East Harris coast and hills
We spent a few days in a delightful croft cottage in Harris in early April 2008. I had been there nearly 30 years earlier as a student, staying at the youth hostel which used to operate at Kyles Stockinish nearby. Now I was back with wife Maggie, daughter Frances and her friend Liberty, staying in a cottage of a family friend (see www.crowlinselfcatering.co.uk ).
We had spent over 5 hours driving from Dundee on a busy Saturday mid-way through the school holidays, with snow showers blowing around us. The views of the mountains capped with fresh snow were spectacular, particularly in Skye after we'd crossed the bridge from Kyle of Lochalsh. We could see ithe rock formation of the Old Man of Storr as we drove over to Portree, and if we'd had more time it would have been good to drive past it along the east coast of Trotternish, then to take the dramatic hill road over the Quiraing to Uig. From there we had a reasonable crossing on the ferry to Tarbert at the narrowest point on the Isle of Harris.
The main road to Rodel at the southern tip of the island climbed out of the harbour, and we followed it for 5 miles before taking the third turning on the left to Lackalee. I had forgotten what it was like driving along the narrow winding roads, with rocky pools down to the left and right, and took it very carefully as the snow was blowing around us in the evening half-light.
Next morning the snow showers were still blowing around but with long sunny periods between, and whilst the girls were outside exploring the pastures beside Loch Stockinish I went for a run up the hill behind. It was a mixture of short grass and big rocks, most of which were flat on top and easy to run over.
There were the ruins of a couple of old croft houses not far up the slope, and then about 100 metres further on a neat pointed cairn about 1.5 metres high. This seemed to mark an old route - as further up the slope from here I reached a gap through a stone dyke and a fence with a gate. A burn flowed just on the other side. However, the gate was old and couldn't be opened, so I had to cross the fence carefully just along to the left, after crossing the burn which was now on my side of the fence, holding the two strands of barbed wire down just far enough to straddle it.
Clambering up more rocks, turning this way and that, I came over to a dip cutting across the hillside, with the clear line of a track running along it. This must be the track marked on the map, curving around the peninsula about half a kilometre uphill from the current road. Just to the right, overlooking the path, was a little abandoned stone shelter - almost like a small shrine. I wanted to explore the track later but first I wanted to get up to a hilltop for a view.
There were plenty more big whale-backed rocks to scramble across, and I found that if I kept just to the right of the higher ground I was sheltered from the worst of the cold northerly wind tearing across the hillside. However, I had to climb onto more exposed outcrops as I approached the top of the hill - first a lower summit and then the highest point over to the right. There was still plenty of dark cloud shrouding the high hills to the north with the only brightness out to sea, and I wanted to get a view. That meant waiting for the clouds to blow over, so I ran down and round on the lee side of the summit, around a couple of small lochans, then back up to the top as the sun began to break through. I think this was Sgurran Ruadha (132m), but there were several tops of similar height and it could have been a bit further south of this towards Carnan Mor (124m).
Now I could enjoy a super view to the snowy hilltops about five miles to the north in the centre of Harris - these must be Ben Luskentyre (436m) and Ceann Reamhar (467m), looking much more mountainous than their modest height (only half that of a munro). The landscape to the west across the loch also brightened up, with another snowy hilltop. Three small cairns on the summit provided some foreground features for the photos.
On a fine day at a comfortable walking pace, it would probably take 30-45 minutes to get to the hilltop from Lackalee, and a bit less if going straight back there.
I went back down the slope, enjoying running over the rocks, and then turned left (south) along the track I'd crossed earlier. Apparently this path was once the main access (on foot) to the crofting townships along this stretch of coast, before the "Golden Road" was built at significant cost closer to the shore. It was used by school children to walk to the school at Grosebay on the other side of the peninsula, and then to Kyles Stockinish when a school was built there. There was also a chapel beside the path, now ruined.
