Distance 17.6km/11 miles Ascent 195m/640ft Time 4 hours Grading Moderate
The islanders of Berneray lay claim to possessing ‘possibly the most beautiful beach in the whole of the Hebrides’. It is an ambitious assertion, their cherished West Beach up against stiff competition. The Western Isles is, after all, fringed with stunning strips of white sand.
With high expectations and eager to see if this coastal treasure was all it was cracked up to be, or if the proud proclamation was simply a tourist lure, I boarded the MV Loch Portain at Leverburgh and set sail across the Sound of Harris.
I disembarking at Ardmaree, on the southern tip of Berneray, where the island is connected to North Uist by a causeway. With a population of less than 150, it is a tiny if integral link in the roughly hewn chunks of land that combined to form the Outer Hebrides.
Welcomed ashore in Gaelic, a strip of single-track road led me north to a wee shop and café where I stocked up on supplies before continuing along the asphalt to the crofting township of Borve.
Overlooking Loch a’Bhaigh and the harbour, an information centre (open during the summer) offers an historical perspective on Berneray, its people and its crofting and fishing industries. Rounding the loch, former blackhouses, some ruined, others restored, add colour to this picture of island life over the years while, across the bay, the Gatliff Trust’s hostel is a fine example of these old cottages granted a vibrant new lease of life.
Turning north by the hostel, the road crosses a wide grassy plane above Berneray’s more sheltered and less celebrated East Beach, the tarmac eventually dissolving into a sandy track below Beinn Shleibhe, the highest peak here and all that now stood between me and the hallowed West Beach.
It is an easy enough climb, a waymarked path rising by a walled cemetery to the exposed trig point, a spot from where all corners of Berneray – and a lot more besides – are visible on a clear day.
True to form the oft changeable Hebridean weather threw me a curve ball as I descended, dark clouds rolling in from the Atlantic, the sudden, drenching downpour building to a crescendo of hail.
Stepping out on to the sand, it was hardly beach weather but in stoic British seaside holiday fashion, I kept my upper lip stiff and my fingers crossed. In time, the sky cleared, the sun returned and West Beach duly delivered on its promise.
I felt guilty for ever doubting the islanders. It was indeed a truly magnificent and impossibly beautiful scene, impeccably crisp, clean white sand converging with blue sky and turquois ocean on the horizon ahead.
Deserted, my boots left the first imprints of the day as I wandered west to Rubha a’Chorrain and then south-west, flitting between the beach, the dunes and the fertile machair, a mosaic of meadows, ploughed furrows and grazing land sheltered from the sea by sandy banks of marram grass.
Crossing the southern fringes of the machair, I tramped back along the road, returning to Ardmaree just in time to catch the ferry to Harris. As we sailed away, there was little doubt in my mind that I would encounter other beaches on my travels through the Outer Hebrides. But now I was less sure I would find any as beautiful as Berneray’s West Beach.
1. Ascend slipway to main road, turn right. In 200m, go right again (signed Borve) and follow road for 3.3km to Baile.
2. At road junction by bus shelter, turn left (signed Beinn Ghainche) and walk north on road above East Beach.
3. At road end, continue on track, passing through metal gate to signpost. Branch left, through a second gate, on waymarked path, ascending Beinn Shleibhe via cemetery.
4. Descend north-west by fence line to West Beach.
5. Turn left and walk west then south-west along West Beach.
6. Leave West Beach at its southern end and walk east along coastline to cemetery.
7. Follow track inland, past small car parking area, to join road through Borve. Rejoin outward route and retrace steps to ferry terminal.
Terrain Low-level but exposed route following island roads, tracks, paths and sandy beach with an easy ascent over Beinn Shleibhe. Keep dogs under close control where livestock is encountered
Maps OS 1:50,000 Landranger sheet 18; Ordnance Survey 1:25,000 Explorer sheet 454
Start/finish Berneray Ferry Terminal (Grid ref: NF 914800)