Winter in the Western Isles

on Dec 02 in News by

Crossing from the tiny ports of Uig on the Isle of Skye to Lochmaddy in North Uist is an adventure with a Force 8 Gale blowing in from the North Atlantic.

Departing from Syke for North Uist

We venture into the open sea and the ferry begins to pitch and roll. Soon we are diving into the waves accompanied by the cacophony of car alarms from below.

I am sitting on deck clutching my seat with both hands. Beside me is Dan, a regional manager from the RSPB, who is trying to fix his eyes on the violently shifting horizon. Every now and again a seabird appears, tacking through the storm, and Dan forgets his seasickness and raises his binoculars to his eyes. ‘Skewer!’

From Dan I learn that the golden eagles and sea eagles are faring well on the Isles, and that North Uist is one of the last places in the Britain to see corncrakes, birds the size of a chicken, that make an annual migration from Africa.

I am also told how a hill runner stumbled across a golden eagle floundering on the ground and assumed it was injured, but it was just diverting attention from its nest built on the open ground.

North Uist is full of birds, with flock sizes not seen on the mainland for fifty years, and this is why is it Dan’s favourite island.

The only other passenger on deck is taking photographs of the waves. ‘Higher!’ he shouts at them with a wild look in his eye. He tells me the short crossing once took him 24 hours. ‘How come?’ I ask hesitantly. He explains how a Force 10 gale prevented the ferry from docking at Lochmaddy so they had to go back to the Isle of Skye, where again they could not dock. The disorientated passengers spent a night and a day in the ferry’s restaurant before they again sailed for Lochmaddy.

After sailing for an hour and a half, a stark mountain looms into view through the sea spray, rising from a drowned landscape. It feels as if we have arrived at the end of the world.

Dan tells me the last time he landed at Lochmaddy he saw an otter sitting nonchalantly on the quayside eating a crab.

A series of causeways, some only recently completed, link the isles of Berneray, North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist, and Eriskay. I will be driving down the entire length to discover what the isles have to offer in winter. I really want to see an otter and the Northern Lights.

Causeway to Berneray

At the first causeway from North Uist to the tiny island of Berneray, an otter-crossing warning sign greets me. Can they really be that common?

I have been warned that a large wave washed a car off the causeway and sadly everyone in the vehicle drowned. I forget the otters and put my foot down.

Duncan Campbell arrived on Berneray in 1952 for two weeks and stayed for two years. The isles witnessed the Hebridean Christian revival that reverberated through history; it still brings a sense of awe and a tear to the eye of the elderly islanders who can remember it.

North Uist

Berneray was also the home of Angus MacAskill, who according to the Guinness Book of Records was the world’s tallest natural giant. Some very tall people still exist amongst the islands 130 or so residents.

The Force 8 gale is still blowing when I arrive at my bed and breakfast accommodation. The place is deserted. I eventually find someone and I am told my landlady has been rushed to Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis for emergency hospital treatment. I hope she is okay.

In the depths of winter the only alternative accommodation is the hostel on the beach, occupying a pair of thatched black houses. I make my way to it.  Nobody locks their front doors on the isles and so I have no problem getting into the hostel, but again it is deserted. It is so close to the raging sea, one big wave could bring the place down, and so I decide to look elsewhere, even though it would be ideal for otter spotting.

I head to the western side of Berneray which is dominated by beautiful white beeches and the ‘machair’ sand-dune pasture. It is an enigmatic, rolling green landscape that in summer is covered in flowers and butterflies.

I see smoke coming from the chimney of a homely croft and decide to knock on the door. An older lady welcomes me in for a cup of tea.

I find myself in the homeliest of rooms, with a cat rolled up in front of the fire. I glance through the window over the machair and beyond to the raging sea. It strikes me as being a royal view, and indeed I learn Prince Charles has stayed at the neighbouring farm.

Mary turns her computer on and she has the world at her fingertips. It is decided I will stay with Peggy in North Uist. Phone calls are made and soon I am on my way to the scattered settlement of Solas. The storm is still raging.

Peat bog, North Uist

The peat bogs are radiating an autumnal whiskey glow that warms my soul. The ever-changing shoreline with brackish lochs must be heaven for those hidden otters. The late evening sun bursts through a gap in the low cloud revealing a rainbow that keeps reappearing throughout my stay.

