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Old 13th June 2015
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Outer Hebrides anyone?

I'm not sure if this is the right place to post this, but has anyone been to the Outer Hebrides (Lewis, Harris, N and S Uist, Benbecula) in living memory who can recommend places to stay, eat, drink and photograph?

For nearly 40 years I've wanted to go there to take photos inspired by the lovely Tir a'Mhurain book by Paul Strand ( http://www.theguardian.com/uk/scotla...hy-paul-strand ) and I've just got approval from The Management to go there for up to a week next May.

Any thoughts are most welcome. I'm planning to fly up from Stansted or Luton via Glasgow, then probably to hire a car. My sea legs are fair but not brilliant, so long ferry transfers aren't really on the cards.
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Old 13th June 2015
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Re: Outer Hebrides anyone?

I too long harboured that ambition, and got to go there about 15 years or so ago. I didn't keep a record of places I stayed but they'll all have changed by now I dare say. Most were excellent, although one hotel on Lewis insisted on playing Radio 2 during breakfast, and hearing about queues on the M25 seemed oddly out of place ...

Photography-wise the Outer Isles have plenty of interest. Go to Calanais at sunrise if the weather's set fair (it should be in May). I found Harris more interesting than Lewis as it's more mountainous. Some of he beaches on the west coast are worth seeing, and there are plenty of ancient sites to look at. I didn't get to Barra but the Uists and Benbecula are interesting. I'd like to go back some day.

Be aware that the islands are still very traditional and most places shut down on Sundays - including the ferries when I was there. I note your comment about ferries, but you'll need them if you're planning on visiting more than one island . I'm no great seaman either but I had no problems with them, including the longer crossing from Skye.
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Old 13th June 2015
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Re: Outer Hebrides anyone?

We went to Lewis by ferry from Ullapool to Stornoway but came back by driving down to Harris and taking the ferry to the Isle of Skye. We then crossed Skye and took the ferry to the mainland (no bridge in those days). The route via Skye gives the shortest ferry crossing.

From recollection there are not many places to stay unless you are in the bigger towns on the east coast. On the west coast it is mainly small guest houses. We stayed at Baile-ne-Cille near Timsgary (Timsgearraidh) but google maps is only showing it as a restaurant. I wouldn't say it had all the mod cons but it was a great way to get away from it all. The "bar" was a sideboard in the dining room and you just asked the owner for whatever you wanted and he brought it to you. The beaches there are fantatsic but be warned that you are a long way from anywhere. Other than the stunning scenary you might wish to visit the Blackhouse at Arnol (Lewis) for photographic opportunites and there are a few standing stones scattered around.

I don't know much about N & S Uist as we never got to those - we did try to plan a drive/ferry/drive/ferry... all down the outer islands but the logistics of finding food and accommodation was too much in the non internet age.
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Old 14th June 2015
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Re: Outer Hebrides anyone?

I spent a week cycle touring in the Western Isles some years ago and also spent a weekin a Black House on Westside, Lewis. From my experience there are quite a few B&B options in family crofts plus several private hostels but these really all need to be booked in advance. Travel is much easier now with several new causeways being built between islands but that does make them feel less remote and wild. For photography go to the East coast for grandeur and small harbours and the West Coast for sand dunes and speculation beaches.

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Re: Outer Hebrides anyone?

That's very helpful, gentlemen, many thanks.

I've now done some more research on the practicalities, and one area I'd really value your thoughts on relates to how long it takes to drive around the two main island groups: Lewis-Harris; and N & S Uist-Benbecula.

So, is it practicable to stay at just one place in each of those groups for (say) 4 days each and drive reasonably easily to enough good photo sites without doing hundreds of miles or having to get up ridiculously early for the best dawn shots because they are a long way away? Alternatively, would it be better to stay at a couple of places, spread out in one or the other island group?

I know the roads are small, but what sort of speeds can you comfortably keep up? I assume in early May there wouldn't be much traffic.

Living here in the south there's really no alternative to flying up from Stansted or City airports or wherever and hiring a car. I seem to have two alternatives:

1. Fly to Glasgow then on to Stornaway, hire a car for the whole period from the airport, stay on Lewis-Harris for 4 days then take the car on the ferry to N & S Uist and Benbecula for 4 days then take the ferry back and fly back from Stornaway via Glasgow. At least one of the car hire firms are happy for you to take their cars on that ferry.

