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Nov 04 2014

The Isle of Benbecula

I was surprised when Morag, the postie driving the Post Bus from Daliburgh, in South Uist, to the Isle of Benbecula, stopped and said, ‘This is it.’  Apparently, I had reached my destination.  I thanked her, got out, put on my backpack, and walked to the side of the road.  The hostel looked great, as did the surrounding area, even though it was on a main road.  I walked up to the traditional, grey, stone house and let myself in.  The owners had given me the code in advance, so I dump my stuff and check in later.

Nunton House Hostel

I made myself lunch with the stash of food I was carrying and used the WiFi to catch up on some work before heading out to explore the area a little.  I didn’t want to go far, but I had no idea where to go for a walk.  In the end, I just walked along the main road where Morag had dropped me off.  Obviously, that’s not ideal, especially as it’s the main route between South and North Uist with a fairly constant stream of traffic.  I had to keep stepping up onto the grass verges to get out of the way of the cars.  As it turned out, it wasn’t such a bad walk after all.  I came across an old cemetery and made friends with the sheep who live by the roadside.

Nunton countryside

That evening, after I had cooked and washed up, all the guests who were staying at the hostel were sitting in the lounge area, located just off the kitchen.  One gentleman fired up the log burner, so we were all sitting around chatting.  When I looked out of the window and saw the sky, I jumped up off the sofa, ran upstairs to my dorm room, to grab my camera, and then went back downstairs, put my shoes on, and went outside to enjoy the scenery and take some photos of the fabulous view as the sun was setting over the sea.

Sunset over Benbecula

Apart from the friendly sheep and amazing sunsets, here are some of the other things I found during my stay on Benbecula.

Cladh Mhuire

Cemetery in Nunton

As I walked along the main road that links North and South Uist, I came across the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery.  I was intrigued and went in to discover that there was far more to this cemetery.  Cladh Mhuire is an ancient burial ground.  It is thought that the Christian origins of the island date back to the 6th century; the time when St Columba was in Iona.

In the 13th century, a portion of land was given to the nuns of Iona as penance for the wild and violent life of the lordship’s son, Donald.  It was called Baille nan Cailleach, which literally means ‘Township belonging to the nuns’.  The chapel, Teampull Mhuire, now in ruins, was dedicated to the Virgin Mary and Cladh Mhuire was the burial ground.  The chapel fell into disrepair in the 16th century after the reformation, but Cladh Mhuire continued to be used as the main burial ground for the people of Benbecula.

There are thirteen commonwealth graves in the cemetery from both world wars; four of which are unidentified navy and merchant seamen.

Rueval

Rueval

The land on Benbecula is very flat, so I decided to ascend the only hill on the island, Rueval.  It was a bit of walk to the hill, but not a difficult one because it’s so flat.  I wasn’t expecting to see the local recycling centre nearby, but I suppose it has to be somewhere.  When you get there, you’re very close to the hill.

I didn’t realise there was only one way up and walked past what seemed like one of the paths up.  As it turns out, it’s the only path up.  Well, it was a beautiful day, so I decided to continue walking along the path surrounded by all the lochs and heather.  After a while, I decided to turn around because it was the same as far as the eye could see and it was getting pretty boggy.  I was told later on that if I had continued, I would have reached the sea, which is where Bonnie Prince Charlie is thought to have sailed from to get to the Isle of Skye.

After turning round, I reached the path heading up.  It was very boggy and I had to get off the path at times because the ground was sodden.  It isn’t a steep hill, nor is it difficult to ascend.  Within about 20 minutes, even with dodging the wet patches of ground, I arrived at the top.  What a view!  Because the land is so flat, you get stunning 360 degree views of miles around,  Donald, the owner of the hostel I was staying at, told me to count the lochs.  I didn’t even bother taking up the challenge when I got there because there were just too many.

There’s a large, square, stone pillar on the top.  I thought it could give some useful information about the surrounding islands.  I was wrong.  It’s actually a trig point (triangulation station), which was erected by the Ordnance Survey.

I sat down on the top of the hill, having the lunch I carried with me, enjoying the uninterrupted view in front of me. Even though it’s only just over 400 feet up, it gets really windy up there.

Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Trail

Lochs on Benbecula

Charles Edward Stuart, better known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, was the second Jacobite heir to the thrones of England, Scotland, and Ireland.  He is often referred to as The Young Pretender because he and his father were unable to take up their rightful positions.  In an unsuccessful attempt to regain control at the Battle of Culloden, he escaped to the Isle of Benbecula, which is where Flora MacDonald lived.  She was asked to help the prince escape.  Because her stepfather was commander of the local milita, she had a pass to travel to the mainland with her manservant and Irish maid, Betty Burke.  As the story goes, the prince dressed up as Betty Burke and escaped to Skye.

The Beach

Benbecula Beach

The beach surprised me.  Right across from the house, on the other side of the main road, is the beach.  You can’t see it from the house or the road.  It was a great find.  I went for a walk and soon stumbled across this completely deserted, white, sandy beach with pink seaweed.  Yes, you read it right, pink seaweed.  I had never seen, nor heard of, pink seaweed before.  It made the beach even prettier with the white sand and blue sky and, as I was the only person on the beach, I had this fabulous view all to myself.

The people

Donald, the owner of the hostel, is an interesting guy.  He wears many hats, like many of the other islanders I came across during my time on the Outer Hebrides.  He is a builder, a retained firefighter, a gravedigger for the cemetery I was at, is on the committee for this, that, and the other, and he has a few holiday lets as well as the hostel.  He has lived there all his life, so he has a wealth of stories to tell if he has the time.

Final thoughts

I wasn’t sure if I would like the island when I first arrived because the land is extremely flat.  I loved the landscape on the Isles of Barra and Vatersay, which is completely different to Benbecula.  However, having explored it and learned some of the history, met some interesting characters, discovered probably the best beach I’d ever seen,  my initial view changed.

Location

From the map, you can the proximity of the Isle of Skye to the Isle of Benbecula and how causeways link the island with South and North Uist.

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Center map
Traffic
Bicycling
Transit
Google MapsGet Directions

As I mentioned before, you can get a bus to and from North and South Uist.  If you want to get to the Isle of Harris, as I did, you have to get a bus from Nunton (if that’s where you’re staying) to Berneray, North Uist, to get a ferry to the Isle of Harris.  Before you set off on your journey, especially if you are using public transport, it would be wise to check the CalMac website for any changes to the timetable because one sailing was cancelled the day I made the journey.

Have your say

Have you been to the Isle of Benbecula?  What were your thoughts of the island?  If not, would you consider visiting?

About the author

Teresa Keane

Teresa has been to almost 60 countries. She started travelling independently at the age of 38 when she gave up her job, rented out her house, put her possessions in storage and spent a year travelling the world. It changed her life. She now creates, publishes, & promotes online travel content and is an experienced freelance trainer & EFL teacher.

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