Friday, 26 October 2018

Island hopping in the Outer Hebrides - Camping Travel Diary

Island hopping through the Scottish Islands from Barra to Skye sounds like the idyllic camping trip but we weren't quite ready for those 50mph Artic winds battering our tent and near freezing temperatures every night, but I guess thats what happens when you try camp on a remote western Scottish island in early May.

Peak of Eaval hill in North Uist, Almost Chic and Cal McTravels during their Scottish Island Hopping in the outer Hebrides
(On the peak of Rueval - Benbecula)

We have always fancied an island-hopping adventure and after much debate over which islands to visit using my namesake, Caledonian MacBrayne's (Cal Mac Ferries), route planner we settled on a round trip from Glasgow through 8 Scottish islands involving 5 boat crossings and 4 drivable causeways. 

Our Trip

  • Barra
  • Vatersay 
  • Eriskay 
  • South Uist 
  • Benbecula
  • North Uist 
  • Isle of Skye 
  • Rassay

Setting off from Glasgow

With the car packed to the gunnel's like we were fleeing the city after a zombie apocalypse; we headed north towards Oban through some winding, stomach churning roads. 4 hours later, tired and feeling a little travel sick, we boarded the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry towards Barra. Followed by a grisly 5 hours of bobbing up and down on the boat leaving us a little green. Seems we've yet to find our sea legs.

Barra & Vatersay 

Arriving in the 'capital city' of Barra, sailing past an ancient castle set just off the coast we disembarked in Castle Bay (I wonder how they got that name). A short drive (30 minutes) from here was Scurrival Campsite where the sun was shining and we started to get quite excited. Stepping out of the car into some extreme wind, however, is when reality struck and our excitement died. We opted for a camping trip in May to avoid the crowds of people and crowds of midges. What we overlooked was the reason for no crowds. It was still bloody freezing and there was an ever present howling gale in the whole of the Outer Hebrides. A wee bit blowy, to say the least.

Castle Bay in Barra , Almost Chic and Cal McTravels during their Scottish Island Hopping in the outer Hebrides
(Castle Bay, Barra)

Aided by a healthy dose of bickering, we managed to get our tent set up in the wind and even managed to get a BBQ going, by some miracle. Well in truth I wasted almost a full box of matches and half an hour on lighting the damn thing and then 'some miracle' was actually Jess taking over the task. She used a mere 2 matches and had it going in little over a minute. The matches I was trying were obviously duffs.

Following my (*Jess's) BBQ success I made a tiny error in judgement in the befriending of a local cat. What a catastrophic mistake that turned out to be. It took my friendliness as an open invitation to move into our tent and we could not get rid of it for the rest of our time in Barra. Every night it snuck in to the 'hallway' part of the tent for a catnap. Things escalated when it decided the area between the shell of the tent and the inner 'bedroom' layer, suspended right above our heads, was a better place for a snooze.  When I woke up half way through the night to see a mysterious shadow hovering right above my face I crapped myself, understandably. My panicked flapping successfully freaked out the cat out causing him to bounce around our tent like a pin ball eventually clawing several small holes and a couple of large gashes in our tent walls. Excellent.

Barra Cat that killed our tent , Almost Chic and Cal McTravels during their Scottish Island Hopping in the outer Hebrides
(That damn cat)

Something that's definitely worth a visit if you're planning a trip to Barra is the tiny Island of Vatersay just South of the main island (connected by a causeway so no extra ferries required). Here you'll find some incredible white beaches and crystal clear waters which envy the Caribbean. Don't expect to do any sun bathing or swimming, though, as these beaches are for show only. They are as much use as a fancy sports car without an engine because it's just too damn cold to sunbath or even dip your toes into. It was, in fact, the first time we'd both worn ski thermals to a beach.

Vatersay Beach, Almost Chic and Cal McTravels during their Scottish Island Hopping in the outer Hebrides
(Traigh a Bhaigh beach, Vatersay)

Instead of paddling there's a couple of extremely scenic, and fairly easy, walking routes on Vatersay. Check out the Beach Circuit walk on the Walk Highlands page. We would highly recommend these for those who aren't fans of that savage "Munro bagging" business. The beach circuit is an enjoyable and not overly taxing walk - this is  coming from two exceedingly unfit people who don't enjoy anything too challenging in the athletics department; so you can trust us.

