Further afield in Uist

The islands that together are known as Uist, from Berneray in the north to Eriskay in the south, present a surprising variety of landscape, sense of place, people, history and culture. One thing they all have in common is good clean fresh air, an abundance of wildlife, and plenty of space to think and be yourself.

North Uist, Baleshare and Berneray
Uibhist a Tuath, Baile Sear agus Beàrneraigh

A short final length of the North Ford Causeway connects Grimsay with the much larger island of North Uist. At Clachan the main road turns east to Lochmaddy, cutting across the moody heart of the island, a vast expanse of heather moorland and fresh-water lochs - and to the south east of the road the striking profiles of the hills that serve almost as trademarks for North Uist.

Just east of Clachan the long road along the south shore of Loch Euphort is a delight, with wonderful scenery, a tiny art studio, and a landscape rich in iron age archaeology. Back at Langass by the main road there's a very impressive chambered cairn up on and hillside, and a very impressive stone circle [Pobull Fhinn] along the track just past the hotel.

Lochmaddy [Loch nam Madadh] stands at the head of an extensive, sheltered natural harbour which has for centuries served as the principal port for North Uist, and today is the busiest ferry port in Uist and Barra. Though boasting a Sherrif's court, two hotels, school, an outdoor activities centre, cattle market, tourist information office, and the renowned Taigh Cearsabhagh arts centre, Lochmaddy is still little more than a quiet village - except perhaps when the Calmac ferry from Uig in Skye comes in!

North from Lochmaddy, a narrow road branches east to Loch Portain and Cheesebay, weaving bewilderingly through a landscape of convoluted bays and inlets of the sea, fresh water lochs, rocky prominotories and few distinctive landmarks: it is surprisingly easy to feel disorientated. A truly remarkable district and rich in ancient archaeology, including the impressive galleried Dun Torquil, a scheduled ancient monument, reached by a stepping stones from the shore of Loch an Duin.

Historically, Berneray [Beàrnaraigh] was considered part of distant Harris, but since the causeway was completed in the late 1990s, the island has become an integral part of Uist life, with many of its residents working as far away as Balivanich or even South Uist. With an enterprising culture, a strong sense of community, a lively programme of events, this is now a growing community with a bright future. Unusually, it is the east coast of that is most densely settled (it's where you'll find the Ardmaree Stores and Lobster Pot Café): the west coast is a wide open plain of glorious machair grassland with abundant wild flowers and orchids, and with a ribbon of dunes and white shellsand giving way to a turquoise sea.

The ferry connecting Uist directly to Harris at Leverburgh uses a slipway at the north end of the Berneray causeway, but for those not hurrying to catch a ferry, the narrow and twisty west coast road offers a slow and leisurely tour of the west coasts of North Uist, and its many attractions: Medieavel religious seminary at Carnish; the Hebridean Smokehouse just north of Clachan; the Kirkibost Centre with its excellent café; the historic Westport Inn; RSPB reserve at Balranald (not that the wildlife knows anything about such things - you'll find amazing wildlife everywhere!); the astonishing prominontory of Udal, near Grenitote; a truly memorable walk across the sands to Vallay island with its many poignant remains of life in the distant and not so distant past.

Baleshare - an island of machair set adrift in the Atlantic - is connected to North Uist by a half-mile causeway - one of the earliest built to connect the islands. The name means eastern village: legend has it that the western half of the island - and its people - was swept away by an apocalyptic storm (perhaps an Atlantic tsunami?) in the 16th or early 17th century. Whatever the truth of this, the Atlantic continues to eat into the west shore, frequently exposing the remains of ancient lives: unfortunately there aren't the resources to study or protect these before they are swept away by the sea.


Benbecula and 'the other Grimsay'
Beinn na Faoghla agus Eilean Griomasaigh

Benbecula [Beinn na Faoghla] lies to the south of Grimsay, at the far end of the long and twisting North Ford Causeway.  The island is about five miles east to west and is divided roughly in half by three miles or so of the main north-south road.

balivanich water towerTo the west the land falls steadily to the Atlantic, with a coastal loop road serving the many crofting townships, university and high school campuses (with library, museum, swimming pool and outdoor sports complex), bank, supermarkets and other shops, hospital, cafes, car hire, fuel stations, churches, council and other offices ... and the airport, with its daily Flybe/Logainair flights connecting Uist with Stornoway, Barra and Glasgow.

Balivanich [Baile a' Mhanaich] is a scattered settlement that is gradually acquiring both the population and the services of a small town; from humble (and not very pretty!) beginnings as a military outpost during the Cold War, it has developed already into the principal centre serving Uist and Barra - second only to the capital of the Outer Hebrides, Stornoway.


