Thursday, 21 July 2016

Island 331 - Vallay/Bhalaigh, North Uist

Vallay or Bhalaigh, as it is called in Gaelic, is a large tidal island located off the north coast of North Uist.  It can be accessed on foot for about 2 hours either side of low tide from an unsigned track off the A865 where it runs along the north coast of North Uist.  There is room for a couple of cars to park at the beginning of the track but you can also drive down the potholed sandy track towards the sea and park there.  

I started the crossing about 2 hours before low tide and there were a couple of shallow streams and some areas of standing water to cross.  I wore Crocs but you could go barefoot or wear wellies.  It was too wet for walking boots. The crossing is just under 2 miles. By the time of my return journey just after low tide, it was possible to cross the strand wearing walking boots, although I wouldn't recommend wearing your best ones, as although the water had receded, the sand was not completely dry except in a few isolated patches.   

The silver sand of the strand is hard and at no point did I feel unsafe during the crossing.  Vehicles are driven across the strand to check on livestock and wildlife on the island.  It was possible to follow the vehicle tyre tracks from the crossing it had made the previous day because one tide hadn't been enough to obliterate them.  The advice to walkers is to take the same route as the vehicles, which means passing to the right of the smaller tidal islands of Torogaigh and Stangram.  It is not advisable to make the crossing if it is misty or foggy or indeed in the middle of a thunderstorm! 

Vallay is a large island: it is about 3.5 miles from east to west by an average of about half a mile wide. It is low lying with the highest point - on the eastern side of the island - being only 38 metres above sea level.  The island is currently uninhabited but the ruins of 3 houses are still standing.  The largest of these is Vallay House, which was built in about 1902 for the archaeologist, naturalist and keen photographer Erskine Beveridge. He had made his money in a linen business in Dunfermline.  The house was built in the baronial style and rendered in concrete.  There is little fresh water on Vallay and Mr Beveridge had water piped across the strand.  Erskine spent many summers living in Vallay House

Erskine Beveridge died in 1920 and the house and island passed to his son George.  However George Beveridge was drowned in an accident while crossing the strand in 1944 and the buildings on the island gradually fell into disrepair.  The windows have all gone and most of the roofs.  The island is now managed by the RSPB but I don't know if they own it.  They manage it for corncrakes and other birds.  The island is grazed by cattle but I didn't see any during either of my visits in mid June 2016.  I did however hear a corncrake in the long grass to the north west of Vallay House.  I also heard lapwings and skylarks and saw oystercatchers and terns.

There are a number of prehistoric sites on the island, including middens, duns and standing stones.  The remains of a medieval chapel Teampull Mhuir and two stone crosses are located on the eastern side of the island.

It is not possible to fully explore the island on one visit, so I visited two days in a row.  On my first visit I crossed to the north side of the island to visit the tidal island of Orasaigh.  On my second visit I walked to the monument to George Beveridge, which is located towards the west end of the island and also visited the tidal islands of Saltam, Morornish and Gearraid Mhartainn.  The first day I had the island to myself but on the following day I followed a group of 7 people out, although I didn't see them again while I was on the island.

There are a few tracks on the island but there were no clear paths across the machair on the north side of the island.  There was a very boggy area on the track to the north of the restored barns, which looked on the map to be the most direct route to the north coast.  However even after a dry period it was impassable, so I backtracked and walked round to the west of the barns, where I found a gate out onto the machair.

The flowers on the machair were all in flower and looked stunning.  I identified thrift, orchids, poppies, sea campion, viola tricolour, clover, buttercups, daisies, purple vetch, wild thyme, bird's foot trefoil, primroses and hogweed but there were also others that I didn't recognise. 

The visit to Vallay was one of the highlights of my holiday.  It is well worth the effort. However if you want to explore the island, keep an eye on the tide and be aware that the return trip + a bit of exploring is likely to make the walk there and back at least 5-6 miles long. 



Vallay House

Vallay House

Back of the farmhouse

Restored barns

Back of Vallay House

Bungalow to the east of the farmhouse

Bungalow and farm buildings

Entrance to Vallay  - this is the place you need to aim for when crossing the strand

"Little terns nest here"  
Notice as you enter the machair on the north side of the island

 Monument to George Beveridge - looking west

 Looking east along the south coast of Vallay from George Beveridge's Monument

 Vallay House

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