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 These were superseded by White houses that were whitewashed, and  in use until 1974.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.