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Hebrides 2011 - The 'Single track' Odyssey

Part 2 - Barra to Berneray

04.08.11 - Tiree to Barra

We were woken just before the alarm went with a heavy rain shower and when I looked outside the clag was down. It took us a bit longer to pack but we were away by 9.30. It was only drizzling a little when we left but as we got nearer to Scarinish it got heavier, we had waterproof jackets on but hadn't bothered with over trousers so our trousers were a little wet when we got to the CalMac booking office, we were just grateful to sit in there out of the rain and warm up. The ferry arrived on time and the CalMac staff were really good about getting us loaded quickly so we didn't have to hang around in the pouring rain. The ferry journey was fairly uneventful and we took the opportunity to have a hot meal on board so we didn't have to cook when we got to Barra. We arrived at Castlebay and it was still raining although not as heavily. After negotiating the steepish climb out of the ferry terminal to the main road we made the mistake of asking at the tourist office about the new campsite. The lady at the tourist office said it was still not ready and that only the groundwork and water were in place. She said there was a crofter at Croft 183 who did camping about three and a half miles away along the road to the north. As it was now raining hard we thought it might be nice to have some facilities at our campsite rather than camping wild down on Vatersay, which was quite a few more miles away so we headed off for Croft 183. Well there is quite a steep hill out of Castlebay and it was quite hard work. With waterproofs on we had to stop half way up to take our over trousers off as we were seriously overheating! It was quite a hill to climb with full panniers, and with the rain it reminded us of the hill climb out of Sey∂isfjör∂ur in Iceland except that fortunately it wasn't as seriously high or as long. Once we had got over the main hill it was very much like interval training as we went up and down over smaller hills passing little inlets, which I'm sure, would have looked lovely on a better day. We eventually came to Croft 183 but it was more geared up for motor homes and what grass there was was already taken by tents with no room to pitch our tent. As the rain had virtually stopped by then we decided to move on to look for a wild camp. Unfortunately there weren't that many places, the machair on the west side of the Island is all fenced off with grazing animals. We eventually came to the new campsite at Boreve, which was indeed open but with no facilities just a cold water tap( Boevre campsite now fully open and has facilities). Looking at the map we realised we had virtually circumnavigated the island and if only we had turned south instead of north we would have been at the same place hours ago and would have missed out on the steep hill out of Castlebay, also in that time we could easily have got around to Vatersay. Never mind it was too late by then to head over to Vatersay and as it was getting dark we decided to camp at Boreve, at least it was flat and had a reasonable view of the sea.

map link05.08.11 - Barra

We woke to a lovely morning and after our breakfast cycled to Castlebay. The bay was bathed in sunshine and we noticed that there was a small boat that took you across the bay to Kisimul Castle. As it is now managed by Historic Scotland we realised we would get in free with our English Heritage cards. The Castle is the clan seat of the Macneil's and was quite interesting as up until 1937 it had been a complete ruin due to the Macneil chiefs being in great debt. It was then bought by Robert Lister Macneil, the 45th Chief an American who wanted to return it back to how it originally was as a family home. Unfortunately he never quite finished it and left it to Historic Scotland who are still working on restoring it and trying to put right some of the things that he hadn't got quite right. After our look around castle we stopped for a bit of lunch at the cafe on the harbour. As we sat there it was nice to hear some of younger people speaking Gaelic on the next table, apparently it is now cool for the young to speak Gaelic. We quickly nipped back to the campsite to get our small rucksack so we could go for a walk on Vatersay. There was a good little hill to climb over on our way to Vatersay and we stopped at the top to look at the monument to the soldiers from the isles of Barra and Vatersay who had given their lives in the two world wars. Vatersay is joined to Barra by a short causeway and as we got on to the island we nearly took a wrong turning, but there was local chap sitting on his door step with his little boy and as we were about to set off left he told us that the road went to the village only and that we needed to go on the new road to the right. I did wonder when I saw the bus that had gone down the road earlier come back up the same way. We thanked him for his help and headed on up the new road along side the loch.