This former school at Kyles Stockinish was converted into a Youth Hostel but is now privately owned. However, it's still one of the best access points for what we might call "the Scholars' Path". The other access points are halfway down the road from the main A859 to the Lackalee road end (marked with a sign board) and just across a road bridge on the south side of Grosebay.
It must have been well-built originally, as much of it still provides a solid level track over stony and marshy ground, but other sections are broken up with loose stones and surface water. Occasionally it is difficult to pick out the track, but then it reappears a little further on, and there are some marker posts to help.
The route has several inclines to climb and descend, particularly on the Kyles Stockinish - Grosebay section, so it still requires some fitness, but it's a relatively easy way to walk through this rugged landscape enjoying great views over the hills and lochs.
Although you may follow the route in either direction (or indeed starting from the middle at Kyles Stockinish) this description starting from the public road down to Lackalee (map ref 132934) should be useful.
The path starts halfway down the winding road from the main A859, about 5 miles south of Tarbert. The road is the fourth turning on the left (starting from the Diraclett turning). There's a marker cairn with faded lettering on it indicating that this is part of the Harris Walkway, and a pair of green marker posts behind (see the photo). About 30 metres up the slope behind is a gate.
Going through the gate, there are marker posts indicating the path which continues up and slightly to the left, to run alongside a fence. The next photo shows a typical early section of the path with a view towards Loch Stockinish.
A bit further on, the path goes through another gate to run on the left side of the fence. It climbs fairly high up the side of the hill (but not steeply) with rocky outcrops on the left, over some marshy ground. Then it starts going down gently, crossing a little marshy depression where you can hop across to the firm ground on the other side. This is maybe half a mile (a kilometre) from the start, all roughly in a southerly direction.
The path runs through a shallow trough for a short distance, and up to the right is the little roofless stone shelter mentioned earlier. Turning right here would take you down to Crowlin. Turning left would take you to the hilltop.
Continuing ahead, the path is mostly easy to follow and pleasant underfoot. There's a raised section which ends at a U-shaped gap in a stone wall, through which it runs. Away to the right beyond Loch Stockinish I could see the top of An Coileach (389m) cloaked in snow (this, and neighbouring Heileasbhal Mor, would make a good 8 or 9 mile circuit from Seilebost beside Luskentyre Bay).
Beyond the wall the path descends with rocky slopes on both sides, then passes a ruined house on the right with a gate leading onto the croft grazing land. Further on again another 100 metres or so, a larger building stands to the left of the path, with an area of flat grassy ground in front of it. Although some of the roof remains, it is falling in and isn't safe to enter. At one time this was the chapel for the townships along the shore.
Picking up the path again on the other side, it continues with some broken sections so some care is needed to keep to it. There's a fence close by on the right now, which runs to a gate at the corner with another fence and the continuation of the path running uphill to the left. This is the gate to go through down to Kyles Stockinish. If you want to go that way, there's a splendid little ridge section which the path runs along through a dip (shown in the photo looking back up the hill), rising up to a grassy knoll, with a gate on the other side. The path goes through here past a modern croft shed to a road leading the short distance down to the coast road beside the former school/former youth hostel building.
If you want to continue along the Scholars' Path towards Grosebay, it turns sharp left at the first of these gates, quite steeply uphill for about 150 metres to another gate at the top of the enclosure. This is another well-preserved section of path, which is easy to follow.
At the top of the slope there are two gates close together. The first had a very frayed piece of rope holding it closed, but it opened easily. The second had a latch which was stiff to open. On the other side the path begins to level off and bend to the left around the hillside. You can walk over a rocky outcrop on the right to a cairn from where there are splendid views out to sea, and on a clear day taking in Skye and the North-West Highlands. I was lucky to see the mountains on the mainland picked out by fresh snow.
