Lofoten Islands, Norway - Dave Banks

Hebrides Visit

Having been to the Outer Hebrides 3 times before, but only in June, I had always wanted to visit at a different time of year. Elaine hasn't been to the Outer Hebrides before and the autumn probably isn't the best time of year for your first visit, summer's the best time, as the machair is in full bloom and the days are long. We rented a holiday cottage six miles south of Stornoway at Crosbost, for £241 for the week. Some hotels were still charging around £1000, so we got a bargain.

We had decided on the first week of November, as all school holidays were over by then. We would drive up to Uig in Skye, and get the CalMac ferry, the MV Hebrides, from Uig to Tarbert in Harris, then have about an hours drive to the cottage.

Some basic facts about the ship:

Year built:		2001
Passenger capacity:	612
Car capacity:		90
Gross Tonnage:		5,506
Length:			99m
Beam:			15.8m
Speed:			16.5 knots

More details about the ferry can be found here, and the ferrys current position can be found on the Vessel Finder website.

I did a bit of research on the internet and created a list of places to visit and for photo locations that I haven't been to before. Some of those locations didn't work out, as the weather conspired against us. Strong winds were the main problem, and overcast skies dashed any hope of aurora or Milky Way shots at the Calanais Standing Stones.

With a week to go until the holiday, the weather wasn't looking particularly promising. It was forecast the tail end of Hurricane Oscar would hit the British Isles roughly when we would be sailing. A close eye was kept on the Norwegian long term forecast and the CalMac website for any possible disruption to services.

The Norwegian long term forecast was:

Sat: 	Sunshine and showers, 18-22 knot winds
Sun:	Sunshine and showers, 23-27 knot winds
Mon:	Overcast, 3-7 knot winds
Tue:	Heavy rain, 13-17 knot winds
Wed:	Cloudy with sunny spells, 13-17 knot winds
Thu:	Sunny with broken cloud, 8-12 knot winds 
Fri:	Cloudy with sunny spells, 13-17 knot winds
Sat:	Heavy rain, 3-7 knot winds

Temperatures would range from 9C to 13C, but due to the strong winds, it was a lot colder. The gloves and hats I took for potential night time shots of the aurora were sometimes required during the day instead. On this occasion, I would say even the Norwegian weather service, which are normally pretty accurate, didn't get it right.

Norwegian longterm weather forecast for Lewis

With just 2 days to go, we received a text mesage from CalMac saying the scheduled ferry departure from Uig at 18:15 on Saturday was being brought forward to 14:30. This meant our planned 10:00 departure from Perth and a leisurely drive to Skye would now become a 07:30 departure and potentially a more difficult drive in bad weather. We weren't even sure if the ferry would sail. Not a great start to the holiday. It was looking like the supply of sea sickness tablets from the Shetland trip, would come in handy again.

Day 1

Sat 3rd November

With nothing posted on the CalMac website, and no further text messages, we departed Perth at 07:15 and just had to hope the weather didn't worsen. The weather on the way up to Skye wasn't as bad as had been forecast. It was blustery wind and rain all the way, the rain was heavy at times. The only bad part of the journey was between Loch Garry and Loch Cluanie where the road climbs and becomes more exposed, surface water on the road requiring us to really slow down. We were making good progress, so we weren't concerned. By about 11:00 we were on Skye, the weather looked like it was improving slightly and we were on schedule, things were looking good. We were just 5 miles south of Portree when a text message came in to say the ferry had been cancelled, and our sailing was re-scheduled for 16:30 on Sunday. The race was now on to find somewhere to stay for the night. A lot of B & B's were closed for the season, and hotel rooms in Portree were going fast, so options were limited. We managed to get a room in the Royal Hotel in Portree overlooking the harbour.

With accommodation sorted, we got some lunch in a nearby cafe and then headed to the library in Portree where Elaine used the afternoon to check the census records on micro-fiche for her family tree, I used the time to look at books of old photographs of Skye and the Hebrides.

Day 2

Sun 4th November

The wind was much stronger than yesterday and the rain heavier, but more showery.

We used the morning to explore the Talisker and Eynort areas of Skye, as that was where some of Elaine's ancestors came from.

