Should we go out to the castle today? Hmm, no – the weather was too dreich again. Instead, we headed out of Castlebay for a short walk. Starting at Loch Tangasdale, we first passed MacLeod’s Tower, built in 1430 by the son of Marion of the Heads. She was the widow of the chief of Clan MacNeil and had her two stepsons beheaded so that her own son would inherit.
Loch Tangasdale and MacLeod’s Tower
Further on, in a small glen, are the ruins of an old settlement inhabited by another MacNeil, Roderick the Dove, in the 18th century. His name suggests he was much nicer than Marion!
As the path climbed, we could see down to Halaman Bay at the side of which perches the Isle of Barra Hotel – this is where we stayed during our 1990s trips to Barra.
Isle of Barra Hotel
The climb to Dun Ban, the 2000 year old remains of a fortified broch, was rugged but worth it. I liked the way the stones had been taken over by nature.
At Dun Ban
At Dun Ban
At Dun Ban
At Dun Ban
At Dun Ban
On our return, we dropped down onto the beach at Halaman – probably a mistake! As the rain and the wind built up we got soaked through and the sand whipped into our faces. As we struggled to stay upright on two feet, hopping on one leg to don the waterproof trousers wasn’t an option. It was still beautiful though, and I don’t think you can tell from the pictures how bad the weather was. (As a bonus, I’ve included a picture of me on the same beach on a better day in 1992).
We have rarely been so pleased to reach the car. When we got back to the hotel, we just had time for a quick change of clothes before we caught last orders for lunch.
A relaxing afternoon with a book followed. Amazingly, the sun came out later and it was a lovely bright evening. We watched the ferry dock from our room and managed to bag a window seat at dinner. Not a bad day overall, despite the weather doing its worst – slàinte!
I last wrote about our Hebridean Hop at the beginning of November – how time flies! We had just arrived in Barra, our last port of call on the trip. Now the story continues …
Our first morning dawned very dreich – not the weather for getting the boat out to the castle as planned – so we visited Dualchas, the small heritage centre, instead. (No photography allowed.) Its main collection heavily features the history of the herring industry: more interesting than it sounds, particularly the story of the herring girls who followed the fish down the coast to Great Yarmouth as long ago as the 1880s. (There’s an interesting post about them on F Yeah History.) The special exhibition when we were there was on Father John MacMillan (1880-1951), another of the inspirational island priests we kept coming across on our travels. A few days later, we went searching for his grave: apparently 1200 people attended his funeral.
It wasn’t quite lunchtime, but we needed somewhere to go to plan our next move so headed for Macroon’s Café in the Post Office. Both parts of the business are run by an enterprising Yorkshire couple who relocated to Barra after redundancy simply because they liked Whisky Galore – Macroon is the name of the postmaster in the film. The scones, as you can see above, are awesome.
Our decision was to drive to Vatersay, a neighbouring island attached to Barra by a causeway, to take a walk there. After parking the car, we headed for Tràigh Siar (West Beach) passing the memorial to the Annie Jane on the way.
Annie Jane memorial
Traigh Siar, Vatersay
The Annie Jane ran aground here in 1853. With at least 450 emigrants bound for Canada (it’s impossible to say exactly how many because children’s names were not recorded), the ship hit rocks in a storm and broke into three parts. Only about 100 people survived, and the dead were buried in two mass graves in the dunes.
At the end of the beach, we turned uphill to the summit of Dun Vatersay. This was very wet and boggy, and the locals watched us struggling with some interest! From the top we could see both Tràigh Siar and Bàgh Bhatarsaigh (Vatersay bay) as well as Vatersay village.
We continued the boggy struggle, passing a standing stone (though some think it might be just an old gatepost) on our way to Bàgh a Deas (South Bay) which we shared with more locals.
