2013 was the year that winter refused to end, even by late March, much of Britain especially the east coast, was in the grip of winter's icy hand. With cutting winds, constant snow flurries and sub zero temperatures, You would think the Outer Hebrides would be the last place on earth to go to 'get away from it all' and enjoy a Team holiday, yet that is precisely what we did!
I didn't feel particularly settled about travelling through the night but that was our only option if we were to catch the 9:00 a.m ferry from Uig on Skye to Lochmaddy on North Uist. Red Bull and adrenalin worked in concert to help me charter our path through the columns of the night. However there was one tangible intimidation that had me in bits to the extent of relinquishing my driving responsibilities and handing the keys over to Deb, a much more confident and competent driver, what was that? Peppered flecks of snow gradually became big woolly snow flakes that transformed the Scottish Lowlands into a pellucid theatre of white! Strangely enough, when we reached the West Highlands, around daybreak, everything was normal again, Skye looked like it hadn't seen snow for months.
There is certainly something exciting about visiting a Scottish island, it brings out that childish adventurous spirit lurking within us all. The Outer Island's command adventure. They exhibit a serene yet chaotic landscape, this is at least partly due to the complexity of it's geology and geography. It was my observation that each island has it's own 'bar code' even if linked by just half a mile of causeway, the next island can be a completely different personality from the one you've just left.
I'll never forget disembarking the ferry and driving on to Lochmaddy, we were expecting at the very least, a continuation of the world we had left behind, after all the Outer Hebrides form the last frontier against three thousand miles of Atlantic anger! But no, we were greeted by big blue skies, transient sunshine and only the slightest of breezes to ruffle the warm air. Life's focus softened, the instant our wheels made contact with the road that makes up the spine of the islands.
The palpable buzz of excitement both of us felt, we now know was due to being exposed to 'Hebridean Air'. What a pity it is that you can't bottle it up, bring it home with you and take the top off every now and again. Because of the 'Air' me and Deb were like a couple of excited kids on their first day out to the sea side. The car ground to a halt outside the first 'Hebridean' shop, Clachan Stores. We went in intent on buying ice creams but came out with Doritos. That's Hebridean Air!
|went in for Ice Creams come out with Doritos, clearly on Hebridean Air!|
Outside a group of men are huddled around a notice board, to be informed of the next Beetle Drive and to see how the council propose to handle the problem with the geese, oh the rigours of Island life. This reminded me of a couple of items I came across in the local paper, the appropriately named 'Island News'. In the first issue, front page news, a photograph of a grumpy faced Islander, showing to the world his 'scorched fence post' that was caused by the Muir Burning going slightly out of control! Things didn't get any better for these hardy souls, in the next issue, those erstwhile creatures, the Wild Deer, have taken to coming down off the hills and nibbling the local vegetable gardens! Our man on the ground said 'the deer were hard to locate'. I am at a loss as to why these headlines haven't made national news. In these days of terrorism, increased burglary and knife crime, we should maybe spare a thought for these poor Islanders who have to endure a more subtle form of persecution.
North Uist and Benbecula are in my opinion a bit of a much of a muchness, sure they have miles of Machair grassland , plenty of coves to expore and many 'brown' signs leading to things that I'm sure are heaped with significance but the treeless landscape and interminable acres of featureless peat bog, lack poetic substance. Everywhere there are gable ends and remains of old Blackhouses, a testimony to the fact it's never going to be easy to tame an untamed land!
|(Vatersay) Everywhere, gable ends... a testimony to the fact that it's not going to be easy to tame an untamed land|
The social minded nature of the Islanders soon began to emerge, I had an errand, to pass on the best wishes of one of my customers, George, a gregarious mildly eccentric 80 year old gentleman, to his cousin Jack who lives on Benbecula. They grew up as boys on a farm in Langworth in Lincolnshire but haven't seen each other for about 70 years! Any form of communication has been sporadic at best. The locating of the croft didn't turn out to be a problem, I popped into the local garage, which behind the windowless frontage turned out to be a well stocked grocers, asked the lady if she had heard of a Jack and Mavis Bradley. ''Och" she said as she threw her head back, " everybody on the whole Island has heard of Jack and Mavis Bradley!" She escorted me outside and with emphatic gestures pinpointed their croft. The Bradley's were the essence of friendliness and hospitality, a real fondness of strangers. We felt that we were not strangers but long awaited friends.
Gently and gradually, prosaic vistas returned as we crossed the causeway on to South Uist. Still flanked by machair and fringed by uninterrupted white sand but there were mountains on the east, in the foreground lies an expired tractor, in mimicry of those shatter diagrams found in Haynes manuals! A little further down the road, a very strange whitewashed building, what is this? An ammunition factory? It has no windows and no signs! Wonder of wonders, it's actually a very well stocked supermarket! Well I suppose the locals know where it is, they're certainly oblivious to tourism.
|A Uist Supermarket!|
|The Trolley Park!|
Our tired souls are rejuvenated as we crossed the causeway on to Eriskay. What a jewell of an island! Only three and a half miles long by two miles wide, fairly densely populated by Hebridean standards at one hundred and thirty three! Gaily painted cottages pepper the exposed headland whilst the two idyllic beaches scream out "there's nobody here". Our footprints punctured the soft wet sand on the West Beach as the ultramarine sea half heartedly tried to cover our tracks, gently lapping the shore. The backdrop was a deep blue sky reminiscent of a Japanese silk embroidery.
|reminiscent of a Japanese silk embroidery|
|Eriskay's sun drenched cottage dotted slopes|
|The Pier at Eriskay, Deb's favourite photo|
|Eriskay, West Beach|
Although Eriskay is one of the smallest populated Hebridean islands, it is perhaps the most widely known, this is due to Compton Mckenzie's book 'Whisky Galore' and the film of the same name. This is based on a true story, on September 5th 1941 the S.S Politician was bound for Jamaica from Liverpool with a cargo of Raleigh bikes, Havana cigars and forty thousand crates of whisky! To avoid Gerry they sneaked through the Minch but must have hit the last rock between this side of the Atlantic and New York harbour, spilling all it's precious cargo on to Eriskay beach! Some sources say that Jamaica would have been a safe haven for the Royal Family if Britain had lost the war. Conjures up sights in the mind of Charles and Camilla riding bikes through Kingston, Charles taking a draw on his cigar!