We headed up to Portree to get some provisions for our holiday cottage, everywhere would be closed on our arrival in Harris, as it was a Sunday.

We took the scenic route from Portree to Uig. This would help pass some of the time and allowed Elaine to see parts of Skye she hadn't seen before. The scenic route took us via the Stor, Lilt Falls, Kilt Rock and the Quiraing, then across the moor to Uig. Even after stopping to take photos at these locations we arrived in Uig at 13:27. We were far too early for the ferry, but there were still 4 other vehicles in front of us in the queue.

We passed some of the time in the Pier Cafe, but there is only so much coffee you can drink. The ferry arrived late at 16:00, and had to refuel. Refuelling took an hour, it seemed like an eternity. The first cars didn't start boarding until 17:13, we didn't board until 17:24. It had been a long wait.

All the HGV's were lashed down, the crew must have expected a rough crossing.

We left Uig at 17:40, 1Hr 10min later than scheduled. It was dark, so that posed a bit of a problem for me. I'm not a good sailor, if I can relate the motion I feel to what I can see, I am fine. If I can't do that, then within a couple of minutes I feel ill. Staying outside wasn't an option, so I just sat inside with my eyes closed, I could feel the ferry pitch and roll, but I was fine. The time passed reasonably quickly.

The ferry made good progress and we arrived on Harris at 19:20, and we disembarked at 19:28. I had survived the crossing with no ill effect. I had forgotten that the road signs are predominately in Gaelic, unlike other places where they are bi-lingual. You can easily work out what they say.

We went to the Hebridean Hotel, a few hundred yards from the ferry terminal, for our evening meal before heading north to find our rented cottage. Even though it was dark, I remembered parts of the journey from my previous visits, but the strong wind and rain showers didn't make the journey any easier. Although I knew the bulk of the route, Elaine programed the Sat-Nav for the final part of our journey to Crosbost. That didn't stop us getting lost, and we had to phone the cottage owner for directions. It turned out there are 2 cottages with the same name in Crosbost and the Sat-Nav had taken us to the wrong one, we were about half a mile out. We eventually arrived at our accommodation at 21:50.

The cottage was good, it was basically an extension to the owners own home. It was compact, nicely decorated, warm and comfortable and had everything we would need for the week. We would quite happily stay there again.

Day 3

Mon 5th November

We woke up late, about 9:10. There was no wind, the rain was off and there was a bit of brightness in the sky, even though it was still overcast.

We left the cottage at 11:10 and headed to Calanais Standing Stones. Looking south towards the mountains on Harris, we could see it was raining down there, and the wind was blowing it north. When we arrived at Calanais, we had the place to ourselves. That allowed us to get photographs without having to wait for people to get out of the way. The plan to visit the nearby sites of Calanais II & III was cancelled as the rain we saw over the Harris mountains approached.

We went to the Dun at Carloway a few miles up the road. Again, we had time to get photos before the rain caught up with us.

We continued north and went to the Norse Mill & Kiln. We managed to get some decent photos, just as we were leaving it started spitting with rain.

Again we continued north and went up to the Blackhouse at Arnol. It was 15:00 by now, and we still hadn't had any lunch. A couple of packets of shortbread purchased from the Blackhouse visitors centre staved off some of the hunger. After the Blackhouse, we headed to Barvas, but instead of heading to the lighthouse at Ness, we turned right and went to Stornoway for an early tea, as we were now both very hungry. It was 16:45 and the light had gone, so there were no opportunities for any more photographs due to the overcast sky.

We then bought a few additional supplies and filled the car up with petrol before heading back to the cottage.

Day 4

Tue 6th November

The day started off dry with no wind, but that soon changed. The rain started as we left the cottage and was on and off all day, it was heavy at times, but it never lasted any longer than 5 minutes. The wind also got up, which made photography difficult.

We crossed the other bridge over the Atlantic to get to the island of Berneray, the island of Seil also has a bridge over the Atlantic. On Berneray there is an Iron Age House down by the beach, unfortunately it was closed for the season. I've been in it before, it is worth visiting. Walking along the beach, we could see the outline of St Kilda on the horizon.

