Red Seas: Wild Camping in the Outer Hebrides

We were really excited to hear from Red Seas, a couple from Scotland who “have decided to sell everything, buy a boat and go where the wind takes them.” Follow them on their voyage on their Facebook and Instagram accounts. You can also support their project here.

WILD CAMPING IN THE OUTER HEBRIDES

We have been fortunate enough to travel to many countries around the world, but there’s nothing like coming home to Scotland. With its misty mountains, beautiful lochs and stunning beaches, a stay-cation is every bit as memorable as travelling overseas and for a fraction of the cost. A couple of years ago, we decided to take the ultimate road trip: no fixed plan, no fixed route, just an open ferry ticket and a single goal – to get away.

We used a CalMac Ferries hopscotch ticket which gave us the freedom to take any ferry in and around the Outer Hebrides at any point within the next month. With a car load of camping gear (and a guitar), we set off from Glasgow to the edge of the world. First stop: Oban ferry terminal.

VATERSAY

Having sailed for 5 hours to Barra, we then drove down to Vatersay, the most southerly point in the Western Isles. Although we had been camping many times before, we were really keen to stick to the “wild side” of outdoor living so we found a pristine, remote beach and set up for the night in the dunes. Ten minutes in, and we’d already snapped a tent pole (!) but luckily a roll of gaffa tape came to the rescue and as we relocated to firmer ground, we set up a fire and reheated the spaghetti bolognaise we’d brought from home. With a community-run café and honesty-box shower and toilet a short walk up the road, we felt instantly welcomed by the locals (and excited that the reality of a picnic wee could wait until another day).

Waking up to the sound of the ocean and the light of the unusually warm sun on our faces set the tone for the rest of our trip. With the tent packed, we spent our first day hiking in the sunshine around the southern coast of Vatersay, looking out towards the spectacular views of the Isle of Sandray. As we reached a sandy beach, we were greeted by hundreds of highland cows wandering in the surf and sunbathing on the sands. A sight we will never forget!

BARRA

Connected by causeway, the next island in the chain is Barra. We felt like we’d hit the big city as we drove through the ferry port town of Castlebay, with its corner shop and houses with real actual people in them! Further north, we visited Barra’s famous airport, which only has one flight each day. We vowed to arrive by plane next time, just so that we could experience the sandy beach runway, the arrivals lounge that resembled a doctor’s waiting room and the single door that leads outside to “departures”.

ERISKAY

Some of the islands in the Outer Hebrides are linked together by bridges and causeways, allowing visitors to explore up and down at their own pace. At the top of Barra, however, it was time to take our first inter-island ferry to Eriskay. Our hopscotch tickets couldn’t be pre-booked onto certain sailings so each time we wanted to move on we had to hope that we’d get into the queue early enough to be allowed onboard. We managed to catch the last ferry of the day and arrived at the stony shores of Eriskay just before the sun set. In the morning, we made use of CalMac’s public toilet and shower to freshen up before heading north to explore the island.

SOUTH UIST

On South Uist, we felt the first drop of rainfall since we had arrived. Luckily, it only lasted ten minutes and didn’t dampen our spirits as we climbed Beinn Bheag Deas, a small hill overlooking Lochboisdale. In better weather, we would have been keen to climb Beinn Mhor, but there’s always a good excuse to return one day. Instead, we visited the stone statue ‘Our Lady of the Isles’ which was commissioned shortly after the Ministry of Defence built a missile testing range nearby, to remind residents and visitors of the island’s way of life, culture and language. Incredible views north to Benbecula and on to North Uist called us to drive on.

BENBECULA

This was the first island where we couldn’t find anywhere to sleep. We drove up and down the west coast, searching for suitable ground and ended up in a council estate. With no internet or phone signal available, we thought we’d read about a great place near a local arts café back down on South Uist so we retraced our steps and found ourselves driving in circles again. Giving up on that plan we headed north over the causeway once again, onto Benbecula. We found a campsite in the middle of the island, reluctantly paid our fees for a small patch of flat ground, and pitched our tent next to a Frenchman who was attempting the same journey as us on a push-scooter. He had a tiny, child-sized, flimsy tent which we helped him put up in the gale that was brewing, and retreated inside ours as the rains thundered down. In the middle of the night, as Iain made use of the campsite’s toilet block, he accidentally woke up our neighbour who had given up sleeping in his not-very-waterproof-tent and had instead moved into one of the toilet stalls of the concrete bathroom building!

