The islands of Lewis, Harris, Berneray, North Uist, Benbencula, South Uist lay behind me reaching north under the constant churn of the gulf stream. From the rugged mountains of Harris to the soft fertile coast of South Uist each island had its own feel, temperament and identity but there was one island left, and one that was to be the most special of all, Barra.
As I stood next to my dew-covered dwelling on the morning of my last day, I could feel the early glow of the sun on the back on my neck. The tent entrance fluttered in the breeze as the hot sugary caffeine of my coffee began to work its magic. In the background I could hear bubbling water boiling for a second time ready to hydrate my porridge oats. After the mother of all sunsets yesterday I was ready for today but desperately tired. My feet screamed for a day off. My right wrist, badly strained after constant work with the trekking pole, had given up to the point where I couldn’t even brush my teeth without severe shooting pains. There was only one day left, two tops, so the pain could be suffered.
From my flat wild camping spot ten metres above the benign sea I had clear line of sight up the valley past the village of Borgh and up to the summits of Hartabhal and Heabhal. The unmarked route would take me east through the village and up to the H shaped saddle between the peaks, then south up onto the highest summit on the island, Heabhal. I’d decided that this was my finishing point of the entire Hebridean journey and a place I was itching to reach. As I rolled away the tent and painfully tightened the laces to my boots I peered over my left shoulder. I savoured the crimson glimmer of the sunrise and the final cry of the seabirds. These are sights and sounds so beautiful, they would cast a spell.
Past the village of Borgh I made my way from the local tarmac road up onto a muddy trail with quad tyre tracks sunken deep into the silky mud. I knew from the map this led to a new wind turbine adjacent to a loch at a height of two hundred and sixteen metres above sea level. The route up was steep, uneven and hard going but, saving my energy, I was very aware the most testing climbing was still to come. As I leaned with my back against the cold grey metal of the turbine I could see down into the village of Borgh. I smiled as an energetic border collie chased the bright red local Post Office van on its early morning mail run.
Setting my sights on the H shaped saddle between the two summits I envisaged my proposed route and followed it with my eyes checking for dangerous drop-offs or vertical gradients. It looked ruthless, lung bursting and emotional – just how I liked it. As I crested the next ridge in front of me the southwesterly wind, to which I’d been shielded, hit me sideways, blowing me off my unstable footing. I estimated the relentless gusts to be at 35-40mph.
As I lay in the saddle I savoured the chewy goodness of my last flapjack, I was now out of food. I tucked in tight behind my rucksack away from the wind in a small indentation in the hill. I could feel the damp of the wet heather on my back intruding on my break time, urging me to get up and keep moving. From my position in the grass I could see my very final destination of Castlebay sitting in a closed valley to the south. It’s iconic castle sitting two hundred metres alone out to sea, hauntingly old and injured by years surrounded by the mighty Atlantic Ocean.
Up on my feet again I looked up to the steep face of Heabhal. I caught glimpses of the whale shaped summit through the rolling mist that enveloped the peak. There was no path or standard route up, I would have to zig zag through the deep spongy heather and overhanging cliffs. My steps were labored and painful, my strained wrist tucked uselessly into my trouser pocket. My lungs forcibly thrusting air out as quickly as I could suck it in. I would zig zag every twenty feet picking rocky points to stop and catch my breath. This reduced to fifteen feet, ten feet then five as the climb became steeper and the heather became deeper. The anxieties of modern life were distant memories as I was thrust into the present by having to concentrate on each upward step. I would look up, take fifteen steps and look up again, willing the invisible summit closer and closer with a random sequence of expletives.
Onward and upwards until finally the ground to my west began to level and clear and the ground in front harden and stretch out to a narrow summit ridge. When I caught a glimpse of its apex, I stopped, withholding this inevitable moment. Looking with a lump in my throat – I estimated thirty paces would signify an end to the whole journey. My eyes darted left to the expansive view, which stretched out for thirty miles over the lower Hebrides. The memories of passing through those wild and remote places played out like an old stuttering film. I could see the white tips of the waves buffeting the small fishing boats coming into the harbour below, the sea being their highway. Walking forwards, the cold and ferocious summit wind became irrelevant, the pain in my feet and arm draining away. As I sat on my rucksack, using the ancient rock as a backrest I leaned in pulled up the hood to my jacket and zipped it up to my chin. In a daze, I nestled into this secluded rock face and took stock of everything I’d experienced on this unique and graceful collection of islands.
Walking the old way, using old routes and pathways meant a certain freedom. A freedom to see the islands as the people did for centuries before modern roads brought tourism and the car; ultimately I found a freedom of spirit and a culture proud of their rich and ancient heritage. These are islands of song, fable and legend, Islands of crofters, fishermen and tweed weavers. I found the real value here, even in the modern day, lies in the eternal link between the people and the land, and that is what I dreamed of finding. Through the greater scaffolding of adventure, I managed to weave a path between richness and struggle that ultimately added to the sense of growth and achievement that I felt. As I sat shivering with my back high up against some of the oldest rock in the world I surveyed the scene for the last time, tucked my knees up into my chest and closed my eyes. My thoughts drifted to Yukon.