Part 3: You is on South Uist
At eight on a grey Monday morning we docked at Lochboisdale on South Uist as we walked down the gangplank we were greeted with a swirl of ice cold hail.
Nice, we thought.
Noticeable on the islands is the light. Even this morning - when the sky could only be described as 'leaden' - what light there was permeated the atmosphere giving an almost luminous glow to the surroundings.
A pity then that, to our novice island eyes, our landing port seemed particularly unimpressive. Although the capital of South Uist, Lochboisdale is a small village with little more than post office, garage, public toilets, telephone and hotel to service its 300 inhabitants.
Beneath the ferry pier are the remains of Stornaway Castle- the stronghold of the MacLeods of Lewis in the 16th century until destroyed by Cromwell's troops in 1653.
With a little more experience I now view Lochboisdale as being a typical island ferry port. With one or two notable exceptions, Tobermorry on Mull or Stromness on Mainland Orkney for example, most island harbours could be described as lacking character and they are, after all, working environments not holiday resorts.
Disembarking, we sheltered in the ferry waiting room to put on waterproofs and adjust our packs (the hail and now turned into a steady drizzle of rain) and then we were off - after lots of anticipation and little planning our Hebridean Journey had begun.
Walking west along the A865 from Lochboisdale was a lot like walking through a council house estate with every 99th house removed. New houses on the islands tend to be utilitarian and lacking in character and these contrast strongly against the warmth and individuality of the original stone built crofts.
There also seemed to be a surprising amount of rubbish about - plastic sheeting and paper mainly with the odd car or rusting engine block seemingly abandoned where they were last of any use.
The ever present wind scattering anything not nailed down and there were no obvious waste disposal sites - from this we gained an impression that items of no more use or value were just walked away from.
We later learned this was in fact the case and, although there's been some improvement over the years (the island councils now subsidise, for instance, the removal of scrapped cars), waste disposal is still a major problem on most of the islands I've visited.
All they need do is employ Geoff who, being something of a Womble, tended to walk towards all kinds of rubbish and junk, exclaim "Oh! That's bound to be useful" before picking it up and taking it with him.
Our first stop, about three miles down the road, was at one of only three public telephones we found on the Islands. From here Geoff called his wife to assure her we'd arrived safely and that no one had died from sea-sickness.
Our next stop at the combined Post Office/General Store/Off-License provided us with basic supplies for the day (our plan to travel light meant food must be bought each day - a tactic which later caused problems).
Turning north, we started up the single road that runs the full length of the island. I think we'd imagined that roads on the islands would be grassed over dirt tracks; but this was disappointingly modern, well tarmaced and wide enough for two cars. Two miles on and we turned west again along a much narrower road towards the beach.
At Askernish House we paused while Geoff knocked at the back door to beg water.
"Don't be put off by the colour", said the obliging house owner as he let Geoff fill his bottle at the sink. The water did have a striking tinge of peat red to it but was as sweet as any we'd tasted. Carrying on, we reached the end of the road at what was marked on the OS map as the Askernish Golf Course Club House.
In reality, this was a broken down wooden shed with peeling paint and sagging doors - not a place for a round of drinks after a hole in one we thought. Golfers here must have plenty of patience, for with the steadily strengthening wind I could foresee as good a chance of hitting Ireland as the next green.
We left the road at the Club House and moved north onto the Machair along what the OS Map indicated was a footpath. This was a swamp, so we moved up onto the dunes, which gave firmer footing but no shelter from the wind.
Anticipating hard going over soft sand we'd not planned on using the beach, but now to get out of the wind, we decided to give it a try. Wide, white and considerably less windy the shell sand beach curved off into the distance with the skyline broken only in a couple of places by outcrops of rock jutting into the sea.
Surprisingly firm sand gave good footing and we were sheltered from the worst of the wind by the dune face, which in some places was twelve or more feet high. Two hours plodding brought us to the west of Loch Eileen where we stopped for a brew in the lee of the dunes. The chance for Geoff to use one of his 25 cooking sets cheered him up no end and hot tea and chocolate bars soon revived us.
It was while Geoff took his normal 15 minutes to re-pack that we noticed a solitary figure in the distance making his way towards us along the beach. This was Mike, an American on a months holiday in the UK.