GRIMSAY

Heading further north, towards North Uist, we drove through an island called Grimsay. Desperate to say we had visited every island in the Western Isles, we drove a complete circumference, but only found a small fishing port with a couple of boats and no one around. We’re still going to count it, though.

NORTH UIST

After the pristine beaches of the first couple of islands and then the rugged expanse of the last few, North Uist was a reminder of the diversity in the Outer Hebrides. Big, beautiful and full of surprises, we passed a few, busy campsites on our way to the Balranald Nature Reserve, where we set up our tent and had yet another perfect beach all to ourselves. It had become our routine to walk the length of the beach and get a feel for the place before settling in for the night, and with the tide out all the way, this was our favourite sunset stroll of the whole trip.

VALLAY

The next day we set out to explore the hidden Island of Vallay, our most treasured memory from the whole trip. We parked the car on the roadside just before low tide and walked out onto the 4 km sand bar. This long walk leads to the uninhabited island, with an abandoned Edwardian mansion and a path through the tall grass to a beach that closely resembles paradise on the other side. We spent an hour or so paddling, climbing on the rocks and marvelling at the white sands (that we are told have been used in tourist photos to promote travel to Thailand!). Without being able to see the tide coming in on the other side of the island, it was difficult to leave, but we were lucky we didn’t stay any longer as we were almost cut off and had to wade through a river that was already waist deep.

BERNERAY

As the evening sun began to draw in, we headed on up to Berneray to claim another few sandy beach walks before jumping on our next ferry.

SCALPAY

Often overlooked, Scalpay is a small island at the foot of Harris, with no beaches to paddle from, but is home to several local art shops and studios (where Gandalf’s cloak was made!). We enjoyed wandering around, past the old primary school in Ardinashaig and up a wee hill path with great views.

HARRIS

 

Back on Harris, we spent hours on Luskentyre Beach, the famous tourist hot spot in the summer months. The miles and miles of golden sands (and all the star fish we diligently saved) stood in stark contrast to the rugged mountains to the north. But as the landscape changed so dramatically from the islands to its south, our curiosity was ignited and we pushed on (and to our great surprise, bumped into our scootering French friend again, at the top of the mountain road!) 

The next day we pulled on our walking boots and set off up the Postman’s Path, a hill walk from Urgha to Rhenigadale which was used three times a week in the 1970s by the local postman who delivered mail on foot to the tiny coastal village before the road was built, connecting it to the rest of the island. As we ascended, the views grew more impressive and we were more than happy to eat our lunch at the summit with the sea surrounding us in almost every direction.

GREAT BERNERA

Our last small island of our trip, Great Bernera did not disappoint. We pitched our tent on a cliffside, among a flock of wild sheep. We lit our fire, overlooking yet another pristine beach with the remains of an iron age village just behind us. We awoke to an incredible sunrise and irresistible ocean colours, so we finally went for our first swim in the Atlantic waters. Having almost run out of food, we walked a few miles along the coastal path to the nearest shop, however, it was Sunday so everywhere was closed, leaving us to make do with a hot chocolate and cuppa soup for dinner!

LEWIS

We reached our final destination, the Isle of Lewis, which was much busier than we had expected but full of different landmarks and highlights to visit. From the archway made from a whale’s jawbone and the postbox that looks like a pineapple, to the blackhouse village and tweed workshops, there were many places not to miss. We spent a morning perusing Harris Tweed shops in Stornoway, an afternoon playing hide and seek around the Callanish standing stones and an evening dodging midgies at our friend’s “favourite beach” at Traigh Mhor. But as we reached the Butt of Lewis in the north, and laid eyes upon a lighthouse marking the most northerly point in the Outer Hebrides, Iain pulled out the stone he had carried with him from the beach on Vatersay, and threw it into the sea in celebration of the completion of this adventure. We had done it – 13 islands, 25 beaches and countless memories. And we can’t wait to make more!

For more photos from our trip, visit our Facebook/Instagram/Twitter: @realredseas

For more adventures, visit www.red-seas.com

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