Uists and Benbecula

Causeway connections in the Outer Hebrides

In the Uists and Benbecula there’s a feeling of community and continuity.  It’s a hard landscape with long horizons and big skies and sometimes more water than land. There is also a strong sense of tradition. But are weird arty installations the best way of memorialising the past?

Beware of otters crossing
Otter crossing sign on the Eriskay causeway, looking back to the Isle of Eriskay beyond.

Heading north, up the Outer Hebrides, it’s over the causeway from Eriskay, with its arresting ‘otters crossing’ warning sign and into the Uists.

The order runs South Uist, Benbecula and North Uist, from south to north.

The usual Outer Hebrides landscape rule applies – rugged, gloomy hills to the east, along an indented coastline, then a great big sky in the middle and endless beaches and machair to the west.  

Machair? Pronounced with the Scottish ‘ch’ as in loch, and an emphasis on the first syllable, this is the rich shell-sand pasture that lies behind the shore. 

 Often it’s bright with wildflowers, sometimes dotted with sheep or – less frequently – cattle. Oh, and try to use gates across these grazings if you are heading for the beaches, will you?

But, especially in the northern sector, this is also a landscape of water – intersecting, sinuous lochs, both fresh and tidal. In places, hardly land at all.

Birds Of The Uists’ Machair

Walk on the machair, just behind the dunes, in late spring and you will have every wading bird in the Hebrides circling your head – the neurotic redshank, the terribly anxious ring plover, the hysterical lapwing.

Common gulls swear at you, common terns scream and swoop, and there will be a moment when you think you are on the point of receiving a puncture wound from a homicidal oystercatcher’s orange bill.  (But that would be ridiculous.)

So keep that damned dog on the leash as well, will ya? These birds are just nesting or protecting chicks, so walk on and out of their territory.

Culla Bay, Benbecula
Poor weather at Culla Bay, Benbecula. OK, OK, I made it look worse than it actually was.

(Pictured here) The sun does not always shine. Sometimes you just have to climb into the wet weather gear and head off.

Dreach (or dreich)? Lowland Scots – not Gaelic – for miserable, a bit wet, uninspiring, dull – of weather mostly, occasionally also describing over-wordy Scottish websites.

Pictured is Culla Bay in the rain, Benbecula. Stinky Bay is nearby. Smelly and rainy, eh? Nice.

Yes, you may assume it’s a kind of a birdy place. Balranald and Loch Druidibeg are national nature reserves. It’s well worth taking the road (the B890) eastwards at Loch Druidibeg, for a close look at the various habitats.

The road peters out when it reaches Loch Sgioport by the ruined shielings, though a track continues round the head of the sea-loch. It’s grand otter country.  

Aside from a wilderness feel, what else have the Uists and Benbecula got? The Kildonan Museum on the main road through South Uist should be your starting and orientation point for any exploration of the heritage and story of the communities here.

There is a cafe here as well.

And Flora Macdonald’s birthplace is marked by a plaque close by, but on the other side of the road.

View from Kildonan Museum
Kildonan Musuem, South Uist. View from the carpark to nothing very much that’s in sight.

(Pictured here) Kildonan Museum – carpark view. See? I told you South Uist was a bit sparse in places.

Hebridean Art Installations

Fishy art installation, Lochmaddy
Mackerel, no, herring installation, Lochmaddy

(Pictured here) Mackerelly herring, uhmm, sculpture-thing at Lochmaddy. It’s on the shore and about, oh, 15ft / 4.5m long.

Elsewhere, you get the distinct impression that, on this section of the islands, things can get a bit wacky.

At random for example, I found a large fish installation on the rocks just beside the art centre at Taigh Chaearsabhagh by Lochmaddy.

It looks like a mackerel and no doubt recalls the role of the mackerel in industry and folklore in days gone by.

(You know, I totally made that up. It could just as easily be a herring. Best substitute the word ‘herring’ in the explanation.

