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In August I thru-hiked the Hebridean Way, a 250km-long hiking trail spanning the length of the Outer Hebrides. It took me ten days, and I did the trail solo, but with my dog. There’s already some good day-by-day accounts of the trail, so this piece will be about my feelings while hiking.
“You’re going fast!” a man calls after me as I half-walk, half-jog down the boggy trail, somewhere high up on the moors of Barra.
I have become one of those dickhead hikers, I think to myself, as I leave him and his two hiking friends far behind in the rain clouds. If you’ve walked international trails, you’ll know that there are two very different types of hikers: those doing it for enjoyment, and then those speeding through it as an endurance feat. The latter are usually from the United States. In the past, I have repeatedly moaned under my breath at these speed-hikers. Now I have become one. What happened?
I’m on Day One of the Hebridean Way, which spans all ten of the Outer Hebrides’ inhabited islands. The Outer Hebrides sounds quite exotic to the traveller who has never set foot there. But within minutes of arriving I realise that it is typical rainy, boggy Scotland.
I camped at the trailhead the previous night, on an idyllic white sand beach on the island of Vatersay. And on this first day, I skip over two islands, take a ferry, trudge exhausted over a third island, then set up camp on a beach on the fourth. I swear loudly into the howling wind as the heavens open and powder-white sand blows into the tent. The rain batters the tent all night, and I don’t sleep for fear of being swept into the sea.
The next couple of days are spent hiking over the watery islands of South Uist and Benbecula, trudging along the beautiful machair and long stretches of perfect beach in the sun, and through Hebridean bog as the rain lashes down. My dog, Bud, goes crazy on the beaches, sprinting with limitless energy in pure joy. I wonder how people manage to live here: there’s so many lochs and so much bog that it is surely 90% water.
I feel down. There’s an MOD missile testing site here, and I am shocked to read that these community-owned islands campaigned to *keep* the site running. Missiles, used to massacre people worldwide, are tested here. Arms company vehicles pass me as I trudge down asphalt roads. Apparently the islanders want to keep the industry here for the local economy. But it surely goes without saying that no-one should ever get their comfort from contributing to the murder of others.
I trudge up past a statue called Our Lady Of The Isles. A military site is metres above it, and it looks very much like Our Lady is guarding Britain’s war machine. Not what I would have expected from the Gaelic-speaking islands whose locals successfully managed to buy their land back from a millionaire. I suppose I had envisioned some kind of anti-capitalist, anti-colonialist utopia.
On North Uist, I’m feeling grumpy about the state of humanity. But then I run into the same people that I overtook on the first day.
“How did you get here?!” I ask?
“We were tired of walking, so we took a bus,” they reply. They are Sahar, Rob and Louise. They’re here to enjoy themselves. Not like me, who WILL complete every inch of this trail, whether I enjoy it or not! When did I become such a purist? My pace slows as I walk with them, and as the sun comes out up on the mountainside, we laze around, eat food, chat, and admire views that rival Greek islands. My pace slows from hiking 30km per day to just 10, and, you know what? It’s okay. Friendships are formed as we walk. I always say that it is the people you meet who make a place special, and this is no exception.
My last few days are spent on the final two islands, Harris and Lewis (which are actually one big island). Harris, with its Coffin Road and Scholars’ Path, is by far the highlight of the whole trail. The terrain becomes more dramatic and it feels very much like I am walking in the Highlands of the mainland.
Me and Bud camp on Coffin Road, so-called because islanders used to carry their dead through the valley here. Midges swarm at our tent and attack us in their thousands in the morning, eating away at our faces.
While crossing Lewis, I meet some other hikers coming from the other direction. “Hiking on Scotland’s islands is just a bit more shit than walking on the mainland,” the guy says to me. “Everything’s similar, but just that bit less dramatic“. He’s got a point. But I have come here to experience the Hebrides, and at least the trail gives me that.
Lewis, in particular, is a drag. The whole day is spent going up and down never-ending boggy hills. I just want the trail to end. It feels like the people who devised the Hebridean Way gave up when they got to the Lewis section. The last fifteen kilometres is all on asphalt, but to be honest, I don’t care because at least I’m not walking up and down through bog. Other hikers zoom past me in a car, deciding not to walk the last section. But I will walk EVERY INCH, much to Bud’s disgust.
When me and Bud finally reach the trailhead in Stornoway, I feel both elated and relieved. There’s trees *everywhere* in this town! A just reward for a long slog of a trek with pretty much zero trees.
Me and Bud laze in a wonderful bike repair cafe and chat to a local family. They tell me about how it’s difficult to keep the Gaelic language alive here, despite the option of kids being taught Gaelic in school, and how it’s really unhelpful when English speakers buy up properties and don’t even stick around. They tell me how young people are forced to leave because the university isn’t good enough here, and they stress how vital it is that this needs to change, so people don’t have to move to Edinburgh or Glasgow. They also tell me how colonialism and the Clearances aren’t taught well enough to children, so kids don’t know the history of their families’ displacement from their land.
“Did you enjoy the trail?” people ask me after the hike. I’m not sure whether ‘enjoy’ is the right word. Do I ever really enjoy hiking the cold, boggy masses of land that are Scotland?! I found it interesting, for sure. I came here to learn about the nature and the wildlife, and I succeeded. I saw eagles soar, while short-eared owls stared right into my soul. And I saw so many waders that I couldn’t identify. This place is a bird watchers’ paradise.
I also came here to learn about the history, the colonisation of the land, and the culture, and to a degree I succeeded.
As I take a ferry back to the mainland, I stand on deck and watch as breathtaking dolphins leap out of the water. A magical ending to my time in the Hebrides.
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