By Julia Welstead
Extracts from my Outer Isles diary 2022, meeting island makers
Summer Wednesdays hold an added joy for us here in Tiree, as we see the Calmac ferry ‘Clansman’ sail past our house on its way through Gunna Sound to Barra. It’s the only day of the week that our Tiree ferry connects us directly with Barra and, as such, offers us an opportunity to visit the outer isles without having to go via Mainland Scotland.
On a bit of a whim, I decided to do just that, and loaded up our van with bedding, utensils, stove, food, clothing, and of course those West Scotland summer essentials: waterproofs and midge repellent. My partner stood at our coastal cairn to share a wave with me as the ferry steamed through Gunna Sound. Adventure underway.
Knowing the challenges all our Scottish islands are experiencing with the volume of visitors, and especially with campervans clogging single track roads and often parking overnight in inappropriate places, I was keen to be a ‘good’ visitor. The Visit Outer Hebrides website gave me a lot of valuable and interesting information, especially the ‘Planning your trip’ section for motorhomes and campervans.
Thanks to this information I was able to locate plenty of overnight parking spots where campervans are welcome, thus avoiding any inconvenience to local residents. Some had a water supply, some a bin, some even had toilets, other places had nothing but level ground and a great view. Many of the parkups have honesty boxes suggesting a donation of £5 or £10 toward upkeep of the site, which I happily gave, even if there were no facilities, for the peace of mind of knowing I wasn’t upsetting anyone by being there. Every third night I checked into a campsite for a wash and brush-up.
Accommodation sorted, I felt free to explore the islands at my own pace, aided by the newly developed Scottish Islands Passport App.
The Scottish Islands Passport team have been working with communities from across Scotland’s six island areas to build a library of over 700 reasons to visit our islands – from mid-winter fire festivals to flower-strewn summer Machair and much, much more besides. And, to help you choose which islands to explore, they have created an app and series of travelogues to help you navigate your way.
All this information at my fingertips was great when I found a phone signal, but often I didn’t (which was also good, one personal aspect of this trip being to take a ‘device’ break). If stuck for signal, ferry terminals and campsites are good bets.
Fortunately, I also had an advance copy of the physical Scottish Islands Passport Travelogue – the first in a series. This one focuses on Island Makers.
My mission was to travel from Barra to Lewis interviewing artists and artisans for a series on island makers – artists, artisans, crafters, producers – for isle20.com. Here are some extracts from my trip diary, with links to the relevant articles:
My Tiree to Barra sea-journey begins through rain and a lumpen sea, and transforms as sunshine breaks through a wind-cleared sky. The Sea of the Hebrides, dividing the inner from the Outer Hebrides, is a wild channel of water pulled and pushed by strong tidal currents. Whenever I cross these Hebridean seas I contemplate them as the main highways and thoroughfares of the past, and feel great respect for those seafaring folk.
Landing at Castlebay, Barra’s main port, the first thing I clock is the size. Coming from Tiree, this landmass feels huge. Big country. Yet in geographical area Barra is 59 km² to Tiree’s 78 km², so it shouldn’t feel bigger. But terrain makes all the difference, both visually and in terms of acreage, and Barra (highest point 383m) has plenty of hill ground, whereas Tiree (highest point 141m) is mostly flat, with fertile sandy machair fringing inland wet sliabh.
My desire to see the west coast lures me and I drive Barra’s circular road clockwise, taking in a landscape of hills and moorland dotted with croft and farmsteads, trees, marshes and machair, rocky headlands and sandy bays. The road is busy with farm vehicles and not too many campervans: this is a thriving community.
I pull over just north of Borgh and brew up a cuppa with a view out to sea. The Atlantic is full of energy today, a boiling cauldron of currents and rip tides overlain with a froth of wind-pulled-water. Energising to watch, but I don’t think I’ll swim, though I can see one brave (foolhardy?) person in there.
On up the road (through woodland, past lochans and craggy hills) to the north end, and Barra Airport’s famous tidal beach runway. The swathes of pale shell sand to either side of the road cause me a memory-jolt: I was last here 30 years ago with my eldest son, then a babe-in-arms. Happy memories.
No lingering on beaches today though: I’m due to visit Margaret Anne Elder, knitter extraordinaire, and the founder of Herring Girl Collection, on her family croft.
Appointments in North Uist tomorrow morning keep me trucking northwards. The ferry to Eriskay gives me views of a scattering of other, smaller islands, glistening with sun-through-rain. Fuideigh, Gioghaigh, Healasaigh, the tiny Greanamul skerry close to, and more distant Lingeigh. Showers scud across us, sunshine breaks through storm cloud, rainbows appear and vanish.
It’s my first day on a trip that I’ve been excited about for many months, so inevitably my head is filled with superlatives and my heart bursting with the magic of it all. But even with a journalist’s objectivity, this archipelago is glorious.
Eriskay, Uist and Berneray
Landing in Eriskay, I focus on my driving and try not to be distracted by glimpses of hill and glen, loch and coast, wildlife sightings and the desire to see Eriskay ponies. Today I must reach Balranald campsite with enough time to cook, eat, sleep. I’ll be back here with more time soon.
