Thursday, 21 September 2017

The Harris Walkway

Wednesday 23rd August 2017

It had started raining before I went to sleep and it was still raining when I got up for this walk. Overnight a tremendous storm had passed overhead bringing flooding to many parts of the Western Isles, and it was still raining when I packed up my tent while midges continued their onslaught. I walked the short distance to the small ferry terminal of Tarbert on the Isle of Harris and wondered whether it was worth resuming my progress along the Hebridean Way. I considered backtracking to the youth hostel at Rhenigidale and waiting out the rain, but then I got a glimpse of the weather forecast in the tourist information centre and was told that it was going to be sunny. This seemed highly unlikely but on that basis and while it was still raining I set off out of Tarbert along the road soon turning off onto the waymarked path for the Hebridean Way, which coincides at this point with the route for the well-established Harris Walkway, a trail that was opened in 2001 whereas the Hebridean Way was opened just this year.

I was keen to follow this new trail even though I’d already walked sections of it before, two years ago, including the Harris Walkway, which helped with navigation as I could retrace my steps even where the signage was not so helpful. It wasn’t long before the rain stopped and gradually during the morning the weather slowly improved as I made my way along a great path that runs beside Loch Ceann Dibig until I reached the road at Meavaig. Just before reached the small harbour I crossed a river that was heavily swollen by the overnight rain resulting in heavy torrents crashing down the hillside and under the bridge that was standing on. After an extended section of road walking during which the sun came out I reached the delightfully named Loch Phlocrapoil where an excellent path heads west across the fabulous rock and heather Harris landscape.

These paths gave me a fabulously enjoyable walk in the improving weather with fantastic views over the glorious West Harris scenery. Despite the heavy overnight rain this well-made path was relatively dry and is a resounding testament to the people who many years ago built this ancient path. Following a section between Loch na Cro and Grosebay along a quiet road I headed back out along this awesome walkway along paths that snake past the beautiful Loch Mhic Neacail and climbs steeply to afford some stunning views across this fabulous landscape. After the poor weather that I had suffered during the previous couple of days I felt myself really fortunate to have good weather for my walk through this fabulous landscape. Two years ago I had also enjoyed walking along the Harris Walkway in improving weather, but since I had done that walk in the opposite direction I was now seeing different parts at its best as the afternoon progressed. As the path slowly started descending towards the township of Kyles Stockinish I turned left and headed north along another great section through a gap in the rocks beside a derelict building and on until eventually reaching a road.

Turning left towards Ardvey I turned right off the road at a T-junction and on the path over Cnoc Biorach I encountered my first person also walking the Hebridean Way. Since I was going in the ‘wrong’ direction I had assumed that I would come across loads of people heading north with their backs to the prevailing wind but until this point I had seen no one. After a long chat about our experiences on the trail I set off once again and turning right at Ceann a’ Bhàigh I started to climb over the coffin route. This was the path that coffins used to take from the rough, unyielding lands of the south coast over the hills and down to the cemeteries on the grassier lands of the north coast. After an initial boggy section the path becomes very well-maintained as it climbs past the swollen Loch Creabhat and over the top of the pass to reveal the fabulous view of the luskentyre sands in the far distance. Two years ago I had camped at the northern end of the coffin route overlooking the sands, but now the grassy patch where I had camped was covered with a beautiful display of many differently coloured wild flowers where it would be a travesty to camp.

There is an excellent view at that point across the sands with the island of Taransay in the background and I was keen on a closer look so I made my way down to the road and up the minor road towards Luskentyre until I reached a spot right next to the sands where I could pitch my tent with a great view across the estuary as the tide slowly came in and enveloped the sands. This day saw me walking along some fabulous paths in some tremendous weather. When the day started I had been feeling really down about the terrible weather that seemed to have plagued me for the last year, but the turnaround throughout the course of the day was amazing. I was able to enjoy walking along fabulous ancient paths that people in the Outer Hebrides have walked along for hundreds of years and is now part of not only the Harris Walkway but also the Hebridean Way. The landscape on the Isle of Harris is some of the best to be found anywhere and I was overjoyed that I was able to experience it once again in great weather. From a saturated, midge-infested camp spot I was now camped in a great location, in the dry and finally clear of midges.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Aline Wood and into Harris

Tuesday 22nd August 2017

After my first full day on the Hebridean Way I had been met by the harsh realities of the Lewis Moor as I was attacked my midges while the rain poured on me. The weather had deteriorated during the course of that first day so that when I got up for my second full day on the trail it was raining, as it had done for most of the night, and it continued to rain throughout the day with only a temporary easing during the afternoon. While being eaten alive by midges I packed up my sodden tent and set off along the Hebridean Way, a new long distance trail that has recently been opened and runs the length of the Western Isles from Vatersay in the south to Stornoway in the north. Since I’d already walked the length of the Outer Hebrides in that direction, two years before, I was doing the walk in the opposite direction starting from Stornoway and after my second night had reached a point just east of the township of Balallan on the Isle of Lewis. Setting off along the Hebridean Way I soon came across a turf path, a simple method of constructing a path through boggy moorland by digging two parallel ditches and piling the turf in between.

