Memories of the Outer Isles – 1969
I first went to the Hebrides in 1965 with the Schools Hebridean Society (SHS). I was captivated by a slide show given by a school classmate about an expedition he had been on to South Rhona. I think it was the combination of adventure in a remote and beautiful place with an absence of schoolmasterly or parental supervision that attracted me. There were of course adults in charge, but they were not authority figures and once I arrived on Raasay, it became apparent that the enjoyment of the experience came through comradeship among peers and an intimate experience of somewhere quite wild and very beautiful. Although it rained solidly for the first of our two weeks at Brochel, I was not put off and the emergence of the sun in the second week introduced me to the magic of Hebridean weather with its big skies and extraordinarily clear light.
By 1969, I had been on a second SHS expedition – to Rhenigadale, Harris in 1967 – and this had instilled in me an enduring fascination with the Outer Isles. The skies seemed if anything bigger there – perhaps it was absence of high mountains – and the sense of remoteness greater. So, at the age of 18 when I was looking for a challenge, nothing appealed more than to travel the length of the Outer Isles on my own. I already had experience of hitch hiking in Europe, so the challenge of getting there without much money did not daunt me.
Hitch hiking to the Hebrides
On 16th July, I take a Southern Region train from my parents’ hometown of Dorking to Waterloo, then the tube to Hendon Central where there is a convenient slip road onto the recently extended M1. From there it takes me eight hours to hitch to Glasgow where I spend a rather noisy night in the Salvation Army hostel. I then hitch from Glasgow to Mallaig and, three days after leaving home, catch the ferry to Armadale on Skye. The real adventure has begun!
My time on Skye is very wet. I camp in the rain at Ardvasar and then for ten shillings take the bus to Broadford Youth Hostel. The following day – a Sunday – I walk ten miles trying to hitch a ride, eating lunch in the driving rain and eventually getting a lift to Portree and from there to Uig Youth Hostel where there is a warm boiler that allows me to dry my bundles of wet clothing and myself! Neither of these youth hostels exist now. And even then, when the YHA had a much greater number of hostels, there was only one in the Outer Isles: Stockinish on Harris, also now closed. The Gatliff Trust had – and still has, much to its credit – hostels on Harris, Berneray and South Uist, two of which – Rhenigadale and Howmore – I have experience and fond memories of.
Midsummer’s day 1969 is wet and windy and I spend the morning in the ferry waiting room by Uig pier. The TV there is showing pictures of the first astronauts landing on the moon, which has happened the previous day.
Lewis and Harris
The crossing to Tarbert is good – it has stopped raining. I take the bus from Tarbert along the beautiful but perilous Golden Road to Stockinish YH. There are seven other hostellers plus an absentee warden. We make friends around the smoky old fire and keep bumping into each other during our travels through the isles. There are very few tourists as such in the Outer Isles in those days. My journal reminds me of the dangers of romanticising youth hostelling as I spend most nights sleeping on the couch in front of the fire to escape the snores of fellow hostellers. I revisit beautiful Rhenigadale, site of an SHS expedition in 1967 – at the time the village is inaccessible by road and getting there involves a seven mile walk from Tarbert, most of which is on a narrow path across the hills with a couple of arduous climbs each way. I also walk across the peat bogs to the west coast where with a couple of fellow hostellers I take off my boots, roll up my trousers and run along the gleaming white sands. We make surrealist sculptures out of flotsam and jetsam, then hitch a ride back to Tarbert on the back of a council lorry. After a pint at the Harris Hotel, I hitch back to Stockinish and, in true sixties style, with three other hostellers, go down to the sea, burn incense, eat mint cake, drink coffee and talk into the long, luminous dusk. It is still light enough to read outside at 11pm.
I hitch to Callanish on the west coast of Lewis where I camp next to the then unfenced Standing Stones and visit Dun Carloway, an impressive double-walled broch built in the first century AD. En route I stop for lunch at the Doune Braes Hotel, the only pub on the west coast of Lewis – and therefore an important establishment. It is an all-male drinking house selling quite unpleasant-tasting beer, but come the evening it is always packed. Having been there for a drink after supper one evening, I get lost on my way back and spend hours wandering around the peat bogs in increasing darkness, eventually rediscovering my tent just before midnight! Even then, it is not completely dark.