With whisky being in short supply, hence it was on ration, the Islanders must have been in Utopia as they took it upon themselves to recover as much of the precious cargo as they could. When the excise boys turned up, virtually everybody on the Island was drunk, you didn't have to be part of the Lightman Group to realise what was going on! Of course the wily Islanders were one step ahead of the game and stashed their quarry in the peat, to be retrieved as and when.
There is now a Pub on the Island, that could only be called The Politician, we visited it, here lies all that remains from the wreckage, a handful of Jamaican currency, a Porthole and their prized possession, three bottles of the original bottles of Whisky washed up on the beach! You can hold them in your hands. There they are in the photograph. Now it's time for a little bit of competition, I would like you to look closely at the photo. The question I would like to ask is, who took it? was it...
3. Prince Charles
4. The Ayah Tollah
|two of the three original whisky bottles|
As in previous blogs, to make it more interesting there is a prize!!!!!!!!!!
Third correct answer - A signed copy of my new book, How To Win at Clock Patience (foreword by
Second correct answer- S.A.S survival training with Andy Mcnab, at a wood near you ( must be on a
First correct answer - A Lisa Mitchell truffle selection and a signed copy of Rob Mitchell's new book
The Complete Guide To Secret Keeping.
On chatting to the Barman, who is also the local Postie, he pointed out a photo on the wall of a guy who bore a striking resemblance to Ned Divine, from the film Waking Ned. This wiry looking character apparently had a cache of Bottles, the whereabouts known only to himself but he made a solemn vow that he would reveal there precise location before he died. However death overtook him unexpectedly in the form of a heart attack! The upshot of the story being, those bottles are still out there somewhere. Incidentally two bottles have just been auctioned off for £10,000 each! Get digging Blogfans!
Well if Eriskay was a jewell, Barra was a diamond. It is often described as Barradise and Beautiful Barra and with good reason. As soon as we rolled off the ferry we knew that that we were somewhere very special. The scattered picturesque crofts and gentle rolling hills were accentuated by the flawless sky and resplendent sunshine. The Barra 'ring road' is a delight, round every corner and every bend you never know what stunning Motherland encompassment awaits you. The only downbeat thing about Barra is that you can explore it too quick!
|Barra was a diamond!|
|The alluring Castlebay|
The best beach in my opinion, was at Borve, on the north west. The turquoise sea pulsating over a perfectly minted tract of white sand, was impossible to just drive past with a cursory glance. Really the scene should be contemplated with pastels and sketch pad, I was content reaching for my camera but Deb was having none of it. She was off! Without as much as a hint of an explanation she was seen lolloping down the dunes in the grip of 'Hebridean Air', darting around the beach faster than I've ever seen her run before, leaving footprints in the sand in the shape of a love heart. She didn't stop there either, jeans were rolled up and the alluring sea drew her in for a paddle. We call the beach Love Heart Beach.
|Borve beach, we call it Love Heart Beach, for obvious reasons|
|in the grip of Hebridean Air!|
|Deb said it was actually ice cold freezing!|
Castlebay is a charming township, quaintly Hebridean yet irrevocably Scottish. It didn't take a genius to coin the name, Kisimul Castle lies a hundred yards from the ferry terminal in the bay that the village overlooks. Once a home of the McNeil Chief's it is currently loaned to Scottish Heritage for a thousand years, it's surprising how quick time passes! It is in excellent repair, you can visit it, in the summer months, ferries run twice a day.
We stayed in the eponymous Castlebay Hotel overlooking the bay and it was here I experienced one of those serendipitous moments that only occasionally happen in life. I got up to go to the loo in the middle of the night, when a glance out the window stopped me in my tracks. A vivid full moon with stunning saturation illuminated the castle, a mirror perfect reflection filled the bay, the sea stood motionless in a raging silence. The light was indescribable, the scene was unforgettable.
Barra is hilly but not mountainy, we climbed the hill that Castlebay lies in the shadow of, Sheaval is it's name. If you have time you can pull in a string of peaks that make up the backbone of the Island, there is even a scramble if you want it, we didn't. At just 384 metres Sheaval is a fine viewpoint. When you're not a slave to the human contrived benchmark of three thousand feet, you can find yourself in some superb situations .Notwithstanding this is one of them.
|Castlebay from the summit of Sheaval|
It was while we were having lunch in the Hotel that we met influential person number one, George, a young lad up on his own touring the Islands. We got chatting and it was soon self evident, the three of us were high on Hebridean air. George was buzzing about the Barra airport on the beach and his flight in the Twin Otter aircraft! That was it next morning me and Deb were down at Cockle Strand!
I assured Deb that a twenty seater aircraft isn't going to land on the sand or it would sink, it obviously lands somewhere else and then taxi's round, I was soon proved wrong! I've quite honestly never seen anything like it in my life and you wont do because this is the only airport of it's kind in the world! The runway has to be relocated four times daily due to being submerged by the incoming tide! Barra Airport has been up and running since June 1936 the same month as another airport opened in sussex, next to a racecourse, oh what was it's name... ah yes, Gatwick!
|''no Deb it can't land on the beach! ''...|
|...it lands on the beach!|
It was hard to contain the excitement as the plane lifted up into the air, now we really were high on Hebridean air, about 1, 500 feet of it! During our flight to Benbecula and back our attention was drawn to the archipelago of islands that we were visiting. It is only from up here at our vantage point in the sky that I came to realise what a natural phenomena they are, more loch and sea loch than land, creating a contorted coastline, a Cartographer's nightmare! How man has managed to eke out a living on these islands for millenniums is a miracle, reclaimed land out of the jaws of a monster of an Atlantic ocean.
|Benbecula...a Cartographers nightmare!|
On disembarking back at Barra, I felt like punching the air and kissing the sand of Barra beach! Near the control tower the obligatory 'sock' is flying high, this is to remind cockle pickers to go and do their picking somewhere else for the moment. As you scan the beach one or two cars have pulled on to the beach to pick cockles. Deb suggested we gave it a go but I'm afraid it was a talk to the hand moment, can you imagine 'Old Ingo' venturing out on to the sand and the inevitable outcome? The worst case scenario would be having to phone our Team Holiday Chief Sales Executive, Marndy Pett, " Mand, we might be a day or two late, I've got the car stuck in Cockle Strand!"
As you get older you become more akin with your strengths and weaknesses and I'm fully cognisant of the fact that when I'm behind the wheel, a family car becomes a potential killing machine. Navigation is also something that I struggle to get to grips with, I hang my head in shame as I recall some past events. Maybe you've found some places difficult to navigate for example Nottingham's one way system, a spaghetti junction, Downtown Manhatton but here on the Uist's there is only one road, granted it loops round at the top of North Uist but it is only one road, surely it can't be fraught with route finding difficulties? Well maybe it isn't but Old Ingo managed to get lost on the Islands only road!
We were en route to the next Island up, Berneray, all was going well, we passed a couple of villages, Clachan and the turn off for Lochmaddy. I thought we should just about be there now but then nothing seemed to happen. We patiently kept driving but still nothing. We pulled over and consulted the ordnance map, a skeletal arm of woodland was to our right, which was verified by the map, in which case there was only about half a mile to go. Off we went again but still nothing! Then comes the real kicker, the names of villages like Malacleit and Solas meant we were coming in from the west! This could only be interpreted as a sheer impossibility. For a minute I really thought we had experienced something supernatural, it could not be reconciled. The mystery was eventually solved the two villages were misnomers, I simply stayed left instead of branching off right. The cruel twist was that there were identical looking woods on the right coming in from the opposite direction. Darkness had rearranged things somewhat. How Ingramic is that!
|A Uist sunset|
We found Berneray to be an adorable little island, only about four miles deep by three miles acrossed,
fairly low lying, just a couple of lonely hillocks to punctuate that pencil line on the horizon. When I recall Berneray, freshly laundered green slopes like tunics come to mind . A man on a tractor waves to me from about fifty yards away, a convivial spirit of times past that has never even left these islands. A short dander across the marsh brings you to the west coast beach, hugging the rolling machair as it goes, three miles of absolute perfection!
|West Beach, Berneray|
Our focal point on Berneray was our nights repast at the Berneray Youth Hostel.Wondrous place, ravishing location on the beach head, overlooking the sound of Harris, it is actually two converted Black Houses. They were called Black Houses because originally they had no chimneys, just a hole in the roof for the peat smoke to escape, hence the walls soon became black.I don't think there were many coffin dodgers in those days. Still replete with thatched roofs, they have a look of harled antiquity but these houses you're looking at here are maybe no older than a couple of hundred years. Today they have storage heaters and whitewashed walls but if any accommodation dovetailed into the vibe of classical Highland perspective ensconced in it's own corner of wonderment, it's this place.
|Inside Berneray Youth Hostel|
|dovetailed into the vibe of Highland perspective, Berneray Youth Hostel|
|the closest I came to seeing an Otter!|
|look how near it is to the sea!|
|no setting like it!|
|Author pondering over Corn Flakes and the title of the next Blog!|
From Berneray we boarded the ferry to Leverburgh at the southern tip of the Isle of Harris. Formerly Port an T'ob until 1920 when a wealthy English businessman, Lord Leverhulme, took it upon himself to resurect Harris' flagging fishing industry in order to cater for his ever growing family of Fish and Chip shops. A humble man by nature, he named the village after himself and invested £19,000 in the process. That would equate to many hundreds of thousands today. Leverburgh is a whimsical place in a quaint kind of way though I don't mean to be cynical but I can't see what he spent his money on!
Well if Eriskay was a jewell and Barra was a diamond, how am I to describe Harris and South West Lewis? No labour of words and trawling through adjectives could adequately describe this land, you will just have to go there and experience it for yourself. I didn't think we were ever going to get to where we were going, due to constantly pulling over into one cove after another. Scarasta and Luskentyre are two places that come to mind, vacillating between perfection and outstanding natural beauty.
|South Harris, Scarasta beach|
You recall I lamented what a shame it was that you couldn't bottle up 'Hebridean air' and bring it home with you then let the Genie out the bottle every now and again? Well my dear Blogfans, it is my duty to inform you that now you can! Enter Harris Tweed! Tarbert is one of our favourite places, set against a backdrop of mountains, nestled in a valley that gently slopes down to the shore with a few boats lying motionless in the bay. There are a variety of shops, restaurants and cafes here but I was marshaled straight down to Harris Tweed and Knitwear! Yes the epi-centre for Harris Tweed. In my opinion it is the most unpretentious establishment I've ever come across.
|I was marshaled straight down to Harris Tweed and Knitwear|
|letting the Genie out of the bottle!|
When you consider the history of Harris Tweed and what it stands for you realize that we are talking about something exceptionally special here. Originally the Tweed was made by women from the wool of their own sheep to clothe their families. The women were responsible for the entire process, washing and scouring the wool, dyeing it with lichen, carding, spinning and warping. Finally the cloth was dipped in sheep urine (!) and then 'waulked' that is beaten and softened whilst singing traditional Gaelic songs.
|a standard loom|
The genesis of the modern industry began when the Countess of Dunmore, who owned a large part of the Island in the mid nineteenth century, started to supply her pals with the cloth. To earn the 'Orb and Maltese Cross' logo the fabric has to be hand woven on the island from 100% Scottish new wool in the proprietor's own homes, the more intricate parts of the manufacturing process must be undertaken on the Island.
