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Issue 17 - Western Isles – Island of lost souls

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 17
November 2004


This article is 13 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Western Isles – Island of lost souls

Sally Toms extolls the virtues of one of Scotland's last true Gaelic outposts

At Scotland’s most north westerly point, separated from the Scottish mainland and from Skye by the stormy stretch of water known as the Minch and the Little Minch, there lies a 150 mile long Hebridean island chain known as the ‘The Western Isles’.

The largest of these islands are Lewis and Harris (one island), North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist and Barra. But the Western Isles include countless smaller islands, whose names are only pronounceable in Gaelic and are inhabited only by seabirds and sheep.

Skye is where you will find the most activity. Fifty miles from end to end, it is attached by bridge to mainland Scotland at Kyle of Lochalsh, and is therefore the easiest island to reach. Portree is the multicoloured capital, and is a good starting point for further exploration of these parts.

The Skye-line is dominated by the spectacular Cuillin mountain range, which continues to attract hardcore hill walkers from all over the world. The 986m summit is known as the inaccessible pinnacle’ for reasons all too obvious when you’re standing at the bottom of it.

South of Skye are another group of islands known as the ‘Small Isles’: Rhum, Eigg, Muck and Canna. And, like all of the islands, each is distinctly different: Rhum is a nature reserve entirely owned by Scottish Natural Heritage;Muck is flat and sandy with beautiful shell-sand beaches; Canna has a hill that contains enough iron to affect the compasses of passing ships; Eigg has one rock peak and a turbulent past.

Lewis and Harris are the largest Western Isles; one island divided long ago between the two sons of a Macleod chief. Most of the settlements here are dotted around the coast – inland the soggy peat bogs, rolling moors and shallow lochans are at once both bleak and beautiful. Grey rocks break like old bones through the heather, the road is the only detectable sign of human life.

North Uist is half drowned by lochs, which means it is excellent for both fishing and bird watching (migrant waders in particular). Benbecula links North Uist to South by bridges and causeways, but blink and you’ll miss it. South Uist is the second largest island in the Western Isles and has two distinct halves. The east coast is extremely hilly while the west coast has vast white sand beach running its entire length – 20 miles of it.

The islands south of Barra are known as the ‘Bishops Isles’, so called because for a long time they remained the property of the Church: Vatersay, Sandray, Pabbay, Mingulay, Berneray. All, with the exception of Vatersay, are now uninhabited and there are no facilities or services
of any kind.

Many of the islands in these stormy waters have very high and dangerous cliffs – great for seabirds, but nearly impossible to land on. These islands will only yield their secrets to the most dedicated traveller.

But if you can get there, it is well worth taking a stroll amongst the lazy beds and empty blackhouses. It is amazing how communities managed to survive in such a beautiful, but inhospitable environment.

But survive they did. Crops were not always easy to grow in these harsh conditions, but the islanders made the most of what was available to them – they had seafood and birds in abundance.

It was an everyday activity for the islanders to dangle each other down the cliff faces (some are over 600m) on horsehair ropes to lay traps and collect the eggs and feathers of the birds. Lush vegetation such as sorrel and scurvy grass also grew there, fertilised by the layers and layers of guano. But this task was made no easier by the Fulmar, who can projectile vomit a foul smelling stomach oil up to a meter when alarmed.

So important are these habitats to the fulmar, puffin, razorbill, guillemot, kittiwake, shag, storm petrel, tern, great skua, and black guillemot (to name a few) that many of the islands have been designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest to protect the future of these colonies.

However, birds are not the only animals thriving here; the Shiant Islands (between Harris and the mainland) are overrun by black rats. Ironically, because the rats are now so rare they are regarded by environmentalists to be more important than the birds.

Religion is taken very seriously here, but this too varies from island to island. While Lewis, Harris and some of the other islands are Protestant, South Uist and Barra are staunchly Catholic. Free Presbyterianism also has a great influence.

Most islanders spend the Sabbath in church, and there might be a few raised eyebrows if you were to do something daring like hang out the washing, go surfing, or read a Sunday paper on this special day. And if you are still in any doubt of their conviction, the occasional roadside shrine or nine-metre-high granite Madonna are strategically placed to remind you.

It is also true that the weather can be harsh – there are between 45 and 50 inches of rain a year, and the winds blowing in from the Atlantic can be strong. However, the effects of the Gulf Stream mean that winters here are mild and snow is not as prevalent as in other areas of the country.

There is a soft, ethereal quality to the light this far north, and a summers evening can seem to last forever – in fact it is still light enough at midnight to read a newspaper. Nor could you be better placed for such spectacular sunsets.

Each island is like a microcosm of Scotland’s finest qualities – history, culture, religion, wildlife, archaeology, isolation, beauty and Gaelic hospitality. And what’s more, each is entirely unique. Like siblings, they share the same genetic similarities but each has formed a different personality over the years.

Ounce for ounce, you won’t find anywhere better.