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Northern Benbecula, with North Uist Beyond,  from the Single Track A865
Northern Benbecula, with North Uist Beyond, from the Single Track A865

The name Benbecula (Beinn na Faoghla) means The Mountain of the Fords. The origin of the "mountain" part of the name is a little ambitious. Benbecula's highest hill is the 124m or 407ft high Ruabhal, which can be climbed via a track leading from Stansa na Feille on the main road that runs down the centre of the island.

Stepping Stone Restaurant in Balivanich
Stepping Stone Restaurant, Balivanich
Isle of Benbecula House Hotel
Isle of Benbecula House Hotel
Housing in Balivanich
Housing in Balivanich
Beach at Poll na Crann
Beach at Poll na Crann
Old Chapel at Nunton
Old Chapel at Nunton
Borve Castle
Borve Castle

The origin of the "fords" is more obvious. Benbecula used to be famous, or notorious, for its fords leading to North Uist and South Uist: North Ford and South Ford respectively. An English visitor in the 1880s noted that in Benbecula the state of the fords replaced the discussion of the weather more common elsewhere in the UK.

War Memorial on the A865
War Memorial on the A865
Cottage on Benbecula's West Coast
Cottage on Benbecula's West Coast
Pier at  Peter's Port
Pier at Peter's Port
Landmark: Water Tower in Balivanich
Landmark: Water Tower in Balivanich

South Ford was crossed by an 82 span concrete bridge between Benbecula and South Uist in 1942. This single-lane bridge was about 800 metres in length and crossed by eight spans from Benbecula to Creagorry Island and then on South Uist. It allowed Benbecula's new RAF base (now Benbecula Airport) to be connected by road to the ferry port of Lochboisdale. The bridge was deteriorating by the 1970s and was replaced by the South Ford causeway you drive across today, opened in a ceremony held in a severe gale on 18 November 1982.

North Ford remained a problem. For significant parts of each tide cycle it was too wet to ford, but not wet enough to cross by ferry. This all changed on 7 September 1960 when the late Queen Mother opened the North Ford Causeway. This five mile arc of single track road links North Uist and Benbecula via the western tip of Grimsay. It made the newspapers later that week when motorists from Lochmaddy reached Lochboisdale within a day using the new causeway: something unheard of until then.

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 as a fertiliser on crofting land, but more recently has also been used as the raw material 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.

Balivanich lies at the north west corner of Benbecula and is the main centre of population. Its size, and its architecture, is largely due to the RAF station, now Benbecula Airport, and to the Ministry of Defence missile range whose headquarters are located here, though in recent years the size of the English-speaking community within this largely Gaelic-speaking environment has tended to diminish as parts of the military presence have been run down.

South Ford Causeway to South Uist, Seen from South Uist
South Ford Causeway to South Uist, Seen from South Uist
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