Scottish Island Hopping – Western Isles — Cath McKay – 26th January 2015

Also known as the Outer Hebrides, the Western Isles are a chain of isles off the NW coast of Scotland, 150 miles long from Barra Head to the Butt of Lewis, 15 of which are inhab­ited and more than 50 unin­hab­ited.  There is a mild cli­mate and there are large areas set aside to pro­tect the unique and abund­ant bird life, flora and fauna. At sea there are dol­phins, seals, and otters. Access to the islands, when weather per­mits, is mainly by ferry, with a couple of small air­strips on the smal­ler isles.

Cath took us on a pictorial jour­ney from the largest island, Lewis/Harris south­wards to N. Uist, Benbecula, S. Uist, Barra (where Compton Mackenzie is buried), and the smal­ler islands like Eriskay, Batasay, and Mingalay. Religion in Harris/Lewis is Presbyterian where the Sabbath is strongly observed, but the Southern Isles are Roman Catholic.

Lewis (the Northern half, cap­ital Stornoway) is flat­tish with peat bogs and lakes but Harris (the Southern half of the same island) is wild and moun­tain­ous. There are sandy bays and crofters in ‘Townships’ made up of a few scattered houses. The island has dif­fi­cult ter­rain for walk­ing, as do the Uists, which are also moun­tain­ous or boggy.

The first inhab­it­ants to the isles were Neolithic men, who left pre­his­toric struc­tures of cairns, and stand­ing stones through­out, like the Callanish stones on the West of Lewis, 5000 years ago in the Bronze Age. Others fol­lowed like the Picts  during the Iron Age, leav­ing round houses, thatched long houses and under­ground dwell­ings. The Vikings estab­lished the Norse Kingdom for 400 years from around 800 AD to 1266, and then it became part of Scotland with the sign­ing of the Treaty of Perth. The Scottish clans took over until union with the UK in 1707. In these medi­eval times the people lived in Black houses, so called because the smoke blackened the walls and the thatch. These were super­seded by White houses that were white­washed, and  in use until 1974.

After union, the Jacobite rebel­lions fol­lowed, to try to restore the Stuarts to the throne of Britain, but after the defeat of the clans (who paid scant alle­gi­ance to the British crown) at the Battle of Culloden, the British Government estranged the clan chiefs from their sub­jects and they became English speak­ing land­lords who were only inter­ested in the value of their estates and not the people on them. There is a monu­ment on S.Uist to Flora Macdonald who helped Bonny Prince Charles to escape, after Culloden.

The ‘Highland Clearances’ of the 19th cen­tury fol­lowed, and people were for­cibly ejec­ted from the land to allow sheep farm­ing . There was whole­sale emig­ra­tion abroad and those left were scattered. They eked a living from fish­ing or burn­ing kelp to make soil by adding shell­fish. The pop­u­la­tion shrank dra­mat­ic­ally, leav­ing resent­ment. Subsequent protests led to hard won crofters rights, the first being on Great Bernara. Harris Tweed looms were intro­duced in the 1920s. Philanthropists like Lord Leverhulme bought Harris in 1919 and built the town of Leverburgh, which ulti­mately failed. Sir James Matheson bought Lewis in 1844 and built Lewis castle and spent lots of money making improve­ments to the infra­struc­ture and help­ing the popu­lace during the potato famine.

In 1975 the Western Isles attained some autonomy by becom­ing one of the 32 unit­ary coun­cil areas of Scotland, and today, the pop­u­la­tion over­all, is about 27000 and grow­ing. They are now thriv­ing on croft­ing, fish­ing, weav­ing and tour­ism.

We heard about small fish­ing com­munit­ies, small ponies, one track roads, isol­ated crofters on any small patches of grass in the tree­less land­scape, tales of Shipwrecks full of whisky and an unin­hab­ited island used by the BBC.

Along with some won­der­ful pic­tures of the remote islands, we had a very enjoy­able morn­ing.