East of the main road is Beinn Ruabhal, with a track leading out into what may now seem a wilderness, but which briefly between the 1st and 2nd World Wars was the crofting township of Rosinis, the remains of which can be reached by following a waymarked path. In the south east of Benbecula, a long, narrow and very winding road leads eventually to Peter's Port [Port Pheadair] - a tiny fishing harbour used by small boats. After Hacklet, a very long branch road heads off into the wild eastern extremity of Benbecula, ending at the tiny and very remote crofting settlement of Uisgebhagh. Back on the road to Peter's Port, the road twists and turns amongst the rock and water, joining up many small islands. one of these being known locally as Isle Grimsay [Eilean Griomasaigh], to distinguish it from, well, Grimsay - our Grimsay.

South Uist and Eriskay
Uibhist a
Deas agus Eilean Eirisgeidh

South Uist has a distinct grain running along the length of the island, with the Atlantic shore on the west, a belt of dune and marram grass and behind that the fertile machair plains where the oldest  crofting settlements are to be found, now connected by branch and loop roads. The main north-south road - which didn't exist before the 1840s - takes a direct route through the land of rock peat and lochans known as talabh dubh (black earth): historically, this landscape did not attract settlers and even to this day there are few houses along the main road, except where it comes close to the older settlements, as at Howmore.

 

East of the main road the hills run a chain hills rising around 2000ft in height, including the striking peaks of Thecla and Beinn Corradale, and of above all the long ridge of Beinn Mhor. Amongst and beyond these hills are many secluded glens, secret caves, red deer and eagles, numerous remains of pre-historic peoples, and the cave where Bonnie Prince Charlie sheltered after Culloden before his escape back to France.

Exploring the remotest glens on foot or perhaps horseback is for the experienced, but for the remotest glens its best to be prepared for an overnight camp. You might even meet up with the fairy folk: unlike the small folk elsewhere, Uist fairies look just like you or us, but sometimes they're there, and sometimes not; sometimes they're very nice, and at other times you'd really rather wish you'd gone elsewhere. You've been warned!

A good place to set out into the wilds of the east coast is from Loch Skipport (which for most of the 19thC was the main port for South Uist, but is now entirely derlict), or better still from North Loch Aineort. Park at the road end (leaving space for vehicles to turn) and set out along the path through the woods (all the work of one man, since the 1960s!), past the abandoned villages of thatched houses before striking up into the hills. With fair weather it's a day you'll not forget!

The Loch Carnan road, at the north east corner of South Uist, cuts across low-lying peatlands with scattered crofts: but after the power station (only a stand-by station) and Salar Salmon, the road acquires the familar characteristics of these branch roads into the eastern wilderness - narrow, twisting and hilly. Beyond Caolas Liubhursaigh the road continues - albeit never black-topped and now in poor condition - to the long abandoned crofting settlements referred to generally as East Gerinish. What at first seems a barren landscape is on better acquaintance a rich repository of wild flowers, birds, insects, and is bisected by a dramatic fault zone with underground streams and unexpected cliffs.

The only substantial settlement on the east side of South Uist is Lochboisdale [Loch Baghasdal] which since the late 19thC has been the main port for the island, with Calmac ferries to Oban (and at one time to Mallaig). Lochboisdale is no more than a village, but nonetheless has a large and busy hotel, bank, post office with internet café, fuel station (with car wash) and garage services, a small fishing harbour, tourist information office, church a butcher and other small shops. Like Lochmaddy, the village is transformed into a very lively scene when the ferry comes in! Plans are afoot to transform Lochboisdale with a new port capable of taking cruise ships, a marina, industrial and commercial development, and housing.

[photo]

The west side of Uist is renown for its white sand beaches and dunes stretching for miles and miles (there are rocky and pebbly lengths, but they've got their own attractions!). The dunes - stabilized with marram grass - are the first line of defense for most of the fertile but low-lying machair grasslands, which today are grazed by cattle renown for their quality and natural health. But at Askernish [Aisgernis] a rare exception to this industry is an 18-hole golf course, recently discovered to have been laid out by 'Old Tom' Morris in 1891, and now restored to form one of the most rewarding links courses in Scotland.

askernish golf course, south uist

Stretched out along the machair and talabh dubh of South Uist lie the many crofting townships - scattered crofts organized into communities that as well as their individual fields share hill grazings. It's well worthwhile turning off the main road and exploring the quiet lanes that connect these quiet places. Howmore [Taobha Mòr] is one of the most picturesque of these, with its thatched houses (and thatched youth hostel too), mediaevel ruins, historic white church (a rare example of a communion table where it should by rights be - in the middle!) and one of the largest flocks of the black Hebridean sheep in Uist. There's a small shop and post office, a filling station and garage services too, with Beinn Mòr as a dramatic backdrop. There's also a cycle hire centre too.

