453: South Uist & Benbecula

OS Explorer map 453, Benbecula & South Uist Eriskay – I own this map, and have visited it before starting this blog. Visited again for this post 11th July 2018. (This is the sixth of fourteen posts concerning my July 2018 trip to Harris and Galloway with my Cambridge friends.)

So, in my last post, my friends Vesper, Millicent, Erithacus, Queenie, Cheremy and I finally arrived at my family’s holiday cottage on the Isle of Harris, where we’d be staying for most of the next two weeks. We had a pleasant first few days there, swanning about going on short walks, generally being lazy, eating a lot of food, and looking at rocks, cows and sheep.

 

Now I’ve posted about South Harris before, so you won’t be hearing too much about that, but on the 11th and 12th, in the middle of our time there, we did a trip away, getting onto the ferry from Leverburgh to see the Uists and Benbecula. I’ve been to North Uist before too, so I’ll try to whiz through our day until we got to Benbecula in somewhat less detail than I otherwise might, but it was exciting, so I may not be very successful.

On the ferry over, we got out the Nicolson Outer Hebrides tourist map (I know, not an OS map – scandalous!) to decide the places we’d be visiting that day – we had an Airbnb house booked for the night on South Uist, so we’d be driving gradually southwards stopping at interesting places on the way. Now, the Nicolson map, while obviously far inferior to an OS map in most ways, has the advantage of very clearly marking all tourist sites. In fact, it turns out, the Nicolson mapmakers seem to have scraped arguably past the bottom of the barrel, because some of the sites marked are extremely marginal, and barely exist

With the ferry arriving around lunchtime, our first stop was Dùn an Sticir broch, where we ate lunch sitting on rocks by the car, looking across the water at the broch before walking around to the causeway leading to it.

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Walking across to Dùn an Sticir

Now this isn’t the most impressive of brochs [1] – nothing like as complete as the ones I’ve seen at Glenelg or Carloway – its walls now rise only a few feet above the ground and someone later built some nondescript rectangular structure in it. However, excitingly, it is built in the middle of a loch, so that was fun. The sign about the broch had on it the questionable statement that it (the broch, not the sign) dated from 1000BC. Um, no.

We then attempted to find something called The Priest’s Stone, however it seemed to just be a graveyard, so we moved on to the next site provided by the wisdom of the Nicolson, St Columba’s Well. We were quite excited about this, Columba being a popular figure among ASNaCs such as we, however, our twenty-minute trudge through boggy fields following my GPS device ended in disappointment when, despite standing within 10 metres of where the OS map claimed there should be a well, we found nothing.

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Cheremy, Queenie, Erithacus and Vesper for some reason fail at looking disappointed at not finding St Columba’s Well

We then proceeded to just north of Lochmaddy, North Uist’s biggest settlement, in search of something mysteriously marked as the Hut of Shadows. Following a path to an unexpectedly impressive bridge led us to a place that did not disappoint: the Hut of Shadows was a camera obscura, a (literal) dark room with a hole in one wall to the outside, projecting an image of the view onto a plain wall. When one of us went outside to stand in front of the hole, a suitably ghostly image of them would come into view.

 

From there we returned to Lochmaddy, making use of the museum there for a toilet stop (I also bought a map…). Our final two stops on North Uist were Barpa Langass and Teampull na Trionaid, the burial mound and church/monastery ruins that I visited last time I was here, so I shan’t dwell on those at length. Barpa Langass was still closed for restorations, and the group found Teampull na Trionaid’s claim to have been a “center of learning of European significance” back in its day similarly questionable to me then – Millicent and Cheremy worked out that this was in fact based only on a local tradition that Duns Scotus, a prominent medieval philosopher, was educated there (he probably wasn’t) before moving to the Continent.

It was after this (and 800 words into this post, oops…) that we finally entered this map area, driving over the causeway to Benbecula. By this point we were reasonably tired, and made only one more stop before proceeding to our lodgings for the night, at Maclennans supermarket, where supplies were bought and we generally admired the range on offer, far superior to what one can lay one’s hands on in Tarbert.

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My apologies that the one picture I took on Benbecula wasn’t more exciting…

We then crossed over to South Uist, and then had difficulties finding our lodgins due to the absence of house numbers on the houses in the village of Iochdar. We lacked internet signal at the time, and so the only non-number clue we had was the bottom half of a picture of the house that was visible in a screenshot I’d taken – fortunately we were eventually able to find the place due to Queenie’s eagle eyes matching the railings in the photo to those outside the house.

The house was interesting, being scrupulously clean and tidy and decorated in a very consistently fluffy and twee style – there were inspirational quotes all over the place, and fluffy animals, and two cake stands. We were briefly confused by a framed red heart saying “gaol”, before realising that it was Gaelic, for “love”.

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Cheremy embraces a giant teddy

Dinner was a green curry of potatoes, broccoli and mushrooms, after which we sat around in the living room hearing of such topics as the relationships and politics of his College’s Christian Union from Cheremy, and her wedding plans from Queenie. When our beds were sought, I was sharing with Cheremy, who informed me in the morning that I had spent much of the night with my legs sticking straight upwards, to his amusement, and Vesper slept on the sofa, which she claimed was reminiscent of family Christmases.

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Packing up in the morning!

