Hebridean Way Guidebook – Interview with Richard Barrett
We interview Richard Barrett, author and creator of The Hebridean Way Guidebook, a long-distance trail route along the length of the Outer Hebrides.
The guidebook to walking the Hebridean Way in Scotland, published by Cicerone, is a long-distance route along the length of the Outer Hebrides from the island of Vatersay to Stornoway on Lewis. All 247 km of the route includes a variety of moors, hills and shell beaches and can be walked in 8 to 13 days.
Q – Hi Richard, before we jump into the exciting Hebridean Way could you tell our readers a little about yourself and your walking background?
A – I’ve been walking, fell running and mountaineering for most of my life, switching to sea kayaking and road cycling in recent years as legs began to wear out. I first visited the Outer Hebrides in the early 1970s, before many of the smaller islands were connected to their larger neighbours by causeways and when most of the roads were single track. Having become immediately besotted, I spent most holidays walking all over the islands and for a number of years lived in North Harris, where my then wife and I ran a guest house.
Today, I’m a city dweller, but still make frequent forays to the Hebrides, reconnecting with the wilderness and catching up with old friends.
Q – What initially inspired the creation of the Hebridean Way route?
A – Back in the first years of the 21st century, Dr Peter Clarke, a long time enthusiast of the Hebrides and now a trustee of the Gatliff Trust that maintains low cost hostels on the islands, set himself the challenge of walking 370km (230 miles) from the Butt of Lewis to Heillanish Point, the most southerly point of Vatersay, using existing paths and old tracks wherever possible. In his book, The Outer Hebrides: The Timeless Way, he describes the excitement of rediscovering some of these long-forgotten stretches of path, the interest of walking through islands rich in antiquarian sites, and the joys of exploring an area of outstanding natural beauty. On the downside, he found that he had to walk half of his journey on roads.
Dr Clarke’s unsuppressed enthusiasm for the route led to it being included in the outdoor access strategy of the Western Isles Council; but it was not until 2012 that additional funding was received from the European Rural Development Fund and Scottish Natural Heritage. This enabled work to begin on identifying a route that would make the best use of existing paths, would cover a variety of terrain and antiquities, and could be achieved within budget. The resulting trail incorporates pre-existing paths, some of Dr Clarke’s pioneering route and many miles of new paths and stands as a tribute to those involved, from the politicians who seized the vision right through to those who shifted tonnes of rock and aggregate.
Q – Some may not have planned to venture as far as the Outer Hebrides. How would you say the Hebridean Way introduces the islands to someone that’s never experienced them, and what should they expect?
A – The big attraction of The Hebridean Way is that you are in wild country and never that far from the sea. The route crosses 10 islands linked by six causeways and two ferries – and if these numbers do not appear to add up it is because the so-called ‘Isles’ of Harris (Na Hearadh) and Lewis (Leòdhas) share the same landmass. The stunning landscape, varied geology, exceptional wildlife and numerous antiquities of the Outer Hebrides are truly awe-inspiring. The Outer Hebrides retain a distinctive culture too, with Gaelic often spoken as a first language in many communities.
Q – How does the Hebridean Way differ from the other LDPs in Scotland?
A – Unlike many other long-distance paths, there is considerable variety along the way. The terrain can change rapidly. In the morning you can be walking across a wild moor, then in the afternoon along a blindingly white beach beside turquoise seas. There are also cultural differences. The islands at the southern end of the chain are predominantly Catholic and their communities are considerably more relaxed about religious observance on Sundays. Their leisure centres and supermarkets open on Sundays, which is in total contrast with the mainly Presbyterian islands of Harris and Lewis, where communities are far stricter in observing the Sabbath.
Q – Being Mud and Routes, our readers naturally like wild camping. Is the Hebridean Way suitable for those looking for nights under the stars too?
A – In Scotland there has long been a general presumption of access to all land unless there is a very good reason for the public to be excluded. The Land Reform Act 2003 confirmed this presumption, and walkers in Scotland now have a statutory right of access to all land including beaches and foreshores. These rights extend to wild camping so you can pitch your tent camp almost anywhere, as long as you have no motorised transport, stay no more than three to four nights and leave no trace.
However you will need to take care during the deer-stalking season, which typically runs from 1st July to 20th October, and the grouse-shooting season which runs from 12th August to 10th December.
Q – The Hebridean Way is no small undertaking, but what level of walker would you expect to be able to complete this route?
A – The Hebridean Way is 247km (155 miles) long – half as long again as the West Highland Way – so it’s perhaps not for beginners unless you are planning to split the route into two separate walks; one through Barra and the Uists and a second through Harris and Lewis.
However it is mainly a low level route. If you are walking south to north – the recommended direction with the prevailing wind behind you – the highest point comes early with a climb up to 275m over the shoulder of Beinn Tangabhal on Barra. But no need for concern; your calf muscles will have plenty of time to recover once you get to the Uists where much of the route along the Atlantic coast is virtually flat.
Q – Is it possible to tackle The Hebridean Way at any time of the year? And what time of year would you recommend walking it and why?
A – The best time to go walking in the Hebrides is between April and October, when the days are longer, the weather is at its best and the ground underfoot is likely to be drier. Late spring and early summer bring sunnier days and less likelihood of midges which are less prevalent than on the mainland due to the almost constant breeze.
Autumn and winter are a different proposition altogether. Mean monthly wind speeds are about 18mph in December and January and daily mean wind speeds over 35mph with gusts in excess of 58mph are not uncommon. At the same time, nearly half of the annual rainfall comes in the four months from October to January, with storms sometimes lasting for days at a time. Walking in such conditions would be foolishly heroic and entirely memorable.
Q – There are a number of stand-out sections to the Hebridean Way, which are your favourites?
A – I’d choose two. My first is the section across Vatersay and Barra as it contains a little bit of everything that the Outer Hebrides are famous for – high hills, white sandy beaches and flower-strewn machair.
Then I’d choose the west side of South Harris particular the section over the summit of Carran. It’s only a minor hill and is hard going up rough heather, but on a clear day you will be richly rewarded with an extensive view over the famous white shell beach at Luskentyre, Taransay and the western section of the hills of North Harris. It’s so good we used it for the cover of my guidebook.
Many thanks to Richard for his interview, The Hebridean Way Guidebook is available to buy now as a first print by Cicerone.
We’ve added Hebridean Way route to the Mud and Routes database, so you can download the full gpx for your own use along with the guiebook, and you’ll also need the appropriate OS Maps, which are: