A spot of island hopping Part 5: travelling from Harris to South Uist2nd October 2008
Thursday, August 14th:
Thursday morning began with sunny spells like the preceding days and I would have been forgiven for embarking on further explorations of Harris. After all, I had concentrated my efforts on that piece between Tarbert, Àird a’ Mhulaidh (English: Ardvourlie) and Miabhaig (English: Meavaig) and that’s only part of what’s there. However, the planned itinerary for my week of island hopping dictated that I was to leave for South Uist. Reaching my destination of Lochboisdale was to involve a ferry crossing and three coach rides and the wonderful weather remained with me all day.
It was also good weather for those following the circular CalMac tour from Uig. If I recall correctly, they would have been treating themselves to a ferry crossing to Tarbert, a bus connection to Leverburgh, another ferry crossing over the Sound of Harris, another bus connection to Lochmaddy followed by a return ferry crossing to Uig. Those bus connections weren’t coaches that were specially laid on but normal service buses which would have been running anyway. Even so, the coach conveying the folk on the tour from Tarbert to Leverburgh allowed stops near Harris’ famous beaches.
As it happened, the route of that tour overlapped with mine from Tarbert to Lochmaddy. I was especially appreciative of the stops made in South Harris because I got to capture views across beaches like Tràigh Losgaintir, Tràigh Seilebost and Tràigh Scarasta with my camera that I otherwise wouldn’t. The former looked especially enticing with the hills of Frith Losgaintir and beyond as a powerful backdrop to the obvious elements of sunlit sand, sky and sea. As if all of that wasn’t sufficient, there was the island of Taransay too. The countryside was flatter around Scarasta but Ceapabhal did break up the flat relief of Toe Head, adding a useful focal point.
If I stayed with the coach all the way to Leverburgh’s pier, I would have been round by Rodel and glimpsed its notable church. However, I felt the need to for a longer break before catching the ferry and disembarked in Leverburgh to walk the rest of the way in place of the indirect bus journey. In Gaelic, Leverburgh is An tOb or the bay. The Anglicised name comes from the time when Lord Leverhulme owned this part of Harris and tried to set up a fishing port. Like so many big schemes in Scotland’s highlands and islands, the plans came to nought (a lesson for Alladale, perhaps?). Deterioration in Leverhulme’s financial affairs cannot have helped, but tidal conditions at Leverburgh didn’t make things any easier either.
That tidal disruption continues today and, when planning my escapade, I noticed that the Sound of Harris ferry suffered cancellations as a result. With that potential for disruption in mind, I decided to check on things before I left Tarbert and get my ferry ticket there too; otherwise, I would have needed to buy it on the ferry because there are no ticket sales facilities at Leverburgh (I think that it’s the same at Berneray). Luckily, tidal behaviour can be predicted these days, so my impression is any such disruption can be highlighted up to a week in advance, a very reassuring realisation. It wasn’t to play havoc with my travel plans though and the small vessel that was to convey me soon came into view while I was waiting at the slipway.
The Sound of Harris is dotted with islands and that may be pleasant for the island wanderer but it makes life more difficult for ship navigation, even if there are a good number of markers in place. The result was that the ferry follows a course that weaves its way through the various channels and takes an hour when straight line travel would be quicker. The crossing was a smooth one though there was enough movement in the waters to set off a car alarm periodically; CalMac recommends that you disable your car alarm because of this.
After a short wait at Berneray, it was onto another coach. This portion of land travel to Lochmaddy on North Uist was devoid of stops for the tour, a potential source of disappointment given that it went a little way around Berneray. My journey was broken for an hour in Lochmaddy before I continued south with the those on the tour having gone their way on a delayed ferry to Uig. The thirty-minute delay had been caused by a car accident on the mainland, on the A87 near Shiel Bridge. The ferry waited as long as it could for travellers but had to leave before the coach from Fort William could make it, a major source of disruption to anyone on that coach wanting to travel on the ferry. I suppose that it’s a lesson in the perils of travelling too far on the same day. Thankfully, my ferry crossing of the day had passed without any sort of incident and all that remained was trouble-free “land” travel from Lochmaddy to Lochboisdale.
I was a world away from the disruption of the A87, and I began to sense the striking peace and quiet that seemed to typify the Uists for me. Even Harris seemed to possess more bustle and Skye having more again. Lochmaddy did nothing that changed that opinion of these islands’ atmosphere while I was there. It wouldn’t make a great place for a shopping trip but the vistas over the island-packed Loch nam Madadh and over towards humps like those of Lì a Tuath and Lì a Deas were well enlivened by the sunshine. Hills are lower and less common hereabouts, so there is a more open feel with big skies dominating the flatter landscape.
Soon enough, it was back to continuing my “land” travelling. There is a reason for my use of inverted commas here: this was interisland travel by coach, courtesy of the maintenance of a host of causeways. By the time that I reached Lochmaddy, I had already encountered one of them: that linking Berneray and North Uist. More were to follow as my journey took me to Grimsay, Benbecula and South Uist. Each was as undramatic as if they were built on the bed of a freshwater loch rather than that of the Atlantic.
A perhaps alternative reason for using those inverted commas might be that a glance at an OS map might lead one to conclude that water trumped over land in these parts. The near constant sight of land as my coach plied its way south from Lochmaddy contradicted such a perception. Though the landscape was flat in the main, hummocks like Eaval’s 347 m summit lay proud.
After the remote feel of North Uist, Benbecula looked more populous but it is also completely flat, so much so that it is devoid of good harbours and that necessitated the causeway connection to South Uist. It plays host to the Uists’ airport as well as an RAF base, something that helps on the population front. Baile a’ Mhanaich (English: Balivanich) with its proximity to both of these and its hospital would seem to be a major hub in the Uists, particularly for shopping.
After Benbecula, it was on to South Uist. Like the other islands, it too features a landscape strewn with lochs and that was what typified my first sight of the island. However, hill country soon started to come into view and that is what draws the likes of me. After a change of coach in Tobha Mor (English: Howmore), I continued my journey to Lochboisdale. In contrast to the relative bustle of Harris, a more laid-back ambiance prevailed and bus drivers taking a few minutes to share the latest news did nothing to perturb it. When I reached it, Lochboisdale was as quiet as the coastal communities through which I had been journeying. After settling into my accommodation, I got something to eat and pottered out for a short evening stroll before retiring for the night. Further explorations of the island lay ahead of me, but the following day was to be the time for that; the amount of travelling that I had done from Harris was enough for one day.
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