Vatersay standing stone
The next point of interest was the ruined village of Eorisdale built by the Vatersay Raiders. At the beginning of the 20th century the island, which her tenants farmed as a single holding, was owned by Lady Gordon Cathcart. Pressure on land throughout the Western Isles led ten men to raid Vatersay, build huts and plant potatoes without permission. In 1908, some were imprisoned for refusing to leave, but the case caused an outcry across Scotland, and in 1909 the Government responded more positively by buying the island and dividing it up into 58 crofts. The village was built at this time and was inhabited as recently as the 1970s.
Finally, after more boggy walking, we descended to Vatersay Bay.
We’d been here before! The first photograph below shows me with our friends John and Pat in 1993. I remember then there were lots of abandoned cars in the dunes. We didn’t spot any this time, but they are probably still buried there – the next photograph of the fence at the top of the dunes on the way back to the car shows how quickly the sand can shift.
Vatersay Bay 1993
Sand dunes, Vatersay
On the way back we stopped a couple of times – at the unusual war memorial and at a viewpoint over Castlebay.
It was time to move on to the last port of call in our Hebridean Hop. After checking out of the Lochboisdale Hotel we had a couple of hours to kill before the ferry, so decided to explore the most incongruous building we had seen on the island, Our Lady of Sorrows RC Church. It was built in 1965 (architect Richard McCarron – nope, me neither) so was obviously there on our previous visit, but I have no memory of it and was quite shocked the first time we drove past it this year. I’m not a fan of brutalist architecture anyway, but here it seemed particularly out-of-place – though it was much more attractive inside.
Next, a short walk – a plethora of signs, some (almost) free-range pigs and some seaweed. I love how it looks monochromatic orange from a distance, but close up is completely different.
Just time for a quick coffee in the Kilbride Café, then it was over the causeway to Eriskay for the Barra ferry. In 1989, we left the Outer Hebrides after South Uist and took a ferry to Skye. However, we have been to Barra twice before for long weekends in 1992 and 1993 with our friends Pat and John. On one of them we took the small foot ferry to Eriskay for the day.
The harbour and ferry have changed a bit!
On our previous visits to Barra we arrived by air. Tràigh Mhòr (Big Beach) is an airport like no other, the only one in the world where scheduled flights land on the beach. The timetable therefore varies according to the tides.
In the early 90s, the facilities were little more than a hut, but now it has a café, which our guidebook recommended, so we headed straight from the ferry port to the airport. As we approached we could see quite a crowd lined up along the fence, many with huge camera lenses pointing at the sky. We guessed the plane was due – here it comes!
For any aviation buffs out there, the plane is a 19-seater Twin Otter, the same model that we flew in, though not the same aircraft. For anyone more interested in the food – yes, the café was excellent!
From the airport, we headed south to Castlebay, Barra’s largest settlement and our home for the next five nights. We stopped in the car park at the base of Heaval, Barra’s highest hill, from where we looked down on the village – see why it is called Castlebay?
We also looked up to Heaval and the white marble statue Our Lady of the Sea.
I know this is a terrible picture – visibility was very poor – but I wanted to include it for comparison, because on our previous visits we climbed Heaval both times. Not this time – the weather and dodgy knees were against us.
We checked into the Castlebay Hotel – a room with a view! Every night we watched the ferry dock.
The weather had improved before dinner so we had a quick stroll round. The church and the main street:
The bank wasn’t looking it’s best, but it has had its glory days in the past, “playing” the Post Office in the film Whisky Galore:
The Herring Trail commemorates what was once a major industry on Barra:
A mosaic of Barra landmarks and a lime-kiln:
Kilns like this one were used throughout the Hebrides to produce lime for mortar and limewash, in some cases as late as the 1930s. This one was built more recently by Historic Scotland to replicate the mortar which holds the medieval walls of Kisimul Castle together. That was one place we would definitely be visiting in the next few days. We couldn’t wait – but we had to! And so will you, dear reader. Having kept a couple of posts ahead for the last few weeks, this is the last I have prepared and I have a busy week coming up. More on Barra as soon as I have time …
On our last day in South Uist, we headed first along a winding B road to Loch Skipport, a picturesque sea loch on the west coast. Strange to think that the ramshackle pier, what’s left of it, was where the Royal Yacht Britannia used to dock.
