On the path of a meaningful life

Texts, photographs and videos by Claire B.

Sustainable buildling and light habitats. to transform the act of building and rethink our relationship with living things.
Transition tales. towards an ethical, sustainable and united future.
Travel dispatches. discovering the world between solo journeys and life experiences.
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12 July 2019

The charm of the Hebrides

Part two on the Hebridean Way through the charming little islands in the center of the archipelago.
North Uist, Outer Hebrides, Scotland © Claire B. - Please do not use without authorization

Today the wind is still here but the sun is back. At least. On the islands the wind is permanent. Accept it. I take two minibuses to reach Carinish where the trail continues. The ruins of the Trinity Temple (Teampull na Trionaid) stand next to the road. This is all that remains of an important monastery and learning place dating from the mid-12th century. The lands around the monastery saw the Battle of Carinish in 1601 dye the ground in red, earning the nickname of “Feith na Fala” (ditch of blood) in a battle between clans. Today only a few tourists and sheep are walking around the site.

The path sinks into the plain. In the distance I can see a small silhouette wearing a backpack. Someone else is doing the Hebridean Way. This is the first time I see another hiker on the way. The trail zigzags across the plain to the east coast of North Uist. I catch up with the silhouette that stopped for a meal break. Julie is eating nuts, raisins and a few slices of hams. She is doing the Hebridean Way and seems happy to meet another hiker. I pass an old pier where I stop for lunch. The sea is low and I have lunch sitting against the walls of the pier, partly protected from the wind.

The path continues through the plain and climbs to Beinn Langais where an old circle of stones almost disappearing under the ferns and an old half-ruined burial chamber await me. These are the witnesses of an ancient colonization of the Hebrides Islands. Eight kilometers along the road to reach Lochmaddy, a small beachside town but the rain suddenly appears and it is soaked that I hitchhike along the road hoping someone will take me. A good twenty minutes later, a car finally stops and two old local guys take me with them. Learning that I intend to camp overnight next to Lochmaddy, they promise to find me a room in one of the B&B in the village. I do not really want it because it is expensive but they are determined at all costs. Fortunately for me, the B&B in the village are full and I escape thanking my drivers gently.

An hour later, while it is still raining, I am still turning in the village to find a place to camp. Impossible. No flat place and too much wind. Damn. What do I do? I give up and decide to go to the Gatliff Youth Hostel in Berneray about twenty kilometers away. I was supposed to arrive on Berneray only tomorrow night but it will be for tonight. The last bus of the day takes me while the rain finally decides to stop. In the light of the late evening, I distinguish the plain and the hills where the path connecting Lochmaddy to Berneray passes. I decide that tomorrow, I will leave my big bag in Berneray and then take a bus to return to Lochmaddy to follow the trail back. The Gatliff Youth Hostel is the same as the one in Howmore, in a traditional old cottage, at the end of the village of Berneray just by the sea. I meet Marie, a French cyclist in her forties and we spend the evening talking. I am very happy to have changed my plans.

The North Uist moor and the ruins of the Temple of the Trinity.

Gray sky again, but clearings are supposed to happen. Marie reaches the ferry terminal connecting Berneray to Harris and I take the bus back to Lochmaddy. Yesterday, my mind busy finding a place to camp I forgot my hiking stick at the small village shop. I hope it will still be there. Twenty minutes later the bus drops me off and I recover with relief my stick that seems to wait for me. I leave in the other direction to attack the hike. The sky has slightly cleared, it seems that the day will be beautiful. At least according to Scottish standards: without heavy rain. I bypass Blathaisbhal, walking a little randomly across the plain, the signposts having disappeared and cross the moor to reach the summit of Beinn Mhor. The crossing of the bog is long, the path branching permanently. On a straight line, there are only two kilometers, I think. On the ground I need almost five! I finally reach the top and for the first time since 2-3 days contemplates the surroundings from higher altitude. With the few rays of sun, the view of the beaches, the Machair, the lakes and the island of Berneray is splendid. I have lunch at the top but the strong wind does not allows me to stop for very long.

