The Hebridean Way is empty. For 155 miles the path meanders over crags, up motorway-wide beaches, along raised turf paths cut across peat bogs, and over mountain passes and moorland. Of the many long-distance routes in the British Isles, few can offer such spectacular variety, and so few people.
I had walked only one of them before. Though fairly untrampled, the Offa’s Dyke Path is Oxford Circus compared to the Hebridean Way. On the entire route we met only one hiker going the whole way, a hardy soloist from Leith who was camping out. For hikers seeking the bliss of solitude, therefore, this is the place.
The emptiness is partly explained by the relative lack of beds. The Western Isles are not set up to accommodate hordes. Plus, unless you fly, anyone travelling up from the south of England will need two days to get to the start line. Mainly, though, the path is new and, unlike with the overcrowded North Coast 500 on the Scottish mainland, word of mouth has yet to get its boots on.
Back to the start
The Hebridean Way was properly conceived only 10 years ago, and opened with funding from the European Rural Development Fund and Scottish Natural Heritage five years later. It links up tracks long-since established by human usage, and carves out a few new ones to take hikers off road and into areas beyond the reach of the many cyclists doing the tarmac version, which opened a year earlier.
The route begins at a signpost by a double-sided beach in Vatersay, the tiny island dangling off the south coast of craggy Barra, and concludes in Stornoway at a matching signpost in the castle grounds. A plan to extend the route 30 extra miles to the Butt of Lewis is under consideration. The tourist board discourages anyone doing it the other way, unless they like walking into a south-westerly. There are regular waymarkers, while GPX maps are downloadable from the Visit Outer Hebrides website.
Last summer, my partner Emily and I decided to have a crack at it. We had walked all over Orkney and Shetland, but whenever you rent a cottage or get about by car you are restricted to circular routes. The not insignificant challenge for those in their mid-fifties with little history of backpacking was to carry everything needed for a dozen days. My rucksack, it transpired, soon became part of my anatomy.
We followed the advice and packed in anticipation of the gales and storms that often seem to squat over the top left corner of the weather map. But it was only halfway along the Hebridean Way, on the sixth day and 70 or so miles in, that the sun consented to slide behind a cloud. “You’re lucky,” islanders chuckled. “It’s not always like this.” For five days on the trot, as we sweated over sun-kissed bluffs and along beaches white enough to bring on snow blindness, it felt as if we had accidentally fetched up in the Aegean. It grew so warm that on Benbecula, the island wedged between North and South Uist, I was forced to plunge into a loch to cool down.
The surprise, for first-timers like me, was the variety. The housing stock, squat and pebbledashed against the elements, is dotted with expensive glass palaces facing the Atlantic. There is a cultural journey to be made too. In Barra and South Uist, the chatty and Catholic section of the archipelago, the mother tongue heard on the radio and spoken in B&Bs is Scottish Gaelic. I earned brownie points and smiles by learning to say thank you, good morning and good afternoon and chucking them about like confetti. By Harris the language had petered out, and a Scots Presbyterian ethos prevailed, ensuring strict Sunday closing. On Harris, additionally, there was a noticeable contingent of English in-migrants.
These Scottish islands seem to mimic other topographies. Barra can look like Greece. The broad beach running up the western shore of South Uist, flanked by towering sand dunes, has a Bahamian vibe. Benbecula is a netherland whose lone high point rises like a pimple above a quilt of lochs decorously coated in lily pads. Lewis could be mistaken for a blasted Icelandic heath.
Some sights and sounds are on offer in few other places: the tragic moan of a golden plover, the croak of a shy corncrake and, in the far distance, a majestic golden eagle. I’d never before seen cattle grazing on a beach. One morning we startled four handsome young stags which galloped sublimely away over the moor. Above all, summertime in the Uists brings the ubiquitous machair, the grass carpeted with wild flowers that sprouts above the dunes.
We did up to 15 miles a day, and every day was different. Although the route takes in 10 islands, there were only two ferries to catch – from Barra to Eriskay, from Berneray to Harris, both an hour – because over the decades the Western Isles have been laced together by a series of causeways. That, it should be said, entailed a certain amount of route-marching on tarmac. Sometimes the Hebridean Way simply has nowhere else to go. The lowest point of the hike came on North Uist when, after leaving behind a beautiful stone circle and a vast chambered cairn, the route followed a demoralising four-mile stretch alongside a straight A road.
Come rain or shine
The next day it started to rain, heavily. That morning we had to rise early and cover 11 miles in four hours in order to catch a ferry, and got comically drenched trudging over a brutish beinn, now and then stopping to wring out socks. We made it, only to find the ferry had been cancelled owing to high winds. There was a six-hour wait, time enough to get almost dry in the terminal.
Having lost half a day, and with the weather still miserable, we were forced to omit the most precarious section of the route over the mountains of Harris. Instead we caught a bus and rejoined it along the high-sided valley known as the Coffin Route, so named because it was used to take home the bodies of people who had been removed in the Clearances. Later came a bucolic winding grass track known as the Scholar’s Path, created in 1900 to allow children to get to a newly built school.
