Cameron Wilson hails the breathtaking views from the Sound of Barra ferry, expressing surprise that the service is ‘not much talked about in enthusiast circles, despite the fact that it crosses some of the most open waters faced by any CalMac vessel.’ His encounter with Loch Alainn earlier this month was only one of many enjoyable discoveries he made on his summer holiday to the Outer Hebrides.
This summer has been strangely quiet on the Clyde, the lack of a certain paddle steamer being the main reason. Even so, I hadn’t been expecting to explore new stretches of water, because the majority of CalMac miles I still had to achieve were in the Outer Hebrides — beyond my usual reach. However, an idea sprang up one evening regarding the family summer holiday: maybe the Outer Hebrides could be our destination.
My first idea was to take Loch Seaforth from Ullapool to Stornoway and then Hebrides from Tarbert to Uig, before driving back home through Skye. This plan began to change as we delved deeper into CalMac’s Hopscotch tickets, and found one that allowed us to sail from Oban to Castlebay, Ardmhor to Eriskay, Berneray to Leverburgh and then Stornoway to Ullapool.
We made an early start for Oban, with heavy rain accompanying us for most of the way north. After boarding Isle of Lewis for the 1315 sailing to Castlebay. I made my way up to the observation lounge ready for our departure. As we backed off the berth Coruisk was just arriving from Craignure, and it wasn’t long before we passed Isle of Mull and then Clansman, both Oban-bound. The rain continued to pour down the observation lounge windows until around Rubha nan Gall Lighthouse, and as we passed Coll the sun began to break through the clouds. We had a calm sailing over the Sea of the Hebrides, and by the time we approached the pier at Castlebay the sky had become stunningly clear.
A drive round Barra was the plan for the first night, visiting the many stunning beaches the island has, one of them a commercial airport. We also visited the equally lovely Vatersay.
First up the next morning was the Ardmhor to Eriskay ferry, a service that doesn’t get much attention, despite the fact that it crosses some of the most open waters faced by any CalMac vessel. The slipway at Ardmhor is located quite close to the Barra airport, and some research the previous night found that a Loganair flight was due to arrive onto the beach 10 minutes after we departed Barra at 1110. Sure enough, just as Loch Alainn got underway for the Sound of Barra crossing, the unmistakable sound of a propeller aircraft alerted us as it flew directly overhead on approach to the airport.
As the crossing continued there were stages where there was no shelter from smaller islands, which made me realise that, looking one way, your next land mass would be somewhere near Ardnamurchan point and, looking the other way, it would be Canada!
Loch Alainn isn’t the largest vessel, and the openness of the crossing made me wonder how bad the weather could get during the winter, especially when she is relieved by the smaller Loch Bhrusda.
The views were breathtaking. As we approached Eriskay, you could see the stunning beaches, a staple of the Outer Hebrides, and also the breakwater, which we soon rounded, the ramp slowly lowering to reveal clear turquoise water.
After a quick stop for some photos at shore level, we drove up the steep hill and were greeted with a stunning view over the ferry terminal and back over to Barra. A quick drive round Eriskay was in store, and a visit to the local pub named the ‘AM Politician’ — a nod to SS Politician which famously ran aground off Eriskay in 1941, spawning the movie Whisky Galore!
Leaving Eriskay via one of the Outer Hebrides’ many causeways, we made our way north through South Uist, Benbecula and North Uist, stopping at Lochboisdale and Lochmaddy en route. There were no ferries at either of those ports, apart from Loch Bhrusda, which was in temporary layup, almost out of view behind a hill in Lochboisdale harbour. We continued to drive up North Uist until we got to the top and headed across the causeway to Berneray — past Loch Portain at her overnight berth at Otternish, where she was taking on stores.
We joined the queue for the 1700 sailing to Leverburgh. At around 1650 Loch Portain fired up and began to make her way across the bay to the slipway at Berneray. Upon departure from Berneray one of the first things I realised was the lack of noise generated from Loch Portain, considering her Schottel Jet sister Loch Bhrusda is renowned for her ear piercing volume! The main source of sound during the crossing was from the car deck: the twists and turns of the Sound of Harris service set off the vehicle alarms at frequent intervals.