Hence now when you pull on your Tweed jacket or pick up your Tweed handbag, you are in a poignant way, invoking the memory of the land, or as we now say, not 'chilling' but 'Tweeding out'! Just think that what you are wearing or holding is an attestation to those cuddly Blackface and Cheviot sheep that are stoically scattered about on the lonely hills of Lewis and Harris. Due to the amount of money we invested in Harris Tweed, I was going to change the name of Tarbert to Ingobert but I haven't got time for all the paperwork, I'm a busy man I've got blogs to write and this one is taking a lot longer than I thought it would!
Now we come to what I termed as the 'Stornoway switchback' or 'the biggest u-turn in blogging history, allow me to explain. When we first visited Stornoway the shift of emphasis from a carefree bucolic countryside to couldn't cross a road, head first humanity, in other words, civilisation, was almost too much to bare. I sent out texts using euphemisms like 'the bubble has burst'. 'the end of the idyll' and 'down to earth with a bump'. However after a good night's rest and a proper look round, really taking in the atmosphere, we grew to love the place. Granted Stornoway will never be a pretty town but it does have very pleasant overtones, perhaps the warmth of a tourist town without lowering it's self to sell the things that tourists buy.
What really touched my heart about Stornoway was that it had a genuinely friendly spirit. A genial atmosphere pervaded the narrow streets of the town centre. We even had a 'heads up' with a shop owner about the challenges of raising teenage children, it was like you kind of knew everybody. The myriad tiny shops crammed together beneath the dormer windows of the flats above reminded me of being somewhere very different from where we were, a Tenerife feel even, the warm sunshine and narrow cobbled streets, every different block had a different music streaming out and nobody seemed to mind.
Shopping at Tescos was a philanthropic experience, it's half the size of the one in Lincoln but it felt like all of Stornoway's seven thousand inhabitants were there, now if that was in Lincoln the 'trolley rage' would have escalated into a mass brawl but not here, no everyone has 'Tweeded out' the qualities exhibited as a result of that were politeness, graciousness and forbearance.
There was a curious common denominator in the store; old man, young woman, family man, career woman, little old lady, they all had in their trolley's a mega reduced 1.5 litre of Famous Grouse Whiskey. Whether the trolley was fully laden or that was just the only thing in it, it was there, without exception, they might as well of had a member of staff handing them out at the door! A big smile comes across my face as I observe an elderly Gent in a disability scooter with the unifying factor but as I look down at our groceries, ah yes I've got one as well!
Part two - The Castle On the Beach
|The breathtaking Uig Lodge and Sands|
|a Uig sunset|
For the second week we all came together for our annual 'April Holiday', I think it's a really good thing we've got going, all the camaraderie and a whole lot of fun . Known colloquially as the 'Team' a term which must hark back to our ancestral tribal urgings. We have a simple though sagacious Team ethos, a group of good friends, between twenty and thirty, have a week together in the Motherland, due to the size of the party we stay in an old Victorian shooting Lodge, which of course we would never normally have the opportunity to stay in. We always go in April, missing the midges and enjoying fine spells of settled weather.
|it's own golf course|
We've stayed in some palatial places: Glaschoille, Jura House, Loch Maree Lodge, Inverbroom, Glen Carron Lodge and Kinlochewe Lodge but Uig Lodge won our hearts from the moment it came into view at the bottom of the drive! This must surely be one of the most breathtaking locations in the whole of the British Isles, to the west Uig Bay with it's vast carpet of white pristine shell sand and turquoise sea to the east and south shimmering lochs and imposing mountains that demand to be climbed.
|shimmering lochs and mountains that demand to be climbed|
|early morning, best time of the day|
|Uig Lodge from the entrance|
One morning Deb and myself went for a wee stravaig around the Uig Lodge estate, for a couple of hours before breakfast. It was essence! The sky was a pure unsullied blue. The grandeur of the setting was matched only by the softness of the air. I sat on a small knoll overlooking a nearby lochan, because of local topography, only half of it was illuminated by the ascending sun, a couple of Moorhens swooped down to relish the sun drenched corner of their choice, like a couple of sunbathers laying claim to the prime spot around the pool on a Mediterainean island. How can your spirits not soar? Not a breath of wind and only one or two degrees. All sheer loveliness.
|all sheer loveliness! Uig estate|
|tracts of mint shell sand|
|grandeur of the setting matched only by the softness of the air|
|how can your spirit not soar!|
On Sunday we ( me ,Deb, Christian and Tom) headed for the high ground, Clisham, the only Corbett on the Outer Isles but none the less a mountain in it's own right and one that earned your respect. Well what a fun packed day that turned out to be. All appeared to be going well, not out to break any records, fairly docile really. Started off on an old Drover's track, a gentle slope past three lochans, circumventing Tomnabhal then heading straight for Clisham's north face. The only indicator that we weren't quite behaving ourselves was that Tom, who has the remarkable ability to squeeze humour out of almost any situation, had us posing for photographs smoking Frankfurter sausages.