As we turned south into Vatersay bay we came across the crash site of Catalina flying boat by the side of the road. There were still quite a few sizable chunks of the wreckage lying around and close by a memorial had been erected to the airmen that had lost their lives. It never ceases to amaze us just how young some of these aircrew were. At the end of the bay there is a white sandy beach in front of the machair which is quite broad and stretches right across from one beach on the east side to the beach on the west side with the road running through the middle. The flowers on the machair were absolutely stunning with great swaths of one my favourite flowers the Harebell. On the west beach there was a memorial to those poor souls that lost their lives in the wreck of the 'Annie Jane' a sailing brig bound for Quebec from Liverpool which foundered off the coast of Vatersay in 1853 climbing 348 lives.

We stopped for a cup of tea and a cake at the village hall which the villagers were using as a cafe, it was quite nice to sit outside and soak up the sun and the fresh air. We decided to walk over to a cache that was situated on the west of Bara and involved a bit of a trek over a small hill. We retraced our steps back over Vatersay and over the causeway and found a place where we could start our walk and leave the bikes. This happened to be the site of an ancient wheel house site which was interesting as we hadn't come across one of these before. We climbed up and circumnavigated the actual summit of Beinn Tangabhal and before traversing in towards the cache site. The first part was on a ATB track which was obviously used by the local farmer to round up his sheep, however this soon petered out and we ended up heather and rock hopping after that which made the going a little tough. The cache owner's coordinates were spot on and we soon found the cache, which was in good order. Frank laughed out loud at the logs from the previous cachers as there were some good comments, she especially liked the cachers who said that the journey had been so arduous that they had resorted to eating their Sherpas! To make it a bit more of walk we decided not to return via our outward bound route and take in the summit of Beinn an Scuite 184m it was well worth the extra effort as we got some lovely views from the top although we could see some weather coming in from the south. As we were were walking down the hill to get back to the bikes we realised that it had just turned 7.00pm and that we would have to hurry to get to the Co-op before it closed. When we got to the bikes Frank suggested that I hare off ahead of her rather than wait for her. It was a good thing I did as I only just got the Coop at 7.50pm and it closed at 8.00pm. Unfortunately when we got to the campsite we weren't the only people there any more, there was a transit van and car with several tents. Unfortunately they were rather noisy and drunk and partied until two in the morning!

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06.08.11 - Barra to South Uist

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We woke feeling absolutely rubbish after having had not enough sleep due to the partying idiots but we refused to let them get to us. We just packed up and left and didn't give them any eye contact. On the way to the ferry we pulled in to allow two cars to pass us near Loch an Dúrin, we checked behind and then pulled out to carry on just as we did this car just appeared from nowhere going at a hell of a lick and over took us on the narrowest part of the road, the car was only a few inches from knocking Frank off. Well I'm afraid the air was a bit blue as I chased after the car waving my fist. Fortunately it was downhill and with a fully loaded touring bike I was getting some serious speed up. I would have caught the driver up if I hadn't had to stop for a car coming up the hill, but I'm sure the car driver had seen me in its rear view mirror. I waited at the bottom of the hill at Bágh Thiarabhagh by the turning for the ferry for Frank which gave me time to calm down a bit. It was further to the ferry jetty than we had thought and we got there with about 15 minutes to spare. Whilst we were waiting another cyclist arrived and I recognized him as the guy who was on top of the dam at Loch an Dúrin as I chased past after the car driver. I said hello and apologised for my bad language, he said there was no need to apologise he would have done exactly the same thing as he had seen exactly what had happened and the car driver was totally in the wrong. We chatted to him on the ferry, he was just up for the day from Edinburgh doing a structural survey of the dams in the area and had left his car on Eriskay.

