Morag Bootland finds a family camping and island hopping adventure in the Outer Hebrides has something for everyone.
PLANNING a family holiday can be tricky. The about-to-be-teen wants to lie on the beach in the sun eating ice cream, the all-action boy wants to camp somewhere he has lots of space to run around, Dad just wants some peace and quiet and Mum, well, she just wants them all to be happy (and maybe somewhere to have a dip in the sea). Oh, and then there’s Wanda, she’s our crazy mutt and is happy just to be with us.
With this in mind, we land upon an adventure that might just tick all of these boxes. A responsible family camping island hop through the Outer Hebrides. Beaches, tick; sun, hmmm maybe; ice cream, tick; camping, tick; space to run around, tick; peace and quiet, tick; a wee dip in the sea, tick and happiness – well let’s find out…
With a van full of camping gear and travel sickness tablets for the pre-teen sorted we collect our tickets from the Calmac office ahead of our first crossing. I’d booked our tickets in the Spring to be certain that we could choose the crossings that worked best for us. Likewise, our campsites were also booked well in advance as they can get busy over the summer. Turning up at the terminal with precious little time to spare, the staff are friendly and helpful and we all relax into holiday mode waiting to board the ferry from Oban to Castlebay in Barra which takes just shy of five hours.
Dogs are welcome on board, but you must book them a ticket as numbers are limited. There’s a large dog-friendly area where you can hang-out with fellow dog owners and of course they can go up on deck. And this is where we spent the lion’s share of the journey. We were blessed with a calm crossing and we even managed to spot some dolphins, much to our excitement. Food on board is great and we get stuck into some of the famous Cal ‘mac n’ cheese.’ Pre-teen manages to tick off her ice-cream requirements too, and we’re only on day one.
Bellies full, we spy Kisimul Castle that stands in the harbour in Castlebay, the largest settlement in Barra and prepare to begin our island adventures. From Castlebay we drive to Eoligarry, which is a peninsula on the most northerly tip of the island. It’s a short drive and takes us past some crazily beautiful beaches, resplendent with turquoise water and pristine sand. The biggest of which, Traigh Mor, is also the island’s famous airport runway where you can watch the wee planes take off and land on the beach.
We’re booked in to Scurrival campsite where a warm welcome awaits. We can pitch our tent where we can find space and we choose a spot on a gentle slope and set up our new Outdoor Revolution Airedale 6S to make the most of the incredible views across the machair to the white sands and crystal-clear sea. I pre-booked all our campsites to make sure that we got a space and to avoid wild-camping, which is something best done with much less gear than we need for a two-week trip with two kids and a dog. It also helps to support the local economy.
We’ve already spotted the visiting corncrakes who nest in the machair during the summer months. Despite my trepidation that their unusual call might keep us awake all night, it is actually quite soothing. It’s not high pitched or shrill and sounds a bit like a guiro (the wooden percussion instrument that less musically-gifted children like me were given to play at school).
There’s time for a walk along the sand and a celebratory glass of wine before bed. We drift off listening to the corncrakes and looking forward to waking up to that view.
Barra is a small island, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in beauty. Braving the wind to climb up a wee hill on the most northerly point on the island provides views that are truly breath-taking. We are blown-away in ever sense of the word as we gaze out across the water to the small islands that dot the Atlantic seascape.
In Barra we spend lots of time on the beach by Scurrival; paddleboarding, swimming and just enjoying the peace and quiet. There’s a wee van just along the road where you can buy seafood, so we feast on prawn and monkfish linguine cooked al fresco and eaten gazing out at that ever-changing sea view.
We also visit the island of Vatersay, connected to the south coast of Barra by a causeway. This island is two sections of land connected by a narrow strip with beaches on either side. On one side the Atlantic waves are pounding the shore on Traigh Shiar and visitors can stand in awe of the power of the sea, but Traigh a Bhaigh on the other side is more sheltered. The bay here is stunning, with high dunes and blue green water I can’t resist a dip while the others build sandcastles. There’s time to sample the awesome cakes at the Vatersay Café before we head into Castlebay for supplies.
The family hit the supermarket, but my first port of call is Barra Distillery. Their gin is made using locally foraged Carageen seaweed and I can’t resist buying a bottle, but they’ve also just released a new rum which is well worth checking out whether you’re on the island or not. It’s also infused with seaweed and perfect with ginger beer and a twist of lime. Barra’s beaches certainly have plenty in common with those of the Caribbean, and I’m a convert to this island tipple. The distillery is going from strength-to-strength and with plans for a new state-of-the art visitor centre in the North of the island, as well as the first ever Barra whisky, there’s lot’s going on. In the five days we spent on Barra we fell in love with this little island and the people, who without exception made us feel incredibly welcome here.
Tearing ourselves away from Barra was a wrench, but we’re onwards and upwards as we make our way to Ardmhor for the short hop across to Eriskay. The ferry is right on time and we arrive on the famously whisky-soaked island just in time for a hearty lunch at the AM Politician, where you’ll find great pub-grub and some artefacts salvaged from the ship that is its namesake. The S.S. Politician was wrecked in the treacherous waters off Eriskay in 1941. The story of the ‘salvage’ operation by local people to recover some of the 264,000 bottles of whisky that the Politician carried inspired the book and film Whisky Galore. We enjoy listening to the locals chatting in Gaelic as we eat a leisurely lunch.
We’re heading for Benbecula, an island that lies between North and South Uist and we’re lucky enough to spot a couple of Eriskay ponies on our journey. These hardy grey ponies are now a rare breed, but the islanders have used the ponies for centuries, they even played a role in helping transport the aforementioned contraband whisky from the beach to hiding places around the island.
Driving up through South Uist we stop off at Flora MacDonald’s monument. Flora was made famous by her brave exploits to aid Bonnie Prince Charlie in his escape to France following the Jacobite defeat at Culloden. The Skye Boat Song immortalised their perilous journey and I attempt to sing it as we go, until my children beg me to stop. Mr B kept shtum, but I could feel his relief when I petered out and gave up.
We’re staying at Otter’s Edge camping ground on Benbecula. The site is perfectly flat and close to local shops and even the swimming pool. A hot shower in the pristine washrooms awaits, but we can’t resist checking out the beach at Shell Bay that is a few minutes’ walk over the dunes. Close to sunset we spot seals bananaing on the rocks and enjoy a wander to collect some of the shells that give this bay its name.
The boys are booked onto a wildlife boat trip on the Lady Anne from nearby Kallin Harbour, so we head off in the morning to drop them there before the female contingent explore some of the islands with our mutt in tow. We manage a quick stop into the North Uist Distillery to grab a bottle of their Downpour gin, before hitting some more beaches. You are really spoiled for great beaches here and even in windy, cloudy conditions they are mind-blowingly beautiful. Travelling around these islands the landscape often seems to be more water than land. There are dark, peat-stained lochans everywhere and my daughter is on otter watch each time we cross a causeway and see the Otters Crossing sign!
Meeting the boys back at the harbour we enjoy some incredible seafood at Namara Café while they regale us with tails of otters, white-tailed sea eagles, seals, red deer and a host of incredible seabirds. Tucking into the freshest langoustines and gazing out across the water, I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather be.
On a walk along the wide sands of Traigh Iar beach and the dunes that border it we marvel at the machair and the unique variety of wild flowers that thrive here. There’s a kite surfer making the most of the gusty conditions in the bay and we take a moment to be thankfully that the wind has meant that we have not seen a single midge. Praise be to Mother Nature; she is indeed a wise and wonderful deity!
When it’s time to catch the ferry that will take us on to explore the islands of Harris and Lewis from Berneray, which lies to the north of North Uist, we take a wee peak at the glorious East beach and wish we had more time to spend there. But the short ferry ride awaits.
