, the weather is ever changeable and can be stormy, wet and cold even in summer. But I’ve been lucky with my hikes on Scotland so far and am ready to trust my luck and preparedness on this one.

The trains have brought me through the chunnel to York, where I spent a couple days with friends, and then onward to Glasgow, from where I fly out to the islands.

The plan is to hike the route in 13 days with a two-day stopover in Leverburgh for a trip to the Atlantic isle of St Kilda and probably some much needed rest. All my accommodations have been booked by Lets Go Walking and I have a detailed itinerary with several pickups and ferry crossings along the way. What can possibly go wrong?

Day 0 – Arrival on Barra

Images of the Day (on Google Photos)

View from Hillside B&B in Castlebay

I’m sitting in my Hillside B&B in Castlebay and am enjoying the view over the bay and the sea below as I write this. Yes, I’ve arrived on the Outer Hebrides and it was an exciting trip. As planned the airport was only a short bus drive away from by AirB&B in Paisley. Since my flight wasn’t until 1:20pm I had plenty of time to kill, not an easy task on a small airport like Glasgow’s.

Somehow I manage until flight Logan Air 0455 to Barra gets its gate ancouncement (Gate 1, is there any other?). It’s at ground level and through the big glass doors I can see a propeller plane waiting. Not exactly big, but I thought it would be even smaller when reading about the flight. As the waiting area fills up my doubts increase. There are at least 40 passengers. Didn’t it say the the plane to Barra carried 20 people max? Am I at the wrong gate? But no, as it happens the gate serves two flights at once, Barra being only one. As we board and turn a corner, I get to see our plane (a Twin Otter). Yes, this is the expected size!

A de Havilland Canada Twin Otter will be taking us to Barra.
View of the Cockpit from my seat.

It’s the first for me in a plane where I …

  • can’t stand upright,
  • can see through the cockpit window from my seat,
  • and the copilot tells me: “If you need something, come to the front and tap me on the shoulder.”

Flying is fun this way, even if it is pretty noisy and neither food nor drinks are served. Which I really don’t need on an hour-long flight anyway. Instead there are amazing views over many places I have already visited (Arran, Islay, Jury, Loch Lomond), as well as many I haven’t (Isle of Mull, Skye, Colonsay). I press my nose against the window and have to be careful not to strain my neck with all the things I try to see. The wind and the plane’s movement is very noticeable, making the flight a very physical experience, which I quite enjoy.

Suddenly we are approaching our destination already and the copilot tells us what we might see dolphins below if we’re lucky. We’re not lucky that way, but the landing is smooth. For a moment I had forgotten that the runway on Barra is the beach, and for a split second I am surprised as the white sand appears right below us.

The runway of Barra airport.

But right, you can land here only at low tide! It’s funny to walk across the beach towards the “airport”. We don’t even go inside as a pick-up fetches the luggage of us 9 passengers and deposits under an awning. And there is “Dan’s Taxi” which is supposed to bring me to Castlebay and my lodging.

Driving to Castlebay

The driver – as it happens Dan himself – is an older, somewhat gnarly gentleman, who practically has “islander” written across his brow. While we tootle along the tiny ring road on the east side of the island (“You’ll be walking the west side tomorrow.”) we chat a bit and Dan tells me about his time (“before the big container ships”) in the merchant marine. He’s got nice memories of the crew of the German freighter “Dortmund” and the Christmas they spent together at anchor somewhere in Indonesia.

My question of where I can get something to eat tonight gets answered by anotehr question: “Haven’t you reserved something? It gets very busy.” Oh? It doesn’t look busy at all, but then there are not many places offering anything of course. Dan’s son runs the Cragaird Hotel in Castlebay and he offers to phone him up to check, but either the mobile connect or nobody answers at the moment. Island life.

Castlebay with bay and castle.
The village.

But no matter, the hotel is very close to my B&B (everything is close to everything in Castlebay, or on Barra for that matter), and I can always stop by later to ask for a table (spoiler alert: I did get one). At Hillside B&B I get a warm welcome by Doreen and the usual initiation into the intricate details of the B&B experience: Breakfast, Keys, Bathroom, etc. I immediately feel comfortable and relaxed. And there’s some homemade shortbread next to the bed. Yum, it doesn’t last long at all.

It’s time for a leisurely stroll through Castlebay and admire the bay. The little castle on the rocky island is unfortunately not open to visitors, but it’s great as part of the scenery as well. Due to Castlebay’s size (or lack there of) the stroll turns out to be a short one and I have time for a quick nap before I sit down to pen these lines. I’ll head over to the hotel for dinner in a moment, sort and upload the day’s photos afterwards and then sent out the journal. Enjoy!

View of Castlebay with the ferry arrived.