There was quite a steep climb up from the ferry jetty on Eriskay so we were grateful to find a viewpoint, which fortunately had a nice seat. As it was nearly lunchtime we decided that it should be Jon's cafe and we were soon brewing tea and making bacon butties. The weather was starting to improve as we headed over the recently built causeway between Eriskay and South Uist and it was a nice cycle along the shoreline with some nice sandy beaches before turning in land and heading north on the B 888. As we headed north we could see in the distance a rather square modern building which from its angular shape and rather concrete appearance looked like a pumping station or similar utilitarian building. It turned out to be a modern catholic church, after all the wonderful modern churches we have seen in Iceland it didn't quite make it architecturally, perhaps if they had painted it brilliant white it may have looked better!

At Dalabrog we stopped at the Coop for some stores and to get some water for our wild camp. I spotted that there were some builders working on the local school and knowing that they always need water found a hose pipe attached to an outside tap so I quickly filled our water container and we set off to find a wild camping spot. A few miles further up the road we found a good camping spot on dunes near a golf course and soon had the tent up and a brew on but the tea tasted awfully of PVC from the hosepipe, I should have thought about that! There was no way we could cook with it so I cycled off in search of more water, fortunately I didn't have to go too far as I managed to find an outside tap at the golf course club house. It was lovely spot to camp and so peaceful after the previous night.

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map link07.08.11 - South Uist to Benbecula

We were away by 9.30am, which was just as well as a crowd of people came across the golf course obviously to spend a day on the beach. As we passed by the golf club house I noticed that they were flying an unusual flag and I asked one of the golfers, he said it was the South Uist flag and told us that all the islands in the Outer Hebrides had their own flags. It was quite a nice ride up the A865 through hay meadows on either side. The road is mainly single track with passing places and fortunately that morning there was little traffic on it. We stopped at the birthplace of Flora MacDonald, which is now just a ruined croft and met a nice retired couple there that asked us about the cycling. The husband had his bike in the back of his car and he told us that he had been out on it before breakfast. Shortly after this we came across the Kildonan museum, which fortunately had a cafe and toilet. So after a refreshing brew and a cake we had a look around the museum, it was had very interesting displays on the history of the Uists islands and Frank bought a book on the archeology of the Uist Islands. We headed on north again through more meadow fields and crofts with the mountains of Beinn Mhor and Thalac dominant to our left. It was evident that South Uist is very much a Catholic island judging by the roadside shrines to our lady and the huge white statue of Our Lady on the side of Ruabhal. It very much reminded us of the statues guarding the entrance to the harbour at Esbjerg. It commanded a great view across the north of South Uist and of Loch Bì.

We stopped at a shop at Aird Mhor to get something for our tea and had long chat with the two lassies that were working there. They said that things had changed a lot since the army had left, as they were not using the firing ranges as much as they used to. One of them worked in a Gaelic nursery during he day and said that Gaelic was now considered cool to speak amongst the youngsters where as a few years ago it was considered old fashioned and only for the old folk. I said it must get a bit wild up here in the winter, yes she said there are times when it is difficult to get across the causeway due to the high winds and waves crashing across it but you get used to it. As we crossed the causeway to Benbecula although a little overcast we had a bit of trouble from a strong cross wind but no waves crashing over us. At Lionacleit we turned up the B892 and had the full force of the wind in our faces to the Shellbay campsite. Just as we were putting up our tent we noticed two tourers coming in from the west, they pulled into the campsite and the guy was pulling a kiddie trailer. We said hello and I pointed them in the direction of the reception, when they got back from the reception we got chatting to them, they were a couple from Lipzeig in Germany and had their 2 year old daughter with them. We left them to get their tent up and their tea on. We admired how they managed to tour with all the extra gear needed to bring their daughter with them and to keep such a small child entertained during the evening as well as on the journey!

