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Isles of the West
Isles of the West

The Scottish Islands
The Scottish Islands

South Uist
South Uist: Archaeology and History of a... Hebridean Island

Tales from Barra
Tales from Barra: The Coddy

Scottish Islands Drawings
Scottish Mountain Drawings: The Islands


The Outer Hebrides

Although Lewis and Harris, off the north-west coast of
Scotland, are geographically one land mass, the largest in the Outer Hebrides, they are usually referred to as two separate islands; perhaps because the land itself is different, fertile in Lewis and on the whole fairly barren in Harris. Gaelic is the native language, (although as in most of the islands it is dwindling to a certain extent,) even the Gaelic dialects of the two vary and the Harris people seem to speak with more of a soft lilt in their voices.
As in many of the islands, too many of the young people
have to leave home each year to find employment on the
mainland, but they have never forgotten their island home and copies of the “Stornoway Gazette” go all over the world.

Stornoway, the ‘capital’ of Lewis and the largest town in
the Outer Hebrides, has a population of over 5,000 and can be reached both by plane and car ferry. One of the main manufacturing towns in the Highlands and Islands, it is a busy commercial and fishing port and has both a modern senior secondary school and a further education college in the buildings of the former Lews Castle. The town is the centre of the Harris Tweed industry, and its prosperity depends on its continued success, yet
despite this the town is not industrialised and has a magnificent green space, including a golf course, provided by the picturesque Lews Castle grounds.
Crofting is still carried out on a widespread scale in Lewis,
often linked with weaving tweed at home, so that weaving can be done in wet weather and the croft land worked on good days. Although crofting is hard back-breaking work, many of the jobs can be shared communally like cutting peat and dipping and shearing sheep, which helps to keep the scattered communities together.

The ‘black houses’ which were once almost universal in Lewis and Harris, and which with their lack of sanitation contributed to the high incidence of child mortality and tuberculosis, have almost all disappeared, or retained only as byres for the cattle. Thousands of acres of moorland which previously were infertile have been treated and fertilised with help from Government subsidies, so that grass and clover for cattle grazing now flourishes. Reclamation of the land by re-seeding in this way is quite an agricultural revolution in the islands
and promises well for the future of the area.

Anyone with an interest in archaeology would find Lewis rich in discover sites. Still standing are ruins and remains of brochs, standing stones, cairns and stone circles; the most notable is Dun Carloway, on the west side of Lewis, a broch or round tower which although partly ruined still has a wall 30 feet high and apart from the celebrated broch at Mousa, Shetland, is the best example in the country. Another famous landmark is at Callernish, a group of standing stones believed to be the only ones in the world formed like a Christian cross. There are seven smaller stone circles within a few miles of Callernish, and many standing stones both singly and in groups scattered throughout Lewis and Harris. Amongst the archaelogical remains which have been discovered, probably the most famous are the Uig Chessmen. These were discovered
in a sandbank at Uig after a gale in 1831: nearly a hundred chess pieces skilfully carved from walrus ivory and thought to date back to the 12th century. Although many people think the chessmen should be retained in Lewis, they are at present on show in the Museum of Antiquities in Edinburgh.

Harris is linked to Lewis by a narrow neck of land on which stands Tarbert, the central village with about 400 inhabitants. With so much of the land rocky and bare, what fertile land there is has had to be carefully cultivated into ‘lazy-beds’. The west coast with its golden beaches and flat green ‘machair’ land is becoming more popular for visitors looking for peace and quiet. Harris people had always been known for their excellent hand-weaving, but it was not until the middle of the nineteenth century, when the then owner of the island had his tartan copied in tweed by island weavers, that the tweed began to find much in the way of outside sales. Originally of course all the processes were done by hand, from washing wool, carding it, spinning it into yarn and finally weaving it. Dyed by natural vegetable or lichen dyes, and with a distinctive warm perfume from the peat smoke, the tweed soon became very popular. After some dissension when cheap imported yarn and inferior weaving was lowering the standard, the Harris
Tweed Association was formed. Under this, the definition of true Harris tweed was carefully laid down and the famous orb and cross mark was stamped only on tweed which kept to the qualifications.

There are ruined chapels and religious cells all over Harris, but the main religious building (the only cruciform medieval church in the Outer Isles) is St. Clement’s Church at Rode! at the extreme south of Harris. The church was built by the eighth chief of the clan MacLeod. It was repaired by a Harris man, Alexander MacLeod, who died in 1547 and who spent many years preparing his own tomb, a magnificent work in stone with carvings of a warrior with legendary beasts at his feet.

