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Islands of North Uist, Baleshare, Berneray and Grimsay
For many of our guests, Balranald, with its soothing calm and natural beauty, offers all they want from their time away from the hurly-burly of modern life. But equally, for many the cottage provides a centre for exploring further, the circumference being the scenic circular road and its many fascinating branches.
Whether you've come to take your ease or take to the roads, it's likely you'll need to buy some food, perhaps a newspaper, or send a postcard or two. You'll find all these at Bayhead [Ceann a Bhaigh], about two to three miles away to the south east along the A865 circular road. If you've a mind to drive further then you can get petrol here too.
South of Bayhead are the heartland of North Uist - the crofts and townships of the Cladach - the word means shore, and that's what there's plenty of hereabouts, as centuries of storms and erosion have eaten the machair into myriad channels and straits, rocky islets and sandy islands proper.
The biggest of these is the Baleshare [Baile Sear], connected to North Uist by a half-mile causeway - one of the earliest built to connect the islands. The name means eastern village: legend has it that the western half of the island - and its people - was swept away by an apocalyptic storm (perhaps an Atlantic tsunami?) in the 16th or early 17th century. Whatever the truth of this, the Atlantic continues to eat into the west shore, frequently exposing the remains of ancient lives: unfortunately there aren't the resources to study or protect these before they are swept away by the sea.
Before Clachan na Luib you'll find the Hebridean Smokehouse, where they make the finest cold- and hot-smoked salmon and trout. From a viewing area you can watch the filleting and smoking in progress, and in the shop you can 'try before you can buy' The shop is well stocked with other lovely things, too!
At Cairinis, about two miles south of the Baleshare T-junction, you'll find the remains of Teampull na Trionaid [The Church of the Trinity], an important centre of religious learning in mediaevel times. The stoneworks were saved from utter ruin by extensive works carried out in 2011.
South from Cairinis the A865 continues across the North Ford Causeway, connecting North Uist with Benbecula, via a series of smaller islands, mostly too small to be inhabited, some by just one crofting family, and the Isle of Grimsay [Griomasaigh] by a thriving community.
Back at Clachan na Luib, the main road turns east to Lochmaddy, cutting across the moody heart of the island, a vast expanse of heather moorland and fresh-water lochs - and to the south east of the road the striking profiles of the hills that serve almost as trademarks for North Uist.
Just east of Clachan the long road along the south shore of Loch Euphort is a delight, with wonderful scenery, a tiny art studio, and a landscape rich in iron age archaeology. Back at Langass by the main road there's a very impressive chambered cairn up on and hillside - Barpa Langais, and a very impressive stone circle - Pobull Fhinn, or Finn's People - along the track just past the Langass Lodge Hotel (which is highly recommended for meals).
Lochmaddy [Loch nam Madadh] stands at the head of an extensive, sheltered natural harbour which has for centuries served as the principal port for North Uist, and today is the busiest ferry port in Uist and Barra. Though boasting a Sherrif's court, two hotels, school, an outdoor activities centre, cattle market, tourist information office, and the renowned Taigh Cearsabhagh arts centre, Lochmaddy is still little more than a quiet village - except perhaps when the Calmac ferry from Uig in Skye comes in!
North from Lochmaddy, a narrow road branches east to Loch Portain and Cheesebay [Bàgh a Chàise], weaving bewilderingly through a landscape of convoluted bays and inlets of the sea, fresh water lochs, rocky prominotories and few distinctive landmarks: it is surprisingly easy to feel disorientated. A truly remarkable district and rich in ancient archaeology, including the impressive galleried Dun Torquil, a scheduled ancient monument, reached by a stepping stones from the shore of Loch an Duin.
Historically, the island of Berneray [Beàrnaraigh] was considered part of distant Harris, but since the causeway was completed in the late 1990s, the island has become an integral part of Uist life, with many of its residents working as far away as Balivanich or even South Uist. With an enterprising culture, a strong sense of community, a lively programme of events, this is now a growing community with a bright future. Unusually, it is the east coast of that is most densely settled (it's where you'll find the Ardmaree Stores and Lobster Pot Café): the west coast is a wide open plain of glorious machair grassland with abundant wild flowers and orchids, and with a ribbon of dunes and white shellsand giving way to a turquoise sea.
The ferry connecting Uist directly to Harris at Leverburgh uses a slipway at the north end of the Berneray causeway, but for those not hurrying to catch a ferry, the narrow and twisty west coast road offers a slow and leisurely tour of the west coasts of North Uist, and its many many attractions. Even before you get back to the circular A865, at Newtonferry (Port nan Long) there's the extraordinary remains of Dùn an Sticir, accessed by stepping stones from the south shore of Loch an Sticir: this is one of the best of its kind, anywhere.
At Grenitote [Greinetobht], turn off to the right and down to the car park by the beach for a walk on the vast beach and the Ùdal peninsula of dunes that will - in almost any weather - lift your spirits: sea, the air, birds and even the lowing of hardy and placid cattle browsing on the seaweed or the coarse machair grasses. If Ùdal is refreshment for the soul, then the Co-op at Sollas has what's needful the body: you can re-stock the shelves back at the cottage.
At Hosta, just two miles or so north of Balranald, a short track to the west leads through a gate to a picnic site and a path through the dunes and marram grass to a bay of delights. The beach of luxuriously soft golden sand is sheltered from the prevailing south-westerlies by the long sweep of Rubha Mhanais to the left, and the rock-pools of Ricinis to the right. On a fine day after a night of storms, the huge waves coming in from the Atlantic are awesome, and a challenge to the best of surfers. (But beware - the water is cold and there are strong under-currents.)