An Eriskay love lilt


IT wasn’t a day for rushing anywhere. The weather was ‘soft’, as the Irish would say, and a thin mist hung over the sea. From time to time an ethereal glow would suggest the sun was trying to break through the clouds but the wind, which had blasted the Hebrides for several days, had been stilled.

Somewhere above us, Ben Sciathan, a mere 186 metres above sea level, rose in craggy layers above the rugged moors and the scattered crofts. Its summit was the highest point in Eriskay, and we wanted to climb it.

Lying close to the foot of the chain of islands we know as the Outer Hebrides, the small island of Eriskay is a sparkling jewel set between South Uist and Barra. While it shares many of the features of the other islands in the Hebridean chain – white cockleshell beaches, domed skies, small rugged hills and an air of tranquility, Eriskay’s various claims to fame are out of all proportion to its size.

I first visited the island a number of years ago during an attempt to walk the length of the Hebrides, from Vatersay to the Butt of Lewis. It was an attempt that was doomed to failure because of bad weather, too much road walking and footpaths that had deteriorated into bogs and knee high tussocks, but Eriskay remained in my memory as a little bit different to the rest of the Hebrides, with a spirit of place that seemed less harsh, more welcoming with a gentler environment than its close neighbours.

When I returned a few years later to make a BBC television programme about the Hebrides I spent some more time on the island and learned more about it, largely thanks to a man who was, at that time, the oldest inhabitant of the island. Father Calum McLellan was a lively, charismatic Roman Catholic priest who had been brought up on the island. He was 84 years of age at the time but he could have passed for someone in his sixties.

Most intriguing was the fact that Father Calum had been a teenager of fifteen when the cargo ship, the SS Politician, grounded just offshore and lost its cargo of 2000 cases of whisky, many of which were ‘liberated’ by the local crofters, a tale that was humorously retold by Compton Mackenzie in his glorious tale of Hebridean cunning and wit, Whisky Galore. Calum clearly recalled the police and customs officials searching the island for the hidden contraband. “A number of crofters were charged with theft,” he told me, “something that Compton Mackenzie didn’t mention in his novel.”

It was also Father Calum who explained to me how island life changed when the causeway to South Uist was built in 2001, making the tiny island part of a much larger, and more accessible, community.

“Before the causeway was built I knew I could relax once the last ferry had gone”, he said. “Now I can have people chapping at my door at any time of day or night, but the causeway has been good for the island. In the thirties there were over 400 people living on Eriskay, but by 2000 there were only about 130. Today that’s risen to almost 150.”

Father Calum, who passed away last year at the age of 86, recalled a trip to Glasgow when he was eight years of age.

“We travelled to Mallaig and got the train from there to Glasgow. It was the first time I had seen a train and led to a lifelong fascination with steam engines. But when I arrived in Glasgow I was shocked to the core. I saw a woman, and she was wearing trousers! Could you believe it? What’s more, she was smoking a cigarette.”

Father Calum’s contribution to life in the islands was considerable. The native Gaelic-speaker was the first vice-convenor of Comhairle nan Eilean , the Western Isles Council, when the Hebridean archipelago was unified under a single local government authority in 1975 and he later had the Freedom of the Western Isles bestowed upon him for his contributions to island life.

Many will recall him as a star of the BBC fly-on-the wall series An Island Parish, which followed the lives of three Hebridean island priests, and indeed there have been those who dubbed him a real-life version of the Channel 4 comedy Father Ted. In actual fact Father Calum probably had more in common with an earlier Catholic priest from Eriskay.

Father Allan Macdonald took over the parish of Daliburgh – which then included Eriskay – in 1884. The people of the area – more than 80 per cent Roman Catholic – were very poor. Despite this and other difficulties, he was able to encourage the building of a hospital in Daliburgh which was only recently replaced by a modern one in Balivanich on Benbecula, and the present church in Eriskay.

Father Allan is also remembered as a Gaelic folklorist – responsible for one of the greatest collections of Gaelic literature related to one locality. He died aged only 46 in October 1905 after a bout of pneumonia.

Despite the fact the island is nowadays attached by its stone umbilical cord to South Uist Eriskay still feels remote and unspoiled, a sensation that is probably emphasised by its small size. It’s a mere two and a half miles by one and a half miles, but much of that land is hilly with two prominent tops – Beinn Sciathan and Beinn Stac in the south of the island.

Our ascent of Beinn Stac, 125 metres, was straightforward. We climbed over rough grassy slopes on a curving ridge from the tiny township of Acarseid but we didn’t see much. A thin veil of mist obscured everything but the most immediate of views, although we could just discern the southern islands of Eilean a’ Gheoidh, Eilean Dubha and Eilkean Leathan, rocky outcrops than rise across narrow strait of Caolas an Stac.

The walk was short enough to allow us to return to Am Baile and the Am Politician pub in time for a bar meal. Our excuse was that we were waiting for the mist to clear before we tackled the bigger of the island’s two hills, Beinn Sciathan.

My wife and I combined an ascent of Sciathan with a wander through the island’s main township, Am Baile, and along a superb cockleshell beach, the Coilleag a’Phrionnsa, the Prince’s Stand, a name that commemorates the arrival of Charles Edward Stuart on July 23rd 1745. The prince was put ashore on a small boat from the French ship, Du Teillay – it was the first time he had set foot on Scottish soil and it heralded the beginning of the second Jacobite Rebellion.