Barra Golf Course, Almost Chic and Cal McTravels during their Scottish Island Hopping in the outer Hebrides
(Barra 9 hole golf course)

The weather on the islands can be pretty un-predictable and on the day we were due to leave the winds were gusting 50mph and the rain was lashing it down. Unsurprisingly, the boat was cancelled and we were left stranded for an extra day on a very soggy and very small Island, whose few tourist attractions we'd already exhausted. After 7 miserable hours killing time in the car watching friends on Netflix we stopped by the Barra's Airport terminal for Fish Supper Fridays. Yes that's correct; the airport transforms into the local fish and chip shop on Fridays and Saturday evenings. Oh, and it's also the local cafĂ© during the day. Didn't I tell you these islands were small?

Would highly recommend this BYOB chippy for some incredible fresh fish and excellent local banter. It's also a once in a lifetime experience to sit enjoying a fish supper, plus a few tinnies, beside the check in desk of one of the world's only airports whose flight times are dependent on the tides; owing to the fact that the runway is a beach. Bizarre but a lot of fun.

Barra Airport Beach , Almost Chic and Cal McTravels during their Scottish Island Hopping in the outer Hebrides
(Barra airport runway)

The weather thankfully calmed down and we were able to set up camp back at Scurrival - the alternative was sleeping in our car. Our best cat friend was of course delighted to have a sheltered place to sleep for an extra night. It didn't seem to understand that it was very much in our bad books for shredding our tent.

Eriskay, South Uist, Benbecula & North Uist 

With the weather improving we managed to escape Barra and sail to Eriskay, the next island north in the Outer Hebrides. Famous for Whisky Galore (where a bunch of locals robbed a whisky ship, it was sailing for the new world and ran aground, they claimed they knew nothing of where the whisky went but everyone was pretty merry on the island for a good few years after) and also Eriskay Ponies, it's not a huge island so we drove north across the causeway to South Uist.

Stopping by an old settlement by the coast we enjoyed a little bit of culture before deciding that was enough and it was almost certainly beer o'clock.

Camping in Benbecula, Scotland, Almost Chic and Cal McTravels during their Scottish Island Hopping in the outer Hebrides
(Moorcroft campsite, North Uist)

The next day we set off to hike the highest mountain in Benbecula, Rueval and head out to see some wildlife at seal point. At just 127m we conquered Rueval with ease giving us the false impression that we were true hill walkers and could do something a little more extreme, like climb Eaval in North Uist.

Seal Point in Benbecula, Almost Chic and Cal McTravels during their Scottish Island Hopping in the outer Hebrides
(Seal point, Benbecula)

Equipped with lunch and snacks we set of the following day to North Uist for the peak of Eaval, at a little under 400m it is not the highest in the world but with the area being so rural it would take around 5 hour, navigating around some difficult terrain and 2 lochs.

Tired and disgruntled (who were we kidding, we like cafes, restaurants and bars not the outdoors) a solo hill walker coming down the hill broke the news that it was a harsh scramble from here on out, great, just what we needed. With lunch keeping us going we reached the top, ignoring the views we sat down and feasted on our pre-made lunch, when we did eventually stand up to look around we were presented with blue skies and the most incredible views of the outer Hebrides, the Isle of Skye and the Scottish Mainland. I guess this is what it's all about, the views really did make up for the hike until you remember you have to walk all the way back down (why can't there be zip lines at the top of every hill).
Climbing Eaval, Scotland,, Almost Chic and Cal McTravels during their Scottish Island Hopping in the outer Hebrides
(Eaval) 
Climbing Eaval, Scotland,, Almost Chic and Cal McTravels during their Scottish Island Hopping in the outer Hebrides
(The hike into Eaval)
Climbing Eaval, Scotland,  , Almost Chic and Cal McTravels during their Scottish Island Hopping in the outer Hebrides
(Nearing the top of Eaval, looking out to the Isle of Skye)
Climbing Eaval, Scotland,  , Almost Chic and Cal McTravels during their Scottish Island Hopping in the outer Hebrides
(Jess at the peak of Eaval)

Isle of Skye & Rassay 

Another day another boat, this time to Uig on the Isle of Skye. Camping was great but after 7 days it was getting a little monotonous having to get fully clothed to go for a pee through the night and all my joints were hurting with the effort everything took so we were absolutely delighted with the fact we were staying in an AirBnB for the last 3 days of our trip.

