Saturday, 26 May 2012

Island high land.

A week spent criss crossing the islands of Berneray, North Uist, Benbecula and South Uist all linked by various causeways provided a variety of environments and some memorable wild pitching. The weather stayed good and by the end of the week cloudless skies and soaring temperatures had me ditching the down jacket and digging out shorts for the first time since the brief hot spell at the start of this trip in the Yorkshire Dales 9 weeks ago.
A walk round the coast from Loch Sgioport to Usinish bothy passed the abandoned village of Caol Islas in a serene but remote coastal setting. Heccla's rocky summit was reached after a stiff climb in strong winds but offered a remarkable view over the watery flats of Benbecula.
Back up at Berneray the coast facing Harris provided a dream wild pitch and a good walk round the headland to watch seals basking in the sun. Lochmaddy's Festival of the Sea provided the opportunity to join the Lady Anne with 8 others for a trip over to the Monach Islands which amazingly used to support a community of around 100 people. Threading our way through the flat calms of North Ford lulled us in to a false sense of security as having just scraped under the causeway bridge we sped across choppy seas for an hour to reach this small group of islands. The ruined buildings also include the well maintained former schoolhouse that is used by fishermen  to escape bad weather and crofters from the Uists when they travel out to manage the sheep that graze throughout the year. Works of art adorned the wall and clearly many a good night had been spent there. I walked out to the far western end crossing silvery sand bars with dozens of seals dozing in the hot sun and spotting the nests of some of the numerous bird species.
On our return crossing we had to wait grounded in mid stream for the tide to come in and sweep us under the bridge once more to complete a perfect day out.
I returned for the fourth time to the huge beach of Baleshare as it provides first class wild pitching and is handy for a return to Lochmaddy today for the lifeboat open day and another boat trip this time round Lochmaddy Bay on what seems set to be an absolute scorcher. My last week should include a climb up Beinn Mohr followed by a drift south to Eriskay, the crossing to Barra and finally, a week tomorrow, the return to Oban and south to Wales - mainstream civilisation will come as a shock after the slow relaxed pace of the Hebrides but a medical review beckons prior to my trip to Ireland and it will be good to see family and friends during my week farm sitting near Llandeilo.

Photos here and locations here - enjoy!

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Miles of Isles

A very stormy Sunday in Stornoway was spent watching films I had recorded prior to the trip as every shop in town was closed putting paid to my plans to stock up. This was done first thing Monday morning after which I headed south to Harris crossing the impressive mountains that form a barrier with Lewis and arriving at the small town of Tarbert. I had picked up two German hitch-hikers and dropped them off at the ferry office where I booked my return to Oban from Barra in a fortnight. The road out to Huisnis passed right in front of stately Abhain Suidhe with its formal gardens and salmon leap and at the end provided a sheltered place to wild pitch just yards from the beach. A good walk took me round spectacular coastline with views west across to Scarp and north to the wild tops of Uig where I had stayed a week ago.
A bike ride up Glen Miahbaig passing the RSPB eagle observatory developed in to an epic day as I became intrigued by a side track and ended covering over 30 miles including a return climb over the mountains - I kept up a reassuring pace thanks to weight loss and exuberance both of which will be needed in a few months time for the Brecon Beast.
The 'Golden Road' twisting and turning down the east coast of Harris was remarkable as it passed through a moonscape of bare rock that I have not experienced elsewhere at such a low altitude. Crofters displaced several generations ago from the more fertile west still cling on in the many sheltered bays and coves.
From Leverburgh I headed up the very different west coast with large expanses of machair and stunning sweeps of golden beaches with another wild camp at Losgaintir. Clear conditions enabled me to climb An Cliseam for panoramic views before I took a look round the island of Scalpay where a 1000 tonne WW2 concrete barge lay half submerged in one of it's many idyllic bays.
South of Scarasta I walked round Toe Head with good views of Taransay (location for the BBC series Castaway a decade ago) before parking up near Rodel's tiny church on a very windy night.
Friday saw me catching the ferry to Berneray - a seventy minute slalom of a journey with the ship threading a complicated passage through a myriad of islets, rocks and shallow channels. Yet more deserted golden beaches offered numerous opportunities to stay the night but eventually I opted to park high on a hill overlooking North Uist with the St. Kilda group way out to the west plus a good phone signal and TV reception thanks to the mast just yards away.
Today from Baleshare I cycled out and along Loch Euphort to view a piece of sculpture and appreciate the empty roads on a warm and sunny afternoon. Balnarald RSPB reserve provided a good two hour walk amongst traditionally managed crofts that have encouraged a wide range of bird species to thrive including the endangered corncrake.
Next weekend sees a Festival of the Sea at Lochmaddy so I will head to South Uist in the interim as various tops and a bothy beckon in the light of promised continuing good weather before returning briefly for a number of maritime related events. Then its south again to complete this trip with time on Eriskay and Barra prior to the 6 hour sailing to Oban over the Jubilee weekend.

