Where the Defender’s modest pace and tottering handling glared on the mainland’s trunk roads, it nestles into the more laid-back confines of island roads with ease. In fact, other drivers peel out of our way, probably mistaking us for busy farmers.
We explore the Isle of Harris, with its cyan sea over butter-coloured sand, eat a lunch of fresh lobster from an honesty shack and visit Donald John Mackay MBE, the most famous of Harris Tweed weavers, busy in his seaside shed weaving cloth for none other than Chanel, he tells us in that cheery, sing-song brogue that marks native Gaelic speakers apart.
Another, shorter ferry ride across the Sound of Harris treats us to the sight of a huge basking shark, which the Caledonian MacBrayne skipper kindly slows down to show us. It may not have a taste for meat, but being within splashing distance of an animal that’s around seven metres in length still chills the blood.
On North Uist, a single-track coastal drive through the village of Sollas leads us to Botarua, where we meet our local contact, Angus MacDonald.
He greets us with a firm handshake and a grinning beard that almost blends into his chunky sweater. MacDonald farms this land, which is as beautiful as it is harsh. WW2 airmen were tempted to nearby RAF Benbecula with the promise of a woman behind every tree. The punchline: no trees.
We’ve literally reached the end of the road, but our challenge is only just beginning. If we’re to reach the edge of Britain (and the edge of Europe), we need to reach the 650-acre island of Vallay (intriguingly spelled ‘Bhàlaigh’ in Gaelic, pronounced vaa-lay).
Part of MacDonald’s land and home to nothing but highland cattle, the island is separated from our vantage point by two miles of exposed sand – a crossing that’s fun, but far from challenging in a Defender. So we wait…
The next morning, high tide has replaced the inviting expanse of white sand with a restless, swilling tranche of North Atlantic. Depth markers hammered into the sand the previous day tell us the water’s around 1.2m deep – more than twice the Defender’s wading limit.
But several Camel Trophies and the pioneering London to Singapore expedition of 1956 – both of which included deep-river wading – must mean Land Rover has engineered in a healthy tolerance. Surely. Surely?
Save for the common-or-garden raised air intake, our car’s set-up is totally standard. A 2.5-litre four-pot Tdi300 engine generates just 111bhp and 195lb ft, but low range and a differential lock will help us make best use of it, while breather pipes will let air out of the gearbox, transfer box and both differentials without letting water in. And that’s all she wrote.
Land Rover Defender special - Driving a Land Rover from Calcutta to Calais
As its driver, I’m equipped with an afternoon’s wading training in the hillside troughs at Land Rover’s Eastnor Castle customer experience centre – a huge Herefordshire estate where the company also develops its cars – and a pair of wellies.
A cursory risk assessment highlights two main threats to reaching Vallay. Should the raised air intake leak, it would allow water to be ingested into the cylinders, and avoiding engine carnage would require immediate powering down and waiting for the tide to go out before being ingloriously towed to safety. And although the sand is generally firm – “you could drive an artic across it,” says MacDonald – there are patches of gloopy quicksand that could easily swallow our wheels.