When we parked the car we concurred that the hills had only a dusting of snow so we didn't bother encumbering ourselves with crampons and ice axe, we went for the luxury of travelling light, however we were soon to realise that this was a luxury that we couldn't afford! The snow had gathered a lot more than we had realised on the north face, this wasn't a problem initially, we were all kicking steps in the soft snow and tantalisingly close to the summit ridge but then the snow turned to ice! It was at this point Deb uttered the immortal words "I'm not freaking out but...I can't move" I cast her a withered look "Can you go back down?" "No" "Okay we're not going up any further, can you go to your left?" "No" "Can you go to your right?" "No" . Oh Gabriel blow your horn!
|gaining height on Clisham. Just managed to include Tom!|
|Clisham's North ,face look at that angle!|
The moment soon passed, we managed to clamber down some rocks to the side but to an onlooker, the four of us stuck there on all fours must have looked like we were indulging in some form of pagan mountain worship. We soon looped round for a short scramble up the mountain's shoulder on to the roof of Harris which had superlative views in every direction. There was more though, I felt fitter than I had done in years and was scrambling away like a Rock Badger up the next peak of the horse shoe, when I came to a difficult pitch, I thought if I could just haul myself up to a tempting ledge, then it would be just an easy angled ridge to the summit. Through resolute determination I managed to get up but now I could see it was too icy, only problem was, now I couldn't get down either! Cragfast.
|abandoned North face, went up it's shoulder|
|me on summit ridge|
The lads helped me down from the 'Beautiful position' without too much difficulty but we made the decision to curtail the horse shoe ridge walk as we seemed to be ring fenced by iced rocks and didn't want to increase the risk factor. Our trajectory was now an uncharted trampse through Glen Scaladale, no problem with that, I've always had an inclination towards the nameless and seldom walked and we certainly imbibed the wilderness experience taking this escape route. So that was that, apart from smoking Frankfurter sausages, indulging in pagan mountain worship, one of the party being spreadeagled over a rock and another one of the party getting cragfast, it was just another normal day on the Scottish hills really.
|Christian on summit looking towards Lewis|
|a lot more snow than we anticipated|
One of the highlights of any April Holiday is the main meal. The laughter, the sunshine coruscating through the windows, the coming together, the enthusiasm, the recollections of the day's events, all get distilled into heartwarming memories that fondle the soul. As I sit at the dining table, transfixed to the view through the the west window, two mountains rightfully earn a place in this Blog, let me tell you a little bit about those.
|Suainabhal and Meaaishbhal from dining room window|
They are Suainabhal and Meaaishbhal at just 429 and 574 metres respectively, well cop this one Munro Baggers, the view we got from the summits of these wee hills are the best we've ever had in our lives anywhere! Suainabhal was a very craggy hill, making route finding a challenge, we were relieved to have Tyler 'Mountain Goat' Mitchell with us, who sniffed out a perfect route to the summit. We met another family who were staying on the Uig estate so we could both pose for group photographs. You see those neoprene wraps on my calves, well I get a bit of cartilage trouble but they are that tight, I don't usually put them on until we're about to set off but this time I forgot! I don't know what I would have done without them! Old Ingo never lets you down.
|Rob, Leah, Tyler, Me and Jason from summit of Suainabhal|
|towards Uig sands|
We didn't want to leave the summit, the whole panorama was immense. The translucent emerald green waters of Uig bay looked unreal. South West Lewis looked at the apex of solidarity, not a rock or a single blade of grass out of place. Turning round 180 degrees looking down Loch Suainabhal I think you could have spotted a piece of string half a mile away, the air was that clear. On Meaishbhal the views were more complex, looking down on a cluster of sparkling pools of liquid sky and feeder streams like silver ribbons. The seaward views were hypnotic, with binoculars you could not only see the lighthouse on the Monarch Islands but also the plinth it stood on and the path leading up to it and they lie twenty five miles away! Scanning the horizon what looks like another rocky outcrop lies further back and to the south, this is St Kilda at an incredible distance of forty five miles! The only thing that limited your field of vision was the curvature of the earth.
|towards the babbling brook|
|textures and contrasts|
Coming down off Suainabhal, Deb and Victoria were having a picnic by the Abhain Dubh Beag, a feeder stream for Loch Stacsabhat, we renamed it the 'Babbling Brook' and it will always be remembered as such. We joined them for a glass of port and some smoked salmon. It was a pinch of paradise, children played and splashed in the stream, as the group continued to be added to so did some of the adults but we were mostly content to relax in the pleasant spring sunshine. To enliven proceedings we were even joined by our one woman sales team Marndy Pett, her chess champion son Wills and her often copied, never equalled Husband Judge Lyndon Matthews!
|The beautiful Babbling Brook...|
|...it will always be remembered as such!|
|...never equalled. Judge Matthews!|
We went down there a few times, on one of those occasions, when me and Deb had just done Meaishhbhal, we found a nice little nook of spongy grass and enjoyed sweet slumber as the carefree water chattered over a bed of loose pebbles. Life was good. The land seem to exude joy and peace, in fact, one night I had a dream I was in God's new world! Believe it or not, we lived on the Isle of Lewis, near the coast, down a track that we called the Golden mile. Mine and Deb's cottage was in a secluded valley and we named it 'Plover'.
|Deb and Mandy .Once Hebridean air hits you there's precious little you can do about it!|
|lochan splattered coastline and a patch of gold!|
|Interesting snapshot of the Lodge from the beach|
It was a joy just to jump in the car and go for a tootle round. At the end of the bay is the Island's only Distillery, 'Abhain Dearg' Gaelic for Red River. I think it's early days for them to be fair. Not much to look at, at the moment, just a disparate collection of tin and breeze block buildings, we mistook it for a Fishery! All credit to them it is the only distillery on the Island since 1844 when Mr Matheson, a staunch prohibitionist, who owned the Island at the time, dissolved it. I think the Islanders would have been even more chafed if they knew Matheson made his money from selling opium to the Chinese.
