Walking Holidays Scotland – I’m off to the Uists!
I’ve always enjoyed a very intense relationship with the Outer Hebrides. Since I was able to pull myself upright as a baby, I’ve never been able to get enough of these jaw-dropping coastlines and peaks – stretches of landscape that truly define raw, natural beauty. Since taking on my travel blogging work, I’ve found myself back here each year to remind myself that this is a part of the world that has no comparable rivals. This time, it’s the turn of the Uists to challenge my expectations and see if they can stand up to my walking holidays highlights around Scotland.
Running back for several generations of my family, we’ve been coming here to escape, to holiday, to fish, to walk and to be awed by its raw appeal. And there’s something really satisfying about being able to visit it in a professional capacity and to look upon it with a much more investigative eye. To promote it across digital marketing platforms and to write about it in my own way. Because the Outer Hebrides will mean different things to different people. Some will reflect on the crofting lifestyle and the back-to-basics approach to life and relationships. Others to the solitude and the ability to escape. Many will be drawn to the wildlife and the landscapes. To me though, I think it’ll always be about the walking. Obviously, I love my mountains and I think I’m happiest on summit ridges around Scotland – basking in the glory of an epic climb and surrounded by miles and miles of Highland terrain. But exploring the coastal hikes of the Outer Hebrides – triggered really by my experiences on Harris and Lewis last year – offer something equally magical. Fortunately, the Uists have both bases covered.
North Uist – from Eaval to the coast
Sat bang in the middle of the vibrant chain of islands that make up the Outer Hebrides, North Uist is arguably the most underrated of Scotland’s islands. A combination of its challenging accessibility and unfortunate rush-to-judgement misconceptions – caused by only driving down the rather bland inland main road – has seen it fall behind the likes of Skye, Harris, Orkney and Arran in the Battle of the Isles. I certainly have to hold my hands up and say that I haven’t talked about it as much as I should. But here’s a crack at changing that.
The Udal Peninsula in the far north of North Uist offers one of the most spectacular walking holiday days you’ll ever experience. Requiring at least a half-day of your time, a circuit of the perimeter will bring you across several sumptuous beaches, the odd gentle mounded peak, armies of seabirds and, only if you’re very unfortunate, another human or two. Starting with the giant stretching sands of Traigh Ear on the eastern shore head north and follow the coastline as Corran Aird a Mhorain extends this stretch of sand into several miles. The northern coastline of the peninsula allows huge views over the water to the peaks of North Harris as well as east to Berneray and west to the little mounds of Boreray and Pabbay. Continue west then south passing the genuinely astonishing beaches of Traigh Udal and Traigh Iar along the way. These are places and experiences where it would be easy to conclude that I was getting a bit liberal with the hyperbole, but this is the kind of beauty that you will rarely encounter in life. When you are momentarily struck dumb and left in true awe of the scale of nature, the depth and vibrancy of colour and the impossible immaculacy of what lies before you.
Kilted up and feeling like a walking saltire ready to burst with pride, I park myself at the end of this walking route on Traigh Iar. Just to have a wee moment to absorb that this is actually happening. I notice a lonely surfer has just joined me on the beach. Momentary outrage at the absolute bloody cheek of the man to trespass on my moment of possessive solitude was quickly extinguished as we exchange a nod of mutual appreciation that we have this place to ourselves. Where else could such beauty be left for you to enjoy without interruption?
Away from North Uist’s quite unreal stretches of sand, the best elevated walk can be found on Eaval, the island’s highest point. Taking a long walk-in over moors and passing dainty inlets and lochs, it’s certainly requiring of most of a day. I chose a dull and overcast occasion to tackle the seemingly inhospitable peak – something that only added to the aura. I often muse about the personality of Scotland’s peaks and while some are undeniable happy, rounded affairs that call for sunny days and picnics, others are moody and angry shards of rock that almost sneer back at you with sceptical indifference and a bring-it-on-if-you-dare attitude. This is the latter. Conical and steep, Eaval even takes on a very brief appearance comparison with Glen Coe’s mighty Buachaille Etive Mor. Nowhere near the size of Scotland’s mainland giants at just 347 metres, its biggest challenge is patience. Its biggest reward is a glorious view over the entire island that allows hikers to appreciate North Uist’s remarkable geography and characteristics.
South Uist – Beinn Mhor
Now, I mentioned the bland inland road that works its way down North Uist and that can give folk false impressions of the island’s value. Truth be told it gets even blander as you enter its southern neighbour. Desolate landscapes have an atmosphere all of their own but can’t hold a candle to what lies at the coast in these parts. In the case of South Uist though, the perfectly pleasant coastline is undoubtedly overpowered by its peaks. While North Uist is a surprisingly flat island – with a couple of exceptions including Eaval – South Uist’s east side holds several hilly beauties. Facing the deep, brooding waters of the Minch and offering a road to true isolation and remoteness, there is no better way to appreciate this than walking to its highest point, the rugged Beinn Mhor.
The ascent is long and arduous. You could almost be forgiven for calling it boring. Up until the point that you reach the summit ridge and the island truly opens before you in a head-spinning panorama that is. Three peaks will grapple for your attention – with Beinn Mhor hovering a little higher than neighbouring Hecla and Beinn Corradail. From the ridge, the final ascent up to the highest point is straightforward. To your left you’ll have a massive valley and the Minch to wow you; to the right the flatter western side of South Uist with its countless lochans and peat bogs. With no path to speak of, hillwalkers face this one by fighting through rough terrain that is boggy in parts and you’ll find it easy to drift off course. As the views will testify, however, a walking holiday to these parts is not complete without taking on this challenge.
The peaks of Eaval and Beinn Mhor match up merrily with the endlessly wanderable beach-focussed trails of North Uist. If the sun is out, head for the beaches. If not, make it the hills. Your holiday will end with an impossibly diverse collection of memories and a very full camera memory card. In so many ways, this is heaven itself for lovers of the outdoors who are seeking a release from the maelstroms that we often find ourselves caught up in in everyday life. For an undoubted city boy, part of my heart does definitely belong to the Western Isles.
Getting to the Uists from the mainland can be done by ferry. Skye to Lochmaddy or Oban/Mallaig (depending on season) to Lochboisdale are the two approaches unless you are already on the Outer Hebrides and coming from Harris or Barra. You can also fly to little Benbecula Airport which separates the two Uists. Benbecula also makes for an ideal base if you plan on exploring both as there is a decent concentration of good accommodation options, nearby amenities and easy road access (via causeways) to the Hebridean chain. Although the Hebridean Way is a long-distance walking route worth considering, I’d always advise having wheels to get you to the best spots with maximum flexibility. While there’s nowhere bonnier on a sunny day, the Western Isles take an absolute battering when the weather gods aren’t happy, so plan accordingly….
The walking here is pretty rough and don’t be expecting obvious trails, paths and signposts. Come prepared with appropriate footwear for both beach and bog walking, plenty of supplies and, preferably, both digital and old-fashioned navigational aids to call upon. The flip side of these challenges is obvious – the opportunity for a walking holiday that you will never, ever forget.
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