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London - For somewhere so full of bird life, the silence on South Uist can sometimes be resounding. Perhaps it's all the peaty soil that deadens nature's background chatter. A swan skims down on to Loch Druidibeag and paddles away silently, unruffled, its neck long and stiff, its body still, as if dragged along by an unseen underwater pulley.
Silhouettes of houses the size of pinpricks stand on the horizon, separated from me by moorland and a huge sky. To the north, I'm overlooked by a military radar station. I pass a picked-clean sheep's skull. This is the edge of the British Isles, and it's heartening to discover that the place actually looks the part.
A little irritatingly, the spongy goat track evaporates intermittently as I make my way between the two arms of the loch. Druidibeag is a national nature reserve pockmarked with Lilliputian lochans, where ducks trundle back and forward aimlessly.
Putting my ear to the ground, I can just hear the cotton grass fluttering in the wind. Tormentil, a delicate yellow, four-leafed flower, adds a splash of colour to the peaty landscape. In August, the heather quickly turns purple, smothering the landscape in a fragrant haze. The description “more loch than rock” has often been used for the Outer Hebrides: the water creates a liquid light that bounces off the land, up to the sky and back again. This crystalline air seems to magnify the folds and creases of the overlooking mountains Hecla and Ben Tarbert.
It's easy to eulogise about South Uist. But living here has always been hard, even before the 19th century clearances that saw families evicted, and the land turned over to sheep farming. Religious faith burns strongly here, not the wee-frees of the northern Hebrides but Catholicism: just out of sight, below the radar station stands a monumental figurine of Our Lady of the Isles.
But the walking is exhilarating. I've now left the moor behind and I am striking out on an arrow-straight path to the coast. The sea remains out of sight, shielded by a shallow uplift of lush green flanks, until I am upon it. This coastal grassland is known as machair, and at this time of year it undergoes a metamorphosis as amazing as anything in a caterpillar's repertoire. For most of the year machair can resemble a golf course, close cropped with perhaps just the doughty yellow-red bird's foot trefoil, also known as bacon and eggs, to dilute the endless green. But in the second half of summer this fertile soil is transformed by sprouting wildflowers, such as the foam-like Lady's bedstraw, with seemingly millions of minute yellow flowers.
The tide is out, so I walk along the beach, close to huge raised beds of exposed, and stinking, seaweed. This shoreline has always been a rich source of material for the business of everyday island life. Until the 1960s mattresses were made from seaweed, beds from driftwood. Along the coast, tradition has seen islanders gather dulse (a seaweed, good with butter or as a broth) and carrageen, a delicate seaweed used for milk pudding.
To the south, distant views opened up the hilly islands of Eriskay and Barra before I turn north once again, walking parallel to the coast but a little further inland, along the edge of the machair. I pass the remains of four ancient chapels and churches at How More, also known as Thoba More. These fragmented ruins are the most important Christian sites in the Outer Hebrides, dating back more than 1,000 years.
The scene is one of undulating flatness, as if gentle waves are rolling along just under the soil. The birds are noisy enough here, oystercatchers zipping back and forward with their pig-like squeals. Lapwings arc through the skies, before spiralling in a corkscrew plummet to ground.
Standing here, it isn't hard to imagine the emotions of people who had been tied to this land and were forced to leave. Many eulogised the landscape and way of life after they left, and that emigration resonates even today. Once my walk is done, I make for the Kildonan Museum, a few miles further south on the island. Kildonan is an excellent place to learn about the history of South Uist - and grab a much-needed cup of tea.
Many eulogies of those whose left are recorded, including one from an Allan MacPhee: “Land of bent grass, land of barley, land where everything is plentiful and young men sing songs and drink ale. If I had as much as two suits of clothes, a pair of shoes and a fare in my pocket I would sail for Uist.” Today, ferries and flights make the task of reaching South Uist all the simpler, but I find the magnetic pull on visitors such as myself is just as strong. - The Independent on Sunday
DISTANCE: 16km/10 miles
TIME: Four hours
OS MAP: Explorer 453, Benbecula and South Uist
ROUTE: Start at the car park by Loch Druidibeag on the B890 (grid ref: NF 790382). Follow the track to the double gates marked “self-guided walk”. Climb over and follow a goat track by fence for 150m to a gate. Turn sharp-right along the track, which intermittently peters out as you walk between two raised mounds. Keep the houses, on the skyline to the north-west, in view. The track becomes more distinct and passes through three gates then bears right between two houses to a gate marked “self-guided walk” and the A865. Cross over to the shoreline. Bear left for 2km past Sgeir Dhreumasdail to the large bay of Bun na Feathlach. Walk up the track to the old chapel and bear left along the Machair Way past Drimsdale House for 3km. At the third lane (grid ref NF758398) turn right, cross A865 and down B890 to the car park.
TRAVEL ESSENTIALSGETTING THERE
Mark Rowe travelled by Caledonian Sleeper (08457 55 00 33; scotrail.co.uk/caledoniansleeper) to Inverness and by ferry with Caledonian MacBrayne (0800 066 5000; calmac.co.uk) from Uig on Skye to Lochmaddy on North Uist.