Western Scotland & The Outer Hebrides
Another Solo Adventure…
Part | One
From Yorkshire to Scotland to Barra on The Outer Hebrides
I’d been harping on to anyone that would listen about going to the Western Isles of Scotland for decades but had never got around to doing the trip. It’s not the sort of expedition you can do by road when you’ve only got a few days to throw at it. I definitely wanted to make a road trip of it and having ample time to do it my way was what had always stood in between those white sandy beaches and me. Lets face it, mini-breaks and me don’t usually get mentioned in the same sentence. All or Nothing!
Early in 2017 I’d decided that I was going to go on this long dreamt of road trip in September of the same year, come what may. I reinforced this by marking an arrow pointing from the 9th of September onwards on just about every calendar I could get my hands on. This included scribbling my intentions on the free Farmer’s Weekly paper calendar, that hangs on the wall at my Mum and Dad’s farm. The same calendar that we get sent free every year along with about twenty other complimentary paper calendars from various companies. I’d have scribbled on those as well, if they hadn’t already been dispatched to the recycling bin. All farmers must get annoyed at receiving this mountain of calenders? There’s always a spitting of feather’s at the farm when the eleventh one arrives. This is the only time the post man ever drives up to the house, all because yet another calendar won’t fit in the post box at the bottom of the drive. How many calendars’ do you really actually need? This could be quite a big debate. For now though, calendar’s aside, my intent was scribbled everywhere from on the pages of Farmers Weekly to Tim Buck Too. I was definitely going.
With so many other exciting things going on as the date approached, things that weren’t there when I’d initially scribbled my intentions, like buying a house and my photography business lifting off into a new dimension. I felt like I shouldn’t probably really be going anywhere. But that’s what everyone does, isn’t it? ‘I can’t go now, because I’ve got too much on’. Well, my reasoning was and always will be, that what ever it is will still be there when I get back, that’s if it’s anything worth doing. I was absolutely going! On Saturday 9th September I did head north on the beginning of another huge solo adventure. This was after I’d, by mistake, slept in by quite a few hours, and forgotten how long it took to get organised, and feeling how hard it felt having to leave my dog Diggy behind. A year trying to coax him into the van a few years ago, when he wouldn’t have a bar of getting in to it. Fast forward to now, he absolutely loves the van and wants to come where ever I go . Once he got over his little phobia that is (he hates slippery floors) I ended up carpeting the van, and that was the complete game changer. For this trip, his poor old back legs just weren’t up to the adventure I had in mind. His eyes, looking sad at me as he saw I was leaving without him, made me feel gutted and guilty. Like I was being selfish and I should have tailored the trip to suit his old dog requirements and not just think about myself. But I know dogs don’t know hate. That was just in my head. I knew I was going to miss him. And I knew he was going to miss me. But I knew who would miss the other most.
I set off from the farm with a bit of a tear in my eye. Things weren’t quite right without Diggy being in his usual place, talking to me from his bed in the back of the van. There’s husky talk, and then there’s Diggy talk. You just get on with things but I was thinking about him all the way. By the time I got onto the A1 north I was trying to just concentrate on the job in hand. The first job was spending almost £40 on fuel, to fill up an already three-quarter full tank. Bit pricey, I noted. Whilst I was at the service station I thought I ought to get a batch of engine oil, just incase. Do they have shops on the Outer Hebrides? As I was at the counter paying for the fuel, I subtly waved the plastic bottle of oil in my hand as I asked the attendant if the oil I had would be suitable in a 2.5L turbo engine. She said, “we are not allowed to give advice on oil”. I wasn’t that surprised by this, (what’s the world coming to?) but her reply didn’t really help me. At this, I turned around to the large queue of people behind me, lifting the container of oil above my head in the air and asked quite loudly, ‘Anyone, is this oil OK to put in a 2.5L turbo engine?’ Two men quickly piped up, ‘yes!’ Yes, this oil was fine! I still wasn’t totally convinced, but how many synthetic oils can there possibly be that do different things? One job does it all Surely? Well, we’ll see won’t we!
The drive along the A66 was gorgeous. Sunshine and showers, the scenery was awesome. Driving across the border was just as epic, the weather, as inclement as it was, presented my favourite skies. Black and blue and juicy and full of emotion. I’d already failed to secure a camp for the night, so I knew I was going to be wild camping. I knew this spot up by Loch Lomond, a kind of lay by. I kept that in my mind and if all else failed I could pull in and stay there for the night. I wasn’t sure that when I arrived there would be any room for me, but luckily there was. So on the first night of my adventure I managed to bag a free park right on the edge of Loch Lomond. There was a sign opposite where I pulled in that said, ‘No Overnight Stays’. What ever! I’d only been parked there fifteen minutes when a stubble chinned bloke wobbled down the road to ask me if I was parked there for the night. I laughed as I replied, ‘I have no intention of moving.’ ‘I’m going to have a glass of wine and if anyone comes along and tells me to shift, I’ll tell them I’m pissed and can’t!’ So I poured myself a glass of wine and settled in for the night.
I slept really well considering where I was parked. I’m sure the first thing I heard the following morning was a road sweeper roar past the side of the van but it could have been a lorry. When I’m in the van with all the blinds down, noises outside make my imagination run away with itself. The spot I was parked in might not have been so ideal, it was a slip road off the main road north after all and so traffic heavy, but it was a free nights accommodation and what is not to love about that. The view of the loch that night was gorgeous.
I pulled the blinds up the following morning and it was absolutely pouring it down. I’d joked to myself the night before that although I was then looking at clear blue skies and an almost glass like loch; I knew it was unlikely that I would wake up to the same view. The mist was so heavy that next morning, you could barely see the mountains in the distance. The scene out of the window was now a milky grey, but just as pretty in a water colour kind of way. That rainy morning I was making my way up to Morelaggan House, a cottage my friends own, right on the edge of Loch Long. I’m always excited to see Linda, Ian and Harvey and I absolutely love Morelaggan. I’ll give their place a bit of free advertising here as I write this, not that they need it, but they do rent Morelaggan out as a luxury holiday cottage most of the year and it is a pretty special place. If you’re ever looking for luxury accommodation in one of the most beautiful locations, with epic hiking right out of the back door, then look no further. Check out the website, where you can find all the information on the cottage, Morelaggan House. https://www.morelagganhouse.com
By the time I reached Arrochar, which is the nearest village to the cottage, the rain was pouring in sideways. I pulled up in the car park at the village to prepare myself for the challenge of parking the Hymer down the road in Morelaggan’s driveway, remembering the last time I’d visited in the motorhome. As amazing as the Hymer is, she’s not really up to the challenge of the incline there is to get up the cottage drive way. I knew this from experience! Lord knows how many tonnes of German ingenuity there are in her, but unlike me, she knows her limits.
Linda was still an hour away in Glasgow, but she’d relayed to me that Ian was already at the house, not working as it was Sunday and he would come to find me. Minutes later Ian and Harvey pulled up in their car next to where I was parked. We decided there, that I would follow them back down to Morelaggan and that I would park at the bottom of the driveway as I did last time. There was just enough room the pull the Hymer across the bottom of the entrance and avoid having to try to drive her up to the house. As I was driving down the road, Ian already out of sight as I plodded along, I began to think, ‘I can’t remember it being as far down here as this’. I completely missed the entrance to house and ended up driving about four miles along the tight winding road until I reached the Ministry of Defense post. Here I had a wide enough space to turn around. Headed back up the road from where I’d just come, I found the entrance to the house. I had a few cars behind me at this point and could feel their impatience of being stuck behind me from the driver’s seat. I knew I’d have to do about Fifty-seven point turns to get the van in the right position, so I thought, ‘bugger it!’ and kept on driving. Minutes later I was back in the car park in the village! Linda picked up my next message and realising I was back where I started, came to meet me in the village car park. It was all a bit of a comedy really. Eventually, after a bit of a catch up in the van with Linda, we drove together back to the cottage. Linda drove in her car and I was trundling along behind her in the Hymer. The rain was still pouring down. I reached Morelaggan and somehow managed to pull the van in and off the road with less than half the trauma of the last time I’d attempted it.
The next couple of days were as much fun as they always are with Linda. We talked through ideas for a new business venture, bellyache laughed a lot and then the following day we climbed Ben Arthur, more locally recognised as ‘The Cobbler’. Achieving this climb would probably have been a bit of a struggle for some people if they’d sampled as many fine wines as we had the night before, but not us! Together with Scout, Linda’s gorgeous retriever, off the three of us went. What a beautiful hike The Cobbler is. I’ve done a lot of hiking, some very challenging hikes; for the most part I thought this hike was really quite easy. That was until you get to the climb to the top. The wind on the way up was peaking at around 50mph and hiking wasn’t easy going with that force blowing right at you head on. Towards the reach to the top of the peak, there were some very tricky boulder sections to contend with, not helped by the incessant rain the day before making the surfaces slimy and slippery. There were waterfalls where there wouldn’t usually be and the ground was hard going. Not too much to tackle with a couple of hiking poles. If you’re a human, you just climb like you’re traversing any wall. But I was more worried about Scout. Still a young dog, she’d never done anything like this before. That dog was a complete legend! There were only two sections that we had to launch her back legs up, so she could scurry up the huge boulders. She had no fear. She’s not even my dog but I felt like a proud mum. We finally reached the summit and the view from the top was inspiring. You could see at least three Lochs and rolling mountains from the vantage point, the scenery from up there was so beautiful. Compared to the weather the day before, we couldn’t have been luckier. The clouds were just as I like them, juicy and full of promise. At times the sun disappeared and filched the colour from the land, but when the clouds parted, the muted purples and browns and a feast of other loveliness returned. If I was sharp enough, I could just about whip my camera out in time to get some great shots before the land was sent into mute colours once again. The wind was so strong at the top, at times I struggled to stay upright. We didn’t stay up there long before we started to make our decent.
On our climb back down, Linda and I got a bit of a ribbing off some young guys who were working on maintaining the path up The Cobbler. One comment was, (cue the very Scottish accent), ‘You’ve got a very patient dog there’. I instantly thought, ‘you cheeky bastards!’ I thought then, we must have looked much younger than we were, blonde hair, slim, fit. Until you saw us both coming down that mountain! With a pair of sticks, shared between the two of us, tentatively lumbering along like a pair of geriatrics. Neither of us will ever be ultra runners, fell runners, or any runners for that matter. I have never liked running, but I’ve always loved walking. I hated running when I was five. I still hated running when I was twelve and I still don’t see the point. I’m the one who used to sneak across the short cut when we were forced to do cross country at school. What matters, is that we get outside and we enjoy the beautiful outdoors, personally, it’s never been about how quickly you can reach your destination.
