Out in the Outer Hebrides

Saturday 22nd September 2018

I’ve been travelling by bus around the Outer Hebrides over the last few days. What an amazing bus adventure it’s been. Scenery to die for. Never mind Coastliner 840 across the North York Moors being voted Britain’s most scenic bus route – come up to the Isle of Lewis and Harris for some seriously stunning bus scenery. And as I found on Shetland, considering the extremely low population density throughout the islands, the bus network is pretty impressive. Many English and Welsh councils could learn a thing or two.

I last visited the Outer Hebrides as recently as May when I’d planned to travel from Castlebay in the extreme south, on the island of Barra, through to Stornoway in the north, on Lewis. The journey involves five connecting buses crossing four causeways and using two ferries taking around nine hours to complete, all in a day.

However I came a cropper just under half way as I’d failed to check the tide times for the ferry between North Uist and Harris. On around hundred days a year the ferry has to operate to an amended schedule because of low tides making it impossible to make connections for the through journey in one day. I’d inadvertently chosen one of those days and ended up spending the night stranded in Lochmaddy on North Uist (luckily finding a bed in the only hotel there) before catching the morning ferry across to Skye but vowing to return and make another attempt at the journey later in the year.

This time I decided to travel southbound and carefully checked not only the bus, ferry and tide times but also the variable times for the flight back to Glasgow from Barra airport where uniquely its beach runway means flight schedules are also dependent on tide times.

All seemed good for the third week in September and as I’d also received a number of recommendations for other interesting bus journeys on Lewis and Harris I decided to make a four day leisurely trip and soak up the true Outer Hebridean Western Isles experience.

As on Shetland there are a number of bus (and coach) operators involved in bus service provision and timetables are well planned by the Council to provide excellent connections to small isolated communities off the main roads from the ‘spine’ routes. The timetables are all online and while appearing fiendish at first due to all the connection options and different day/schoolday/seasonal variations, after a while you get the hang of them and appreciate the detail they contain.

What I missed most of all is a network map – it would have been so helpful to plan out each day’s trips. The rudimentary printed timetable booklets available in Stornoway have a basic map on the cover which would have been a godsend if available on line. Even more taxing is that place names are in English on the timetables but in Gaelic on OS maps.

All the bus routes are numbered with a W prefix presumably to denote the Western Isles.

Unlike Shetland there’s no integrated ticket or day rover ticket so it worked out quite expensive to make a number of journeys each day even though the fares obviously must be subsidised. The Travel Scotland smartcard seemed to be available but there was no information about this.

Stornoway is by far the largest town; indeed the only town, with a population of around 8,000. It has a five stance bus station and impressively a Travel Shop open six full days a week with a very friendly and helpful lady. There’s a waiting area inside too, and toilets ‘please pay 30p at the counter’.

Timetables are displayed in the Travel Centre window and there’s an electronic display showing scheduled departures but nothing on four of the five bus stops. There seems to be an aversion to using timetable cases all over the Outer Hebrides which is a great shame yet commendably bus stop plates show neatly placed route numbers even in the middle of nowhere. Bus shelters are very common but all are inevitably weather beaten and many are defaced with poster remains. They don’t look inviting at all.

After catching the lunchtime W5 for the short 15 minute journey from Stornoway airport to the town centre (only £1.20) my first afternoon jaunt was the two hour circuit on circular route W2 to the western coast. Buses operate both ways round about 4-6 times each direction with a couple of evening journeys on half the circuit so not bad for the small communities.

There are two connecting services (W3 and W4) on some of the journeys. I sampled the W3 the following morning to the tiny community of Bosta on the west coast island of Bernera across the ‘Atlantic bridge’.

What an incredible remote bus terminus, and a bonus of a fascinating reclaimed Iron Age house close to the beach which had been discovered during bad storms in 1992. We’d picked up Elizabeth, the guide for the house, on the journey up to Bosta (our only passenger on the journey). She’s a real gem; giving me a half hour’s personalised commentary on how the house inhabitants would have lived in the Iron Age.

Evelyn the W3 bus driver was also a star and having pre-booked my return journey at 1215 from Bosta the previous day she duly came back just over an hour after dropping me and Elizabeth off and took just me back (stopping for photo opportunities along the way) to the connection with the W2 (meeting buses running in both directions) enabling me to return to Stornoway.

My next trip was heading south for a half an hour’s ride on the island’s main north-south spine route W10 as far as the road to Orinsay where it connects with a W9 serving small communities towards the east coast.

Four of us made the connection with one, the driver’s mum, travelling all the way almost to Orinsay. It turned out the bus driver had moved up from Crawley where he’d worked for Metrobus and had considered a transfer to Brighton & Hove. I don’t blame him for opting for driving around Lewis instead of Lewes.

On the return journey (another one that needed pre-booking the previous day) I had to swap buses at a bit of an interchange point in the middle of nowhere so the right driver did the right school run and we duly picked up half a dozen primary school children dropping them off safely at the gate of their homes.

The driver told them I was a bus inspector from London who’d come to see how well they behaved on the bus (I played the part with gusto) and we had an uncharacteristically quiet journey for a school run! Another connection back at the main road on to a northbound W10 and it was back into Stornoway again.

Through return tickets are available for these connecting journeys and the next morning I was able to buy a single ticket to cover the full journey south on route W10 to Leverburgh and even break my journey two thirds of the way down at Tarbert.

I did this to try out the recommendation of taking the Friday only late morning trip to Hushinish and back on the W11. What a fantastic bus ride to this remote west coast beauty spot. Truly stunning scenery; lots of twists and turns on what is about a ten mile long no through road alongside mountains and lochs. And just me on board paying £3.20 return.

Bizarrely the road passes through the grounds of Amhuinsuidhe castle which is privately owned although the owner apparently lives in Switzerland. Another interesting sight off the coast is the island of Taransay where the BBC1 series Castaway 2000 was filmed that year and begat all the other reality TV programmes that followed, and launched Ben Fogle’s career. We even picked up a passenger for part of the journey back, but advisedly left another waiting in the bus shelter …

Tarbert is a bit of a node for buses and also has a well stocked Visitor Information Centre displaying timetables in the window, an area for buses (and their drivers) to congregate and a timetable case devoid of timetables bus shelter.

After lunch in Tarbert I caught the early afternoon school bus (schools finish early on Fridays necessitating different timetables – careful planning is needed) W12 to the east coast spot of Rhenigidale.

Another gorgeously stunning journey and only £3.80 return. We carried just four children home but picked up a passenger on the return journey who was connecting for the W10 northbound back to Stornoway.

Whereas I returned to Tarbert and used the rest of my through ticket back on the southbound W10 hugging the west coast with its beautiful sandy bays down to Leverburgh Pier and that tidal ferry to North Uist. Naturally there’s a handy connection to the ferry which takes precisely an hour to cross. It actually docks at the extreme south of the small island of Berneray.

It always impresses me how quickly Caledonian MacBrayne ferries turnaround getting vehicles on and off in just ten minutes.

It’s also impressive to see the bus connect at Leverburgh for northbound passengers ….

…. and for me heading south, within a couple of minutes of getting off the ferry, the bus arrived to take me for the short ride to my overnight stop at Lochmaddy.

That was after a quick bus change on route to ‘right end’ buses and drivers with their respective homes for the night.

My fourth and final day caught the W16/W17 spine route south from Lochmaddy on North Uist over the causeway to Benbecula another causeway to South Uist and one more causeway to the tiny island of Eriskay for the ferry to Barra.

It’s almost a two and a half hour bus ride and it has to be said the scenery is nowhere near as stunning as on Lewis and Harris, but plenty still to see including a bus change in Benbecula which happens on every journey (one bus company runs the southern bit and another the northern end).

The nail biting part was whether we’d run out of seats as when I boarded at Lochmaddy the sixteen seater was already well loaded with luggage as well as passengers.

These minibuses aren’t designed for holidaymakers with luggage and as we got more and more full with just one seat spare, luggage ended up on laps and blocking the gangway and doorway.

We made it in good time to Eriskay slipway giving me time to note another timetable-less bus stop but then finding a set of timetables posted behind the door in the ferry waiting room – not an obvious place to look when you come off the ferry!

A fairly swift 40 minute ferry crossing across to Barra with the added bonus of dolphins swimming alongside us and a shared taxi ride for the short journey to the nearby airport brought my Hebridean adventure to an end. Although the beach take off with Loganair is a fitting finale.

Finally if you’re inspired to also make the trip to these beautiful islands a few words of advice.

Allow contingency time for the flights to Barra or Stornoway. They’re very weather dependent and prone to delays. I allowed nearly three hours on my return flights to connect at Glasgow airport (where I’m writing this now) just to be on the safe side.

Check and recheck ferry times. Especially those affected by tides!

Get to bus stops early particularly for inbound connecting routes from the outlying areas. One bus ran 15 minutes early!

Don’t expect a bus ticket on every journey – one driver hadn’t even connected up his electronic ticket machine!

If you’re limited for time it’s better to explore more of Lewis and Harris than the southern islands (scenically speaking).

And finally finally a plea to the Council: please please produce a network bus map and introduce a day ticket available on all routes.

So that’s it, my flight down to Gatwick and home awaits and I’ll be back next Spring to complete those routes yet to be ridden.

Roger French 22 September 2018

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