Looking South Pt.1 - 180 miles on foot through the Outer Hebrides

As I stepped off the small local bus my boot reached the uneven damp tarmac. The straps of my heavy rucksack pinched my skin as I hauled it onto my shoulders. Since leaving London I’d been travelling twenty seven hours until this point and I’d slept all of six. As I watched the red taillights disappear on the road over the Lewis moor I stood still to take stock of my surroundings. It was 11pm and four yellow streetlights illuminated the small crossroad where I was standing. Through the fine drizzle I could make out three houses with small gardens, blue wooden doors, all windows dark. From here I turned north and followed a small tarmac road no wider than six feet. At the end of this road was the furthest north I could physically go on this expedition and in the Outer Hebrides as a whole, marking this point was a stone lighthouse, the Butt of Lewis. From here I would walk one hundred and eighty miles south through the six islands in eleven days.

After twenty minutes I could begin to make out the eerie sweeping rotation of the lamp from the unmanned lighthouse, its strong beam illuminating the rugged coast every few seconds. Silence was everywhere apart from the odd crashing wave or crunch of a stone underfoot. As I approached the lighthouse the scene felt ghostly. Deserted buildings, a deep mist and of course the towering cylindrical building sat black and unassuming. I found a small flattish bed of grass twenty feet from the cliffs which was sheltered from the south westerly wind. I put my rucksack down and pulled out the tent. The gentle dark breeze flapped its fabric as I fed in the pole and pulled it back tight into position.

As the morning light flooded the tent, I popped my head out to get a bearing of my new cliff top home. As my bleary eyes adjusted to the bright green carpet underneath I was startled by a loud barking noise deep below the cliffs. Walking barefoot towards the ocean I noticed four seals bobbing around in the deep blue surf below me, they were my alarm call. I heard the cry of seagulls as they weaved and bobbed through the ancient black rocks. I stood in awe of the mighty power of the ocean here. The Hebrides lies as the final frontier to the restless Atlantic and is prone to violent weather but today she offered me a swirling breeze and blue skies. Day one, I’ll take that.

The breakfast of porridge and raw nuts went down with ease.  As I packed up and said farewell to the start point my first step was southeast. I hand railed the coastline for two miles until I could see the village in the distance that I stood at the night before. My route led me through the Port of Ness, a small modern fishing community, and up a small road past a tiny disused post office. Under my feet I noticed the tarmac road leaving the town merged into an uneven cobbled track, from here it would lead me onto the infamous Lewis Moor. From my research I’d learned about this notorious location which spans one hundred and twenty squares miles on the Isle of Lewis. Mainly consisting of peat, water and bog it’s famous for being hard to negotiate at any point of the year. 

My direct route of twelve miles would take me straight through the middle following an ancient trade path. I had previously decided to keep this whole journey as authentic as possible by using old pathways that linked the crofting communities from one to another. I knew that if I could bridge these old pathways together, through each island, I would walk in the footsteps of people that had thrived in this harsh yet beautiful landscape. More Importantly I would see the islands as they saw it, from their perspective.

Passing an old sign that lead onto the moor it warned of the dangers of crossing terrain such as this alone. I took on the advice, ate a flapjack and continued anyway. I knew from my map that at some stage the cobbled track would become a footpath and at some stage this footpath would die out. After this I deduced that I would have to follow a compass bearing and the two feet high green poles that were scattered over the moor directing safe passage. This would lead me to the sands of Toldsta, my wild camping destination for the day. I stood still looking down to where the cobbles ran no more, the pack now beginning to strain my shoulders painfully. Looking out across the moor all I could do was follow my bearing and use the contours of the ground as efficiently as I could. The terrain resembled Iceland’s interior; Barron, undulating, wet and unforgiving. As I moved onto the moor the ground felt as if it was in continual movement. It was impossible to walk in a straight line. The vibrant browns and greens of the heather sat on top of deep black water and peat and every step felt like it was my turn to sink through to my knees. After counting every fifty paces I’d check the bearing, pick a point on the horizon and keep an eye on my foot placement.

With the heavy weight of my pack pushing down each step, progress was painfully slow. I came across a beautiful old ruin amongst an abandoned settlement, which gave me some respite from the slow advancement on the moor. After exploring its roofless walls my bearing cut back onto the moor where I negotiated valleys and streams and a wavering compass needle. Hour after hour I battled the endless unforgiving terrain, my trekking pole disappearing up to the handle moments before I had decided to step on its very spot. Backtracking became second nature. Stepping and leaping onto the thicker lighter clumps gained me progress. The sounds of rare birds and silence offering me dreamlike distraction. My watch told me I had been on here six hours, that’s slow progress by anyone’s standards. I was worn, wet and tired but I had made it to the resemblance of an old footpath that ran south from an abandoned cottage. Following it down through the ankle deep purples of the heather I crossed the “Bridge to Nowhere” with a sign that pointed back across the moor from which I’d come. How apt that name was. The moor was testing, even in summer; In winter it would be a deathtrap. 

Every inch of the moor was beautiful and naturally diverse. Such a unique habitat breeds astonishing wildlife, harbouring buzzards and eagles overhead and monster trout in its remotely situated Lochs. As I crested the final hill I looked down excitedly to the small town of Toldsta only a few miles away, it’s houses perched neatly on the grassy hillside overlooking the Atlantic sea. The unmistakable Hebridean sheep sat still in their cobbled enclosures and white smoke puffed from the chimneys all across the valley. I had visions of the warm fire burners crackling away, the smell of stews in the ovens and families around old varnished oak tables. I smiled and hoped they would invite me in as I passed by. Yet I continued south, forever heading south.