I settled on Skye but it’s places like Berneray that made me move up here.
My second island is one that has been close to my heart since I arrived in Scotland.
The Outer Hebrides (or Western Isles) are a long chain of islands that stretch along the North West Coast of Scotland, sheltering Skye and mainland Scotland from the wild force of the Atlantic.
Berneray sits right in the middle of these stepping stones, a tiny island tucked between the larger North Uist and the mighty hills of Harris.
Although not much more than 3 miles long and 2 miles wide, it’s a place rich in history and interesting species of plants and animals.
Getting to Berneray is easy from North Skye so I hopped on the Calmac ferry as a foot passenger.
Travelling by foot is a great way to visit smaller islands… you rarely have to book in advance, it’s cheap and (my personal favourite) you can enjoy a pint as you watch the waves go by. Plus, it’s much better for the islands themselves.
West Coast travellers will know that specific feeling of excitement you get when standing on the open deck of a Calmac ferry. The red plastic chairs, painted green floor and white railings between you and the sea all mean one thing… adventure awaits!
I arrived at Lochmaddy in North Uist at half nine. Being almost June it’s still light late into the evening and even at midnight it’s still bright enough to walk outside.
But it was late enough that the buses had clocked off and I was sleepy so I took a cab and got into the front seat. A sticker on the dashboard showed a seabird with a smoking cigarette and big words underneath, ‘NO PUFFIN!’
It turns out that I was sharing a car with a local celebrity.
Alda is 83, a kind gent who has lived in Lochmaddy for his whole life and who has almost too many great-grandchildren to count!
He told me local stories as we chatted, trundling along single-track roads, crossing the causeway and finally ending up at the traditional blackhouse cottages of the Gatliff Trust Hostel (where Alda was born!)
The hostel probably ranks as one of the best situated and most beautiful in the UK as it sits right on the edge of the white sands of East Beach and looks over the water towards Harris.
Aside from it’s charm, it’s also a very handy base as campers and other visitors are welcome to use the facilities for £10 per night (bring cash).
I was tempted to book into the dorm and crash out but the summery lightness of the evening made me want to explore.
Dozens of oystercatchers squawked in the fields as I passed, determined to be heard above one another.
Have you ever had a serene moment spoiled by an oystercatcher? They’ve got no respect for peace and quiet (but in a strangely charming way)
I followed the signposted footpath up the hill and past the cemetery with its impressive patchworked lichens. The roar of waves met me long before before I saw the first pale sliver of West Beach.
I wrestled my sleeping stuff out of my bag and wriggled inside. It was almost midnight. Time to sleep.
Arriving somewhere in the dark (or near dark, in this case) is one of life’s purest pleasures. I’m definitely not a morning person but the excitement of waking up in a whole new place, that ‘Big Reveal’, is one of the few things that makes me leap out from under the covers. That and a really good breakfast.
Waking up at the very Northern end of this expansive white beach to the sounds of the sea was every bit as special as you could imagine. Okay, it was a bit breezy and the clouds looked aggressive but that just adds to the atmosphere.
West Beach is a 3 mile long ribbon of bright white shell sand. It’s so beautiful that a Thai tourist board once accidentally used a picture of it in their brochure.
But the beaches of the outer Hebrides aren’t second to foreign shores, these ones have an abundance of wildlife and are backed by a very unique, coastal grassland known as the machair
Machair is a Gaelic word which describes the fertile grasslands that lie low behind the sandy dunes. It’s a diverse and delicate ecosystem, often scattered with rare wildflowers, and is home to all kinds of bees and ground nesting birds.
I watched the gannets, gulls and tiny sandpipers from my sleeping bag but it took an hour of walking along the shore before I saw another human.
The blues and whites looked like someone had digitally edited them to an unrealistic saturation.
In hot countries there’s a translucent, almost-faded aspect to this beachy colour palette… It seems slightly sun bleached.
In Scotland the turquoise sea is bold and opaque. Like it’s challenging the darker, moodier sky above it.
