04/09/20 - Hebridean Highlights, Eyeopeners and Our Camping future:
With all of the challenging events of 2020, (I'll try not to mention the dreaded virus too much throughout this), our camper plans and trips have been put a little on hold, hovering unknown as to whether we will go back in lock down, how the camping experience will change going forward I guess we've just been playing a lot of it by ear.
Thankfully we live in a beautiful part of the country and have been able to take little trips, down the road for a cheeky overnight here and there, obviously once we were allowed out of the realms of our home of course.
However as any camper will know a night is never enough and we were longing for something further afield, a change of scenery and frankly just a break from this years norm!
So having been to the Outer Hebrides for the last 3 years on the trot, it seemed like the logical choice so we booked our space on the cal mac sailing from Skye to Harris and threw all we'd need in our T4 camper, Ollie and off we popped.
This rambling incoming is a little slice of our trip, the highs (there was loads, this place is wonderful), the 'not so highs' (I'm not calling it lows, its doesn't go that far) and some innate wittering about the changes in current camper culture and its impact on small rural communities like the Hebrides. Buckle up here goes...
I guess the first and most appropriate place to start is the undeniable beauty of the Outer Hebrides, classically known for the white sands and blue seas, the pictures tell no lies, its unreal and could at a glance be confused with a tropical island. However here, in our opinion, is better! The rugged hills, wild weather and heather covered peat is just great and its good for the soul to get windswept beyond belief every now and then. All the islands carry a different feel so here's our top bits from the start beginning with Harris:
Harris is ridiculously picturesque, famous in in own right for the big sands, tweed and of course the gin! (oh the gin!) We love Northton, a village to the south of the island, a small stretch of crofts accompanied by a handful of our island highlights, 'Croft 36', a simple shed filled weekly with local grown veg, fresh breads, cakes and quiches all handmade and as local as it gets. The Temple a few doors down is a craft bakery, it delicious trust us!
Northton also is a great start point for a couple of our favourite walks, follow the coast to the headland to a derelict ruin of an old chapel, some of the bluest waters we saw, easy on the old legs and a good one if you up for a stroll but not a trek! Another is the slightly more challenging peak of Ceapabhal, a steep climb to reach the trig point, hiking boots and a steady footing required but worth it for the views at the top stretching all the way to Lewis in the North and across Uist to the South, you can carry on to the toe of Harris but bear in mind the boggy terrain and how many snacks you have for the duration.
Another fav is Rodel, right at the Southern point, a small harbour and home to what used to be the Rodel Hotel (now under Restoration) it’s a great wee spot, we camped here, tucked away in a little lay by, we found it a lot calmer and I guess the fact your overlooking rocky islands and not white sand of the west probably has something to do with the much received peace.'Sams seafood shack' a blue caravan at the end of his drive serves the freshest of local seafood turned into delicious lobster sarnies or gougons with homemade salsa...ok I'm drooling! We walked round the loop below the church and bought free range eggs from an honesty box outside someone’s gate (well Ru's gate, and his lovely cockerel Arnold, I feel they deserve a mention). The honestly box situ across the whole of the Hebrides is lovely, so trusting of people, something I think is often forgotten nowadays. We tried to use them as much as possible, give a little back where we could.
Shops to note for holiday treats are as follows, Borrisdale Tweed, Talla Na Mara craft studios (all of them),Granny Annies and The distillery of course, for the love of gin!
Beach highlights I'll just list, they're all great but these are our picks, Scarista, Hushnish, Northton. Can you swim in the sea, yes, but it’s so tidal and the currents are very strong and unpredictable, think carefully don't go out your depth and choose your beach wisely, we've been told Hogabost is a good choice, and if you have a wet suit chuck it on.
The east of Harris we feel gets overlooked, its got a lot to compete with I guess, but its stunning in its own way rugged and raw and feels almost like your stepping onto a different planet. Its host to winding roads, peat cutting patches, and many a gallery or tweed workshop, go see it, don't leave it out its really worth the trip. As is Scalpay, a separate island connected by bridge and home to Eilean Glas lighthouse, another slow and steady walk friendly on all the family.
Camping spots are a little different on Harris with a lack of big 'sites' (which we favor) but the North and West Harris trusts do a great job of providing the info needed to find one of their allocated parking places where a donation is asked, or a bookable pitch on one of their small campsites, the trouble we had was competing for a space. East you have a few sites to choose from and have all been highly recommended to us, quieter and overall easier to book on to. I'll go into more info on camping spots later if your still awake at that point! HA!
North Uist is stunning, almost like a little cousin to Harris it carries a similar feel with big sandy beaches and some of the best sunsets we witnessed on the trip. Clachan sands is always a hit and with a honesty box situ you can make a contribution to stay the night in a simply stunning location. Further down the coast is our favourite Uist location, Scolpaig. We were incredibly lucky with the weather this trip and on arrival to Scolpaig we were greeted by the most amazing view out across the Atlantic to the archipelago of St Kilda (don't get me started on St Kilda that's whole other wonderful topic all together!), it was just amazing if you go simply look west and pray for clear skies to witness the wonder. We visit Eriskay the most southerly of the Uist's every year in search of the native Eriskay Ponies, we did see some this year and with foals which was a treat but sadly not wild. Apparently between November and March they roam through the village and are put to the hills for the summer month so for guaranteed pony pics Autumn to Spring is the time to visit.
We stayed at Kilbride campsite in the South of Uist awaiting our early ferry from Eriskay, not our first stay at the site and it won’t be our last, it’s a lovely site, small and well set up with excellent immaculately clean facilities including a washing machine which by this point in the trip we were very grateful for! Booking was a lot easier across Uist and Barra and the camper scene seemed overall better received due to more manageable capacity.
Ah 'Barradise', I don't like to pick favourites but Barra just gets me every time. I love that everyone waves at you, the campsite owner also works on the ferry and probably as a fisherman at the weekends and if you break down someone will have a tool for the job if you’re willing to follow a complete stranger to another strangers house without question, which we're always up for (not this time but this did happen the first time!).
Barra is a small island with a big heart, amazing views and planes that land on the beach, come on, if that's not cool well, I don’t know what is! As I said it's a small island and has a far less touristy feel not that it needs that, it stands out enough all on its own. Here are some highlights, Café Kismul, Joan's Pizza and Wavecrest Campsite make for the perfect stay! Walk up Heaval just outside of Castlebay, the islands highest peak has amazing views from the top and is home to the statue of Madonna and child otherwise locally known as 'Our lady of the sea'. Barra Airport is a must, an airport you say not usually such a source of excitement, but when the two daily flights land on the beach based on the daily tide its something to behold, trust us its worth it, our campsite owner knew the daily landing times so just ask around is in doubt.
Visit Vatersay and walk to the most southerly part of the island and overlook Mingulay and the other uninhabited islands, next time were going to book a boat trip from Castlebay, those islands are calling us!
I guess we should now get to the point about the not so good, its not really horrific but more an observation and something I feel we have a duty to acknowledge the changes we have noticed this year. This doesn't necessarily just apply to this trip and were becoming more and more aware of the problems throughout Scotland.
We're campers, obviously, and have been doing this for a long time, have a business building campers and its something we genuinely have a passion for. So it was a tough one this year to see the the sheer amount of vans on the road causing upset and heart ache to a place we love so much, I guess we were likely included, but a lot of which are hire vans, again not claiming innocence here as up until last year we had two vans we hired out. I'm just relieved we made the decision to stop when we did.
An influx in 'staycationers' due to 'you know what' has surged the amount of people looking to travel within the UK, highlighted by social media, media campaigns and endless camping pages across various platforms, small communities, islands and places of natural beauty are being brought to the attention of travellers who has never wished to visit such places in the past, attached with the dream of getting that insta snap for their feed. We're all guilty of it and I long to have the pictures too, more for the memories, we have all ours printed so I can go through them and enjoy them on a rainy day.
I'm not saying all are the same and I don't want to point specific fingers as theirs an increase in van sales too, but there is a lot of new campers in vans and tents getting to grips with '#camper/van life' and some very questionable behaviour which didn't only make us sad and worried for the future, but also embarrassed to be associated with people scattering used toilet paper all over the sand dunes!
Bin's for example...don't get me started on bins! If it's full don't try and add more, surely, and certainly don't just bag up your rubbish and leave it to the side in the hope the council will see it and collect it sooner. When your likely a few miles from the local dump what’s the trip to throw it away there, or simply find a bin a little less full. The Hebrides in fact Scotland in general are windy at the best of times and most of the rubbish precarious placed around bins will either end up in a field for livestock to eat, or in the sea, just a no all-round. Sadly, this isn't something solely associated with rural communities but everywhere and driving home from our trip it seemed every bin along the way was rammed with 'day out' litter!