The crossing was lovely, with views back onto North Uist and then towards Harris. With a course that zigzags its way towards Leverburgh, this route is another of those open water passages with not a lot of shelter, which could lead to some excitement during the winter months — though the custom-built Loch Portain handles it perfectly, proving why in her 16 years in service she has remained the dedicated Sound of Harris vessel (with the exception of a day’s running on Largs-Cumbrae Slip back in 2015).
Approaching Leverburgh we rounded some final rocks before the ramp lowered. As Loch Portain berthed on the slip, I began to realise how different the Sound of Harris and Sound of Barra crossings are. Although the views are similar, with mountains in the distance and uninhabited islands dotted around, the Sound of Barra service heads direct, whereas the Sound of Harris service twists this way and that, showing how much more shallow the waters are.
Disembarking at Leverburgh, you are greeted with a popular restaurant called ‘The Anchorage’. There were multiple cars heading for the car park, and a race was on to try and get in! Thankfully we managed to get a table with a view looking back over the Sound of Harris, so we were able to watch Loch Portain heading back to Berneray for the night.
Driving up through Harris, we must have stopped at every second lay-by: round every corner we were presented with another stunning landscape. We realised how much we were stopping when we saw a sign which read ‘Stornoway 43 miles’: we still had a distance to go to our overnight accommodation. It was getting late, so we decided to stop the photography and power on up to the Lewis capital.
My first view of Loch Seaforth was from the house we were staying in, as she headed out of Stornoway on her night freight sailing. The next few days were relatively ferry-free, with the classic touristy stuff taking precedence.
We visited the standing stones of Callanish and the Black Houses on the west side, before heading for Harris and the distillery at Tarbert, where we arrived in time to see Hebrides arriving from Uig.
Having had a quick look round the distillery and the Harris Tweed shops, I headed for a hill next to the main road, as previous research had told me that Hebrides was due out within the next 10 minutes.
A climb up a very slippy hill followed. On reaching the top I was greeted with the sight of a big plume of black smoke emanating from Hebrides as she fired up her engines, let go her ropes and headed astern into the loch.
After I had carefully navigated my way back down the hill, we headed for more tourist sites, notably the white beaches of Luskentyre, which looked incredible in glorious weather. We then drove back north to the village of Ness and the Butt of Lewis Lighthouse — as far north as it is possible to go in the Outer Hebrides.
The next day we headed home. The forecast — 40mph winds and heavy rain — was not great and we were slightly concerned about the comfort of the crossing to Ullapool, having heard how bad the Minch can get. As we sat in the queue at Stornoway, with rain lashing down and wind buffeting the cars, something happened: with what felt like the flick of a switch, the rain stopped and the sun came out, and a couple of minutes later Loch Seaforth appeared from behind Arnish Lighthouse and berthed.
After parking on one of her mezzanine decks, we made our way up to the observation lounge. The Captain announced that the weather was going to be a Force 5. I headed for the stern to watch the manoeuvre as we went astern into the bay.
Then, with bow thrusters kicking in, Loch Seaforth powered out into the Minch. With the winds dying down to much less than predicted, the mainland became visible in the distance and we were soon in the confines of Loch Broom.
As Loch Seaforth slowed to berth at Ullapool, I began to reflect on what had been quite a journey through the Outer Hebrides — from Vatersay in the south to the Butt of Lewis in the north.
It was fair to say that we had covered the territory well. We had taken in routes that I had never sailed on and are not much talked about in enthusiast circles, especially the Barra to Eriskay service. We had also sailed on routes that some regard as favourites, such as Oban to Barra. Since our return home there have been many occasions when I have found myself looking back on a thoroughly enjoyable trip, taking in some spectacular islands.
All photographs on this page are © Cameron Wilson.
Published on 30 August 2019
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