I cut over the dunes and walked across the machair, following the waymarkers.
This is one of the fragile places where it’s important not to cut your own path but it wasn’t easy to trace the tracks.
I passed through daisies, buttercups, delicate fuschia orchids and plenty of flowers I couldn’t name.
I walked into a great commotion in the middle of the machair and looked skywards to see lapwings swooping low, calling out warnings.
They are ground nesting birds and these ones were clearly defending their babies.
I was conscious of causing them stress so moved quickly along the path but soon saw that it was not me who they were paying attention to. A gang of gulls stood like sentinels amidst the tufts of grass, every now and again taking flight and testing their luck against the concerned parents.
I left them to it.
Berneray has a lot of history for its small size and there are plenty of intriguing archaeological items dotted around the landscape. My walk took me past a stone circle and intriguing ‘Chair Stone’ before reaching the community hall and the roads that characterise the East side of Berneray.
If the West feels completely wild then the East is the opposite. It’s still picture-perfect but in a different way…
A road follows the coast from South to North and it’s dotted with thatched blackhouses, colourful fishing boats, neat gardens and pebble shores. It’s pretty but it’s not for show, this is a working community.
The shop and bistro is an integral part of this. I stopped for lunch, chatted with some of the ladies there and brought supplies for supper.
They had a steady stream of customers but I learned that trade is generally reduced by visitors stocking up on supermarket supplies en route. More people spending locally would mean more business opportunities and choice for local folk.
I had to make a concerted effort to find areas that might need a beach clean.
Sometimes there’s not much rubbish because strong currents don’t allow it to settle but I don’t think this is the case for Berneray.
Instead I suspect that keen hands have worked hard to keep their island tidy, especially considering that it’s lucky to have its own Surfers Against Sewage rep.
I picked up what I could as I roamed the island but it made a nice change to see so little plastic dotted around.
The rest of the afternoon was spent wandering, making rough sketches and talking to local folk.
I learned that the issues that affect Berneray are completely different to those on Skye.
There are a few upsides to being more remote…
The ferries limit the amount of visitors so they don’t get the same congestion on the roads that we do. Also, the people who have travelled this far are more likely to be return visitors and ones who clean up after themselves.
It was true… There were at least 10 camper vans parked near East Beach but not one patch of scorched grass or discarded tissue in sight. It was brilliant.
There is only one downside and that’s that the extra vehicle weight has eroded the dunes back noticeably within the last few years.
I’m not sure what the answer to this is; I’d be interested to learn more. It’s not something I’d noticed since I was so distracted by just how clean the area was.
It was near here that I decided to sleep for my second night. East Beach is a sheltered bay and a much safer place for a swim.
I laid my mat, sleeping stuff and rucksack out on the sand above the (slightly stinky and seaweed-y) tide line and walked up the road towards the hostel to refill my water bottle and use the bathroom.
‘There’s no pub in Berneray’
…This statement is half true.
There’s no official, licenced public house. There is, however, Berneray hostel in the evenings.
It was a clear but chilly evening. Low, blue-tinged light. Lapping waves. Air so clear that each breath felt like drinking iced spring water.
Walking through the hostel door into the communal kitchen was like walking into a solid wall of human voices, thick heat and mixed cooking smells.
The room is dominated by a long central table, a mosaic of those laminate ones you see in schools. Around it sat an eclectic bunch of travellers… European kids in proper outdoor gear, a smart older couple from Edinburgh, tired cyclists in long johns and pyjamas.
Before I could reach the sink I was ushered into a chair by a man with a thick Argyll accent and a furry trappers cap. His name was Hugh and he wondered if I’d like some of the chicken soup he’d just made for everyone. The welcome was as warm as the atmosphere.
I said that I should get back to my stuff but another Scottish fellow, Ian, offered me a goblet of gin with lemon and I found myself relaxing into my moulded chair.
It took a few minutes for us to realise that we’d met before over this same table about 3 years previously…
Scotland is a big country but it’s also a very small world.
