I wasn’t surprised when one islander told us that a few generations ago, people had travelled between some of the more remote villages of South Uist by boat.
In the southern isles of the Outer Hebrides, in North Uist, Benbecula, and South Uist, the sea lochs stretch their watery fingers into all areas of the islands. Even when you think you’re driving inland, the sea – or the sea marsh, at low tide – meets you at every bend in the road. And where the sea can’t reach, there are the fresh water lochs, lapping constantly at the side of the tarmac.
My parents and I had arrived to tea and coffee at the lovely little Kilvale B&B in South Uist one late afternoon in March, after a leisurely road trip that had taken us 115 miles from Lewis in the north, through Harris, Berneray, North Uist, and Benbecula.
The rain had followed us every step of the way: the clouds so low they were hanging around our shoulders, the rain of that insistent quality that means it will be around for the day. It wasn’t quite how I had imagined our island hopping would adventure would play out, but in Scotland, and especially the Hebrides, there’s no such thing as bad weather, really – only the wrong clothes.
Our holiday officially started that morning in Berneray, a small island which found itself in the limelight in the 1980s, when news emerged that Prince Charles had been living and working here as a crofter.
The beaches here are known for their beauty, but sadly, we couldn’t see any of them through the fog-like cloud. What we did see were vast stretches of sandy machair, where oyster catchers hopped through the low grass, sheep milled about in fields, and seaweed was spread as fertilizer.
We had arrived before 9am: would anything be open yet? More importantly: would I be able to get my morning dose of coffee? My caffeine salvation came in the form of Morag at Ardamore Stores, a small village shop with the Lobster Pot Tearoom attached.
Our encounter with Morag set the tone for the next two days on the islands: a genuine, warm welcome from everyone we met. Within five minutes of meeting Morag, we had established that she and my parents had multiple friends in common, and that she had a niece living in the USA. It wasn’t the first time on our journey we would nod and say what a small world we live in.
The islands, in Uist and beyond, are connected by multiple causeways, bridging the waters that seem to take up so much space.
From Berneray we crossed to North Uist, where after a brief stop in Lochmaddy, the main road took us through peaty moorland, closer to the hills on the east. But the single track road to the west weaves through machair, open to the elements, and which come the summer months is awash with colour.
Our next venture out of the car and into the rain came in Balivanich, the main village on Benbecula.
Having left the house at 5am, it was definitely time for lunch. I had been waiting for this since we had booked our adventure: it was time for a visit to MacLean’s Bakery.
I’ve had a slight obsession with the family bakery’s empire biscuits for as long as I can remember, and had already planned to buy multiple packets to see me through the road trip (and the rest of my time at home).
We found ourselves talking to everyone in the small shop – discovered another connection, in the form of a delivery driver from our own village who seemed to be something of a local celebrity – and ended up buying more than we bargained for (I was still eating empire biscuits a few days later in Inverness).
Lunch itself took place in the nearby Stepping Stone restaurant, which is run by the same family and apparently well known for its goose burgers. When they didn’t have any on the menu that day, I promptly ordered a local lamb burger instead; you know when you’re eating island lamb, because the taste is strong and distinctive – much more interesting than anything you’ll find in a supermarket.
Fuelled by local food, we started on our journey south, crossing another causeway to South Uist.
Here, small statues of the Virgin Mary dotted the roadside, putting me in mind of the Italian countryside, and brilliantly white traditional croft houses stood out in the rain.
In an attempt to find the award-winning Salar Smokehouse, we took a wrong turning and drove on a lonely single track road for what felt like an hour – but we found the smoked salmon eventually.
Another journey down a single track road brought us to some new found friends. The ponies of Loch Skipport, who are quickly becoming stars of Instagram, gathered around the car the minute it stopped, trying their best to stick their noses through the windows.
It was only then that we found ourselves at Kilvale B&B, warming up over tea and coffee, chatting with Margaret, and relaxing after a long day. When the weather is dismal, a hot cuppa is sometimes the only cure.
The next day was spent on Barra, which requires a short ferry journey, and on Eriskay, the last of the islands linked by causeways.
I had been especially looking forward to visiting Eriskay, the island which was immortalized in fiction by Compton Mackenzie’s novel, Whisky Galore.
As you cross the causeway you can see the spot where the SS Politician ran aground in 1941, with a load of 260,000 bottles of whisky bound for Jamaica and New Orleans. Before the authorities could arrive, the whisky had disappeared – into the homes of islanders, of course! The local pub, Am Politician, has a bottle of the original whisky on display, but to my great dismay the pub hadn’t yet opened for the season.
This small island is also famous for its ponies, beautiful, stately looking creatures that roam wild on the island, and for Charlie’s Beach, the spot at which Bonnie Prince Charlie first set foot in Scotland in 1745, in an attempt to claim the British throne. The sandy shoreline is now the location of a crucial scene in Peter May’s Lewis Trilogy, too, bringing it even more attention.
It wasn’t until our last morning that the cloud finally lifted, albeit slightly.
The islands almost seemed a different place. Where we had barely been able to see further than the house next door, the dunes of the beach were now visible a few hundred metres away from Kilvale B&B.
After a hearty breakfast provided by Margaret, it was time to leave: we had limited time to catch the ferry from Lochmaddy to Skye. A quick detour off the main road took us to the birthplace of Flora Macdonald, who helped Bonnie Prince Charlie evade capture in a journey that was immortalized in the famous song, Over The Sea to Skye. Marked simply by an enclosed stone cairn, it was high enough to afford views over the lochs and machair: a quiet spot for a moment of contemplation before moving on.
In typical Hebridean fashion, it was only as the ferry pulled away from the Lochmaddy pier an hour later that the sun began to break through the clouds.
While the rain had hampered some of our plans, the welcome had more than made up for the weather. Watching as the roofs of Lochmaddy faded into the distance, I knew one thing for sure: I’d be back.
NEED TO KNOW
How do I get there? To reach the southern isles of the Outer Hebrides, you can fly into Benbecula or Barra with FlyBe, or arrive via Caledonian MacBrayne ferry to Berneray, Lochmaddy, Lochboisdale, or Castlebay.
What’s the best way to get around? Some hardy souls cycle their way through the islands, but if you’re anything like me, you’ll need a car – and you can drive from Berneray all the way down to Eriskay, thanks to the causeways.
Where should I stay? We stayed at Kilvale B&B in South Uist, and I can’t recommend it enough. The bedrooms are beautifully decorated, all with en-suite bathrooms, and Margaret is a wonderful host (not to mention cook – the breakfasts are a veritable feast!).
Have you ever been to the southern isles of the Outer Hebrides, or would you like to visit? What should I do on my next (hopefully sunnier!) visit?
For more stories from the islands, why not check out my Outer Hebrides Travel Guide?