Arriving at the port of Leverburgh in the far south of Harris means that we can see more of the island as we head north to the West coast of Lewis where we will be camping by Kneep beach. As the rugged hills of Harris give way to the low-lying peat bogs of Lewis we spot a pair of golden eagles circling high overhead. This incredible sight just makes us all the more excited to explore these most northerly islands of the Outer Hebrides.
We’ve grown accustomed to glorious beaches over the past few days and although Harris is more famous for the white sands of Horgabost and Luskentyre, the west of Lewis has some that are certainly their equal. The sand at Kneep is golden and the water is azure green. The friendly Fin shows us to a sheltered pitch and we blow up the tent for the last time on this trip.
The last few days of our trip see my dad fly to Stornoway so that he can join in the adventure. Together we travel to the incredible and atmospheric Callanish Standing stones. Where my boy decides it will be his mission to knock them down. Thankfully he didn’t succeed.
We head back down to Harris to wander along the seemingly never-ending sands at Luskentyre and pop into Tarbert for a bottle of the famous Harris gin, bought from their state-of-the-art distillery visitor centre. Luskentyre is probably the busiest beach we’ve visited on the islands, but compared to the packed sands of the Med it still seems deserted. Lunch is at Lorna’s Larder, a food truck situated just by The Golden Road turnoff, and only about 20 minutes’ drive from Luskentyre. It’s busy, but we brave the rain to order half a lobster with seaweed butter and a seafood taster box. The monkfish scampi is insanely good and I make a promise to return to sample the scallop and black pudding roll. There’s plenty on offer for the kids too, with lots of battered fish and hot dogs to be enjoyed. On route back to Stornoway we stop the van to allow a group of red deer stags to nonchalantly cross over the road in front of us.
Having loved the Lorna’s Larder experience, we decide to sample some pizza with a view at Crust. This converted shipping container serves up incredible Neapolitan style pizzas at Achmore. We ordered in advance and arranged a time to collect our pizzas and then pigged out in the van. I hear on the grapevine that the chaps behind Crust have just opened a bar/eatery in Stornoway called The Fank, so we’ll definitely be trying this out when we go back.
Heading back to the mainland from Stornoway to Ullapool we feel privileged to have spent our summer holiday surrounded by some of the most beautiful places on earth, and although we’ve seen precious little sunshine, we have seen so much more. We’ve had space, room to breathe, nature has encompassed us and the weather has challenged us. But, happiness is something I absolutely take home from this trip, and something I feel each time I remember the children running along the most beautiful beaches on earth, or allowing the turquoise water to wash away my stress, or the delighted faces seeing eagles and dolphins in the wild and drifting off to sleep knowing that I will wake to another day of little adventures in this incredible place. I hope the kids will remember this holiday for years to come and that seeing the incredible beauty of Scotland will remind them of how very lucky we are to have all this right on our doorstep.
Find out more about booking ferries for an island-hopping adventure at www.calmac.co.uk
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I was lucky enough to be gifted some cool new gear to make our island camping adventures a bit more comfortable. Here’s a run down of the best kit that we put to the test:
Outdoor Revolution Airedale 6.0s Tent, £1,099 from Outdoor World Direct
This is a beast of a tent and certainly not for the wild campers out there. The air beam technology means that it is quick to pitch, despite its size which was a real advantage for us as we had to set up and pack down three times. The bedrooms are darkened to ensure a good night’s sleep and the living area is spacious and sown-in, meaning the dog could sleep there without escaping under the canvas to lick the BBQ grill in the night. But it was the front porch area with its full height windows that really stole the show for us. It allowed us to enjoy those ever-changing seascapes even during stormy weather and gave us somewhere to cook when the rain came. This tent is tall, but it held up to some gale force winds and with a hydrostatic head of 4,000 it kept us dry despite some summer downpours, quickly becoming our holiday hero.
Findra Cora Cargo Pants, £85 from Findra Clothing
These outdoor trousers are lightweight and quick to dry, making them perfect for camping trips. There’s plenty of stretch in them, making them comfy for walking, even up the steepest of sand dunes. They repel water well and I love the little adjustable pull-cord round the ankle so that you can wear them hitched-up or pulled down over boots. I also love that Findra is a Scottish company with a great environmental ethos.
