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Published: October 19th 2012
Motorhome News from Scotland 3
Berneray – North Uist – South Uist and Eriskay
The continuing hunt for Otters, Bonnie Prince Charlie and Whisky Galore!
It’s a mere forty minutes by ferry from Leverburgh on South Harris, to the island of Berneray, up there above the tip of North Uist, linked in recent times to South Uist and all the way down to the tiny island of Eriskay, forty miles further south, by a backbone of single-track road and umbilical causeways. The pace of life will have changed here no doubt, from a mere dawdle to very leisurely. With all the time in the world and our home on our backs we chose just to dawdle, absorbing the sights and sounds of the wild west of Scotland as we pass it by.
There is a certain bond between motorhomers which may have gone unnoticed by the masses as they trundle along our highways, cemented in a casual wave as they pass each other by along the road. There were only two motorhomes on the Berneray ferry that
day and a casual wave in the spacious lounge prompted a welcome exchange of information. Experience tells us there’s nothing better than a red-hot tip from a local. The informants were a motorhoming couple from Lochboisdale, at the very southerly tip of South Uist, returning from a short break ‘up north’ as one might say, at the top of Lewis, to check on the Northern Lights. They’re a couple of foreigners from somewhere around Hull I seem to remember, here in retirement if that’s what you might mean by running your own B&B. We have them to thank for pointing us in the right direction from the ferry. “Turn north,” they said, “across the causeway to the eastern tip of Berneray and park-up on the machair-swathed dunes above the bay.” We were like a couple of kids at a tea-party; gifted with awesome views beyond the five-kilometer golden-sand beach across the shimmering Sound of Harris - a night-halt fit for a Norse King and fabulous walking to follow!
Hiking continues to fill many of our days as we travel and there is no shortage of that in the Western Isles. There’s a wonderful walk along the low-tide strand at
Traigh Bhalaigh, draped with the last hues of summer flowers on the machair and wind-blown dunes. The tide turned as we watched the tractors harvesting sparse fields of oats and rye, leaving us stranded with no option but to wade knee-deep through a stream, trousers rolled-up, boots and socks in hand! Another hike came later in the day at the Balranald RSPB Reserve, out across stubble fields and around the headland, a bay laced with bronze kelp where an injured young seal sheltered from the wind beneath a clinker boat. Lapland buntings, a Hen harrier and flighty flocks of Linnets were enjoying the chill wind as we hiked the paths in weatherproof coats and sturdy boots. This is September and this is Scotland. So why did I take two pairs of shorts? I guess, with a motorhome, because I can.
Our quest for otters took us across the enchanting, desolate heather moor, so very much a picture of Scotland, to the very end of the road at Loch Sgioport on the east coast. Despite the perfect location of dark and isolated interlaced lochs there was notanotter to be seen, but our journey was not without its reward. A Long-eared
...the tide turned!
owl sat for two seconds on a cottage chimney before sweeping off across the heather, a Golden eagle crossed our path in a gentle glide and a Peregrine sped downwards from the mist above, on the hunt for supper. Back on the ‘main road’ we skidded to a halt at the Hebridean Smokehouse, a sort of farmer’s market full of temptation, to leave a few minutes later clutching hot-peat-smoked-salmon for a supper salad of our own. Now, where did we put the white wine? Fanciful food is never far away when in Scotland. Our Sunday brunch consisted of bacon, eggs, black pudding, lorne sausage and fruit pudding, setting us up for a wee look at the golfing stakes. Fine fairways stretched into the distance, red flags on greens bent double in the wind and not a hill, a tree or a single soul to be seen. The golfers at Askernish were all hunkered down in the bar! “Another Scotch please, Steward.”
You’ll know all about the Isle of Eriskay, a bit further south no doubt. There’s not much to know; it’s only a couple of miles across and a population of less than 130 these days, but it is
...looking for otters!
famed for Prince’s Beach, where Bonny Prince Charlie is said to have landed from France in 1745 in his bid to stage the Jacobite uprising. I hope he remembered his hat and gloves! In a fitting tribute to his memory, a ship called ‘The Politician’ went aground off Rosinish Point in 1941 depositing 264,000 bottles of whisky on the beach and prompting the tale of ‘Whisky Galore’. We sampled a dram or two in the conservatory of ‘The Politician Inn’ where locals chatted in their native gaelic, widely spoken on the islands. “Cheers, Charlie!”
Booze sits high on the list of interests on the islands, we’re led to believe, as is often the case where tough times still carry the scars of hardship borne by previous generations, and paid work is scarce. Community shops flourish here, demonstrating strength of togetherness and providing a lifeline for the inhabitants, but there are few large employers today: fish farms and processors, sheep farming, a little dairy produce, Harris Tweed of course, and local government in all its shapes and sizes.