While we were admiring the view on the way down, a young girl wearing all the gear, complete with a camel back and a straw to drink from rested on her shoulder, bounded past us. Once down the steepest section, she galloped off into the distance like a gazelle. I thought nothing other than, why would you? One thing I love about hiking with Linda is that we trundle along at pretty much the same pace. We worked our way down the steep gnarly path past the workers and just laughed. It’s funny isn’t it? We were all twenty years old once, though I can’t ever remember mocking anyone in that way and I’m always just happy to see people having a go. I bet I could still party them into the ground! The last stretch back to the car seemed to take forever. Neither of us recognised the track, even though it was the same way we’d hiked up. It wasn’t until we reached the memorial bench on the last stint that we knew we were almost back at the car. We had another enjoyable night at Morelaggan that ended up with us dancing around the kitchen to the sounds of Pete Tong on the radio. I’m not sure if it was the wine or if he really was playing some blinders, but we had a brilliant time.
After a fine and hearty feed at the local pub the following morning, it was time to say farewell to Linda and head north on the next leg of my adventure. I had a completely buttock clenching drive from Arrochar to Oban. The roads were really tight in places, to see an articulated lorry or a bus approaching in the opposite direction just made me want to close my eyes and hope for the best. There were several times when I was only centimeters away from being minus a wing mirror or worse. I’d booked a night at a campsite so I could charge my gadgets up, wash all my pots and most of all have a nice hot shower the next day before heading off again. The campsite was called Oban Camping & Caravanning Club and I thought the Sat Nav was taking me on another wild goose chase when I turned off in the opposite direction to Oban. In actual fact, the site was nowhere near Oban. The site had good facilities, except for the minor matter of the archaic Wi-Fi. I had no signal what so ever on my mobile phone and had no other option but to pay to use the campsite Wi-Fi. Ordinarily having no Internet or phone wouldn’t have bothered me too much, but I still hadn’t organised or booked myself on to the ferry to the Outer Hebrides. The normally simple task of making a reservation online took me almost two hours to achieve. Every time I thought I had almost got there with the booking form, the Internet would crash out. Eventually I was sent a receipt for the ferry crossings, at the cost £168 for four ferry crossings, getting me from Barra and eventually to Ullapool on the mainland. I thought it was cheap at the price. But then, after coughing up the money, I wasn’t sent a booking confirmation or indeed any information what so ever regarding the booking. Even though paragliding has taught me a new level of patience which was once unknown to me, I was starting to get a bit hacked off by this point. I ended up walking down the road for some distance until as if by magic, I managed to get a tiny amount of 4G on my phone. I’d already typed a letter of concern to Calmac, the ferry company, into notes on my phone, so I quickly copied and pasted it into an email, pressed send with an enormous sense of achievement and then wandered off back to the campsite still not really knowing whether I was booked onto the ferry the following morning or not. Later that evening, I finally got the confirmation through and I knew I was to be at Oban ferry terminal on Wednesday 13th September 2017 to catch the 1.30pm ferry across to Barra on the Outer Hebrides.
It was a relief to wake up the next day knowing I had a plan of action. I went through the morning ritual. A big glass of freshly squeezed lemon juice and grated ginger in warm water was guzzled before I did anything else. I do this every day, without fail, unless I’m in transit and without the ingredients. A big breakfast was cooked and consumed. This usually comprises avocado and egg on toast, olive oil on the toast, with what ever else I happen to chuck in the pan. The accompaniments were asparagus, onion, garlic, courgette, chestnut mushrooms, turmeric, cayenne and black pepper. This breakfast is fondly termed ‘The Jayneway’. The Thetford cassette (the bog) was washed out, the pots were washed and then I was washed. The shower had one of those annoying buttons that you have to push every five seconds in order to extract lukewarm water in short bursts. I was just doing the preflight check, gas off, step up, when there was a knock on the door. How unusual, I thought to myself. The man at the door was another Hymer owner who was parked across the way from me. He asked me if I was in ‘The Classic Hymer Club’. Inwardly laughing. ‘No, no I’m not’, I replied. At one time I would have had no interest in such things. Paul introduced himself, his wife Mel and Buzz their ginormous Rottweiler. Paul was telling me about how the club had helped him with all the idiosyncrasies you encounter when owning a classic motor. I recalled the first winter after I’d bought the Hymer and the harrowing task of cleaning the pipes out and ‘bedding her down for the winter’. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. All my manuals are in German. I was convinced the boiler would freeze up and explode when it thawed. The information I was able to find on the Internet was sketchy at best and it was only a YouTube video on cleaning Hymer lines out that ended up saving the day. If only I’d known about the club then, how much time and angst it would have saved me. Is this what happens to you when you reach ‘almost’ middle age? You join lots of clubs because you no longer have a clue what you are doing and you feel the need to be in clubs with other people who have as much or even less of a clue than you. I’m going to join the club! Paul and Mel were lovely. After I’d given the Rottie a bit of a back scratch, I fired Hymie up and I was on my merry way.
