Solitude on the peaks and shores of the Inner Hebrides
Like the islands of Greece, the Inner Hebrides have similar legends of blood and heroes, similar memories of poverty, famine and exile, the same kind of songs about the sea, and love, and war. Above all, they share a beauty that can entrap the heart. But lovely though all the Inner Hebrides are, each island is an individual; mountainous and forbidding or open and welcoming; deserted and achingly lonely or busy, bustling and progressive.
Having suffered dreadfully in the Clearances – in the 1840s, two-thirds of the population was shipped wholesale to Canada – fate has made amends to Canna in the last century and given it two enlightened and benevolent landlords. The last of these, Dr John Lome Campbell, has over the past 40-odd years turned the 5 mile long island into a single farming estate that concentrates upon early potatoes, pedigree Highland cattle and Cheviot sheep. He presented the entire island to the National Trust for Scotland in 1981.
The population, estate workers, crofters and lobster fishermen, still amounts to only about a score, a shadow of what it once was. Before the Clearances, there was even a township on Canna; it was called A’Chill, and its pathetic remains – a Celtic cross, a curious pink standing stone, a burial ground and the shadows of vegetable plots – may be seen not far from the pier.
The island has one of the finest deep-water harbours in the Hebrides, making it a popular place with yachtsmen in the summer, despite its curious navigational hazards; the basalt rocks of the cliffs are so magnetic that they distort compass bearings 3 miles away.
Apart from yachtsmen, the principal visitors to Canna are naturalists and day-trippers; there is no accommodation on the island, though campers are welcome if permission is asked from the National Trust for Scotland in advance. Day trips from Arisaig allow visitors 4 hours ashore.
In 1826 almost the entire population of Rhum was shipped to Newfoundland, and since then the island’s 40-odd square miles have remained virtually uninhabited, apart from red deer and the people who went to shoot them. Not that much of the island was habitable anyway, since a large proportion of it rises steeply from the sea to volcanic peaks of 2,300 ft and more. However, in 1957 it was acquired by the Nature Conservancy Council as a nature reserve and outdoor laboratory for long-term experiments, to study for instance the restoration of vegetation after over-exploitation by grazing and burning.
RETURN TO RHUM
The wild coast of Rhum was the home of the sea eagle, or white-tailed eagle, until it became extinct in Britain early this century. In 1974 the Nature Conservancy Council and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds began to try to reintroduce the bird to Rhum from its home in northern Norway, and the project is proving successful. More than 80 eaglets have been brought from Norway and released on the island.
Accommodation is very limited on Rhum, and permission must be sought from the Nature Conservancy Council for an overnight stay. But even a day trip from Arisaig is well worth while, since it affords time to explore at least one of the two signposted nature trails which begin at Kinloch on Loch Scresort, at the point where the ferry comes in. Eider ducks and gulls nest among the ruins of the old village of Port nan Caranean, there are Manx shearwaters seemingly by the million and golden eagles are by no means rare. Red deer are every w’here, and common seals may be seen on the rocks. Look out for the little Rhum ponies bred on the island to carry deer carcasses down from the hills.
By the standards of Small Islands Parish, which also includes Canna, Rhum and Muck, Eigg is positively teeming. It has a population of about 80, guest houses, self-catering cottages, a tea-room and a craft shop, and even a mini-bus service connecting the two villages of Galmisdale, where the boat comes in, and Cleadale to the north.
Eigg in earlier years suffered the usual vicissitudes of clan wars, famine and Clearances, including the transportation of its young men to the West Indies after the 1745 Uprising. During the last century, however, the island has been generally fortunate in its landlords, who have tried to make the island a viable place for their tenants to live in.
From the mainland side, the towering lava cliffs of the sphinx-shaped ridge of An Sgurr gives Eigg a forbidding appearance, but it improves on closer acquaintance. By judicious use of time and the mini-bus, it is possible to explore many of the island’s attractions, even in the 4 hours allowed by the ferries from Arisaig and Glenuig.
The Singing Sands at Camas Sgiotaig are quartzite and squeak when walked upon or even emit a long, continuous moan if the wind is in the right direction. There are some good, if more conventional, beaches at various points around the coast, and fine walks for naturalists and geologists among the cliffs of An Sgurr. Bicycles, mopeds, ponies and dinghies may be hired by the energetic.