2. Fly to Glasgow then on to Stornaway, hire a car for 4 days to do Lewis-Harris, then return the car to Stornaway airport, fly to Benbecula and hire a second car there for 4d to do that island and the Uists, then fly home from Benbecula via Glasgow. I haven't checked all the flight times and that option might involve a stay over in Glasgow on the way back, but that would be OK: I've never done street photography in Glasgow and I expect it would be suitably edgy...

Any comments on those options and any further suggestions would be most welcome.

Many thanks.
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Re: Outer Hebrides anyone?

If you are going to fly then the only way must be from Glasgow to Barra, landing on the Traigh Mhor beach at low tide, I wouldn't do it any other way. There is a car hire company on Barra which I believe will meet you at the beach, amongst the sand dunes!

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Re: Outer Hebrides anyone?

That might be fun!

I will research it, flying in or out, although it looks like it might restrict my other options quite a bit - this is said to be the only UK airport where flight times depend on the tides!

We had a (very) light plane flight on our recent trip to Malawi, from a grass strip on a game reserve in to Lilongwe in a single engined Cessna, which felt about the size of a small people-carrier.

Take off reminded me strongly of accelerating away from rest in my friend's Jaguar XK120 coupe!
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Old 14th June 2015
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Re: Outer Hebrides anyone?

My wife and I went in 2007. Caledonian-MacBrayne did a circular ferry ticket (Hopscotch if I recall) i.e. we took the car. Went from Ullapool to Stornaway, down through the islands and returned from Castlebay to Oban.

Stayed in B&B's which we booked via the web. Super holiday wonderful views and photo opportunities. Spent 11 days in the Outer Hebrides.
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Re: Outer Hebrides anyone?

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Originally Posted by Adagio View Post
My wife and I went in 2007. Caledonian-MacBrayne did a circular ferry ticket (Hopscotch if I recall) i.e. we took the car. Went from Ullapool to Stornaway, down through the islands and returned from Castlebay to Oban.

Stayed in B&B's which we booked via the web. Super holiday wonderful views and photo opportunities. Spent 11 days in the Outer Hebrides.
Sounds lovely!

I'm really not keen on driving all the way up and back from Cambridge, otherwise I might consider this with my own car. They still do the 'hopscotch' ticket. The ferry crossings aren't too long, and I find I'm OK on even rough seas and even in small boats as long as I can see the horizon, but I just don't enjoy it very much. All in the mind I know, but knowing that doesn't help!

For some reason I don't have any problems on rough flights - I've been on several over the years when other passengers have been screaming and panicking and things have been falling out of the overhead bins and I've been able to tune out with the iPod and often go to sleep! I do keep my eyes closed, though.

Do you have any comments on reasonable driving speeds and travel times on the local roads up there?
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Old 14th June 2015
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Re: Outer Hebrides anyone?

I agree with David M. - if you are going to fly then fly to Barra. You used to be able to have a hire car delivered to the beach, supplied by a garage in Castlebay. They weren't the most modern of vehicles :-) but worth considering if you are going to arrive in style.

But if you've got the time it is worth driving up. We often spend a night in the Scottish borders (Moffat has a good selection of B&B's) and one or more nights on Skye. We get the CalMac ferry from Mallaig to Skye and then from Skye to N Uist.

4 days each is plenty time enough to drive the length of Lewis (and Harris) and then the Uists. Yes the roads are slow (maybe 35 mph) but there's no traffic!

Last time we went we hired a cottage in the N of N Uist - a place called Sollas - and you could easily get down to S Uist for the day. If you enquire you can often rent a cottage for 3-4nights out of the school hols period.

You would need at least a couple of bases in Lewis to do it all. The cliffs in the North of Lewis (Ness) are spectacular and Callanish can be very scenic in the right conditions. But Lewis as a whole is a bit dour: Harris and the Uists are generally more scenic.

But bear in mind you may not be lucky with the weather, so if you can plan to spend more time then you are more likely to see the sun peeping under the clouds!

May or early June is the perfect time to go. The birds are fantastic - Redshank, Snipe and Lapwing will pose on fence posts while you take their portraits with your 45mm. Also the wild flowers (the macchair) is at it's best.

Robert
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Re: Outer Hebrides anyone?

Bril, thanks.
Very helpful.

I'm a keen walker, so if the weather's foul I'll dress appropriately and just go out in it. The E-M1 and the weather sealed lenses will have to prove their mettle, but I'm realistic and I'll not be too disappointed if I don't come back with images full of stunning light.

