A spot of island hopping Part 3: exploring part of the Harris WalkwaySeptember 15th, 2008
Tuesday, August 12th:
It’s been a while since the last installation of my Hebridean trip report so it’s about time that this made its appearance. Picking which photos to include did cause some of the delay and I hope that I picked the best ones; there were many contenders of equal quality and it was hard to select one over another. The cause was that the Tuesday of the week of my visit was blessed with marvellous weather and the countryside looked well in the glorious sunshine.
Monday’s weather was something of a mixture without coming close to being a chore to bear. I did meet up with some rain but there were spells of blue skies and sunshine to be had at times too. Yes, cloud abounded but there was no misery. Tuesday was to improve on this and I arose to the sight of clear blue skies and sunshine. Not knowing whether it would last caused me to take the camera on a short sortie before breakfast. I need not have worried because a glorious day was ahead of me. It might have clouded over later on but the rain stayed away and I got in an excellent stroll.
After a good breakfast, I caught a bus to Àird a’ Mhulaidh (Ardvourlie in English) from where I was going to walk to Tarbert by way of the Harris Walkway or Frith-rathad na Hearadh. As it happened, I disembarked from the bus a bit further on than I had intended but that was fortuitous: I spotted a promising opportunity for a walk on the day after. Though I was sorely tempted by the prospect of crossing through the hills to Miabhaig (anglicised to Meavaig), a certain reality made me stick to my planned course.
That reality was the fact that I was carrying everything for week with me that day. For my other walks, I was able to lighten the load on my back but this was the one day where that wasn’t possible. The result was that I was travelling perceptibly slower than I otherwise would, something that echoes a sentiment expressed by Andy Howell after his recent trek in the Pyrenees. Maybe I need to get in some training for walking with heavy but still sensible (15-20 kg) loads…
So, adapting a pace that was more akin to a tortoise than a hare, I made my way along the shores of Loch Shìphoirt (or Seaforth). The load on my back wasn’t the only thing that was slowing me down: the day couldn’t have been better and the scenery took on a most appealing aspect. Eilean Shìphoirt (Seaforth Island) looked far more lofty than its 217 metres summit would suggest. It was all in the steepness and that is very much a feature of Harris. The only fly in the ointment was I was walking on tarmac and was to continue along the A859 until I got past the bridge over Abhainn Scaladail. Thankfully, the road wasn’t that busy at all and I was well away from it by the time that the traffic from the Uig ferry started to make its way north from Tarbert.
On my OS Explorer, the track that I was to follow was merely an undistinguished dotted line, one of many depicted on Scotland’s walking maps. It gave me no hint that this was the start point for the Harris Walkway that officially opened by Cameron McNeish in 2001. Of course, signs on the ground gave the game away. The track itself cut an obvious line up the side of Caisteal Ard and Cleit Ard as it carried on my ascent from the bridge. It may have been the post road from Stornoway, was very much a green lane and was boggy over a lot of its length with a good deal of water underfoot at times. Given the summer that we got this year, that should be no surprise and surface water is a minor perturbation for a hill walker anyway.
Gaining height allowed me wider views and they continued to vary as I plied my way back to the A859 again. Sea lochs, steep-sided hills and freshwater lochans were all part of the fare on offer. Views of An Cliseam (the Clisham) abounded too as I took my time to enjoy my good fortune and took advantage of any benches that I found too. I didn’t know how long it would last but there was no sign of dramatic change as I mounted saddle between Cleit Ard and Gormul Màraig.
On returning to the A859, the skies became cloudier but the morning was good and there was sign of rain. I soon reached my final escape from the A859, until I reached Tarbert, that is. I lost height quickly on the minor road to Màraig (Maruig) and Reinigeadal (Rhenigadale). It was only in recent years that it was extended to the latter, which until then was only reachable on paths and tracks up. There is a Gatliff hostel at Reinigeadal which sounds a wonderful prospect once you strike up the trust to depend on finding a bed there without booking ahead. I suppose that’s easily achievable if you travel in the low season and it might not be too chancy in the summer either. Nevertheless, I’d rather have some sort of shelter with me just in case…
After losing all that height, I soon lost the tarmac at a switchback bend in the road to start on another off-road section of the Harris Walkway. It’s 6km could be done much faster than the time that I took over it but I had a heavy load and there was some wonderful countryside to be savoured. Even with the pervasive cloud hiding the sun on me, it still looked glorious. You couldn’t miss the cloud-free top of An Cliseam even if it was one of many of its kind, all of them equally impressive in appearance. As I made the gradual ascent of Bràigh an Ruisg, some walkers got out of a car on the road that I had left to walk the very same track. As I took a break for some food and to enjoy the views, they passed me, the only other walkers that I’d seen all day. I was happy to let them go on ahead of me; the last you want in places as nice as this is to feel as if you are some kind of line of traffic, especially when there was no need for it.
Going up and over Bràigh an Ruisg was the cause of my losing one set of views for me to get others in their place. For a short while, the sun got free from its cloudy prison and a camera was set into action before I left An Cliseam after me. One I got down from the bealach, the terrain was to be flatter as I bimbled by the lochans along the floor of Gleann Lacasdail, stopping at times to take in what was around me. Blue sky and sun still broke through but cloud was increasing all the while.
It didn’t take too long before the Tarbert-Scalpay road started to come into view and the sight of a goodly number of cars and other vehicles going along it was not what I wanted to see. Nevertheless, by the time I overcame the final spot of ascent to reach this road near Urgha, things had quietened down for a none too taxing tramp to Tarbert. Walking on a hard surface like tarmac is rarely pleasant when carrying a heavy load but having to remain alert for traffic adds to any discomfiture. I was therefore very thankful to have missed the earlier traffic.
Tarbert was reached in good time so I had the opportunity for a rest at my accommodation for the next two nights before pottering out for a restorative meal. After that, I took the chance to amble about the place where I was to spend two nights without the encumbrance of a heavy pack. That liberation from having to carry everything with me was to find use for my walk next day too. However, that’ll be something for the next post in the series.