Around Harris are dozens of islands, some once populated, some mere rocks. Amongst the larger islands is Scarp, the most westerly inhabited island in Scotland, now supporting only a handful of people although at one time there were over 200 living there. Taransay too now has only a few families, but Scalpay on the east side of Harris has a thriving fishing community.

Across the Sound of Harris lies the southern part of the
‘Long Island’ chain (as the Outer Hebrides are sometimes
called), North and South Uist with Benbecula in between
them and Barra. Although at one time the first three were
all separate, now they are linked: Benbecula is joined to North Uist on one side by a causeway and to South Uist on the other by a bridge which was completed in 1943.
Lochiriaddy. with about 300 inhabitants, is the focal
point of North Uist and has a sea route link with both Skye and Harris. A busy little port, it also has a seaweed factory where the wet ‘kelp’ is dried off and reduced to powder which will later go into the making of ice-cream, toothpaste and nylon fabrics. The fishermen on North Uist specialise in lobster fishing, and the lobsters are flown south for gourmets in London and the continent. A few years ago a shellfish storehouse was built on Grimsay island which has helped the lobster fishermen to keep pace with the varying market requirements. Experiments have been made too on the feasibility of growing bulbs on the flat land of North Uist, and it is hoped that this will turn in time into a large scale business. Visitors enjoy the breathtaking sweeps of white sand, like the bay at Sollas, and the peace of the island with its comparative lack of mechanisation provides a breeding ground for many species of birds. A bird sanctuary has been set up near Hougharry by the Royal Society for the Protection
of Birds, and corncrakes, phalarope and geese are common; Atlantic seals also breed offshore and red deer can be seen on the higher ground. Fishing and angling are particularly good in North Uist, and indeed the salmon fishing is claimed to be the best in the Hebrides.

Benbecula is a very flat little island, with the highest point only 409’ at Rueval hill, and has a fine variety of sea and moorland birds together with a distinctive selection of wild flowers. Benbecula provides an interesting merger between the staunchly Protestant North Uist and the Catholic church in South Uist. While religion plays a very important part in the lives of the island people, the two differing religious communities live in harmony with each other. South Uist has Lochboisdale as its main port, a pleasant little town. Local arts and crafts are also on show in the island folk museum. It was on South Uist that Bonnie Prince Charlie first landed after Culloden, and the remains of Flora Macdonald’s cottage are still to be seen at Milton.

A mile off the coast of South Uist and five miles off Barra
lies Eriskay, immortalised in song by the haunting “Eriskay
Love Lilt”. It too has strong Jacobite connections: Prince
Charles landed here from France before the rebellion and the beach he came to is still known as the Prince’s Strand. The pink convolvulus too is called locally
‘The Prince’s Flower’ and is supposed to grow only in Eriskay. It is also claimed that drambuie, the liqueur which dates from the 1745 rebellion, was first drunk in Eriskay. Oddly enough the island has another connection with whisky, for it was on Calvay, a small island off Eriskay, that the ship ‘Politician’ went aground with its cargo of thousands of cases of.whisky bound for America. This incident, and the way some of the
precious cargo was ‘spirited’ ashore, formed the basis for
‘Whisky Galore’, a novel by Compton Mackenzie which
was later very successfully filmed. Eriskay is famous too for its shining white sands, and its population though small (about 250) is healthy and close-knit. The men work mainly at fishing, as the land does not support
much in the way of farming; and the women are skilled at
knitting the traditional Eriskay fishermen’s jerseys with
patterns like the tree of life, waves, and furrows.

Barra is an island with striking colour contrasts, with its
silver sands, purple hills and a profusion of primroses and
other wild flowers which flourish on the green flat land. It
has its own airstrip on a cockle beach, ‘Traigh Mhor’, where the plane from Glasgow lands at low tide. The chief town on the island is Castlebay, where the steamer ties up from Oban; and on its own tiny islet in the bay stands Kisimul Castle, the ancestral home of the Macneils of Barra. and recently restored. The highest hill on the island is Heaval, at 1260’, well worth climbing for the overall view from the tap. On the south-east shoulder of the hill stands a striking marble statue of the Virgin and Child looking out towards the sea, which was erected in this almost wholly Roman Catholic island in 1950.

Barra, like Colonsay, has a circular single-track road con-
necting the main villages and giving the visitor easy access around the island. It has always had a great reputation for Gaelic tales, singers and musicians, and students of Hebridean folklore have found that the Barra people have preserved their literary culture well. Gaelic is still spoken and it is hoped that the younger generation will keep it alive. Traditionally the main sources of employment have been farming and fishitg, but recently a few small industries have been introduced. One of these is a small but flourishing perfume business; the perfumes are all blended by hand, and with evocative names like ‘Love Lilt’ and ‘Tangle’ seem to capture some of the island atmosphere.

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