Our girl Sophie's field notes from the Outer Hebrides, looking from the inside out.
A good friend once told me that when you fly somewhere it takes some time before your soul catches up with you. So, I decided I would travel by land the whole way, from the small town of Lahinch on the West Coast of Ireland all the way up to this remote cluster of islands on the West Coast of Scotland. That way I could witness the changing landscapes and leave a lighter carbon foot print behind me as I went.
Day 1: Glasgow – Isle of Skye
The anticipation of a road trip is always the most exciting part. We all stood there patiently, waiting for the road to rise up and meet us with open arms. Our chariot awaited. She stood steady and wise. I felt as if this was not her first road trip, nor would it be her last. We were just the passengers of her next adventure. She had probably seen these faces many times before; the wide eyed, the excited, the curious, the impatient, all craving unpredictability and impulse.
Slowly we made our way out of Glasgow heading north through Fort William and Glencoe towards the Isle of Skye. Thick forests rose up before us and plunged us down, deep into bottomless lochs and valleys. I sat looking out the window trying desperately to take it all in the blink of an eye. Eventually we came to the edge of the land and the beginning of our island adventure. We picked up some last supplies and crossed over the bridge to the Isle of Skye where we would spend our first night. The rain came down heavy and the sea mist started to set in. I began to understand how these islands could feel hostile to those who ventured upon them.
Day 2: Isle of Skye – South Uist
The morning was damp and dreary today and the reality of van-life kicked in. However, this feeling quickly faded as soon as we hit the road. A few miles along, we approached a crossroads; one wide and forgiving following the coast and the other narrow and winding along a steep ravine. We hesitated, looking at each other knowing full well the path we would choose.
As we trundled up the green valley, we came to the top of the ridge staring down at emerald cliffs. We stopped the van and got out to feel the morning mist settle on our skin. We breathed deep, filling our lungs with fresh, Hebridean air. Content with this single moment in time, I began to understand what we had come for.
We just made it to the ferry port to catch our boat to the Isle of Lewis. I stood on the upper deck and felt the wild Atlantic wind rattle my bones. The promise of adventure called.
The metal bow of the ferry grinded up the slipway. We had reached the isle of North Uist. Roaming aimlessly for hours, we searched for our home for the night. Eventually we pulled up to some dunes and jumped out the van impatient to see what lay beyond: finally we had made it to the sea.
Small blue lines rolled in and we blinked twice and looked at one another and grinned. The race was on to suit up and get in the water for the first surf of the trip. Sitting out back waiting for the first set to come, a seal came up for air. He looked straight through me, wondering why I was sitting there in his corner of paradise looking straight back at him. These wonderful moments of curiosity between wilderness and humanity I will never forget.
Day 3 - North Uist - Harris
We woke up early this morning with smoky hair and sleepy eyes. The new day promised sun and small waves. I took a run at dawn keen to explore the coastline for the first time. As everyone began to stir, i sat with a coffee in the dunes waiting for the tide to go out and the waves to roll in. As the sand banks started to reveal, small waves pushed in and a few of us headed out. The novelty of no boots is never forgotten by a cold wave surfer. We were so grateful as we looked down at our toes through the bottle blue water.
After a morning of fun waves, we reluctantly packed up camp and set off again, onto the next adventure. It’s hard to move on from a spot sometimes, going back into the unknown, will the next spot even come close to the last? Will we ever find anywhere as perfect as this?
We took a small ferry this time to the Isle of Harris, the southern part of the largest island in Scotland. We passed through a magnificent sound of fragmented land and sea. Small islands rose up from the deep, blue waters and sea gulls chased the stern of the boat. It was getting late in the afternoon by this point, so as soon as we landed on Harris we headed straight for the beach to catch the last rays of the rare sunshine and hopefully the remnants of the last swell.
As soon as we got to the beach, we grabbed a board and ran into the ocean. The sea was glassy and the water ran off us like oil as our hands pulled through the water. The waves were easy to catch, gently picking us up and setting us back down again. It was one of those sessions with big pauses, giving you time to breathe deep and appreciate those moments of stillness. We didn’t get to the campsite till late this evening, all squeezing into the Hymer feeling hungry yet alive.
Tonight I’m sleeping in the tipi and there’s a storm brewing.
Day 4 - Harris - Lewis and Harris
This morning the sea mist had set in again, erasing any hopes of summer. We sipped on coffee round the stove, content and thoughtful of our journey so far.
As we headed up into the hills the mist got thicker and the moss greener. We skimmed stones on hidden lakes and brewed more coffee on the kelly kettle to warm our bones. The journey felt long today, following the white lines at the edges of the road though valleys and across moors. Then, there it was, appearing out of nowhere, our home for the night between sand and sea.
Cliffs fall into the ocean and part to reveal a secret beach. We pitched the tipi beyond the dunes on the beach. Well rehearsed in the art of tipi building by now, it didn’t take us long to set up camp and make a fire. There is nothing quite like an open fire. Smoke billowed, bringing tears to our eyes yet we stared into the flames, mesmerised and sleepy.
Day 5- Lewis and Harris
My head was slightly heavier than the other mornings when I woke today so I decided to walk up to a small waterfall on one side of the cove that i had spotted yesterday. Clambering up amongst the borders and the heather, I eventually reached the summit. I looked at the water tumbling beneath me and plunged my face into the stream. It felt good to feel alive. I looked out across the cove below and I could see everyone slowly awakening, probably taking their first sips of coffee and wondering what the day would bring. I ran back down the hillside, excited to tell all of my morning adventures.
We made breakfast on the stove and ate it on the beach. Everyone ate quietly, our days on the road were numbered, we were all wondering how it would be to go back to normality again. To sleep in a bed in a house made of bricks. To cook in a kitchen and eat at a table. To race against every hour of the day everyday.
We had a long way to drive today to get to our last stop on the trip up near Stornaway. We picked up more supplies on the way and a big bag of mussels to cook on the fire. After many naps and turns in the drivers seat listening to nostalgic 90’s playlists we came to the north west coast of the island. It isn’t as beautiful here as the more southern parts of Harris and Lewis. There are more houses and the land is more barren. We checked one of the better known surf spots incase there was still some swell left but to no avail. We kept driving north up the coast, determined to find the perfect spot to stay on our last night. Finally, we came to a patch of grass over looking a beach and to our surprise, some small waves. Without setting up camp, we all grabbed a board and ran down the cliffs to the beach. It felt good to get in the sea after a long day of driving.
After what seemed like hours in the water, we headed back up to the van and pitched the tipi for the very last time. The promise of another beautiful sunset was dampened by the sea mist that soon rolled in leaving us to cook in the rain. It was dark before we ate, all packed round the table in the van for the last time. We grinned at each other and knew that we were the lucky ones.
Words by Sophie Bradford | Photography by David Gray & James Bowden