Contrary to much we have read in the guide books, a few shops open on Sundays, along with the local pub.
Askernish Golf Course
The golfers were all in the bar!
Villagers were slowly making their way to up the hill in family groups, dressed in their ‘Sunday best’ for the weekly pilgrimage to church, leaving behind their drab grey, slate-roofed cottages, somber in a treeless environment more often than not blessed with stormy clouds, a biting wind and bleak heather moor.
The Uist we see is somewhat less dramatic than Harris just across the water; more placid, peaceful, less inhabited at first glance. Perhaps serene is a better word. Houses here are 200 yards apart in the villages and often a mile apart when not! Scattered across the fields, ancient tractors and cars rust to ashes like lost children at the spot where they breathed their last sighs of life, abandoned forever. Above the bay, gravestones watch from windswept dunes as sunsets mourn each day for yesterday’s lost souls.
So, why do people choose to live and die here on the Western Isles? Most are born here I might suggest and to them this is home. Some come here in retirement; we met a few, seeking the special tranquility and community of island life. Many come to write and that I should love for a limited time; there
Where Bonnie Prince Charlie landed from France in 1745
are numerous books gracing the shelves of local shops - and some come to paint in the glorious skies which grace each day. For me it would be the peace, space, freedom, walking, cycling, birding, reading and writing, huge skies and shallow horizons, enormous sandy beaches and windswept dunes, vast moors and rocky shores, the wildlife, island music, fiddle playing and story-telling, golf if-and-when you can stand up in the wind, washing drying horizontally on the line (strong pegs essential) and the simple life. I’ll leave you to think of any downsides. I don’t do negative thoughts as many will testify.
Chance had it that as we approached the port at Lochboisdale, where otters are said to frequent, a sign caught our eye. ‘Wireless Cottage B&B’ it said. We had seen that address before – on the back of a certain motorhome, and there, mowing the lawn before the next onslaught of rain, was our friendly motorhomer from the ferry!
“We’re here looking for otters,” we called across the road.
“It’s all chance,” she replied. “You might get lucky.”
And chance indeed it was, though we had worked hard for it. Our passion for
‘the end of the road’, brought us, on our last night on the islands, to the remote moorland reaches of the north-east coast of North Uist, less than half-an-hour from the ferry terminal at Lochmaddy, and here we found a touch of heaven - a likely spot for feasting otters; remote, quiet as a marauding barn owl, shallow sea-lochs sparkling in the dawn light as the white sunlight filtered through the morning mist. On a morning of calm waters off the shallow rocky shore, below a patchy blue sky and a chill in the air fresh on bleary eyes, we breakfasted early, very early, cast off our leveling blocks and made our way slowly on the winding narrow road towards the ferry and our fond farewell, ever watchful for dark ripples on still water, black outlines on craggy rocks. This was to be our last chance of finding otters.
But it was not otters that first caught our eye. It was a fine pair of red deer stags, standing proudly, heads held high, amongst the heather on a slope not fifty metres distant, statues, motionless, surveying this slow-moving grey and white motorhome with wary eyes. We stopped and stared.
They stared back and considered us with much interest, until seemingly bored, they moved off, turning occasionally to see if we followed before vanishing beyond the horizon. With less than three hours before our ferry, otter sightings were looking unlikely on this holiday.
Another golden eagle crossed the moor a short way ahead of us, moving fast in search of prey as, between two banks of bright heather, I spotted a movement on the loch. A crow sat on an isolated rock - but something else, a grey seal perhaps? A hundred metres on, we pulled over into a passing place, grabbed our binoculars and hurried back on foot for a closer look. It was indeed a crow on the rock, but it was not a seal. It was an otter, cavorting in the water, diving and rising, a dark graceful outline sending silver ripples across the surface, scurrying amongst the kelp and across a skein of tiny islands in the loch.
“There’s another, Janice. On the island!”
“And a third, David. Look. Over there!”
Picture if you will, two crazy people, old enough to know better, deliriously happy, bottoms soaking on a wet heather bank
Otters at last!
way out on an isolated moor, with tears of happiness in their eyes - and shivering in the cold. That’s us. The grey haired nomads.
David and Janice
The Grey haired nomads
We drove the best part of 500 miles on the islands. But beware - it’s £1.60p per litre!
Walking the Western Isles. Clan Books. ISBN 978 1 873597 27 9
The Blackhouse and Lewis Man by Peter May
Harris Wildlife. A small informative booklet £1 at TI or £2 at the bookshop in Stornaway
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