The next morning, after packing up the house, we left to do a bit of exploring of South Uist’s historical sites. Cheremy and Millicent had been excited about South Uist because, unlike the sometimes rather austerely Presbyterian north of the Western Isles, the islands to the south of Benbecula are Catholic and, excitingly for those two, arguably continuously since pre-Reformation times, which is not something you really get elsewhere in Britain, or so I understand it. They were therefore pleased when we passed a roadside shrine, and later, the enormous Our Lady of the Isles statue. We decided to give walking up to the statue a miss because there was a huge busload of people on, apparently, a Newmarket Tour crawling all over the place – they would rather end up dogging our morning – and continued to our next stop, Ormacleit Castle.

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Ormacleit Castle

The castle is of interest partly for being really not that old for an actual defensive castle, dating only to 1708, but also for its very brief history – it burnt down in 1715, and was never rebuilt. It can’t be accessed as it’s both unsafe and on private property, and in the end it wasn’t that overwhelmingly impressive, standing among some farm buildings and not looking all that different from them, but still, it was an interesting enough thing to see.

We then moved on to Howmore, a little to the north, where there’s a complex of ruined medieval chapels that we poked around. We fortunately arrived just as the Newmarket Tour were departing and had the place to ourselves. The chapels were interesting, and ruined enough that it was something of a challenge trying to match up the remaining walls into the separate buildings they’d once been.

 

As an hour at which it would become acceptable to eat lunch approached, we we went south again and stopped at the Kildonan Museum, where we ate our packed lunch on some very prickly grass by the side of the building. After a quick look inside we determined we’d probably give the museum a miss, as there was an entry fee and we doubted it’d have much more than the Lews Castle Museum in Stornoway, which we’d seen a couple of days earlier.

Now our ferry back to Harris was booked for about 5pm, and so we still had a lot of time left in our day, it being only about 1pm and only an hour and a bit to drive back to the ferry port. Our plan, therefore, was to go back to North Uist and find ourselves a café to relax in for a bit, not too far from the ferry. In the end, though, it turned out that we could get an earlier ferry with the same ticket, and so we did that, and after a while of waiting for the boat while Vesper and Erithacus walked off in search of hot drinks, we were soon on the boat, and leaving the Uists together with a good number of pleasant dogs.

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Vesper takes a sneaky photo of a dog on the ferry

Previous visits

I’ve been to South Uist and Benbecula twice before, just about. The first time was on my July 2013 trip to Scotland with my parents and cousin; we stayed on North Uist (so I talked about what we did there in my North Uist post), and in the afternoon of the first day, while my cousin and mother were resting in the hotel, Father Dearest and I drove down to Benbecula for a little while. However, since all we did was go to a shop and I didn’t even take any photos, I’ll move swiftly on.

The second time I’ve visited this map was on my August 2014 road trip around Scotland with my school friends Cabbage, Joystick and Climbing Programmer. After we’d stayed near Edinburgh for a couple of nights and watched some comedy shows at the festival, we spent one day taking a leisurely drive over to Oban, and the next day got the ferry from there to Lochboisdale on South Uist.

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Looking back at an arriving ferry as we leave Oban

Now that ferry doesn’t run anymore, as Lochboisdale is now served from Mallaig instead, taking 3h30 instead of the old route’s 5h10. So after a very long stint on the ferry, it tipped us out on Uist at about 7pm, at which point we drove to our campsite, at Kilbride on the island’s south coast, and set up shop.

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Pitching our tents

We ate dinner at the campsite – I know this because I have a photograph of what is presumably me making dinner while the other three play football, however unfortunately I can’t see into the pans so I don’t know what it is we ate.

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I make dinner, and the other three play football!

After dinner, we walked a little under a mile along the beach and rocky coast to have a drink in the nearby pub which the internet informs me is called the Polochar Inn. It was raining as we left at the I think 10pm closing time less than an hour later, but fortunately after we’d walked only a short way, the woman who’d been working behind the bar passed us on her way home and gave us a lift back to the campsite, somehow squeezing the four of us into her tiny car with her.

The next morning, before we left the campsite, we went for a walk up the hill just behind it, Easabhal.

 

While Harris is unquestionably the most mountainous of the Western Isles, with several of the North Harris hills topping 600m and the highest, Clisham, peaking just a sliver below 800, South Uist is also pretty rugged, with its highest peak, Beinn Mhor, at 620m part of a respectable ridge on the northern half of the island. At 243m tall, Easabhal is therefore pretty small by Uist standards, however it is the highest along the island’s southern peninsula. It was really a very nice climb; the weather was wonderful, not too hot but clear and occasionally sunny, and there were just the most wonderful views, especially southwards towards Eriskay and Barra.

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Looking south to Eriskay from the top of Easabhal

Cabbage at the time was on the rugby team for his College at university in York, and they were having a competition to see who could get the most spectacular photograph that summer of themselves wearing their team rugby shirt, I think so that it could go on their website or something. He therefore had me take the photograph above. Unfortunately it lost out in the end to someone who had been to Norway (I think it might have been Trolltunga?), but still, I really do like the photograph.

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Climbing Programmer and Joystick having fun packing up a tent in the wind

Returning to the campsite, we packed up our things, battling the wind that had then built up, and drove northwards towards the next night’s campsite on North Uist.

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[>1] Brochs are round tower-houses dating from the centuries around the BC/AD boundary, found all around the west and north of Scotland, with concentric outer walls with a spiral staircase running up between them.

4 thoughts on “453: South Uist & Benbecula

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