Abridged from the History section in Outer Hebrides: the Bradt Travel Guide
History can feel very tangible on the Outer Hebrides. Ruined and abandoned houses are a legacy both of the clearances and economic upheaval, striking monuments pay homage to the land riots whereby islanders sought to right these iniquities barely a century ago, and archaeological evidence of prehistory is everywhere.
The Outer Hebrides today – and tomorrow
It’s fair to say that not everything is rosy in the Outer Hebridean garden. The islands face challenges common to other island communities around the world: emigration, holding on to the younger generation and encouraging inward migration. Incomes are lower than on the mainland, and the prevailing culture of self-sufficiency is not always enough to compensate for this. The islands are classified as an ‘economically fragile area’ and costs of imported commodities such as fuel and meat are high. Islanders don’t have time to wallow nostalgically in the past, not least because historically there has not been much to be nostalgic about. Mains tap water only arrived in the 1960s; before that time many islanders washed their laundry in the nearest loch.
Yet the islanders have seen off, or assimilated, Norse invaders, the English and Scottish Crowns as well as enduring and surviving the Highland clearances.
In 2003, the Scottish Government introduced the Land Reform Act, giving crofters and communities the right to buy their own land, with the weighty responsibility that brings in terms of managing the land responsibly and at a profit. Several communities on the islands have done so, moving to reverse the historical processes of enclosure and privatisation through community land purchase. Well over half of the islands’ area is now registered in community trusts, and more than two-thirds of the population lives on community-owned estates, which include the North Harris Trust, the Stornoway Trust and Stòras Uibhist on the southern isles.
Abridged from the Natural history section in Outer Hebrides: the Bradt Travel Guide
Arguably, the most iconic species is the red deer, an animal you may spot from your car while walking the hills, or from the vantage point of a cosy bar or café. I once drove on South Uist in thick mist which suddenly parted to reveal a stag stood on raised ground just yards from the road. Native to the islands, red deer number around 5,000–6,000 and reside on all the inhabited islands apart from Barra, and most are descended from the original herds. The deer are ‘managed’ – a euphemism for culled – by sporting estates and also under licence if they cause problems for agricultural produce on crofts.
The Outer Hebrides have the densest population of otters in the UK, and the fetching ‘otters crossing’ roadside warning signs are not just there for holiday snaps. Another native animal, otters are an important part of the ecosystem, adapted to catch fish in both rivers and fresh and seawater lochs. Despite their ability to fish in saltwater, these are European otters, not sea otters (which inhabit the Pacific Ocean). You are most likely to see them in the early morning or late evening.
Invasive species have caused many environmental headaches. The main culprit has been the American mink, whose presence is attributed to the failure of a handful of mink fur-farms in the 1950s. By the 1990s, mink had colonised both Lewis and Harris, thriving in a perfect combination of sea lochs, rivers and a year-round food supply from prey unaccustomed to such a predator. Mink particularly targeted nesting black-headed gulls and Arctic terns, destroying whole nests rather than taking a single egg or chick and caching up to 50 birds in a single night. In defence of the animal, this is their normal behaviour, which works well in their native Canadian tundra habitat, where the eternal rhythms of the predator–prey balance keep matters in check. In the more limited confines of the Outer Hebrides, the effect was devastating, and there could only be one winner. Domestic chickens and ducks were targeted too, forcing several smallholders to cut their losses and quit.
More than 320 species of bird have been recorded on the Outer Hebrides, and at least 100 species breed here. One reason for this diversity is the near complete absence of mammalian predators: foxes, stoats and weasels remain at bay on the mainland while black rats were confined to the Shiant Isles (an eradication campaign took place in 2015/16, although it will be a further two years until the islands can be declared ‘rat free’). Another is the superb habitat: marine waters rich in fish for seabirds and insect-rich machair for landbirds, which in turn feed eight species of birds of prey. Field voles and other small mammals such as mice and brown rats also provide short-eared owls and other predators – including even the occasional barn owl – with a plentiful supply of food. There are regular flurries of excitement among the UK’s twitcher community when unexpected birds such as the black-billed cuckoo (a North American bird that graced the islands in May 2016) are blown off course and make landfall.
The greatest success story of recent years is that of the white-tailed eagle (or ‘seaeagle’). The return of the UK’s largest raptor to the Outer Hebrides represents a heartwarming coda to a sad story. When the eagle was persecuted to national extinction 100 years ago, the Outer Hebrides was its last sanctuary. The reintroduction of the species has been natural: Norwegian birds that were translocated to Mull and Skye have simply extended their population and range, thriving on the fish of the sea lochs and the large seabird populations. There are about 29 breeding pairs of whitetailed eagle across the islands – 19 on Lewis and Harris – and they are breeding with increasing success, from southeast Lewis down to South Uist. You may often be close enough to identify them without binoculars, as they drill through the air above a loch.
