“That’s it, that’s the ferry, we’re going to make it!”, I yell at my travelling companion as the distinctive red funnel of a Calmac boat springs up from the horizon.
It is fast approaching 14:40 and I had so far only managed to set foot on two Scottish islands during my madcap quest to visit as many as possible in a single day.
We rush towards the port, leaving behind the rugged mountains of Harris.
The terminal is in sight, but as I round one of the final corners several cows meander onto the road ahead. The bovine pedestrians stare at our car with vacant looks.
“If we miss this ferry we’re not going to make it to all eight”, I say as I squeeze the steering wheel.
Earlier this year, ferry operators Caledonian MacBrayne announced they were adding new routes to their timetable. CalMac’s intricate network of crossings connect 22 remote islands off the west coast of Scotland.
A fascination with maps that has lingered since childhood and a fervent belief that my navigational abilities surpass anything Google can offer, led me to examine the company’s various ferry routes. A colleague had recently returned from a 24 hour trip to New York and had got me thinking about just how much you can achieve in one day.
So, I plotted a course on what I believed was the best way to visit as many islands as possible in one day.
There was only one option, the Western Isles.
I’d visited a handful of Scotland’s inner isles before but never ventured as far out as the 130 mile archipelago of the Outer Hebrides or Western Isles.
The main route to the islands is via the ferry that links Ullapool with the town of Stornoway on Lewis.
Watching the mainland diminish on a windy aft deck of a ferry is a great way to unwind. Work, bills and the general stresses of everyday life fade with the landmass you’re escaping.
Not this time.
Our journey began within the cosy confines of Ullapool’s Arch Inn which sits right on the waterfront and is the perfect spot to start any Hebridean adventure.
We had realised the night before just how perilously tight the first leg of the trip would be. We had a two and half hour ferry to Lewis and then we would need to traverse the entirety of Lewis and Harris - the third biggest island in the British isles - to reach the port of Leverburgh on the southern tip.
If our Stornoway ferry ran like clockwork we would have 90 minutes to get to the southern tip of Harris and board our second ferry. The problem was Google Maps believed it would take exactly 90 minutes to reach our destination.
We couldn’t afford any delays.
“It will be fine, we’ll make it,” my optimistic friend reassured me (not for the first or last time). Yeah, what does Google know anyway, I thought.
As the ‘Isle of Lewis’ - the biggest ship in the Calmac fleet - rumbles out of Ullapool’s sunny harbour I begin to worry - we had been delayed by ten minutes already.
1 and 2. Lewis and Harris
The largest of the Western Isles with two thirds of the group’s 27,000 population, Lewis and Harris are technically one, connected by a narrow sliver of land.
However, they are considered separate by islanders, in part, due to their own distinct histories that legend says is due to a split in the Macleod Clan centuries ago.
As our ferry approaches the tiny capital of Stornoway we anxiously head back to the car deck.
We are lucky when exiting the ferry. Our car lane is the first to disembark and so are spared the frustrations of being stuck behind trucks and European motor homes.
Stornoway’s granite streets are our first experience of the Hebrides. Brightly coloured fishing boats dot the harbour, Gaelic sign posts greet us and chattering school kids pass us by as we make our way south.
Mercifully the roads are clear once we get out of the town and soon empty moorlands of orange and brown surround us, lonely bothies the only signs of civilization in this far-flung corner of Britain.
The final check-in time for our ferry from Leverburgh to the isle of Berneray comes and goes, I collected all our tickets in Ullapool so I’m hoping that we can drive straight onto the boat provided we get there before the departure time.
It’s a close run affair and not one I would recommend, but somehow we make it with four minutes to spare. Elated we park the car and swagger onto the ferry’s passenger deck, jubilant in our triumph over Google Maps.
3-7. Berneray, North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist and Eriskay
After conquering the most challenging segment of the trip we have time to enjoy our surroundings are able to take a more leisurely pace through the next five islands. We have three hours to pass through the middle section of the Hebrides.
The ferry drops us on one of the smallest of the Western Isle’s fifteen inhabited islands, Berneray, which is ringed by sand dunes and pristine white beaches.
Crossing a stone causeway we arrive in North Uist and take time to stop off in the village of Lochmaddy - which has a ferry link to the isle of Skye - where we are greeted by the bleats of hundreds of sheep penned in for a livestock auction and the rhythmic chanting of the auctioneer.
Scattered across North Uist and South Uist lonely ruins and weathered standing stones can be seen entrenched in boggy fields, hinting at the thousands of years these islands have been populated.
Much of North and South Uist is pitted with water, thousands of small lochs create a flooded landscape that enhance our sense of isolation.
Sandwiched between the two Uists is Benbecula, where we stop at a Great War monument (one of many) that remembers the sacrifices thousands of islanders made for the war effort.
As the sun disappears behind grey clouds and dusk approaches we arrive at island number seven, Eriskay, to catch our final ferry.
The screeching of my car alarm draws disgruntled looks from my fellow passengers - most of whom are trying to sleep in their cars - as the choppy crossing from Eriskay bounces our little ferry up and down.
By the time we disembark it is pitch black and we scuttle around the island’s west coast until we come to our resting place for the night, the Croit na h-Aibhne B&B where the owner Mary Ann gives us a warm welcome.
Starting at 10:30 our journey has encompassed, eight islands, 200 miles and three ferries. We had crammed the entire Outer Hebrides into one day but they deserve a lot longer. The varied landscapes and rich histories of each isle mean there are many reasons to come back and explore in detail.
“Will you be doing any more islands?” Mary Ann asks.
No, I reply assuming she means in the following days. It is not until the ferry back to the mainland the next morning we discover that Barra is connected to the isle of Vatersay at its southern edge via a bridge.
We could have made it to nine!
Next time, perhaps.
- Sam travelled on a CalMac HopScotch ticket that allows for multiple island hopping.
- Rooms in the Arch Inn, Ullapool start at just £45.
- Rooms at the Croit na h-Aibhne, Barra start from £27
- For more information on the Outer Hebrides visit http://www.visitouterhebrides.co.uk/