Another extremely atmospheric place I visit on the west coast of Lewis is Garenin, where there is a village of black houses leading down to a beautiful bay, described by someone as ‘the end of the world’. Watching the Atlantic rollers crashing on the rocks and the blue sea stretching away for miles, it feels like that.
Lewis and Harris are staunchly Protestant and the Sabbath was then – and I believe, still is – observed strictly. Most activity apart from going to church is discouraged. So I spend Sunday reading and writing letters in my small tent, especially as the wet weather does not tempt me to go out.
I hitch back to Stockinish YH and again use that as my base for exploring other parts of Harris. I visit Rodel and have beer and sandwiches at Rodel Hotel. I find this an unusual establishment. It has a very ramshackley exterior but is quite smart inside. The lounge has ivy and geraniums crawling up the walls. It has been in business since the eighteenth century but I hear it has now closed. In St. Clement’s Church, I find the Fairy Flag bearer’s tomb and also the gravestone of a MacLeod who married his third wife at 73, had nine children by her and died aged 90! Another port of call is Huisinish, where my ride is provided by a Roman Catholic priest on his way to meditate on Scarp with an artist friend, Andy Miller Mundy. Miller Mundy cuts a distinctive figure with his long red hair and purple trousers, not to mention the two hawks and two ‘hippy’ girls he has with him. I learn subsequently that Miller Mundy’s father used to own the North Harris estate and, much to Andy’s disappointment, sold it to Sir Hereward Wake. I remember seeing Hereward Wake visit the SHS campsite at Rhenigadale in 1967.
I take the ferry from Tarbert to Lochmaddy, then hitch to Sollas and camp on the dunes, where I discover what a wonderful habitat these are for flies! The beach is fantastic and I make the most of it. Back at the tent, flies and earwigs prove a trial, invading even my porridge! Eventually, they get the better of me and I move on to Carinish, near the causeway to Benbecula. I pitch tent opposite the post office, untroubled by flies. However, at 6.00 the following morning, I am awoken by a herd of heifers who are giving my tent a close inspection. The orange flysheet proves almost irresistible to them and only after windmilling my arms for some minutes do they move off, I think, to do mischief to the postmaster’s front garden! The weather turns bad and I gradually make my way down to Howmore Hostel on South Uist. In doing so, I discover that I have crossed a significant cultural divide: South Uist and Barra are Catholic, being among the last remnants of native Pre-Reformation Scottish Catholicism. This means that there is a sort of party feel to these islands after the sabbatarianist culture of Lewis and Harris – and, to a lesser extent, North Uist and Benbecula. Ceilidhs are more common and the people seem more relaxed.
Howmore Hostel, run by the Gatliff Trust, is charming. It’s a converted black house with no water, no electricity nor main drainage, but it does have a nice fireplace where we burn peat – and it is reputed to be haunted! I meet up with a convivial gang of fellow hostellers and my journal records a litany of outings to the pub in Lochboisdale and to a dance in Bornish. We fish and dig vegetables and generally make ourselves at home!
Barra to Shetland
I take the ferry from Lochboisdale to Castlebay. I have friends on Barra who have a house at Eoligarry, near the airport. It is marvellous to have a bath again! We spend days canoeing, ocean watching and hill climbing. My solo adventure is coming to a close, but another SHS adventure is beckoning! I take the ferry from Castlebay to Oban and then hitch to Laurencekirk, just south of Aberdeen. The SHS has decided to mount an exploratory expedition to Shetland and I am to join it. We are to convene in the Scout Hut at Laurencekirk.
The Shetland expedition is another story. I thoroughly enjoy it, but Shetland proves to be unpromising for SHS expeditions and nothing comes of it. The SHS decides to remain true to its Hebridean roots!