If last year I bemoaned the fact that the West Highland Way was too busy with walkers, even in early April, I certainly found my match on the Hebridean Way. In 5 days of walking I could count the number of Heb Way walkers I met on the fingers of less than one hand. On several days I walked for hours without seeing another soul (only those passing in cars on the road walking sections). I found myself talking to the birds, of which there are many (particularly oystercatchers, lapwings, sandpipers, curlews and sea birds and ducks. You might even get lucky and see an eagle). I do this at home anyway but at least here there was no-one about to give me a funny look. At the summit of Ruabhal, the highest point on Benbecula (at a very modest 124m) and a popular destination for day walkers, there were at least 8 people gathered. I panicked at the intrusion and fled down the opposite, path-less and people-less side of the hill to have my lunch in peace (but only after asking one of the day trippers to take a photo of me at the summit of course 🙂 ).
In all seriousness though, if you’re after a scenic, varied trail, off the beaten track but waymarked, you can’t go wrong with the Hebridean Way, just so long as you’re prepared to either carry your accommodation and equipment or spend a lot of time organising your trail plans beforehand.
The Hebridean Way walking route (not to be confused with the established and more popular cycling route) only opened in 2017 and as yet there is limited infrastructure created around the trail. If you like your creature comforts and daily cafe latte you’d best look elsewhere. Shops, pubs and cafes are all sparse along the route or involve a detour (not always considerable but bear in mind even an extra couple of miles off route are significant if you’ve already done a 20 mile day.) The first and only time the route directly passes a shop between Castlebay in Barra and Berneray is during the latter part of day 3, when ironically you pass two small supermarkets within a couple of kilometres. I visited both, just for the novelty of it.
With this in mind I chose to be self-sufficient and carry a tent and camping paraphernalia along with a lightweight stove and enough food for 5 days (having walked the Isle of Harris section of the Heb Way last year with the wee one, this year I was just walking the section from Vatersay to Berneray). This gave me the freedom to walk as far as I wished in a day without having to veer off track to find food or accommodation and also allowed me to do the minimal amount of planning. I.e. none. Or you could do what two women I met were doing, staying at a mixture of campsites, hostels and bed and breakfast accommodation depending what was available. Doing this you’d still need to carry your tent and you’d need a bigger budget than I had and organise your b & bs in advance as accommodation in the Outer Hebrides is limited and fills up quickly in the summer months.
I mostly wild camped. There are a few campsites along the way, all packed with motorhomes and camper vans and really set up to accommodate these but they make an adequate enough stop if you’re needing a shower and flush toilet. I made an exception though to camp at the wonderful Gatliff Trust hostel at Howmore. For £16 you can stay in an actual bed for the night (plus an extra £2 if you don’t have your own sleeping bag) in a traditional Hebridean building. They don’t take pre-bookings, you just turn up and bag your bed. For £10 you can camp outside and have access to all the facilities – toilet, shower, common room with kitchen, woodburning stove and a well-stocked bookshelf. For me, this was a perfect stop halfway to shower, wash underwear, dry out after a wet day and socialise (thanks to the wonderful Fiona and Tony whose good conversation and humour kept me in high spirits as I battled with a pretty nasty cold!)
The trail itself is wonderfully varied. There are road sections (especially crossing causeways), old tracks across the machair, pathless moorland sections, white sand beaches and the odd low level (but often steep) hill climb thrown in to stretch the legs and reward you with some superlative views. I think the path developers have done an amazing job considering the difficult terrain. Just glance at a map of the Uists and you’ll see that the landscape is dominated by water; freshwater lochs, sea lochs, not to mention the rain (yes I did get some, it was torrential, but I kept my head down and didn’t hang around to take photos).
I should add that although signage is generally good, along the pathless sections in poor visibility you may struggle to see the waymarker posts, especially as the route often veers off at odd angles to follow the driest terrain and there are no directional arrows on the signs to point you in the right direction. I made the odd blunder but nothing serious and it’s good to keep the brain active with a little hands-on navigation now and then. Just bear in mind you’d probably need to take a compass bearing on some sections in the mist to keep you on course.
On my final day I rose at 6.30am to hazy sunshine and the very odd sensation of stillness. Up until then stong winds had buffeted both me and the tent consistently to the point where, even with earplugs I found it difficult to sleep over the noise. Note to reader: if you decide to camp on this trail make sure you tent is sturdy enough to stand up to some rather breezy conditions.
I had a ferry to catch from Berneray at 17.20 on which I could miss on no account, and 19 miles to walk to get there. Even by the time of my second breakfast, eaten on the hoof, I had fixated on the idea of coffee and cake (my first of the trip!) at the cafe on Berneray, providing I arrived with time to spare, and this thought kept me walking at a brisk pace the entire day. Today there were several miles of road walking, the monotony alleviated by a series of random bilingual signs at 100m intervals, which put a smile on my face.
Rounding the last hill of my walk the island of Berneray and Harris beyond were revealed. I could almost taste the coffee. As I descended, trying hard to pull my eyes away from the view and remember to watch where I was going so I didn’t end up in the bog, I met two local Benbecula ladies out walking their dog. I asked them if they knew if the cafe on Berneray was open today. “Yes”, they replied, “we’ve just come from lunch there”. Then, looking at their watches “only until 3.45 though”. (What??! I thought to myself. What kind of cafe shuts at 3.45?) The ladies continued, “well it’s 2.45 now and once you reach the road it’s only 3 miles to the cafe so I’m sure you’ll make it”. Obviously a statement that could only be made by someone who had DRIVEN to the start of the path from the cafe and wasn’t carrying over 10 kilos on their back. Despite the blisters I practically ran those last 4 miles, (forget the view,) arriving at the door of the cafe at 3.44pm, a sweaty, exhausted mess. The waitress was none to pleased to see me and groaned audibly as I entered. As she opened her mouth, presumably about to tell me they’d closed, I pre-empted her with an attempt at a joke. “Don’t tell me you’re about to close after I’ve just walked 100 miles for a piece of your cake?!” “I don’t care” she replied, “do you know how much I’ve got to do?” Oh dear, not a lady with a sense of humour then. I turned to polite pleading instead. “Do you think I could just get a piece of cake to take away please?” More sighing as she pointed to the only other couple in the cafe. “Well they’ve not long arrived and are having a cup of tea so you might as well sit in”. I started to thank her profusedly but was interupted “well, just hurry up and order then”. Nothing like being made to feel welcome (I recalled my walk on the Cumbria Way where as I finished up in a cafe in Carlisle the cafe owner announced my finish to the entire cafe, both to my surprise and embarrassment, and someone anonymously paid for my dinner. Now that was a welcome!) The other couple gave me a collaborative look and commented out of earshot that I’d got a better reception than they had!
Given the logistics involved just getting to and from the trail, I imagine the Hebridean Way will never reach the popularity of the more accessible Scottish trails but if you do make the effort, and if the sun shines, you will be amply rewarded, just don’t get precious about finishing with coffee and cake!