Yesterday was Becky’s last day with us, so – as it was an exceptionally calm and sunny day – we cast aside our tools and tasks, picked up maps and cameras, pulled on walking boots and warm clothing, and set off in the car for somewhere scenic, off the beaten track – and yet offering human interest.
Our destination was known to us by name and reputation : Àird Horragaigh, in the far north-east coast of South Uist.
Like many of the most remote crofting townships on the east coast of Uist, they were created – or re-organised and expanded – in response to militant demand, after the First World War, for ‘Land for Heroes’. (Elsewhere, the call was ‘Homes for Heroes’.] But, despite the generous sizes of these crofts (perhaps 200 acres or so, instead of the usual fifteen to twenty), the wild and inhospitable land, the remoteness – and lack of roads or the other infrastructure already commonplace in modern life elsewhere, meant that many of the new crofts were never actually taken up.
With insufficient numbers of crofters for the communal activities – not just fishing and agriculture that put food on the table and paid the bills, but constructing the tracks and piers, digging ditches, erecting fences – even building the school and paying for a teacher – the burden on those few pioneers was too great to sustain.
[The map below has interactive content]
By the late 1930s, already, many of those new crofts and townships had been abandoned. From those few families that remained, the Second World War took away the able-bodied men, many of whom never to returned. Wives left alone with their children went to stay with relatives elsewhere. During the 1950s, the networks of mains electricity and water reached ever further into the far-flung districts of the Highlands and Islands, but the remotest and most thinly populated of all, it was already too late. Almost early all of these new-model townships were already abandoned, with only a few of the hardiest and most determined individuals remained, increasingly isolated, the tracks becoming swamped by moss, the ditches choked with rushes, and houses, piers – buildings of every kind – falling into ruin, and not a crumb of comfort, or hope of help, to be got from the authorities.
The croft house we visited at the end of this walk, at Àird Horragaigh, was surely one of these last and lonely outposts of traditional crofting life. It is, certainly now, the only house in this district, east and south of the road-end at East Gerinish, out of perhaps two dozen or so built and abandoned since perhaps the 1880s, to still have its walls and roof and walls intact, and ineed rather more besides. Exactly when it was finally abandoned is difficult to say. Without running water, mains electricity, telephone, or – in its final years – any better access over land than could be made on foot, and with Wellington boots, it must have been a desperately lonely place.
This was no place for anything electrical that couldn’t be run off small batteries : there would, surely, have been a radio here, though we didn’t see one : nor were there anything else recognizably from the last thirty years, except, perhaps, a blue Calor gas cylinder. Our guess is that it would have ceased to be inhabited when the old folks died or moved away in, perhaps, the 1970s ; and subsequently the inheriting family may have continued – for another twenty years or so – to keep the structure wind and weather-tight. It couldn’t have survived as intact as this without maintenance.
But the next generation, twice removed from the culture, traditions and economic needs that tied their grandparents to this land, and firmly settled and knitted-in to social and economic life elsewhere – quite possibly in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, have no interest – or even perhaps much knowledge – of the place, and offer it up for sale.
Now much of the above is, of course, conjectural. Informed, perhaps – in some measure ; but conjectural nonetheless. Except in one thing, that is.
When we first came to Uist in 2002, looking to buy a house, the estate agent gave us particulars of this very house. We recall that it was described as requiring complete renovation, and being accessed by boat from either the old pier at Loch Sgiopoirt (just a few hundred metres away) – or by a four-mile trudge around the head of the loch and across moorland of bog and rock. (By road to East Gerinis and then on foot along the old track, the distance is about 25km – about fifteen miles!) As well as no road, there were no utilities : no mains water ; no electricity ; no gas ; no telephone ; and no TV reception either. And no realistic prospect of getting any of those necessities for practical life. The price was £25,000 – and we didn’t ever consider it seriously. Nor, we believe, has anyone else, since then.For yesterday’s walk we drove to the end nearest paved road, at East Gerinis, just to the north of Àird Horragaigh, It’s just 5km (about 3 miles), to Àird Horragaigh and back. There’s plenty of interest, so we were away from the car for about two hours.
A short distance south of the modern-day road-end, another track branches off – to the east. This, too, is in good condition at first, but the further you walk, the more it deteriorates. It leads to another abandoned crofting township, one named Caolas Liurbhasaigh (which we walked to in 2011 – also with Becky and Tilly for company : see Honeysuckle On The Moor, Foxgloves In The Byre.).
Along that track there are fewer houses – and none that might be described as anything better than ruins. There are, however, very interesting geological features. If you’re younger and fitter than we are, you might want to combine both these old townships into one longer walk, perhaps circular by walking from one to the other around the coast (but then you really would need to be seriously fit!). If it’s a fine day, take lunch with you, and make the most of the solitude and grandeur. Allow maybe four three to four hours.