Hills of the Hebrides

Our Hills of the Hebrides adventure is one of our favourites. Iain Thow – experienced NWF guide – has guided many groups on the islands. Here he explains why you should join us on this great adventure.

The story goes that when the Vikings got to the Outer Hebrides it was still one long island, and they loved the place so much that they harnessed all their longships to the rock arch at the north end and tried to tow it home. They were so strong that they nearly managed, unmooring it and breaking it up into a series of smaller islands in the process. As a people of mountain and sea you can understand why they were so taken with the place, as nowhere else in Britain are the two so wonderfully intertwined.

Because the islands string naturally together, despite the efforts of the aforementioned Vikings, the obvious thing to do is to climb a hill on each island and this is what we aim to do.

Individual hills
When you climb the lovely south ridge of Toddun you look right down the curve of a slope to the deep blue of Loch Trollamarig (a fitting haunt of trolls if ever there was one), while from Griomabhal in Lewis you look out over the vastness of the Atlantic, with only the spiky dots of the Flannan Isles and (if you are lucky) St Kilda breaking the emptiness. The extreme example is Eaval on North Uist, which is almost completely surrounded by either ocean or tidal water. You get there by crossing stepping stones that are underwater at high tide and sneaking around the toe of the longest loch. From the summit you look out over the incredible waterscape in the centre of the island, a maze of fretted lochans wound around and interlinked, almost as much as water as land.

The Western Isles are justly famed for their white sand beaches and as the hills are so close to the sea then most days finish on one of them. Luskentyre on Harris is the best known but there are plenty of others in the same league. Traigh Mangersta on Lewis is a superb cove enclosed by gneiss cliffs with an ancient promontory fort, while Traigh Iar at Balranald on North Uist is a dazzling white sweep, backed by the flowery machair of the RSPB reserve. This is a wash of rich colour, gradually changing through the summer from green to white to yellow to the reds and purples of clovers and orchids.

The quietness of the islands means that their wildlife has usually been left undisturbed and you can have some memorable encounters. On one trip we spotted an otter having its lunch in the seaweed only a few yards away. It wasn’t in the least bothered by us and carried on munching away until we eventually decided to leave it in peace. On another, a huge basking shark swam in lazy circles below us while we looked on from the cliff-top. On many trips, we have sat on Meilen Beach watching hordes of Gannets plunging into the Sound of Scarp every few seconds, and it would be an unusual trip where you don’t see Golden Eagles, and often Sea Eagles too.

The archaeology is another plus. Callanish stone circle is well known but never fails to impress, while away from the beaten track you can see the remains of the original house built by the first Viking settlers in West Harris – they dragged their boat up from the beach and turned it over to use as a roof. Not far away is a Mesolithic house, one of the oldest known dwellings in Britain. Erosion has exposed a series of houses built on top of one another, the oldest thought to be around 9000 years old, the most recent occupied until the clearances of the 1820s.

The abiding memory though is of the sense of space. You are out on a wild hill for the day, with the ocean reaching out beyond you and the mainland hills ranged along the skyline. You are highly unlikely to meet anyone else out there and the patterned gneiss gives the hills a timeless gnarled feel, outside of human scale and concerns. Their ruggedness and the closeness of the sea make them feel much bigger than they really are and the ever-changing weather produces some magical light effects. Enjoy – just don’t try to tow it home with you.

In 2021 we run two Hebridean Hills trips. Click here for more details.