Walking the Outer Hebrides

By Mark Thiessen

The old postman’s path is a thrilling journey that zigzags along the coast and over a mountain pass, discovers Mark Rowe.

Overlooking the sea at Barra, Outer Hebrides. Photo / Thinkstock
Overlooking the sea at Barra, Outer Hebrides. Photo / Thinkstock

When did you last write a letter on paper, with pen and ink, or even typed one? I find myself thinking about this as, heart pounding a little harder than usual, I make my way up a steep zigzag path that is taking me high into the remote Outer Hebrides.

I'm following the postman's trail, an age-old track that connects the small town of Tarbert with the minuscule hamlet of Rhenigidale on the south-east edge of the Isle of Harris. For centuries, the only way for the outside world to reach Rhenigidale was by boat, or by this often thrillingly thin path that threads its way along the coast and over a mountain pass. Goods, bodies and post were taken in and out over the hills. When Rhenigidale was finally connected by a road in 1989, it was claimed to be the last community to be linked up to the UK network.

I start just above the village, by a waymarker that directs me to Urgha and Tarbert. Despite the ancient history of the track it is well maintained, and you can't go wrong. I contour around the edge of the small but fetching Loch Trolamoraig and there's a remarkable stillness, the waters only broken by a small crabbing boat nudging around the shores.

The vessel is dwarfed by the sheer cliffs that rise behind it.

Below me are the mournful remains of the abandoned village of Gearraidh Lotaigear which clung on here until the late 19th century. Rock pipits flit here and there, perching and chirping on the gorse. The walking is lovely, the trail undulating above the shore, passing waterfalls, little burns and crossing footbridges. Suddenly it cuts upwards across the grain, before dropping down again to sea level and another footbridge perched magically at the head of Loch Trolamoraig.

My route bumps into a very large lump of rock, the massif that makes up the twin peaks of Beinn Tharsuinn and Trolamul. It's steep and hangs nervelessly on to the flank of the mountain, but it's a broad track and is broken by a series of hairpins. Even so, I'm pleased I'd taken the advice of Chris Ryan, a local guide who suggested I do this walk. "The trail is one of the most spectacular walks on the Isle of Harris," he told me. "You can get a very good workout on the zigzagging descents and climbs as you enjoy the equally breathtaking views."

That much is true. About a third of the way up I pause to take in the view. Loch Trolamoraig has shrunk and been swallowed up by the much larger Loch Seaforth, a stretch of water that all but slices the Isle of Harris in two. The Minch is a millpond, and the razorback outline of the Cuillin on Skye cuts through the blue sky, while to the north are the mighty peaks of the Applecross peninsula on the mainland.

I can't help thinking about the postmen (and possibly women) who lugged their packages this way. For their sake, you hope the letters and parcels were worth the effort.

I reach the col and the track levels off, delivering me to a hidden world of rocky, boggy moorland. A golden eagle soars up above Beinn Trolamul. Then, like a light aircraft on its gentle final descent, a sea eagle, its wings barely moving, floats across Loch Trolamoraig.

Passing over the col, the view changes with the whole of the southern chain of the Outer Hebrides ahead of me. Due west is Clisham, the highest mountain in the Western Isles at 799m; my eye is then drawn south to the peaks of North Uist, the flatlands of Benbecula and the dragon back ridges that rear up on South Uist. The full stop to this landscape comes only with the walls of rock that rise up on Barra and Vatersay.

My route drops gently to the coast road. On the way I pass a curious plaque that reads "Duncan Macinnes 1827-1908, Duncan Macinnes 1908-1982". The name is that of a postman who did this walk, but the inscription remains something of a riddle.

The last mile is along the road to Tarbert. There's a buoyant air to the town nowadays. Ten years ago South Harris raised the funds for a community buyout of the island estate and the 62,000 acres make up one of the largest community owned estates in Scotland. There are a couple of cafs and a busy well-stocked community store. It's journey's end. A good place to halt and refuel.

- INDEPENDENT

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf05 at 21 Dec 2014 15:48:10 Processing Time: 950ms