At the north east of South Uist, Iochdar and it's neighbouring villages make up one of the most anciently inhabited parts of Uist. There's a strong sense of community here, not only ensuring the survival of their schools, churches, and village hall, but in recent years adding sports fields partly funded by income from wind turbines. The sands, dunes and islands - particularly the long finger of Gulan (almost wiped out in the January 2005 hurricane) ring with the sound of birds at any time of year, and are well worth pulling on extra clothing for as protection against the wind and any passing showers. In heavier weather, you may prefer nearby Hebridean Jewellery, where as well as treating yourself to something beautiful, you can buy books and other gifts, and sit down for a welcome coffee and cake and enjoy the view.

Another anciently settled area stretches from Askernish through Daliburgh [Dalabrog], Kilphedar [Cille Phedair], Leth Meanach, Garrymonie and Smerclete and West Kilbride [Cille Bhrìghde]. If you're on foot, bike or with a horse, you can either follow the lanes or the old machair tracks which provide a quiet and very beautiful route amongst the machair flowers and crops, the marram grass and the white sand beaches. Why not take a break at the 18thC Polochar Inn.

 

The southern shore of Uist, from Smercleit and Polochar at the west to Ludag and South Glendale [Gleann Dail bho Deas] is arguably the most beautiul part of South Uist, with glorious seascapes across the Sound Eriskay and beyond to Barra, and in good clear weather sight of Skye, Rhum other islands of the Inner Hebrides and far distant mainland hills. Here you've every chance of seeing otters, seals, gannets diving in the channels, eagles and hawks, owls hunting by day. As often as not you'll find cattle grazing the verges and down on the shore. At West Kilbride [Cille Bhrìghde] you'll see the Big Garden - the 18thC walled garden of MacDonald I of Boisdale (it was he who told Bonnie Prince Charlie to go home to France), now the only historic, high-walled kitchen garden left intact in the Outer Hebrides, and now again in use for its original purpose - to feed the family that lives there. Seasonal fresh vegetables, herbs and soft fruit are often for sale. Preserves made here and eggs and Hebridean hogget lamb from the family's croft in Eriskay are also available year-round. In the garden is the Hebridean Woolshed - a treasure trove of hand-spun natural-dyed wools and garments woven, knitted or felted with these.

A mile-and-a-half of causeway, completed in 2002, leads from Ludag to the nearby Eriskay. Like Berneray, the island has a very strong sense of community - centred on its Catholic church, primary school and community-owned village shop. Also as in Berneray, the causeway has resulted in a reversal of decline, with many houses renovated or newly built, younger families, and an onward ferry connection, in this case to Barra. Fishing continues as in years gone by, but with a much smaller fleet in numbers and vessel size, and mostly local shellfish catches: the ancient harbour at Haun (readily recognizable as the Viking word for harbour) is now scarcely used, the much larger and more sheltered natural harbour at Acarsaid Mhòr (predictably on the east coast of the island) having recently been improved. Visitors to Eriskay - as also to South Uist and indeed to Barra, will be struck by the presence of roadside shrines: these reflect the fact that Protestantism never really took root here, despite centuries of official repression of both Catholicsism and the Gaelic languange), and these islands are now the only predominantly Catholic areas of Great Britain.

 

eriskay ponies

 

Eriskay is well worth exploring on bicycle or better still on foot. Lovely beaches and grassy paths stretch along the west coast from Baile (the village) south to Coilleag na Phrionnsa [Prince's Strand - where Bonnie Prince Charlie first stepped ashore in Scotland in 1745], but there's breathtaking views to be had from the modest but strategic summit of Ben Scrien [Beinn Sciathan]. The east coast is so little visited that is is not uncommon to surprise a golden eagle basking with its wings outspread on a rock - almost stumbling across it. Off the south end of the island, on Stack Island, is the ruined castle of medieaval pirates, who used to harrass the local population and above all any visitors straying into the area who might be worth a ransom.

Just north of the ferry terminal at Ceann a' Gearraidh, high above Prince's Beach, is a layby commanding fine views over the Sound of Barra. It is a wonderful place to stop and take breath (not least if you've just cycled up the brae from the ferry!). If you find yourself dreaming of making the crossing to Barra, then that's natural enough. But that's another and very different holiday, for if you haven't realized it already, there's really more than to do and explore in Uist than can possibly fit into a week - or even a fortnight's - holiday. You really need to come back again!


 

If you have pictures of your own visit to Uist you'd be happy to share through this web page, you can email them to simon[at]thebarngrimsay.co.uk.


Site Last Updated - 25/05/2019 19:15:00
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