the blood is strong,Traditional Canadian Boat Song
the heart is Highland,
and we in dreams behold the Hebrides
At the dawn of the 11th century almost all Scotland lay in the Gaeltacht, a linguistic region that also covered Ireland. Gaelic was the language of people, court and power. The people of the south-east alone spoke Early English, Welsh was spoken around Clydesdale, and the Northern Isles spoke Norse. But the 11th century was to be Gaelic's Scottish high point. As Gaelic had covered the land from a small base in Argyll, so in its turn English inexorably spread from its foothold in the south-east, first in the speech of planted merchants in new towns and burghs, in the language used at court, and finally across the general populace. The eradication of Gaelic became state policy not long after, James VI's 1609 Statutes of Iona insisting clan chiefs of the West Highlands educate their sons in English. Official discrimination against Gaelic has only ended in the last couple of decades: children are no longer beaten for speaking their native tongue at school. Unofficial discrimination continues. But Gaeldom has one last stronghold: the Western Isles, aka the Outer Hebrides, an t-Eilean Fada, na h-Eilean Siar.
An t-Eilean Fada (the Long Isle) is long, 160 miles long - as far as from Sheffield to London. It is not one island but many, divisible into three groups - the twin island of Lewis and Harris in the north, the causeway-connected Uists, and the Barra isles to the south. The elements dominate more than anywhere else in Scotland, and the influence of the sea - for good or ill - is all-pervasive. When it is windy, cold, and wet, you might wonder what the attraction is, and hunker down like a traditional house. But on a sunny day the wide horizons, superlative beaches, pounding surf, teeming birdlife, friendly natives, and unique views of land and water are unforgettable. If you are visiting the Western Isles, then slow down, relax, and allow the the ferries, tides and winds to dictate your timetable.
The northernmost island, Lewis, is Scotland's largest. Lewis is a large moor girt by a wonderful coast, with a beach for every wind direction. It is home to the administrative capital of the Western Isles, Stornoway, the islands' only town - small by mainland standards, but big enough to boast a rush hour. In Stornoway some secularism has crept in on Lewis' legendary Sabbath, where observance of the day of rest is upheld by some of the strictest Protestant sects in Scotland. Nowadays there are ferry sailings and at least one café open on Sunday, and the swings in playparks are no longer chained up. But the sabbatarian tradition remains strong, sombrely-clad locals travelling to church, childrens' bicycles abandoned, a blizzard of twitching net curtains following anyone engaging publicly in frivolous activity - a disorientating experience to visitors who have enjoyed the warmth and friendliness of the island on the other six days of the week, but a good opportunity to slow down, rest, and tap into the island rhythm.
Lewis is home to Callanish, the most evocative prehistoric monument in Scotland. Its weathered pillars of gneiss were raised around 3,000BC, and it remained in use as late as the first classical descriptions of Britain - Pytheas' 325BC 'On the Ocean' describes a tribe of moon-worshippers called the Hyperboreans who lived beyond Britain at a latitude of 58 degrees north, and who used it as a temple.
Whilst there is a richness of prehistoric remains, there are few old houses on Lewis, as until just over 100 years ago ordinary islanders lived in thatched rubble cottages known as tighean dubh (black houses). Lacking chimneys, smoke from the fire in the middle of the earthen floor exited through a simple hole in the thatched roof, which was weighted down with ropes and stones to prevent takeoff in a gale. People lived at one end of the house, and cattle overwintered at the other end. The few remaining blackhouses may look quaint - and the best examples in Scotland are found at the village of Garenin in Lewis - but given their primitive nature it is not surprising that people today prefer modern houses. The long, narrow field patterns of old crofts remain however, creating characteristic one-street strip villages across Lewis.