Yeah, it’ll be an art herring. I’m herring on the safe side…)

Then, back down in South Uist, another example. We tracked down ‘The Listening Place’ on the old border between South Lochboisdale and Glendale.

It’s another arty installation, involving old tractor seats, and a bit of a wall with some inscribed words by local bards. Nice view.

(Pictured here) The Listening Place art installation, South Lochboisdale. Perhaps the message was ‘Now listen up, you really ought to get into recycling.’

Listening Place, South Lochboisdale
Listening Place, South Lochboisdale. Whatever that’s about…

But the most truly splendid part is that plonked next to it was a large recycling container, while someone had thoughtfully left a large gas canister against the installation as a finishing touch.  

I rather think that these additional details in the cameo say something rather profound about the environment, if only I could think of what it was…

I suppose it also says something about the utter inadequacy of most art statements of that kind to be relevant to the whole story of loss, struggle and neglect that has shaped the story of the land hereabouts.

Still, I suppose these arty organisations have got to spend their money on something. And I’m sure everyone kept their faces straight and imbued it with significance at the time.

The Grimsay Boatshed
The Grimsay Boatshed

(Pictured here) The Grimsay boatshed. A real connection with the past – real art, real craft – the memorial to generations of wooden boat builders. 

They made their mark on the culture and heritage of these islands. Here was real meaning.

Creak open the door of the ordinary looking shed and it feels as though the last craftsman has just nipped out for a cup of tea back in the croft. Frozen in time…

Aside from the arty flim-flam, to get any valid insight into life in the Uists, you may be lucky enough to fall into conversation with, say, your host at the B &. B, and thereby get a glimpse of how the community functions.

You might hear the stories of long established families on the old croft lands, the living traditions of the peat cutting, the daily preoccupation with communications, especially ferry services to the mainland.

I was privileged to speak with a Benbecula man called Donald MacPhee (the family’s excellent bed and breakfast establishment is on that link) who could repeat a family rhyme that named his forebears for generations back – an extraordinary echo of the old ways.

Landscape near the Hebridean Jewellery Shop.
Landscape near the Hebridean Jewellery Shop. (Yes, I added a tint and am now regretting it.)

The Uists And Benbecula

– Your Experience Depends On The Weather

As a mere transient visitor, there may be a point where something else about the Outer Hebrides dawns on you.  There are really two experiences on offer that will affect your perception of the place.

One is if you catch these islands in summer sunshine. The pure light, the long vistas with white houses dotting the horizons – and all of the rest of that landscape stuff – will probably evoke a sense of, well, some kind of magic.  

It can be uniquely beautiful – in spite of my, uhmm, understated pictures here. (Oh, if you want turquoise, head off to the Harris page!)

Low pressure off the Atlantic…

On the other hand – and you can see where I am going with this – a low pressure system off the Atlantic could bring a few days of rain, low cloud and grey skies.

It will mean you will be hunting down craft and art galleries and congratulating yourself that you managed to find, say,  the Hebridean Jewellery shop – great cake and coffee, chaps: do not despair.

No, I’m going to leave the Uists and Benbecula as a bit of a mystery – hard to get underneath the skin of the place. It feels like harsh country with a harsh history. But thought-provoking and worth seeing.

North Uist landscape, or waterscape.
North Uist landscape, or waterscape. Yes, it’s quite watery here.

Heading north again…off to Harris

To continue north, you sail across the Sound of Harris. Many visitors seem to do either the top half – Lewis and Harris – or the bottom half , ie the Uists, plus Eriskay and probably Barra.  

The ferry connection between North Uist (strictly speaking the small island of Berneray, joined by causeway to North Uist,) and Leverburgh on Harris is an interesting journey, thanks to the numerous islets, rocks and skerries in the channel through which the ferry slaloms its way.

But that’s for the next page…

Read more about the other Western Isles, say: Eriskay or Barra; or the top end of the islands: Lewis or Harris.