Blowing a hoolie – exploring the Outer Hebrides (part 1)

Just for a change we’ve been tootling around Scotland with the Wee White Dug – shock, horror I hear you cry!  This time we’ve been enjoying the Outer Hebridean delights of the Uists and Barra.  I have so much that I want to share with you from that trip – waaaay too much for one blog, so stay tuned for more.

Our base on North Uist was a cosy B&B in Middlequarter called The Rowan Tree.  The location was remote, but only a short hop from the island’s main settlement Lochmaddy, so we had the best of both worlds.

On our first full day in the Uists we were up with the larks for breakfast.  As we tucked into our eggs we were watched by the resident chickens who’d gathered in a huddle by the patio doors.  I imagined they were looking for compliments about their eggs – which it has to be said were delicious.

Outside, it was a lovely bright morning but the wind was blowing a hoolie, and gusts of up to 50mph were forecast to last all day.

With no set plans we decided to head south to Eriskay so we could begin exploring at the southern tip of the Uists.

Eriskay

En-route Mr G informed me that we had 45 miles of petrol left.  If you’re not familiar with the Outer Hebrides then let me convey that they’re about as remote as you can get, and petrol stations are few and far between.  I suggested we stray slightly off route to get petrol at Lochboisdale – the main settlement on South Uist.  Nah, I’ll get it on Eriskay Mr G announced.

I felt panicked by his suggestion and Googled ‘Eriskay petrol’.  As we were hurtling towards the island I discovered that the closest petrol station was 9 miles away.  Mr G was undeterred, convinced they’d have petrol by the ferry terminal.  So, over the causeway to Eriskay we went and quelle surprise – no petrol station.  The ‘ferry terminal’ was an unmanned waiting room with a toilet.  Much to his alarm Mr G discovered that Eriskay is 3 miles long by 1.5 miles wide.  It has one pub, one village shop and a scattering of houses, but no petrol station – who knew!

I could tell my smug ‘told you so’ demeanour had him seething as we drove back towards Lochboisdale with the refuel warning light flashing.

Back on Eriskay with a full tank of petrol, any tension between us disappeared when we set foot on Coilleag a’Phrionnsa beach (the Prince’s cockleshell strand).

On 23 July 1745, the French frigate Du Teillay alighted a small boat at the beach – on that boat was Charles Edward Stuart aka Bonnie Prince Charlie.  Less than a year later Culloden Moor was drenched with the blood of his defeated Jacobite army, and the way of life of those living in the Highlands and Islands changed forever.

A small cairn by the beach commemorates Bonnie Prince Charlie’s arrival on Eriskay.  I picked a thistle growing nearby, laying it by the cairn to remember the brave souls who followed and fell.

Despite the strong wind the boy had a great time charging up and down the beach like a mad thing.

My favourite tale associated with Eriskay is a popular one.  Britain was at war.  Times were tough, food was rationed and Eriskay was dry – there wasn’t a single drop of whisky left on the island.  Then, on the morning of 5th February 1941 the SS Politician ran into trouble and sank just off the coast.  On-board was a cargo of 264,000 bottles of whisky – too good an opportunity for the islanders to resist.  It’s thought they ‘salvaged’ around 24,000 bottles of uisge beatha (water of life).  Eye witness accounts spoke of singing and dancing in the streets, and people coming from as far afield as the Isle of Lewis to share in the bounty.

The Customs & Excise men, led by Customs Officer Charles McColl finally arrived to break up the party.  McColl was infuriated by the islanders brazen salvage missions and had villages and crofts searched in an effort to recover the whisky.

McColl was relentless – some islanders were fined, while others spent several weeks in prison.  After official attempts to salvage the SS Politician failed McColl was given permission to have her hull blow up.  My favourite quote ever came from a local man Angus John Campbell – “Dynamiting whisky.  You wouldn’t think there’d be men in the world so crazy as that!”  I hear it spoken in the beautiful, lilting accent of the Outer Hebrides.

