It took me six months to go away for a full week this year, which is quite out of character. I don’t know what happened. Being on contract. Not really feeling like going alone. Something like that. But by the time the end of June came around I desperately needed it. I was in the middle of the process of buying a flat, work had been nonstop all year, and I’d unsurprisingly taken on far too much in terms of swing dance organisation.
So Holly and I planned a week of (mostly) wild camping in the Outer Hebrides. We hired a car, booked some ferries, and left the bits in between to be determined as we went along.
We invited the rest of our usual crew, but people were busy with other summer things, so we went on our own. I think this is part of what made the trip amazing. I love a good group trip, but we were able to faff around as much as we wanted without worrying about holding anyone up. Decisions were easier and there was precious little organising to do, which is precisely what I needed.
Also, you get a bigger share of wine when there’s only two of you.
The only thing about the trip that was a potential minefield was the fact that I was driving. I passed my UK road test in January after about 3 months of lessons driving manual. Then I didn’t drive again til I picked up the car we hired. About 5 months later. I stubbornly decided that I needed the practice and so insisted on being the only driver. I was fairly certain I was, at best, going to destroy the car and our holiday.
Thankfully this did not happen. I can’t say I was a pro, but I didn’t get us killed, and I at least provided some entertainment ¬– I managed to pull off a total boy racer wheelspin coming off the ferry between Berneray and Harris, where we’d been parked right at the back on a terrifying incline. (Holly and the ferry attendant were laughing. I was mortified.)
Despite the occasionally questionable driving, it was one of the most relaxed holidays I’ve had in a very, very long time. The Monday I was back, I remember thinking, well, shit, now I have to pay attention to time.
We somehow picked a week with the most bizarrely incredible weather. Conditions that would, in mainland Europe or any more accessible beach-type destinations, cause people to swarm. But in a lot of places we saw absolutely no one.
It’s a bit of a trek to get to the Western Isles, so I suppose this is unsurprising. We drove 4 hours from Edinburgh to Mallaig to catch a 3.5 hour ferry to Lochboisdale on South Uist. The ferry back to the mainland from Stornoway is 2.5 hours, and then another 4.5 hours drive back to Edinburgh.
You could fly there, but I feel like that’s cheating. You’d miss out on the drive through the highlands and the CalMac ferries. And who doesn’t love a good boat?
On the way out, we saw dolphins and had a chat with a GP who was going to work for the week in North Uist. On the way back, I took a bit of a nap only to wake up to an announcement that the helicopter I saw hovering right in front of the window I was lounging in front of was a coast guard helicopter and would be doing some training exercises off the back of the boat for the next 30 odd minutes. They then proceeded to drop a guy onto the boat, send a stretcher down and back up, and then pick the guy back up. You certainly don’t see that if you fly.
When we drove off the ferry on South Uist, there wasn’t a whole lot going on. I mean, it was a Sunday, but even if it had been a Saturday night, I really don’t think we’d have seen the secret bangin’ nightlife of the Western Isles.
We found an almost unfairly amazing spot to camp on Eriskay (of Whisky Galore fame). Our only company was some sheep, who were completely uninterested, if not slightly annoyed by our presence. We had some beer and pies from the legendary Mhor Bread in Callander that we’d picked up on the drive up, watched the sun set over the sea, and poked around on the hill a bit before going to bed. Because of our latitude, the horizon was glowing all night long.
I ended up waking up around 3 in the morning (because: beer) and unzipped my tent to see the moon setting right in front of me. A sunset and a moonset in the space of about 5 hours! I’m not even sure I’ve watched a moonset before or even considered it was a thing. Both made me feel a bit strange about being able to see the speed at which the planet moves.
I wondered if I wasn’t quite able to perceive it properly, because it seemed to skip at some points instead of running smoothly. Surely the Earth should move in analogue, not digital? And I did not have THAT much beer. But perhaps my mind was playing tricks. There we were at the edge of everything, in a place quiet enough to give focus to how fast can seem glacial when you’re very small.
Most of our days were spent crawling our way northwards up the island chain. We weren’t ever in a rush to find a camping spot because the sun wasn’t going down until 10.30. So for the most part, we took our time getting up in the morning, making epic poached eggs on rolls (Sometimes with salmon! Sometimes with black pudding!), and plotting out a course, or the start of one.
We had coffee in a totally deserted hotel pub, made friends with a particularly inquisitive wild pony, visited smokehouses (all of the salmon) and craft shops, wandered along all kinds of stunning beaches, turned down random roads that led nowhere in particular, then turned around and tried other roads, all of which gave me ample practice at dealing with passing places.
We bought Harris Gin and Harris Tweed and whisky from Abhainn Dearg, the westernmost distillery in Scotland, where I watched the woman working there label and seal the bottle I ended up buying as we walked up to the counter in the workshop. I probably won’t buy a lot of bottles like that in my life. The whole place smelled incredible.
We had lunch in a community cafe with epic cakes and the best damn black pudding and egg roll I’ve ever had. We overheard mums talking to each other in Gaelic then turning and talking to their kids in English and back to Gaelic seamlessly.
The day it got so hot that I thought I was going to lose the plot was also the day we dropped ourselves into a completely remote town on the coast looking across to Skye and I brought my core temperature down by snorkeling (badly) in my new wetsuit in a freezing cold tiny bay among the rocks while a seal or two bobbed around nearby keeping an eye on us.
It was also the only night of midges we had. And the only night we didn’t take a picture of where we camped. We put up with the flying terrors and cooked and ate through our midge nets because the sea was so flat and the moon was so big and the view was so amazing we couldn’t bear to give up and spend a night inside a bunkhouse.
After we’d gone into our tents, we heard an incredible rumbling noise that started at around 12.30 and just got louder and louder. I started to think an apocalyptic machine was going to come roving over the hills and end the day like some mechanical Langolier.
The sound soon revealed itself to be an enormous boat, lit up like a Gatsby party, slowly crawling down the bit of sea between Harris and Skye. And then in the morning we looked down from the top of our cliff into the crystal clear water to see a lion’s mane jellyfish solitarily blobbing along like an alien menace. It’s possible we were in someone’s sci fi novel rough draft offcuts.
When you look back at such a collection of things that happened in the space of less than 24 hours, it seems unlikely that anyone’s real life can contain that many curiosities, even on holiday.
But the very next day included wandering around some rocks at low tide that were absolutely covered in mussels at least 2 feet over my head. And then having the haar quite literally sneak up on us in about 5 minutes to transform what could be mistaken for a tropical island beach to a strange ghost-story moor where you couldn’t see further than 50 or so feet . The sounds of dogs barking and the odd far off car motor and the water itself were impossible to place because being in the middle of a cloud makes everything sound like it’s coming from everywhere.
I think I’ve made it obvious in the past how in love with Scotland I am, but after everything I’ve written about far-flung countries, it may seem strange that a holiday where I live could be at least as exciting. Parts of this country often feel like completely different planets though. So many odd, unexpected, wonderful little things happen on the trips I’ve taken within our borders. Planning something foreign is exciting, sure, but even on those trips, it’s the weird stuff you don’t plan that makes them awesome. So why should someplace a few hours away be any different?