An insight into the darker side of Hebri-dean history is afforded at MacDonalds’ Cave, which lies about half a mile southwest of the pier at Galmisdale. In this, in 1577,395 MacDonalds, hiding from a raiding party sent by MacLeod of Skye, were suffocated. The Macleods lit brushwood fires at the narrow entrance and let the smoke blow in. Close by is Cathedral Cave, which Catholics used as a church in the days when their faith was proscribed. Their altar still stands in the cave.
The island’s name comes from Muc, which means, variously, a heap, a pig or perhaps a sea-pig, or porpoise. None of the meanings seems appropriate to the pretty, fertile, low-lying island, whose 1,500 acres of pasture and arable land are now worked as a single farm, supporting a couple of dozen people. Muck’s fertility is due to its friable basalt foundation, sweetened with shell-sand; and its cheerful climate to the North Atlantic Drift and the protection given by its higher and bigger neighbours.
During the Napoleonic Wars, its inhabitants made a good living by burning seaweed to make potash, an ingredient of gunpowder. After the wars, the landlord, Maclean of Coll, determined to turn the island into sheep pasture. He evicted most of the crofters and despatched them to Nova Scotia, where many of their descendants still speak Gaelic.
It cannot be said that Muck is a lively place, but it is certainly suitable for a restful holiday. The summer meadows are bright with wild flowers, there are several safe, sandy beaches and often, in the long summer evenings, there are ceilidhs -Highland dancing and singing. Accommodation is in a guest house and holiday cottages.
The eastern seaboard of the 12 mile long island looks inhospitably craggy as the ferry approaches it. But once the steamer penetrates Loch Eatharna to the pier at Arinagour the interior is seen to consist of gentle, heathery moorland, dotted with slaty-dark lochans. Much of the west coast is bright shell-sand, blown into dunes of 100 ft and more, whose slopes are knitted by grass into a machair on which cattle graze.
Coil’s history is the not unusual Hebri-dean one of Pict, Viking, Lords of the Isles, Macleans and evictions. Both the Lords of the Isles and the Macleans of Coll at different times occupied the magnificent 15th-century Breachacha Castle, which stands at the head of the sea loch of the same name. However, in 1750 the Macleans, no doubt tiring of the chill of the old place, built a more modest castle near by; Dr Johnson, who stayed in it 20 years later, described it, rather loftily, as a ‘tradesman’s box’. The medieval building, having been ruinous for many years, has now been restored and is the headquarters of an educational trust. The stream that flows into the loch is called Struthan nan Ceann, ‘the stream of the heads’, in memory of a fearful defeat inflicted by the Macleans of Coll upon those of Duart in 1593. According to a report of the time, ducks swam in Duart blood and the stream was choked by Duart heads.
A number of prosperous farms concentrate mainly upon cattle and sheep. For visitors there are sandy and secluded coves and bays galore, and the bright township of Arinagour, gay with flowers and containing shops, a craft centre and a tea-room. There is accommodation in the Coll Hotel and in a number of self-catering cottages and caravans.
Apart from three bumps at one end, Tiree is so low-lying that it looks like a pencil stroke upon the horizon. Closer inspection reveals pale sand and, since in spring and early summer the sun is so often shining, something of the air of a tropical isle. However, there are no palm trees or, indeed, trees of any kind; the 120 knot gales that come off the Atlantic in winter make their growth impossible. It is said in the Hebrides that Tiree people may be recognised by their stance, which is always 10 degrees off the vertical. But indoors at least they can stand upright, for their low, snugly thatched crofts have white-painted walls 6 ft thick.
The island’s name means ‘Land of Corn’, and to this day, the fertility of the machair -grassland overlying shell-sand – helps to support a population of about 1,000, one-fifth of what it was 150 years ago. By local standards, Tiree is still a bustling place with several villages. There is Scarinish, just around the corner from deep-sanded Gott Bay where the Oban ferry comes in, and pretty Balemartine on Hynish Bay. It takes in Hynish, where there is a derelict collection of houses, a pier and a signalling station used when Alan Stevenson, uncle of the novelist Robert Louis Stevenson, built the far-out Skerryvore lighthouse in the 1840s.
Most attractive, perhaps, is Balephuil, which lies behind its lovely bay flanked by Ben Hynish and the steep headland of Ceann a’ Mhara with its two prehistoric forts. From there, the view lies over the deep-rolling Atlantic to Skerryvore, whose 150 ft high light has defied the western storms for a century and more.
For early summer visitors to Tiree, the chief attractions are the hours of sunshine -it has the national record in May – its miles of empty, perfect beaches, and its carpeting of wild flowers.