I’ve long been told that the Western Isles of Scotland are magical. Or interesting. Or Weird. Or some combination of weirdly magically interesting.
Cyclists I’ve met have raved about the quiet, hilly roads and long empty beaches. My family have enthused on its archaeology, others about its incubation of radical land politics. And since moving to Edinburgh these islands, their difference – historic and contemporary – as a landscape apart, has strangely shifted my sense of the geography of Britain.
This summer I cycled up from Vatersey, the most southerly inhabited island, to the Butt of Lewis (and on to the northern reaches of Scotland – more stunning cycling). Here are ten photos about it.
1. The machair, a thick band of just-off-the-coast land up much of the West side of Barra and the Uists, is covered every summer in a thick blanket of meadow flowers. None are especially rare, apart from a few orchids, but the overall effect is amazing. It was a bit depleted by drought [sic] when we were there.
2. Birds. There are birds everywhere. Being very, irrepressibly noisy: all the time. The corncrake, that “little god of the field” (the description Kathleen Jamie likes so well) which is extinct on mainland Britain, has a stronghold here. To encounter them you don’t need to go birding, certainly binoculars are a bad plan. Just camp near the machair and you can listen all you want to the “crex crex” call of wandering corncrakes. This is certainly enchanting the first night, but does get wearing when they awake at 3am…
3. Stony inheritances. The ruins of former settlements are everywhere. We cycled up to Barpa Langass and wandered around that big pile of stones. Incredibly, this stone age dwelling was around before much of the peat bog had even formed. Elsewhere, everywhere, there are standing stones. No one really knows what these are for, even at the bigger sites like Calanish. I like Tim Robinson’s speculation that washed-up beacons like the one above are the fossilized forebears of a more modern will to power; the same desire to master space animating prehistoric politicos, nineteenth century cartographers, and those who count climbing to the top of mountains as an important achievement.
There are other ruins too, from those of the clearances, to cold war remnants, to echoes of high modernity. Pictured on the left is the vestige of one of Lord Leverhulme’s many schemes to bring, against their collective wishes, industrial wage labour to the inhabitants of the islands. On the right, the crumbling buildings that used to occupy the staff of the Butt of Lewis lighthouse (famed from BBC Radio 4’s shipping forecast…) before its automation. There is no wilderness on these lands.
4. Land ownership. Apparently, successive owners of the silly-looking, Victorian Amhuinnsuidhe Castle (left) have all been mighty pissed off that the dead-end road to Huisnis goes right by their front door. Good. We resisted the temptation to pitch our tent on the ridiculous lawn (replete with cannon). But although the plutocrats may no longer own Harris, you still certainly can’t play golf on a Sunday (right).
5. Religion. Our guidebook described the north west coast of Lewis as a “string of bleak and fervently Presbyterian villages”. This pretty much sums up all that is wrong with (i) tourism in general and (ii) the Rough Guide in particular. As if architectural aesthetics were there only to be consumed by the metropolitan flaneur. In any case, I liked the stark churches up here, but they couldn’t compete with the dour Catholic bling of the church of Our Lady of Sorrows, South Uist. This is modernist Concrete brilliance.
6. Hills. The American-born folksong collector Margaret Fay Shaw, before she settled down to live in South Uist for five years to collect, archive and salvage Gaelic songs and stories, cycled a lot around Britain. In 1924 she cycled from Barra to the Butt of Lewis. This factoid joins other kernels for a future project on amateur anthropology, landscape and the bicycle. Anyway, I’m mightily impressed because since her jaunt many roads have been re-graded, but are still really really really steep, so I can only imagine doing them on 1920s technology. Cycling hats off to Margaret, whatever her contested folklorist credentials.