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Issue 41 - Western Isles – island paradise

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 41
October 2008


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Western Isles – island paradise

The islands of Scotland's west coast share a rugged wildness but are marked by their amazing diversity too. Dominic Roskrow reports.

It has been said that Scotland is really three nations in one: The Highlands, The Lowlands and the islands. There can be no doubting that the cultures of all three differ markedly, never more so than in the gap between the mainland and the sea, where one historian noted that making comparisons between the strengths and weaknesses on each was like comparing an elephant to a whale.

Focus on the islands though, and dig a bit deeper, and you’ll soon discover that there are some pretty diverse cultures going on here as well. The journey from Orkney to Arran is as big a hike as from Wigtown to Wick, and it feels like it. The region known as the Western Isles, or the Outer Hebrides, is removed and remote from the whisky isles further south, and in themselves stretch more than 150 miles in a chain of islands of varying sizes.

It’s not really so surprising. While throughout the centuries tribes have pillaged, conquered and settled on the mainland, the stream of visitors from other places has been more pronounced on the islands, and as a result they have bequeathed these rocky outposts with a complicated tapestry of cultural icons, temples and burial sites to ensure that they are truly archeological treasure chests. Even the casual visitor need not dig deep to reveal the signs of great and now extinct cultures.

What really makes the Western Isles special, though, is the way the people that currently inhabit them have assumed the best of each cultures, made their homes among the diverse and colourful wildlife and grown to both live in harmony with their surroundings and open them up to the thousands of modern day travellers who visit their shore every year.

The Scots define an island as a piece of land large enough for a sheep to comfortably graze, and in actual fact the Western Isles are made up of a huge number of rock masses ranging from tiny outcrops to small uninhabited islands, and up to the large islands where communities thrive in sizeable towns.

They make for a strange and unique collection of islands, too. Unsurprisingly fierce winds and storms can and do batter their shores, and living on them requires a toughness. Many of the islands have few or any trees because the winds ensure they never go. You’d swear that the seagulls played games in the airstreams, allowing themselves to be flung at the mercy of the elements for hundreds of metres.

And yet despite it all, some of the islands are not particularly cold. The Gulf Stream flows down the west side of Scotland, ensuring that snow and ice are rarely if ever seen. Indeed on the more southern islands palm trees grow – really – and it is because of these milder climes that for many years Prestwick Airport on the mainland was Scotland’s principal international airport because frozen runways were not a threat.

Skye and the Western Isles are, though, pretty bleak and barren places, though that shouldn’t be allowed to detract from their rough and ready charm. Indeed it has been claimed that nowhere will you find a more diverse collection of landscapes, arts, crafts and music. Natural habitats, stunning and unspoilt beaches, an abundance of wildlife and a passion for hospitality ensure that the visitor cannot help but be moved by the Hebridean experience.

Skye is among the most famous of all Scotland’s islands, its history steeped in romance and legend, its present a heady mix of stunning but unsettling beauty and exhilarating landscapes, a place where people can confront nature at its most bleak and challenging. Here, jagged rocks stand defiant against harsh wind and rain, and even on the finest of days a chill breeze can sweep through the glens and across the lochs to remind you that nature really isn’t far away.

These days Skye is linked to the mainland by a bridge, but that has done little to tame the island’s independent spirit. And while much of Scotland offers outstanding trekking, climbing and other sporting opportunities, Skye can claim to offer world class challenges.

The Cuillins are right up there in the ‘must do’ lists of most serious climbers. If testing the body against nature’s extremes isn’t for you, however, there is plenty more on offer here, and a closer examination of the island reveals a tender, delicate and sensitive side. Fine art and crafts on offer here, and fine restaurants and outstanding hotels ensure that should you so wish it, luxury and indulgence are not far away.

The Western Isles snake down the coast in ramshackle fashion. The biggest and most northerly island is Lewis and it also boasts the biggest population. In all more than 6000 people live in the town of Stornaway, a bustling port and the biggest town in the Western Isles.

Lewis has for many centuries been a sanctuary, resting point and target for occupation. Neolithic standing stones older than the Egyptian pyramids, Pictish roundhouses and Norse mills are all lasting testament to the many travellers that have made the island their permanent home.

The island takes the full force of the North Atlantic swell so its coasts are battered by wave and wind and it has dramatic and often breath-taking surf. The sea, unsurprisingly, teams with wildlife and it’s not uncommon to see seals, sharks, whales and dolphins off the island’s shores.

Quiet and relaxing it may be, but if you want something a little bit more lively then a weekend in Stornaway may well be for you.

There’s a need here to make your own entertainment and the local folk do, with busy bars and restaurants, a full programme of events and Saturday night ceilidhs to rock and reel you towards the early hours.

Harris isn’t quite as lively but it’s carving out an enviable reputation for its hospitality and its role as a film set – Castaway is filmed here and a couple of big television series and films are set against its diverse and otherworldly backdrop.

Few places can boast such visual diversity.

The east coast is an unforgiving coastline of ragged and rough rock, the west sprawling golden sand. The views, white and turquoise sand and sea, match the stunning locations of paradise islands across the world – were that they were warm as well!

You reach North Uig by ferry from Harris and if you’re a lover of angling or birdwatching, it’s the island for you.

Certainly Prince Charles rates it – it’s said to be his favourite island, and its 13 mile length offers a rich mix of fish and birdlife. The island is covered in lochs so it’s possible to find waters teeming with fish and have them all to yourself. Nine thousand grey seal pups are born here every year, and ornithologists can spot some of Britain’s very rarest birds.

Next on is South Uist, where Hebridean traditions such as peat cutting, wool dying and seaweed gathering are still carried out. A causeway has been built to link the island to smaller of Eriskay and its Am Politician pub, restaurant and guesthouse, named after the ship that sank off its coast in the 1940s and the inspiration for the famous book and film, Whisky Galore.

South Uist is another island with stunning views, unspoiled beaches and wonderful walking country. Between North and South Uist and linked by causeways is Benbecula, known as the island of fords. Despite its modest size it has an airport, golf courses, hotels, cafés, gift and grocery shops and even a college. It’s odd in so much that outside Lewis it is the most developed island, but once you’re past the human concentrations it, too, is a pretty and diverse island with plenty to recommend it.

Look at a map of the Outer Hebrides and it’s as if they start with the biggest furthest north and drain away as you travel south.

Bringing up the rear is the smallest and most southerly of the Western Isles, Barra. It is also the most secluded and has just one circular road taking you round it. This makes it perfect for touring, and it attracts visitors for its amazing flora and fauna – it has more than 1000 species of wild flower. The main harbour town is Castlebay and the people here are known for their ability to throwwonderful ‘all welcome’ parties and ceilidhs.

The Outer Hebrides are a potent mix of natural beauty, beautifully relaxing locations and homely hospitality. A journey through the isles is like going to another world, but there’s plenty to do and see to hold the attention. It takes some dedication to reach them, and many don’t find the time.

A shame – because they represent a side of Scotland that can’t be found elsewhere. Aside that adds so much to the nation’s complexity.