This adventure started off with a peculiar van camp somewhere in the backstreets of Paisley followed by an early airport shout for our flight to Stornoway.
The plan is to fastpack (run/hike with all our gear) the Hebridean Way from north to south - Stornoway to Vatersay. The usual route is south to north but my folks live in Barra so it makes sense for Anya and I to do it this way and have a few days rest in Barra afterwards.
I made a wee bit of a mess organising a gas canister for our Jetboil but the incredibly nice people at Store 67 in Stornoway agreed to open the shop early for us. So, following a routine flight to Stornoway our pre-booked taxi took us to Store 67 where we also decided to buy a couple of midgie hoods. Top move! Reports of midgie action were rife and fully substantiated both by anyone we spoke to and latterly, ourselves. We also topped up our water bottles at the water fountain and then headed over to Lews Castle and the start of the Hebridean Way (via a short faff trying to find the proper start point).
My kit weighed about 8kg, Anya’s about 5.5kg.
Kit content vague specifics(!):
Mine - tent, sleeping bag, mat, 1 spare long sleeve top, waterproof trousers, waterproof jacket, warm hat, gloves, spare underwear(1 of each), jetfoil and coffee, a couple of Firepot meals, pooh shovel, 2x500ml water bottles, phone, solar panel for charging, various cables, running poles. 8kg in a Salomon 30l pack
Anya’s - similar clothing options, sleeping bag, mat, first aid kit, 2xFirepot meals, creams, lotions, toothpaste. I’ve probably missed a few things. About 5.5kg squeezed into a 12l Salomon bag.
We both carried Alpkit waterproof covers for our bags.
We were also both wearing our short sleeve merino Loom tops which stayed on for the duration with a long sleeve option packed. The Loomi merino tops were invaluable, giving warmth and stability of body temperature while also being quick drying and eliminating chafing.
For nutrition we had some pre-made UCAN gel sachets, selection of nuts, a couple of veloforte bars and some other bits and bobs. Not much!
The first 9 miles of the route were on tarmac, the weather was cosy, no wind and only a few clouds in the sky. Neither of us like the road that much so it was a welcome sight to see the path leading off..into the peat bog. There is a lot of peat bog in Lewis, great for fuel, less good for efficient foot travel. The HW follows a path through the peat bog which, this year anyway, is occasionally dry but more often than not, squelchy. It’s been a wet summer throughout the Hebrides as we quickly found out. We moved reasonable well through it though and eventually came out on the road and found a wee coffee stop/art studio. We stopped for a very nice filter coffee and a top up of water before heading on again (the food options didn’t look great and we knew there was another option along the road). Further along we found another cafe where we sat in and scoffed a cracking bowl of sweet potato, carrot and coriander soup.
Our aim for the day was to get to Tarbert 40 miles in for a hot meal. Tomorrow being Sunday in the northern islands we knew everything would be closed and we would be reliant on our own rations.
There was a bit of road in front of us followed by more peat bog, forest and a long section of duckboards. The poles finally came out once off the peat bog and heading into the forest section. Crossing into Harris the weather turned a little, sky darkened and some rain clouds came in. We were both really looking forward to seeing the hills of Harris and some of the fantastic views but unfortunately this was a bit restricted and the going was getting tough. Rain jackets on and poles out we got climbing. After a while it wasn’t just our feet that were soaking. The climbs were wet but rewarding, the descents equally so and as we were a few miles out of Tarbert and heading along a lochside trail we started to entertain the idea of finding a bed for the night rather than camping. Our spirits weren’t dampened, though. Just our clothes. Actually, although our merino socks were wet, our feet were not cold and our Loomi merino short sleeve tops under our waterproof jackets kept us insulated.
After another couple of miles on the road we arrived in Tarbert and found the Hebridean Hotel. They even allowed us in! Surprisingly our appetites were not huge and although the food was nothing to write home about it did satisfy, as did the beer.
Unfortunately there was no room at the Inn, or the other Inn or the Hostel (might actually have been room at the hostel but the lady couldn’t come down to check us in!). So the barman in the pub directed us to a (long) grassy spot up by the post office to pitch our tent. Midgie hoods and head torches on we popped up the tent, set the alarm and crashed out.
Waking up in the middle of Tarbert on a misty Sunday morning we packed up a wet tent, put on our wet socks and shoes and stood at the bus stop in our midgie hoods to eat breakfast. The Jetboil was brilliant and o was able to make decent coffee (absolute essential!) and some tasty Firepot porridge. We then set off a little later than planned with the hope of catching the ferry later in the day to Berneray from Leverburgh.
The going was fine initially, some hilly trail, some road, some bog. I had to keep stopping to check the map and my watch died. I was carrying a solar panel to charge phone and watch but there was no sunlight getting through. I also made the mistake of following the gpx file on my watch the previous day which drained the battery. Switching to the guide book map meant frequent stops to double check. One big mistake was not having a way to access the map via a front pocket. The HW is well signposted but there are times when it’s confusing, there may be alternative routes or you just can’t find a post!
After a slog along Coffin road we made it down to Seilebost and after checking watches and map we realised we weren’t going to make the early ferry, which was our ideal choice for getting to Lochmaddy in North Uist that evening and the possibility of a hot meal. Berneray to Lochmaddy would be another 10 miles on boggy trail and hills.