I had encountered turf paths the day before and once again, on this long stretch around Loch Stranndabhat, I was walking on this uneven sometimes boggy path through the bleak, featureless moorland in the pouring rain. Occasionally a blessed gravel path appeared where the ground was rocky and the trenches could not be dug and on those occasions I was able to walk a lot quicker than on the precarious and uneven turf. Through the rain I slowly made my way around Loch Stranndabhat until I eventually reached the main road, near Arivruaich, at the point where two years previously I had ventured onto the moor trying to follow the Hebridean Way only to find after a short distance an abandoned digger with no sign of the path beyond, yet to be constructed. It was good to now be able to see and walk along the constructed Hebridean Way following it all the way where before I had been unable. After a short distance along the road I turned off onto an old section of road that moves quite a distance away from the modern road and provides a quiet and relaxing walk through the drizzly landscape.

A wooden boardwalk appeared as I approached the Aline Community Woodland that provided me with a wonderful walk through the wood beside the Abhainn Ruadh river. This well-made path took me onto a wide stony track that I remembered coming down two years ago so I turned right and climbed beside the thundering waters of the river swollen by the rains. After crossing the river the path narrows onto a recently constructed section that hadn’t been there previously and was a pleasure to walk upon through the light, almost negligible rain up the valley past the conifer plantations that lie in small groups either side of the river. This was an enjoyable walk despite the grey, murky weather as I slowly made my way uphill on the excellent stony path eventually leaving the woodland and climbing to the top of Griamacleit. Two years ago I had followed surveyor’s posts down this hill but now I had an excellent path to follow that snakes all the way up to the top of the hill where good weather provides excellent views across the Isle of Lewis north and south to the hills of Harris. Two years ago I had been able to enjoy the views from this point, but unfortunately I didn’t have much in the way of views on this occasion.

On the other side of the hill the gravel path slowly descends back down the hill to a section of old road not far from the main road beside Loch Ghille Chiopain. Except for occasional bits of old road I now had to walk beside the main road as I headed onto the Isle of Harris, the hillier part of the long island that comprises the isles of Lewis and Harris, and through Bowglass and Ardvourlie with views left along the extensive fiord of Loch Seaforth. When I eventually reached the start of the Harris Walkway I was hopeful that this pre-existing trail had received a makeover following its adoption into the Hebridean Way as it can be very boggy in places, particularly on this initial section. Sadly after early promise I found that the path was just as boggy as before which is really annoying as the Harris Walkway could be an excellent trail if only it was properly maintained. The path climbs into the beautiful Harris Hills just as the weather began to improve with the rain finally stopping though views were still poor marring any chance I may have had of seeing Clisham, the highest hill in the Western Isles. The boggy path climbs up through a pass between Cleit Àrd and Tomnabhal to eventually reach another section of old road.

Crossing the modern road I took a turning to the left onto the road that heads to Màraig and Rhenigidale where there is a great youth hostel and it was very tempting to divert onto the road to this hostel. However this is not on the Hebridean Way and would involve bypassing the path over Bràigh an Ruisg and beside Lochannan Lacasdail, a path that I was keen to do. I was also running short of food and needed to visit the shops in Tarbert so with huge regret at missing the hostel I turned off the road and took the path up to the top of the pass. The condition of this path underfoot was much better than on the earlier section of the Harris Walkway and the temporarily dry weather enabled me to really enjoy this path as it climbs to the top of the pass and suddenly reveals the stunning view down Gleann Lacasdail with the loch stretching out towards the sea at the southern end. Blue skies would have made this view better but it was still a pleasure to walk along this gorgeous path all the way down the valley until I eventually reached the road at the southern end of the loch.

By now it was late afternoon, the heavy rucksack was troubling me and I was beginning to get really tired so finding a place to stop I pitched my tent, but as soon as I had stopped walking the midges descended on me in droves. I was not going to be sorry to see the end of the midges on this walk as they had been plaguing me ever since I started to walk through Lewis and Harris. The usually strong Hebridean winds were absent encouraging the wee beasties to come out and have a feast on poor, weary walkers such as myself. After pitching my tent I walked the short distance into Tarbert where I got some food and headed back to the midges. Despite the poor weather and the midges this was a better day than the day before as once I had got over the tricky turf path at the start of the day I had the pleasure of walking along some excellent paths. The paths in the Aline Community Woodland are particularly good and make me wish that the whole of the Hebridean Way was up to that standard. The highlight of the day was being back amongst the wonderful Harris landscape after the flat Lewis moorland; it was just great being amongst the fabulous hills of Harris.