A land of contrasts: Scotland’s Outer Hebrides
by Angelika Dawson
Rugged, rocky mountains.
White, gold, silver beaches.
Blue, teal, crystal clear water.
Peat bog, grassy dunes, flower-strewn machair.
Narrow, twisty, single-track roads.
This describes Scotland’s Outer Hebrides in 25 words or less. My husband John and I explored this archipelago of islands in June. We began our journey on the little isle of Barra, travelling north by causeway or ferry through the isle of Eriskay, to South and North Uist with Benbecula in between, finally landing on Harris and Lewis. With the exception of Eriskay, we spent days on each island walking its beaches, hiking its hills, eating seafood, and interacting with its people. We experienced warm sunshine, driving rain, and always, wind. The words above could describe all of these isles, though each one has its own unique characteristics.
Barra is famous for Traigh Mhor, a strip of beach that also serves as its airport. It is the only beach airport in the world with regularly scheduled flights. Landings are tide-dependent so the schedule changes daily. The fact that this happens at all is a hint to the tenacity and character of the people who live here. Even on a clear, sunny day, the constant wind poses a challenge for even the most skilled pilot.
We took a ferry from Barra to the wee isle of Eriskay. This is where Bonnie Prince Charlie first set foot in Scotland in 1745. It is home to the Eriskay pony, a breed developed in the Hebrides for hard work. When the SS Politician sank just off the coast in 1941, islanders used these ponies to rescue the ship’s cargo: 28,000 cases of whisky! (The story was immortalized in Compton Mackenzie’s novel Whisky Galore!) Eriskay is also home to St. Michael’s – a little Roman Catholic church with a unique altar – built in the shape of the prow of a boat, a celebration of the island’s ties to the sea.
Eriskay is connected to the Uists by causeway. Between South and North Uist is the isle of Benbecula, where we made our home for a week, living in a traditional thatch-roofed, stone cottage. Benbecula is somewhat of a “no-man’s land” dividing the Catholic south from the Protestant north. A stunning statue, Our Lady of the Isles, stands on a hill in South Uist. The Maddona and Child look out over the sea, the Christ child giving His blessing on the isles and standing as a reminder that this is Catholic country.
As soon as one enters North Uist both the religious perspective and the landscape change. North Uist is described as half drowning in lochs: there is more water here than land. It is also home to mysterious standing stone circles and stone cairns. We visited similar sites on Harris and Lewis as well. Archeologists speculate that these stones had some religious purpose although it may never be clear what they were meant for. In North Uist, the religious tone of the islands changes from Catholic to Protestant, a difference that became more pronounced as we traveled further north.
Harris and Lewis is one island and the largest of the Outer Hebrides. The geography here is a mix of mountains and forests, rocky hills, peat bogs, sand dunes and machair (sandy, fertile meadows) and more spectacular beaches. The highest peak – An Cliseam (799 metres) – is in Harris but as one travels further north in Lewis, the vista is peat bog as far as the eye can see. Harris is home to Harris Tweed, the famous wool cloth that is still hand woven by crofters in their own homes. Lewis is the larger part of the island, with Stornoway its main town. It boasts a pretty harbour and is home to Lewis Castle. On the island’s most northerly point, the Butt of Ness, a beautiful Stevenson lighthouse is set dramatically on a cliff top with nesting sea birds all around. Down the west coast are the archeological sites that this area is famous for: the Broch at Dun Carloway, the Blackhouse Village at Arnol and the Callanish Standing Stones.
It is on Harris and Lewis that the influence of the church is felt most strongly. Commerce shuts down on Sundays with shops closed and few restaurants or pubs open. The Free Church of Scotland (Presbyterian, also known as the “Wee Free Church”) is present in every village, and on Sundays the parking lots are full. Gaelic has made a revival here and many churches hold Gaelic services where Psalms are sung unaccompanied in a haunting, chant-like manner with a precentor leading the congregation in unison.
In many ways, the geography and climate of the Outer Hebrides informs the nature of the people who live there, not just in terms of their behaviour but also their character; the wind can be cold but the people are warm and this is what we will remember most about our time here in the Outer Hebrides.
For more on the Dawson’s trip to the Outer Hebrides and the Isle of Skye, visit their blog: adventuresinalba.wordpress.com