The portrait of the Outer Hebrides painted by early visitors was of a land steeped in remnant medievalism, islanders bound by superstition and an area where even cows had second sight. The observation of Martin Martin in his early 18th-century A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland is typical: a chapter heading is entitled ‘Their Admirable and Expeditious Way of Curing Most Diseases by Simples of Their Own Product. A Particular Account of the Second Sight, Or Faculty of Foreseeing Things to Come, by Way of Vision, So Common Among Them.’ Even cows, Martin was told, could presage their master’s death by yielding blood rather than milk from their udders.
Things have moved on somewhat since then. Culturally, the Outer Hebrides are typical of many islands in that they retain a distinct cultural identity, based around family and crofts, music and oral literature. The islands have a higher percentage of those identifying themselves as White Scottish (86.9%) and White Other British (10.5%) than mainland Scotland. Those identifying themselves as Asian, Asian Scottish or Asian British were far fewer than mainland Scotland at 0.5%, Other ethnic groups were 0.4%. In the Outer Hebrides, single-person households are the largest household type at 37.2%, slightly above the Scottish average (34.7%).
Whereas some other Scottish islands have slowly shed some of their warmth, inhabitants’ hospitality jaded by the sheer number of visitors, you will be struck by the lack of ‘side’ among Outer Hebrides islanders: they tend to be straight, sometimes to the point of directness, with you and each other. The artist Anthony Barber, of Ness, put it well when we met to discuss his paintings ‘People here make you feel very welcome. They are very straight and trusting. I’ve often wondered why that is and I think it is because the population here has so many relatives who have gone abroad. They want to think that their relatives are being treated well wherever they go and so they want to do the same here.’ The Outer Hebrides Migration Study offered intriguing insights into the outlook of islanders and concluded that the strong sense of community that attracts many people to the Outer Hebrides could also be viewed as suffocating and excluding by some, particularly ‘by individuals who consider themselves to be diff erent.’
The Benbecula campus of the University of the Highlands and Islands, in particular, has developed an international reputation for the teaching of traditional music and for providing many opportunities for performance and skills development related to the music professions. The fiddler and orchestra player Anne-Wendy Stevenson is a lecturer at the college, while the island also gave rise to the trio of musicians of Lurach: Naomi Harvey, Rachel Harris and Lucy MacRae, whose combination of vocals, whistles, flute and fiddle have proved popular in the UK and across Europe.
Other contemporary interpretations of traditional music plus accordions, pipes, whistles, and guitars abound. Perhaps the best-known exponents are The Vatersay Boys, who have established a large following on the mainland. Gillebride MacMillan from Milton on South Uist, meanwhile, starred as Gwyllyn the Bard in the dramatisation of the Outlander series of time-travel novels by Diana Gabaldon. MacMillan’s musical work includes Air Fòrladh/On Leave, a collection of songs with family connections and others from Uist tradition.
The prevailing architecture of the islands is unlikely to win any prizes for aesthetic beauty: houses from the early 20th century onwards were battened down against the winds and increasingly rendered with pebble-dash; others are even more basic with corrugated-iron roofing. There are few of the whitewashed houses that adorn towns such as Portree on Skye or Plockton on the west coast of the mainland. Although they can be eyesores on such a stirring landscape, rather like electricity pylons you may find that you stop noticing them after a while; moreover, their appearance can belie interiors of charm and décor.
The Outer Hebrides in film and literature
Read The Lewis Trilogy by Peter May and you may decide to stay at home, as a disproportionate number of horrors are visited upon these lightly populated and extremely safe islands. The trilogy – The Blackhouse, The Lewis Man and The Chessmen – centres on the work and life of Detective Inspector Fin Macleod. A trail based on the books takes you around many of the sights and can be a good vehicle for getting under the skin of the more elemental side of these islands.
Destinations in the guide include the Bridge to Nowhere on Lewis, which was the scene of a scooter race to determine who would name a Celtic rock band in The Chessmen; the cemetery at Sacrista, which features in The Lewis Man (where a body is found in a peat bog); and a shieling on Barvas Moor on Lewis where Fin’s parents were killed in a car crash which features in The Blackhouse.
On a lighter note, the award-winning children’s television series Katie Morag, based on stories by Mairi Hedderwick, was filmed on location in Uig and Ness on Lewis. A more comprehensive anthology of fiction and non-fiction related titles can be found in the Appendix.
Whisky Galore, Compton Mackenzie’s unforgettable account of a ship containing thousands of bottles of whisky wrecked in a storm, and the subsequent film Whisky Galore! were set on Eriskay and Barra. The bizarre attempts to launch mail over the water to the island of Scarp off Harris has been the subject of two films, both called The Rocket Post.