It was an inauspicious start to Charles’ ambitions to win back the crown for his father. He was apparently met by Alexander Macdonald of Boisdale who, rather than welcome the Young Pretender with open arms, told him he would receive no support from the MacDonalds of Clanranald, the MacDonalds of Sleat in Skye or the MacLeods of Skye, and urged him to go home. “I am come home sir,” retorted the Prince, before sailing for the Scottish mainland with the Seven Men of Moidart to raise his standard at Glenfinnan.

We all know the outcome of that adventure, but Charles left his mark on Eriskay. It’s claimed that as he removed his handkerchief from his pocket he pulled out some seeds of a flower, pink-and-white striped sea bindweed. The plant certainly isn’t native to the Outer Hebrides, and aside from Eriskay it’s only recorded at one other site on the islands.

A commemorative cairn, built by local schoolchildren, lies beyond the marram grass sand dunes behind the strand. It was erected on the 250th anniversary of Charles’ arrival on Eriskay.

From the south end of the beach we followed the ferry road back towards the village for a short distance to a junction. We turned right here and followed the narrow road that runs down to Acarsaid Mhor for a short distance before taking a track that ran past a small water treatment building and on to the open hill.

A small herd of white Eriskay ponies greeted us. One of them, braver than the others, sauntered forward shyly, but wasn’t too keen on being stroked. The Eriskay pony is the most rare breed in Europe and almost became extinct in the 1970’s although the numbers are now increasing. These are not ‘wild’ ponies as such, each one has an owner, but they don’t live in stables and are content to run free on the island, and in parts of South Uist.

They are stocky beasts, not particularly tall but with a thick coat that can withstand the Hebridean chill. It’s thought the Vikings took them from the Hebrides to Iceland, about a thousand years ago, and today, it appears, the well known Icelandic pony has very similar DNA characteristics to their Hebridean cousins.

We left the ponies munching the tough deer grass and followed a series of marker posts towards a saucer of dark water cradled by some tumbled morraines. I imagine Loch Cracabhaig would be a good trout loch, and a lovely spot to spend an hour or two angling, but we had other fish to fry, so to speak.

Beinn Sciathan rose above us in a series of craggy terraces and although we knew it wasn’t far to the top it would be a steep climb, and we would need to take care to weave a safe line through the outcrops.

By this time much of the cloud had dispersed. The hills of Barra filled the horizon to the south west and the sea between was splattered with small sunlit islands. In the west the uninhabited island of Lingeigh looked like an upside-down pudding bowl floating in the water.

Using our hands as well as our feet on occasions we clambered upwards, excited at the prospect of a clear view at the summit. And what a summit it was. The trig point stands on a rocky plinth and offers expansive views across the Minch towards the Isle of Skye and south to the hills of Barra. To the north a jumble of lower hills lead the eye towards Beinn Mhor in South Uist and closer at hand Eriskay reveals itself as a sun-blessed, beach fringed jewel of an island, with the vast majority of its houses and buildings established in the north end below the protective gaze of St Michaels church, built in 1903.

The weather was improving by the minute and although there was still drifting mist across the south western shores of South Uist a break in the cloud allowed the sun to light up the north west corner of Eriskay, picking out each white washed building in a dazzling display. We lay against the summit rocks ands drank from our flask, picking out the traces of old field ages and former cottages, some of the old homes from a time when Eriskay was relatively well populated.

Colonel Gordon of Cluny had purchased Eriskay, South Uist, Benbecula and Barra from the McNeils of Barra and immediately cleared most of the islands to make way for sheep. Since it was thought Eriskay wasn’t suitable for sheep farming he permitted many of the cleared crofters to establish themselves there instead, swelling the population fivefold.

Today, despite the initial success of the causeway in halting population decline, there is concern for the future of Eriskay, as there is generally in the Outer Isles. The primary school in Am Baile has closed and the children go to school now in South Uist. A number of the houses are holiday cottages and tourism, with its very short Hebridean season, is the main industry. A ferry links Eriskay and Barra, but unlike the ferries from the mainland to Stornoway, Tarbert, Lochmaddy and Lochboisdale, inter-isles ferries don’t get any Government subsidy. And they are expensive.

With the sun now lighting up the entire island and the blue/green sea glittering under the evaporating mists there was a temptation to suggest heavenly comparisons, a hint of paradise lost, a shining pearl in the Hebridean seas. The reality is that these are island on the edge – on the edge of Scotland, on the edge of Europe, and on the edge of an uncertain future. But at least today that future is very much in the hands of those who live there. A sporting syndicate sold the assets of Benbecula, South Uist and Eriskay to a community-owned organization called Storas Uibhist in 2006 and a census two years ago recorded a population  increase of 7.5%, compared with a Scottish islands population increase of 4% for the same period. There is hope, and optimism for the future.

Our descent was surprisingly steep, down grassy rakes and gullies between rocky crags, but in no time we were back on the lower slopes, following the marker posts through the common grazings and back to the village, and another visit to the Politician pub, just in time for supper. We were well contented after our day on Eriskay, the loveliest of all the Hebrides. It won’t be long before we return.

Bheir mi òro bhan o

Bheir mi òro bhan i

Bheir mi òru o ho

‘S mi tha brònach’s tu’m dhith.

(The Eriskay Love Lilt)

Would highly recommend

First published in The Scots Magazine

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