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Berneray and North Uist: Small Islands with Lovely Beaches

Published
September 23, 2022
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The following blog post is based on a chapter in my new book, The Scottish Isles: Part 2: Skye and the Outer Hebrides. The first volume, The Scottish Isles: Part 1: Shetlands, Orkneys and Hebrides is currently on sale at a reduced price, US $2.99 for the Kindle and US $9.99 for the paperback. The two front covers follow, after which the post begins.

BECAUSE I didn’t yet have a car on the Outer Hebrides, I hitchhiked down Harris, and then I took a local ferry from Leverburgh to Berneray. The ferries, Caledonian MacBrayne, or CalMac for short, are heavily subsidized and cheap. But they often break down.

Berneray and North Uist, among the other isles nearby. North at top.

The local ferry terminal where I got off is right at the southern tip of Berneray, described on Google Maps as “Serene island with secluded beaches.” It’s also very small. Its longest axis is less than six kilometres long. It is only a couple of kilometres from the ferry terminal to practically all the settled spots on the island.

Here is a tourist map of Berneray (Eilean Bhearnaraigh in Scots Gaelic, its proper name locally), which I saw on the outside of more than one building.

Berneray Tourist Map

The islands here all have lovely beaches, as you can see from this satellite view of Berneray and the northern part of North Uist. It doesn’t include the Hosta area of North Uist, which has amazing beaches of its own, and which I talk about further below.

Detail from an image by Copernicus Sentinel-2, European Space Agency, 28 June 2018, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO via Wikimedia Commons. North toward the top.

Gaelic is the first language on most of the road signs as well. On the cluster of signs in the next photo, you can also see a small one in English pointing to a hostel called John’s Bunkhouse, built in the traditional Hebridean blackhouse style in which turf is placed between two drystone walls. That was where I spent my first night after getting off the ferry.

Gaelic as the first language, on Berneray

As you can also see in the tourist map, there is a causeway leading to the larger and more populated island of North Uist. The local ferry terminal is right next to this causeway, so it serves both islands.

The causeway from Berneray to North Uist, with a stone commemorating its opening by Prince Charles (now King Charles III) on the 6th of April 1999

The Berneray Shop and Bistro is about 500m from the ferry terminal, along the road that leads to the township of Berneray.

Berneray Shop and Bistro

This photo shows cycle tourists’ bikes next to the shop and bistro.

Cycle tourists’ bikes next to the Berneray Shop and Bistro

Cycle tourists take advantage of the Hebridean Way runs from Vatersay in the extreme south to the Butt of Lewis in the north, a distance of 156 miles (250 km).

Hebridean Way signs

There was also a large Pictish square cairn close to the ferry port. This was uncovered by the causeway works in the late 1990s and protected by re-routing the road. Apparently, there is another one at the other end of the causeway on North Uist. Road works and other excavations turn up this sort of thing all the time in the British Isles.

Information sign about the square cairn on Berneray

You can also see seals on Berneray.

Information sign about seals

The hostels on Berneray, including a youth hostel, are about 20 pounds a night for a bed. John’s Bunkhouse was about 25 pounds a night. The traditional blackhouse that serves as the bunkhouse was built with European money in the mid-2010s.

It opened for business in 2018, which was actually about two years after the Brexit referendum. John, the proprietor, said the EU had really helped local communities, especially in rural areas, and that Scotland was definitely going to miss that now with Brexit. He’d been lucky to get in just in time.

On Berneray, I went for a walk, as you can take in most of the island by walking. I came across a shop called Coralbox, which sold local arts and crafts and souvenirs. The name reminds me that there is a kind of seaweed called maerl, with a hard skeleton similar to that of coral, that grows locally even though the water is quite cool. The maerl helps to explain why the beaches are made up of white carbonate sands, which look similar to the coral sands of the tropics.

The tiny Coralbox shop

I also came across a prehistoric standing stone on the land of a person I met named Chris.

There are bus services around the five islands of Berneray, North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist, and Eriskay, which are nowadays all linked by road causeways. But the buses only come about twice a day. There is one around 9 or 10 am for which you just turn up at the bus stop which does most of these islands. Another service, which runs around noon, has to be booked. It has a cross by it on the timetables. You couldn’t do a heck of a lot in one day if you were going by bus.

North Uist Circular Service Van

I found at first that I couldn’t hire a car on the Outer Hebrides at all, because people from all over Europe were coming over for summer. So, I did quite a lot of hitching. A lot of the local people pick you up.

From Berneray, I headed over the causeway to North Uist, which is about 21 km from north to south and 26 km from east to west. The main town on North Uist is called Loch nam Madadh, or Lochmaddy in English. It is also where a ferry from Uig, on Skye, comes in.

Lochmaddy information sign

They had a really good museum in Lochmaddy, the Taigh-Chearsabagh Museum and Arts Centre, which was full of information about the history of the island.

Museum sign

Taigh-Chearsabhagh Museum and Arts Centre, Lochmaddy

There was a range of accommodation and a hotel where you could have casual meals.

Lochmaddy Hotel

I visited a rare bird sanctuary at Balranald on the west coast, and took in the beaches, including some that were near the town of Hosta.

Hosta Beach

A Merchant Navy sailor's memorial by the beach

Another view of Hosta Beach

Here is a video I made, which starts with my journey to Berneray on the ferry from Leverburgh, and then cuts across to the lands around John’s Bunkhouse, including an ancient standing stone. The video includes scenes of seals and an eagle, and the last two scenes are of Hosta Beach on North Uist.

Most of the roads, including the ones on the Hebridean Way cycle touring route, are fairly narrow. Check out the following photo, which I snapped through a passenger-side car window at a spot close to Hosta and its lovely beach, on North Uist’s main ring road.

The main ring road on North Uist

The roads occasionally have passing places.

Passing place, by a small loch

I also saw a white house, a blackhouse, and a modern shed all side by side. I took a photo, which provides a useful contrast of these styles. The true blackhouse has double walls with turf between. On the other hand, this blackhouse looks small, just a shed itself, so it might just have a single wall. As for the white house, which is much larger, it might be a blackhouse that was later plastered and painted white. You can’t always tell just by looking.

A white house, a blackhouse, and a modern shed

Near Mhalacleit on the northern shore of the North Uist, I saw some more of the machair landscape, of white carbonate sands with a sort of prairie on top, which has many sorts of flowers in it if you are there at the right time of year.

Sign pointing to the Machair at Mhalacleit
Machair landscape

Here is a nice scene of a cloud reflected in the water. I don’t think you would often strike a cloudless day in the Hebrides, but that only makes it more attractive when the sun does manage to break through.

At Carinish, on North Uist, there stands the ruins of the Trinity Chapel, which is one of the oldest university sites in Europe. It is said that even the legendary theologian Duns Scotus trained there. The now-ruined chapel stands in front of the Ditch of Blood, the site of the Battle of Carinish in 1601.

Trinity Temple, Carinish, North Uist

Another view of Trinity Temple

To round off, I also came across a spot called Baile Loch, which means castle in a lake or an inlet of the sea. And so it was.

The Small Castle at Baile Loch

A full list of accommodation sites and things to do on Berneray can be found on isleofberneray.com. The equivalent for North Uist is isle-of-north-uist.co.uk.

Unfortunately, they don’t seem to cater very well for solo travellers on the Outer Hebrides. If you aren’t in a big party, you might find that your booking has been overlooked. That was my experience on the islands generally. So, if you are a solo traveller, bring a tent.

See, further, visitouterhebrides.co.uk.

In my next post, I head to Benbecula and South Uist.

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