Similarily, my drive up South Uist, Benbecula and North Uist is a joy of low slung causeways across sun sparkled water, lochans, wetland, distant hill and crag. Despite my intent focus on the road, I manage to spot a hen harrier quartering a marshy field, a flurry of lapwing lifting off machair, and hear a lone curlew’s plaintive call. Collectively, the islands of the Outer Hebrides are a birdwatcher’s bliss.
Parked up at the campsite in the summer gloaming, overlooking Balranald RSPB reserve, I’m tucked up in my van and well ready for sleep.
Dwaming to early bird song – oystercatcher, lapwing, skylark, curlew – the wingbeat of swans is what gets me to reach an arm out of cosy bedding and open the van’s slidey door. The sight and sound of a swan flyover pretty much tops my favourite things. I can’t see them today, but the swish-whomp of their wings is all the sweeter for that. Noises off.
Camping is a state one settles into. At first everything – oh so carefully packed – seems to be in the wrong place, behind something bulky, awkward. Over the first 24 hours much further sorting occurs, until everything finds its place. A state of happiness.
North Uist seems to hold a high concentration of resident artists, very possibly due to the Creative Industries courses based at UHI Outer Hebrides Innse Gall at Lochmaddy. First thing today I’m due to meet Corinna Krause at her Sollas Bookbinding studio for coffee, followed by a bowl of soup with performance poet and artist Pauline Prior-Pitt, who lives across the road. As my interviews invariably involve about three hours of meandering chat, these two wonderful women happily fill my day.
Corinna suggests a great overnight parking spot for me, complete with level ground, honesty box, picnic table, supreme coastal views, and it’s one I return to later in my trip. As the day settles to summer dusk (the never quite dark state we enjoy in these latitudes around the summer equinox), I hunker down to cook supper on my little stove and scan the horizon for any interesting birds (it’s a long held habit). Waders – sanderling, turnstone, ringed plovers, redshank, sandpipers perhaps – flit and feed across the sand-flats. A short-eared owl quarters the grounds on silent wings, checking me out as she passes.
I’m supposed to be meeting artist Cally Yeatman, but she has tested positive for Covid-19. I’ve been shimmying and sashaying around covid, just missing it in all directions. Now it seems I’m to miss out on meeting one of my remarkable makers. We speak on the phone to re-arrange, and end up talking for an hour and covering most of what I would have asked. It’s not as good as meeting, but it will suffice for now.
Early next morning I’m across the causeway to Berneray to visit Eilidh Carr in her treasure trove of a shop, Coralbox. First though, I find shower facilities at the pier. I really do appreciate the Outer Isles community efforts to welcome the more ‘freestyle’ visitor.
A visit to artist-maker Kirsty O’Connor in her garden studio-workshop completes my Berneray interviews. Tomorrow I’m due in Harris – this evening’s ferry crossing from Berneray to Leverburgh seems to take a slalom course through these shallow waters: a symphony of car alarms accompany every turn to skim marker buoys.
I’m welcomed to Harris with coffee and scones in Julie and Steve’s kitchen at Croft 36, followed by a fascinating chat through the warp and weft of weaving with Rebecca Hutton at Taobh Tuath Tweed. More coffee and blether, not to mention a delicious tasting session, which was had with Heike Winter at Mustheb.
Somewhat by accident I find the fabulous Grannie Annie’s – an eclectic collection of vintage art, tweed, crafts and curiosities. I’m deep in dwam over one such curious item when Grannie Annie herself breezes into the shop, all colour and energy and enthusiasm. I can’t explain further – you have to visit!
Rain descends by the bucket-load on my approach to Tarbert. Suddenly not fancying the anticipated stop here, I take the road east. Scalpay bridge opened in 1997 (after my 1991 visit) and I’m keen to see it. Suddenly, looming large through the gloaming, there it is – a massive structure that initially seems out of scale with its surroundings. I pull over and contemplate this giant. Perhaps not beautiful, but reassuringly substantial: if I were a Scalpay resident I’d be glad of it.
Closer to, the bridge has a friendlier demeanour. Cyclists and walkers, and cars tell me its a well used structure. I drive over and find myself on a busy, hilly, twisty-turny single-track road. Mist denies me views of the island, so I retreat back to Harris and find one of the welcome North Harris Trust camping spots to hunker down for the night.
I’m always keen to park with my side door to the lee of the wind, such that I can have it open while I cook, eat and take in the views. Even in howling winds this strategy works pretty well. I awake to discover the wind has swung round 180° – my slidey door is now on the wrong side. Turning the van so I can make breakfast with fresh air and a view, I realise there are cow pats all around – local livestock have used my van as shelter. I did wonder at the ‘bumps in the night’.
Grinneabhat is my first Lewis appointment, so I whizz north through the astonishing grandeur of the North Harris hill range, then west past the Callanish stones, aware of my shortcomings as a mere visitor driving through a land and community that deserves more of my attention.
