North Uist is one of the chain of islands that run for over a hundred miles South South West from Lewes in the North to Barra in the South and comprise the Outer Hebrides. “It’s a working island not a holiday island,” said the woman in the COOP in Solas desperate to talk to anybody.
Something like the size of the Isle of Wight it’s more water than land, with the sea winding through convoluted lochs into the heart of the island and fresh water, peaty lochs everywhere else. The map reminds me of a map of Northern Canada used in a business school exercise of what to do when your plane crashes: what to take from the plane and whether to stay or go? The exercise shows that teams make better decisions than individuals and that you should stay put. If you try to move you’ll become lost among the maze of water and land, making it impossible for rescuers to find you. That, I’m sure, would be the case here—except that North Uist is considerably smaller than Northern Canada.
Over the sea from Skye
The route we took to North Uist was to take the Caledonian McBrayne ferry across the Minch from Uig in the North of Skye to Lochmaddy, a cluster, more a scattering, of houses. Although the ferry takes one hour and 45 minutes you can see the Outer Hebrides from Skye and Skye from North Uist. As you make the crossing you see the high hills of Harris to the right of the boat, which is confusing as the ferry is heading West and Harris is to the North of the Uists.
All over the island the houses are scattered rather than concentrated into villages, which is because this was a land of crofts. Each crofter had a patch of land around his house, where he would grow what he could and keep animals. We are staying in the house of John and Mary Gillies, and the modern house is built on the site of what was John’s grandfather’s croft. The byre, the cowshed, is still there. The old house had two floors, which I think was unusual, and is built on a hillock with a sea loch on both sides. There was once a walled garden, where the crofter grew vegetables. The house is now surrounded by grass, but beyond the fence is rough ground to the shore of the loch, some 50 yards away. John’s grandfather managed to grow hay there, but it’s not rich ground.
A land of crofters
John’s paternal grandfather originally had a croft on the Western, more fertile side of the island, but when his first wife died in childbirth he married a woman from Lochmaddy who refused to move so far. Christine, John’s sister who lives permanently across a sliver of loch from John and Mary’s house, told us that her and John’s maternal grandfather had four siblings who died of diphtheria. Their father came home from one funeral to discover that another child had died. In those days, Christine reminded us, only men went to funerals; both Lin and I immediately saw in our minds’ eyes the painting of a Highland Funeral by one of the Glasgow Boys.
History feels very close in North Uist. There is a Neolithic tomb and a stone circle some 6000 years old. In those days the island was forested. Across the island you see ruined crofts. The people now live in modern—and to our Southern eyes, mostly ugly—houses, and often around houses there are piles of rusting cars and machinery. The beauty, which is everywhere in the natural surroundings, is not in the human contribution to the landscape—except in the one instance of an old graveyard close to one of the exquisite beaches with its white sand and blue, green, and purple sea.
The ruined crofts make you think of the clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries when 2500 people were transported to Canada, the US, and Australasia so that the land could be used for shooting or rearing sheep. The population now is around 1600 and, says Christine, roughly stable. Some young people are moving to the island because they want their children to grow up bilingual. But most of the people Christine mentions are people in their 70s, 80s, or even 90s. She tells us of her aunt now 95, a crofter’s wife who made butter, cheese, preserves, and much else, a highly capable woman who once went to Skye but didn’t much like it.
Houses at the edge, a bog in the middle
The houses on North Uist are around the edge with the treeless centre filled with bogs, lochs, peat covered hills, and nothing else. There are just three high hills, the Leas and Ben Eaval which can be seen from almost everywhere on the island. There are some 600-800 deer on the island, mostly in the centre. Every couple of years a census is taken by helicopter, and if the number is 800 then some 200 are culled, giving rise to a glut of cheap venison.
Perhaps the greatest marvels of the island are the vast, white sand deserted beaches of the West. We visited one on a day when the wind was blowing at 50 miles per hour: sand was blown into our faces making them sting. We had a most wonderful walk on Berneray, an island linked to North Uist by a short causeway, and were the only people on a beautiful beach three miles long.
Weather changing every 15 minutes
I remember staying on Skye in the hotel owned by the clan chief of the Macdonalds, whose title includes the incomparable Lord of the Isles, and my American friend asking what the weather would be: “A bit of everything,” he answered. That’s how it was on the day with the strong winds: the weather changed every 15 minutes, and we went through cycles of rain, hail, snow, and sun. We struggled at one point to open the door of a shop on the Western side of the island, but the women in the shop assured us that the wind was “just a wee breeze” compared with the gales that that often blew. Christine had told us of a storm with winds of 130 miles per hour that devastated the island and killed five people. It hadn’t, she noted, featured in the news in contrast to a storm in Cornwall that caused devastation but killed nobody.
The woman in the shop that day told us that the ferry wasn’t able to dock because of the wind. She couldn’t understand why and suspected that it must be an “inexperienced captain.” Everybody we meet seems to know the status of the ferry, and a lamb being killed on the road was, Christine said, “all over the island.” We saw the lamb just after the accident had happened, and it’s brutal death and the grieving of the mother seemed to symbolise the hard life of the island.
A privately owned island
Life, we learnt from Christine, might be harder on North Uist than on the other islands of the Outer Hebrides because it is still privately owned. The laird, Lord Granville, owns almost the whole island, and his ownership precludes large public investments that would otherwise be available. This presents a problem to the people of the island as they could hold a vote and have the island pass into public ownership, meaning they could attract public investment. The problem is that the islanders like Fergus, the laird, and appreciate what he has tried to do for the island, investing in fisheries, the Hebridean Smokehouse, a hotel, and other activities. Although a cousin of the Queen, his children went to the local school (before going to boarding schools on the mainland), and the family mucks in with the villagers.
Christine and John spent their early years here and grew up speaking Gaelic (pronounced Gallic to rhyme with phallic for Scottish Gaelic and “Gaylick” for Irish Gaelic, Christine told us). In the 70s and 80s it was shameful to speak Gaelic, so people hid the fact that they did. Christine told us how when she started at school in North Uist she used a Gaelic word and was told firmly “We don’t speak that here. In school we speak English.” Now, as it should be, it’s a matter of pride to speak Gaelic, and many people on the island, including Christine’s aunt, are more comfortable in Gaelic than English. Today a young woman in a remote shop selling shellfish seemed uncomfortable speaking English.
It’s been a great privilege for us to be in such a beautiful, historic, and evocative place. We are far from home, as foreign, if not more foreign than we would be in Europe or North America (despite Lin being Scottish), but everybody is friendly and we feel like special guests.