We retraced our steps and went to Ardroil to see the Uig Chessmen sculpture then to the beach to have lunch, where we had to shelter from the wind in the sand dunes.

From there, we went to the sea stacks at Mangersta. The planned really long exposure of the sea stacks at Mangersta didn't take place due to the wind. Even a 10 second exposure was difficult enough, I had to find a sheltered spot that had been used by sheep, there were sheep droppings everywhere. I used my body as a wind break and kept the tripod low and weighted down to minimise the effects of the strong wind. Even after doing all that, you could see the bubble in the spirit level on the camera hot shoe bounce about in the wind. I'm surprised the photos actually came out.

Retracing our steps, we went back and took the loop around Bhaltos, where we watched the waves break on the sandy beach at Cliff.

Leaving Bhaltos, we joined back onto the main road and returned to Stornoway for our tea. This time we opted for a Chinese meal. By the time we headed back to the cottage, the rain was on, and it was on for the night.

Day 5

Wed 7th November

The day started off calm and drizzly, but that soon turned to rain, which was heavy at times. The wind also got up as the day went on. By mid-afternoon it was quite strong.

We went down to Harris and St. Clement's church at Rodal. We returned to Leverburgh where we had lunch in the car. It was too wet and windy to head outside.

After lunch, we headed north again. The rain was almost off, just the occasional shower. The skies had started to clear and the sun was out. Several photo opportunities were to be had from the roadside, but the waves breaking against a rocky outcrop on a sandy beach at Horgabost was too good an opportunity to miss, so we headed down there for a while. To save time I didn't change into my boots which was a bit of a mistake. With the tide quickly coming in, there would be the occasional large wave which came right up the beach. To keep my feet dry required a quick sprint up the beach to get away from it, leaving the camera on the tripod behind. There were 5 other photographers there on a photography outing also making the most of the break in the weather. They had wellington boots, so they didn't have to sprint up the beach like me.

As the light started to fade at 15:50, we continued on our journey north, where we stopped in a lay-bye for some photos of Seilebost Beach. The light had pretty well gone by the time we left at 16:20. The rain had started again, but by the time we got to Tarbert, it was off.

I grabbed a few shots of the ferry terminal as dusk set in with the Sony HX90V, before we headed to the nearby Hotel Hebrides where we had our evening meal, the food there was good. When we were having our meal, 2 old men came into the bar and started speaking Gaelic, it was the only time we heard Gaelic being spoken during our visit.

As we left for the cottage, the rain was on again, just lightly, but the wind was starting to get up. The rain was on and off throughout the journey. By the time we reached the cottage, the wind was really strong, it made opening the car door quite difficult.

Day 6

Thu 8th November

The wind was still really strong, but at least it wasn't raining.

We headed down to Hushinish Beach. There was some heavy rain on the way there, but that was passing quickly with the wind. At Hushinish, there were several heavy rain showers. The wind was exceptionally strong, making photography virtually impossible. We saw a couple of Golden Eagles on the way.

We headed to Luskentyre Beach next. We stopped off at Tarbert for petrol, at 137.9p a litre it cost £50 for just over half a tank. The rain stayed off, but the wind was even stronger and really cold. Wrapped up in hat and gloves, we took the short walk from the car park to the beach. As we approached the beach, we got the full force of the wind. We had to shelter behind the dunes to get some relief from the bitter wind, and to protect the camera tripod from its force. Even though it was cold, there were too many people on the beach and the light on the mountains was poor, so we didn't stay long.

We returned to Tarbert to visit the Harris Distillery, but the distillery tours had finished for the season, so we just had to look round the shop instead.

The ferry wasn't due in to Tarbert for another 40 minutes, so we went to the island of Scalpay to pass the time. Once we were across the bridge, we got a photo on the bridge then returned to Tarbert so I could get some photos of the ferry. We saw the ferry approaching Tarbert as we headed out, it is surprising how quickly a ferry travels when you are trying to catch it. I arrived at the terminal just as it approached. As the light had pretty well gone, any photographs would be long exposures, so I had to wait for it to dock before I could get my photos, as they were around 15 seconds long.

With the ferry photos taken, we headed to Stornoway for our tea. We opted for an Indian meal this time.

Day 7

Fri 9th November

The day started off dry, but even windier than yesterday.

We headed up to the Butt of Lewis and to Port Ness. The wind was really strong, so using the Canon 1Ds on the tripod was out of the question. I had to resort to the EOS-M. From there we headed up to the lighthouse. The wind was that strong, the car was rocking in the wind. Photography was almost impossible, as we were getting buffeted in the wind. I had to lie on the ground, as it was the only way to get photographs. Returning from the lighthouse we stopped off at Dun Eistean. This required about a mile drive on a rough track to get to it. Dun Eistean was the site of an old fort, it is basically just a small mound of earth now, but it offered a decent view back up towards the lighthouse. The fort was actually on an island, and there was a steel bridge to take you over the 50 foot high gorge that separated the island from mainland of Lewis. There was a terrible smell on the island, at first I thought it was Elaine, but she denied it and blamed the goose droppings that littered the area instead. You had to watch where you were walking as the stuff was everywhere.

We then headed south to the blackhouse village at Garenin. I had missed it on the way to the Norse Mill on Monday, so we took the opportunity to look in in the passing. By now it was 15:00 and raining heavily. Even though the place was closed for the season, we managed to get into one of the blackhouses as a member of staff was present. He took the time to tell us about the history of the blackhouses.

We returned to Stornoway via the single track over the moor called Pentland Road. It was 16:00 by now and the rain was almost off, and the light was pretty well gone due to the overcast skies. The wind was still strong, the BBC had forecast 40mph winds, but it felt stronger on the exposed moor.

I managed to grab a few photographs with the Sony HX90V of the desolate landscape and of some peat cuttings.

When we had crossed the moor, instead of turning left to head into Stornoway, we turned right at the main road and headed back to the cottage instead of eating out. After our evening meal, we tided the cottage up and packed most of our bags for the following day. The wind was getting stronger, sailings on all but 2 CalMac ferry routes had been cancelled that day. If the wind didn't drop, it looked like our ferry wouldn't be sailing tomorrow either. The cottage owner came round and said if the ferry was cancelled and we needed to stay another couple of nights, then we could. The next guests didn't arrive until Monday night. We were beginning to think we would have to take them up on their offer. The wind was forecast to drop on the Saturday, and the CalMac website was saying that the planned sailing from Tarbert to Uig was still on. As the evening went on, the wind got even stronger. Neither of us got much sleep that night because of it.

Day 8

Sat 10th November

By 05:00, it sounded like the roof was going to get blown off the cottage. It wasn't looking good for getting off the island later today. Our sailing wasn't until 11:50. By 07:30 the wind had dropped dramatically, but it was still blustery. The CalMac website was showing the Tarbert to Uig sailing was still on.

We packed the car and departed the cottage at 09:10. This gave us 1Hr 40min to get to Tarbert for the book in time, which is usually 1 hour before departure. There were several cars ahead of us in the queue. The weather was looking good, there were patches of blue sky, and the wind in Tarbert was nowhere near as strong as it was back at the cottage.

We had arrived in Tarbert at 10:35, the ferry didn't arrive until 11:15, we had boarded by 11:40 and where underway by 11:47, slightly ahead of schedule.

The crossing wasn't too rough, the ship was pitching and in the middle of the Minch, rolling a bit as well. The sea sickness tablets had come in handy. I spent all my time out on deck taking photos and admiring the view, Elaine disappeared inside in the warmth. The strong wind would blow heavy rain showers through quickly, so at times you had to seek shelter. The outline of the mountains on Harris gradually faded into the dark rain clouds as we headed towards the light over Skye, but that soon changed and by the time we approached Uig, we were back into heavy rain and barely able to make out the land.

By now it was 13:30, so we headed into Portree for a late lunch and to fill the car up with petrol for the journey home. At about 15:00, we left Portree and with it, the worst of the weather behind us as we travelled south to Spean Bridge and then east to Dalwhinnie. The journey home wasn't too bad.

Seven days, 12 hours and 1115 miles later, we were back in Perth at 19:00. The cat didn't seem overly happy to see us, he looked at me as if to say "You've decided to come back then". My brother who had been looking after him must have been spoiling him too much.

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