Hebridean Way, 2 – 10 September 2023


There follows an account of my trip to the Outer Hebrides. It is even possible some folk may find it interesting, helpful or inspiring. But as with any walk, it’s up to the walker to determine whether s/he is ready to take on the risks inevitably associated with this sort of activity. So don’t blame me if things turn out tricky. In particular, I’ve recorded my off-route excursions, but anyone using them needs to assess the risks for themselves and act accordingly.

Let’s be careful out there.


I am sure my fascination with the Outer Hebrides is widely shared. There they are, occupying the top left corner of the map of the British Isles. Connected, a part but also apart, separate. I confess, my imagination has been recently piqued further from reading – end-to-end – Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea books (rule-for-life: read anything and everything by Ursula LeGuin). Her other world has echoes in various archipelagos, and she acknowledges the Hebrides to be one of these.

So the Hebridean Way seemed like a good way to acquaint myself with these islands. I vacillated for a good while: should I cycle or walk. But in the end, the flexibility and opportunity for variation of walking won-out.

The Hebridean Way is not a particularly challenging walk. For the pedestrian, there is a bit of logistical planning needed in regard to resupply points. In the end I by-passed a few of the shops, and limited myself to three restocking points, supplemented by grazing the free-food boxes at a couple of youth-hostels. It is certainly possibly to walk the route and stay under a roof every night, although the cost will vary depending on whether it’s a hostel or a hotel. At one or two points there may be a need for a taxi collection and return.

Any itinerary needs to factor in: firstly, that shops have limited opening hours and Sundays may be a particular problem; secondly, that ferries run regularly, but infrequently.

Lots of information out there on the web. In particular I used:

I didn’t carry the Cicerone guide, but I noticed that the few others whom I met on the route did have this, https://www.cicerone.co.uk/the-hebridean-way .

Here’s a link to my pre-walk notes. These are brief and helpful for me. In particular do note that there are loads more accommodation options.

For navigation (purists and pedants turn away now) I used the (paid-for) OS app on my phone. I did download the GPX files from the Visit Hebrides website, but in the end I didn’t use these, and just followed the diamonds on the OS maps. Using GPS more-or-less takes the skill and expertise out of navigation, but it’s awfully convenient. As I note below, I went off route a few times, mainly to reduce the time walking on the side of A-roads.

Anyone who starts exploring this trip will note that there is a fair amount of road-walking. I’d suggest there are three types:

  • Walking on A-roads across the causeways between islands;
  • Walking on A-roads everywhere else;
  • Walking on minor roads.

If you want the sense of achievement of only your own efforts (plus ferries) getting you from one end of the island chain to the other, then the first type is a necessity: there is no option. Although I did walk the whole route, I’d respect anyone who chose to do otherwise, and hitch or get a bus (challenging) across the causeways. Plodding for 6km on the side of a quite busy road is not much fun, even if there is the distraction of the scenery. In regard to the other stretches along A-roads, in many cases it is possible to devise alternatives, although you need a sense of adventure, a willingness to get your feet wet, and confidence in your navigational ability. I found the minor roads to be less objectionable. The amount of traffic is low, and they do allow swift progress. That said, the final 15km into Stornoway is all along roads, and this feels a bit unsatisfactory.

Getting there

Worth noting that the train from Glasgow to Oban and then the ferry from Oban to Castlebay must be one of the most stunningly beautiful journeys anywhere in the world. Because of ferry times and the absence of buses, all I could do on arriving at Castlebay was to walk to the start of the route on Vatersey and put up the tent and wait for morning. It should be said the beaches are stunning on either side of the isthmus that links the north and south parts of the island. The locals are pretty chilled, leaving the community centre open so that wild-campers can use the loos and showers.

The walk

Day 1. Saturday 2 September 2023, Vatersey – North Boisdale (South Uist), NF73402 18517, 39km

First part is returning along roads walked yesterday evening. Once over the causeway and back onto Barra the route goes up into the hills with proper Scottish moorland. Descend to little settlement of Borve and pass the now-closed school. I wonder the extent of community these days? I imagine once life here depended on collaboration and co-operation; does that endure into our atomised digital age? No apparent centre; just a collection of houses strewn over the moor.

Another longer section up-and-over the moors and then down to a reservoir. I actually go off-route, and stay on the road, figuring it might be interesting to view the village, but there’s just a string of houses. A detour into a forested area in a deep gorge is interesting: these are the first sizeable trees I’ve seen today, and the variety of species suggests some efforts at collection and planting. I’m wondering if they survive because the gorge provides shelter from the wind or alternatively because the sheep and deer are kept off. My suspicion is that this may be one of those places which we have come to expect to be treeless (like the Lake District) and even to celebrate this: barren, austere etc. But actually human agency has brought this about, maybe over millennia, and the issue is that once removed it is very difficult for forests to recover, especially with unpredated big herbivores (sheep, deer) ruling the roost. But what do I know?

Arrive early at Ardmhor, and wait 90minutes for the ferry. Another gorgeous trip through what seem to be quite shallow waters, passing one island after another. On one islet, no bigger than half a football pitch, someone has put four sheep. What an effort to get them on and off!

It’s over seven kilometres of road walking from Eriskay port, over the causeway, onto South Uist. I enjoy it less and less, and I’m parched when I reach West Kilbride. I need to get water before leaving the road, as I don’t suppose there’ll be much along the coastal flatlands. I nip into a campsite, but before my bottle is full the proprietor has emerged and, on discovering I’m not staying, asks for £1 payment for the water. I should have refused, but instead meekly hand over a coin, adding this to that life-time collection of slights and humiliations. My only consolation is that I can anticipate writing here: DON’T PATRONISE THE WEST-KILBRIDE CAMPSITE OR CAFE – THE PROPRIETOR IS AN ARSE.

The West side of these southern islands is a patchwork of elongated fields (look at the OS 1:25000 map) reflecting the crofting lifestyle. As far as I can see, the fields seem to be mainly used for silage and oats. I’m impressed that such “uneconomic” agriculture can persist. This must require hardiness and tenacity if not sheer bloody-mindedness. I find a spot near the seashore with a bit of shelter, and bed down for the night.

Sunday 3 September 2023, North Boisdale – Uisinis Bothy, NF84923 33248, 34km

A misty drizzly day. Walking sometimes on the seashore, sometimes a bit inland. This is the Machair – which is the fertile strip along the western side of the islands. Shells, seaweed and soil allows some arable farming. As far as I can see this is silage and some oats. The hay has been cut and every so often I meet a small number of plastic wrapped bales. The odd thing is the absence of livestock. Where are the cows and sheep? Up in the hills still – but I haven’t seen many up there either. Also, as is so often the case in UK farms, there is loads of rubbish. Lots of rusting farm machinery, old cars, debris and detritus. Why can’t folk get rid of this stuff? You don’t see this in Denmark or Switzerland. Why here? Why is it tolerated?

Being Sunday I’m not going to deviate into Daliburgh, I’ll presume the shop is shut. It’s easy walking and I’m in the environs of Howmore by early afternoon. I decide to go for it, and cross the island to the Bothy on the eastern side. From the memorial on the A865 at NF 76815 34122, I figure to head east till I hit the flanks of Maola Breac, contour northwards for a bit then cross the valley to Maoladh Creag. Contour north again round into the saddle to the south of Heacla, and then downhill to the Bothy.

The strategy works remarkably well. I’m in clouds well before reaching the saddle, so don’t feel such a sissy for not going for Heacla’s summit (some 300m of further ascent). I reach the Bothy bedraggled but warm and I’m pleased for the roof over my head. I pick a book from the shelves: Hebridean Memories by Seton Gordon. I’ve never heard of the man, but I’m captivated by his writing and, from the preface of this relatively recent edition, I realise he’s a proto-conservationist. I’ll look for more when I’m back on the internet!

Monday 4 September 2023, Uisinis Bothy – Liniclate (Benbecula) NF78941 48112, 30km

I would have done well to have a GPX for the route out of the Bothy. The landscape is much more rugged and featureful than the route in. I’ve consulted the map and some bloke on Walk Highlands, but in the end I make it up as I go. (That said, when I look at the GPS trace on my computer, I didn’t do too badly.) I take two-and-a-half hours to cover 8.3km. Lovely walk, mind. Views of the sea to the right, mountain to the left. As I round Heacla I notice its impressive north-facing corrie. Apparently you can see St Kilda from the top. (When it’s not raining. So not often.)

I had planned to walk down the road to rejoin the route, but looking at the map I see this would be three sides of a rhombus. Better to go north-west following the lochs for about 3km, hoping that the ground, which in places is at sea-level, is not too boggy. The gamble works well, and I’ve saved a bit of time in the bargain.

