“ Location: Outer Hebrides in Scotland „
In the early 1990s when my 4 children were between the ages of 2 and 10, we began a journey which was to be the most exciting we have ever made to a place where we were to return to time and time again. The memories of the landscape, together with the images I have in my mind of the children, as they lived their holiday dreams in a safe and beautiful environment, will remain with me always. We travelled to The Outer Hebrides all the way from Essex, and it was just so exciting. In those days the ferry was an overnight affair and we had berths. 8 hours in bunk beds as the ferry was swaying and rolling on huge waves was a vivid memory for me, and a loud knock which came at dawn on the cabin door reminded us it was time to head down to the car deck to collect our car and head onwards. Little smiling faces had been beaming with excitement, snuggled down inside the red tartan blankets in the beds, with nothing but the little arms of teddies poking out. No it wasn't a long haul trip to a place far away, but to my children it was even more exciting! We make this journey many times each year now, although the over night sailings with berths have been removed from the route. The ferry arrives in Lochboisdale in South Uist, and you can also reach these islands by air from Glasgow which lands in Balivanich on the island of Benbecula which is linked by a causeway to South Uist. There is also a ferry which leaves from the northern end of Skye in Uig, and arrives in Lochmaddy in North Uist, which is also linked to South Uist via Benbecula, making a holiday possible which affords the opportunity of exploring all the island chain by car. Until we bought a house there in 1998 we stayed all over these islands many times a year, and it didn't matter where we were based every morning we would hear the requests to be taken to Loch Druidibeg to see the famous Eriskay ponies! So armed with a packed lunch and a bag of golden delicious apples (their favourite) we set off to the place which we all loved, and which my daughters especially feel painted their childhoods with golden memories. The ponies live in a nature reserve which is called Loch Druidibeg and to reach this area it is simply a question of taking the B890 which turns towards the mountains of South Uist. There is no chance of getting lost as there is only one main spine road which runs down these islands and the B890 is a route off there. Loch Druidibeg is an area of 1677 hectares and it stretches from the Atlantic coast to almost the Minch on the other side, and the area has a diverse collection of fauna and flora. On the Western fringes are Machair meadows, carpets of wild flowers which turn the landscape into a blaze of every colour you can imagine. Sitting here in July is an awe inspiring experience. Bees hover from every coloured flower, and the landscape is spectacular with azure blue seascapes and golden sandy beaches. Cattle and sheep graze here, and I can't help but think they have the best views in the world. The area close to the sea is better for agriculture, as it is less acidic and more fertile than the heavy peaty soils further east, which are a barrier to many plants who simply find the soil too challenging! I can vouch for this as I have tried to grow potatoes in my garden, and the soil is absolutely impossible to work, whereas on the sandy soils close to the beach, even in remote windswept areas, people grow carrots and potatoes with ease. The reserve has a backdrop of challenging mountains the highest of which is Hecla (606 metres). These mountains, including Ben Corodale and Benn Mhor offer a challenging collection of walking opportunities, but they are not for the inexperienced. The wildlife in these mountains includes the elusive golden eagle. One of the really interesting things about this area is the remnants of scrub and woodland that remain here on little islands in the loch. These include rowan, birch and juniper; these were left from 4000 years ago when the then woodland landscape gradually died off as the climate became windier. It is certainly the windiest place I have ever been. We lost our first roof box there in the first visit we ever made, as it was literally blown off the car in a gust! The main road through the reserve is the road to Loch Skipport, and it is along here about half way in the 4 miles or so to the end, that there are some rhododendrons which were planted in the last century. These provide a place for birds and insects to shelter, but the domination of these is not something which is particularly accepted there, because it does crowd out other species of trees and shrubs. The Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) owns the area east of the main road and this is the area which is occupied by the ponies. There is a walk which you can follow and this is detailed in a leaflet which you can get from the SNH building on the main road. All they ask is that you keep dogs on leads, and that you keep clear of the area around the south western corner of the loch in the bird breeding season between April and August. This is really important as all the birds on the Uists are ground nesting. Also I must add that in May and June you must be really careful when driving in these islands, as newly hatched birds walk everywhere and they can't fly, so if you see a young bird in front of the car chances are it won't do what you expect and fly away in time. Look out for Greylag Geese who nest in the area, and over the road on the machair the famous endangered Corncrake, a rare bird is a welcome visitor. Every time we travel this road it brings back so many memories, and even if you dislike walking there is so much to see from the car. The scenery is absolutely breathtaking, and in late winter when the snow is on the hills it looks absolutely incredible. If photography is your passion you will be in heaven.Due to the remote location very few cars are here and walking may afford you the opportunity to be totally alone. The Eriskay ponies can be seen along the road and in the hills around the reserve if you walk. They are very friendly, but remember they are wild and free, but they have learnt that tourists adore them, and if you slow down they will surround the car. Be careful if you see more than one male in the group, as they can fight with each other if any food is offered. We have had this situation and it did result in one of them kicking the car! It is requested that you don't feed them- in the first few years we saw them we would bring them golden delicious apples and carrots, and it was always a delight to see them enjoying these, but in recent times we have refrained from doing this, as I think it is not prudent to do so as they may have eaten more than enough already! If you wind the window down they will poke their head inside the car. It is quite something. When we took my mother some years ago she was almost horizontal in the back in a state of panic, as the giant head nuzzled its way onto her lap! If you see a small group especially a mum and baby then a gentle stroke is lapped up by them, and we just pull over and walk slowly up to them to photo them and to appreciate their beauty in all its glory. The foals are adorable and tiny, and the breed is gentle and endangered. There are thought to be less than 300 breeding females left in the world today. Originating from the island of Eriskay which is just off the South Coat of South Uist these ponies have an ancient history, and have traditionally been working animals which have been used over the years to carry creels of peat and seaweed. A wonderful website which has some beautiful pictures of the ponies is to be found at http://www.eriskaypony.org.uk/ As you drive ever closer to the Loch at Skipport the road winds and turns until you eventually reach a parking place a few metres before the road curls round the final approach to the loch. The final bend is only for the very experienced driver, and I wouldn't recommend it as it is very steep indeed. Here at this final point is the sheltered Loch Skipport where the views are lovely and you may be treated to the site of a seal or otter in the harbour. If you love walking then a copy of my favourite book "25 Walks In The Western Isles" by June Parker includes a fantastic walk from here, which I have outlined in another review I recently wrote for Dooyoo. The walk takes you through some magnificent scenery affording you the opportunity to see the ruins of remote dwellings which were vacated in the 1940's and 50's when electricity came to the islands. It is also possible to walk the route to the Usinish Lighthouse, now fully automatic, tracing the steps made by the postman three times a week when he delivered mail to the former occupants-a distance of 14km round trip. However you spend a few hours in this magical location you will leave with a memory of a place which I think you will never forget. The horizon is a picture stretching in every direction, and the clouds are vast and ever changing as the light illuminates the hills and the lochs in shades in every colour of the spectrum. One of the most beautiful places I have ever been.