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map link08.08.11 - Benbecula to Baleshare

We were up fairly early but the weather didn't look that great as the wind was still northerly and still fairly strong. The German couple were away just before us and we said our goodbyes to them and their daughter and wished them well for the rest of their tour. They were off to Barra and luckily for them they had the wind at their backs, we unfortunately had it head on to us. As we headed north the weather was at least brightening a bit although the skies did still look quite threatening at one point. The area is quite flat with meadows with numerous lochs and lochans interspersed with marshy grazing. At Cuinabunag there was a nice wee sandy beach with a small jetty where we stopped for a quick photo although the skies looked threatening and soon after we went into emergency waterproof drill but it didn't come to much thankfully. Just a little way on we came across the medieval graveyard and chapel of Baile nan Cailleach which means 'Township belonging to the Nuns' as it originally belonged to the Convent on Iona. During the reformation the chapel fell in to disuse and the shifting sand soils of the Uist have buried it by nearly 4ft hence the very short door openings! As we headed toward Ballavanich I had the lyrics of the Runrig song 'The Message' buzzing in my head. I kept signing " Going to take the last flight home to Ballavanich in the month of June". Actually Ballavanich was a little bit of disappointment as it is a lot of grey modern concrete housing and not really much more notable than being a small town that serves the airport for the Outer Hebrides! Fortunately it had a large supermarket so we stopped to get something for our evening meal as we guessed there wouldn't be many other shops between now and Berneray. As we headed out on the B892 out of town we came across a bakery and stopped to buy some hot pizza and a Danish pastry for our lunch. As we stood outside eating the pizza two guys with large backpacks came by and obviously had smelt the lovely smell of baking. We got chatting to them and they were from the Czech Republic and were hitch hiking their way around the UK. After wishing the Czech lads all the best we headed up the A865 in the strong head wind, which was particularly fierce as we crossed the causeway on to Grimsay. Frank was really struggling in the wind and when I saw a bus shelter I suggested a brew and a chance to get out of the wind, Frank didn't need a second bidding and we soon had a hot brew on which went nicely with the Danish pastries from the bakery. Just as we were finishing our tea a solo tourer past by and we waved. He waved as he past but then stopped and came back for a chat. He introduced himself as Alisdair and he was a teacher from Portree on Skye. He was cycling up to Solas where the rest of his family were staying at a holiday cottage. We had a long conversation about cycle touring and he was interested in our bikes and was greatly intrigued by the e-werk set up we had for charging our electronics. We chatted for a while but unfortunately we were all getting a bit cold standing around chatting in the strong wind so we decided that we had all better get going to warm ourselves up and we wished each other well. The causeways over to North Uist were a bit hard work in the increasingly strengthening head wind and we were glad to stop at Cairinis to have a look at Teampull na Trianaid (Trinity Temple) a medieval church which is known for its rare and fine architectural features. Unfortunately it was currently having some very much needed conservation work and was covered in scaffolding and tarpaulins so we didn't see that much of its features. Close by was the 'Blar Chairinis' the site of a bloody battle between the MacLeods from Harris and the local MacDonalds who won the day with few of the MacLeods surviving to return to Harris hence the 'Feith na Fala' (the ditch of blood) that runs alongside the battle field.

We headed up the A 865 straight into the strong head wind and after a mile or two Frank had had enough of beating into it so we decided to head over on to Baleshare Island to look for a camping spot. One thing we did need was some water, I tried a couple of houses but there wasn't any one in so tried a bit further on. There was a house that seem to having its porch renovated, as I approached the house a old lady saw me through the window and beckoned me to go around the back where I met her. I apologised to her for bothering her and asked her for some water. "Oh" she said "you had better come around into the kitchen" as we passed her outside tap I said "couldn't I just take it from here?" she hesitated for a second but then said 'Well yes I suppose it's the same water!" As I filled up our 5 liter water carrier she asked us if we were going to stay at the B&B up the road and told us that it was very good and comfortable and run by a Dutchman who was a very nice chap. I told her we were going to camp near the beach. Oh well she said if you need any more water just help yourself there is no need to ask. We thanked her kindly but we both couldn't quite work out why she thought we needed to take water with us to a B&B! After a little search we soon found a nice sheltered spot on grassy flat area just behind a small dune behind the shingle wall of the beach. It was just so great to get out of the wind and into the tent and get a welcome brew on.