Oocandoo Sandals, £80 from OOFOS
Perfect for paddleboarding and exploring beaches, these sandals were so comfy and convenient that I wore them on trips to get supplies and they were my go-to slip on in the tent shoes anytime I needed to go outside. The foam technology is like a rubbery hug for your feet and puts a bounce in your step. They provide more protection from rocks in the water than the standard swimming shoes that I usually wear on my SUP and they float too in case you lose one overboard while out on the water.
Skyline Mid Waterproof Boots, £135 from Ariat
Climbing hills in rainy and windy conditions takes concentration. The last thing you need to worry about is soggy feet. Thankfully these Ariat walking boots were more than up to the Outer Hebridean weather and allowed me to be sure footed enough to concentrate on making sure all of the family got up and down safely rather than where I was stepping. And despite the fact that they were brand new, they were incredibly comfortable form the first wear.
Willen Portable Speaker, £89.99 from Marshall Headphones
Despite not being gifted in the singing or playing department our whole family has a passion for music. Taking along this compact, yet powerful wee Bluetooth speaker meant that everyone could choose the soundtrack to our adventure. It’s water and dust resistant, so took the camping trip in its stride. It’s really cute, with classic Marshall styling and I love the guitar amp noise it makes when you power it on. There’s around 15 hours of music to a charge so even if you’re off-grid you can still have tunes.
Umi portable radio, £25.99 from Amazon
Perfect for when the family can’t agree on which playlist to pop on, this compact little radio seems to run forever on four batteries. And despite the fact that we were in the Outer Hebrides the DAB signal worked everywhere we went. You can plug this radio in when you’re at home but its also perfect for the camping and sunny days in the garden.
Vango Samson 2 Chair, £31.99 from Outdoor World Direct
This is an extra tough camping chair and it shows. The fabric feels more substantial than your standard chair and the frame is sturdier. I felt confident enough to let my not-so-wee lad sit on my knee, which has seen lesser camping chairs reduced to rubble in the past. It’s extra wide and can support up to 28 stones in weight. The oversized carry bag makes it a breeze to stow away too.
Umi Camping Cart, £124.90 from Amazon
We nicknamed this handy little cart The Mars Rover for its space-age looks. It folds up flat for easy storage and despite Mr B’s doubts it carries a load weighing up to 80kg. It was perfect for carrying our big tent from the van to our pitch and it traversed some steep dunes and beach rocks that I admit to thinking it would not conquer. We loaded it up with paddleboards, water bottles, picnics and buckets and spades and pulled everything down to the beach. Several other campers stopped us to say what a great wee cart it was and how useful it seemed. They were spot on!
Contigo Autoseal Luxe Travel Mug, £29.52 from Amazon
I’ve had countless travel cups in my years as a camper, wild swimmer and soccer mom. And I can say with confidence that this is one of the best. It’s quite big, which is great and it undoubtedly keeps my Earl Grey toasty, even on the day that I headed off on a 2.5 hour round trip to pick up supplies and my dad, leaving it in the tent by mistake. I returned to my much-needed hot morning cuppa and am eternally grateful for that. The lock function really works and I’m confident enough in this cup to pop it in my handbag when I’m not adventuring with a rucksack or drybag.
Vango Homestead Single Sleeping Bag, £19.99 from Outdoor World Direct
This is a stone-cold bargain of a sleeping bag. It’s warm and yet light with plenty of room to move around. It packs away easily and while it’s not compact enough to carry into the mountains it’s perfect for a family camping trip. The lining is brushed polyester so feels soft, but not slippy which pleased pre-teen daughter who laid claim to this bag.
Tent Care Kit, £23.95 from Fabsil
The Outer Hebrides certainly threw some inclement weather at our new tent, but this kit has everything we need to give it a good clean down and re-waterproof it ahead of packing it away for winter. Although, I’m not sure I’m quite ready to do that yet. The summer still has scope for a few more adventures before we’re ready to batten down the hatches again.