The Journey Part 3 – The Outer Hebrides, Scotland
“Ow! Damn!” My foot had started to ache a couple of hours back and now I was limping like Long John Silver. Whenever you didn’t want one, an offer of a lift always came along. Now I did, there were none forthcoming on the empty road.
I had been road walking from Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides to Callanish standing stones. The Neolithic architecture had brought me to the Western Isles and I was keen to reach the visitor centre as a momentary relief from the horizontal rain and body slamming wind. My 2,500-mile hike had already encompassed Shetland, Orkney and the Scottish Highlands but the gusts of wind on the Western Isles were incomparable. For once, I was grateful for carrying such a heavy load on my back to keep me grounded.
I had anticipated grim weather but not an injury. I just hoped it wasn’t plantar fasciitis, a strain on a huge tendon in your foot, which is reoccurring and painful when it hits.
A Trip to A&E
After hobbling round the higgledy piggledy 5,000-year-old stone circle and watching an almighty sunset blaze above it, I had to bus it to A&E. I hated myself for taking up valuable NHS time for a complete non-accident and non-emergency, but this was where I’d been told to go.
The nurse grimaced. “Well you haven’t broken anything, so that’s the plus side. But you do have all the classic signs of plantar fasciitis.”
I swore silently. How the hell could I hike the remaining part of 2,500 miles with that?
“And there’s nothing I can do, right, to get rid of it?”
“Not really. You’ll have to rest it until the pain goes but it will come back. It’s pressure on hard surfaces that has probably brought it on. It’s horrible, I know, because I have it, too.”
I rested at a beach for two days but it rained. I hitched to another beach and camped in 50 mph winds. I returned to Stornoway and limped to cafes whiling away the time and alleviating the side effects of boredom.
The Outer Hebrides had made my wish list as soon as I started planning my route nearly two years ago, keen to step onto the sugary sand beaches and potter past cosy thatched cottages. Glancing at a map, it looks like the skeleton of a dinosaur, its tail and body of Vatersay and Benbecula reaching out to its enlarged head of Harris and Lewis. Na h-Eileanan Siar, the Gaelic name for the Western Isles, or Outer Hebrides, is made up of 119 named islands, the main archipelago consisting of 10 of these. It has a deeply proud Gaelic heritage (pronounced ga-lic, not gay-lic nor gar-lic), with the highest percentage of Scotland’s native speakers living here.
The Hebridean Way
After 10 days of nothingness, I decided to venture onto the Hebridean Way, Britain’s newest long-distance hiking path that had officially just opened. There looked to be lengthy pain-inducing road sections which did not bode well with the foot so I joined the path 14 miles south of the capital, Stornoway.
The route took me past the world’s oldest rocks, Lewisian gneiss, with swirls of pink and glistening quartz. Lewis was peppered with dull looking pebble-dashed houses which took me by surprise, having frequently made the inaccurate assumption that these were nearly always council estates.
I trotted past myriad lochs and small hills, going down onto the island of Harris. The sun shone. The rain poured. The mist closed in. I was warm. I was soaked. I was blown around. I walked across low hills and wild camped where there was protection from the wind.
I reached Berneray, a slice of heaven, with empty beaches that rival those of Asia. I dined on crab in the Gatliff hostel, watched dolphins jump the waves and saw seals bobbing their heads at the land lovers.
A Twisted Arm
Suddenly I found myself on St Kilda, after having my arm twisted (very easily) to venture out to Britain’s western most outcrop of islands. It was isolated, inhospitable but gloriously incredible with an astonishing history of hardship and survival. St Kilda lies 45 miles west of the Outer Hebrides and was inhabited until 1930 when the remaining population of 36, who all survived on bird meat, gannets mainly, as well as fish and lamb, were evacuated to the mainland.
I found Neolithic burial chambers in North Uist, with the kind help and time from archaeologist Kevin Murphy; I jumped over fences and fell into bog, the evil, black, drowning squelch licking my boots; I gazed in awe at the machair with its sweet smelling flowers; I sat on beaches to rest and I walked along hard roads, hoping my foot wouldn’t protest.
I reached Castlebay with a sigh of relief, knowing that it was time to leave the islands. After a month in the Outer Hebrides with a whirlwind of emotions, weather and scenery, I was ready to hit the mainland.
However, island life would beckon me back sooner than I imagined…
Jane Batchelor finished hiking 3,500 miles through Britain in May 2018, looking at the history of the country in chronological order.
The Journey Part 1 – Shetland
The Journey Part 2 – Orkney to Ullapool
The Journey Part 3 – The Outer Hebrides
The Journey Part 4 – Oban to Glasgow
The Journey Part 5 – Glasgow to Newcastle
The Journey Part 6 – Newcastle to Darlington County
The Journey Part 7 – Middlesbrough to Scarborough
The Journey Part 8 – Winter
The Journey Part 9 – The End