Surfing Scotland Jonathan Bennett braves a surfer's chilly paradise
One of the first rules of surfing (after "Don't learn, because it will take over your life") is "Never surf alone". So if you're planning on surfing in the Hebrides, it's a good idea to take a friend. Not that I was alone, exactly. As I paddled out into the clear, green water, I noticed an old man bobbing around, no more than 20 yards away, staring at me with undisguised curiosity.
I did a double take. My bald, bewhiskered observer was in fact a grey seal. But apart from the seal and a pair of gannets, I had the mile-long bay to myself. Ivory sand. Emerald water. Lush dunes. For surfers, the Hebrides is a chilly paradise.
Three hours from Oban, Tiree was just a stepping stone on my trip to the Western Isles. Any small island stuck out in the Atlantic with beaches facing all points of the compass is sure to have somewhere to surf, and after lumbering across flat, featureless moorland on single-lane roads, I stumbled across Balevullin, where local surf instructor Suds and his mate Adam were contemplating the waves.
Two weeks, 200 miles and eight Hebridean islands later, I would look back and realise that in surfing terms, this was a crowd.
After the small, green pancake of Tiree, the Outer Hebrides rise up out of the Atlantic like rocky crags strewn across the ocean. As I approached, glorious sunshine slanted through dark clouds, sending a rainbow over Kisimul castle, the small water-locked fort that guards the island of Barra and its main settlement, Castlebay.
A rocky, green peak looms above the bay, giving the village an oddly impermanent feel against the immensity of it environment.
I headed to Vatersay, a small island south of Barra, linked since 1991 by a short causeway. Here two lovely beaches sit back to back, separated by an isthmus covered in grassy dunes.
The leeward beach, Vatersay Bay, was as flat as a millpond; the windward, whipped up into brisk whitecaps. More fine, ivory sand. More clear, emerald water. It's easy to become blas about the rugged beauty of the Hebrides.
Barra itself is small enough to go round in an hour or two, which made it easy to check out all possible surfing options. Along the way, I bought freshly caught scallops from the packing factory before they could be whisked off to market in Spain, and admired Barra airport, where the beach doubles as a runway and departures are dictated by the tide.
Finally I opted to surf in front of the bright, modern Isle of Barra hotel. Not at the reef that beckoned from the middle of the bay, even though Juliet, the charming hotel receptionist, generously offered to keep an eye on me in case I got into difficulties. Instead I headed to the adjoining beach, where powerful, shoulder- high waves were rolling in, sheltered from the worst of the wind by a rocky promontory.
Afterwards, I sat in the hotel's comfortable lounge to watch the sun sink into the horizon, feeling like a salty sea dog.
From Barra it's a short hop over to South Uist, but the contrast couldn't be more striking: bleak and rocky, it feels a lot more rugged. The road runs north through heather-covered moorland etched with trenches where peat is still dug for fuel - a stack of peat bricks stands outside many of the houses throughout the Hebrides, often next to a modern oil tank.
The waves had disappeared, so I pushed on, over Benbecula and up to loch-riddled North Uist, stopping only to buy a freshly boiled lobster for little more than the price of fish and chips. …