Low key camping or wild camping seems to be another issue, big sigh...we love wild camping, have in the past rarely used sites and we always follow the ultimate mantra of 'leave no trace', we love the freedom of parking down a hidden lane, on the beach front and being completely away from it all. Our vans fully self-sufficient, shower, toilet, waste tanks the lot so no worries about dropping any nasty's and we would of course stay on a site to empty when necessary. I like to think we always think about where we are parked and avoid obstructing any views or other campers. Unfortunately, this wasn't the case on our recent trip and all ideas of where to park had clearly gone out the window. Some of the worst spots where passing places, lay-by's (I mean 14 motor homes to one lay-by), peoples fields (opening gates and just letting themselves in), on the machair and that's just vehicles, tents where a whole other level, maybe it’s me and a cliff edge off the main road with your family sized tent and accompanying toilet tent is the logical choice! It’s not only deeply inconsiderate of the surrounding but also dangerous and just baffles me.
People just parking wherever the flip they fancy shines light on how little consideration people have nowadays for one another, harsh maybe, but true. We on several occasions would park up for the nights mainly at our allotted campsite strategically picking our view for the night only to have another camper drive in front of us and pitch up for the night, no hello, no is this space ok just plonk, that's your view gone because we want it more...thanks. This happened a few times and after about the third I'd just given up caring and lost faith frankly.
Harris in particular seemed to be having more of an issue than the more southern Hebridean islands, we can’t comment on Lewis we decided not to visit this time round. We noted a couple of reasons for the change additional to the promotional aspect. Last year when we visited, we used Hogabost campsite, located close to some of the best beaches on Harris and where everyone seems to want to be. Sadly, the site was closed this year, we believe they were due to upgrade facilities but had on going issues with planning objections and didn't feel able to open the site safely this year as is, understandably with the currently situation regarding Covid protocol. A lot of the people who usually would come to the site I assume have still come and spread across other areas rather than being in one place, no fault of the campsite, just lack of pre-planning from others. Book another site, stay on the east, maybe taking the spontaneity out of it but hey it’s just the times.
The sites run by the various local trusts are good, we like the idea and are 100% there for giving back to the community in such ways but we found it impossible to compete for a spot, the donation spaces at £5 per night are taken up as soon as someone vacates from the night before and we're not ones for hovering around putting anyone under pressure on their holidays. They're also crowded, we've stayed in the past and spaces have been allocated to two vans, but we noted 5 squished into one, not our idea of idyllic and remote.
Local facilities are shut in terms of sites too, meaning you have to be fully self-contained, or that's what we assumed, people don't seem too fussed about this though and digging a hole next to the beach is apparently an appropriate place for the toilet.
Fire starting on the machair, on the sand dunes and on the beach also doesn't follow 'leave no trace' and seemed a common occurrence and its there burnt up, dangerous at the time, and ok maybe a midgey deter-ant but worth it for a marshmallow, I don't think so, but again maybe just us.
What are we trying to get to with all of the above, awareness, as we feel duty bound by our profession and our passion to explain what we witnessed within the camping community on this trip. We don't want to put people off, that not the intention at all, we love camping and want others to love it too, but responsibly and respectfully.
I hope things improve, we are aware places and experiences are always going to be promoted and tourism is a huge part of the Scottish economy, and this year has been different for everyone in terms of travel with people having no choice but to stay closer to home, but we would just hate something we really love and know so many others do to be given such a bad name going forward.
How will we change for future trips, more planning regarding campsites, booking sites way in advance and going later in the year out with all forms of public holidays, winter in Scotland is nice right?!
We will continue to take rubbish bags on all walks, join forums and groups online that promote positive camping and litter picking, recycle our litter, were adding a compost bin to our van, we'll research facilities available for locations we wish to visit and shop locally wherever possible, use organic chemicals within our onboard toilet and support the places we love by sharing our highlights and trips.
That's all for now, to anyone wanting to go camping, do it, enjoy it, make memories and take care of one another and the places we love.
Rebecca, Graham and Rodger (the dog), Cookie Camperz and Campervan Crusaders!