I am conscious that the photos seem to represent a somewhat endless stream of blue sea, blue sky and empty golden beaches but in truth that does sum up these islands - given a reliable climate they would be among the most popular in the world but then the magic would be lost and the traditions that sustain communities through what must be long hard winters might falter as well... click here

More or less daily location reports available here and while I remember tales of a truly epic adventure can be found by clicking here - I met John 3 weeks ago at Durness when he arrived after leaving North Wales only 14 days previously and calling in on the Isle of Man and Northern Ireland and see he is already well down the east coast - remarkable.

Small PS as well - the slide show seems to be bug ridden so is temporarily absent - apologies - however if you use the usual photo link above and click on the small thumbnail top right with' simonjarratt5 photos' alongside there are around 90 on line albums available covering the last 3 years and a few from previous lives which resolves the mystery opening piccie  taken on a  previous Scottish trip in 2006.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Western Isles - Lewis

A sublime crossing to Stornoway in calm conditions on a sunny evening gave excellent views across to Assynt and right up Loch Gruinard to the tops surrounding Shenavall scene of last week's successful MBA work party. A YouTube slideshow featuring some of the many highlights can be found at this link which summarises perfectly the spirit of the week.
I stayed in Stornoway a couple of nights and visited a stunning beach at Tolstah where an abandoned road project has left a 'Bridge to Nowhere' reminiscent of a similar venture in New Zealand - it would have been  a wonderful place to spend the night but  I returned to town in order to get the chain and block on my bike sorted out before heading up to the Butt of Lewis and its unusual brick lighthouse. The first heavy and persistent rain of this trip convinced me to park up for the afternoon and catch up on my diary as outside the strong winds reminded me that this point holds the record as Britain's windiest place.
Things settled down though the next day as I headed south along the west coast with a surprising number of crofts and houses, old and new, dotted around - a third of the 27,000 strong  population of these isles live in the Stornoway area - far higher totals than I had realised. 
An example of a very traditional form of housing - the black house at Arnol was fascinating as were the reconstructed Norse mill and kiln at Siabost - modern life is demanding enough in this challenging climate and landscape and in their own way people of old were just as skilled and resourceful as the indigenous people facing very different challenges in Australia.
The island of Berneray is now linked by a bridge over the Atlantic and was a real gem. Down at  Bostadh another perfect beach and bay also featured a large bell mounted off shore which sounded at high tide - part of an inspired art installation also planned for 11 other locations around the UK. This was too good a spot to leave so I enjoyed a memorable night in a very special location. 
The next day I left the bike locked up, drove around the coast and then enjoyed a walk along the  deserted coastal scenery before heading out to remote Uig where a succession of perfect bays and beaches filled the day - the loop round Valtos was a true highlight after which I headed out to lonely but stunning Breanais and Mealasta where I spent a sunny evening in perfect isolation looking out to the islands of St Kilda including Soay providing a nice link with the rare breed sheep I used to keep in another life.
A long rough track south from Carnais took me to a remote property on a dream bay with mountains of almost pure rock rising above the sheltered waters before I dropped in at Timsgearraidh Community Centre to enjoy the small but informative museum and excellent cafe.
Glacial Valtos gorge retuned me to the loop round the Valtos peninsula with the idyllic beaches at Cliff and Reef where I decided to stay on the community run simple camp site overlooking a beach of white sand and blue seas. Good TV reception came as a surprise as did excellent hot showers in a location that very much reminded me of the beaches and bays of Albany in SW Oz.
Crossing over to the East coast I visited the Lochs area and walked from Orasaigh out to an abandoned township - cleared for sheep grazing and a moving reminder of how lives were once completely disrupted by progress. Further progress may well disrupt the landscape in the future as a massive wind farm is being considered for the area.
I stopped at a school fund raising car wash  to get the van cleaned - it still carried mud from  floundering around on Jura  a month ago and I was struck by how similar to the Kiwi sense of community spirit and just getting on with job was the islanders approach to things where a government in Edinburgh or London let alone Brussels must seem worlds away. I suspect that less intrusion from the politicians and the media generally would encourage communities to take responsibility for their own future based on self reliance and resourcefulness rather than legislation and subsidy.
I have now returned to Stornoway to stock up before heading south with a deterioration in the weather predicted for Sunday - the improvements to the van have certainly paid off on this trip with the greatly improved insulation meaning that six tea lights keep the interior warm even on the colder nights and a much streamlined setting up each evening as everything is stowed away in the additional storage space. Other visitors in larger vans are frequently seen on the main roads but rarely venture down the more interesting side roads and tracks which suits me very well!
This weeks pics are here , SPOT continues to track me here and to confirm the similarities the slides return to SW Oz.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Shenavall and Beinn Dearg

