Tour 22/22 : An t-Eilean Fada

the blood is strong,
the heart is Highland,
and we in dreams behold the Hebrides

Traditional Canadian Boat Song

An Gaeltacht: the region in which Gaelic is spoken. At the dawn of the 11th century this region covered Ireland, Man, and almost all of Scotland. Early English was spoken in the south-east alone; around Clydesdale the last Brythonic Welsh speakers were dying out, and Norse was spoken in the Northern Isles. But the 11th century was Gaelic's Scottish high point. English inexorably spread from its foothold in the south-east, first in the speech of planted merchants in new towns and burghs, in the language used at court, and finally across the general population. The eradication of Gaelic became state policy not long after, James VI's 1609 Statutes of Iona insisting clan chiefs of the West Highlands educate their sons in English. Official discrimination against Gaelic ended only in the last couple of decades: children are no longer beaten for speaking their native tongue at school. Unofficial prejudice and discrimination continues. But Gaeldom has one last stronghold in Scotland: na h-Eilean Siar, the Western Isles.

The isles are also known as an t-Eilean Fada (the Long Isle), and with good reason. The chain is 160 miles long: as far as from Sheffield to London. It is not one island but many, divisible into three groups: the twin island of Lewis and Harris in the north, the causeway-connected Uists, and the Barra isles to the south. The elements dominate more than anywhere else in Scotland, the influence of sea and wind all-pervasive. There is a reason the traditional black houses hug the ground with roofs weighed down by nets and boulders! But on a sunny day the wide horizons, superlative beaches, teeming birdlife, friendly natives, and unique views of land and water are unforgettable. If you are visiting the Western Isles, then slow down, relax, and allow the the ferries, tides and winds to dictate your timetable.

The northernmost island of Lewis is also Scotland's largest. Lewis is a large moor girt by a wonderful coast, boasting beaches for every wind direction. It is home to the the islands' only town, Stornoway: small by mainland standards, but big enough to boast a rush hour. In Stornoway some secularism has crept in on Lewis' legendary Sabbath, where observance of the day of rest is upheld by the strictest Protestant sects in Scotland. Nowadays there are ferry sailings and at least one café open on Sunday, and the swings in playparks are no longer chained up. But the Sabbath remains a good opportunity to slow down, rest, and tap into the island rhythm.

Lewis is strewn with ancient ruins and prehistoric remains, Callanish being perhaps the most evocative monument in Scotland. Its weathered pillars of gneiss were raised around 3,000BC, and it remained in use as late as the first classical descriptions of Britain: Pytheas' 325BC 'On the Ocean' describes a tribe of moon-worshippers called the Hyperboreans ('beyond the trees') who lived beyond Britain at a latitude of 58 degrees north, and who used Callanish as a temple.

Despite a richness of prehistoric remains, there are few old houses on Lewis. Until just over 100 years ago ordinary islanders lived in thatched rubble cottages known as tighean dubh (black houses), a vernacular form once common across the Highlands. The few remaining black houses may look attractive, but given their primitive nature it is not surprising people today prefer modern houses. The field patterns of old crofts remain however, creating characteristic one-street strip villages across Lewis.

From Lewis the road rises steeply over a pass to sweep down to Tarbert in Harris. These hills effectively separate Lewis and Harris into two islands, despite sharing the same land mass. The rough nature of these hills, granite-veined gneiss bursting through thin soil, give them the presence of higher mountains. Harris boats fertile machair and some of the best beaches in Britain on its west coast. Yet in the 19th century the population were cleared for sheep, forced to emigrate or move to the barren bays of the east coast, causing other islanders to joke of the Hearraich's special chisel-nosed sheep, capable of finding blades of grass to eat in the narrow spaces between rocks! This was no joke when the time came to die: coffins had to be carried laboriously across the island to ancestral cemeteries on the west coast. The soil of Harris' east coast is so thin that there is insufficient depth to bury bodies.

Across the skerry-strewn Sound of Harris the ferry berths at Berneray, the northernmost island connected by a chain of causeways across the Uists to Eriskay. From Beinn Mhor, Croagary Mor, Li a Deas or Eaval a remarkable vista opens up of intertwined land and water: the land a maze of freshwater lochans, the sea a minefield of rocky skerries. This waterworld is a paradise for water fowl. As in Harris, the east coasts are wild and rocky, the west coasts beautiful beaches exposed to Atlantic rollers, sandy meadows of fertile machair lying in between. Under the baleful influence of     Colonel John Gordon of Cluny the Uists suffered one of the worst clearances in Scotland, but today, land ownership is in a much happier situation.

The influence of Ireland is felt in the islands of South Uist and Barra. The occasional shrine to the Virgin Mary on hilltops and roadsides indicates a Catholic country, and clans such as MacNeil claim Irish rather than Viking descent. Eriskay's top tale of the sea is not a tragedy but the story of SS Politician, a freighter heading for America in 1943 (when Britain was in the grip of rationing) that ran aground... with a cargo of whisky. The cargo was diligently raided before customs arrived, adding cheer at a drab time.

For me Scotland's ideal island, the one with the best blend of size, intimacy, sociability, culture and natural beauty is Barra. Others disagree, of course! Arriving by air on Barra is a unique experience, the timetables tide dependent, for the terminal building is a shack by the beach, and the runway the beach itself. At the other end of the island is its only village, Castlebay, and the castle of Kissimul - perhaps the most picturesque in Scotland.

From Barra's small but steep summit, you look down over the castle in its bay to an archipelago of small islands with gorgeous beaches stretching into the distance. Most of these islands were once inhabited, but today only Vatersay is, now connected to Barra by a causeway. One of the now uninhabited islands, Mingulay, once lost touch with Barra, and the chief sent a boat to investigate. A man named MacPhee stepped ashore to investigate, and discovered everyone had died of the plague then sweeping across Europe. As he shouted this news to the boatcrew they immediately launched, refusing to let MacPhee back on the boat in case he was infected. They returned a year later to pick him up, but until then, the unfortunate castaway had climbed the highest hill on the island to scan the horizon for a boat to save him. Ever since then, the hill has been called Cnoc MacPhee (MacPhee's Hill) in commemoration of that feat of endurance and survival.

We have travelled the length and breadth of Scotland, but there is one more place to see. The only double-listed UNESCO World Heritage site in Scotland, a place for which only superlatives suffice, a place where MacPhee's experience would seem almost commonplace; the most isolated, mysterious, romantic place in Scotland:     St Kilda.

The Butt of Lewis

A Lewis township

Traigh Garry, Tolsta


The standing stones of Callanish

Dun Carloway broch on Lewis

Traigh Seilibost, Harris

East Harris

Traigh Scarista

Windswept islands in the Sound of Harris

Hills of Harris from North Uist

A traditional house of the Highlands and Islands

Looking towards Eaval across the flooded bog of North Uist

The Uists


Old crofts in South Uist

Our Lady of the Isles


The plane lands on Barra

Eoligarry, Barra

Castlebay on Barra

Kissimul Castle

Traigh Iar, Vatersay