We’ve been tootling around Scotland again with the Wee White Dug – shock, horror I hear you cry! This time we’ve been enjoying the Outer Hebridean delights of North Uist, South Uist Barra and more. I have so much I want to share 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 window. Maybe checking to see if we approved of their eggs? We did, they were delicious.
Outside it was a lovely morning, but the wind was blowing a hoolie and 50mph gusts were forecast to last all day.
With no set plans, we headed south to Eriskay to begin exploring at the southern tip of the island chain.
Here’s some of what we got up to that day:
Petrol galore or maybe not!
En-route Mr G informed me we had 45 miles of petrol left. If you’re not familiar with the Outer Hebrides, they’re about as remote as you can get. Petrol stations are few and far between. I suggested we stray 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 demeanour had him seething as we drove to Lochboisdale with the refuel warning light flashing.
The Prince’s Cockleshell Strand
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, and lay it by the cairn to remember those who followed and fell.
Despite the wind the boy enjoyed charging up and down the beach like a hooligan.
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 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 still whisky secreted away on the island, hidden from the excise men.
If you ever visit Eriskay pay the island’s pub AM Politician a visit. Behind the Bar are two bottles of whisky from the SS Politician. Charles McColl must be birling in his grave.
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 tame 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 ‘feed me’ sad eyes!
Hunger satisfied we were back on the road.
The birthplace of Flora MacDonald
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 failed.
Today, only the outline of buildings survive, but a cairn has been erected to commemorate South Uist’s famous heroine.
Our Lady of the Isles
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 snapping 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 paused to enjoy the view of South Uist, before jumping back in the car in case we took flight!
I’m a sucker for abandoned crofts. I find them really poignant. There was a lovely one 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 animal themed road signs featuring sheep, cows, pigs, red squirrels, deer and even frogs. One of my favourites is found at the causeway linking Benbecula and South 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, but bit of creative leaping got us there with dry feet.
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 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 tall bracken and purple heather. I couldn’t help laughing at his little boggy feet.
Visiting with the heather in full bloom, and the bracken turning orange I’d say we caught Finn’s People at their best.
As we retraced our steps back to our starting point, I turned my attention to the flora and fauna surrounding us. With wildflowers, berries and hairy caterpillars along the way there was lots to see.
Barpa Langass chambered cairn
Now in a history geek frenzy, our next stop was at another Neolithic site.
Barpa Langass is a 5,000-year-old chambered burial cairn that sits on a hilltop.
As soon as we stepped out of the car the boy began sprinting up the hill. 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.
A bracing wind on West Beach
Before settling down for dinner, we headed to Berneray for a wander on the island’s beautiful West Beach.
The wind was bracing as we crossed the machair towards the beach.
With the wind at our back we made rapid 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 sand – it was utterly breathtaking.
All was well until we turned to head back to the car, and were hit square in the face by sand travelling at 40mph! Ouch – I’m glad the beach was deserted as we must have looked ridiculous walking off it backwards (me carrying the boy).
We didn’t need the stone outside the island’s general store to forecast the weather. 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 ……….