Hugh went to fetch a bottle of Talisker whisky and Ian and I reminisced about the last time we both stayed here.
I had come over for some escapism following a break-up. He was working here. The crowd was an equally-eclectic mix of different characters and we drank well into the night, roaring with laughter at shared stories.
I fondly remembered a lovely old-ish boy from Stornoway. He was wizened and salty, with a shock of black hair that erupted in all directions. He and his friend were here for the fishing but he spent more time enjoying the drams and the atmosphere leaving his friend exasperated and impatient.
He had a heart of gold; sharing all he had and even buying us dressed crab as a Sunday treat (almost everything closes on the Sabbath in the Outer Hebrides but an enterprising fisherman has taken the opportunity to make door-to-door fresh food sales!)
My favourite memory of this man was when he saw us cooking some big eggs we’d brought from a local croft…
“What’s that you’ve got there?”
“Some turkey eggs, want one?”
“Nae thanks. Do you wanna know the best eggs? Sea eagle eggs. Have you ever tried a sea eagle egg? HUGE! They’re a bit fishy but if you can get one they’re a real treat…”
For anyone who doesn’t know, eagle eggs are strictly protected and eating them could result in a massive fine and maybe even a jail sentence.
We stood wide-eyed and mouths agape at this story, then he offered us a dram and the evening continued.
I won’t mention his name for obvious reasons but I hear he’s doing well. I just hope he hasn’t come across any nests recently!
Whilst lots of places are becoming more cosmopolitan and homogenised, you start to realise the value of these little corners of the British Isles where you can still meet unique characters to share laughter, drinks and stories.
The whisky and heat took effect and my eyelids got heavy. I finally excused myself, opened the gate and returned to my camping spot.
I was out the moment my head hit the pillow.
Okay, perhaps that was a bit too much whisky.
The morning was cold and dewy and I wanted to stay in bed. I could have laid there listening to the placid wavelets and busy birds for hours. Only I had a bus to catch and a swim to squeeze in.
It might seem like I’m always keen to dive straight into the cold water.
It’s not true.
It takes a monumental amount of effort and self-encouragement to even dip a toe in. That initial sting is never pleasant for me but it’s all worth it for the buzz of feeling refreshed and alive afterwards (one of my life mottos is that you never regret a coldwater swim and it hasn’t failed me yet!)
This hungover beach wake-up was no exception and I cursed myself for putting swimming into my list of things to do on each island.
Of course, ten minutes later and I was grinning from ear-to-ear, soggy and trying hopelessly to pull a pair of tight leggings over damp, goosepimpled legs.
It was a quick dip because I was running late but it made all the difference. I was suddenly wide awake and striding towards the bus stop.
For a small island Berneray has A LOT to offer.
I was amazed at how different this trip was to island number one (and not just because I was treated to sunshine and didn’t have to pick up poopy tissues!)
It just proves how different each island is and how the set of pressures can vary immensely.
I wonder what the other 80 will bring…
LEAVE NO TRACE – 3 THINGS:
TRAVEL ON FOOT
Berneray is a smaller island with relatively easy terrain; you can complete the circular walk of the island in a day and still have time for plenty of tea breaks.
Because of this, it’s a great island for exploring on foot.
There are also taxi and bus services available locally. The bus timetable can seem a little cryptic so don’t be afraid to ask for advice!
STICK TO THE PATHS
The dunes and machair are delicate ecosystems that are easily damaged by stomping feet like mine. Following waymarkers and sticking to obvious footpaths are one way that we can limit the (literal) footprint we leave in these places.
BUY FOOD LOCALLY
It can be tempting to stock up on supplies from the supermarket on the way to the islands. Whilst this is a good way to travel cheaply, it means that independent businesses don’t always get the financial support that they need.
Buying food and drink from smaller shops and cafes is a way of giving back to the community. It’s also a brilliant way to chat to local folk, learn about regional specialities and find out some of the best places to visit -it’s a win win.