Welcome to Benbecula Airport
Benbecula is a hub for the Southern Isles, providing a stepping stone between North and South Uist
Benbecula in Gaelic is Beinn na Faoghla which means “mountain of the ford”. This is a very apt name for the island and its solitary hill, Rueval, which is a stepping stone between North and South Uist. The islands are connected by a series of causeways, but once upon a time crossing to the Uists would mean fording the dangerous stretches of tidal sands.
Ballivanich is also known by its Gaelic name, Baile a’Mhanaich which means “town of the monks”. This refers back to the 6th century when there was a monastery here and the ruins of Columba’s Church can be found just south of the village. Balivanich is the main administrative centre on the island and here can be found a Post Office, hospital, primary school and several shops and cafes.
In terms of population and commerce, it is probably second only to Stornoway, the capital of the Western Isles. Its size is due to the presence of the Army base which supports the MoD rocket range.
Benbecula itself can be divided along the north-south line of the largely single track A865. The eastern two thirds of the island are a jumble of fresh water lochs, moorland, bog and deeply indenting sea lochs. You can get a feel for it by taking the B897 to Peter’s Port, less a port than an isolated pier.
The western third of the island is also lochan-strewn, but contains most of Benbecula’s small area of cultivated land and almost all of its settlement. Its Atlantic fringe is largely machair, sand dunes and wide white beaches. Catch these beaches in the right (or wrong) conditions and you can see why locals call one of them, the beach at Poll na Crann, “stinky bay” as seaweed collected by storms ferments in the sun. The seaweed has long been used for a factory producing alginates. At other times the seaweed is wholly absent and the only smell at Poll na Crann is the scent from the dense carpet of flowers in the surrounding grassland.
This western fringe of Benbecula is also home to the slight remains of Borve Castle and further north, to Nunton House and Steadings, with the nearby remains of a chapel.
Medieval chapel and burial ground on the left-hand side of the road when you are travelling southwards after Balivanich. Nunton Steadings is a visitor centre which includes a museum, art gallery, cafe, function room and a shop selling local produce and crafts. The steadings were part of the Nunton Estate and after a land raid during WW1 they were split into eight crofts. They now belongs to the Uist Building Preservation Trust. Internet access is available. It hosts a variety of events including historical exhibitions and music concerts. Open daily Monday – Saturday.
Borve Castle is a large 14th century stone rectangular keep or hall house of three storeys, with very thick walls, founded by the Macdonalds of Clanranald and once their principal stronghold. It is situated 4 miles south of Balivanich just off the B892. In a charter of 1372 by John, first Lord of the Isles to Ranald, his eldest surviving son, it is described as Vignawawle and John of Fordun in his Scotichronicon, circa 1400, calls it the Castle of Benwevil.
The Community School houses an exhibition area next to the library. There is also a swimming pool and theatre. Regular exhibitions are held at the school and these are open to the general public – just follow the signs from the main entrance. You are also able to look at the books in the library and there are many on the Hebrides. You can also get snacks in the school cafeteria if you don’t mind being surrounded by all the local children at lunch time.
Sgoil Lionacleit (email email@example.com) publishes An t’Uibhisteach, an annual community magazine with poetry, short stories and items of historical and cultural interest relating to the Uists. It costs about £2.
Benbecula Golf Course
Benbecula Golf Course is set on the grasslands between North and South Uist next to the airstrip. The golf course is in a beautiful setting with views out to the Monach Isles. A brand new clubhouse was completed in October 2013, providing changing and toilet facilities with disabled access. The club operates an honesty box payment system and £10 paid at the start of play allows unlimited all-day golf. Balivanich is very close by with restaurants and shops. The course is in very good condition, it was once maintained by the military and now by the members. There are nine holes and eighteen tees, a total length of 4311 yards and par score of 62. There are a number of testing holes for the visiting golfer to discover and some natural hazards such as a large rabbit presence which all adds to the fun of the game.
Uist Sculpture Trail
This provides a pathway for exploration via a series of seven commissioned works by artists. Stones Swim to Islands is situated in the grounds of Balivanich School so please let the school office know of your intention to visit. All sculptures were commissioned by Taigh Chearsabhagh Msueum and Arts Centre. Each sculpture involved the local community in its construction and all provide a place to sit surrounded by sea, islands and sky.
Walking and Cycling
Walking and cycling are both popular on the island as it is fairly flat with lots of tidal bays and unspoilt moorland to explore. Rueval is the only hill on Benbecula and stands at 407 ft. The path to the summit can be accessed from Market Stance and goes past the cave where Bonnie Prince Charlie is reputed to have hidden whilst waiting for Flora MacDonald to arrange his escape from the island. You will see a brown tourist signpost on the main road in the middle of Benbecula. This small side road initially leads to the local refuse tip, where you can park your vehicle. From there, you can go on a 7-8 mile trek there and back, eventually reaching the indented coastline. Along the way, after going past Rueval, the path climbs and you have good views over the islands all around you.
Uist Community Riding School
The school is situated at the Stables in Balivanich and here you can experience the beauty of the Western Isles on one of the well schooled horses. The riding school caters for all ages and abilities and offers a wide variety of all weather activities throughout the year including, beach rides, riding lessons, hacks, pub rides and pony rides. Tel: 01870 602 808.
Tourist Information Centres
Lochboisdale – Isle of South Uist – Tel: 01878 700286 (open Easter to October only)
Lochmaddy – Isle of North Uist – Tel: 01876 500321 (open Easter to October only)
Stornoway – Isle of Lewis – Tel: 01851 703088 (open all year)