Harris proved the show pony section of the Hebridean Way – an uproar of thrusting peaks and a maze of higgledy-piggledly inlets. Above all there is the spectacular mileage of sand at Seilebost. It’s on all the postcards, though none was taken on the day we passed through in a monsoon.
But let’s hear it for Lewis, too. Crossing into the austere half of the biggest island in the chain, the Hebridean Way opens out and the mountains lurked off in the distance. The last half day was a pitiless march along a marshy plateau, treeless and houseless but for the odd shieling, huts where crofters’ families would bring their stock in summer.
It was a shock to the senses, within touching distance of Lews Castle, to enter leafy parkland and descend, exhausted but uplifted, towards the sunlit finishing post and the extremely unusual sight of other people.
Loganair (loganair.co.uk) flies direct from various UK airports to Stornoway (single fares from £40) and Barra (from £51), scheduled at the latter to coincide with low tide as the beach is the landing strip. The more romantic route is by ferry via Oban, which links to Castlebay; and Ullapool, which connects to Stornoway (calmac.co.uk).
Where to stay
There are as yet no companies that book everything for you along the route, or ferry your luggage while you walk – but the excellent website visitouterhebrides.co.uk has detailed information about the route with exportable GPX maps.
The lack of infrastructure is part of the allure, but it takes time and research to find accommodation near where you will be at the end of the day’s walk, plus somewhere to eat. It’s essential to book well in advance. Sometimes it is necessary, or practical, to stay two nights in one place, which means leaving the rucksacks behind and also the complication of getting a ride at the start or end of the day. Taxis are easier to source on Barra and South Uist. In Harris and Lewis, there is an excellent bus service.
If possible, go for a B&B rather than one of the more faceless hotels that dot the route – although there are excellent hotels in the higher price bracket.
Kilvale B&B, Daliburgh, South Uist
A delightful B&B with good breakfasts and a very friendly Gallic-speaking host (kilvale.com).
Lochmaddy Hotel, North Uist
An old-school rambling hotel with a good kitchen (lochmaddyhotel.co.uk).
Avalon Guest House, Tarbert, Harris
Spectacularly situated on a sea loch giving on to the Atlantic, and very comfortable (avalonguesthouse.org).
Langass Lodge, North Uist
By far the smartest hotel in the Western Isles, a proper shooting lodge with stags on the walls and local produce on the menu (langasslodge.co.uk).
For more amazing places to stay see our full guide to the best hotels in Scotland.
Where to eat
Culinary excellence is not to be found at every pitstop, but there is plenty of really good food along the way.
Scarista House, Seilebost, Harris
Its tasting menu is surely the best food in the Western Isles. We cheated and hired a car at the end to drive down and eat there. It also has tasteful accommodation (scaristahouse.com).
Café Kisimul, Castelbay, Barra
The creation of this bustling place in 2004 feels like the only change to Barra’s tiny harbour settlement since Whisky Galore was filmed here in 1948. It serves mainly Indian food, with good beers (cafekisimul.co.uk).
Balallan Bistro, Balallan, Lewis
A real find. Superb steak sandwiches, inventive pasta, good puddings, served up in a cavernous community building by the side of the main road (facebook.com/BalallanBistro).
What to read
Walking the Hebridean Way (Cicerone, £14.95) is an indispensable companion.
Have you walked the Hebridean Way? Please share your experiences in the comments below
Barra is the most southerly of the inhabited islands in the Outer Hebrides. Long famed for its beauty - boasting beaches, hills, machair and moor all in a small island - Barra is a special place to visit, especially if you arrive by plane.
The island is rich in wildlife and there are wonderful walks on Vatersay, in particular a demanding Heritage Trail of approximately 4 miles which takes 3 hours to complete. A leaflet with details of the walk is available from the Tourist Information Centre In Castlebay.
Barra and Vatersay are wonderful islands for walkers, whether a stroll around the harbour, along one of the many beaches, around the island by road, or more ambitious hill walks. The tourist board publish some suggestions – but the best suggestion is to just go!
I've been going to Barra in July for the last 5 years and I've yet to encounter a midge, which is a delight as they're a nightmare here on Mull. over a year ago. over a year ago. Yes, the mosquitos are the size of small pigeons but they only seem to attack sassenachs.
Castlebay was once a 19th century fishing port and today is the main town on the Isle of Barra.
barra (plural barras) (Tyneside) A barrow; a hand-pushed cart of the type commonly used in markets.
noun. bar [noun] a rod or oblong piece (especially of a solid substance)
In 2000 descendents of Clan MacNeil agreed to lease Barra to Historic Scotland for 1,000 years for the annual rent of £1 and a bottle of whisky. In 2003 ownership transferred directly to the Scottish Government and islanders have the right to purchase the island from the government, if they so choose.
A passport is not essential for British passengers but you will require photographic proof of identity and should check current acceptable documents at this link to the Loganair website.
The main route to Barra is by CalMac ferry from Oban, on the mainland. The crossing takes 4 hours 45 minutes. You can also get a ferry to Barra from the island of Eriskay which takes 40 minutes. Vehicle reservations are recommended.