Landscapes of ‘The Lewis Man’

I rarely read fiction. I’d much rather get my nose into some interesting historical tome. But as I’ve found from experience over the past years, not all historians are adept at stringing an interesting narrative together.

Our public library here in Bromsgrove has quite a large history section, but the majority of the books are about WW1 and WW2. I did begin reading some of these, but frankly one or two made me quite depressed after reading one commentary after another about the barbarity of 20th century warfare.

However, when I was looking for a book last week, there was nothing in the history section that attracted my attention, and I’d already read those that would.

lewis-manSo I was drawn to the fiction shelves, and suddenly had the bright idea to check out if there were any books by acclaimed Scottish author Peter May. Now I have to make a confession here. Until my recent trip to the Outer Hebrides I’d never heard of Peter May (although I think my wife Steph had read a couple of his books). Anyway, to cut a long story short (excuse the pun), I found a couple of May’s books on one of the lower shelves and decided to take them out on loan.

I finished his The Lewis Man (second of his Lewis Trilogy, published in 2012) in a couple of days, and have just started Runaway that was published earlier this year. I don’t intend to write a review of The Lewis Man here. It was an easy read, the narrative guided you through effortlessly, and there was an interesting twist to events at the end.

But what brought the book alive, for me at least, was the fact that I had just completed a road trip that took me from the north of the Isle of Lewis to the southern tip of Eriskay—many of the places and landscapes described in May’s book. So I could really imagine myself there as he describes how events unfold, and in particular how the weather inflicted on the Western Isles has determined where and how humans settled and adapted to this challenging environment.

In collaboration with Lewis photographer David Wilson, May has also published an anthology of prose and images titled simply Hebrides. Now I can’t claim that my images compare in the slightest with the beauty of Wilson’s. I had just the one opportunity to catch the moment during a few days whereas he’s a resident. But here are just a few of mine that came to mind as I absorbed myself in The Lewis Man.


Returning to Hogha Gearraidh after 49 years

It was summer 1966. I was seventeen, and decided to visit the Outer Hebrides, more specifically North Uist, where the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) had just established a new reserve at Balranald near the village of Hougharry (Hogha Gearraidh in Scots Gaelic) on the west coast. Originally the reserve was aimed at protecting breeding populations of two special summer visitors: the corncrake and the red-necked phalarope.  Sadly, the phalarope no longer breeds at Balranald.

So, with rucksack on my back, including a one-man tent and all the paraphernalia necessary to support me for a couple of weeks, I set off for Glasgow (where I spent a few nights with my eldest brother Martin and his wife, Pauline) before taking my first ever flight on a Vickers Viscount from Glasgow International Airport (formerly known as Abbotsinch) to Benbecula airport at Balivanich.

I pitched my tent in front of the small cluster of houses in Hougharry, and was invited in for several meals by the old lady with whom the recently-appointed (and temporary) reserve warden was lodged. If I remember, her name was Mrs MacDonald, and she was very kind and hospitable. I don’t remember the name of the young warden. He had just graduated in geography from the University of Hull. Well, I didn’t get to see the corncrake nor the red-necked phalarope, and when I visited again in 1967 I was also unlucky. But the experience was wonderful, and I fell in love with the Outer Hebrides, particularly North and South Uist. What a combination of nature! The machair and all its plant and animal diversity, the lochs and mountains, not to mention the sea life such as grey seals and killer whales. Pure air, no pollution!

I must have been almost the first visitor ever to Balranald in 1966. And I have just returned from a trip to North Uist—a walk down memory lane after 49 years. Still no corncrakes, however, though we did hear them.

Of course the islands have changed a great deal over the past five decades. Almost all of the old whitewashed and thatched croft cottages have disappeared, once so typical of the Uist landscape. Many cottages are now roofless shells, the roofs presumably deliberately removed to remove any property tax liability. There has been an enormous house building boom in the past 20 years or so, I guess. I was told that with government grants it was cheaper to build new, energy-efficient housing (necessary against the icy blasts that pour in from the North Atlantic) than to renovate.

I wasn’t able to work out where I had camped in Hougharry nor which was Mrs MacDonald’s house. But I was pleased that I had been able to return and revive good memories from my youth. We stayed a couple of nights at a B&B at Balranald, overlooking the reserve, with Hougharry on the horizon. Run by Mrs Julie Ferguson, Balranald View was excellent. Julie was extremely welcoming, and her scones (with butter and mixed fruit jam) melted in the mouth.