On the way there and back we were waylaid by curious ponies.
Staying on the B road, we parked at a point where we could pick up the Hebridean Way. The plan was to follow it across the moors to the main road and the east coast machair which we would follow back round to the B road junction, returning along it to the car.
The Hebridean Way here was curious – boardwalks over the wettest bits at either end, but horribly boggy in the middle. Didn’t they have enough money for it to meet up? The loch here is Druidbeg.
As we approached and crossed the main road, the terrain changed to farmland and then machair. The ruin on the small loch is Caisteal Bheagram, a 15th/16th century tower.
A nattily dressed scarecrow and some bale art. You might just be able to make out the military installation on the hill in the background.
Fortunately, we had nothing to fear! Other than the slightly improvised looking bridges.
And the weather. You can probably tell from the pictures that it had been pretty grim all day.
Below is the last photograph we took, timed around 14:30, just before the rain became torrential. We walked up this track to the main road, where we crossed to the B road to walk back to the car in very unpleasant conditions.
Although it was still early, there was nothing for it but to return to the hotel to dry out, and to pack up. The next morning we were heading off for the last island of our Hebridean Hop – Barra.
Every day, as we drove in and out of Lochboisdale, we could see the lipstick-pink roof of the post-office which doubles as the local café. Our guidebook recommended the coffee, so we decided to try it out. It was indeed good, but as we’d just had breakfast we couldn’t face trying the delectable looking baking.
We had two walks in mind, the first being the peninsula of Rubha Aird a’ Mhuile. We parked at St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church which we explored before setting off.
The walk took us past the remains of an Iron Age broch and a Viking settlement but, honestly, the photographs just look like stones in the grass so I’ll skip them! The trig point marks the most westerly point of South Uist.
I found the second walk more interesting, at Howmore (Tobha Mòr). Again, we parked at a church, this time Church of Scotland – the one Catholics were cleared off the land to build, as we had read in the museum a few days before. It’s also one of the few remaining churches in Scotland with a central communion table.
From here, we walked out along the beach and back along the machair. Stunning. Again.
On our return to Howmore, we explored its ancient chapels – no less than four of them, the oldest probably dating from around 1200. The site, next to the thatched youth hostel, is also a graveyard. I love the way nature is reclaiming the stones.
The day had a final surprise for us. The view from our hotel, which I’ve featured a couple of times, was transformed with another island clearly visible which we could not see before. I’m told this is Rùm.
Just one more day on South Uist. So far, it had been cold but reasonable dry. Would our luck hold?
Benbecula is a small island – eight miles by eight miles – squashed between North and South Uist. It’s generally flat with more loch than rock, but still had plenty to occupy us for a day. We started by climbing the high point – Rueval, at 406 feet not much of a challenge (the higher hills in the distance are on North Uist).
Loch Ba Una
We were followed up by a family of three. You can see the mother and daughter in one of the pictures above, and if you enlarge it you will see that they are wearing skirts. Not ideal hiking garb, but at least they had boots. The father was too close to photograph unobtrusively, but I can report that he was dressed for the city – collar and tie, overcoat and smart leather shoes. As this was a wet, boggy climb I dread to think what state they were in by the end of it!
After marvelling at other people’s odd clothing choices, we headed back to the car and drove off in search of lunch. This we found at yet another of the excellent Hebridean bistros which have sprung up over the last few years – Charlie’s at Bailivanich.
Next stop, Nunton (once site of a convent, hence the name) and the ruins of Teampall Mhoire (Chapel of Mary).
As always, I looked for interesting gravestones. The two below told a sad story of three MacDonald brothers lost too soon, but the information which caught my eye first was that one of them died in Belvidere Hospital in Glasgow. Long-term readers might recall that last year I took part in a historical research / creative writing project about the nurses at the Belvidere around the time of the First World War (The Zombie Ward), so I honed in on this immediately.