|Red River Distillery... a disparate collection of tin and breeze block buildings|
Back on the road it's easy driving distance to the remarkably preserved Carloway Broch, Iron age hut, the Blackhouse village and Callanish Stones, the latter, in my opinion are especially worth a visit, fifty chunks of gneiss, some over fifty foot high! Nobody really knows their precise purpose but apparently many of the Stones have been found to align with the sun and stars. Just a final point when you're driving around, keep your eyes on the skies, from Carloway down to where Lewis for no apparent reason becomes Harris, just below Clisham, there are twenty two pairs of nesting Golden Eagles, the largest concentration in the whole of the Highlands.
|fifty chunks of Gneiss some seventeen metres high!|
The only thing I wanted to buy on the Island was, fittingly, a set of Lewis Chessmen. I thought this wouldn't be a problem, they will be in your face at every touch and turn but they weren't, again underscoring the fact that the Hebrides are not awake to Tourists, or as one enigmatic Gentleman on Barra put it 'visitors'. I finally found some in the top notch Callanish Visitor Centre along with a prised C.D of Gaelic Psalms. The original Chessmen, seventy eight in number were discovered by a local Shepherd in Uig Bay when one of his cows trampled down a sand dune. They are mainly carved out of Ivory but the Pawns are made from Whale bone. They date back to the Twelfth Century and are of Norse origin.
The Gaelic Psalms I find quite engaging, to an untrained ear it must sound like an incomprehensible racket! I gave a couple of the 'incumbents' a quick taster in my car and they had to go running back into the house with their hands over their ears, kicking and screaming and immediately bury their senses in pop music . Esoterically there is a struggle going on here, you can sense it beneath the notes, you can feel it in the monophonic strains. It is intrinsically there, a struggle against the weather, a struggle against the sea when it is not your friend, a struggle against getting your lazy beds to yield any produce. Granted, modern technology has made it's presence felt on the Island but the roots of their forebears are not far beneath the surface of these anguish laden cadences. Just a quick rejoinder here to when we were in a Charity Shop in Tarbert, two ladies were yabbering away in Gaelic, it was music to my ears, a very guttural yet raspingly imperious sound. A curious temperance to the language of the land. Don't take it away!
Many Scottish areas have their legends or their own local Monster the obvious one of course being the Loch Ness Monster but there are others, the Sandwood Bay Mermaid, the Grey man of Ben McDui, the An Tealach Organ Grinder etc. Uig has it's own mythical legend, 'Tin Man', a grotesque silver entity that terrorises the neighbourhood, especially the Lodge, demanding potatoes! Island News have offered £5.00 reward for photographic evidence of this awesome spectacle, to be honest I think you stand more chance of seeing the Crazy Lady gathering peat hags by moonlight.
|a grotesque silver entity that terrorises the neighbourhood!|
|a rare sighting of Tin Man!|
|The Crazy Lady gathering peat hags by moonlight!|
Uig Lodge is meticulously looked after by the Green family, they love the Lodge and all it stands for and this is reflected in how it was turned out for us, we lacked nothing, in fact we were quite spoilt really. We invited Dickon and his wife Ellie to our cocktail evening, I honestly didn't know what they were expecting. I don't think they expected to be hob-nobbing with the hoi polloi of Lincolnshire but neither do I think they were expecting to be entertained by women in posh frocks and nine maniacs wearing kilts! One of those pseudo Clan Chiefs, Lord Bertins recited a masterful dissertation pinpointing the Lifetime 'Whipping Boy' of our beloved Scotland expeditions, Me, a delivery that we will be talking about for years. I felt like a celebrity amidst the sea of light from the camera flashes and was sure I was going to be splashed across the Tabloids the following morning. Seriously I'm sure they enjoyed themselves though maybe have never attended anything like this in their esteemed Lodge before and maybe never will again!
|James receiving his Cocktail menu from Jason|
|Guests of honour, Dickon and Ellie Green|
|me receiving the Ultimate Whipping Boy lifetime achievement award from Tom|
|it was a great laugh!|
|Me with my gorgeous wife|
|there were that many camera flashes I thought we were going to be splashed over the Tabloids in the morning!|
When I look back at Uig Lodge, I will never forget the coral pink sunsets, a team quiz that really bonded us and got the electric going ( well done Quiz Master Jason), cocktail evenings, crazy gifts, beach fires, courtroom hearings and so much more but time slipped by like sand through our fingers, the days seemed to roll into one and it was over. However ' the pleasure is in the passing'. The Memory is like a dream and yet the dream was real. To put it succinctly...KEEP THE DREAM ALIVE!
|a beach fire|
|Lauren and Audrie in the kitchen|
|demonstrating the versatility of Harris Tweed!|
|Court in progress|
|The Right Honourable Judge Lyndon Matthews|
|coral pink sunsets|
Part 3 - The Road Trip
After all the 'Tweeding Out' and letting the genie out of the bottle to elucidate the experience of the Outer Hebrides, we lasted just six weeks before we just had to go back up there again!
The advantage of a Road Trip is that you can go anywhere you like when you like, you have the freedom of the Motherland. There was not one dull moment in our four days. We pulled over in the
attractive town of Pitlochry to what turned out to be a very health conscious fish and chip shop, one of the staff had a vehement disdain toward salt, the other continually poured boiling hot water over the floor! Granted it was clean, you could of eat your dinner off the floor, well you could of if he ever stopped pouring boiling hot water over it!
With memory foam in the back of the car, sleep was sweet. We now find ourselves on Skye in a lay by near Sligachan but the weather doesn't look good. We had two of the Cuillins in our sights, Bruach na Frithe and Am Beister. Although M.W.I.S had given a mighty ninety per cent chance of cloud free Munros for this area, fickle Skye weather won the day with a noose of cloud engulfing the Cuillin ridge for most of the day, we got the ten per cent. No fault of the Mountains, Mountains don't make any promises neither do they break any.
