hidden europe 69

Return to Eriskay: A Hebridean community

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: The car and passenger ferry which connects Barra with Eriskay is a key link in the Hebridean spinal route. It is crucial for tourism and for local services such as the Royal Mail (photo © hidden europe).


Living on a small island demands a willingness to make compromises. Yet islands still have a special appeal. We make time for one of our favourite islands. Nothing much ever happens on Eriskay, and to be honest there’s not really much to see. But this outpost in the Outer Hebrides has a very special magic.

When we scoped the project that became hidden europe, we always knew that island communities would have a special place in every issue. Indeed, we even briefly considered that the magazine might focus only on islands, but then discarded that thought in favour of a wider remit. In the very first issue of the magazine, we had an article on Eriskay, an island in the Outer Hebrides which had then only recently been linked to its larger neighbour by a road causeway. Over the many years since that first issue of hidden europe, we have returned half a dozen times or more to Eriskay. Now, in this penultimate issue of hidden europe, the magazine’s editors reflect on the special magic of this Hebridean outpost.

Several times each day, if the winds and the waves permit, a small car ferry shuttles over the Sound of Barra to the island of Eriskay. Although very exposed to the west, especially on the latter part of the 40-minute crossing, this is not normally a particularly challenging voyage. “Nowhere near as tricky as the Sound of Harris route with its reefs and shallows,” says one of the crew on the MV Loch Allain, alluding to another ferry crossing further north on the main spinal route through the Outer Hebrides.

Behind us, Barra disappears into the mist. Away to starboard are the twin islands of Hellisay and Gighay which appear conjoined from our vantage point on the ferry, although at high tide there is a navigable passage between the two. “Navigable, perhaps, but it’s only for expert mariners,” says the ferryman. “But once you get in there, they say it’s a decent anchorage for a small boat.”

Off to port is the grassy island of Fuday, where back in autumn 1263, King Haakon Haakonsson and the Norwegian fleet sought refuge after being thoroughly routed at the Battle of Largs. It was Haakon’s last adventure. After a spell on Fuday, the Norwegians retreated up to Orkney where Haakon died before the year was out. “So much history,” says the boatman.

Now we are nearing Eriskay, where there’s a tumble of rocky islands off its southern tip, one of which evidently has the remains of a small castle. “We call that An Stac,” says the ferryman. “Perhaps it was a hideaway for brigands and outcasts, but who knows?”

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