Teampall Mhoire graveyard
Teampall Mhoire graveyard
Across the road from the chapel was Nunton Steadings, an 18th century farmstead which our guide-book claimed to be a heritage centre, shop and tearoom, but it was no longer functioning as such. An interesting plaque commemorated its history as site of a land raid in 1923 but, in the absence of the heritage centre, I had to look this up later. I found the story on the website of Nunton House Hostel which stands opposite the Steadings.
In the 19th century Benbecula and South Uist were owned by Colonel John Gordon of Cluny, a ruthless landlord who cleared tenants from much of his land, including Nunton Farm, to be replaced by sheep. After the First World War, the government promised to return land to ex-soldiers, a promise which it did not keep, hence the raid after which the farm was split into eight crofts. Nunton House was also divided, the occupant of 4 Nunton being Roderick MacDonald – look back at those gravestones! 4 Nunton is now the hostel and the rest of the house is privately owned.
Our last walk of the day was on the Isle of Flodaigh where we hoped to see seals. On the way, the hills of North Uist were looking particularly beautiful and it was necessary to stop several times to look at them. The central peak is Eaval.
Flodaigh is a tiny islet connected by a suitably tiny causeway to Benbecula. As we walked out to the seal viewing spot we passed a car which will never go again. According to our walking guide it had been pressed into service as a seal information centre, but even this role was now long behind it. And what’s that in the bracken? A sculpture? Or a rusting farm implement? Let me think …
We did see seals, but once again the otters refused to appear.
Despite that, it was a lovely spot to just sit awhile and appreciate the gorgeous colours.
And then – back to our hotel on South Uist after another wonderful day. Could we keep finding beautiful places to visit for the rest of our stay? I’ll leave you to guess till next time.
The main road heads up the spine of South Uist and Benbecula to North Uist, where it turns into a loop. Pretty as it is, we didn’t want to keep driving up and down the same stretch so decided to cover as much of North Uist as we could in one day, tackling the loop clockwise.
First stop was for coffee and scones in Kirkibost Hebridean Kitchen, another of the fabulous community enterprises that have sprung up since our last visit. We had a cheek really, given how much hotel breakfast we had eaten, but the scones proved too hard to resist.
We attempted to walk them off at Balranald RSPB Nature Reserve (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds). We saw more cows than birds, but the scenery was beautiful, a mixture of machair and beaches. At the end, we were unaccountably peckish again and stopped at the campsite’s catering caravan for some delicious home-made lentil soup.
We got glimpses of the abandoned islands of St Kilda from the nature reserve, but after lunch we headed (by car) up the hill of Cleitreabhal a Deas where there is an observation platform with telescope. It was actually clear enough to see the islands with the naked eye. If you look very carefully at the horizon in the first picture below there is a hump slightly to right of centre, Boreray, and a more elongated form to the left is Hirta. Boreray, much zoomed, is in the second picture flanked by Stac Lee and Stac an Armin.
Back in the car again, we made a quick stop at Scolpaig Tower, an 1830s folly in the middle of a loch.
This sightseeing is thirsty work – the next stop was the hotel in Lochmaddy, North Uist’s largest village, for a coffee, then a quick walk over a funny little suspension bridge to The Hut of the Shadows. This structure is Neolithic in appearance, but was created as an artwork in 1997 – inside it’s a camera obscura and an image of the loch lapping peacefully appears on its walls.
By this time it was half past 5 – and so much more to do! A circular walk would have taken in two ancient sites – the Neolithic tomb of Barpa Langass and the stone circle of Pobull Fhinn (Fingal’s People), but in the end we drove between them. It’s no longer possible to go into the tomb because of roof falls – relief from me, but John would have been game.
Pobull Fhin is the largest stone circle on Uist with about 24 stones (not all still standing).
We’d reached the end of the loop now, but made a couple more stops on the road as it headed south to Benbecula. We turned off at Baleshare, following signs to a road-end sculpture which turned out to be a sweeping ceramic tiled seat designed by local schoolchildren (tbh we were expecting a bit more than this!)
Our last visit was to the Church of the Holy Trinity, site of a medieval monastery and college. To get there, we had to walk alongside the Ditch of Blood commemorating the Battle of Carinish on 1601 between the MacDonalds and the MacLeods (if there are any MacDonalds or MacLeods reading, the MacDonalds won).
It was now quarter to 8, and far too late to get back to our own hotel for dinner, so we stopped off at the Dark Island Hotel in Benbecula. I can report that they do good pizza.
We finally got back to Lochboisdale about 10pm. “Our” view was still there and the ferry was in – once again, we were staying somewhere that we could watch the ferry arrive in the evening, and hope it did not wake us up with its early morning departure. This one serves Mallaig on the mainland so would not be the one we would catch in a few days time – we had another island as our destination.
It had been a long day and we were glad to turn in. The following morning we planned to head back up to Benbecula to explore it further.
The west coast of South Uist is just one long beach. Our first walk of the day took in a bit of it, as well as the machair behind. Although it looks like no more than a wildflower meadow, the machair is cultivated and every so often you come across a patch of grain grown for cattle feed, or potatoes as below.
We also took in Cladh Hallan, the remains of three Bronze Age roundhouses. Not much is visible, other than depressions in the ground, but the history is fascinating. Excavations from 1988 to 2002 showed that the middle house had been occupied for 900 years, making it one of the longest continuously inhabited prehistoric houses in the world. Several skeletons were discovered, one – a female – dating back to 1300BC, i.e. around the time of Tutankhamun. Two of the bodies had been preserved in peat bogs for many centuries before being buried and had been mummified, making Cladh Hallan the only site in Britain where prehistoric mummies have been found. Not bad for a little patch of grass!
We next stopped off at Flora MacDonald’s birthplace, she who helped Bonnie Prince Charlie escape after Culloden, although archaeologists these days think this may not be exactly the right place.
Our main destination for the day was Kildonan Museum. Although it now holds over 10,000 items related to the social, domestic and cultural history of South Uist, its origins lie in 700 items collected by Father John Morrison in the 1950s and 1960s which he displayed in a small thatched cottage. (This is the same priest who became known as Father Rocket for his opposition to military developments on the island and who commissioned Our Lady of the Isles, as mentioned a couple of posts ago). We remember visiting a little heritage centre on our last visit in the 1980s, and this must have been it.
When he left for a mainland parish, Father Morrison signed over his collection to be held on behalf of the people of South Uist. Until 1997, when the modern museum was built, it was displayed in an old school-house (the tin-roofed building in the gallery below).
We were really impressed with the museum, not least because it had a café where we had a good lunch. We learned new things about the impact of the Clearances for example. I knew people were cleared off the land because the owners wanted to graze sheep, but I was shocked to learn about Catholics being cleared to make room for Protestants. In 1854, Howmore Church, which we would visit a few days later, was built. The Catholic tenants were evicted by the factor and the minister brought in Protestants from Skye to form a congregation. Horrifying!
We found out more about Father Allan MacDonald whose grave we had visited in Eriskay the day before.
And also about the bard Donald Allan MacDonald whose memorial we passed every day on our way to and from Lochboisdale.
One thing the museum wasn’t very good at was having believable mannequins. I collected a few images which I hope will amuse Jessica at Diverting Journeys who has a bit of a thing about them. The guy in red, a ferry captain, is particularly disturbing!
After the museum, we headed onto the east coast and Loch Eynort. One local man, Archie MacDonald, has planted over 100,000 trees here and provided 5 km of pathways through his croft, even lugging benches up the hill. We salute him!
As we followed the loch-shore path, it began to rain and we could see a glow ahead of us.This led to one of the most beautiful rainbows I can remember seeing, with a ghost of a double too. Breath-taking.