We kept pressing forward in the hope that the cloud might lift but deep down we knew it wouldn't, it had that depressing feel of permanency. How I wished I had taken that course on Cloud Bursting on the banks of the Babbling Brook but it's too late for 'should haves' now. It takes an imaginative turn of mind to still get satisfaction out of doing a peak, knowing full well you wont get the reward of the view at the summit but there are redeeming features that can excite your senses, providing it's safe of course.
After branching off the Allt Dearg Mor up the lip of Fionn Coire it seemed Deb's suggestion of a round of the Red Cuillin to our left, might have been a better option but as we hauled ourselves on to the summit ridge, it appeared they were more misted out than what we were. Zig zagging our way through boulders and scree wasn't easy in the mist then everything seemed to happen at once, a knotty narrow ridge, vertiginous drops and hideous forms of granite peering through the mist like a Colosseum of monsters. After reaching B.N.F we cheated a bit by dropping down on to some easy ledges and followed them before regaining the ridge for the manacled peak of Am Beister. It's name in Gaelic means The Executioner and I can see why!
|knotty narrow ridge|
People often mention horizontal rain, to emphasise how severe the weather conditions are. Well here the wind was blowing the rain irresistibly up the side of the ridge so in effect it was coming up at us, it was also coming down on us as well and somehow horizontally too, it was like being in a blinkin car wash! Hence Blogfans, photographs at this stage of the game are at a premium. The summits today were no place to linger, we bagged them and moved on like robbers leaving the scene of a crime!
Water of course found it's way in everywhere, we were both pretty damp and it wasn't much joy but oddly enough, just a few miles away from the hills and we were in the ninety per cent sunshine! This gave us ample opportunity to dry all our wet clothes, by hanging them from the windows and securing them to the roof bars to dry naturally as we headed for the Kyle of Loch Alsh. We were looking forward to a swim, shower and sauna! Yes, the great outdoors!
Kyle of course occupies a strategic position, not only for the gateway to Skye but also for the Inverness and Loch Carron roads, that maybe explains why a village/town with under seven hundred inhabitants has three supermarkets, two banks, two hotels, Chinese and Indian takeaways, at least three fish and chip shops, four churches, a plethora of shops and cafes, numerous B and B's and guest houses, fire station, lifeboat station, need I go on! Busy place too, Old Ingo nearly cut off the flow of traffic to the Isle of Skye by deftly endeavouring to vacate the car park by the entrance, causing a mass confusion and raising temperatures to boiling point. The guy in front of me, trying to get into the car park, uttered a tirade of short clipped expletives under his breath. We're not quite talking 'Hebridean Air' yet, man that dude seriously needed to 'Tweed Out'!
There are certain Inns dotted throughout the Highlands and Islands that are in stupendous locations, the Cluanie Inn is one of them. You will find it half way down the A87 in the heart of Glen Shiel, a typical two story, three bay coaching Inn. It's roots go back to 1787 when roads through the Glen started to improve. It has at least twenty one Munros at it's behest, these fall roughly into four groups, the North and South Glen Shiel ridge, the Five sisters and the Brothers. Amidst all this tangle Cluanie holds centre stage.
|amidst all this tangle Cluanie holds centre stage|
|the drying room ... and a shimmy!|
We had a wonderful time here, we met the 'Crazy Lady' who took us away on the wings of Bachus into the tranquil evening spring sunshine that wrapped itself round us like a mantle. She bade us to come thither over the Loch Cluanie bridge, to sit down above the bright rolling water and relish unctuous moments assuaged in a tangible fore gleam of Paradise. Rainbows danced on the South Glen Shiel slopes as she prepared another natural feat, feeding bananas to Wild Deer! Then on the stiff breeze of a Rainbow Shaker's sunbeam we were back in the Cluanie ordering a meal. Had it all been a dream? Keep the dream alive!
|The Crazy Lady feeding bananas to wild deer!|
|hold on can I have one as well!|
|above the bright rolling water relishing unctuous moments|
|assuaged in a tangible foregleam of paradise|
|rainbows danced on the South Glen Shiel slopes|
What really impresses me about such isolated Hostelries like Cluanie and it's neighbor Kintail Lodge Hotel, a little further down the road at Shiel Bridge, is how they keep going and even manage somehow to stay open all year. Every time I've been in the Kintail Lodge Hotel the place has always been empty! Let's face it hardly anybody actually lives here, the Hamlet of Cluanie has a resident population of about one! There are no 'locals'. So how do these places thrive? Well catching people as they pass but really there reputation goes before them, people keep coming back and their fame spreads. The clientele make the place reverberate, it was here we met Inspirational Person Number Two, Audrie a mature woman who gave us her audience regarding her experiences on Greenland, a place I've wanted to go since I was a kid. She was brimming with enthusiasm for getting stuck into these local hills too, armed to the hilt with crampons, ice axe and scrambling rope. She was Seventy by the way!
I can't stand walking on roads, so rather than trudge along the laborious Old Military Road to the official start of the South Glen Shiel Ridge, we charged up the Hill, Aonach air Frithe and soon got to where the action was. As we were bounding up the Hill, according to our standards, we were soon caught up by Inspirational Person Number Three, Tim, another energetic mature man, who had only recently discovered the wonder of the Highlands. He bemoaned the fact that he had spent forty years pounding the Lake District when he could have spent a large chunk of that time being immersed in the Motherland. Ironically of the thirty peaks he has climbed, twenty six of them have been in mist but this former Exeter City winger is undeterred. I could have sworn he was on Hebridean Air, we couldn't keep up with him. He was Seventy as well!