Peggy speaks in the unhurried, gentle sing-song brogue of the isles, more Irish than Scottish. I am told if I had arrived a week earlier, I would have seen the Northern Lights very clearly for three nights.

Peggy’s husband, John, is going to St Kilda, the most western outpost of the British Isles, by helicopter if the storm will allow, to clear away rocks washed up on the landing dock. A ship has been waiting to deliver vital supplies there for nearly three weeks.

That night the storm blows even stronger. I open the trickle vents in the window in my pleasant room and the force of air is similar to that from a Dyson hand dryer.

In the morning I pull back the curtains and see a view over a bay to the low-lying tidal island of Vallay. I learn that Valley is where Fergus Granville, the sixth Earl Granville, lives with his family. His father moved from their ancestral home in Staffordshire and built a 14 bedroom roundhouse on Vallay and began fish farming. The Queen, his cousin, visited them every year on the Royal Yacht Britannia, and one year got lost on the wrong side of the tidal causeway.

Fergus has created the mail order Hebridean Smokehouse and fresh samples are available to passers by. The fish are transferred from sea to a fresh water loch and tank by helicopter.

The lack of human disturbance means wondrous things are found rummaging around the sand dunes around Vallay. Fergus has found prehistoric flints, Viking pins and a Roman brooch shaped like a hare.

Barpa Langais, North Uist, one of the oldest standing structures in Northern Europe

After learning about the prehistoric finds, I set out across a stark and barren landscape to Barpa Langass, one of the many Neolithic sites on North Uist. Barpa Langass is a remarkable chambered burial cairn, the burial place of a chieftain, which has survived for 5000 years. However, a partial collapse of stones at the entrance in 2011 now restricts access to the inner chamber, where ancient pottery and other artefacts have been found.

The Balrand RSPB reserve, North Uist

From the hill at Barpa Langass, I return to sea level and visit the Balrand RSPB reserve, where Dan is meeting with Jamie, the reserve keeper. As if on cue, large flocks of squawking geese fly over the machair and songbirds flock around bales of straw left out for them. There is abundant life and even in the continuing Force 8 gale, I am reminded of summer. I walk around the wild headland with golden beeches dotted with sea birds and a couple of seals. I find several otter halts, fresh paw prints, and many scats, but the otters remain elusive.

The Balrand RSPB reserve, North Uist

Next I head down across the moors and causeways to South Uist. This is an island the Reformation never reached. From the single track road I look up and see a nine metre high granite statue of Mary, ‘Our Lady of the Isles’ watching over me. I am then amazed to see a Modernist architectural vision thrusting forth from the moor. Did Le Corbusier work in South Uist?

Our Lady of Sorrows RC Church, South Uist, architect Richard J McCarron, 1965

I discover the building is actually Our Lady of Sorrows by the architect Richard J McCarron, dating from 1965. The local parishioners built the church with their own hands over 15 months. It is a remarkably well-preserved example of brutalism, an incongruous sentinel guarding the western abyss.

I continue to drive over the exposed moors and then I reach the final causeway. It stretches over a mile into the sea; completed in 2001 it connects South Uist with the island of Eriskay.

Eriskay

This beautiful little island also appears to be staunchly Catholic, with statues of the Madonna lining the road.

Although it is cold and windy, the sea is a clear, tropical turquoise. The white beeches look as if they belong in the Caribbean. It is a truly wonderful place.

During the clearances, Eriskay is where many of the families that didn’t emigrate settled as refugees. It still feels like a safe harbour. It is also the first place that Bonnie Prince Charlie’s feet touched ‘Scottish’ soil on 23 July 1745.

The Politician on Eriskay is the only pub I have seen on my entire tour of the Western Isles. It is named after the SS Politician, which was carrying 264,000 bottles of whisky to the USA when it hit rocks off Eriskay on 5th February 1941. The islanders ‘rescued’ thousands of bottles of whiskey and several of them were subsequently arrested. I discover a few of the original bottles still survive in the pub.

I am told the local ferries have been cancelled because of the growing storm. It is getting dark and the waves are crashing ominously against the Eriskay causeway. I decide to head back to Lochmaddy in North Uist, where I know nothing will stop the ferry back to the Isle of Skye with its bridge to the mainland, but I will definitely be back.

Nick Corbett www.transformingcities.co.uk

 

The 'machair' dune pasture in summer

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