THE OUTER HEBRIDES
Since we first sighted those distant shores, indigo and aloof in the Western Sea my heart has been set upon them, and I knew there could be no content until I had reached them. Even before, in the long ago of my extreme youth the very name of the Outer Hebrides had captured my imagination. There was, it seemed, the fringe of the world, the very edge of land, beyond which the ocean rolled and tossed into the far distance of Arctic twilight.
Now I can claim, I think, more than a passing acquaintance with the Isles. Perhaps I even know them a little. From Isle to Isle I have wandered, travelling slowly in the slow tempo of their life, and crofters and weavers and fishing men speak to me as a friend. Content I did achieve upon those magic shores, but it is a content I shall only know with each return. The Isles have got their spell upon me.
The RMS ‘Lochness’ sails from Oban at 6am on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. One pearly morning it carried Jo and Tom and I along the sound of Kerrera and past silent peaceful shores into the Sound of Mull. The mist still lay on the mountains as we entered Tobermory Bay and tied up at the little harbour, but an hour later, running placidly down the Sound, the great peaks of Morven were emerging from their cloudy caps, and Ben More dominated the island. Then came the call to breakfast. We found a long snake of a queue winding its way all round the ship. The word went round that it was ‘kippers’ so, in a brilliant moment we thought of the primus. We found a handy alcove near our saloon, set up the stove and soon there were lashings of hot tea and the lovely smell of bacon in the frypan. When I asked an ill-tempered, overheated cook if he could spare a half dozen eggs, I thought the ship would not be big enough for the two of us! We didn’t get our eggs, but we certainly made a breakfast which was the envy of all the steerage.
Afterwards to the deck to enjoy the lovely sunshine and the panorama of the Shallow Seas; the indented coasts of Mull and Ardnamurchan, the Treshnish Isles, with its Dutchman’s Cap islet, the long low coast of Coll, from which came a motor boat to gather mails and stores, and the sister Isle of Tiree, where, as we tied up at the jetty, the local folks waited to welcome relatives and friends. There was romance enough on that sparkling voyage. The shallow channel between Coll and Tiree led us warily into the open sea, and in mid afternoon, as we identified the blue Cuillins of Skye and argued about humpy Rhum and the Sgurr of Eigg, the horizon became the rocky Isles of Vatersay, Mingulay and Barra crept on the western horizon, until the broken tail of the Outer Isles was clearly visible.
What a thrilling entry one makes into Castlebay! Past a dozen islets into the sheltered bay; the approach to the pier; with Kishmuill Castle’s guarding the fairway, isolated and proud, though a ruin. The very place for imaginings of a sanguinary past when the Macneills were lords of Barra, and none could say them nay, their daring foraging and superb seamanship, the terror of the mainland as well as that of the Hebrides. They still tell on Barra how, when the Chief had dined, a trumpeter would ascend the tower of Kishmuill and announce that, as Macneill had lunched, the world might now eat! Wild and hardy days!
To ‘meet the boat’ is a pleasant pastime where pleasures are simple and amusement home-made. Everyone waits on the pier, and the clergy and the one policeman make each tying up and disembarkation a kind of official welcome. As touring cyclists are an uncommon species we received a large share of limelight, and more than a few words of welcome. The one street of the ‘town’ contained our shopping needs; it tilts at the end to join the one main road which encircles a large part of the island. Joining it we turned west, and in a little over a mile found ourselves looking over the main Atlantic. We were graciously given a camp site beside the shore of Loch St Clair, the one considerable fresh-water loch on the island. This would admirably meet our camping needs for the two nights we were to stay.
Before sunset I wandered to a nearby knoll and watched the evening light play on the waters of the Atlantic until the sea became golden and then slowly grey. The first day to the isles was over!
In the morning, Tom and I rode down to Castlebay for the post. In place of the ‘Lochness’ a coaler was berthed with steam up, ready to start on her once-a-year voyage to Barra Head. Yes, we could go but Jo was not with us and reluctantly we turned away. Chances like this are not uncommon, and any little vessel will carry a few passengers to any part of the Isles.