North Uist towards Lochmaddy

Looking southeast and southwest from South Clettraval, east of Hosta on North Uist.

Scotland 628

Looking south towards Kirkibost Island from South Clettraval

Scotland 631

The bay at Hougharry with the village in the background.

Scotland 632

Along the machair around the bay at Hougharry.

Scotland 635

Kilmuir Cemetery, from Hougharry village.

Scotland 640

A typical North Uist landscape, south of Hougharry.

Scotland 746

Red deer on the B894 to Loch Euport, near Sidinish.

Road to Lochmaddy North Uist

The mountains of North Uist with Eabhal on the right, taken from the A867 to Lochmaddy.

waiting for the ferry at Lochmaddy

A dreek morning wait for the ferry from Lochmaddy to Uig on the Isle of Skye.

Scotland 652

Our B&B accommodation at Balranald, where hostess Julie Ferguson and her husband Roddy made us very welcome. Roddy was born in Hougharry.


Julie Fowlis

As a fan of the BBC series Transatlantic Sessions, I have increasingly become a fan of singer and TV presenter Julie Fowlis who has appeared regularly on that programme, and who I see from time-to-time whenever I tune into BBC Alba on catch-up TV. Well, she hails from North Uist—from Hougharry, in fact (so Julie Ferguson told me).

Here she is talking about her Hebridean roots and music. It’s a six minute film.

This song seems to have almost become her signature tune now: Hùg Air A’ Bhonaid Mhòir (Celebrate the Great Bonnet).

And in this song, she sings about The Dun-Coloured Old Men of Hoghaigearraidh (Bodaich Odhar Hoghaigearraidh)



O ye’ll tak’ the high road and I’ll tak the low road . . . Fàilte gu Alba!

scotlandWell, we took the high road and the low road, and have just returned from a thoroughly enjoyable road trip road Scotland.

Over 2,250 miles in 13 days!

While I’ll be posting individual stories about the many things we did and saw during this trip, here are some of the highlights.

The decision to tour Scotland this year was almost a ‘spur of the moment’ one. Our daughter in Minnesota and her family had originally planned to come over to the UK later in the summer. But for various reasons this hasn’t worked out. But we had already decided that if they visited us this year, we would not travel to the USA as we have been doing annually for the past five years. So I suggested to Steph that we should make a road trip right round Scotland – to the Highlands and Islands. And that is what I began planning in about mid-February. By the beginning of April Hannah had told us that they would not be able to travel to the UK this year. So we have decided to visit Minnesota in any case, in September, just in time to see Callum begin school.

I’ve visited many different parts of Scotland on other trips, and have even been to the Outer Hebrides twice—almost 50 years ago! While Steph lived in Edinburgh for about 8 months in 1972-73, she never traveled further north. Neither of us had been ‘right round the top’. So we anticipated quite an adventure as we planned each stage of the trip. We had booked all our Bed & Breakfast (B&B) stops ahead of travelling, and the ferries, so it was just a case of enjoying the route and wherever our fancy took us each day. I have provided links to all the routes we took.

Day 1: 27 May (326 miles) Home to Comrie (Fife)

This was a ‘getting to Scotland’ day from our home in Worcestershire. Just a long drive up the M6/M74 motorways, and to visit with my sister Margaret and her husband Trevor in Fife for one night.

Day 2: 28 May (163 miles) Comrie to Huntly (Aberdeenshire)

Our destination was Huntly in north Aberdeenshire, which is the home town of my sister-in-law Pauline. I first visited there in November 1965 for Martin and Pauline’s wedding. Crossing the rolling hills north of Fife, we headed to Blairgowrie in Perthshire (where we spotted a couple of red squirrels in the woodland beside the River Ericht), and then into the Cairngorms National Park through Glen Shee. We also passed by Balmoral. No, Her Majesty was not at home.

Day 3: 29 May (143 miles) Huntly to Braes of Kinkell (Ross & Cromarty)

From Huntly we headed west through Speyside, and then up to the coast just west of Inverness, visiting two National Trust for Scotland properties at Brodie Castle (which was unfortunately closed) and the site of the 1746 Battle of Culloden.