The wreck still lies off the coast of Eriskay.  In 1987 Eight Bottles of whisky were found by a local diver and auctioned for £4,000.  They say there’s whisky still out there lying in the sea, or secreted away on the island, hidden from the excise men.

If you ever find yourself on Eriskay pay the island’s pub AM Politician a visit.  Behind the Bar are two bottles of whisky from the SS Politician – Charles McColl would be birling in his grave if he knew!


South Uist

Wind-battered, we arrived at Kilbride on South Uist looking for some lunch.  We were in luck, the Kilbride Cafe had all of our favourites – soup, toasties and home baking.

Mr G popped inside to order and I attempted to brush my windswept hair.  I could have stood my brush up in it, it was so tuggy!

Lunch hit the spot perfectly, and as Mr G ate in peace I was subjected to the wee dug’s full repertoire of sad eyes!


Tuggy hair tamed and stomachs full we were back on the road again.

Our next stop was at the ruined settlement of Milton where Flora MacDonald was born.  For anyone not familiar with her story, she bravely helped Bonnie Prince Charlie escape from Scotland after the Jacobite rising of 1745-46 failed.

Today, only the outline of buildings survive, but a cairn has been erected to commemorate South Uist’s famous heroine.

A prominent feature by the roadside on South Uist is the striking hillside sculpture by Hew Lorimer known as Our Lady of the Isles.  Erected in 1947 the 30ft granite statue of Madonna and child was commissioned by a local priest and paid for by the islanders.  Today it’s a category B listed building.


If I’d thought it was windy at sea level, I was in for a shock 170ft above it.  It took all of my strength to stand upright.  I ended up having to snap photos of the sculpture sitting down so I wasn’t blown off my feet.  Having a low centre of gravity the boy wasn’t bothered a jot by the wind.  We briefly paused to enjoy the panoramic view of South Uist, before jumping back in the car just in case we took flight!

Benbecula

I’m a sucker for ruined and abandoned crofts.  I find them really poignant.  There was a lovely example by the roadside on Benbecula which I couldn’t resist.  I’d love to have known it’s history and the story of the people who once lived in it.

Scotland has an array of weird and wonderful road signs warning drivers to look out for sheep, cows, pigs, red squirrels, deer and even frogs but one of my favourites is found at either side of the causeway linking Benbecula and South Uist.

North Uist

With the wind at sea level feeling like a mere breeze after our visit to Our Lady of the Isles we decided to brave it out of the car for a short walk to explore the medieval ruins of Teampull Na Trionaid (Trinity Temple) at Carinish.

En-route we passed the site of the Battle of Carinish which was fought in 1601.  The battle was the culmination of a bitter feud between two powerful local clans – the MacDonalds of Sleat and the MacLeods of Dunvegan and Harris.  It was a MacDonald victory and an enforced peace followed.

We met our old friend Peat Bog on our way to the temple ruins, but a bit of creative leaping got us there mud free and with dry feet.


The boy, delighted to find himself amongst medieval ruins once more left no corner unexplored.

Trinity Temple which dates back to the 12th century was destroyed during the Protestant Reformation.  The ancient monastery and college was founded by Beathag, daughter of Somerled, self-styled King of the Hebrides and King of Man!

After exploring Trinity Temple I indulged my inner history geek some more with another short walk.

Parking near the Langass Lodge Hotel we followed a path that cut round a heather clad hillside to visit Pobull Fhinn (Finn’s People) – a neolithic stone circle cut into a terrace on the hill.  It must have taken some feat of engineering to construct.  Our old friend Peat Bog was there again, but when I spotted the stones ahead even the squelch of bog water underfoot wasn’t going to deter me from reaching them.

The Wee White Dug soldiered on through bracken and purple heather taller than him, like the tiny trooper that he is.  I couldn’t help laughing at his little boggy feet.