The marshy plod continues until I reach the road before Ardmore. I should be careful what I complain about. There now follows at least 6km of road walking taking one over the causeway onto Benbecula. I pass two good shops, and stock up at the first. At Liniclate I sneak into a hotel, and fill my water bottles, and then stop at the first secluded camping spot I can find. Pretty knackered.

Tuesday 5 September 2023, Liniclate – Loch an Iasgaich (North Uist) NF82905 62252, 28km

Gorgeous early-morning walk along the beach. The path actually is in the dunes, but the tide is out, and the strand is so much easier. I meet one or two dog-walkers, but mostly I’m alone. In my pre-walk planning, I’d included a detour into Balivanich, which I now realise was not necessary, given the shops passed late yesterday. But actually I’m quite glad to do so: this is the first place I’ve been to with the feel of a small town. Sadly not very prepossessing. There seems to be no heart, no pub, no pulse. Perhaps, as a tourist, I’m blind and deaf to the local infrastructure of community. But one would have to suppose that this would need – as elsewhere – energetic nurturing. It’s so easy to stay indoors and interact on line.

It’s more road-walking to get out of town, but then a track takes me past the municipal dump and up to the highest point on this very watery island: Ruabhal. At only 124m, it’s not very high, but the views are spectacular towards North Uist and Skye. I strain to see St Kilda to the west, but there is too much haze. There is a long line of cloud to the east, seemingly hugging the coast. What causes that, then?

Off the hill, the way rejoins the A865, this time for at least 7km of plodding over causeways to North Uist. There is the sea. There is the sun. There is the view of hills in the distance. But there are cars and lorries, driving at 60mph when they can. I can’t resort to earphones, since often there is only a single track, and I need to hear anything coming up behind me. I wonder if a pedestrian ferry would be viable.

When I finally reach the point where the route turns off the road into some rather attractive woodland, I pause for a breather. I’m joined by a young fellow who tells me he’s planning on walking 40miles today. I’m both envious and dismissive. He says he wants to make the ferry tonight and is off before I am (I realise later he hasn’t a hope). I walk on for three more kilometres, before clocking a lovely spot close by a loch. I’ve the tent up in no time. I pause to allow a walker to pass, and then I dive into the warm waters and scrub off the sweat and dirt.

Wednesday 6 September 2023 Loch an Iasgaich – Berneray Youth Hostel (Berneray) NF 92692 72694, 33km

A lovely warm sunny day. I’ve noted at least 10km of road-walking today, and I decide to deviate from the path. So I head north to the hill that is Uineabhal, and from there weave north and eastward between hills and lochs to rejoin the route where it turns off the A-road at NF 88581 73192. It’s tough, but not that tough. Mostly the cross-moor walking is manageable. It isn’t very tussocky like, say, Dartmoor, so one’s able to take steps easily. Also, thankfully, there is heather but no gorse so it’s also not scratchy. With the GPS, navigation is a doddle and I reckon I don’t lose much time. One of my better decisions.

I reach the base of Beinn Mhor at about 15:30 and see a sign that says the ferry is 5km further. I know it leaves in an hour, and initially I tease myself that I might make it, but it’s a steep and slow climb, and when I reach the top I can see the ship crossing towards Berneray, and know I have absolutely no chance. It’s a fine view from the top, with a field system in the Machair not so different from that I’m used to in the Cotswolds. This time it’s only a short walk over the causeway to the ferry port. I vacillate for a good while: should I camp nearby, or walk a further 4km to the Youth Hostel? In the end I commit to the latter, which allows me to visit the one village on this small island of Berneray. The hostel is splendid, and allows me to properly wash for the first time on this trip so far.

Thursday 7 September 2023, Berneray YH – Saddle near Maoladh (Harris) NG 09973 94887, 28km

I’d planned to be up at 05:30 in order to get the 07:15 ferry, but in the night I wake and decide that is ridiculous: this is supposed to be a holiday. So I turn off the alarm, and sleep till seven: still early enough to watch the ferry depart. A leisurely start is followed by the 4km return walk to the little harbour for the 10:30 crossing to Harris, which is breath-taking. From Leverburgh it’s a good walk inland, then over a spur and back down to the sea. I realise it would have been much quicker to take the coastal A-road, but I’m not complaining. (I spot another walker from the boat, who I think has done just this! Cheat!)