Back in the plain, I go see the ruins of Dun An Sticer. First used as a maisonette almost 2500 years earlier, the construction in the middle of the lake was then transformed into a fort in the 16th century. Hugh MacDonald, who plotted to assassinate his cousin was locked up inside before being sent to a prison on the Isle of Skye. Back on the road, I still have some eight kilometers to join the Youth Hostel and I try to hitchhike. Two seconds later, the first car stops. Lucky me! A local man takes me and I seat in the middle of his painting gear. Back on Berneray I change bunkhouse having booked a few days earlier for the John’s bunkhouse, another dormitory located closer to the ferry terminal. The house is new and beautiful but the arrival of a family with a toddler makes the evening less pleasant than last night. I go to the tiny coffee shop on the island to buy some food. The cashier and a client are talking. The strange language catches my ears. They speak Gaelic. It has been several times that I heard it by bridles. Mostly spoken in the Highlands and Hebrides, Gaelic is a Celtic language unlike any other. Listening to the ladies rolling the “r” and accentuate the “ch”, I find it particularly pleasant to listen.

Today is a quiet day for me. I decided to take a break from the trail to enjoy a morning walk around Berneray before taking the ferry to Harris in the afternoon. I leave my big bag at the bunkhouse and go through the Machair around the island. I walk along the wide beach on the west coast and climb to the top of the small hill of the island. In the distance among the clouds I distinguish the mountains of Harris. Around 2pm, I go to the ferry terminal meeting Julie again met a few days earlier. She is also crossing.

The sky is cloudy and we arrive at Leverburgh in the rain. My first impressions of Harris remind me of the Highlands. Must say that the hills here look more like mountains. Julie booked the same bunkhouse as me, Am Bothan Bunkhouse and here we are in the same room drying our things. Rapid visit to the small supermarket that surprisingly sells organic and vegan products and quiet evening talking with two Scots having gone to St Kilda during the day. From Leverburgh it is possible to visit this small island more to the west of Scotland and UNESCO World Heritage but the price and the difficult crossing by boat discourages me a little.

The Machair of North Uist and Berneray. 

Dun An Sticer.

Cottages on Berneray Island.

Rest day in Leverburgh, the weather being really bad today. It rains without interruptions all day long. The landscape is sad and dismal. I take this opportunity to rest, refill and advance on my projects. My first part on the Hebridean Way has been all in contrasts. Mix of beautiful and bad weather and beautiful to very monotonous passages. I am a little disappointed but telling myself at the same time that it was stupid to have imagined heavenly landscapes. It remains Scotland after all. And in Scotland it rains, the vast majority of the time. So inevitably with the rain the places lose their superb.

This first part on the “small islands” of the Hebrides was a little monotonous, the way spending a lot of time through the Machair (beautiful but repetitive) and on the roads (easy but hard for the feet). The landscape is very beautiful but the difficulty of the ground (few existing paths, peat bogs and lakes everywhere, low-frequented hills in the East) led to the creation of a path on the west coast along many paths farm, old roads, areas across bogs and sections on the main road making the hike a bit monotonous and not the most enjoyable. Again, I wonder a lot about what hiking means to me. The Hebrides are mostly cycled and after meeting and chatting with many cyclists, I wonder if I should have gone on a bike ride too. But even if the trip seems less demanding on a bike, cyclists also face rain and wind. 

The weather is changing quickly in the Hebrides. Perhaps even more than on “the main land” (the main island of Scotland). You have to know how to be content with it. I can not do anything about it. So I try to put aside my disappointment to focus on a sweet feeling of well-being that hides in the bottom of my heart. I am glad to be there. Here in the middle of the Hebrides. On these islands with a special charm where time seems to slow down, smelling the fresh air of nature, calm atmosphere and traditions. Here, the landscape is different, both dreary and wonderful. The people are welcoming. And walking is more than just hiking. It is a journey to  discover myself, to discover time, to discover magical and ephemeral moments. It is a nice gift and I have to welcome it and accept it with the right open mind. I walk day to day, lost in my little doubts and worries of everyday life. Often I am not able to immediately realize the importance of the situation I am experiencing. It takes me a few days, a few weeks, a few months to understand and learn from it. Here, while walking in the Hebrides, no matter how much I let my mind twirl to its usual occupations, I know that the experience is much more than that and that the lessons will be revealed to me in due time.

Thinning over Leverburgh.

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Chapter V. Confrontations

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South Uist, Outer Hebrides, Scotland © Claire B. - Please do not use without authorization

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Highlands, Scotland © Claire B. - Please do not use without authorization

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Highlands, Scotland © Claire B. - Please do not use without authorization

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