Sunday 25 August 2019

A week on the Uists

From time to time over the past five years on this blog I've mentioned my other half.  Well, after 15 months of planning and organising we got married at our local registry office on Friday 2nd August.  The day after we had our reception, with about 80 friends and family in the village hall at the end of our road. On the Sunday we took a somewhat smaller self-selected group on a walk to the lovely St Ann's Well for tea, cakes and views across Worcestershire. Then we had a few days to tidy up and relax (organising everything yourselves creates a wonderfully personalised event, but via a lot of work before, during and after!) before we & the dog were off on honeymoon for a week.

We were headed to South Uist, in the Outer Hebrides - home of eagles, rare bumblebees, huge empty white-sand beaches, and interesting marine mammals.  We drove a 9-hour stint to Loch Lomond through some fairly apocalyptic rainstorms, to be greeted by a text from the ferry company warning that our sailing might be cancelled if the weather continued.  The following morning the weather had gone and the Loch was a millpond.

This was usually a road
Loch Lomond on a calm Saturday morning
Slightly spooked by the text, we decided not to hang about and pushed on two hours north to Fort William, where we refuelled the car and ourselves, and then another hour to the Mallaig ferry terminal. Finding (in order) that:
1. the ferries were running fine;
2. we were about 4 hours early to get into the terminal;
3. there were no vacant car parking spaces in Mallaig;
we pushed off south to Morar and explored the dunes for a couple of hours (11-spot ladybird the highlight), before returning to Mallaig at a time better suited to getting on the boat.

When choosing someone to marry, I recommend picking someone who can find you interesting wildlife
Chugging out of Mallaig en route for Lochboisdale
The storm remnants and resulting white horses made spotting anything in the water difficult - a shame, as the ferries have an enviable record of finding marine mammals and large fish - but there were a decent number of seabirds, including plenty of Manx Shearwaters and one Bonxie. Landing at Lochboisdale at 8.50pm, we trundled north (again) and eventually reached our rented cottage at Stilligarry half an hour later, 518 miles and two day's travel from home.

We were staying about half a mile from the dunes along the western edge of South Uist, so first thing the following morning we walked down the track through the machair to the beach.  Machair - intensely flower-rich wet grassland found around the coasts of northern Scotland - is a fantastic habitat for bumblebees and I couldn't resist having a bit of a look.  Sure enough, the first bumblebee we came across was a Moss Carder (Bombus muscorum) - in this case the striking and beautiful island subspecies B. muscorum agricolae.  This is a species which is struggling in England and Wales, but in northern Scotland - especially on the machair - it still seems to be thriving.

Moss Carder braving the weather 
There were plenty of bumbles about and we quickly added more species to the tally. Garden bumblebees (B. hortorum: big, white-tailed bees with three yellow bands); Heath bumblebees (B. jonellus: the Scottish island form with a yellow tail (instead of the usual white) to go with three yellow bands); Common Carder bumblebees (B. pascuorum: brown all over and a relatively new addition to the island fauna).  Then, sheltering from the drizzle under a knapweed flowerhead, we found the crown jewel of Scottish bumblebees: The Great Yellow.  Bombus distinguendus is instantly recognisable - warm golden yellow fur over an elongate frame, broken only by a transverse black band over the top of the thorax. Go back a century, maybe 150 years, and the species was widespread across England, Scotland and Wales, but inexorable habitat loss and degradation means it can now only be found in the extreme north - the Hebrides, Orkneys, and the coasts of Caithness and Sutherland.
The first Great Yellow of the trip. But not the last!
Once we'd calmed down (and stopped the dog trying to eat the bumblebee), we continued down to the beach.  Every other bumblebee was a Moss Carder, and a decent proportion of the rest were Great Yellows - it was becoming very clear why this is such an important area for bumblebee conservation!

We spent the rest of the week in similar fashion.  Fabulous machair all over the place, stuffed with rare bumblebees.  Fox Moth caterpillars wherever you looked, and one unmistakable, unforgettable Emperor Moth caterpillar at Loch Druidibeag, accompanied by Black Darters (Sympetrum danae), another local speciality.  Dolphins offshore from RSPB Balranald on North Uist, Scots Lovage and 11-spot ladybirds on the beach. The remains of Bronze age terraced houses at Cladh Hallan, where the only known British mummies were found.  Carnivorous plants - sundews and butterworts. A Golden Eagle looming low over the car.  Huge Blue-Rayed Limpets on the strandline. Garden Tigers, Antler Moths, Gold Spots, and the exquisite dark northern form of Dark Arches in the garden moth trap (when it wasn't being blown in the direction of mainland Scotland!).

And on our last evening, I took the dog for a walk down the track to the beach again.  It was trying to rain, and the winds were reaching for gale force, but the bumblebees were still out and I counted at least half a dozen Great Yellows amongst the throng.  I looked up and a faint rainbow appeared over the distant hills to the east.  As I watched, a huge bird flapped into view - a Sea Eagle!

It was the first time I'd ever been to the Outer Hebrides. But we're already planning a return trip.

Black Darter, saving energy by riding the dog

A four-inch-long Emperor Moth caterpillar, wandering off to pupate somewhere

Gold Spot moth in the trap

One of four Garden Tigers in pristine condition

The beautiful Hebridean colour form of Geotrupes stercorarius, a dor beetle

Cladh Hallan: human mummies were displayed for hundreds of years in the nearest house here


Sundews in vast profusion

The bee-mimic hoverfly Volucella bombylans
Even the dog noticed the rainbow

The world's worst picture of a Sea Eagle


  1. Have only just discovered this. If you need additional company next time, we're up for it - just sayin'! Not for another honeymoon, because that would be a little weird... ;)

    1. Sounds like a good plan for if we're ever allowed out of the house again! :)

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