hidden europe 50

Only Fit For Wild Ducks

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: The crofting settlement of Northton on South Harris in Scotland's Outer Hebrides (photo © hidden europe).


Catch the spirit of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides with Gaelic psalm singing at a country church in Lewis or Marian devotions on the Isle of Eriskay. We explore an island archipelago that has a complex mix of landscapes, of which the most distinctive is the machair - the rich grasslands on fragile dunes.

This year marks the 750th anniversary of what the Scots elliptically refer to as ‘the recovery of the isles’. The anniversary was above all noted in Perth, the Scottish town on the River Tay where in 1266 a treaty was signed restoring the Hebrides to Scottish control. The islands were until then administered by Viking overlords and later Norwegian kings whose possessions also included Orkney and Shetland. The latter archipelagos remained under Norse rule until the late 15th century.

In the Outer Hebrides, where a plethora of toponyms attest to former Scandinavian influence, the 750th anniversary of the recovery of the isles went largely without remark. For this is a part of Scotland like no other, a territory where islanders keep their own counsel and mainland Scotland seems a far-off place. We featured the island of Eriskay, one of the loveliest of the Western Isles, in the very first issue of hidden europe. The serendipitous coincidence of 750 years since the Treaty of Perth and the fiftieth issue of hidden europe was too good a chance to miss, so we set sail for an extraordinary island archipelago on the very margins of Europe.

On a cloudy morning in late September 2016 the MV Hebrides sailed into a loch on the east side of North Uist, all set to stop briefly at Lochmaddy — an intermediate port of call on the ship’s regular Sunday morning sailing from Tarbert (in Harris) to the Skye port of Uig. The approach to Lochmaddy is never easy. Fish cages, sunken reefs and the risk of sudden squalls blowing down off the rugged slopes of Li a Tuath to the south all present challenges for the unwary mariner. The master of the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry had sailed into Lochmaddy dozens of times, but this time luck was not on his side. The MV Hebrides crashed into pontoons, her bow ending up high and dry on the beach a short distance from the pier.

“Now that,” said an elderly gentleman who was observing the vessel from the quay, “is what happens when you sail on the Sabbath.” When CalMac introduced a Sunday morning sailing from Harris via North Uist to Skye in 2011, the move inflamed Sabbatarian instincts which run deep in some parts of the Outer Hebrides. Local councillor Morag Munro declared that there would be no legal challenge to the new timetable. “We shall resort to prayer,” declared Morag. “We’ll appeal to a higher authority.”

Few in Lochmaddy seriously believe that the MV Hebrides’ mishap really was due to divine intervention, but there was certainly a touch of Schadenfreude as the Presbyterians of the Outer Hebrides discussed the ship’s misfortune. Religion is a serious business in this long scatter of islands. Visiting urbanites from mainland Britain, more accustomed to secular values, are often surprised to discover that churchgoing is still very common in the Outer Hebrides.

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