I reached the ferry terminal in Oban with bags of time to spare. I was so excited to see people boarding the ferry to Mull. I was ushered into line by a local chap and I duly pulled in behind another motorhome. I spent the spare time I had taking photo’s and video of this part of the journey. The time passed quickly and it wasn’t long before I had a tap on the window. A man in a day-glow jacket, sporting a very well manicured, crumb harbouring, Freddy Mercury-esque mustache, asked me for my ticket. With only a hint of sarcasm, I explained that because I didn’t have a printer in the van, my ticket was on my phone. I cheerfully whipped my phone out of the window and was just about to show him my screen grab. He stopped me before I did. It was with a look of consternation firstly on his face, then mine, that I must go to the ticket office, a good jog away, and have my tickets printed. I had five minutes to complete the task before all the vehicles were to board the ferry. I remembered then, that I could actually run, quite fast at that, when I had to. I legged it to the office and grimaced when I saw the queue in front of me. Why I got into a conversation about the strange postcodes that were printed onto each of my tickets at this point, I’ll never understand. I’m not sure if it was my accent, but I could tell by the way the girl behind the counter tilted her head that she didn’t have a clue what I was on about. I just smiled and said to not worry about it. I grabbed the long thread of tickets and the receipt and then made a mad dash back to the van. No sooner had I slammed shut the door, we were waved onto the ferry.
The metal ramp leading on to the ferry was really tight and I was very conscious of making sure I lined the wheels up so I didn’t end up causing a scene. I clanked across the steel bridge without incident and pulled up behind the van in front of me. I then carried out the obligatory ‘three check syndrome’. Handbrake on? Handbrake on? Yes, the handbrake is on. Is the van in gear? Yes the van is in gear! Just let me wiggle it out of gear and then put it back in gear again. Yes, the van is definitely in gear. I got out of the van and then got back in and did all the aforementioned again, just to make sure. I still had visions of my van rolling backwards into the brand new transit van behind, and then ricocheting forwards into the shiny motorhome in front of me, if the sea was a bit choppy on the crossing. Nobody was allowed below deck once we had set sail. I wasn’t sure what sort of carnage I would find below deck when we arrived on Barra. I’ve always had an over active imagination.
I climbed up two flights of stairs to the upper decks, wincing with each step, because my calf muscles were still tight from climbing up Ben Arthur the day before. I did a full visual survey of the vessel. A really nice ship, quite a big ferry, with a restaurant offering some tasty looking food, reclining faux leather seats and a small gambling booth with a selection of fruit machines to throw your money at. I liked the stickers they had on the toilet doors. They said, ‘chance of trapping fingers and hands’, they were stuck on every door. I wondered how many finger trapping incidents there had been before they had to stick those on to avoid any nasty repercussions? There was hardly anybody onboard the ferry. I went outside on to the back deck to watch the ship set sail. Into the distance out to sea the sun was shining, looking back to land there were ominous looking dark grey clouds. The rooftops of the buildings in the harbour looked amazing in the light. I’ve always loved being on a boat. I love everything about it, the ropes, the deck, the sea and the excitement of the journey ahead. As the boat left the port, I felt completely at home. The first two hours flew past so fast I couldn’t believe the time when I first looked at the clock on my phone. I’d already been on the boat for two hours, almost half the journey and it felt like I’d been sailing for five minutes. In this time I had seen three different rainbows. I absolutely love rainbows and get so animated every time I see one. Two of the rainbows were the widest I had ever seen, a unique shape, less of an arch than I was used to seeing. Another was a raining rainbow and I can only describe it like that because I have never seen anything like it before. By that I mean the rainbow was actually inside the rain coming out of the cloud. As the rain came down in the distance, the colours of the rainbow rained down along with the rain. Basically, the sky was raining colour. That rainbow was huge. I tried to take some photographs of this, but the scene was so lively, a static image could never portray it as it was in that moment. Three miracles that I’d never seen in the quite the same way before, and this was all after we’d just left port. As if this wasn’t quite enough for the senses. Just after this, I saw a pod of porpoises approach the boat. They were riding the waves and quickly moved to the wake at the back of the boat for a play and surf before disappearing into the ocean beyond. It was sensory overload. After all this excitement, I felt a bit hungry. Passenger vessels like this aren’t renowned for their fine cuisine, but I ordered the Cullen Skink anyway. It was lovely! A pot of both smoked and unsmoked white fish in a creamy white sauce with leeks and a cheese and potato topping, and crunchy not over cooked vegetables. The food was delicious and with the view out of the window I quite felt like one of the luckiest people in the world.
I met various people whilst I was making the crossing. There was the woman in the purple jacket. I’d seen this same person at the port in Oban. Why she stood out to me, I’m not sure, but I was to see a lot more of her in the coming days. She wasn’t really interested in making conversation and it wasn’t for the want of my trying. I think she might have been quite shy. She would have probably been in her sixties and had a pair of binoculars that she kept whipping out from time to time. Her and I spent quite a lot of time out on the back deck of the ferry watching the world drift by without saying a word to each other. When the raining rainbow happened, I leapt up and turned to her to point this phenomenon out. I think I gave her a bit of a shock. After a few hours sailing, with her not too far away, I was trying to work out what she was looking at through her binoculars. I thought she might be a twitcher, but after a while I realised that what she was looking through those lenses was actually boats. What ever floats your boat!
