‘Speed, bonnie boat’ with your motorhome or campervan to the unspoilt Outer Hebrides. Jeremy Taylor reports
Highland cattle, eider duck and adventurous otters are just some of the more unusual obstacles you might encounter on a windswept road trip around the Outer Hebrides, one of the most remote holiday destinations in the British Isles.
From Vatersay in the south to the Butt of Lewis in the north, the island chain off mainland north-west Scotland stretches for 130 miles, offering a landscape of breathtaking beaches and wildflower ‘machair’ moorland – with plenty of incredible wildlife in between.
However you choose to arrive, this distant corner of the country can feel like the edge of the world. Evocatively named islands such as Benbecula and Berneray are precariously strung together by causeway and ferry, with fog, wind and sea mist often forcing local transport lockdowns.
To make landfall I had a 650-mile drive from London, arriving on time to catch the Uig-Tarbert ferry from the north of Skye. On this 100-minute sea crossing to the Isle of Harris it became clear that the Outer Hebrides would provide a real break from ‘normal’ life.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, as our Mercedes campervan eases down the ramp off the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry, it’s obvious that many other travellers had the same idea! Below deck is a veritable showroom of motorhomes in all shapes and sizes, including many newly-registered models.
The Outer Hebrides (or Western Isles) has just one Certificated Location (CL), North Boisdale on South Uist (see page 520 of the Sites Directory & Handbook). Large sites simply don’t exist here and many visiting tourers prefer the camping locations which dot the islands, most of which offer incredible sea views and are actively supported by the local community.
The tiny port of Tarbert is sleepy at the best of times but, if you arrive on a Sunday, even a takeaway coffee is off the menu. You might want to fill up with fuel on mainland Skye, as garages are also shut on Sundays – although some offer self-service with a credit card.
There are only four roads to choose from out of Tarbert, so sat-nav is not a necessity. The main A859 runs north to Lewis and south to South Harris; a small road east winds its way back to the island of Scalpay; and we chose the single-track B887, which heads due west towards the setting sun and Hushinish Bay.
It’s roughly 14 miles along the coast, and I doubt I’ve travelled anywhere quite so jaw-droppingly spectacular anywhere in the UK. Before its dead-end the road twists, turns and rises past the chimney stack of the old Bunavoneader Whaling Station, North Harris Eagle Observatory and swanky Amhuinnsuidhe Castle hotel.
I guarantee you won’t be able to drive this route without stopping at least once to appreciate a stunning vista. After negotiating sheep and Highland cattle, our destination is Hushinish Gateway, a community centre which provides a modern shelter with showers, waste water facility and water supply.
Campervans are welcome in the car park next to the picture-perfect beach, but if you want to escape the ‘crowds’, 800 yards back up the road is the Hushinish Gateway Campervan Site, with electric hook-ups and a chance to spot seals and dolphins in the bay below. Visitors make a donation online.
The following day we head back to Tarbert and then north to Stornoway which, with around 6,000 inhabitants, is home to roughly a third of the population of the Outer Hebrides. We take the opportunity to stock up with bread at the Blackhouse Bakery, while Islander Shellfish by the quay provides fresh scallops for an evening barbecue.
The road north finally runs out at the Butt of Lewis – also the most northerly point of the archipelago. Even in the summer, the wind can be challenging on the hour-long walk to the lighthouse, and I’m ready for a fish supper by the time we return to our van. Tonight we’ve pitched at a private croft site called The Uncles Croft, just outside the Port of Ness (£10 parking, £5 hook-up, 07765 533936).
By road and sea
The next day it’s a two-hour drive due south again to catch the Leverburgh ferry to Bernerary, although our boat is late due to fog. The delay leaves no time to explore the endless sandy beaches and thatched cottages on the island, where Prince Charles secretly stayed for a week in 1987 to learn about crofting.
Bernerary is connected by causeway to lake-strewn North Uist, a flatter and more rugged island linked farther south to the coastal bird lands of Benbecula – famous for eider duck, crane and snipe – and then on to mountainous South Uist. Tranquil North Boisdale CL is less than a mile from the beach and open all year – activity options nearby include fishing, shooting, chartered sea fishing, bird watching and walking.
We drive over another causeway – look out for otters! – to the island of Eriskay, where Bonnie Prince Charlie first set foot on Scottish soil in 1745. Catch the ferry south to Barra and Vatersay or, like us, head for home on a stunning five-hour sail back to Oban in the Western Highlands.
Good weather is never guaranteed in the Outer Hebrides, but the locals always have a warm welcome. Its unique islands harbour Gaelic traditions and spectacular scenery. Haste ye back…