Hebridean Hopscotch

24th November 2020

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By Roger Martin

On some long-haul MG trips one does little more than kick the tyres and check the fluids before the start and then hardly unwrap the toolkit from start to finish. And then there is the other sort, and this trip definitely fell into the latter category!

I had long planned to drive the length of the Outer Hebrides from Lewis in the north to Barra in the south and, to my slight surprise, the first four MGA owners that I invited to accompany me in mine all jumped at the chance. Unfortunately, one of the expected MGAs proved less than enthusiastic so, in the event, it was four MGAs and an MGF that actually rendezvoused in Yorkshire on our way to Scotland. Could anything else go wrong?

Well, quite a lot actually. We hadn’t even reached Scotland when one of the MGAs started misfiring at speed. It was one of those nasty problems to diagnose when the car is fine most of the time, especially when stationary and being examined. As the car had recently been serviced by a well-known MG specialist, we started by progressively swapping non-service items on a trial basis, all the way to Stirling.

The distributor cap and HT leads, coil and fuel pump were successively changed by the roadside to no avail. We also fitted a new set of sparking plugs as those in the car were clearly past their best and one had almost no gap at all. However, despite the new fuel pump being fitted, there was still hardly a gush of fuel at the carburettors and the only thing between the new pump and the carbs apart from the fuel line was a disposable fuel filter. Yes, the fuel filter obviously hadn’t been changed in years and was choked with sediment, so simply bypassing it at last put the car to rights. Next stop Ullapool and the ferry to Stornoway and hopefully a trouble-free rest of trip.

Wrong. Having disembarked the ferry at Stornoway we first drove the Eye Peninsula and the north-east coast to Tolsta Head to see ‘the road and bridge to nowhere’ but whilst returning to our hotel my MGA gave a good impression of being steam-powered, slightly misfiring all the way. Yes, the head gasket had gone. Luckily I had taken a spare so, with the aid of a torque wrench purchased locally, we changed it in the hotel car park the following morning and also replaced a squeaking fan-belt on another of the MGAs for good measure.

Normally I would attempt a fairly short road test after such a job but our planned itinerary for the day included the Butt of Lewis which I was determined not to miss, so it was a do-or-die c.60 mile baptism of fire for the new head gasket. Fortunately all went well, so job almost done. Almost, because of course the cylinder head would need to be retorqued. This we did at our next hotel in Tarbert after the following day’s sightseeing, which included the preserved Gearrannan ‘blackhouse’ village with its working Harris tweed loom, the impressive standing stones at Callanish and the Lewis chessman statue at Uig where the originals were discovered.

I should say at this point that although the Outer Hebrides are famed for poor weather our classic car maintenance and sightseeing thus far had been blessed with dry and mostly sunny weather. As we took the ferry from Harris to Berneray and its causeway to North Uist, after a brief visit to Luskentyre Beach and sampling the haddock soup from the Leverburgh ‘Butty Bus’, the blue skies still seemed to bode well. Alas, it was not to be and for the following day and a half the weather was resolutely wet. This didn’t stop our sightseeing but probably the best part of that dreary day was the cosy lunch at the Westford Inn pub at Claddach Kirkibost. There we were notified that the local police had a made a special trip to view our MGs in the pub car park and one of them had thoughtfully asked the landlady to tell us that one of our MGAs had its lights left on.

However, our luck with the weather returned the following afternoon as we continued south across further causeways through Benbecula and on to our South Uist hotel at Pollachar Point. There we enjoyed an idyllic evening watching the sun set over the standing stone with a calm Atlantic Ocean as a backdrop. Only some wayward windscreen wiper arms necessitated toolkit access and some improvisation that evening.

The next day we drove yet another causeway to Eriskay and caught the ferry from there to Barra. There we enjoyed lunch at the airport and witnessed the little Twin Otter aircraft land and take off again, the only scheduled flight in the world to operate from a beach. The next day was our last in the Outer Hebrides, but before we caught the stopping ferry to Oban via Coll and Tiree we traversed our last Hebridean causeway, to Vatersay for a stroll along the idyllic beach at Vatersay Bay.

Oban was originally planned to be the end of our trip but, being so close, we couldn’t miss the chance to visit Mull and Iona so we took an extra day to take in these famous locations. Still under blue skies, we took the ferry to Mull and drove what was almost a ‘rat-run’ of tourist cars and coaches along the mostly single-track road from the Craignure port to the passenger ferry across to Iona and its historic monastery.

Returning via the much less crowded and far more scenic route along Loch Na Keal proved a fitting end to a memorable and probably unrepeatable trip. I say unrepeatable as during the twelve days we were in Scotland we had just one and a half days of rain, and as one of the locals in Oban said: “Make the most of it, it isn’t normally like this here!” Oh, yes. All the MGs did make it safely home, and so they should have, after so many of our spares and tools had been utilised along the way.