Our itinerary today was not unique to us. We had one of those days, which I’ve mentioned before, where we met the same people all the time, in this case a Slovenian couple. They were at Flora MacDonald’s birthplace and the museum, and as we arrived at the Loch Eynort car park they gave us a cheery wave as they drove off. It reminded us of our 1989 visit to South Uist when we seemed to follow a Belgian car everywhere, a red Volvo from which four small faces peered out of the back window. Did this inspire a love of the Hebrides? Every time we saw a Belgian car on this trip I wondered if the driver was one of those children grown up!
The next day, we set off to explore North Uist, our longest day by far.
The Lochboisdale Hotel was our South Uist home for the next week. The hotel itself has seen better days, though the staff were lovely, the food was good, and we never tired of admiring this view which was taken from below our bedroom window.
The hotel first opened in 1882, so can be forgiven a few quirks. I rather liked that they honoured one of the previous hosts with this memorial in the carpark. He had a long tenure.
On our first morning, we decided to walk round to the new marina which was opened in 2015. On the way we passed this signpost – it was nice to know how far we were from home, and I can understand why Mallaig was there (ferries run from Lochboisdale to Mallaig on the mainland), but Prince Edward Island? I thought maybe it was a nod to the wave of emigration to Canada in the 1920s, but I read that Alberta was the most common destination. It’s a puzzle! The other picture is just because I loved the vivid colour of the seaweed.
More signs! We often saw “otter crossing” warnings in the Hebrides but, sadly, no otters. The other sign was typical of those at many new developments with its nod to the support of the European Regional Development Fund. How’s that going to work out after Brexit then? (Rhetorical question – don’t tell me!)
The marina is beautiful with our hotel glistening whitely behind it. And look at the sky and the sea! It was going to be a good day.
From the marina, we headed back to the hotel to pick up the car: destination Eriskay. To get there, we had to drive to the southern tip of the island. We stopped off at another old hotel, the Polochar Inn, and its nearby standing stone.
From here, we drove along the south coast in some excitement – this is where we stayed in 1989. I remember the shock when the woman in the Tourist Information Office told us she had found us a B&B in East Kilbride. At the time, I worked in a very different East Kilbride, a town near Glasgow. The first shock this year was to come across this beautiful camp site and café. There was absolutely nothing like that along this road 30 years ago. Of course, we had to stop for a coffee.
The next shock was that our B&B had gone. It was right next to the Ludaig ferry which (at the time) crossed to Eriskay. The picture of John with the cat is 1989, but the pictures of the ferry and the house below that were taken in 1993 from the Barra-Eriskay ferry. Further below that is the house which has replaced “ours”.
We have stayed in many lovely B&Bs and inns over the years, but somehow this one remains particularly magical in our memory. We remember so clearly the woman who ran it with such warm hospitality, and had a fantasy that she’d still be around and we might run into her. After the disappointment of finding the house had been replaced, John did a bit of Googling and discovered she died in April. I actually felt quite sad about someone I had only met for a few days nearly 30 years ago.
Anyway, onwards. There is now a causeway to Eriskay and the ferry has disappeared too. On arrival, we parked at the community hall and headed for the village. This cottage caught our eye with its owl perched on the fence.
Then before long, what do you know? We reached the pub, Am Politician, and it wasn’t too early for lunch. It hasn’t changed much – we also came here on our 1993 trip with our friends Pat and John.
Am Politician is named after the SS Politician which ran aground in the Sound of Eriskay in 1941 – carrying 22,000 bottles of whisky! The subsequent raiding and plundering inspired Compton Mackenzie’s novel Whisky Galore, and the film based on it. (Galore, meaning abundance, comes from the Gaelic gu leòir meaning plenty, so it’s an appropriate title.)
From the pub, we could look back at the (much-zoomed) Polochar Inn.
Then we reached another lovely graveyard overlooking the sea (I’m losing count of how many that is now).
The three stones in a row are unknown sailors from the Merchant Navy in the Second World War. The Celtic cross marks the grave of Father Allan Macdonald, Eriskay’s priest from 1894-1905, who built St Michael’s Church which is still in use. He was also a renowned poet, bard and Gaelic scholar.