A crofter woman with two cows at a pasturage in the hill passed the tent morning and night, and at each passing left us two pints of new milk. There was no thought of payment. Isle hospitality begun!
We spent the rest of the day, all afternoon and evening exploring the island from the one road – all 14 miles of it! Borve on the west coast with its exquisitely smooth turf, its old burial ground on a headland, where the winds of the sea forever blow. The fine sand was dazzling on the shore and on each side of the road, which is deeply drifted in wild weather. The road runs across the neck of a valley where a cottage woman sold us eggs absurdly cheap, gave us a pound of margarine because she had no butter ready, and capped it with glasses of milk. Quickly we reached the east coast by a tiny valley which had stunted trees in it, and came to North Bay.
The Post Office is kept by ‘Coddy’. Coddy makes teas, sells anything, hires the one taxi of the island, takes one on motor-boat trips to anywhere, particularly to Eriskay, across the Sound. For Coddy is a Jacobite of the fervent sort. Coddy will still toast “the King across the water”. But Coddy is still a realist. He talked to us over our tea of bannocks and sweet cakes; he told us many things about Barra and Eriskay. Even the people in the London Maritime Museum know about Coddy, who gave them a traverse board, one of those long extinct devices by which ancient mariners found their way ages before the compass was known. Perhaps he has that name from his house, which is ‘Eillean a’ Choddy’, but they say it is because of his eyes which are likened to a codfish! To all he is known as “the uncrowned king of Barra”.
We devoted the evening to exploring the northern limit of the island. A very bad road led us past a village of Black Houses and over a hill to the shore. Thence we rode over a mile and a half of firm white sands to the ‘Cockle Strand’. The strand and the whole sands are composed of myriads of tiny cockle shells. Beyond, the road continued to a ruined church, filled with great nettles and old gravestones. Here we left the bikes and climbed the hill Eliogarry. What a view we had then over the northern edge of Barra, the islands in the Sound of Eriskay; South Uist, the distant Cuillins of Skye, Rhum and Eigg, and Barra’s own mountain, Ben Screan. Then back over the sands where the mail plane calls daily on the out-tide, and the road down the wild east coast, the heavy climb over a shoulder of Ben Screan, until Castlebay lay far below. So back to the camp site for supper and the lingering sunset over the far west where the faint smudge might be St Kilda, lonely and remote.
Morning was wild and gusty, with the wind blowing across the loch into the doorways of the tents, the one vulnerable place in the ‘Itisa’ type tent. Characteristic of the Isles was this sudden change, this shift of the wind, those scudding clouds.
During the morning we walked the cliffs of Doirlin Head, to the immediate south of our campsite. Here the sea cliffs rise to 543 ft sheer, and there are great chasms into which the Atlantic boils and breaks with a booming roar. In one place Tom and I had rounded a great cleft and stood looking over the overhanging rocks, when we were horrified to see Jo strolling down the grass verge until, unaware of the fearful drop she had already overhung, we called out at once and brought her to a stop in the very nick of time. It was not until she joined us that she realised the great peril that she had been in and would certainly have gone over had we not seen her. The sight of these magnificent cliffs, the broken rocks at their base, the great grey sea, held us in fascination. On the way back, aface half a gale with rain in it, we found a high valley with the remains of a sheiling, and the markings of pasturage returning now to the sour moorland. This had once supported life. The hill was Ben Tanyavul 1092 ft. On our return the tents were reeling drunkenly in the…… and sadly, the holiday, not long started, has run out of words!!
It is a great pity that Charlie should run out of steam, it is such an encouraging start, and so interesting to read ! There may never have been further pages, Charlie had an enormous folder of jottings and half started stories, and I have kept them all, nothing has been thrown out. For example I have kept back the story headed Honeymoon Tour in 1936, until now, because it really is the end of material I can put on the website. But even that special tour of 10 foolscap pages only takes us to day 5 of a 16 day tour !! An Editor’s life is not an easy one, full of frustrations!