Day 4: 30 May (172 miles) Braes of Kinkell to Thurso (Caithness)
This was totally new territory for me. Although the day started cloudy the sun soon broke through. And by the time we reached John o’ Groats it was a beautiful late afternoon, and there were clear views across the Pentland Firth to the Orkney Islands. We could even see the Old Man of Hoy. After a visit to Duncansby Head lighthouse, we stopped off at Dunnet Head (the most northerly point on mainland Britain) before heading to our B&B in Thurso.

Day 5: 31 May (182 miles) Thurso to Ullapool (Ross & Cromarty)
Sunday morning dawned drab and drearydreek as they say in Scotland. The day did not look promising as we headed west out of Thurso, past the former nuclear power plant at Dounreay (in the long process of decommissioning), towards Durness and down the coast of northwest Sutherland to Ullapool where we would take the ferry over to the Isle of Lewis on the following day. The weather forecast was not promising, with strong storms expected for the next 48 hours or so. But we were determined to take in as much of the journey as the low clouds would permit. However, by about 2 pm, the clouds had lifted, the sun had come out, and we were treated to magnificent views of some of the most impressive mountains in Scotland. A side excursion around a peninsula near Lochinver was certainly the highlight of today’s journey, along a very narrow, twisty, and at times very steep road with multiple passing places. It was along this road that I’m sure I saw an osprey hovering above the loch to the side of the road.

Day 6: 1 June (91 miles) Ullapool (via Inverewe Garden) to Stornaway (Isle of Lewis, by ferry)
With a major storm due to hit later that day, we did contact the ferry operator about transferring to a morning crossing to Stornaway. But to no avail. The boat was fully booked. Not to worry. We just got on with our day as planned, and that was a side trip to the National Trust for Scotland’s Inverewe Garden, about 40 miles from our overnight B&B south of Ullapool. Although we started our journey in the rain, the clouds soon parted and it was bright and sunny by the time we reached the garden, and then spent more than a couple of hours wandering around this fascinating site. It’s special because plants flourish here so far north because of the influence of the warm waters of the Gulf Stream (more correctly the Northern Atlantic Drift).

We were back in Ullapool in time to catch the ferry at 17:30 to Ullapool, and departed under increasingly threatening skies. It was pouring with rain by the time we docked in Stornaway at 21:00. While the sea was definitely choppy, the crossing was smooth on the new and larger ferry, Loch Seaforth that entered service with Caledonian MacBrayne only a couple of months earlier.

Day 7: 2 June (150 miles) Stornaway to Tarbert (Isle of Harris)
We had three targets for today’s trip around Lewis: the Butt of Lewis at the northern tip; the Calanais Stones, and the iron age village at Bostadh on Great Bernera. It was heavily overcast as we headed north, and the skies became even more lowering as we approached the Butt of Lewis. In fact, it was raining very heavily when we arrived, and blowing a gale. The winds didn’t die down, but the rain did stop for a while allowing us to have a walk around, and take care not to be blown over the cliff.

The standing stones at Calanais are indeed impressive—mystical even, and I’ll be writing a special blog post about these in due course. With some due diligence, bobbing and weaving I was able to take all the photos I wanted, and hide any other visitors behind the various stones, so it seems as though Steph and I were the only visitors. The camera never lies!

We had to cross the Atlantic Ocean to reach Great Bernera. Well, cross the Atlantic is a bit of an exaggeration. Great Bernera is an island just 100 m across a channel from Lewis, connected by a bridge through which the Atlantic flows.

While three or four Iron Age houses have been found in a shallow valley close to the beach at Bostadh, only one has been reconstructed. The others were filled in with sand after excavation because of the fragile nature of the substrate on which they had been constructed. In seeing this site of early settlement and others around Lewis and the other islands, one can’t help imagining what survival must have been like thousands of years ago, how agriculture developed, and how these early people survived from farming and gathering shellfish along the shore.

Steinacleit stone circle

Steinacleit stone circle

We then headed south into Harris, and our B&B just south of Tarbert.

Day 8: 3 June (105 miles) Tarbert to Balranald (North Uist, by ferry)
Route on Harris / Route on North Uist
We took the A859 as far south as possible to Rodel where there is an impressive early sixteenth century church, St Clement’s (apparently dedicated to Pope Clement I), the church of Clan MacLeod. There is a fine tomb of Alasdair Crotach MacLeod of Dunvegan and Harris, 8th Chief of MacLeod.