Visiting when we did, with the heather in full bloom and the bracken turning orange I’d say we caught Finn’s People looking their best.

I LOVE standing stones and these are definitely amongst my favourites.

As we retraced our steps back towards our starting point I turned by attention to the flora and fauna surrounding us.  With wildflowers, berries and hairy caterpillars there was lots to see, and many photo distractions along the way.

Now in a history geek frenzy, our next stop was at another Neolithic site nearby.

Barpa Langass is a 5,000 year old chambered burial cairn which sits on a North Uist hilltop.

As soon as we got out of the car the boy was sprinting up the hill like a Westie possessed.  He’s his Mum’s boy alright.


The cairn is believed to be the final resting place of a local chieftain but we’ll never really know for sure.

Thankfully, this hilltop was less breezy than the one we’d visited earlier so we were able to enjoy our visit and the view.

I love chambered cairns but I also find them claustrophobic and creepy – crawling into a dark tunnel on your hands and knees is an unnerving experience that toys with your imagination!

I didn’t get to crawl inside Barpa Langass as sadly idiots clambering on it have caused a partial collapse in the interior passageway.  It’s been sealed up until conservation work can be carried out.


Berneray

We decided to give the boy a treat before we settled down for dinner, so we headed to the Isle of Berneray to the beautiful West Beach there.

There was a bracing breeze as we crossed the machair towards the beach.

On the beach a stiff breeze at our back aided our progress along the deserted white sand.  We chased the boy and he showed off with an impressive display of fast running.  The stunning colours of the Outer Hebrides were out in full force – an impossibly turquoise sea, the rich green of the machair and white, unspoiled sand – it was utterly breathtaking.

All was well until we turned to retrace our steps and were sandblasted full in the face by sand travelling at 40 odd mph!  Ouch – I’m glad the beach was deserted as we must have looked absolutely ridiculous as we left walking backwards, with me carrying the boy.

We didn’t need the forecasting stone outside the island’s shop to tell us what today’s weather forecast was – it was blowing a hoolie.

We retreated to the dog friendly Lochmaddy Hotel for dinner, and so ended another wonderful day spent exploring Scotland.

Until next time ……….

22 thoughts on “Blowing a hoolie – exploring the Outer Hebrides (part 1)

    1. Thank you – you definitely need to visit. I’m not much better. I’ve only spent a weekend in Dublin but never visited Ireland properly to see the lovely scenery. It’s on my need to visit properly list! 😊

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  1. Great post and glorious photos. We were staying on South Uist a couple of weeks ago and totally fell in love with this group of islands. Perhaps we unknowingly passed you while we were all driving around visiting these marvelous sites. So glad to see your ‘otters crossing’ picture – one of my favourite ever signs! 🙂

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  2. Thank you once again for a terrific post and some marvelous photographs. I have only ever been to Jura and that was fine. However I did hear that the Hebrides are generally quite windy. The warning sign for the otters was interesting and I have to confess that it took me ages to get used to warning signs here for kangaroos, Emus and Wombats. :o)

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    1. Thank you – I love Jura. It’s such a beautiful, rugged island. I don’t mind a bit of wind as I’m used to it hiking in Scotland. But 50mph day was like an endurance test. 😂 You’ll need to visit Duart Castle on Mull. One if my favs and one of the first remote castles I can remember seeing in Scotland many moons ago.

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  3. Love seeing where you are going and want to go asap. Not the least because my ancestors are McLeods and McDonalds and I have a wee white dug called Maggie May.
    Cheers from Western Australia.

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  4. Love that shot of the standing stones! You are a very tough threesome, enduring the elements as you do, so that I can travel in the comfort of my armchair! Thank you so much!

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      1. Earlier this year I saw some photograhs by the American photographer, Paul Strand, taken during the 1960s of the landscape and people of South Uist. Beautiful, stark, black and white images. I ended up buying the book.

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