The path goes left, dipping then rising to go right around the side of the rocky hill. At the highest point you can deviate from the path to climb up a hundred metres or so to the top of the hill for a more extensive view. You'll see the continuation of the Scholars' Path past a lochan to the east of the hilltop. Go back carefully down the same way, to rejoin the path, which then descends quite steeply then turns left to curve around the head of a little glen, before climbing up to the side of the lochan. Some parts of this section can be very wet - I went in the mud well above my shoe.
There are more fine views from the side of the lochan, and a little further on when the path passes a viewing bench on the left. I was a bit surprised to find this out on the hill, but it certainly offered a great outlook down over Loch Mhic Neacail with the high hills visible to the north.
The next section is very pleasant, firm underfoot, leading down to the left (west) of the Loch, with more delightful views (see photos). Then it reaches a modern wooden footbridge just before a short steep climb onto an area of moorland. After a level section with more wet areas it reaches a gate with a little hillock on the left. I went up to the top to get a view down over Grosebay immediately below, then back down to complete the route into the little township.
The path finishes down a slope to the left of a house, through a gate and onto the road which goes over a little bridge and through Grosebay.
Distance: The path is about 3 miles (5 km) in total, roughly half in each section (Lackalee to Kyles Stockinish, Kyles Stockinish to Grosebay), taking about an hour and a half to walk.
There are more photos of the path in the Gallery.
However the Scholars' Path is not a complete circuit, so unless you want to walk along more than 3 miles (5-6 km) of tarmac (including a mile on the winding main road), you have two main options.
You can cover it in two sections and create two smaller circuits using the minor coast road via Kyles Stockinish (either the western Lackalee section or the eastern Grosebay section).
Or you can create a mostly off-road circuit by crossing the hills in the middle. This is what I did, firstly by going along the road north of Grosebay for less than a mile until I reached a loch on the right (Loch nan Craobhais) then heading up the slope on the left to the highest hill in this area - Grosa Cleit (183m or about 600 ft). It's not a bad climb, although there's no clear track, but there's a trig point on top and splendid views across all the hills and south over the rocky peninsula to the sea. Then continue carefully down the slope to the west, and navigate round the left-hand-side of the small loch at the bottom then turn north-west to join the minor road near the electricity sub-station. From there I walked down the winding road, with attractive views back up towards Grosa Cleit, for half a mile (1 km) until I reached the start of the Scholars' Path on the left (see the photo).
I found another route across the low hills in the middle when I went to get some better photos on a final outing on our last day. I had followed the path from Kyles Stockinish, over the high point and past the viewpoint bench, continuing round by Loch Mhic Neacail and over the wooden footbridge. I didn't plan to go on to Grosebay, so halfway up the slope above the bridge I struck out to the left (west) across the slope, finding a good sheep track to follow with a little glen down to the left. Eventually I dropped down to the lower ground and continued to the left of a steep rocky wall, then started climbing up the slope ahed. There were a couple of false summits and patches of boggy ground, one or two lochans to skirt around, and then I was back at the top of Sgurran Ruadha which I'd climbed a few days previously. From there it was straight back down to Crowlin for tea, with a last chance to enjoy jumping from rock to rock on the way.
Distances: The longer circuit would be about 5.5 miles (9 km), taking about 3 hours, and the shorter circuit about 4 miles (6.5 km), taking about 2 hours.
The "Scholars' Path" forms part of the Harris Walkway, which runs from the slopes of Clisham via Tarbert and Grosebay then through to Seilibost on the West Coast. (You'll see the sign at the far end when driving along the main road past Luskentyre Bay). The full route is described in a leaflet available at the Tourist Information Centre in Tarbert or from Bill Lawson Publications at the Old Schoolhouse, Taobh Tuath, Isle of Harris, Tel: 01859 520488.
This final section is also signposted clearly from the Lackalee road end opposite the community centre, next to the recycling container! It runs through the Bealach Eorabhat and was used to carry coffins through to the burial place at Luskentyre before the road was built. According to the leaflet, the early part of the route from Lackalee can be very boggy in places.
Contributed by Andrew Llanwarne< Back to Scotland page for links to other stories
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