I’ve reached picture-postcard perfect long sandy white beaches, with headlands and views thrown in for good measure. There are a few other folk, who I wait to pass and then swiftly strip naked and plunge into the clear waters. Chilly, chilly! I take one or two dives and do some token strokes of front-crawl, but I’m only in for a few minutes and then retreat to the privacy of the dunes, where the warm wind dries me in no time.

This is turning into a lazy day, and I dawdle over lunch. Eventually I resume the walk, and sort of repeat the earlier exertion, ie do another loop high over the beaches, but which returns eventually down to the sea. I’m keen to get a bit of distance in now, and make my first serious mistake of the trip, heading up into the hills along the reservoir track. When I look back, I see what appears to be an idyllic campsite in the dunes by the sea. I should have stayed there, but I’m committed to the hills. I plod on, eventually finding a spot on the moor, where I’m immediately assailed by legions of midges, the wind dropping at just the wrong moment. I can’t even face the challenge of making a cup-of-tea, so hunker down, and read.

Friday 8 September 2023, Maoladh – Rhenigidale Youth Hostel NB 22944 01871, 32km

Proper midge-city this morning. I tog up with net, gloves, long trousers, but it’s still an angsty irritating effort to get the tent down double-quick and away. I’m soon over the saddle, and as the wind picks up and the sun shines, I can soon dispense with the PPE. The route loops southwards today, so at points I’m further (as the crow flies) from my destination than when I started. It’s pretty attractive rocky scenery and I note a phenomenon where I imagine from the landscape that I’m high in the hills, only to turn a corner and find the sea just a few metres below. This is all a nice development from the flatlands I’ve been experiencing. I’m also repeatedly reminded of New Zealand when I come into these little settlements. There’s something similar about the sense of isolation and self-dependence about in these places.

I’m in Talbert in time to meet the kids leaving school. This was an identified resupply point, and there are actually two decent (and seemingly independent) grocers.

During the depths of last winter I’d toyed with the idea of volunteering with the John Muir Trust, planting trees near here. And so I’d investigated accommodation options, and discovered Rhenigidale Youth Hostel. This turned out to be unfeasible, as I’d have had a 30km cycle ride just to get to the work-site, but I’d been captivated by the remoteness and implausibility of the hostel. It’s off the main route, but I decide to go for it, adding 10km to the day’s distance. It’s a great – if extremely arduous – decision. The path from Tarbert is up and over a headland, rising to over 300m. The descent is fabulous: zig-zagging down the side of what is, to all intents and purposes, a fjord. (Actually Loch Trolamaraig.) I later read that this is considered one of the finest walks in the country, and I couldn’t disagree. The hostel is great: runs on trust, is clean and warm, and I’m sharing it with a Swiss mother-and-daughter. They insist on sharing their meal and I’m glad to be able to reciprocate by slicing up the Ginger Cake I bought in Talbert and doing the washing up.

I read that Rhenigidale was the last community in the country to be joined to the rest of us by road: in 1986!

Saturday 9 September 2023, Rhenigidale – Loch Cuthaig (Lewis) NB 26586 21725, 33km

I vacuum the dorm I’ve been in, but I’m still away in good time, utilizing the recently constructed roadway (good condition, but small and quiet) to walk the 7km back to the route. It’s a misty drizzly day and any fantasies about the joys of life here should be moderated with thoughts of many mornings like this one.

Today has quite a bit of road walking on the main A859, which I’m keen to minimise. But overlooking Gleann Sgadalail, the cross-country option looks tough as hell: a big river crossing then hacking up and over a rocky tussocky spur. I wimp out, and walk a further 4km, past Scaladale, to a 4WD track at NB 19684 11957. Here I turn away from the route and walk upwards until I’m able to walk more-or-less eastwards through the saddle under Cearnabhal and Maol Brinigeamul and then descend across the moors to Ceann Tarabhaigh. It’s pretty tough going in regards to hacking overland, but there’s nothing substantial in the way. I spot one or two paths going northwards from the valley here, but looking at the map it seems too big a punt to chance that these would deliver me back to civilisation. I stick to the plan and rejoin the way just north of Ceann Tarabhaigh. I’m sure this deviation has added time, but I’m pleased with myself for its relatively easy execution and having avoided more desultory plodding by the road.