I met another couple that were as blown away by the scenery off the boat as I was, the scenery sailing through the Inner Hebrides was epic. After the bumbling male of the man and wife union almost tripped over my camera bag, we struck up a conversation. At first, I thought he was American. He had a strange accent. I commented on how beautiful everything that we were looking at was. He seemed to know the area well. He said, whilst pointing to a nearby island, “Lister, we know it well”. Being the random conversationalist that I am, I fished for more detail. At first, I thought he might own a property on ‘Lister’, hell, he was so superior in his speech; I thought he might even own the whole island. I think he was just wishing he did, because as the conversation transpired, I learned he was actually from Halifax, West Yorkshire. For those not familiar with Halifax, well, you haven’t heard of it for good reason. When I told them where I was from, and this was the only time his wife spoke, she said, ‘Oh, you’re from posh Yorkshire!’ As the conversation further developed, I learned that both of them were retired geography teachers. The Island of Lister, I was told, only used to have a population of blah blah, ‘but… they are making more’, spoken in a sinister drawl reminiscent of Mr. Smithers. Making More! Although I quite liked his dry humour, I laughed my head off internally at his remarks. I thought, what a tit! The people of the outer islands are struggling to survive because of so many factors, like they have been for centuries, and this bigot from Halifax would rather witness a dying population on islands with such promise, than see an amazingly resilient bunch of survivalists actually make a life for themselves and continue living in this harsh environment. He wanted the island empty of people! I could hear it in his voice! I made a sharp exit, as much as you can do, when you are on a boat. We passed each other several times on the boat after this, the acknowledgement of our prior conversation being a nod of the head.
At around 6.30pm we pulled into the port on Barra Island. The ferry journey didn’t seem anywhere like five hours long, I’d loved every second. When I went down the stairwell to the lower deck to find the Hymer to disembark, I was tickled to see that she was still parked where I had left her and that neither the vehicle in front or behind was mangled. Driving off the ferry, the excitement within me was palpable. I was on fresh soil and I just could not wait to get amongst it all. As I pulled up the off ramp and drove up a bit of a hill, I was presented with a choice of direction, left or right? It was a bit of a sliding doors moment. I took the left option. I’d only driven for a few hundred yards when the width of the road I was looking at in front of me shrunk by half. I was probably screwing my face up like you might do if you need glasses. I had to stop and weigh the situation up. ‘You have got to be joking’, I thought, or words to that effect. I had no choice but to keep going forwards because there was nowhere to turn around, so I put my foot down and hoped for the best.
I was on my way to Vatersay on a single track, Hymer width (only just) road. Vatersay is the most southerly inhabited island of The Outer Hebrides. I thought it would be pretty cool to find a spot to park up by one of the beautiful white sandy beaches that I could see on the island off in the distance. About half way along the track, the road widened, briefly. I was able to pull the van over to the side of the road and take in the beautiful view. The sun was beginning to set; the colours in the sky were striking. Just as I was sat staring into the ether a couple came past on their bikes. The guy cycled straight past and flew down the steep bank ahead, the girl stopped, so I got out to have a chat with her. She was from Ireland and the pair of them were cycling part of The Hebridean Way, over ten days ending up back on the Scottish mainland in Skye. She was full of cold and was telling me it had been her sister’s wedding back in Ireland the previous weekend and that she’d overdone it a bit which I thought was hilarious. At this point I was considering where I was as a spot to camp for the night, I asked her if she thought it would be all right. I commented on how sniffy the authorities are with you parking anywhere you like in England. I knew about the wild camping rules in Scotland and she seemed to think it would be fine for me to stay there. She invited me down to their tent for a cup of tea if I was passing and with a blow of her nose, off she went.
The more I was looking down on Vatersay from where I was, the more the idea of the white sandy beach as my view for the night was seducing me. I got back in the van and carried on down the road. The road soon narrowed back into a single track. I noticed that there were ‘passing places’ along the way and experienced my first vehicle coming at me head on from the other direction, they pulled in and I navigated accordingly. The ease of this felt pleasing. Some of the track was so tight in places all I could do was laugh. I crossed a causeway at the bottom at the hill and this is where I started to regret wanting a beach bed for the night. I had to drive over a cattle grid that had metal fencing on either side; this was so narrow that I literally had about two inches on each side and no margin for error. I cleared this and then had to dodge a dozy herd of cattle that were lolloping around in the road. I passed the Irish couple setting up their tent behind some tussocks of grass just off the beach. I gave them a wave and they waved back. Continuing up the road, praying that I didn’t meet anybody coming in the opposite direction, I no longer had a good feeling about what I was doing. I reached the end of the road where there was a tiny settlement of cottages. Nowhere along this stretch was there parking by the beach for any kind of vehicle, motorbike, car or van, it was so frustrating. The no parking facilities what so ever, anywhere, was a phenomenon that would echo throughout the entire trip. I did a six-point turn at the cottages and made my way back up the five feet wide road, past the stoned cattle and squeezed back through the cattle grid. I beeped my horn at the Irish couple and gave them another jolly wave as I left Vatersay Island.
