Hebridean Hop 17: Lochboisdale to Castlebay

Monday 13th August 2018

Our Lady of Sorrows, South Uist

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 …

Hebridean Hop 16: South Uist (3)

Sunday 12th August 2018

Loch Skipport

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.

Hebridean Hop 15: South Uist (2)

Saturday 11th August 2018

Lochboisdale Post Office

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?

Hebridean Hop 12: South Uist (1)

Wednesday 8th August 2018

South Uist west coast

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.

Hebridean Hop 11: Eriskay

Tuesday 7th August 2018

Lochboisdale Hotel

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.

Hebridean Hop 10: Tarbert to Lochboisdale

Monday 6th August 2018

Ferry approaching Leverburgh

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.

O is for Outer Hebrides

The Hebrides Image credit: Kelisi via Wikimedia
The Hebrides
Image credit: Kelisi via Wikimedia

If you read my post I is for Inner Hebrides, you might have guessed what O was going to be! In my opinion, the outer islands are even more beautiful than the inner ones – they’re the orange ones on the map. My favourite is Barra, to which I have travelled twice in a tiny plane and landed at the airport on the beach – a magical experience, but not if you’re frightened of flying. However, they are all lovely with ancient monuments and pristine beaches. Don’t be fooled by the sunshine though – the sea is freezing!

The pictures below show Lewis, Benbecula, South Uist,  and Barra. The figure in pink is me – 20 years ago! We must go back.