I recently made a resolution to visit more of the UK. Having met so many people whilst travelling in South America who expounded the marvels of their beloved Colombian countryside or regaled me with tales of their Peruvian provenance, I began to think that I needed to do more to promote my own homeland.
Though I was raised in England, my actual birthplace is a little farther north of the border and I have a very close connection to all things Scottish. I’ve spent most of the last five years living and studying in Scotland and for most of that time I was busy falling in love with the place. However romantic and cliché that last sentence may sound, it is genuinely hard not to fall head over heels for Scotland’s cragged coastal cliffs, its glorious glens, its mighty mountains and its idyllic islands.
Feeling the need to explore some of Britain’s most beautiful landscapes, I decided to set out for some of these idyllic islands. With a backpack, a tent, some good walking shoes, and a bottle of whisky in tow I began a weeklong camping trip to the Outer Hebrides. Oh, and did I mention that I’d be hitchhiking?
Initially I thought that hitchhiking through the islands would be a cinch. After all, they’re pretty small and there aren’t too many roads running through them. Well, I unfortunately didn’t take into consideration the fact that there also aren’t too many people on these islands, which means a distinct lack of vehicles with which to hitch a ride… But it never gets too tough, really. When a free lift isn’t available there is always the option of hailing down a post-bus (a bus that delivers the post but which also picks up a few passengers on its rounds). By driving around in a post-bus you have the opportunity to pass through villages you might not otherwise have seen, and you have the added bonus of listening to the driver speak to local passengers in Scotland’s lyrical language, Gaelic.
I began my journey in Lochboisdale on South Uist where there are fantastic beaches looking out over the North Atlantic, magnificent West Coast sunsets, and only hen harriers and rabbits for company. The tranquillity of these islands strikes you straightaway and you know that you’re in a very special place.
A couple more lifts might get you from Lochboisdale, to the islands of Benbecula and North Uist where there are plenty of ruins to explore, some of which date back to the 14th century. And, for the nature lovers out there, the Balranald Nature Reserve makes for a beautiful walk amongst the machair, a coastal grassland that is currently under threat and in desperate need of preservation. 70% of the world’s machair can be found in Western Scotland and it is home to some of the UK’s rarest birds, plants and invertebrates.
From the causeways and flat landscapes that characterise the islands of South Uist, Benbecula and North Uist, you can hop on a ferry across the Sound of Harris to the altogether more mountainous island of Lewis and Harris. Lewis and Harris make up the largest island in Scotland, which made the prospect of hitchhiking a little more daunting. It turns out that timing and judgement is key when hitchhiking. You have to know when to accept a lift and when to just say no and stay where you are for the night. Unfortunately, there was a point when I should have said no but I was just too excited about being on a hitchhiking roll and I wanted to cover as much ground as possible in that day. I unknowingly forewent camping on the beautiful white sandy beaches of South Harris for a very dodgy hillside spot between towering mountains and a peaceful sea loch further up the island. Don’t get me wrong, it was beautiful, but I just kept thinking how much more comfortable I would have been a couple of hours back in the direction I had come from. And how there would have been fewer midges…
Winding mountain roads lead you up to the northern part of the island, Lewis. The highlights of Lewis are the stunning white beaches in the northwest, the Callanish Standing Stones, wildlife-watching boat trips, and browsing the plethora of Harris tweed in Stornoway’s local shops. The Lewis Loom Centre offers interesting tours and demonstrations of tweed-making processes and is set in a beautiful, old grain store complete with cobbled courtyard and weaving paraphernalia.
After an exhausting week of hitchhiking and camping I was more than ready for the ferry from Stornoway back to the mainland. But I know I’ll be back to the Hebrides at the next opportunity because there is still so much left to explore: hidden beaches, amazing wildlife, and ancient sites await.