16 days, 12 islands, 11 ferries, 4 month old baby, 1 bongo...
We're just back from a trip in the camper van to the Outer Hebrides. We took the ferry from Mallaig, over to Castleboisdale with Calmac. Calmac do a bunch of very reasonably priced hopscotch ferry trips to allow you to do a circuit of the Outer Hebrides (and lots of other Scottish islands). We took the bongo on Hopscotch 30 for about £240, so that we only had to drive as far as Mallaig on the Scottish mainland. It's about a five hour drive from Stranraer, and with the timing of the ferry, it meant that we were able to get to the Outer Hebrides on the same day as we left Belfast, even taking lots of stops for feeding and playing with Esme.
The Hopscotch 30 doesn't go to Barra, but it's so easy to hop on another ferry once you get to the Outer Hebrides, that we added that one on too for about £30.
Barra is lovely, all white sandy beaches. Even the airport is on a beautiful long stretch of a sandy bay - a popular place with the locals for walking, until the flags go up warning that a flight is due, and every one needs to get off the runway! We camped here on our night in Barra - it was the nicest night I've ever spent at an airport!
Going north from there, you pass through six islands without having to get a ferry - Erriskay, South Uist, Benbecula, Grimsay, North Uist & Berneray, as they are all linked by causeways. The best beaches are on Berneray, and they are so quiet! It takes a bit of a hike across a muddy field to get to one of the best on the north west corner, but then you can walk for miles and miles of perfect sandy beach all to yourself.
And if you like unspoilt sandy beaches, community owned Harris is a real treat. All along the west coast is beautiful cove after beautiful cove, interspersed with long sandy stretches. From Northton going north to Luskentyre there are at least 8 spectacular beaches, all within a coastline of just 13 miles. You could spend a week in this tiny part of the islands, just pottering your way up the coast. And they are really well set up for wild camping in the van - the West Harris Community Trust has set aside a bunch of lay-bys in the most scenic of spots for campers to spend the night, paid for by Paypal, and just £5 per night. And if you need an electric hook up, the local primary school doubles up as a camping location for those who need power!
The east coast of Harris is just as beautiful, with its craggy little coves and inlets, full of seals, and perfect for some camping in the tent. The main roads runs up the west coast, and so there are very few cars in the east, and with lots of little dead-end roads, it's easy to find a quiet and secluded spot to pitch up for the night.
Heading north of Tarbert, the drive out to Hushinish is very special, with a little bit of all the scenery - cliff drives over the island-dotted inlet, scottish moorland with dark brooding lakes, past a stunning easy valley walk through a mountain pass to a golden eagle nest site, through the very posh Amhuinnsuidhe Estate, right past the door of the castle, past yet another beautiful deserted beach, and on to the tiny little harbour with views of Scarp Island, and harbour porpoises showing off. This is another great spot for wild camping in the tent. Especially if there is a fierce wind blowing from the west - it will be the only sheltered spot on the whole of Harris - trust me, we checked!
Lewis and Harris are known as two different islands, but actually form one landmass, and so you don't need to worry about a ferry or causeway to get between them. Moving on to Lewis, the area around Timsgearraidh and Kneep is spectacular, and worth the long drive out on the dead-end road for some gorgeous dramatic rocky coastline full of cliffs, islets and sea-stacks.
We were there in April, and we previously went in June - the wind gets pretty fierce at both times of the year, and there's plenty of rain, but the sun does come out most days. And the landscape is spectacular whatever the weather. In April, it didn't get much below 9 degrees at night when we were there, so it's very camp-able. Bring waterproofs, warm layers and an open mind that expects all the weather all the time, and it can be a great holiday destination because of, and not in spite of, the climate.
With Scotland's everyman's right to roam, coupled with the low population, it's pretty easy to find spots to stay, even outside of West Harris. We were there for 2 weeks in our Bongo camper van, and had a beautiful coastal view each night - sometimes on a field above the beach, sometimes a lay-by off a quiet road but always with beach access and just a few metres from the sand.
There are also a lot of public toilets, and availability of drinking water is readily available throughout the Outer Hebrides at public toilets, campsites and ferry terminals. You can even get a shower (£1 for 7 minutes) in a lot of locations throughout the islands (about half the public toilets have showering facilities), and all are well looked after and clean.
All in all, it's a surprisingly easy, relaxing place for a wild camping holiday,even with a four month old baby!