Now I wasn’t sure where I was going to stay for the night and it was getting dark. A little way up the road I found a spot to pull in, it looked like one of the passing places I was becoming familiar with, but I got out to have a look and there were no signs saying as much. This will have to do, I thought. Just as I was about to start making myself comfortable, a red car shot past at speed. Driving like an idiot, what a cock, were my thoughts. Then the same car screeched to a halt and began reversing at the same speed eventually stopping right beside the van and me. This perturbed me somewhat but I slid my window open to see what they wanted anyway. In the car were two bleary eyes young lads, stoned or drunk or both. “You canny park there” one of them remarked. I told them I was just looking at my map, but I thought, who says I can’t, you? After they sped off, I didn’t feel comfortable staying there, so I cranked her up and set off up the road again. I reached a monument to dead servicemen on the right of the road when I drove further along. This looked like it might be another passing point, but I noted that there was a rubbish bin there. This will have to do, part two. So I pulled in and sat there for about ten minutes to see if the stoners came back to aggravate me. They didn’t, so I started setting up for the night in this lay-by. The wind was starting to pick up and I could feel that the weather was about to change. Not long after this, I heard a car pull up behind the van. I thought, oh god, I bet it’s those two again. It wasn’t, it was a man in a four by four. I sat for a moment or two wondering if I should get out and ask him if I would be OK to park there for the night. What I didn’t want was to get settled, as in pour a glass of wine, and then have to move again, so I got out to have a word with him. A colourful character wound down his window to speak to me. He had a very weathered face, lots of teeth missing and was holding his mobile phone, probably using that spot to get a signal. I’d already sussed out that using my phone was going to be a privilege while I was on the islands, there was next to no signal, intermittent at best and 4G, definitely not. I told the man what had happened to me down the road and he just laughed. He said, ‘They were probably wild’. Wild? What did that mean? How wild?
He said to me, ‘If you’ve paid your road tax, you can park wherever you like’. I liked his attitude and his words set my intentions in stone. This would have to do. I thanked the man, trotted off back to the van and poured myself a glass of wine. As I was watching the clouds out of the back window of the van the whole scene felt quite surreal. I wasn’t completely happy being parked where I was, but after the second glass of wine, I thought it was fine, could be worse. I’d been parked up for about an hour when that weather that I had predicted hit. Wind and torrents of sideways rain, the van was shifting and creaking side to side in the force of the wind that was bouncing off the rock next to me. I noted every single sound. What was that noise? I thought of the Irish couple in their tent, poor buggers. We’d only commented a few hours before on how good the upcoming forecast looked. It lashed it down all night. I went to bed listening to all the sounds the weather was creating. I checked the doors were locked and then I checked again, twice.
I woke up at sunrise the following morning, not by choice, but because the sound of the rain thrashing on the side of the van woke me up. I was so pleased that it did, because the beautiful morning light over the island was so worth getting up for. I was full of beans and chuffed to have survived the night. It’s hard to describe what it’s like travelling on your own to people that have never done it. I love everything about it and I never get sick of my own company. Overcoming every challenge that gets thrown at you, having to work things out for yourself. I’ve always been incredibly independent and the older I get the more I relish the experiences I have going it solo. Whilst I was sat in the van, an inundation of Atlantic rain came through, interspersed with rays of sunshine peeping through the clouds. I hopped out to take photographs in between the downpour. I looked at the map, which could have been a drawing created by a five year old for all the sense it made. I knew the weather was set in for a good few hours, maybe all day. I was in no rush to move. Out of my window, I was looking at Heavel, which is the biggest hill on Barra. I really wanted to go up there, but I wasn’t up for fighting my way up the steep rocky hill in lashing rain and wind. I wanted to take photographs if went up the peak and there just wasn’t any point in that weather. I cooked a Jayneway, watched the bonkers weather out of the window and sat and wrote some of this adventure. The time wasn’t wasted! By around 11am I accepted that the weather probably wasn’t going to get any better. I packed all the loose things away and set off to explore the island in the van.
Every hundred meters give or take, there was one of those passing places. I’d got used to them now, at times it was like a gunfight at dawn with what ever was coming the other way. Sometimes I could use my size to have the authority over smaller vehicles, but most of the time I ended up pulling over and waiting for what ever it was to pass. I started off in Castlebay and drove around the island in an anti clockwise direction, passing through Earsary and Allathasdal. As I was driving along past the valley settlement of Borve, I saw a scribbled sign that said ‘campsite’ on the left of the road. The view off the coast here was amazing and I thought all my Christmases had come at once at the prospect of not having to spend another night in the same lay-by. I dodged more traffic and made my way back to Castlebay, the village and main hub on the island, in search of Wi-Fi and a phone signal. I found a wobbly connection in the only open shop, which was the post office that also doubled up as a tearoom. The other shop was shut. My mission was to try to contact the guy who owned the campsite. I was definitely going to be staying there! I rang him three times on two different numbers and just ended up leaving what was probably a couple of desperate messages. The couple that ran the post office were from Yorkshire, it was like being at home listening to them talk! They did a really good latte in their tearoom, the scones other people were munching on looked like they were a big hit as well.
I decided to drive back down the road to the campsite and just take my chance. It was a small site, but I bagged myself a great pitch on the end, right on the edge of a cliff over looking the wild Atlantic, it was gorgeous. Now I just had to sit and wait to see if I was going to be moved along. I ended up having to wait for a few hours, but I made use of the electric hook up and Wi-Fi while I was waiting. I was amazed how well equipped this place was. There was a little kitchen, a few showers and toilets and free Wi-Fi all set up in a small hut in the middle of the grassy strip on the edge of the cliff in the middle of nowhere. The view out of the window of the Hymer was enough, without all the extras, I’d have been happy just to park there. I sat and watched the weather roll in and out a mixture of heavy showers followed by bursts of sunshine. So mesmerised I was by all this, I almost didn’t hear a van pull up at the back of the Hymer. It was the postman, in a post office van! A delivery, for me? Surely not! I opened the back door before he had chance to knock on it. A tall man with grey hair and a slight stutter asked me if I was the person that had left messages on his various phones. Ah, the camp site owner, who is also the posty! I explained that I was the said message leaver and could I please have a few nights stay? ‘No problem!’ Was his reply, ‘I see you’ve already got plugged in’. We both laughed. I told him I’d spent the previous night on the side of the road. With that, I parted with a few quid for my pitch, and off he sped in his little red van.
The next morning the weather was looking great. I knew if the rain managed to stay away for more than the hour it would take me to have a shower, check my emails and feed my face, it might just stay fine all day. It was still looking good mid morning, so I decided I would cycle around the whole of Barra Island. I set off on the bike, this time in a clockwise direction. I’d only peddled about 2km when I realised I’d probably picked the most windy and hilly direction to do it in. I passed the turn off for Borve, cycled around the corner and almost got blown off my bike. This section of coastline was beautiful, rugged, with an almost surfable break rolling into one of the bigger bays. I was hopping off and on my bike all the way long this stretch of road to take photographs. The clear blue skies had disappeared now and had been replaced by some juicy cumulous clouds evolving and changing by the second. I knew there had to be some rain in there somewhere. I’d learned by now, that getting wet at some point in the day was probably inevitable on these islands.
I’d stopped to take yet another photograph, when a man I’d noticed cycling behind me earlier caught me up and stopped for a chat. He looked a bit like a more compact version of Kenny Rogers, white hair and beard and spoke with a soft Scottish accent. He told me he was taking some photographs for a calendar, of Scotland’s most beautiful beaches. He was in the right place for that. He then cycled off into the distance as I stayed to watch a weather front blow in. By the time I had cycled just around the corner at Allathasdal, I could see that it was probably throwing it down on the van and campsite, with a big black band of rain drifting across the sky in that direction. It wasn’t long before I saw another rainbow. The road from here to Loch an Duin was quite an uphill gradient with a scattering of tiny houses along the croft. I came to a beautiful house along the road, much larger than any of the other houses I’d seen on the island. Overgrown and unkempt, with dark gloomy windows, it didn’t look like it had been lived in for years. I wanted to go and have a poke around inside, but didn’t. I wondered why such a spectacular house would be left to go to ruin and wanted to know what its story was, I bet it could have told a tale or two. I’ve always found it a bit sad when I see places like this empty. Much of the old croft houses on the island were ruins now. There’s something sorrowful about a part of history like this vanishing from the landscape.
Further along this stretch of road, almost to the other side of the island, I was presented with a left turn. This road led up to the airport. The travel guide’s I’d read had said that seeing the airport and runway was not to be missed, so off I went north, airport bound. Just after the junction I noticed a little hidden turn off on the right that lead to a horseshoe shaped parking spot, here I had a bit of a ‘voila!’ moment. If I’d only known that was there the first night! It was a smashing little beauty spot, overlooking a tiny loch, with cosy cottages dotted around the edge. I think the entrance lead to somebody’s house, but there was enough space down there for a Hymer or two. I cycled back out on to the road feeling quite determined that I’d remember that spot for next time. As I pulled back on to the road, I saw Kenny Roger’s huffing and puffing his way up the hill. We met once again, further along the road. As we both stopped to look at the expanse of chalk white sand and turquoise water, it started to rain quite heavily. Simultaneously we both pulled out waterproofs and put them on. I was weighing up whether going all the way along the road to the airport was really worth it in the rain, or if I was seeing the best of it from where we were stood. Kenny remarked three times that apparently the café at the airport did really good coffee. I think he was waiting for me to say that I’d join him, but I didn’t really fancy it. Off he cycled. I stood and had a nibble on my sandwich while I decided what to do. It took less then four mouthfuls, the rain stopped and the sun shone even brighter than before. It’s true; this had to be one of the most spectacular airports in the world. Apparently plane-spotters from all over the world aren’t satisfied until they have ticked this one off the list of places to land. As I was stood in the same spot, I saw a plane take off. The plane came across the white sand heading in my direction, did a U-turn and then without looking like it had much space to get speed up, it took off. It was brilliant to watch. Now the sun was shining again and there was an opportunity for more photographs, I decided to cycle right up to the tip of the north point, past Eoligarry. From the very top of the Barra you could see tiny islands, Fiaraigh and Fuday.
I was half expecting to see Kenny Roger’s again on my way back down past the airport, I didn’t. But I did see the woman in the purple jacket again. She was by the side of the road at the airport wandering around. I’ve always believed that if you keep on bumping into the same stranger (unless they are blatantly eerie) more than twice, then there’s maybe a reason for it. I gave her a wave as I cycled past and she waved back. I thought at the time, maybe I should have stopped to have a chat with her. I never saw her again after that. I made my way back down the road to join back up to the island circular. I passed an unexpected area of lush woodland with a wide variety of plants and trees growing. On an island so sparse it was really lovely to find such diverse plant life growing happily in that tiny little pocket of land. There were plants, some huge, growing there that no matter how much fertiliser you chucked on them, would ever survive in Northern England. The warmth of the Gulf Stream is enough to encourage things to grow on The Outer Hebrides, where little or no chemicals are used on the land. Images of the islands totally covered in vegetation floated through my mind. I think once upon a time the islands were covered in trees, there’s no reason why not. I think the reason the islands were no longer an oasis of fauna is because, not uniquely throughout the modern world, the entire island chain had been cleared for farming purposes a long time ago. What a bunch of feckless yobs we were and continue to be at an unprecedented pace.
