Accessible islands with Wheely Braw

Accessible travel, Barra, Island enthusiast, Islay, Tiree

I embarked on my first Hebridean adventure back in 2022 and, as an ambulatory wheelchair user (someone who both walks and wheels), I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t nerve-wracking. My imagination had been captured by all the beautiful Instagram posts showing impossibly turquoise water and pristine white sands. I was eager to know what lies beyond those social media highlights and learn more about the history and culture we’ve become so disconnected from on the mainland. I was already learning Scottish Gaelic and was excited to connect with other speakers. However, in the back of my mind I had reams of worries about accessibility.

The trip was part of my wife’s birthday celebrations, so I wanted to make sure it all went as smoothly as possible. As with any trip I plan, I turned to Google hoping to hit upon a goldmine of accessibility information. Any other wheelchair users reading this will know that those goldmines just don’t exist, not for the Hebrides, not for anywhere in the world – but it’s always worth a try, right? Often, accessibility information can be inaccurate or out-of-date. Before every trip comes a painstaking exercise in making calls, sending emails, scouring blogs and putting out pleas on social media for help. Can I get on the ferry? Is there any accommodation suitable for me? Can I actually get to a beach? I definitely miss the days of “book it and go”.

In the end my wife and I realised we just had to gather as much knowledge as we could and “wing it” with the rest. I’m in the fortunate position of being able to wing it, not everyone can. We explored Eriskay, Uist, Harris, and Lewis, recording the journey as we went – and so the Wheely Braw blog and vlog was born! I can only do so much to highlight accessibility on our islands, though. That’s why I was so pleased to hear how keen the folk at Scottish Islands Passport are to add more accessibility information to the existing wealth of fantastic island knowledge in the app, and to make it more inclusive.

Since our first visit to the Hebrides, we’ve been back time and time again, and added a few other Scottish islands to that list – being sure to get our passport stamps in the app! Each time we’ve faced similar accessibility concerns, but soon the app will contain some basic details to help you plan your visit – how can I get there? What are the roads and pavements like? Where can I find wheelchair accessible toilets? And there might be a hidden gem or two in there too, like the beach wheelchairs that are available for hire in Tiree from Ranger Services, Barra at Bùth Bharraigh , and Islay from SideKick.

Beach wheelchairs allow disabled people like me to get right onto the sand and take in all the sights, smells and sounds of the coast. Many allow you to get right into the water, too. While I haven’t had chance to try out the wheelchairs provided in Tiree, Barra, and Islay, they’re definitely on my bucket list! The truly amazing thing is that these wheelchairs are provided by small community groups and ranger services for the benefit of residents and visitors alike. Island residents have put a lot of hard work into fundraising to make their islands more accessible, and that’s certainly something to celebrate.

Excitingly, the Scottish Islands Passport app now boasts an impressive new addition. Thanks to backing from Paths for All, the Scottish Islands Passport team have introduced new active travel stamps. You can collect stamps for travelling on foot, bicycle, public transport, and of course, by wheelchair. When I first saw the wheelchair stamp, I was so happy! It’s rare to see this kind of representation, and it does truly matter. I was prompted to take a photo of my chair, and the AI recognised it right away. It even recognised my wheelchair selfies, which is important for solo adventurers.

I’m looking forward to getting back to the islands this year and collecting more stamps, armed with better accessibility information to help me make the most of my visits. If you know of any fantastic accessible things to do, walks, places to eat, places to stay, or any other hidden gems, please get in touch! You can find me on Instagram and Facebook @WheelyBraw

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