On Western Isles walking guides12th November 2008
In order to build a picture of anywhere that I am going for the first time, I end up hitting the web as well as perusing books and maps to get a sense of the place and where to go together with what there is to be seen. Of course, any plan that results is going to be incomplete so I always feel the need for flexibility so as to explore the unexpected, the unknown unknowns if you will. Things like the stillness of the Uists and Harris’ potent mixture of stony hillsides, sandy beaches and blue seas will forever stick in my memory but it’s discoveries like the Harris Walkway that could prove invaluable on any future trip.
When I started out on my hill wandering journey, many places were new to me but there are now less locations where I haven’t been. Anywhere south of a line drawn below the Brecon Beacons fall into this category as does much of my own native Ireland and Scotland north of the Great Glen. Over time my walking trips have tend to gravitate on certain areas and it’s very easy for some places to keep you profitably occupied, so much so that there are years that I could title by the places where most of my walking took me. 2003 could be the Lake District year for instance. I remain partial to going somewhere that I haven’t visited before and that Western Isles trip falls into that bracket as do a number of trips I made in 2006 when Northumberland and Pembrokeshire saw my footfall.
Speaking of heading onto pastures new, I got the idea that my Western Isles trip needed a spot of research before I went. It could be said that the idea of heading onto offshore islands focussed the mind more than it otherwise might have done. Apart from a certain tourist overview, these were to be terra incognito to me and it might be said that I was venturing further away from the usual locations than is my wont. All of that was enough to get books lifted off shelves and mapping organised.
In fact, I didn’t even have a collection of paper OS maps for the islands even if I did possess digital mapping from the likes of Anquet and Mapyx. A lurk in the outdoors blogosphere will reveal that printing out digital maps is being done by a fair few but I retain a preference for the old style paper mapping from the likes of the OS or Harveys, if only to allow myself more options when I’m actually out there among the hills; it’s amazing what can take your fancy while you’re actually there. Having digital mapping did allow me to refine my shopping list so that I wasn’t expending any more cash than was absolutely necessary. I have to admit that I have developed a taste for OS Explorer mapping and a full collection of these for Na hEileannan an Iar would not have cheap, hence the cutting of the proverbial cloth to my measure. I might enjoy the flexibility offered by paper mapping but both the cost and the need to watch the weight that I was carrying for my week away meant that any overindulgence simply was out of the question.
While I have planned many an outdoors excursion by mere perusal of a map, books remain essential for that broader view. I am very partial to Cicerone’s guidebooks but I found that Walking in the Hebrides didn’t meet my expectations, even with the mention of "Western Isles" in its subtitle. If I had wanted to get an overview of the walking on offer across all of the islands on Scotland’s western seaboard, then it might have been fine but I was after something that was a little tighter in its focus. The fact that it did not contain route maps, even sketches, for any of the walks didn’t help either and it really needs a map open in front of you for the directions to feel that little bit more real.
More more successful in my opinion is Nick Williams’ The Islands from the Pocket Mountains stable. The scope might have been as broad as the Cicerone title but the punchy pithiness of the descriptions really did give a feel for what was there to be explored and worked far better than the often dense prose of Walking in the Hebrides. The featured walks might have scaled the heights and ventured into the wilds but a spot of map perusal picked out lower level hikes through the wonderful stuff.
Speaking of lower level walking, I spotted another even more slender title while actually on my week long outing that might have its uses yet: Luke Williams’ Walks: Western Isles from Hallewell Publications. Again, brevity might be a very prominent feature but there are a plethora of ideas here too. Speaking of mid-outing acquisitions (I can be the proverbial magpie at times, picking up things and adding extraneous weight to what I am carrying, and it’s a habit that needs careful control), I also ended up procuring Charles Tait’s The Western Isles Guide Book with its enticing photos and useful overview of things to see while on the islands.
My mid-trip book buying brings to mind a comment I overheard a few years back, in Portree’s tourist information centre if my vague recollection serves me correctly. The comment itself was the more memorable and I’ll turn it slightly on its head here: to get books devoted to a certain location, you almost need to go there. Even in these days of internet shopping, that still retains a ring of truth about it and it’s an opinion that can be taken even further. You don’t get the full feel for a place like the Western Isles simply by surfing a website extolling its virtues. It’s by going to explore that you find what else awaits discovery and that it turn provides reasons for any return; exploration and discovery begets more of the same and the role of books and maps is to get the process started.