Our next stop was Coilleag a’ Phrionnsa (the Prince’s Cockle Strand) where Charles Edward Stuart landed in 1745 to start the, ultimately unsuccessful, Jacobite Rising.
Have you seen those dreadful articles and adverts that advise you how to get your beach body ready? (The correct answer being: have a body, go to the beach.) Here’s the beach body I needed – clad in three layers, all fastened up almost to the chin!
A bit of road walking now took us to another beautiful bay. I liked this sign on the way. Na Pairceanan is the Gaelic name of this area, but to me it looked remarkable like Nae Parkin’, the Glaswegian for No Parking. Small things amuse me sometimes …
As we rounded the bay, a rock face decorated with the Stations of the Cross led up a grassy hill to a cross and an excellent viewpoint.
Retracing our steps, we continued round the bay. These small islets with deer and goat sculptures were part of someone’s garden.Continuing to the far end of the bay, we crossed the headland to another small bay on the other side. It was peaceful and pretty, but our walking map suggested there might otters and they resolutely refused to appear.
Retracing our steps again, we walked back up the road and climbed to Loch Crakavaig where the map indicated we might see some rare Eriskay ponies. This time we were lucky!
Descending the hill, the road took us back to our car at the community hall, passing Our Lady of Fatima who marks the site of the original church on the island.
Then it was back over the causeway to South Uist for dinner and to make plans for another day’s exploring.
We never tired of watching ferries. Our hotel in Tarbert was right next to the pier and we could see the boat coming in as we had dinner. (It wasn’t such fun hearing it leave early in the morning though.) Very convenient, too, for our onward journey you might think, but no. That was the Skye ferry and we were off to South Uist, so we had a drive to Leverburgh first.
This was a short journey – just an hour – on a much smaller ferry. We were first on and first off, and slightly alarmed at how close our car was to the ramp, especially when it started to descend for arrival and we could see the sea!
Although our ultimate destination was South Uist, the ferry deposited us in Berneray leaving us several more islands to cross. This is another change over the last few decades – more causeways have been built. When we island hopped in 1989, North Uist, Benbecula and South Uist were already joined, but new causeways north to Berneray and south to Eriskay have extended the chain.
But first things first – lunch! As I’ve mentioned before, the number and quality of cafés in the Hebrides has increased markedly since our previous visits, and all that we tried were excellent. The Berneray Bistro was no exception.
As we’d not been to Berneray before, we decided to take a walk here before moving on and chose the South Berneray loop. This took in machair (a fertile mix of sand and peat, often covered in wild flowers in summer) and both rocky and sandy beaches.
We passed another of those lovely coastal cemeteries and a memorial to Angus MacAskill, the Nova Scotia giant. The plaque records that Angus was born in 1825 and grew to 7 feet 9 inches in height “without pathological defect”. He emigrated to Canada in 1831, achieved many feats of strength and is remembered as “a kindly and just man and a humble Christian”.
After our walk, we drove straight through North Uist and Benbecula – we would return to explore them later in the week – and made just one brief stop in South Uist.
Our Lady of the Isles, at 30 feet tall the largest religious statue in Britain, stands proudly above the road. But wait, didn’t I say we were in Presbyterian, Sabbatarian country? Well we were, but the southern parts of the Outer Hebrides are firmly Roman Catholic.
Close by is a Ministry of Defence missile testing range, and there is a political as well as a religious significance to the statue. In the 1950s, the MOD proposed a much larger range covering much of Uist, including a military town and facilities for building missiles. Islanders worried that this would destroy much of their way of life, culture and language, and resistance was led by Canon John Morrison, the local parish priest, who then became known as Father Rocket. It was he who commissioned and raised funds for the construction of the statue which was designed by Hew Lorimer and dedicated in 1958. The islanders were partially successful – there is a military presence, but smaller than the original proposals. The Madonna remains as a reminder to the army that there is also a spiritual world as well as their militaristic one.
After admiring the statue, we headed off to our hotel in Lochboisdale, our home for the next week.