#28 – “Over the sea to Skye” (and Harris) …and no midges!

"Travelling hopefully” in Wester Ross on the way to Ullapool - Skye in the background

The lad serving diesel at the garage in Tairbert on the Island of Harris had asked me if we were on holiday.  “Yes,” I replied, “but we’re heading back today on the afternoon ferry.”  “You’ll be lucky,” said the lad, laughing.  As another gust of wind rocked the van, I could see that he might have a point…

Looking back to a stormy mainland on the way out to Lewis and Harris

Robert Louis Stevenson once said, “Little do ye know your own blessedness; for to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive … ”   This famous quotation echoes the Taoist saying, “The journey is the reward”, and never were truer words spoken.  Our journey was to the islands of Skye and Harris in the Northwest of Scotland, an area where the winter months are characterised by strong winds and bad weather, whilst the summers are blighted by the curse of the Scottish Midge.

The An Cliseam Horseshoe

The plan, then, was simple – go in May when the worst of the bad weather is past and the midges are not yet active.  Those reading who have never encountered the Scottish Midge could never imagine how such a small insect can cause such misery, but suffice it to say that one in five working days are lost in the Scottish Forestry industry over the summer months.  Equally, most readers would find it hard to believe that a storm could last several days.

An Cliseam from the southeast

The original plan was to go to Skye first, grab a couple of hill days, then carry on to Harris.  The plan was severely dented from the beginning by high winds, making walking at sea level unpleasant – the hills were out of the question.  The solution was to reverse the trip, heading up to Ullapool over a couple of days, before crossing over to Lewis and driving down to Harris – the time spent travelling would allow the winds to settle down a bit.  At least, that was the plan!

The An Cliseam Horseshoe from near Tairbeart

The reality was different, however.  My main objective on Harris was An Cliseam, which is the highest peak in the Outer Hebrides, and I had a great route researched, planned and mapped – all I needed was a day of reasonable weather.  Similarly I had my sights set on a section of the Cuillin Ridge on Skye, to be collected on the way home.  After all, the strong winds wouldn’t keep it up for two weeks…

The An Cliseam hills from ruined cottage near Tairbeart

Which is, of course, exactly what happened, though we didn’t know at the time that most of the northern part of the UK was also being buffeted about by the winds.  Still, we did have a good trip, and at one point a saying from my days in the Royal Marines came to mind – “Time spent in reconnaissance is never wasted.”   When the sun came out the views were great, and ‘Mist’ our Border Collie had a great time on low level walks.

Windswept Border Collie - 'Mist' having a good time!

The lad at the garage in Tairbert was dead right, with the ferry cancelled due to the high winds.  We accepted the situation and opened another bottle of red wine.  It seems that in this case the journey really was the reward.   At least there were no midges – apparently they don’t like horizontal rain.

The ferry to Uig on Skye - M.V. Hebrides a day late

Sun at last, but still blowing - Staffin on Skye on the way home

p.s. Watch out for a return match, possibly in September before the worst of the winter weather and when the midges aren’t as active…!

Text and images © Paul Shorrock

About Paul Shorrock

I've been mucking about in the mountains for longer than I care to mention. I started out by walking my local hills, then went on to rock climbing, mountaineering and skiing. Still doing it, and still getting a buzz. I'm now sharing the fun, through my guided walking business (Hillcraft Guided Walking) and by writing routes for other publishers, mainly Walking World and Discovery Walking Guides. Just to make sure I keep really busy, I am also currently a member of my local mountain rescue team.
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4 Responses to #28 – “Over the sea to Skye” (and Harris) …and no midges!

  1. conjensen says:

    Great post Paul. You forgot to mention the mosquitoes which back up the midges. I think of them as cavalry that come in with lances levelled when the infantry have got you softened up!

  2. Hahaha…
    Thinking about it, I don’t think I’ve ever had problems with mosquitoes in the Highlands – Possibly because they’ve all been eaten by the midges 🙂

  3. They never used to cancel the older ferries due to high winds – they must have been much more stable!

    Love the Outer Hebrides – I was stationed there for 4.5 years in the Army and really missed the place when I had to go back to the mainland. Done most of the high stuff in the Uists and Harris but still haven’t managed Clisham.

    We were on Skye that week and the weather was horrendous – really bad gales and heavy rain (although it was pretty dry on the north of the island so we spent more time in the Quiraing than the Cuillin 🙂
    Carol.

  4. Hi Carol,
    I’d noticed your army connection in your blog – since you were posted to the Hebrides, I’m guessing that must have been Benbecula? So, ex Royal Artillery then, or perhaps attached? PTI?
    I was in the Royal Marines for almost seven years, with a good deal of that with 45 Commando, both as a lance corporal and lieutenant – I did two weeks mountain training on Skye in October 1976 (blimey, am I that old!) as a junior officer, and my company commander was also a keen mountain man, so the whole company did most of the Cuillin Ridge in that two weeks – we also did a fascinating ‘advance to contact’ exercise up Coruisk, with the RM Mountain Leader Cadre playing enemy and firing pot-shots at us! I would guess it’s something like the lads in Afghanistan are facing, except that our enemy was firing blanks, and it wasn’t as warm!
    Paul

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