By Eilidh Whiteford
Whether it’s an action-packed day of adventure or an exploration of flora and fauna, the landscapes and shores of the Western Isles offer a playground like no other.
Land or sea, action or reflection, from the Butt of Lewis to the Isle of Barra, visitors can find something available to add an extra ‘wow’ to their island experience.
And what’s found can often be something of a surprise for visitors – such as the £250,000 Olympic-scale Harris Gun Club range, tucked away within the woods of Aline Forest, on the road between Stornoway and Tarbert.
Dating back to the early 1900s, the Harris Gun Club is one of the oldest on the isles and offers the region’s widest variety of clay target shooting with a range of Olympic disciplines catered for, including Double Trap.
Open to both competitive and recreational shooters of all ages and abilities, and registered with the Scottish Clay Target Association (SCTA), the Club ensures that there is always a SCTA Trained Range Safety Officer on hand when it’s open.
And already historic, the club made further history in 2015 when it hosted the Scottish Clay Target Association’s Scottish Universal Trench Championships.
For those seeking further adventure, there’s no shortage of local instructors and guides ready and waiting to share their island secrets.
In Castlebay, Isle of Barra, Clearwater Paddling’s Chris and Katie Denehy provide twenty-years of kayaking experience with a host of different packages and activities; from sea kayaking tours of Barra and neighbouring islands to wild camping kayak tours, kayak day trips, coasteering adventures and a chance to snorkel with seals for a day. (www.clearwaterpaddling.com)
Moving north through the Hebrides and Benbecula Freedive and Fitness (www.freedive-uk.com) also offers sea based activities with personal trainer and guide Tom Rossi, including snorkelling and freediving.
Visitors can also explore on land and in sea with the mountain biking Ride/ Dive combo; catch dinner spear-fishing; or find out what happens under the waves day or night with dusk snorkels, night dives and wild swimming; as well as boat trips and seal spotting.
And in Lochmaddy, North Uist, the Uist Outdoor Centre (www. uistoutdoorcentre.co.uk) boasts a Nordkapp Trust ‘expedition centre’ accreditation – one of only two found in the UK, and one of eight worldwide – which recognises centres of excellence in unique sea kayaking areas.
Principal instructor Niall Johnston can take visitors snorkelling, powerboating and rubber tubing; along with rock climbing and abseiling activities, and hill and coastal-guided walks give the chance to spot some of the islands wildlife.
Similarly, the Scaladale Centre (www.scaladale-centre.co.uk) in Ardvourlie, Isle of Harris, has a wealth of outdoor activities, both wet and dry, to keep the whole family entertained during a visit to the Western Isles.
Owned and operated by the Lewis and Harris Youth Club’s Association, the popular Centre not only takes groups and individuals abseiling, kayaking, coasteering, rock-climbing, and mountain biking; but also presents gorge scrambling activities, raft building, dingy sailing, power boat trips and a chance to try archery.
And in the southern end of Harris, situated at the Pier in Leverburgh, the Harris Outdoor Adventure Centre also offers opportunities for island visitors.
With the Sound of Harris on its doorstep, the Centre is ideally located for guided kayak and canoe trips to explore the local coastline. And it provides archery lessons. You can also sail on land as the Centre offers wind-karting – or ‘X-Sailing’ – sessions along the vast plains of nearby Scarista beach; and taking to the Harris hills couldn’t be easier with mountain bike hire also available. (www.harrisoutdoor.co.uk)
In the Isle of Lewis, Derek Macleod of Hebridean Surf (www.hebrideansurf.co.uk) offers lessons for beginners, novice surfers and those of an advanced level, as well as equipment hire. And as well as delivering lessons and equipment hire, SurfLewis (www.surflewis. co.uk), run by local experienced instructor Rodney ‘Cheggs’ Jamieson, also offers Stand-Up Paddleboard tours and instruction – a fantastic way to explore the island coastlines.
Stornoway-based Segway Hebrides (www. segwayhebrides.com) are the folks to see for an experience that’s a little bit difference, whether it be a Segway tour of Lews Castle Grounds, or further afield for a bit of off-road Segwaying as part of the company’s adventure tours.
Alternatively, why not step back a bit in time and explore the islands on horseback? The Lochside Arena (www.lochsidearena.org), just outside Stornoway in Lewis, can help with any horserelated enquiries; and in East Camp, Balivanich, on the Isle of Benbecula, Uist Community Riding School (www.ridehebrides.org) is the home of horse and pony riding in Uist, Benbecula and Barra.
And finding your way through the Western Isles by bike just got a bit easier as the new Hebridean Cycle Way was launched in March this year by record-breaking adventurer and cyclist Mark Beaumont, who completed the challenge of cycling the length of the island chain in just 24hours.
The 185mile route passes through 10 islands, linked by a combination of causeways and ferries, as it covers the landscapes from Vatersay in the south to the Butt of Lewis in the north.
The mobile bike repair workshop of BeSpoke Bicycle Repairs and Upgrades (www.bespokebicycles.net) are on hand within Lewis and Harris to assist in any bikebreakdowns.
And throughout the Western Isles, the opportunity to hire a cycle – for anything from a few hours to a few days – is available through a number of operators, including Barra Bike Hire (www.barrabikehire.co.uk); Rothan Cycles (www.rothan.scot) in South Uist, and Bike & Hike Hebrides (www.bikehebrides.com) in Lewis and Harris.
Bike & Hike Hebrides also have a range of sit-on-top kayaks for hire, and operator Jonny Murray can be on hand to give guidance and help plan and guide hiking tours and trips within the Outer Hebrides.
It may be argued that exploring on foot is one of the best ways to get a real sense of place – and the knowledge and experience of a local guide can often make sure you get the most from your visit.
Harris resident Mike Briggs, of Mike Briggs Sport, is one such hill walking guide – and from his and wife Peggy’s home in Bunabhainneadar, Harris, the couple also offer yoga, Swiss ball and pilates classes; as well as running the most remote tennis court in Britain! (www. mikeandpeggybriggs. co.uk)
Out and About Tours (www.tourguide-hebrides.co.uk), run by Chris Ryan and based in Great Bernera, offer not only walking tours, but also coach party sightseeing trips; and Hebridean Excursions (www.hebrideanexcursions.co.uk) deliver both full and half-day tours of Lewis, Harris, the Uists and Barra.
Community owned and run, The North Harris Trust (www.northharris.org) ensure visitors get to see the very best of the Harris landscape and wildlife with a series of guided walks – including stops at the North Harris Eagle Observatory to spot some of the 20 Golden Eagle pairs residing in the area, as well as sometimes catching a glimpse of Sea Eagles. The remote and rugged natural landscapes of the Western Isles are home to a wide range of wild and birdlife, as well as a plethora of moorland plants.
Merlins, golden plovers, greenshanks, stonechats, wheatears, red grouse and ravens are regularly seen in the island skies, and on land popular spots include mountain hares, red deer and otters to name but a few native mammals. Hebrides Wildwatch Tours (www.hebrideswildwatch.co.uk) are run by two locals with a massive interest in all things wild – Russell Hird and Iain Watson – and the pair take clients on three or five hour walking tours; the destination of which is usually determined by what species visitors wish to see.
Meanwhile tour guide Maggie Smith, from Achmore, Lewis, is ready to share her local knowledge of Gaelic, island culture and stories with those interested in finding out more, as well as offering photography tuition; and Dr Carol Knott, from Point, Lewis, is a specialist archaeological tour guide. More information on both can be found at www.visitouterhebrides.co.uk.
Dave Godwin, of Dave’s Hebridean Archaeological Tours (www.hebrideanarchaeologicaltours.com) also offers private tours of sites of interest in Lewis and Harris for up to six people, with a Land-Rover 110 ensuring tourists can reach some of the more off-the-beaten track destinations. Uist tours can also be arranged through Dave.
But back to the sea and Barra Fishing Charters (www.barrafishingcharters.com) run by Donald B Macleod, gives the chance of private charters, neighbouring island trips, and wildlife spotting tours, as well as fishing trips. South Uist Fishing (www.southuistfishing.com) are able to give information about the best spots for hill and machair fishing, as well as sea pool fishing in Benbecula. And North Uist Angling Club (www.nuac.co.uk) can ensure ‘tight-lines’ for visitors to the islands.
Hebridean Fish ‘n’ Trips (www.hebridesfishntrips) is operated by Lewis MacKenzie, delivering private charters for up to five people along the east coast of Lewis with fishing for sustainable species Pollack and Mackerel; as well as the chance to lift lobster pots, visit mussel and salmon farms and, if lucky, spot marine wildlife like basking sharks, porpoises, puffins, gannets, dolphins and seals.
On the west coast of Lewis, Islands of Adventure (www.islands-of-adventure.co.uk) operates from Great Bernera with a high-class speedboat, 15m fishing boat, sailing yacht ‘Shangri-La’, and Kingfisher 26 Lobster creel boat all available for visitors.
A constant draw for both visitors and island residents is the UNESCO World Dual Heritage Site of the St Kilda archipelago. Sea Harris (www.seaharris.com), operating from Leverburgh takes visitors to St Kilda with their vessel ‘Enchanted Isle.’
Operating from Uig, Isle of Lewis, Seatrek boasts two nine metre RIBs (rigid inflatable boats), the ‘Seatrek 2’ and ‘Connachar,’ as well as Interceptor 42 vessel ‘Lochlann’ which ventures to St Kilda and the Flannan Isles. To find out more, check out the Seatrek website at www.seatrek.co.uk.
And also operating from Maivaig pier, Uig, is Island Cruising (www.island-cruising.com) whose converted fishing vessel mv Cuma is owned and skippered by Murdo ‘Murdanie’ Macdonald. The mv Cuma was initially constructed for scientific marine research, but later converted and upgraded for commercial diving and cruising charters.
And based in Tarbert, Isle of Harris, there is Kilda Cruises (www.kildacruises.co.uk) which runs constant boat trips to St Kilda and can also provide trips to other islands such as the Shiant Isles, the Flannan Isles, Rona and the Monach Isles