It's a bit of an epic journey from Dorset to the Outer Hebrides but worth it in every way! I love travel, particularly in the UK, and September is one of my favourite times to explore.
We had planned this trip some months earlier and looked at different ways of getting to the islands but in the end a combination of driving, flying and the ferry worked best for us, even if taking a load of camera gear on a flight is a challenge!
An early morning (3 am) drive to Bristol airport, EasyJet flight to Inverness and then pick up a hire car for the drive to Ullapool and the ferry across to Stornoway - all in all 19 hours, end to end. Still, we were greeted by clear skies and I couldn't resist 30 minutes down at Port of Ness harbour for some Milky Way shots!
There is something unique about small islands and peninsulas, the landscape, quality of the light, the people but most of all the weather. Perhaps this is what shapes all the elements. Whether it's the Isles of Scilly, the Channel Islands or the Outer Hebrides, the weather changes fast and dramatically influences the atmosphere and how the landscape looks. Moody, cheerful, bright sunshine, low clouds, swirling mists, fine drizzle or pouring rain, they all are beautiful in their own way and no doubt sculpt lives as well as landscapes.
I slipped back down to Ness harbour the next morning in heavy rain to photograph the gannets we had seen from the cottage window. Slamming into the water, their wings catching the light, they appeared to glow as they plunged into the blue seas, sparks being extinguished by the waves. I have seen gannets in several places across the British Isles but they were constant and very welcome companions across the Hebrides, with lots of juveniles practising their art. An early afternoon at Tolsta on the east coast allowed us to witness a huge flock, upwards of a thousand birds I would guess, in a feeding frenzy driving shoals of sprats up onto the beach to be left stranded by the falling tide. A mesmerising spectacle, the gannets relentlessly fishing, the sprats trying equally hard to avoid the carnage.
The Hebrides play with your emotions and I felt it all the time we were there. A combination of weather and the landscape, I guess, a sense of ancient history somehow being closer, an awareness of the struggle that all communities in remote places face. A drive across the moor from Ness towards Stornoway, bleak and desolate in low cloud and rain, could make you feel alone and somewhat afraid but in low evening sunshine with soft clouds rolling across the moor it made your heart leap as the rippling light caused the moor to glow, emphasising the peat cuttings and flowering heather. The cliche of four seasons in one day never sounded more apt. And, of course, all this makes for a photographer's dream.
We spent two weeks in the Hebrides, one week at Port of Ness and the second in Harris at Bunavoneader, with Clisham (the island's highest peak) behind our rented cottage and Loch a Siar in front of us. Golden eagles swooped overhead on some days and we watched mergansers and northern divers in the bay below the cottage. Stonechats and Hebridean wrens (a separate sub-species) were present in the heather and we witnessed a great aerial battle between hooded crows and a merlin.
There is a marked difference between the north of the islands and the south; Lewis with its flat moors and plunging cliffs at the coast, Harris with its wonderful range of hills and white sand beaches, each utterly beautiful in their own way. Long, long winding roads lead you to remote coastal locations and views change dramatically as you turn each corner. The journey from Ardhasaig out to Husinish really is spectacular as was the circular route from Leverburgh via Loch Langabhat and Rodel.
Some of the roads on the islands are narrow, sharp bends are common and there are a few precipitous drops along the way. A mess up at the car hire company saw us driving a new 318 BMW, no doubt a dream for some but not the ideal car for the island roads! Something a bit less precious would have been more suitable... On another note, good paper or offline maps are really useful, too, as there are large areas without any mobile reception or satellite signal.
We covered a fair bit of ground in a couple of weeks, taking in many of the places we had read about; the Butt of Lewis, Eoropie beach, Tolsta, Bosta, Tiumpan Head, Scalpay, Loch Langabhat and more but, in truth, we only scratched the surface. There were so many places we didn't make it to and there were photography opportunities galore.
I shot sunsets and sunrises, the Milky Way, dramatic panoramas and some amazing wildlife. Red deer eluded us without a single sighting but we saw so much else,; golden eagles, sea eagles, buzzards, peregrine falcons, merlins. mergansers, northern divers, the gannets, stonechats and wrens but our two otter encounters were the standout.
On our last full day we walked up to Loch Langhabhat from Bowglass and were rewarded with sweeping views across the loch and on our return a pair of golden eagles hunting in the valley, effortlessly covering the vast area. Our plan next was to go on and walk through the Aline community woodland to Loch Seaforth and this, as far as wildlife was concerned, turned into the highlight of the trip.
A pair of buzzards entertained us as we walked through the woods but if I'm honest the cove that the path led to was a bit unprepossessing; a small seaweed-strewn bay with an ugly fence running into it and lots of foam whipped up by the wind. Still, it is always worth some time watching and waiting to see if anything is around. We sat at the lone picnic bench and watched the water. A few gulls on one side of the bay and a few small fish jumping out of the water, sprats at a guess.
What was chasing them? A dark swirl under the water really close to the beach - was that an otter? The tip of a tail amongst the bubbles or was I imagining that,? Too slow with the camera, if anything was even there. Now nothing. Waiting. Watching. Time passing, hope fading along with the sweep of the hands on my watch. Something made me get the tripod set up while everything was quiet.
Suddenly an eruption from the water like a firework going off, silver points of light scattering as a number of small fish leapt out of the water followed by a sleek dark head. No doubts now, as Eléna and I looked at each other and grinned. What followed was 30 minutes of frantic feeding, the otter chasing and swirling with jaws snapping, moving so fast that at one point we were convinced there must be two otters at work. I have no doubt the otter knew we were watching, as early on it lifted its head high out of the water and looked directly at us, then ducked under and came up again for another appraising look. We were utterly still and were obviously not considered a threat.
Finally, as the sun dropped and the water glowed orange, the otter hauled out onto the weed-covered rocks and just sat as we quietly slipped away. Too full to move any further, perhaps?
What an utterly incredible experience. As we sat with a pint and some really good pizzas in the Mote bar in Tarbert later that evening I don' t think either of us could quite believe what we had watched.
Our whole trip to the Hebrides was superb and it's somewhere we will definitely return to soon. Going through my images and looking at the maps putting this post together, I realise just how much we didn't get to see and a list is already forming for next time. The stacks at Mangersta, the long walk from Bowglass to Loch Langhabhat and on down to Meavaig, the south lochs and that's before you even get down the archipelago any further.
I lugged a lot of gear with me to the Hebrides and it saw some tough service along the way with plenty of salt water and rain but everything performed well. There are a few links below for some of the kit, along with some useful websites if you are planning a visit to the islands. The North Harris Trust were really helpful with information before our trip and the Visit Hebrides website is a great resource.