Jane Batchelor tackles Britain’s newest long-distance walking path, hiking the Hebridean Way, where maps beyond the guidebook do not yet exist, beaches take centre stage but where roads make up a large section of the trail.
Hiking The Hebridean Way – Where is it?
The Hebridean Way is in the Outer Hebrides, the furthest Scottish islands on the west coast. It comprises 10 islands in an archipelago which mark the route, although there are over 100 more islands that make up the Western Isles.
Hiking The Hebridean Way – Where do you walk?
On Britain’s newest hiking trail, you walk the spine of the Outer Hebrides, from the north to the south (as I did it) or the south to the north (which is the way people suggest you do it). It covers varied terrain including roads, small hills, tracks, boardwalks, bog hopping, moorland, sand dunes, and beaches.
Hiking The Hebridean Way – How difficult is it?
Physically, it’s not too demanding for the most part, with it being rather flat and the hilly sections not gaining much height. But you do have to walk through bog on the moorland areas where there is no path (there are posts to point out the direction). I had to jump a barbed wire fence and a gate a couple of times. This, I imagine (hope) should be rectified as more people hike along it.
Hiking The Hebridean Way – How long is it?
At the moment the Hebridean Way is 155 miles from Stornoway to Vatersay (or vice versa) with an additional leg to the Butt of Lewis not actually on the trail at present, but is expected to become part of the Hebridean Way in the future.
Hiking The Hebridean Way – How long does it take to hike it?
The guidebook says 10 days but that includes three days of 21/22 miles. It all depends how fast you walk and if you have a heavy pack. I’d recommend around 13-14 days. Don’t forget to add in travel time to the Outer Hebrides, typically a day (or possibly more) each way.
Hiking The Hebridean Way – Do I need to camp?
I can’t really see a way around this. The Cicerone Hiking the Hebridean Way guidebook says there is accommodation along the route but that would include diverting a fair bit on several days or walking ultra long days. There are bus services that operate along most of the route but they aren’t very frequent, they stop around 6pm and nothing runs on Sundays. So yes, I think camping is needed. It also gives you the freedom of where to stop and there are plenty of wild camping spots. Less so on the campsite front, but you should come to a hostel or campsite once every 3-4 days on average.
Hiking The Hebridean Way – What do you do for water?
It’s all low-lying land with livestock and deer (although you probably won’t see the deer) so I filled up and then popped a chlorine tablet in. For cooking, just boil it.
Hiking The Hebridean Way – What about food supplies?
I typically carried three days of food with me. Post offices will stock supplies and you’ll come across Co-op supermarkets in Benbecula. Gas can be bought in Tarbet at the hardware store near the visitor info and in Stornoway. One 230g canister should get you through 10-12 days as long as you aren’t doing much more than boiling water for food and drinks. Shops do not open on Sundays. Don’t get caught out, make sure you have enough supplies.
Hiking The Hebridean Way – Is it easy to navigate?
As of summer 2017 there are no maps marking the route, other than the Cicerone guidebook which uses slithers of 1:50,000 OS maps. However, there have been buildings built and paths made that are not on the OS maps and are not part of the Hebridean Way and these caused me a bit of confusion more than once.
It is supposed to be waymarked but I have several gripes with this. It seems to me as though the supervisor was around for part of the waymarking work yet as soon as they went home the workers slacked off! Parts of the Hebridean Way are marked brilliantly and then there are gaping holes with no signs, and with no maps other than the guidebook which isn’t always accurate, it can become a frustrating mission.
In Lewis and Harris, there are signs pointing from the roads to some of the paths on the Hebridean Way, but less so in the Usits. In South Usit and Barra, the posts are waymarked facing both north and south, whereas in Lewis and Harris they are only signposted for hikers coming up from the south.
There are not many posts on the moorland in Lewis and Harris (some being 200 metres apart) whereas they are much closer in Barra. The list goes on. But one major consistent flaw was the sudden disappearance of signs. I spoke to three other hikers who all said the same and I think we all made our own paths at certain points, not knowing where to go.
This is especially true for people walking from north to south, as I did, because there are often not any signs on gates or posts. This did drive me mad, as though you are not supposed to walk in this direction. Yes, I can read a map, thank you very much, but as I said, not all paths leading off are on the current OS maps, never mind the actual Hebridean Way tracks. There were no GPX files that I could find, so I copied the route and hand drew it on my OS maps online account. I used it a couple of times but more than once I bounded across my own way.
Hiking The Hebridean Way – Are there many roads to walk along?
Yes, too many in my opinion. I appreciate that causeways between islands are unavoidable but there are sections where you are on an A road and there is some perfectly decent heathland that could have been used instead. I guess it came down to funding or an oversight of hikers not minding slamming down on tarmac. I know in the past many footpaths were turned into roads in the Outer Hebrides and walking trails were therefore lost. I’d recommend hitching or getting the bus (if you see one) on the lengthy road sections, like coming out of Stornoway or going to Grimsay. The roads aren’t busy, though, even the A roads, so not much traffic to negotiate.
Hiking The Hebridean Way – When is the best time to go?
The weather in the Outer Hebrides is very unpredictable. I was there for a month in June and July and I think I was brave enough to wear a T-shirt about four times. You might be lucky to get a great day but then it normally breaks and day-to-day is completely different. It was an average of 16 degrees when I was there with lots of rain and wind. Just be prepared and take warm clothes and good waterproofs even if you go in summer. May to September is the best time of year. It doesn’t get dark in June or July which is a novelty (it turns to dusk but not night skies).
Enjoy the route, it’s in a beautiful part of the world with varied landscape. My favourite part was South Uist as you can see the hills, the beaches and the machair (the fertile soil abundant in flowers next to the coast) all at once. Take time to go to Berneray island, it was my favourite place in the Outer Hebrides, and chat with locals who are extremely friendly.
Jane Batchelor is currently hiking 2,500 miles through Britain, looking at the history of the country. For more photos, follow her Facebook and Instagram pages. To find out more about her journey, click here.