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Camping in the Outer Hebrides

I recently spent a week and a half in the Outer Hebrides, primarily camping (although with a few B&Bs booked at strategic points to allow me to dry my socks out). Although Vicky Flip Flop’s guide was helpful, I was deciding where to camp more or less on the fly and would have appreciated some forehand knowledge, so thought I’d share my experience!

I took the train to Glasgow and then to Mallaig, and then the ferry to Lochboisdale where I picked up a rental car from Laing Motors. I like renting locally, and they were very friendly and helpful as a family-run business (and it helped save on ferry prices and improve the ferry experience, as drivers on most ferries have to stay in their cars due to COVID). I got in around 7pm and had a few hours to find somewhere, as the sun doesn’t go down until about 10:30pm in the summer, and even then there’s some light in the sky. I nipped into the Co-op and headed south, thinking I could check out a few beaches for likely spots.

General rules for wild camping:

  1. Try to be out of sight of the road and any dwellings: normally I hold pretty fast to this rule, but it’s nigh-on impossible on the Hebrides, due to sight lines if nothing else. No trees to speak of, and most of the off-road spots are boggy or exposed. In general, try to prioritise privacy – yours and other people’s – and be conscientious. Don’t set up near someone’s house.
  2. Water source: when through-hiking, I try to find a good stream or river. I’m showing my Canadian privilege here, because most places in the UK have a lot of agricultural runoff and it’s not clean enough to drink, but wilder areas of Scotland will have drinkable water. You want to be careful putting your tent too close to the source or on a floodplane, as if the burns are in spate or you have water overnight, it can rise quickly – and if you’re by the ocean, high tide may be higher than you’re expecting.
  3. Leave no trace: take your garbage with you, bury or dispose of any evidence of bathroom activity, and don’t alter your landscape by moving anything around.
  4. Seek shelter: this is more Hebrides-specific, as the wind can be VERY strong. Try to look for a natural windbreak or a spot to put your tent where you won’t be taking it full-on. And peg your tent very well. On my last evening I ended up parking my car strategically as a windbreak, which worked well.

I ended up at Eriskay Beach on the first evening – not ideal, as there are houses nearby and there’s nowhere to go to the washroom, but there was already a tent and a campervan there, so it seemed to be a kosher camping spot, and I put mine on a lower shelf of land near the beach to be out of sight to passers-by. The pub Am Politician was nearby but seemed to be packed and I hadn’t booked, so I didn’t make an attempt and instead had a lovely evening of cheese & crackers enjoying my first night on the island.

My spot on Eriskay

The next day I had a big hike planned: I grabbed a coffee from the Kilbride Cafe and headed back up South Uist to do the Beinn Mhor, Beinn Choradail and Hecla trio. I struggled to find the starting point as it’s not labelled and doesn’t show up on Google, but here’s the pin: heading North, it’s a right-hand turn over a cow gate after two outcrops of trees. Follow the rough road past a farm and you’ll find a few places to park and start the hike from there.

It was a gorgeous hike, although I overdid it and couldn’t do the proper summit on Hecla as I was losing phone battery. (Hecla has a magnetic anomaly that interferes with compasses.) I saw a stag outlined on the mountaintop, I had beautiful views over the whole island and could even see over the sea to Skye.

I repaired to Brae Lea House in Lochboisdale for the evening – a lovely proprietor was very helpful, and the porridge is delicious in the mornings.

The next day I nursed my sore toes and poked around a few historical and touristic sights around the island as well as driving out Loch Sgioport/Lochskipport road to greet some wild ponies before heading north to West Berneray Beach, which was absolutely gorgeous. (And yes, I went for a swim.)

Hi, buddy!

I had a few sites in mind – Frobost Beach & Headland was exposed but empty when I passed, I heard great things about Cula Bay, and anywhere along this stretch looked great, with a stone break between camping and the road, and a few people setting up tents. However, I ended up at Clachan Sands on North Uist. It’s not a proper campsite, but it’s an established spot by the sea on a working farm – they have a water hose set up and an honesty box asking £10. I set up my tent to let it dry, and then nipped down to the Westford Inn for dinner, where I had local langoustines and delicious Isle of Skye beer. I watched a lovely sunset back at Clachan Sands and befriended a few windsurfers.

The next day I explored Dun An Sticir, a Stone Age Dwelling, and walked out to Vallay Island – you have to time it right, as you can really only do it for an hour and a half on either side of low tide, and frankly you’ll get wet regardless even in proper boots. But it’s a fun, easy walk and I recommend it!

