Starting mileage: 21962 km
Day started: 08:00
Day ended: 20:00
The last time we had sailed three hours in rough waters was on the way to Scilly Isles; we are now directly north of those islands – nearly 600 miles north, to be exact. This time, there will be no last-minute miraculous clearing of the skies, and no sub-tropical paradise awaits us on the other side. If anything, the weather gets even worse.
The Southern Isles – Uists and Barra – are so tiny, so flat and so far out in the Atlantic, that the only difference between dry land and sea is that the ground does not roll as much. The shipping forecast is the only reliable weather information in these parts – and there are gale warnings for the next few days, with gusts of up to 8 Degrees. It is the kind of wind in which you can hear the baying of the hounds of the Wild Hunt, and the kind of rain normally reserved for the monsoon season of Asia. It may well be the worst weather we’ve seen not only on this journey, but in our life so far – and we’ve lived through some harsh Polish winters. Still, foolhardily, we trod on, to see the few sites we have on schedule today. Like the mariners of old, lashing their sails, we have to lash our roof with an extra length of rope for fear of it being blown off by a sudden sideways gust, and off we go, down the narrow, many-causewayed roads of Southern Hebrides.
The eastern, mainland-facing side of the Uists is somewhat similar to Skye, with its swathes of heather and bald rock – in this case, some of the oldest rock on Earth, the Lewisian Gneiss; but there’s a lot more water, in all sizes and forms, small marshy ponds and vast lochs crossable only via thin causeways, and bogs full of valuable peat, which lies along the road in freshly cut heaps. The colours here are amazing, even in the dull, grey light of the stormy day: the heathers seem to glow from inside, fluorescent pink, and the sand is dazzling white – which in turn makes the sea pure turquoise. The beaches of Outer Hebrides are famous – you can’t get a better sand this side of the Carribbean; if only the weather matched all this extravagance of colour…
But on the western side, even the heather is gone, leaving only tall, hardy grass and an occasional dwarfed shrub as the only vestige of vegetation. If there’s anything this part of Britain resembles, it’s the Arctic tundra. We feel as if there’s no more reason for us to visit the rest of Europe: in two months, we’ve travelled from the warm shores of Adriatic and Mediterranean, to the sub-arctic wasteland, all within the borders of one, albeit fairly long, country.
Still, people live here, and in quite fair numbers; the seemingly barren western coast is actually a surprisingly fertile type of land, locally called the machair – a former beach, overgrown by grass. Despite the tragedies of Clearances, of which the evidence is visible everywhere in the form of abandoned croft cottages, or even entire villages, the Outer Hebrides seem more densely populated than Skye or even Islay, although there are no large settlements here apart from Stornoway. There is some minor industry, apart from the ubiquitous arts and crafts; a large smokery, whose specialty are peat-smoked scallops, and of course the textiles, with the famous Harris Tweed at the forefront; tweed was invented in the Hebrides, in fact, and it is still here that the best (and most expensive) tweed is woven, by hand.
Even out here in the middle of Atlantic, the neolithic and bronze age people have made their mark; the main monuments are on the northern isles, but even here at Uist there are significant sites: a large cairn with an accompanying stone circle at Langass, a hundred-feet wide affair known locally as Fionn’s Cauldron (just like the similar one on Arran). Both are set over a pretty loch, and accessible after a bit of a walk through heather and a surprisingly exotic garden of a nearby B&B. I could just imagine a Bronze Age atheist rambler (if such existed) despairing about the monument’s location: “they had to build one even here!“. A more unique type of an ancient site can be seen on North Uist, near the Harris ferry – a crannog, a neolithical settlement on an artificial island. The one here is, in fact, by far the oldest of its kind, 5000 years old, and surprisingly well preserved – it’s still easily visible from the road.
The more recent history of the islands is that of inter-clan strife, marked by varied religious loyalties. The southern isles were – and still are – predominantly Catholic, which resulted in sites not usually associated with Britain, like the giant statue of Virgin Mary, or a large modern church looming over a small village. There is a number of medieval and early medieval ruins scattered throughout; we choose to visit one, that requires the least of a detour through the wind-swept machair, at Howmore. The hamlet has only a few houses, but they are exceptionally beautiful – old, distinctly Norse-looking cottages – so-called Blackhouses – with thatch held down by stones (something we could use for our own roof) and colourful bottle-glass windows. One of the huts is a Youth Hostel, one of a number of such establishment on the islands. The ruins themselves – a monastic settlements, with several Celtic and Viking era chapels – look almost underwhelming by comparison, but they are quite substantial and look rather romantic in the rain; despite their antiquity they are still in use as a graveyard to this day.
We don’t have time or strength to reach Barra, the southernmost of the islands, but we have just enough to get across the longest of causeways to Eriskay – Eric’s Isle – for a brief visit to the local pub; the pub is an unassuming, modern concrete building, with a minimal selection of beers and whiskys, but that’s not why we’re here; the pub is called “Am Politician” – “The Politician“, and the name says it all: that was the name of the ship carrying a cargo of 28,000 cases of whisky during the war, which wrecked on the nearby rocks. The story of a battle between the locals and the government officials over the recovery of the cargo inspired first the book and then, more famously, the 1949 movie “Whisky Galore!”. The rumour has it that the pub has one of the whisky bottles on display, but I couldn’t spot it for certain, and given the auction prize of the bottles when they do show up, I find it quite unlikely. Still, it’s a nice story, and a nice place to have a pint, looking out at the raging sea.
That was all we could manage, however, and as the wind grew even stronger, we headed slowly and carefully back north in search of the campsite near the ferry to the Isle of Harris.
In good weather, the campsite at Balranald must be stunning; set in the middle of an RSPB reserve famous for its birds of prey and vast flocks of lapwings (we’ll see them the next day, on the way to ferry), a short walk from the beach, with panoramic view in every direction. But it’s the same panoramic setting which makes the wind unbearable. The few tourists who dare to stay with us, huddle their tents in the shadow of the (very decent) toilet block. It’s almost a surprise that the tents (and their inhabitants) are all still there in the morning.
The site is a mere £15 with hook-up, and that includes free Wi-Fi, so it’s a bargain all around, and highly recommended – if you can get there on a sunny day.