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map link09.08.11 - Baleshare to Berneray

Considering how windy it was we had a very comfortable night, we were both quite tired so we slept well. It was a bit of an overcast morning but at least it was dry and the wind didn’t seem to be so strong. We retraced our route back over Balashare. As we crossed over the causeway back on to North Uist unlike the previous evening the tide was right out and there was such a contrast as on the north side of the causeway there was lovely golden sand and on the southern side grey mud. It would have been interesting to know what it was like before they built the causeway. We were soon heading north back on the A865 and at the turning of the A867 we stopped at the shop on the corner to get something for our lunch. As we were loading the bikes next to the red telephone box we noticed the front cover of a daily newspaper that was sitting on the handily placed seat inside. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing it was that startling photo of a woman leaping for her life from a blazing building in the London riots. As we read on we couldn’t quite believe what we were reading it seemed life a million miles away from where we were.

We took a short detour up the A 867 to have a look at the chambered cairn Barpa Langais that was on the side of Beinn Langais. Alistair had said that you could crawl inside. Unfortunately when we got there we could not go in as some of the roof had collapsed and the entrance was blocked by some chain link fencing on a wooden frame. I managed to get a photo of the entrance passage by poking my camera lens through the wire. We retraced our selves back to the A 865 and as we headed out of Clachan came across the Hebridean Smokehouse where we bought some smoked Salmon pate and some smoked Haddock for our evening meal. A little further on we stopped to get a cache which was by the cross roads by a small craft shop. As we were trying to nonchalantly look for it I heard a voice saying I’ll tell you if you are getting warm or cold. A looked up to see a chap coming out of the adjoining cottage, ah I guess you know what we are looking for. Yes he said it was placed by our nephew, oh I said do you own the Craft shop? Actually no it belongs to my sister in law we are caretaking while she is on holiday. Just then I spotted a suitable location and had the cache in hand. While we were signing the log his wife popped out of the craft shop door and said hello. We stood there for a while chatting and being mobbed by two dogs belonging to the owner, a collie and a collie corgi cross which was quite a lively thing. After saying our goodbyes we headed north and soon came across the monument to the 1921 Paiblesgarry Land Raid. We could understand the frustration of the local lads who had been to fight in the First World War who were promised crofting land on their return especially when so much of the land was in the hands of a handful of rich lairds and there was so little work in the islands. There is a wonderful recording here of Donald Ewen MacDonald who was about twenty at the time and led the 12 raiders, playing the pipes.

The single-track road continued north through crofters hay meadows on either side with mountains to our right. We had read an article that there were Golden Eagles up on this part of North Uist but although we stopped on a few times to have a scout around with the binos we saw no signs. It was a shame that it was bit overcast as this coastline at the top of North Uist was quite pretty and you pass the only forest on the island. At Solas there was a Co-op so we stocked up on supplies and the things we needed to make one of our favourite camp meals ‘Quick Fish Pie’. Just after we had turned down the B893 a car coming the other way flashed its lights and slowed down and stopped it was Alistair and his mother in law they were just going to look for Ali’s daughter who was cycling along the road somewhere behind us. We stopped at Loch an Sticir to have a look at the Iron Age Broch, luckily for us the tide was out so we could walk across the stone causeways to have a look at the remains. From there it was a short way on to the causeway across on to Berneray. As we were coming into Borgh we spotted what we thought initially was a small raptor perched on a rock. On getting the binos out we realised that it was a young Cuckoo chick. We then spent the next 10mins being enthralled by the spectacle of it being fed by two meadow pipits which seemed tiny in comparison. From there it was a short ride around to the hostel.

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10.08.11 - Berneray

When we woke up the weather was absolutely awful. There were high winds and it was lashing it down with rain. We decided it was best to to stay put and it proved to be the right decision as it blew hard and rained all day.