There’s nothing quite like a trip to the Outer Hebrides to inspire, motivate and re-energise. My wife and I recently went on a hebridean holiday including the fantastic Hebridean Celtic Festival, Berneray Week and some nice surprise in Barra. All it took was a bit of a sing-song and some time on stunning beaches to get the creativity flowing again.
I’ve been going to the Hebridean Celtic Festival in Stornoway most years since 2004. This year, my wife made her first trip the festival and we had a ball! I’ve made a lot of friends over the years at the festival, and I’ve realised that my favourite aspects of it are not just the music: it’s the atmosphere, the people you meet and the unique experiences that make the Hebridean Celtic Festival such a special event. This year was no different, and besides all of the amazing artists we saw, one of my favourite moments happened the day after the festival. Basically, there were about 15 of us crammed into the cooking hut on the campsite, having a session and everyone was singing along to “In The Reek Of The Smouldering Peat”. It was one of those moments that really drove home just exactly why I love singing.
After the madness of the festival, we made our way through the mountains of Harris to catch the ferry over to Berneray, one of my favourite islands. Although the weather wasn’t exactly the best, travelling through Harris was quite simply stunning. Even in the bad weather the beaches in Seilebost and Scarista were shining. A lot of people think of Skye as having some of the must stunning scenery in Scotland, but for me that trip through Harris trumps them all.
We were staying in Berneray for 3 nights we happened to arrive in time for Berneray Week, which saw various events taking place all over the island, from sheepdog trials and sports days, to ceilidhs and barbecues. We stayed in the hostel the first night, instead of going to the ceilidh, as we felt we needed to relax and unwind a bit after 4 days of partying and dancing and we spent the evening chatting to other hostellers and passing the whisky around. This hostel is of course the very same place that inspired “In The Reek Of The Smouldering Peat” and sharing whisky and chatting to like-minded people seems to be what most people love about the hostel, as well as the stunning location of course. There’s a reason many people return to this amazing place year after year.
The next morning we woke up to blazing sunshine. If you ask me, when the sun shines in Berneray there is one thing you HAVE to do – take a walk around the coast of the island. I’ve always been blown away by the beauty of this small island, but it was even more special showing my wife all of the special places on the island. Walking up the east beach and on to the cliffs in the north, the view over the Sound of Harris to the mountains we had travelled through the day before is nothing short of mind-blowing. You would think that it would be heard to beat that view, but if you keep walking along the north you eventually make it to the west beach – 3 miles of pure white sand and that stunning blue-green colour I can only describe as “hebridean blue”. Walking down that beach, you see the uninhabited island of Boreray to the west. It really is one of the most perfect beaches and I’ve always found it a great spot for wildlife. This year we were lucky enough to see some dolphins, probably only about 20 feet away from us too!
The sunshine, sadly, wasn’t meant to last. That night we were treated to a spectacular lightning storm through the night which we could see striking in the distance, silhouetting the distant Cuillins in the flash. The next day was overcast, but mostly dry, so we decided to take a trip over to North Uist and take a walk around the Balranald nature reserve. It was a great walk, even though it was a bit boggy, and I think the fresh air did both of us wonders. In the evening, there was a massive bonfire and barbecue on the beach. We went along and enjoyed the warmth from the fire. It seemed that the whole of Berneray was gathered around the fire. I had taken my guitar along with me “just in case”, a woman noticed it and practically demanded that I start entertaining the onlookers. Of course, you don’t need to ask me twice! I sang a few songs, which people seemed to be enjoying singing along to. One wee boy came up to me and asked me to sing the “Rock Me Mama song” again (“Wagon Wheel”), I told him I would only sing it again if he sang it with me. So the pair of us sang our hearts out. The wee boy was over the moon to be singing with me, I’ll never forget that moment.
After Berneray, we had planned stay a night in South Uist before heading to Barra the next day. However, as we were driving through the Uists we decided to keep on driving to Eriskay and chance our luck and get the ferry over to Barra. We were able to get on the ferry so, in the torrential rain, we made our way over to Barra. After putting the tent up on the rain, we headed to my favourite pub in the Hebrides – the infamous Castlebay Bar. It was there that we saw a poster saying that the mighty Vatersay Boys would be playing in the bar on Friday and Saturday night…what a way to end our holiday!
The next day the sun made an appearance again, so we decided to visit the beaches of Vatersay. It was stunning. I even went in the water, though only up to my knees! After spending a nice bit of time on both the east and west beaches on Vatersay we headed back to Barra and paid a visit to the wonderful beach at Tangasdale. There was a circus tent set up on the machair, and we heard that Let’s Circus, who had been at the Hebridean Celtic Festival, were in Barra for three nights – the first circus ever to visit Barra. So we booked a ticket for that night. We then headed north to Eoligarry and visited a part of the island I hadn’t been to before. It was the most amazing spot, we could see over to Eriskay and South Uist and the water was crystal clear. We then headed down to the beach on the other side of the dunes from the airport and enjoyed the last of the sunshine before heading back to Tangasdale.
Later that night, we headed to the circus! It was fantastic, we had unicycle-riding clowns, double-jointed bendy folk, trapeze artists and, of course, the Balloonatic! It really was good fun and the atmosphere was brilliant. Little kids and big kids alike were having a whale of a time. I was amazed at the skill of all the acts. It was also great to see someone from Lewis, who had literally ran away and joined the circus at HebCelt, performing at the end. When the circus ended, we returned to the Castlebay Bar, where the Vatersay Boys were in full swing. It was a great end to a brilliant day.
The next day, the weather was awful. The rain was torrential and, as we lay in our tent, it felt like it was never going to end. Eventually, the rain stopped a little bit and we ceased the opportunity to head for some lunch. We then got in the car around the island for a while. The beaches we had visited the day before were now grey and wet, but the hebridean blue glow was still present in the shallows. We had booked a table for two at the fantastic Cafe Kisimul for dinner, so we headed there and read the menu…wow! I had been looking forward to the meal all week and had already decided what I was having: the Cafe Kisimul signature dish of scallop pakora for starters followed by chicken korma. I swear it was one of the best meals I have ever had! I highly recommend a visit to Cafe Kisimul for dinner if you ever find yourself in Barra. After our wonderful meal, we returned to Castlebay Bar where we were meeting a friend later. We were chatting to on older guy who was telling me that the only way to tell a woman just how beautiful she is, is to say it in gaelic. I guess I’m going to have to learn gaelic then! The Vatersay Boys started and the bar was transformed into a house of musical mayhem. The atmosphere was electric and the whisky measures were…strong. A perfect end to a perfect holiday.
I hope you have enjoyed reading all about our holiday. I can safely say I have returned from the island re-inspired and ready to continue with “Project Blue”. I was going through all of my ideas recorded on the computer and looking forward to expanding on what I’ve already written. Until my next post, farewell!