He'd started out in Devon and, after staying with friends in Glasgow, was now using the last of his holidays to look round the Hebrides. As we chatted, Mike mentioned that he was making his way to a hostel in Howemoore. Staying there, he said, must be preferable to a one-man attempt at tent erection in the Hebridean wind.
We parted company, Mike wanting to visit Flora McDonalds birthplace (to the east near Mingary) and we intending to reach the ruins of Ormiclate Castle before nightfall.
Continuing with our plod up the beach we stopped to inspect interesting rocks and the rusty ruins of an abandoned engine block and to return the wave of a passing tractor driver who was collecting seaweed. The piles of seaweed were frequent, these are laid out to dry over anything handy. Once dry and burnt they're an excellent source of fertiliser and iodine.
Seaweed collection and processing was once a major source of employment on the Islands and today it still supplements the crofters' fertiliser needs. Seaweed and peat are one of the Islands few free bonuses and the collection of these takes its place in the natural rhythm of island life.
It's been said that Hebrideans are resistant to change and fatalist in their view of nature when compared to their counterparts in Eastern Scotland.
The opposing view is that they could just have more sense.
In such a hostile environment there are times better than others - and effort at the wrong time is wasted energy. Islanders waste nothing so they fit effort into the right time and place, just like our passing tractor driver.
He gave us what we now call an island wave; this consists of lifting the index finger as little distance possible from the steering wheel and at the same time crinkling the corners of your mouth. This fulfils an acknowledgement and, just in case you ignore it, wastes as little energy as possible.
Trollasker Rocks were a noticeable landmark, jutting out as they did several hundred yards out into the sea. It was here we left the beach and took to the track at the back of the dunes. As we passed Loch Bornish the wind steadily increased to become more of a problem by making our progress even slower.
The original plan (plan?) had been to camp near, or in the ruins of Ormiclate Castle, but these were four miles away and by now we were tired. Nothing in sight looked even remotely worth trying to pitch a tent on so we headed east along the track towards Bornish and the main road.
At a small croft just after Bornish House, Dave and Geoff knocked to ask if there was anywhere we could camp for the night.
"Oh no, there's no camping round here," said the little old lady who eventually answered the door.
"Terrible weather for camping," she added, followed by "best of luck boys".
Trudging off dispiritedly, we were really flagging by the time we reached the A865 but our spirits lifted as we stocked up with Mars Bars and sausages from the Post Office/General Store. This was at the crossroads of the A865 and a track to the beach. In anticipation of soon being able to make a brew we talked of water as we picked our Mars Bars and this prompted the owner to fill our water bag. "And I won't charge you a penny for it," she joked.
Leaving our packs (and Geoff) on the floor outside the store, Dave and me split up to find a campsite. Dave went across the road and I went south along it. He found a site almost immediately and returned to the store to find Geoff watching me climb a hill about a mile away.
"I don't care if he does find a site,", said Geoff, "I'm not going up bloody there".
Geoff was in luck; I didn't find a site. Everywhere I looked at was either waterlogged or exposed to the wind but Dave had found the perfect spot. This was in a small quarry used for storing what looked like roadworking equipment. We were well sheltered from the wind, had plenty of wood for a fire and, once we'd cleared the smashed whisky bottles out of the way, had a nice grassy pitch for the tent.
We needed two fires, the first was ignited meths poured over an ants nest which unfortunately was in the way of our tent, and the second was of wood to burn the best sausages we'd ever tasted. These we skewered on sticks sharpened with one of Geoff's twenty-seven knives and then roasted in the wood smoke and ash - wonderful.
Our entrée was followed by paella cooked by Dave in a billy-can over the open fire. Diltenté rice in these conditions - unbelievable. Mars Bars, whisky and Drambue finished off the gourmet meal.
In our sleeping bags, well fed and well knackered, we were offered a philosophical appreciation of the merits of Drambue by Dave.
"Like cream poured over a silver plate," he mumbled.
He may have said more but the day had taken its toll and I fell asleep. Considering we'd carried 40lbs packs for over 15 miles in the face of a strong wind it was no surprise we were worn out and also perhaps not so surprised that we had a damned good nights sleep under canvass.