At the end of June Finn and I travelled to the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides to walk 40 miles of the newly designated Hebridean Way to acheive our John Muir Family Discovery Award (more information about the award and our proposal can be found here). Although it was F’s first longer distance, multiday hike, our experience was about more than just the walk. We observed and found out about the plants, birds and archaelogy of the island, undertook litter picking along the route to contribute something to communities we were walking through and discovered more about nature and conservation through our studies of John Muir himself.
Day 1: An t-Ob (Leverburgh) to Sgarasta Mhòr (~7miles)
Beginning our walk through Harris at the Leverburgh pier.
As we walked through Harris we collected litter along the way. Thankfully the trail itself was overwhelmingly free of litter but there was a surprising amount of strewn cans, bottles and other rubbish to collect from the roadside, even on quiet, single track roads.
There is good signage for most of the Way.
We always carried a field guide to British Wildlife in our bag in order to identify any wildlife we observed on the way. We’d never seen The Magpie Moth before, but they were nice and easy to identify.
Cutting peat for fuel is still carried out in many parts of the island.
Along many boggy stretches of the trail over peat bogs paths have been constructured using a traditional ‘raised turf’ method, whereby two parrallel drainage channels are dug, with the removed turves placed down the middle to create a section of raised path. Finn increased his daily mileage by hopping back and forth over the channels (and only fell in once).
Stopping for lunch on the newly constructed footbridge over Abhainn Horsa-cleit. Given we had yet to meet a single other walker, it was unlikely we would be blocking anyone’s way. In fact we met very few people walking over the entire five days.
Taking a closer look at the local flora. Our philosophy was to “take only photographs, leave only footprints” but Finn had already picked a frond of this Hard fern by the time he remembered, which provided a good opportunity to reiterate our John Muir Award aims. Thankfully these ferns were ubiquitous throughout the island.
As we climbed over the bealach, or path, between Maodal and Bolabhal Sgarasta we had our first sight of the West Harris beaches, quite a contrast to the peat bog and moor of the morning.
Pausing for thought (and watching the rain showers moving over Ceapabhal in the distance).
Finn enjoyed looking ahead to spot the next Hebridean Way marker post.
The final stretch of Day 1 involved a walk over the beach and a play in the dunes (Finn still had plenty of energy to burn off).
Reconstructing some bones found on the beach.
At the end of each day’s walking, Finn and I would spend some time journalling what we’d seen or how we had felt during the day.
Day 2: Sgarasta Mhòr to Carran (~7 miles)
Leaving Sgarasta at the beginning of Day 2.
Along the way we tried to observe the changing archaelogical landscape and discuss what we were seeing. Here, stopping at a ruined sheiling provided the inspiration for a discussion about the Highland Clearances.
Stretches of walking on rock made a nice change from heather bashing.
After a full day of rough, pathless walking, the final climb up the flanks of Carran were the final straw for Finn. It was particularly hard going through thick heather and he couldn’t even be placated by the extensive views over Tràigh Sheileboist and Tràigh Losgaintir.
One of Finn’s journal entries from Day 2 of a Dunlin and two Heath spotted orchids.
Day 3: Carran to Sgadabhagh (~9 miles)
Day 3 was thankfully considerably easier walking than we had seen on Day 2, beginning on the coast to coast “Coffin Road”, from the fertile machair and white shell beaches of the west to the barren rocky landscape of the east along the route once used to carry the dead to be interred in the deeper soils of the west coast.
Our final view of the west coast beaches.
Spotting a Heath spotted orchid.
As we walked past old, abandoned crofts we tried to imagine what life was like for the people who once lived there.
Walking the The Scholar’s Way, a section of path once used by children in the townships of the Bays of Harris to get to school.
The rugged cnoc and lochan landscape of the Bays area on the east coast of Harris (a cnoc is a hillock and a locan is a small loch).
A typical zinc-roofed croft house in the Bays area of Harris.
In beautiful weather towards the end of Day 3 looking over the mirror calm Loch nan Uidhean.
An extract from my journal on Day 3.
Day 4: Scadabhagh to Urgha Beag (~7 miles)
Beginning Day 4 with a walk around Loch Plocrapoil.
Recently abandoned croft at Aird Mhiabhaig, reached by footpath a quarter of a mile from the nearest road. Until recently it was occupied by a lady who had lived there all her life and who in her seventies still carried her groceries and coal in a bag tied with string to her back.
The old corn mill at Miabhaig, later converted into a Free Presbyterian meeting house.
Reaching the milestone of Tarbert, the main port and village on Harris.
Shortly after spotting our first Golden eagle we ended Day 4 at Urgha Beag where the Way leaves the road to head into the more mountainous North Harris.
Finn’s Golden eagle inspired journal entries.
Day 5: Urgha Beag to Beyond the Lewis Border (~10 miles)
No shortage of water in North Harris!
While the rest of the country was apparently basking in a heat wave, on Harris it poured with rain the entire day. As I passed a layby on the road, dripping wet, a kind couple invited me into their motorhome for a cup of tea. An hour later I reluctantly left having felt like I’d met two new friends.
Pummelled by sheets of rain as I walked over the pass below Cleit Ard and Clisham to the west.
And finally, after a stretch of wet road walking I reached the border!
Having completed the four days required to achieve our John Muir Award, Finn opted for a litter picking and a nurdle hunt on the beach on Day 5. Nurdles are small plastic pellets used as a raw material to make plastic products. Unfortunately they can cause damage to wildlife, birds and fish, which can eat them. Fortunately after a half hour hunt, he hadn’t found any on that particular beach.
And finally, to end with some words from John Muir…