I then rushed to catch the ferry from Berneray to Leverburgh. Once I landed on Harris, I had a mission: I had to get to my booking in Stornoway before kickoff for the Euro finals. This was made difficult by the fact that Harris is drop-dead beautiful, and I was full-on gasping to myself every time I turned a corner and another gorgeous beach or amazing mountain pass came into view.

I made it in time for kickoff at the Hebridean Guest House, which I don’t really rate, although they were kind enough to let me throw in a load of laundry. The next day I set off for Great Bernera, a peninsula in the northwest of Lewis. Lewis itself is mostly bog, so I wouldn’t recommend sticking around too much, but Bernera itself was lovely, and Bosta Beach was an absolute gem of a camping area.

There’s an Iron Age dwelling reconstructed (the originals were reburied in the sands to preserve them), and a lovely looping walk from Breacleit up to Bostadh and back along the road. I didn’t do the whole thing, and instead started at Bosta and walked out and back for a lovely section that included beautiful views over Uig and the rocky landscape.

View on the Bernera walk

I explored the Black Houses at Gearrannan (most fascinating was the video on peat-cutting, to be honest) and the Callanish Standing Stones, and then nipped back into Stornaway for dinner at the Boatshed before reparing to Bosta Beach for the night. It’s not a campsite per se, but there’s a clean, well-stocked bathroom and water tap, and an honesty box requesting £2 for tents and £5 for campervans, which is honestly a steal, and plenty of flat sheltered areas with a great view of the beach.

The next day I explored Dun Carloway and did a driving tour around to peak at some of the big beaches, including Reef Beach, and the Mangersta Stacks (quite lovely in the sun, but a longer walk than I expected from Google). The Scalpay Island hike came recommended but my feet weren’t quite up to it. There were a few other likely camping spots (there’s a bothy above the Mangersta stacks themselves, but I wouldn’t recommend anywhere else there unless there’s no wind) but I returned to Bosta as it was such a lovely little nook with plenty of space for the few campers to spread out.

Sunset over Bostadh

The next day I intended to do the Clisham/An Cliseam horseshoe hike, but weather and visibility were poor, so I settled for the more straightforward Clisham summit. I was done before lunch, which was from Taste n Sea, a shack on a layby in a mountain pass that has limited hours and insanely fresh and tasty seafood. It’s well-regarded by locals and very much worth a visit – the best food I had the whole trip.

The fish box from Taste N Sea – insanely good with garlic mayo and purple onion coleslaw

I took in beach views at Luskentyre (warning: VERY little parking at the end, and most of the residents have loads of signs up to prevent parking nearby, so try to go at off times). There seemed to be an informal campsite near the head of the road that may be worth further investigation. I poked around Seallam! visitor centre and then caught the ferry back to North Uist, where I headed straight back to Clachan Sands to camp. There also looked like a few likely spots near Newtonferry’s beautiful beach, although you’d have to be careful where you parked off the side of the road and it’s quite exposed.

The next day I hiked Eaval/Eabhal, which can be quite boggy but has beautiful views once you’re actually climbing (though I measured it as 11.5km, not 10), and then walked out to the Cladh Hallan Roundhouses (which you can actually drive right up to, if the tire tracks through the grass above the sand road were any indication, although I didn’t).

I finished the day with a swim in the sea at the Polochar Inn, which didn’t have anything local on tap but did have Isle of Skye bottles, and then returned my car and took the early ferry the next morning.

The beach near Polochar

Takeaways:

  1. Fellow campers are lovely. I don’t really enjoy proper campsites (although the bathroom benefits cannot be denied) and find them too crowded and often overpriced. But I do love exchanging tips and pleasantries with a few other people camped nearby, and as a woman camping alone I could sense other people checking in on me which I appreciated. I find people in campervans will usually offer tent campers tea in the morning, or loan a wine bottle opener where needed.
  2. It’s worth looking ahead and making a plan or at least having a few areas in mind, but I didn’t really struggle and probably could have spent less of my day worrying about campsites, as there are reams of beaches I didn’t get to explore and probably tons more great spots I missed.
  3. EVERYTHING is closed on Sunday – including grocery stores and gas stations. If you’re desperate, you can try the hotels as they’ll still be serving guests so may be open (the hotel cafe in Lochmaddy appeared open, at least), but the trails and roads were mostly empty and everything else was closed, so plan ahead or you might have to eat your socks.
  4. The only vegetables you’ll eat will be ones you find yourself. I believe in supporting local and trying things where you are, but as I had a car I also had a food stash from the Co-op and the carrots came in handy with all the seafood and carbs I was eating. At the moment I recommend booking, as most things are limited due to COVID.
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