Although these narrow crofts are insufficient in themselves to provide a living, the Leodhasachs remain attached to their land. In 1917, industrialist Lord Leverhulme thought he could do better than the crofters and bought Lewis and Harris - all 540,000 acres of them. He intended to put the population to work in fish factories, but the inhabitants - returning after the Great War with the government's promise of 'a land fit for heroes' ringing in their ears - wanted land, the one thing Leverhulme would not part with. He gave up in disgust after spending a fortune trying to force crofters to work in factories, and sold the islands to other absentee landlords. To this day, control of the land and shoreline dominates any debate on improvement.
From Lewis the road rises steeply over a pass to sweep down to Tarbet in Harris. These hills effectively separate Lewis and Harris into two islands, despite sharing the same land mass. Their rough nature, with granite-veined gneiss bursting through the thin soil, give them the presence of much higher hills. Harris boats some fertile machair and perhaps the best beaches in Britain on its west coast. Yet in the 19th century the population were cleared for sheep, forced to emigrate or move to the barren bays of the east coast, causing other islanders to joke of the Hearraich's special chisel-nosed sheep, capable of finding blades of grass to eat in the narrow spaces between rocks! This was no joke when the time came to die: coffins had to be carried laboriously across the island to the cemeteries that remained on the ancestral lands on the west coast. The soil of Harris' east coast is so thin that there is insufficient depth to bury bodies.
Across the skerry-strewn Sound of Harris the ferry berths at Berneray, the northernmost island connected by a chain of causeways across the Uists to Eriskay. From Beinn Mhor, Croagary Mor, Li a Deas or Eaval a remarkable vista opens up of intertwined land and water: the land a maze of freshwater lochans, the sea a minefield of rocky skerries. This is the waterworld of Uibht a Tuath (North Uist), a paradise for water fowl. The Western Isles' greatest nature reserve is on Uibhst a Deas (South Uist) at Loch Druidibeg. As in Harris, the east coasts are wild and rocky, the west coasts long beautiful beaches exposed to Atlantic rollers, the sandy machair meadows lying in between. Under the baleful influence of Colonel John Gordon of Cluny the Uists suffered one of the worst clearances in Scotland, but today, land ownership is in a much happier situation.
The islands of South Uist and Barra are a little more relaxed in attitude than the ones to the north. The occasional shrine to the Virgin Mary on hilltops and roadsides, a sight unknown in the rest of Scotland, indicates a Catholic country, and a Sunday on South Uist is a more cheerful affair than further north. Clans such as MacNeil claim Irish rather than Viking descent, and Eriskay's top tale of the sea is not a tragedy but the story of SS Politician, a freighter heading for America in 1943 (when Britain was in the grip of rationing) that ran aground without loss of life - and with a cargo of whisky. The cargo was well raided before customs arrived, and to this day there may well be caches hidden in rabbit burrows...
For me Scotland's ideal island, the one with the best blend of size, intimacy, sociability, culture and natural beauty is Barra. Others disagree, of course! Arriving by air on Barra is a unique experience, the timetables tide dependent, for the terminal building is a shack by the beach, and the runway the beach itself. At the other end of the island is its only village, Castlebay, and the castle of Kissimul - perhaps the most picturesque in Scotland.
From Barra's small but steep summit, you look down over the castle in its bay to an archipelago of small islands with gorgeous beaches stretching into the distance. Most of these islands were once inhabited, but today only Vatersay is, now connected to Barra by a causeway. One of the now uninhabited islands, Mingulay, once lost touch with Barra, and the chief sent a boat to investigate. A man named MacPhee stepped ashore to investigate, and discovered everyone had died of the plague then sweeping across Europe. As he shouted this news to the boatcrew they immediately launched, refusing to let MacPhee back on the boat in case he was infected. They returned a year later to pick him up, but until then, the unfortunate castaway had climbed the highest hill on the island to scan the horizon for a boat to save him. Ever since then, the hill has been called Cnoc MacPhee (MacPhee's Hill) in commemoration of that feat of endurance and survival.
We have travelled the length and breadth of Scotland, but there is one more place to see. A place I have yet to go, the most isolated, mysterious, romantic place in Scotland; St Kilda.