The Beaches and Bays of the West Side
The sandy beaches and fertile machair land on the west side couldn’t be more of a contrast from my previous walks to the rugged east side of the island.
All the way down the west coast there is one white sandy beach after another, each with it’s own character.
The beaches are fringed by sand dunes where tufts of coarse marram grass grow, helping to stabilize the dunes. Beyond that is the machair, where cattle graze and crops are grown.
I’m going to follow the coast from north to south, starting in the north at Beul an Toim, where the Atlantic streams through a narrow gap between Benbecula and North Uist before opening out into a vast tidal area called Oitir Mhor.
Walking round the northern tip of the sand dunes, you are now facing west and on the ‘airport beach’ or An Ceòthan, to give it it’s proper Gaelic name.
The runway of Benbecula Airport is just behind the beach, separated only by the sand dunes. As you can imagine, this gives some great views from the plane as it comes in to land and it’s also quite exciting (and noisy!) to be on the beach as a plane flies low over your head and disappears over the sand dunes.
Miles of sand when the tide is out
The airport is in Balivanich, the main settlement on Benbecula and as you head south out of Balivanich, a road leads off to the next beach – the lovely Culla Bay.
Carrying on south, the road runs beside the aptly named Stinky Bay. Its real name is Poll na Crann and it isn’t always ‘stinky’! But go there after a storm when the sea has deposited great mounds of seaweed on it, and you can’t fail to get more than a whiff of fermenting seaweed!
Liniclate Beach is the most southerly beach and from here you look across a stretch of water and sand to South Uist. In August, warm seas brought in a variety of jellyfish and the compass jellyfish was particularly common. Fortunately, there were only a few to be seen that day and not enough to put us off paddling along the waters edge.
At the northern end of the beach, sand gives way to rocks and seaweed and exposed peat. In Neolithic times the sea was about 10 miles away and this area was a wetland where trees grew. When the tide is very low you can see the branches of sub-fossilized trees, mainly willow, which grew here about 6-8 thousand years ago.
There was also human habitation and if you walk out at low tide and look very closely among the seaweed you can see evidence of some Bronze Age structures. Remains of some walls can be seen and a butchery site was also discovered here. You might even come across a saddle quern, used for grinding corn!
On this wintry day last December, the warm blues of summer had changed to a cold northern light and across the water there was snow on the hills of South Uist. We spotted seals on a distant sandbank and now and again one would swim past us, the current carrying it along at too great a speed to get a good photo – so no photos of seals, unfortunately.