Then it was on to the Sound of Harris ferry from Leverburgh to Berneray, and over the causeway on to the island of North Uist. I had first visited North Uist in the summer of 1966 at the age of 17, just after the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) had established its Balranald Reserve near the village of Hougharry (Hogha Gearraidh). I was then among the very first visitors to the reserve—if not the first! We stopped by Hougharry, but it has changed so much in the past half century—as have all the islands. Gone are the typical thatched roofed crofts and other single storey houses. Everywhere is new and relatively new construction. Given grants for new housing, it was cheaper to build new than renovate the original homes. Roofs were removed and what few old buildings remain are in a state of decay.

Day 9: 4 June (147 miles) Balranald
Route to Eriskay
Under fair skies (more or less) we spent the day traveling to the south of the Uists, through Benbecula and South Uist, and on to Eriskay, connected by causeway to South Uist since 2002.

Day 10: 5 June (142 miles) Balranald to Dornie (Ross & Cromarty, by ferry via Isle of Skye)
Route on North Uist / Route on Skye
It was pouring with rain as we left Balranald, and as we sat in the car waiting for the ferry in Lochmaddy for the ferry crossing to Skye, we wondered whether there was any chance of seeing any of the magnificence of the mountains on Skye later in the afternoon.

We were not disappointed! As we crossed The Minch (the channel between the Hebrides and the mainland) we could see the skies clearing to the west. And as we docked in Uig on Skye around 2 pm, there was hardly a cloud in the Skye, and we were treated to some incredible landscapes. We traveled right round the north of Skye, down to Portree, back up towards Uig, but turning off towards Dunvegan, and then turning south down the west coast to join the main A87 at Sligachan. The Cuillin Mountains were lit up in the bright afternoon sunshine. However, once we arrived at the Kyle of Lochalsh bridge to cross over on to the mainland, we were back in cloud and rain. But once again, we had our spirits lifted when we came out of the restaurant in Dornie later that evening, and Eilean Donan castle was bathed in the rays of the setting sun. See our route here.

Day 11: 6 June (184 miles) Dornie to Ford (Argyll & Bute)
This was perhaps the least enjoyable day of our holiday. Why? Well, by the time we reached Fort William the weather had deteriorated markedly and our side excursion to see the Glenfinnan monument and railway viaduct at Glenfinnan was made in the pouring rain and a howling gale. But it was the actual driving conditions that bothered me. There was much more traffic than we had experienced at any other day, and all travelling at high speed. It just wasn’t possible to motor along at your own pace, and stopping places were few and far between. Once we had left Oban further south, the volume of traffic dropped on the Argyll & Bute coastal route.

Day 12: 7 June (187 miles) Ford to Lockerbie (Dumfries & Galloway)
We had passed Arduaine Garden the night before, about 12 miles short of our B&B in Ford.

So this morning, under clearer skies, we headed back to this delightful garden located on a peninsula jutting westwards towards North America. We spent a couple of hours wandering around, admiring the beautiful rhododendrons. Then it was a long drive along Loch Awe, heading down to Inveraray, and on to Loch Lomond, before skirting Glasgow and joining the M74 once again after almost two weeks for the drive to our last overnight stop in Lockerbie. 

Day 13: 8 June (267 miles) Lockerbie to HOME!
We set out just after 9 am, and after seven miles we had passed the 2,000 mile distance on our journey. But it wasn’t to be a quick dash home (if 250 plus miles can be called a dash). We broke our journey almost equidistant between Lockerbie and home, at Rufford Old Hall, a Tudor mansion just south of Preston, and owned by the National Trust. 

It was a long trip in such a relatively short time. But was it worth it? Definitely! I doubt that we’ll go back to the north of Scotland. And although the saying goes Haste ye back!, we have so many other places we want to visit. Nevertheless, I’m very happy that we made the effort. The scenery was uplifting, and we received a friendly welcome wherever we went. Scotland—weather and all—was a delight. There was one BIG advantages of the cool weather. No midges!

Here are links to detailed accounts about our trip:

And finally, I’ve put together all my better photos in a single 29 minute video: