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Welcome to Doodlecat, where we enjoy the pleasures of life (with a slight bias towards the outdoors). This page is regularly updated with news and views plus information about any additions or changes to the various parts of the site. It acts as Doodlecat’s Blog too, so the odd rant considered opinion may pop up from time to time.

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Friday, June 25, 2010

Go west! ... and then a bit further west!

View of Tarbet harbour from the ferryWhat better way to recover from the aftermath of the General Election, and the pip squeezing austerity measures, than to escape to a distant island with miles and miles of white sandy beaches, turquoise seas, and a slow, laid back lifestyle?

That’s what we did. And where is this idyll? The Maldives perhaps? The West Indies maybe?

No.

We sailed to the Outer Hebrides. Specifically, Harris. Where the tweed comes from ... except, confusingly, Harris Tweed is made on the Isle of Lewis, which is not a separate isle at all, but a part of the same island as Harris. It’s all like that  in the Western Isles – everything is slightly confusing. For example, Miss W called at our local shop for some milk. Simple enough you might think.

Shopkeeper: Ah, Mrs Bates, I’ve got something for you.
Miss W: I’m not Mrs Bates.
Shopkeeper: Oh, I’m expecting a lady who’s staying in our community for a week.
Miss W: I’m staying for a week, but …
Shopkeeper: Ah, so you’re staying with Mrs Bates!
Miss W: No, I’m not.
Shopkeeper: Do you know Mrs Bates?
Miss W: No
Shopkeeper: Well, if you see her, tell her to call by.

Wisely, Miss W disengaged at this point, bought the milk and started back home. It was drizzling and she had only gone a few yards when a white van pulled up. The driver opened the passenger door and called “You don’t want to be out walking in this weather – hop in and I’ll give you a ride back to your house”.

And that’s island life. Weird, confusing, but also amazingly kind and considerate.

Beach at Luskentyre
On the beach at Luskentyre
This holiday was originally planned by our good friends, Rick & Lindsey, who were hopping northwards along the entire archipelago with their friends Paul & Sue Fisher. For their arrival at Harris they had booked a cottage for a week, with a spare bedroom. Would we like to fill it? Yes please!

Starfish at LuskentyreSo, what are they like, these far western isles? On the whole, a little on the bleak side, but when the weather is kind, just inspiring and quite magical. It largely depends on you and your outlook.

Lewis is mainly a blanket of bog, which is quite handy as much of the islanders' fuel is peat, and all over the island you will see peat being cut, stacked and dried ready for the winter. In fact the very name, Lewis, is apparently derived from the gaelic ‘leogach’, meaning boggy. Very apt.

Harris, by contrast, is mainly bare rock – reminiscent of the Greek Islands, but without the sunshine and heat. But it has some magnificent hills, culminating in Clisham (An Cliseam) at 2619ft. The very name, Harris, derives from the Norse for ‘high land’. It’s considerably more fertile on the western side, but most people live on the bare and barren east.

Why? Are they a bit daft? Well, no, they were driven there by landlords who found sheep far more profitable than crofters, and the crofters' fields made excellent grazing. Amazingly as well as turning to fishing, these displaced folk managed to create areas to grow crops in the clefts in the bare rock by building up peat and seaweed into fertile " lazybeds". Lazybeds is bit of a misnomer, given the backbreaking work required to build and maintain them. Tellingly almost all are now abandoned.
Abandoned village by sea
Abandoned village
Miss W, who is far more sensitive that I to ‘atmosphere’ remarked, “This place is so full of ghosts. You can hear them whispering, and it’s sad”. It’s certainly true that the low evening sun reveals lines and lines of 'lazybeds' in the most unpromising locations. Often they wind up hillsides and surround windswept bays where once there must have been houses and small fishing boats. We came across several of these abandonded settlements in our stravaigs, some in idyllic settings, all slowly being reclaimed by bramble and bog.

Ruthless eviction, and forced and unforced emigration depopulated this island. Well intentioned restitution by new landowners, such as Lord Leverhulme, the soap king, failed to take account of the islanders’ culture and tradition. His big idea was to make the island a centre for fishing – he not only built the ports (and a whaling station!) but founded the Macfisheries chain to distribute the produce. He even had spotter planes to help locate the herring. Unfortunately the islanders preferred their old way of life. Basically they wanted security of tenure on their crofts, and this was incompatible with Leverhulme’s ‘progressive views’. He eventually abandoned his plans in Lewis, and on his death in 1925 the completion of Leverburgh, the purpose built fishing port in Harris, together with the rest of his projects, was quietly dropped.

standing stone at callanish
There are other ghosts here too, and they may speak to us, but their language is long lost – brochs, standing stones (especially atmospheric at Callanish) are evidence of a past with a powerful air of mystery. I defy anyone to vist the tombs in St Clement’s church at Roghadal and not be impressed by the black stone effigies of the warriors that lie there.

Harris is pretty empty. That means that when the sun shines (admittedly not often) the miles and miles of white sands can be yours and yours alone. The beach at Luskentyre is a peach, with wonderful views across to Taransay, where the BBC castaways lived in the 2000 TV programme. Ben Fogel did OK from that, but I never did hear about the rest of them. Are they still there?

Old boat at ScalpayIron Age BrochButt of Lewis
Left to right: Old concrete boat on Scalpay used for mussel packing,    Miss W at the Butt of Lewis,    Iron Age Broch

There is wildlife too. On a ‘heritage walk’ around Scalpay (oh, by the way, half the waymark posts are missing) we saw an otter raiding the nests of oystercatchers. The plaintive ‘peeps’ of the parents as their eggs and babies were scoffed were really quite affecting. A walk up Gleann Mhiabhaig saw golden eagles soaring off their nest high on Sron Scourst. Just magnificent.

And higher even than the eagles on that day, Paul and Sue were enjoying a sunlit, but blustery walk to the summit of Clisham.

Whilst we stayed on the island, Rick, Lindsey, Paul & Sue set off for a day trip to St Kilda, encountering basking sharks on the way and absorbing the strange atmosphere of that remote and unique abandoned community. St Kilda has a history well worth reading. Quite astonishing.

So, there you have the briefest of brief impressions of Harris and Lewis. It’s a great place to visit. For myself, it felt just a wee bit too remote and insular for a long term stay - a few days rather than a couple of weeks - that's just me. (Miss W has just pointed out that any island is insular by definition). But I’m really glad we went. Wonderful scenery and seascapes, friendly people with a delightfully laid back attitude. A five minute delay on the (single track) road whilst two drivers in front stop for a bit of a chinwag is not uncommon. Distances aren't great, so they don't bother to put any indication of mileage on the road signs, which are in gaelic, with the english equivalent after. Takes some reading for an anglophone, but, unlike most of the mainland, people here really do speak gaelic in their daily lives, and it somehow sounds right in these islands.

If you like to get away from it all, the Western Isles could be the place for you.

Sunset over Harris - shortly to become sunrise
 Sunset ... or sunrise over Harris. It's the same thing in June!

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