Driving through Skye in the rain got us thinking, why do people rave about this place so much! It looks just like anywhere else in Scotland except the roads are torn apart by the endless caravans and there was a bit hillier. With the rain lashing it down we visited Talisker Distillery and apparently with every other tourist on the island, the place was packed. As far as distillery tours go this was not one of the best, you felt like they were just trying to churn through the tourists, if you are on the island you should visit Torabhaig or the brand new distillery on the Isle of Rassay which is just a short boat ride away for a more personal tour.

The next day when the rain broke and the clouds parted we began to see why this place attracts to many tourists, our plan for the day was to visit the old man of Storr and climb to the plateau. Being one of the main tourist attractions meant it was quite a busy place but not many of them take the further hike to the peak of Storr. Once you reach the peak you begin to understand why the Isle of Skye is probably one of the most stunning places on earth, from here you can see most of the island and out to Harris, Lewis and the mainland, if you peer over the shear drop-off you will find a 400m vertical drop down the cliffs to the little ant like tourists at the old man of Storr.

Old man of Storr, isle of Skye, , Almost Chic and Cal McTravels during their Scottish Island Hopping in the outer Hebrides
(Hiking the old man of Storr, Isle of Skye)
Old man of Storr, isle of Skye,, Almost Chic and Cal McTravels during their Scottish Island Hopping in the outer Hebrides
(Bit of meditation . . . .) 
Old man of Storr, isle of Skye, , Almost Chic and Cal McTravels during their Scottish Island Hopping in the outer Hebrides
(Old man of Storr on the Isle of Skye)
Old man of Storr, isle of Skye, Almost Chic and Cal McTravels during their Scottish Island Hopping in the outer Hebrides
(Jess using me as a stabiliser) 
Old man of Storr, isle of Skye , Almost Chic and Cal McTravels during their Scottish Island Hopping in the outer Hebrides
(Jess pretending she didn't need my help to get onto that thing) 
Old man of Storr, isle of Skye , Almost Chic and Cal McTravels during their Scottish Island Hopping in the outer Hebrides
(Looking over the cliffs down to the Old Man of Storr)


With one last island to visit we took the short boat ride over to Rassay, just a 30-min sail where you can hire bikes from the local hotel, Rassay House. There is not much on this island and not being keen bikers found the hilly terrain to be quite a challenge to cycle (we ended up taking the bikes for a walk rather than actually riding them much) but with very quiet roads (just the odd sheep here and there) it would be a great place for keen bikers. Why visit this island if we don't like to cycle? Well Rassay is home to the new Rassay Distillery where a local keen whisky man has come back home to create his own Scottish Single Malt. You can book a tour here, but with production only beginning in 2018 it will be a while until you can taste their spirit, instead you can try some of the carefully selected whiskeys by the owner to sample along the way.

Cycling on the island of Rassay , Almost Chic and Cal McTravels during their Scottish Island Hopping in the outer Hebrides
(CalMac Ferry to Rassay)
Cycling on the island of Rassay , Almost Chic and Cal McTravels during their Scottish Island Hopping in the outer Hebrides
(Taking the bikes for a walk)
Rassay Distillery, Whisky , Almost Chic and Cal McTravels during their Scottish Island Hopping in the outer Hebrides
(Brand New Distillery in Rassay)

We had a great time exploring the Scottish Islands and after our 10-day trip we don't have that many left to tick off. One thing I would say is, if you are camping then it is probably best to leave it until a little later than May as it can be extremely cold at night. The only problem of course with leaving it later in the year is the midges come out and will eat you alive (we had none of them during our trip).

If you enjoyed this post why not read our other Scottish Islands post and find out about our trip to Islay, the island of Scottish whisky.

Isle of Barra Airport , Almost Chic and Cal McTravels during their Scottish Island Hopping in the outer Hebrides
(Barra Airport) 

Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed. 
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