A fretwork of lochs and bays in the ‘long island’ of the Hebrides
North Uist, Benbecula and South Uist have been linked by bridges and causeways to form a single ‘long island’. Each, however, has an individual flavour, evolved out of differing terrains and separate histories. What they, and outlying Barra, have in common is a rocky east coast, cut by long sea lochs, and a western coast of shell-sand backed by grasslands, bright with wild flowers and of a beauty vividly expressed by the islands’ musicians.
Lochmaddy, the island’s port and capital, stands on a sea loch of the same name which winds among a myriad islets so jumbled up with headlands and promontories that it is difficult to tell where North Uist begins. On the eastern side of the island there is at least as much water, salt and fresh, as land, and fishermen grow misty-eyed at the recollection of the salmon, brown trout and sea trout that reside in it.
Ancient forts, ruins and standing stones are everywhere in the island, suggesting that the prehistoric population was greater than the present one. Three miles northwest of Lochmaddy, on the slopes of Blashaval, is the group of stones called Na Fir Bhreige – ‘The False Men’ – variously said to be wife-deserters turned to stone or the grave markers of spies who were buried alive. Beyond is the sandy peninsula of Machair Leathann, with evidence of continuous occupation from the Bronze Age to the 19th century.
Near Carinish, in the south-west, are the still impressive remains of TeampuII na Trionad, Trinity Temple, a 13th-century monastery and college in which the sons of many western chiefs were educated. It was founded by Beatrice, daughter of Somerled of the Isles. Roofless crofts recall the Highland Clearances which, though not so horrendous as those in South Uist, were bad enough. However, the northern men fought back, and there are records of bloody battles between crofters and imported constabulary in the 1850s.
One of North Uist’s greatest attractions is the Balranald Nature Reserve, a wilderness of dunes, marsh and lagoons that provides a home for a wide variety of ducks, geese, swans and waders. The wading birds include the red-necked phalarope, which nests only occasionally in the British Isles. Access to the reserve is limited, and permission should be sought from the warden.
As be/its a buffer state, Benbecula is not Protestant like North Uist, nor Catholic like South Uist, but a mixture of the two; it seems to be an amicable arrangement. It is separated from its neighbours by stretches of shell-sand and quicksand, and joined to them by causeways that carry the A865. This road runs through all three islands and takes in a fourth, Grimsay, which specialises in dispatching live lobsters by air to the markets of the south.
Benbecula means ‘mountain of the fords’, no doubt a reference to the davs before the causeways, while the ‘mountain’ must be the 408 ft Rueval, the only bump of any size on the island. Despite its modest height, Rueval presents splendid views of Benbecula, the Uists and more distant members of the Outer Hebrides. On the southern slope of the hill there is a cave in which Prince Charles Edward hid while waiting for Flora MacDonald to bring him clothing suitable to his role as her maid for his journey ‘over the sea to Skye’ on June 28, 1746.
Benbecula makes its living from crofting, lobster fishing and HM Forces; the army has a rocket base there (and a firing range on South Uist), while the RAF shares some of the airport facilities with Loganair and British Airways. There is still enough island left for visitors. The freshwater loch fishing is as good as that in the Uists and there are some lovely beaches, notably at Culla, with its creamy sand. Bathing there, though safe, is chilly, since the water is the open Atlantic.
Like Benbecula, South Uist has a strong Royal Artillery presence: a rocket range whose missiles are tracked at St Kilda, 55 miles off, as they pursue their course out into the Atlantic. As in Benbecula, the army is on excellent terms with its hosts.
The range only slightly mars the 20 mile long, white-sand beach that forms the island’s west coast. Behind it are the grasslands of the machair, grazed by cattle and sheep, and behind that again, freshwater lochs, full of trout. Loch Druidibeg, one of the few British breeding grounds of the greylag goose, is a national nature highest cliffs in Britain. The islanders were evacuated in 1930, and since then the islands have been uninhabited except for an army base and summer visitors. The islands are the westernmost in the British Isles and the haunt of countless sea-birds.
St Kilda is also the home of Britain’s only truly wild sheep -the Soay sheep, named after the island of Soay, a Norse word meaning ‘sheep island’. They are a primitive breed, probably descended from sheep brought to Britain by Stone Age settlers about 3000 BC. Soays are small, goat-like sheep, the rams standing less than 2 ft tall. reserve; it can only be visited with the warden’s permission. A little to the north is the 30 ft high statue of Our Lady of the Isles, by Hew Lorimer, erected in 1957; the granite Madonna and Child gaze over the rocket range to the sea. To the south, by Mingary, Jacobite enthusiasts may seek out the birthplace of Flora MacDonald, but it is only a tumble of stones now.
The east coast is mountainous and barren, slashed deep by sea lochs, one of which, Loch Eynort, nearly bisects the island. South of it is Loch Boisdale, a mass of islands, promontories and reefs, among which is Lochboisdale township, the port of South Uist.
Settlement has always been in the west and south, and it was in these areas in 1850 that some of the most brutal of the Highland Clearances took place. It was not until 1918 that a group of Hebridean ex-servicemen invaded the island and began farming it again. The government then confirmed them in their claims.
Many people who are not quite sure where Eriskay is, nevertheless know its name from An Eriskay Love Lilt, one of the first Hebridean songs collected by Marjory Kennedy Eraser at the beginning of this century. In its lyrics and music are all the wistfulness and joy ol the western islands and seas. Further fame came to the island in 1941, when the SS Politician, bound for New York with 243,000 bottles of whisky on board, foundered between Eriskay and South Uist. The shallow sea allowed much of the bonanza to be salvaged; local lore says that it was given a rapturous welcome not only by the population but by the livestock too, and it was even used to light fires. The incident was used by Sir Compton Mackenzie as the basis for his novel Whisky Galore, though when the book was filmed Barra was chosen as the setting.
It was on Eriskay, too, that Prince Charles Edward first set foot on Scottish soil, on his way from France to the Scottish mainland full of high hopes in the summer of 1745. The pink sea-convolvulus Calystegia soldanella which grows in the Hebrides only by the beach where he landed, and on Vatersay, is said to have been first planted there by the prince.
With its neat, painted houses and white beaches, Eriskay is as lovely as its music, and its colours as soft and pure as its Gaelic verse, for which it has been famed for centuries. Fishing, crofting and going to sea with the Merchant Navy are the chief occupations of the islanders, but they are also developing a market for their sweaters, which are knitted in a traditional and individual pattern.
Like most of the Outer Hebrides, Barra has a wild and rocky east coast, and an interior deserted apart from some ancient forts and standing stones to suggest that the climate was once kindlier. Those who come to Barra by air may see the full glory of the western mountains and islands unfold before they land on an airstrip that is covered by the tide twice daily.
By contrast the ferry from Oban offers a grand approach to Castlebay, the island’s principal township, by way of the grim Kiessimul Castle rising straight from its islet. This is the home of the MacNeil of Barra, whose forbears were the terror of the western seas; the docking place of their great war-galley can still be seen, cut deep into the islet’s rock. The old MacNeils, when they had dined, used to send a bard up to the battlements to shout at the darkening hills and the wide Atlantic: ‘The MacNeil has supped; now the princes of the world may sit down to eat!’
Though avoiding direct participation in the Uprising of 1745, and despite the benefit of some savage Clearances, the family became bankrupt early in the 19th century, and it was not until 1937 that a MacNeil returned from America to buy back 12,000 acres of his ancestors’ island and restore the long derelict castle to its former glory. It is open to the public on certain days in summer.
A narrow road encircles most of the island, taking in its heavenly scenery and most of its villages. Their living comes from crofting, fishing, the manufacture of knitwear and perfumes, and from exporting shell grit for outdoor paints.
Some of the minor roads are also worth exploring, especially the one that runs over the dunes and past the airstrip to Cille-bharra, where there are two roofless chapels and the church of St Barr. This is the cemetery of the MacNeils and there too, in this lovely place that looks west to the dazzling sands of Traigh Eais and north-east to Uist, is the grave of the author Sir Compton Mackenzie, who lived on Barra.
The island is shaped like an hour-glass, with a narrow waist of sand-dunes joining the hilly northern and southern sections. Most of the 100-odd inhabitants live in the south, in a casual collection of cottages round which cattle and sheep graze. The little township, whose name is the same as that of the island, does not contain the school, which for some reason is in the northern peninsula; perhaps it was placed there to ensure that no child of Vatersay village or from any of the scattered crofts had to walk further than another.
Early this century the remote island achieved national fame when landless men from Barra, desperate for a livelihood, invaded it. They put their trust in an ancient custom by which anyone who built a dwelling-place and had a fire burning in its hearth within a single day was entitled to the land on which it stood. But the owner, Lady Gordon Cathcart, who had visited her estate once in half a century, soon disillusioned them. In 1908 ten of the ‘Vatersay Raiders’ were given two months’ imprisonment in Edinburgh, but such was the national outcry that their sentences were quashed, and in 1909 the Congested Districts Board purchased Vatersay and divided it among the squatters.
ISLANDERS WITH A SECRET In 1941 a boat carrying 243,000 bottles of whisky was wrecked in the Sound of Eriskay. Compton Mackenzie used the incident as the basis for his novel Whisky Galore, describing the islanders’ efforts to prevent the precious elixir from falling into official hands. The film director Alexander MacKendrick turned the novel into one of the most popular of the Ealing comedies, using the nearby island of Barra for much of the filming.
A STARRING ROLE
FOR SCENERY ON THE
It is little wonder that film directors have chosen the west coast of Scotland and its islands as the setting for scores of productions. For the land has a history more colourful and violent than any scriptwriter could imagine; there are the works of Scottish novelists such as Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Compton Mackenzie to draw upon for dramatic story-lines; and the scenery is of a magnificence that no set designer could hope to imitate.
Films with Scottish backgrounds were already popular in the 1930s. It was not until after the Second World War, however, that a spate of films made almost entirely on location received world-wide acclaim. / Know Where I’m Going, made in 1945, set the pace, its title perhaps portentous for the British film industry which followed up with The Brothers, made in 1947, Bonnie Prince Charlie (1948) and Whisky Galore (1949). Several film versions of Stevenson’s Kidnapped include one made mainly on Mull in 1971. In the realm of fact, Ring of Bright Water (1969) told the true story of the writer Gavin Maxwell and his pet otter.
Such films as these were about Scotland and Scottish people. But film makers have also seized on Scotland’s unforgettable scenery for episodes in other stories. The coast around Crinan was the backdrop for the exciting sea-chase in the James Bond film From Russia with Love, while Alistair Maclean’s novel When Eight Bells Toll was filmed largely in northern Argyll. And in recent years television, too, has begun to exploit the strong visual appeal of Scottish backgrounds.
FILMING THE ‘45 Claymores flash in the sun, battle-cries reverberate among the hills and the skirl of the bagpipes echoes across the still waters of Loch Shiel as the standard of Prince Charles Edward Stuart is raised at the start of his ill-fated Uprising of 1745. Sir Alexander Korda recreated the scene in its original location at Glenfinnan for his epic Bonnie Prince Charlie, one of the big international spectaculars which Korda made after the Second World War to challenge the supremacy of Hollywood in world markets. The film, released in 1948, starred David Niven as the debonair Prince. The film did not achieve the success Korda had hoped for. Reviews were harsh – but critics praised the splendour of the Scottish locations.
ISLAND ROMANCE A solitary girl waits on a quayside on the island of Mull for a boat to take her to Kiloran, the Hebridean island home of the wealthy Sir Robert Bellinger xohoni she is contracted to marry. Wendy Miller played the part of Joan Webster in the film of I Know Where I’m Going, a piece of romantic escapism whose successful ingredients included wild Hehridean scenery, a trained hawk and the dangerous whirlpool of Com/vreckan, off jura. Joan’s xvait on the quay xoas in vain. A storm rose, preventing her fiance from sending a boat. Instead she found true love with a young and handsome laird of Mull.
TALL SHIPS Stately sailing vessels of an earlier age return to the waters of Loch Linnhe for the filming of Wait Disney’s 1960 version of Kidnapped. // starred Peter Finch as Alan Breck Stewart and James MacArthur as David Balfour. The film unit was based at Oban, and filmed at Ballaclmlish, Glen Nevis, Ardgour and other locations amid the wild Argyll scenery. Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel has been a favourite of film makers since 1938, when the earliest version featured the child star Freddie Bartholomew as David Balfour, hi a 1971 re-make Michael Caine appeared as Atati Breck.
LEGAL SAGA The countryside around Callander was the setting for the BBC’s Dr Finlay’s Casebook, which began in 1962 and became one of the best-loved television series set in Scotland. The later BBC serial Sutherland’s Law, which began in 1973, had as its hero John Sutherland, the Procurator Fiscal, or public prosecutor of the sheriff’s court, in the small coastal town of ‘Glendoran’. The series was based on a book by a local novelist, Lindsay Galloway, and Oban was cast in the role of Glendoran.
GUARDIAN OF THE BEACH Sand-dunes near Mallaig are the setting for the confrontation between the oil tycoon Felix Mapper, played by Burt Lancaster, and the beachcomber Ben (Fulton Mackay) in the 1983 comedy Local Hero, produced by Bill Forsyth. Other scenes were filmed in Pennan, Banff. The story concerns Mapper’s attempt to buy up a Scottish village as an oil refinery site; though most of the villagers are eager to sell, Mapper’s plan is thwarted by Ben’s refusal to sell the land on which his shack stands.
One of the best of the Hebridean boat songs or sea-shanties is Momeward Bound for Mingulay, but it is a museum piece now, for the island has been deserted for half a century. Its tale is a common one in the Western Isles; long ago, it had benevolent MacNeil landlords and the people made a living by crofting and harvesting sea-birds’ eggs from the sheer 750 ft cliffs of the western shore. But there was insufficient workable land for the population, and many left their homes to seek a living elsewhere.
By the 1930s there were only two people on Mingulay, and now all that remains of human occupation are some empty crofts by the eastern shore. Ornithologists visit the island in the breeding season to study the auks and kittiwakes that crowd in thousands on the cliffs and the three great stacks.