Once on the ridge the whole cirque opened up before us like scales falling off our eyelids. The ridge had held it's snow remarkably for mid May, for all intents and purposes this was sterling winter walking conditions. You often see in Munro guides, the hills adorned with flawless snow and an azure sky, you might be hoodwinked into thinking this was normal when in reality it certainly is not, those day's are few and far between, yet today was one of them.
|Loch Cluanie looking good|
|Deb on South Glen Shiel ridge. The whole cirque of mountains opened up before us!|
|Tim heading for Creag nan Damh|
We only had time to bag two peaks because unbelievably we had now decided to catch the afternoon ferry from Ullapool to Stornoway. Deb phoned Elliot at work, to do the booking for us, from the first summit! We bagged Craig a Mhaim and Aonach air Frithe. These two hills are connected by a quality ridge, it began as a pleasant stroll, hands in pockets, observing below us the stately elongated Loch Cluanie, next thing we knew we were walking on a wall! Wow that was knife edge, the narrowest I've ever traversed, thankfully it wasn't all that long and there was no wind. I find out now, this section is known as the 'Trembling Ridge' never has a ridge been more appropriately named.
|on the summit ridge Deb phoned Elliot to do the booking for us!|
|The South Glen Shiel ridge held it's snow well into May1|
|the elongated Loch Cluanie|
|walking along hands in pockets... next minute you're on a knife edge!|
|Deb on trembling ridge|
|Ingo trembling on narrow ridge!|
|that's why it's called the 'trembling ridge' !|
It was great to be back on Lewis again. This time we drove up the west, to the area known as Ness. At first I wasn't that taken aback by this part of the Island. One township after another consisting of a few grey listless buildings huddled round a church. We reached the Butt of Lewis, an abstract finger pointing to the doom laden clouds. Things picked up as we came to Port of Ness, a few tendrills of rock enveloping sandy coves that stretch out towards a wrinkled sea, this was once a full working harbor until the sea decided to flex it's muscles. Not much left of it now although the annual Gugha hunt still sets off from here every September. This is where a fleet of ten men from Ness set out to Sula Sgeir in the North Atlantic, to harvest around two thousand young Gannets, a tradition that was first recorded in the seventeenth century and is today sponsored by the Scottish government.
Driving down the Island our curiosity was drawn to the 'Cross Inn' and behind it 'The Old Barn' bar. It seemed out of character because the Barn hadn't been dressed up to look like a bar, it looked like a fully working rustic barn. I pushed the door open with trepidation, expecting to come face to face with John Wayne but it wasn't that intimidating, a few heads turned to check out the strangers in town whilst we were drawn to a peat fire, where we sat with our drinks. Deb closely inspected the two types of peat cuttings, some cylindrical ones and some little slabs, the Landlady came over to explain the strengths and weaknesses of each and the implements used to obtain the cuttings. It was very interesting to be fair but Deb hadn't developed a sudden interest in peat cuttings she had just retrieved my 'flash card' that had just ejected into the pile of peat cuttings!
We spent the night at a layby between Barabhar and Siadher, a spot that was as wild and Hebridean as you could have wished for, bleak empty windswept moorland. The phrasing of the wind somehow helped you to distinguish that you was on an island as opposed to the Mainland . It was like the gusts were trying to achieve a personal best from the starting point of the Atlantic to the finishing point of the Minch!
Our trip now once again took us in the direction of Harris Tweed. At Carloway is a wonderful little enterprise by a lady who calls herself Rarebird. We purchased one or two bits, it was gratifying to support someone on Hebridean Air, full of initiative and enthusiasm for Harris Tweed. Her work isn't just work, she loves it and that love is reflected in the presentation of her art. Quite an unassuming little venture with finishing touches that make it an 'Emporium on the edge of Paradise' or as the Ordnance calls it, South West Lewis!
It's early afternoon now and we're sat in the car watching the waves at 'Izzybizzy'. The Gannets are dropping into the sea like arrows from a bow. The last time we were here was when we had just come off the local hill, to find a sea battered roll of sellotape secured to our windscreen wiper by some fishing rope, no doubt the furtive work of the Bartlett family. This is the beach that collects all the flotsam and we hope to have a rummage and find a few items of interest but today that is not going to happen, it's the local litter picking day and the place has been bled dry! They did miss a buoy though that Deb managed to extract from a cleft in a rock, a memento of Hebridean Air that graces our fence!
|the furtive work of the bartlett family!|
Today South West Lewis is entrapped in mist, yet it is still comely, which understates the fact that there is beauty in bleakness. To me, it's just a case of would you rather listen to Schubert's ninth symphony or Shostakovich's fifth, there as different as sunshine is from mist but they are both a sheer delight to the senses. The wind picked up too, we took refuge in a Licensed Grocer where I bought Deb a present, some Hebridean sea salt! It was here I perceived how locals handle the weather, they basically dress the same all year round and just take off a layer or two when it gets hot. Many of them continually walk round at an angle due to being constantly battered by what we would call a hurricane. A Shopkeeper here would just exchange pleasantries with a refrain like "It's a bit wild today".
On returning to 'Harris Tweed and Knitwear' the young man immediately recognised Deb from our visit six weeks earlier, well it was either her or the Crazy Lady, he wasn't quite sure. One thing is for sure, the fabric of the land will always remind us of what an unsurpassing place this Island is. If someone say's they've been to the Torridons that's great, they've been to Durness, wow, they've been to Knoydart, that's fantastic, you immediately connect but if someone say's that they've been to Harris you embrace each other! Shop assistants have been known to abandon their till when seeing in the Store a lady with a Harris Tweed handbag! Tourism will never be massive for the simple reason that you can't drive there, the Island will always be special.
If you appreciate something it's only natural to want to repeat it. A profound Status Quo lyric comes to mind, '' Again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again" The point being you will want to go again. Memories are wonderful, these are the memories that keep us in the game. Sweet memories that will drive us on many more times to the Motherland. K.T.D.A.
|Team 2013 . Uig Lodge, Isle of Lewis.|
Mark Lewis Ingram.
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