I walk a bit further along the route, and start looking out for a potential campsite: ie somewhere which isn’t boggy moor. I see a hill with what seems to be green grass, and I get the tent up, observed by curious sheep. I’m soaked through, but in the dryness of the tent and with tea all is well. I feel like I’m in the middle-of-nowhere, but actually the road is only about 1km away. And like most of the islands, the 4G signal is excellent. I’ve been impressed with the obvious investment in communications infrastructure here.

Sunday 10 September 2023, Loch Cuthaig – Heb Hostel, Stornaway, NB 42425 32853, 32km

Happily the rain stopped during the night, so the tent isn’t sopping wet when I pack up. My clothes are a different story, but they’ll dry out on me as I get going. I’ve another big deviation in mind, again to avoid road-walking, and I’ve spotted on the map “Stepping Stones” marked, which is intriguing. Like yesterday, it’s relatively flat walking over a terrain of water and moor. Throughout this trip I’ve been apprehensive that the moors would be impassible bogs, but that’s not been the case. One meanders from one solid patch to another, but there’s always been a reasonably straight-forward way through. Possibly it’s the best time of year: late summer and therefore at its driest.

At NB 28061 21986 I part from the way, and head for the Stepping Stones. I find I’m following quite strong marks in the grass made by 4WD vehicles, and although these aren’t tracks, I reckon whoever made them knew the way. Going is surprisingly easy. I decide to “head-off” north of the stones (deliberately navigating away from a point in order to be sure that the desired destination is in a particular direction). But actually when I reach the river, they’re directly in front of me, and turn out to be an extremely well constructed crossing. Short easy steps across enormous stones that are well proud of the water, so not covered in slippery algae. From here I decide to make a beeline back to the main route, which I rejoin at NB 32062 23356.

The going changes not at all. I plish-plash over moorland to reach the main road where a short walk brings me to the minor road that will take me to Stornoway. Somewhat anti-climatically, the remainder of the way (some 16km) is along these minor roads. I suppose I could hack over the moors, but that doesn’t look so easy, and I’ve had a fair bit of that in the last couple of days. So I stick in the earphones and knock this bit off at pace. There is some interest when I pass through peat-cutting areas, which are obviously still in use, with a sprinkling of little shelters, like huts at the seaside, where I suppose the graft of the cutting can be eased by a cup-of-tea out of the elements.

Monday 11 September 2023

I’m at an odd low-ebb after completing the walk. I’m not quite sure what to do next, and decisions are complicated by issues and demands from home. An obvious option is to crack on towards the Butt of Lewis, which is probably two days away if walked, or one if, as is suggested, I take a bus down the coast to Tolsta where the road ends and then walk from there. In the event, I mess up on the times of buses, so only get one a short distance to Breivig and start walking. It’s not too bad along the beaches, but when it regains the road I try to hitch to Tolsta, but I’m unsuccessful. So I decide to try and walk there along the coast, which turns out to be possible, but challenging. There’s no real path, so it’s a hack across quite tussocky moorland with the usual ups-and-downs of coastal walking. It is, though, very lovely and a welcome change to have the sea close by. There are brilliant views over to the mainland, and I pick out Suliven in the haze.

I have to put on a bit of a shift towards the end, but actually reach Tolsta in good time for the bus back to Stornoway. A second night in the Youth Hostel is enough for me, so I’ll leave the Butt of Lewis for another day.

Final thoughts

The official Hebridean Way site, https://www.visitouterhebrides.co.uk/hebrideanway is the place to go to find out more about the route and start planning. Rely on them, not me.

But in my view this Way needs more work. Firstly one wonders whether there are sufficient numbers of travellers to make viable alternatives to the causeways (ie passenger ferries). These work well all along the South West Coast path, although the footfall there is going to be many times greater than here. Secondly, the long sections of walking on the A-roads that are not on or linked to a causeway need to be reviewed. As I showed, it’s not too difficult to devise alternatives, and really these should be developed, and incorporated into the official route. Thirdly, the current end-section into Stornaway – 16km on roads – ie a bit lacklustre. Finally, the route needs to be extended right up to the Butt of Lewis. With enough money a coastal route could be developed with very little walking on busy roads. Even with financial constraints, if a route was marked out, then it could be enhanced piecemeal by volunteers over time.

That moaning done, this is a great way to get to know these islands. Along the way the scenery is interesting and varied. The trips to the start and end are fabulous. There is enough of an infrastructure to mean that logistics are not an ordeal.

In the end, it worked out that my best way of return was to catch buses and ferries all the way back to Castlebay and then take the ferry to Oban. This option is to be recommended.