Obviously if it's foul for the full week I'll probably get a lot of reading done plus sample a lot of malt by the fire!
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Re: Outer Hebrides anyone?

Quote:
Originally Posted by drmarkf View Post
Do you have any comments on reasonable driving speeds and travel times on the local roads up there?
Although there is little traffic the roads tend to be narrow and winding. I would not plan on averaging more than 25 mph. Distances, however, are not great.

If you fly you will miss views such as this to be had from the ferry back to Oban in the Sound of Mull.

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Re: Outer Hebrides anyone?

I was going to say 30mph but then that is probably on the better road (singular) east-west across Lewis and we knew it by heart at the end of our stay, so maybe 25mph should be factored in as an average.

At the very least you want a base in Lewis and another in Harris when you are on that pair or you will spend half your time driving and not taking pictures. If you are booking B&Bs then book an evening meal as well (if you can) as you can't just pop out to the local take-away.

Check the tyre tread of whatever car you get, you will need plenty as it will wear out quickly.
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Old 15th June 2015
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Re: Outer Hebrides anyone?

I haven't been to the Outer Hebrides for a long time but way back when I had involvement with an RAF radar installation on Benbecula I made quite a number of visits over a two year period.
I would, based on that experience offer a few words of caution regarding the reliability of flight sevices due to weather. The weather can be very unpredictable at any time of year with strong winds and low cloud causing flights to be cancelled. There is a 1,000ft mountain (Eaval) on N.Uist on the approach to the main runway at Benbecula about 6.5 miles from touchdown. I have been there (in the summer) when there was what the RAF called "90 mph fog" with a cloud base of about 20ft. There are now more flights than there used to be but you could still get delayed. I twice had to spend a night in Glasgow waiting for the weather to improve on the way out but fortunately never got stranded on the Island. However it might be prudent to factor in a bit of slack in your schedule particularly at the end if you need to be back for work etc.

The whole pace of life in the Hebrides is slow(which is good) but could be frustrating if you try to work to a schedule. I was told the story of a visiting Spaniard who observed this and enquired if there was an equivalent word in Gaelic ( the main language spoken) to "manana" ie. "tomorrow will do" and after a few days was told there wasn't because nothing was ever that urgent.

I also observed that the availability of accommodation was limited (I was fortunate in being able to stay in the Army Officer's Mess associated with the Royal Artillery Missile Range) and a quick Google search suggests it's not much better now. Early booking of accomodation is essential.

Distances are not great. There is effectively one, partly single track (with passing places) road from Benbecula to Lochboisdale at the southern end of S. Uist (about 25 miles) down the Western side with a range of hills to the East side. The hazard to look out for is sheep which tend to sleep in the dips in the road so you can't see them. A similar road north makes a circuit of N. Uist with a similar distance.

All that said it's a wonderful place and I now much regret that I wasn't in to either photography or wildlife at the time I was visiting. I was fascinated to discover that a significant proportion of the military personnel visiting in the mess were there for contrived reasons so they could go bird watching or fishing and that many others resident there had requested return postings because they liked it so much.

Regards.
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Old 16th June 2015
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Re: Outer Hebrides anyone?

Many thanks for this really useful information, everyone. I have tweaked my plans quite a bit accordingly.

This time I'm going to restrict myself to the Uists and Benbecula (and maybe Barra): this reduces the amount of driving and time pressures while giving most time for walking and photography. If I enjoy this I'll do Lewis/Harris in a year or two. I've got details of loads of walks throughout the islands.

As Peter says, accommodation is limited so I shall book shortly - there seem to be even fewer hotels & B&Bs that get consistently good reviews, so I'll choose carefully. I prefer to stay in pubs generally, but I'll also look for B&Bs within walking distance or a short drive of places to get a meal and a beer. I'll look to stay in a couple of places on those islands, one north & one south.

Fortunately these days I can be flexible on travel, being semi-retired, but I'll make sure I keep a few days after the trip entirely free.

One advantage of using m4/3 kit is that I'll be able to take a wide range of equipment within the tight weight restrictions of Loganair (20kg hold, 6kg cabin).

We recently came back from a trip to South Africa and Malawi during which we had a single engined light plane flight with a total 15kg baggage allowance per person. I took 2 E-M1 bodies, 12-35, 40-150, 1.4tc, 45 and 7.5mm Samyang fisheye plus chargers, batteries etc and still had space for a reasonable amount of clothes & other impedimenta. Try that with the DSLR equivalent!
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