Beyond the trees I came to another beautiful rugged stretch of coastline. Lobster pots and small fishing boats bobbing about in the tiny bays. Small children shouting goodbye and waving to me as I cycled past. I stopped at a vantage point, taken back by the view of another small island off the east, Orasaigh. I couldn’t have caught the view at a better time, the way the light was shining on the water. The way the clouds were behaving, or not behaving, depending on which way you wanted to look at it. So impressive was the view that I stood there in awe for ages, taking photos and immersing myself in the ambiance. It was a good job I didn’t rush, because what would have been the point of cycling around the entire island without getting a good soaking in with the experience? I cycled down a lovely hill and then felt the punch when I saw the hill I had to climb at the other side of it. I was at the foot of Ben Heavel, the biggest peak on the island. As I was grimacing my way up the interminable mound, a massive squall came through and completely soaked me. I was on my road bike, which added to the mirth. A fast ride? Yes. Traction in the wet? No. I ended up having to push the bike up the steepest part as I was wiping rain off my face with one hand and trying to keep the seat dry with the other. I felt quite victorious when I got to the top, followed by a tentative slide down the other side back down to Castlebay. I followed the road back around, through the village and down the winding road back to Borve and the van. I think I’d only cycled about 25 miles, but I was quite knackered by the time I got back.
I ended up having a few wines with some of the other people in the campsite when I got back, this soon made me forget about my jelly legs. The postman was there too, I had a good chat to him. We mostly talked about farming and about how people who live on the islands all have more than one job to sustain a standard of living most people take for granted. Following this, I was back in my van, when I had a second wind. I don’t really know what possessed me, but it was a nice night and I thought I’d have a walk back into the village and get some supplies for the van before heading off the following day. I grabbed a rucksack and a head torch and off I trudged. I hadn’t walked very far down the road when I remembered just how far it actually was to the village. A bit daft really considering I’d just cycled down the same road. It had suddenly gone from being quite light to getting quite dark, very quickly. Not one to recoil a challenge, I kept on going. Of all the things that could have happened next, I would have never dreamt that the only taxi on the island would drive past me. I didn’t even know there was a taxi. He had already driven past me, but I leapt out in to the road waving my arms around. He spotted me immediately and reversed back to pick me up. Meet Dan, the sixty something year old taxi driver, tour guide and the caravan park owner. I’m sure he mentioned a few other jobs he had on top of these. This was the funniest half hour you could imagine. He took me to the shop in the village, waited for me in the car park and then drove me back to the campsite again. We had hilarious conversations in the car, there and back. He was a good friend of The Postman and was just the loveliest man. What a great day and a hilarious finale to my first time on Barra.
I was up early the next morning getting the van ready for the next leg of the adventure. I went through the usual routine and got chatting to a couple of people that were camping. I always used to think that Scottish people eating porridge for breakfast was a cliché, but all the Scottish people I’d met did eat porridge for breakfast! The lady, who I’d spoken to briefly the day before, was lovely and full of chatter. She was telling me how she’d only really started hill walking when she was sixty-five, and that was ten years ago. She didn’t look her age one bit. She was camping with her second husband, who she happily told me was a sixties baby, she was a forty’s baby. I could do nothing by totally admire her and I can only hope that I still have a much life in me at that age. We chatted about all kinds of things and she was really interested in my photography and the travelling I’d done. I think she was actually quite amazed that I’d done as much as I had with my life. It was a fond farewell. I left a couple of my business cards with them, as they’d asked to have a look at my website. They said they would drop me an email and that if I were ever near them when I was in Scotland that I would always be welcome. One interesting fact that I won’t forget, that came from our conversation that morning was this; I was talking about a skiing trip that I had done to Glen Shee a few years ago and how it was that cold that the icicles were hanging off the fence poles sideways. Her husband, who was a teacher, explained the science behind this. His explanation was a lot better than this, but basically what he said was that the icicles were formed by wind blowing from the opposite direction to the way the icicles were pointing. I’d never really given this much thought before. But once I’d given it a bit more thought, the science made complete sense!
I was navigating the single-track roads like a pro on the way to the ferry terminal. After all that chatting, I wasn’t sure I was going to make it in time for the crossing. I was surprised to find that I was about fifteen minutes early when I arrived. There wasn’t a terminal as such, just a hut with toilets and a car park where you queued up in your vehicle to wait to board. It was a wet, grey morning. I’d opted for the winter down jacket, with another jacket underneath it.
It wasn’t long before I could see the ferry approaching across the Sound of Barra. I couldn’t quite make out what sort of vessel it was, but it didn’t look very big. As I was driving down the causeway, I could see it was one of those no frills ferries. More of a catamaran, where you just drive on and sit in your car for the duration. I supposed you’d see the water coming in in good time, but be able to do little about it. On the ferry, you could get out of your car if you wanted and climb up some steps to a platform where you could look out over the sides. It wasn’t the best weather for this, but I was glad I braved it because I saw some seals. That was delight enough and I soon trotted off back to the comfort of my van. It felt like first class travel going across the water. I was on my way to South Uist…
Look out for The Adventures of Captain Jayneway |The Outer Hebrides | Part 2
South Uist to Harris & Lewis & Back down the Western Isles… Epic!
Won’t be long!
Keep on living the life you love and loving the life you live
Captain Jayneway X