The next section from Seilebost took us straight up a hillside and then around the hill. The going was tough: wet bog, heather, very indistinct path and posts that were difficult to spot and follow. It was slow going and we still had a lot of this terrain to go. It was looking increasingly unlikely that we would make it to any ferry today once we saw where the route was taking us and the weather conditions.
Anya and I reminded ourselves that this is our holiday, we’re supposed to be having fun! This is where our trip took a deviation and we made our way down to the road for a quicker route to the ferry. Both of us felt entirely happy about this decision and our moods lifted.
With some assistance from local legend, John we got to Leverburgh just before the 14:45 ferry was due to leave, only it wasn’t there. Amended timetable due to tidal conditions meant the only ferry coming was at 17:45. This would get to Berneray too late for us to then head off towards Lochmaddy with any hope of us getting there in time for food. So, we took the opportunity first to dry off our tent and some of our clothes before getting on the ferry to Berneray then crossing the causeway into North Uist and finding a beautiful camping spot for the night.
Waking up fresh in North Uist we headed off early after some coffee and a quick pack. As we began to climb the first hill we saw plenty of deer and caught some amazing views coming round and over the hill. So many wee lochans that we skirted around, crossing duckboards and squelching round paths that navigated us through. The day was warming up and we found ourselves using up our water supply. As we neared Lochmaddy we came across some builders working on building who had access to water and let us fill our bottles. We then decided to take a diversion into Lochmaddy itself for a quick shop - we had very little in the way of supplies and so were needing snack and lunch options for later in the day. We stocked up in the shop and found out the hotel was open for teas and coffees. Reluctantly (at least I was) we tramped down the road to the hotel which was actually doing all sorts of breakfast options = massive result! We took the opportunity to fill our bellies before once again trudging off in what was becoming beautiful sunshine. This is when the weather really turned, the sun splitting the sky.
Unfortunately we had quite a bit of road to follow which we added to with a slight mistake - a little extra distance but we did manage to guzzle water and fill our bottles at a tap by a fish factory!
The heat of the day was beginning to get to us as we made our way to the coast, via a lovely wee hill diversion and more road. Some of the coastal pathways were tricky through long grass and narrow, sketchy paths. The beaches and views were stunning but we did end up with a bit of a death march towards Creagorry in Benbecula.
We came up a little short, fatigue taking it’s toll and leading us to a patch of grass just off the beach about a half mile before Creagorry village, just next to the proper campsite. Both of us had gone through 4-5 litres of water that day.
We put the tent up in minutes and dived in out of the way of the midges. If you stopped for more than a few seconds they all came to say hello with their pals and family members. Turns out it was also a popular spot for dog walkers! We settled in quickly, though. Jetfoil on for our Firepots and a drink, heads down and kip. I ended up lying awake for about an hour just listening to the sounds around.
Another early start, we headed through Creagorry and found the Coop just opening up. The sign said it opened at 7am, my watch said 6:59! Breakfast of banana (eaten while the nice sales assistant went off to fill our water bottles) and yoghurt pots before heading out and crossing the causeway to South Uist. Our last big day and our intention was to get to Eriskay for the ferry to Barra and complete the Barra-Vatersay section the next day after a rest at my parents’ house. There was a ferry due at 4.35pm and one at 6.30pm.
It was another hot and still blue sky day, the likes you don’t really see that often in these islands, particularly not in 2022! There were also quite a few road miles to get through. The first handful of steps I took to start running had become quite painful due to bounce and the impact at the base of my spine, once moving it was slightly better!
At one point early on the route took us off the main drag, onto a firebrick through a windfarm before leading us across some boggy machair in a giant loop and back onto the road about a mile up from where we left it. We looked longingly at the hills thinking that would be interesting and provide some view but no, back to the road we go.
At some point the way took us tantalisingly close to the beach and coastline, which we then followed for many miles without seeing the sea! We could, however see Barra and even further to Mingulay and it seemed like we were inching closer. Timewise it looked tight for the 4.35 ferry but I was starting to imagine a seat and a pint in the Am Politician in Eriskay. The golf course in Askernish provided some cold lemonade, tonic water and crisps before getting back out again. This really invigorated both of us, it was hard now but we knew it was a last push, tomorrow would be an easy joggle!
As we crossed the causeway from South Uist to Eriskay we could see the ferry coming over from Barra. Coming into Eriskay village Anya said “ I think we can make it to this ferry” and she fully intended to try, suggesting that it will probably wait when they see us running. Personally, I fancied a pint and a chill out in the pub before getting the later ferry. So that’s what we did!
Picked up by my Mum from the ferry in Ardmhor, Barra we headed to their house in Glen for the night.
After a good meal and restful night we popped down to Castlebay to get the bus to Ardmhor where we could continue from.
Another beautiful day, this time we had 1 very light pack between us and so we skipped along nae bother. Headed out towards Traigh Mhor, up left and over the hill to Northbay, Loch an Duin. Inland from there and over to Borve, over to Tangasdale, up and over Beinn Tangabhal, down to the Vatersay causeway and from there follow the road round to Vatersay village and the end of the Hebridean Way.
An amazing way to end a pretty special journey.