The unexpectedly good weather continued during a week of repairs and renovations to Shenavall bothy beautifully situated at the foot of the impressive An Teallach ridge with the Fisherfield tops across the glen. On my walk in the estate keeper offered me a lift in his Argocat which whilst possibly quicker was a somewhat uncomfortable ride due to the roughness of the track. The spectacular views made up for this as we descended to the former croft of Achnegie that was being used as a store for the large amount of materials being carted in.
The bothy was being upgraded to comply with fire regulations so the stairwell was enclosed, floorboards and ceiling replaced and a variety of other improvements made during a settled period of hot sun, clear skies and moonlit nights. Evenings round the fire produced memorable conversations whilst behind the scenes our very dedicated cook Alex produced food for the team and hot drinks for the numerous visitors that dropped by. 
With much of the work completed by midweek a group of us decided to walk the tops across the glen and set off in a morning mist to be rewarded with the sun emerging as we reached the summits. It was a superb walk in ideal conditions with good company including that of two perfectly well behaved black labs who made short work of the steep ascents. From the top we noticed the bizarre spectacle of a former prime minister's Spitting Image profile appear below us : The (Iron) Lady of the lake - spooky!
I departed on the Friday to overnight at the Ullapool campsite overlooking Loch Broom with the Stornoway ferry arriving just off shore. As the town was hosting a music festival the site was fairly busy for the bank holiday weekend but I arrived early enough to secure a pitch overlooking the sea with hook up as the forecast was for a cold snap. On Saturday I decided to tackle Beinn Dearg and set off in good conditions up the access path, however the clouds slowly built up so that by the time I reached my first summit a blizzard had arrived making route finding rather tricky. At the pass with no real sign of a let up I decided to drop out of the cloud to check my bearings and enjoy lunch during which things cleared up again.
I climbed back up and headed off to the summit of Beinn Dearg following the enormous dry stone wall with deep drifts either side. Another blast of strong wind and heavy snow reduced visibility to almost nil so I was grateful for the wall which continued down the ridge and back to the start point - all in all an excellent walk in the wintriest conditions I have experienced for some time. The evening settled down and today looks set to be fair all day so fingers crossed for a calm crossing this evening. 
Some rain is forecast for this week which may bring my run of 7 good weeks to an end but will encourage me to explore Hebridean culture and history over the final month of this trip.
Final pictures of the mainland are here and catch my location most days at this link.

The slideshow goes back almost two years now to New Zealand's South Island.