Day 1 – From Vatersay to Ardhmoor

Images of the Day (on Google Photos)

Vatersay beach
Tall ship

Here we go, the big hike starts today. After my first true “full English breakfast” on this journey I’m standing ready and on time at 9.30 to be picked up by Dan and brought over to Vatersay where the Hebridean Way starts. Vatersay is a smaller island south of Barra, but the two are connected with a causeway (built so the cattle didn’t have to swim the straight anymore). I get Dan to drop me off a little south of the trail head, so I can include Vatersay’s beautiful white beach in the hike. My plan to milk this day of all it is worth, because the weather forecast for tomorrow isn’t all that nice anymore. But today it’s supposed to be dry with some sunny stretches later in the day.

A delightful tall ship is lying at anchor in Vatersay Bay, improving the already gorgeous scenery. As if specifically setup for the start of my hike! A short distance beyond the beach I can view the wreck (more like a few pieces of debris) of a WW2 seaplane (a Catalina) that crashed here in 1944. The torn and bleached pieces of fuselage still lie where they fell back then and only a small memorial explains the wreck. Only in a remote place like this can you leave a site like this.

Sign to the Causeway.

On Vatersay the trail follows the road (there is only the one) and its takes me along the east coast back towards Barra. It is pretty cloudy, but the sea is beautiful anyway. I reach the causeway over to Barra. It’s not especially long or impressive looking, but as Dan told me during the drive the channel was actually very deep with strong tides, making the construction a major undertaking.

On Barra I finally get to leave the tarmac und climb into the hills through settlement ruins reaching back into the stone age. Climb? Yes, climb. Barra has some quite steep hills (this one goes up to 300m), and damn, this ascent has teeth. I struggle up the path through grass and peat, but am rewarded with wonderful views back to Vatersay and across the southern end of the Outer Hebrides. I reach the first summit and the views swivel north and west. Hello, open Atlantic! The descent on the other side is even steeper. It wasn’t quite 300m as I didn’t go up to the top of the hill, but the 276m I did are not to be scoffed up, if you start at sea height.

The view south
Sign post on the path

I therefore do feel my knees a bit, and hope it won’t get worse, especially since the path alternates between rocky and swampy and isn’t exactly easy. I reach the west coast of the island and meet the only other hikers I’m gonna see all day. They are not multi-day hikers though and and only doing a day tour around the south end of Barra.

I pass another brilliant-white beach, the location of the “Isle of Barra Beach Hotel”. I had spotted the big building from miles away and hoped for a cafe or something. But there’s nothing of the sort, only “Private Parking” and deliberate remoteness. No one’s expecting a hiker or backpacker here. In fact so far the Outer Hebrides don’t appear as a popular hiker’s destination yet. No surprise really, as the Hebridean Way only opened in 2017, and there is still a lack of affordable lodging along the way.

On the other hand it is pretty well sign-posted, with signs at all important junctions and posts otherwise, which show you the route. They are set up so you can always see the next one from a post (which works MOST of the time), since the trail itself is not always obvious on the pastures and the moor.

The west coast with the Island of Barra Beach Hotel
Hills and sheep

After a little while on the coast, the posts lead me back into the interior and up the hills again. But the uphill going isn’t so bad this time and I don’t reach the same elevation either. At the top I get an amazing panoramic view of the east coast of Barra. Slowly and leisurely the path descends on the other side until I reach the road at the small reservoir of of Loch An Duin. If I’d follow this road, I’d soon reach the Hotel Heathbank where I could grab something to eat and drink and wait for Dan to pick me up. But the trail still goes on, crossing another ridge of hills towards the airport, at least another hour. I am tempted for a moment to take the short cut and give in to convenience … but no, it’s gotta be the whole thing.

So I take another deep breath and climb up again. Actually, the third climb is the easiest of the day and I get rewarded spectacularly. The sun is breaking through the clouds and a breath-taking view opens up across the sound of Barra, the waters between the islands of Barra, Eriskay and South Uist. I’ll cross it tomorrow on the ferry. The sea is caribbean in its color, just like in the travel brochures, the beaches gleaming white, and it is a joy to wander down towards them.

The sound of Barra
Reward in Castlebay

For once the signposting fails me and even leads me astray from my GPS track, so that I stray to far north, towards the airport (which you can see wonderfully from here). In the end I have to climb over a sheep fence to get on the road and follow it back quite a while to get today’s endpoint. There’s only time for a small glass of cider at the Heathbank Hotel before Dan shows up and taxis me back to Castlebay. He’s gonna pick me up tomorrow for the last time and get me to the ferry at 8:30.

Back in Barra I reserve a table at Kisimul CafĂ©. the latest and most interesting restaurant in Castlebay. They do regional and Indian fusion cooking and it’s so popular I only get a spot outside at 8:15. By then it’s gotten pretty chilly actually, so that while I still enjoy the Monkfish Madras-style immensely, I don’t linger for a dessert afterwards. But I did have an excellent Coast to Coast Pale Ale. After a quick stop at the local co-op for tomorrow’s trail rations, it’s back to the B&B to write my journal. As I’ve completed that now it’s 10:15 and almost time for bed, a day’s hiking does make you tired! Good night and fingers crossed the next days won’t get too wet.

Evening in Castlebay
The day’s route.

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