North west Lewis is stormy and monochrome today. I’m due to meet Sandra MacLeod, founder of Modren, at Ness and decide to scoot on up to the Butt of Lewis first. Wild, buffeting wind-swirls at the lighthouse send my hair vertical and threaten to throw me off balance. A young cormorant, unhappy on his cliff ledge, eyes me and my van as if that looks like a better option. It is. Photo taken, I’m back inside with the heater and radio on for succour: warmth and company.
From horizontal wind-rain I cross the threshold into the sanctuary of Comunn Eachdraidh Nis – warmth and peace. As a community facility, this is impressive, informative, much welcomed.
Head spinning with interview overload, I’m seeking solitude for a bit of downtime. Head west, is my instinct, and I’m not disappointed. A sharp intake of breath accompanies my first sight of the bridge to Great Bernera. Unlike the causeways connecting various parts of Uist, this is a big, bold, concrete bridge. I later read that its 1950s construction in pre-stressed concrete heralded a major international breakthrough in civil engineering (and also, I imagine, a significant change for Great Bernera residents).
Next to it there is now a new bridge, also an award winner for its innovative 90 metre clearspan modular steel structure. Yet again, necessity is the mother of invention. A Great Bernera resident tells me,
“The new one is for cars, the old one has now been painted by the community, is for pedestrians (and cyclists) and has picnic tables on it, great spot for fishing. The sheep now cross using the old bridge, very smart animals! : )”
What a wonderful image.
I follow the road up and over and down and round some truly gorgeous terrain. Bosta beach: oh my goodness what a magical place. An Iron Age settlement, a Time & Tide bell (one of only seven of these art installations in the UK), a beautiful small beach with a tantalisingly short, but racey, stretch of water dividing Great from Little Bernera, and a wee parking spot with loos, a water tap, a bin and a contribution box. Two golden eagles overhead, a snipe drumming nearby: I’m in my element here.
My sister has asked if I’m passing Island Darkroom as she is interested in attending a photography workshop there. I am, or I certainly can. Delighted with my detour to meet yet another remarkable maker, I head into Stornoway for a bit of food shopping.
On down the road, to Loch Erisort for my next meeting, with textile artist Emma MacKenzie and yet another delightfully life-enhancing blether. Sudden rain squalls through sunshine add drama to an already astonishing landscape. Looking at the OS maps, for many parts of this archipelago ‘waterscape’ would be a fairer description, given the loch to land proportions.
Negotiating my way along a twisty coastal road, two white-tailed sea eagles appear overhead, darkening the sky with their proximity. Driving and birdwatching is a risky sport: I pull over and watch as they drift effortlessly toward Loch Erisort. (If you are ever in doubt about the identification of an eagle in flight, sea eagles do pretty much look like barn doors, flat across the wings, in contrast to the more majestic shallow V shape of the golden eagle.)
During our chat Emma told me about the Postman’s Path, a walking route that the posties used to use to reach Reinigeadal, in Harris, the last UK village to gain a road (in 1990). I realise how little I am really experiencing by simply driving through this landscape, and feel a keen need to come back with hiking boots.
Before I know it on my way back south through Uist to Barra and thence home to Tiree. My interviews are done, but there are still a few miles to drive, and one particular island off the west coast of North Uist catches my attention.
A low slung causeway takes me over inter-tidal sands to a welcoming open machair island-scape. Machair, beach and surf. A Tiree vibe: a home from home treat. I follow my nose and end up on a west facing pebble/grass parking area overlooking wild surf. Sea haar adds mystique and prevents a view of the Monach Islands. Half a dozen other vans are spaced along the coast and for the first time I strike up conversations with a few folk – surfers all, and lovely relaxed people from the world over.
My night is beautiful, rocked to sleep by sea breeze, lulled by lapping waves, calmed with salt air. On my way back across the causeway a male merlin flits past me.
Heading south I’m passing the turn off to Loch Druidibeg when I spot some ponies. I turn back and, like a true tourist, pause to photograph them. Now I might as well go on along this minor road to the RSPB lochside parking area.Two golden eagles soar and spar on crag-top thermals, hassled by hooded crows (providing a handy sense of scale).
It’s only here that I discover there’s an Outer Hebrides Bird of Prey Trail – how on earth did I miss that! The fabulous mountains, the birdlife – I really am going to come back with more time to walk and look.
On reflecting on my outer isles island maker interviews it occurs to me that everyone wants to talk about much bigger issues than their own artwork. Our wide-ranging conversations cover world events, politics, environmental crisis, biodiversity, housing. Then it occurs to me that this goes hand in hand with being an artist – they are always looking to the bigger picture, therefore almost by definition there’s going to be a message or comment within the art. They are philosophical, critical thinkers, they aren’t merely painting pretty pictures, or writing rhyming verse, or making artefacts – they are commenting on the world, making a point, living their politics.
I feel honoured to have shared some time with them, heard their thought-provoking views, seen their working environment. This has been a fabulous journey through, and insight into, the thriving creative communities of the Outer Hebrides.