Fiona Rintoul – writer, journalist, translator

W12 Tarbert to Hushinish

Posted on June 23rd, by admin in Travels from Tinseltown. No Comments

The tiny beach-fringed settlement of Hushinish on the north-west shore of the Isle of Harris is quite literally at the end of the road. The winding single-track B887 peters out here, its final stretch subsumed by fine, silver sand. Stationed at one of Scotland’s most westerly points, the four-house settlement has the feel of an outpost; across the sound is the now uninhabited island of Scarp; on clear days, St Kilda can be seen shimmering on the horizon from a nearby hillside path.

Hushinish is separated from the main Tarbert to Stornoway road by a majestic landscape of rugged mountain and sodden bog, punctuated by teeming fishing lochs and tumbling, peat-reddened burns. Here the eagle soars, the stag bells – and the feisty W12 minibus bounces gamely past on week days. For Hushinish, though remote, is very accessible, lying only 46 miles from Stornoway, the largest town on the Western Isles archipelago with a population of about 6,000.

The W12 bus is absolutely the best way to get to Hushinish. Glance out the window as it rounds one of the B887’s many high-perched hairpin bends and you’ll see why. The views south across Loch a Siar – turquoise on sunny days, a moodier teal when the heavens glower – are magnificent. But, as I know to my cost, it’s hard to appreciate the glittering beaches of Taransay and South Harris if you’re slumped exhausted over bicycle handlebars or grasping a car steering wheel, white-knuckled after a near-death encounter with a kamikaze sheep on a Monegasque-style bend. Better to let a seasoned pro, used to transporting the island’s children, post and supplies back and forth, take the strain.

The W12 bus is also ideal for day walkers who want to take on one of the many satisfying routes among the Harris hills that lie off the B887. Do check timings before setting off, though. A good source is Walking on Harris and Lewis by Richard Barrett, published by Cicerone Press.

Roadside surprises

The bus journey to Hushinish starts off innocently enough at the pier in Tarbert, Harris’s main settlement. Reached from the Scottish mainland via the Isle of Skye and a 1hr 40 mins ferry journey across the Minch, Tarbert itself may seem remote to mainland dwellers. There is, though, a certain familiarity to its neat Victorian architecture, small shopping street and two well appointed hotels.

This feeling of familiarity persists when the W12 bus turns on to the main A859 road to Stornoway, the principal town on the Isle of Lewis. Yes, the views are breath-taking as you head along the coast from Tarbert to Ardhasaig and the steep, forbidding hills of North Harris come into view. But the A859 is a normal A road. It’s not until the W12 bus veers off the A859 on to the cliff-hugging, switchback B887 at the foot of Clisham – the highest peak in the Outer Hebrides at 2,621 feet and part of the hill range that separates the ‘islands’ of Harris and Lewis (there’s no water involved) – that the fun really begins.

The bus winds first through the settlement of Bunavoneader, where you may be surprised to notice a towering chimney down by the shore. This is all that remains of a whaling station established in 1904 by a Norwegian company. The station was taken over in 1922 by Lord Leverhulme, then owner of Lewis and Harris, but his plans to expand the operation failed and it closed shortly after his death in 1925. It was revived briefly in 1950 to support a Norwegian whaler, closing definitively two years later.

As the W12 bus climbs out of Bunavoneader another surprise waits in ambush. Between the road and the shore, in the middle of a rocky bog, lies an artificial grass tennis court. Coaching is to be had in Bunavoneader, and the court is ‘available for hire every day of the year except Sundays’, according to a roadside sign – a toned-down version of a previous one that read ‘No Sunday play’.

Harris and Lewis are traditional strongholds of the Free Church of Scotland, and the Sabbath is still observed here much more strictly than in the rest of Scotland. Elderly, black-clad ladies waiting at the roadside to be transported to church used to be a feature of island Sundays, though they are dying out, and some relaxation – notably Sunday ferry sailings – has seeped in.

Eagle’s territory

From Bunavoneader, the B887 climbs vertiginously before twisting into a helter-skelter, gear-crunching descent to Loch Miavaig. Sròn Scourst, a strikingly steep rock buttress, can be seen straight ahead. Harris is in fact home to the UK’s largest overhanging cliff, Sròn Uladail. It lies several miles up the next glen at Amhuinnsuidhe but cannot be seen from the road.

At the head of Loch Miavaig is a path that leads to the North Harris Eagle Observatory, a timber building with a turf roof. According to the North Harris Trust, Harris has one of the highest densities of breeding golden eagles in Europe with about 20 pairs resident on the island. White-tailed eagles are also regularly seen in Glen Miavaig, especially in winter, while moorland birds, such as the merlin, golden plover, greenshank, stonechat and wheatear, frequent the glen in summer.

If you get out at Miavaig to make the 30-minute walk to the eagle observatory, you may then wish to continue along the path past Sròn Scourst to Loch Boisimid, enjoying excellent views on to the east faces of Oireabhal (2,172 feet) and Ullabhal (2,162 feet). On the way back you can take a westerly detour off the path to look for the three well preserved beehive huts that lie at the foot of Sròn Smearasmal. The huts were probably temporary summer dwellings used by crofters when they were grazing cattle in the area.

Into the Harris hills

From Miavaig, the road climbs again passing the red-painted Cliasmol primary school, which closed in 2008, then Cliasmol itself. As the road corkscrews back down to sea level, another surprise awaits: the white gates of Amhuinnsuidhe castle. You may laugh, or possibly cry, when the bus turns into the manicured castle grounds and the Scottish baronial pile, built in 1865 for the Earl of Dunmore, heaves into view. Nowhere do the architectural excesses of the aristocracy look more out of place than against the craggy backdrop of the Harris hills.

Beyond the castle is a small settlement, which used to sport a post office shop, now sadly closed. The only amenities along the B887 are at Hushinish itself, where there is a toilet block.

Amhuinnsuidhe provides an excellent starting point for an ascent of hills such Tiorga Mòr (2,228 feet) and Ullabhal. Get off the W12 bus just before the castle grounds at the track road leading to the hydro-electric power station in Gleann Ulladail. Very fit walkers may consider a backpacking expedition from Amhuinnsuidhe to Loch Reasort, possibly via Tiorga Mòr and Tiorga Beag. Alternatively, a path leads from the power station as far as Loch Uladail beneath the impressive buttress of Sròn Uladail – a manageable out and return route.

The W12 bus now heads along the final stretch, dipping and climbing extensively along the way. The road to Hushinish covers a majestic swathe of one of the most rugged landscapes in Europe, but journey’s end is the jewel in the crown. With its lush machair grazing lands, sparkling waters and magnificent silver sand beach, Hushinish, which has a permanent population of just four, is a breathtakingly beautiful spot.

Published in Bus Pass Britain, Bradt Travel Guides, autumn 2013

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *