Jonathan & Denise >
This past week we went away for mini-break in the nearby islands of Barra and Vatersay : across the sea lunchtime on Wednesday, back on Thursday evening. Micro-break would be more accurate! It was the first time we’ve taken the motorhome on a ferry since it first arrived in Uist in May. In fact it’s the first time we’ve been by ferry to another island of the Outer Hebrides, outside the causeway-linked islands of Uist, for about five years, and Barra for maybe seven years! Vatersay – never!
We disembarked at around 2pm, and drove around the west side of the island – the Atlantic side. Just before reaching Castlebay, we turned right (south) to take the road to Vatersay, a much smaller island connected with Barra (since 1991) by causeway. We’ve never taken this road before : it was a surprise to discover how far it is from Castlebay to the causeway, how narrow the road, and rugged the terrain!
The weather forecast for Wednesday hadn’t been that good, but it the low cloud / mist / drizzle made the afternoon and evening darker, drearier and wetter than we’d expected.
Vatersay consists of two rocky islands connected by a natural tombolo of sand-dunes. The community hall at the north end of the tombolo has a café – but apparently it’s open Easter to the end of August only ; so we made a mug of tea in the motorhome, then pulled on our boots and waterproofs and set off for a walk around the south part of Vatersay.
The beach on the west of the tombolo – Tràigh Siar [West Beach] – is huge, especially at low tide. The sound of the sea breaking on the sands and the combination of spray from the sea and drizzle from the very low cloud, together felt like an assault of the senses – and bizarrely refreshing! Nobody on the beach except ourselves and Tilly – who found a dead seal to investigate.
The other feature of interest was at the very south end of the beach, where there is what appeared at first sight to be a short length of cliff formed of glacial till or boulder clay (which would be exceptional in the Outer Hebrides – a sea cliff not of hard rock) ; but on inspecting more closely turned out to be as hard as rock. Either it is a clay that has become cemented by some natural process (but there’s no limestone here either). Alternatively it is concrete, worn down by abrasion from beach sand and pebbles! The reason for such concrete – if that’s what it is, is not apparent.
Walking across the rocky landscape of Beinn Ruilibreac we crossed a landscape marked by prehistoric enclosure walls/banks, burial mounds or cairns, and standing stone known as Cuithe Heillanish : all rather eerie in the low cloud / mist / drizzle.
When we reached Bàgh a Deas [South Bay], the low cloud lifted and we were able to throw back our hoods, shake ourselves off, and enjoy the sound of the sea, and the veiled views south to the remote and romantic uninhabited islands of Sandray, Mingulay and the soaring cliffs of Berneray.
Then, on again, over the next rocky headland and down to the abandoned crofting township of Eòrasdail. (The crofts do have tenants, they just live elsewhere, including in the village of Bhatersaigh [Vatersay].)
In a recent post about the abandoned crofting township of Roisìnis in Eriskay, we included a photo of a type of house (in ruins) built as a cheap or temporary dwelling after the First World War. Here at Eòrasdail there are the ruins of houses that used similar money-saving technologies. The most striking feature of Eòrasdail is the row of four stone gables – two matching pairs, each pointedly lacking any house between them!
The gables are built of locally found stone, but with concrete blocks (made by hand here on site) used as quoins, which were not a structural necessity, but would have been intended simply to make the houses look more substantial and grander than they actually were. The chimney stacks are of concrete. The front and back elevations would have been of timber frame with corrugated steel sheeting ont the outside, pine tongue-and-groove boards on the inside. The roof would probably have been also of corrugated steel. No insulation! There are no traces at all of the elevations and roofs, nor any indication what the floor would have been made of (it may have been just bricks on dry peat and sand) ; but there are some rusty steel coach bolts protruding from the gables, which would have secured the front and back elevations to the gables.
A third house was built by someone with either more money at his disposal, or a greater sense of self-imporance and ambition. This house is built of stone for the front wall and gables, with pre-cast (but made on site) concrete quoins and window cills – and chimney stacks, also. There are two chimneys, two fireplaces in each gable, one downstair, one in the attic, so that’s four fires to feed with peat or coal. This suggests someone with money to spend and confident about the future. And yet, one of the two gables is built of stone only to mid-height, the rest being in in-situ concrete. The back elevation is entirely of concrete. There is no indication that the concrete was ever rendered, so the walls would have been very wet when it was windy and rainy. These concrete short-cuts are indicative of someone who was running out of money or time, or both. These crofts were first settled around 1909, though at first the crofters would have built mere shacks whilst they set about improving the land, building houses. Perhaps the change in materials occurred at the outbreak of the First World War : the islands sent a disproportionately high number of men – able-bodied men, to the armed forces.
The ambition for this township was way ahead of the reality : there was no road, no mains water, no electricity, no drainage. Transport in and out was by pony-and-panniers over the hill, or by boat a very very long way around the coast to Castlebay ; and this is what was the downfall of this township. More about Eòrasdail and the fascinating story of the early-20thC settlement of Vatersay can be found in the book The Vatersay Raiders by Ben Buxton.
We returned to the community hall by Beinn Cuidhir (pronounced Ben Queer!), Bhatarsaigh village, and along the east beach of the tombolo isthmus.
The village includes an interesting variety of house types (including, of course, the ubiquitous modern-day bungalows).
There is an extremely rare survivor of the type of construction seen at Eòrasdail, but though this example still has its galvanized roof and elevations, it is no longer fit for habitation – and appears to be just a store.
We parked for the night on a patch of rough ground at the crest of a hill, overlooking Caolas Bhatarsaigh (the Sound of Vatersay) and Bàgh a Chaisteil [Castle Bay] – ie Castebay village in the distance. The Calmac ferry ‘Clansman’ was sailing east, heading for Tiree and Oban.
In the morning, we drove back to Barra and around the east coast and then north to Eòlaigearraidh and parked up at Bàgh na Clach [Possibly meaning Bay of the Graveyard]. After mid-morning tea and scones, we booted and suited and set off for another anti-clockwise walking tour.
First, a steep climb up to Dùn Sgurabhal : though there’s not much of this left, there’s still a sense of enclosure, and inside the low remnant of wall its more sheltered, and the vegetation is green and lush. The views from here are wonderful.
We failed to find the cave on the south-west slope below the Dùn, so continued on to Beinn Eòlaigearraidh, down to the machair below and then along the Tràigh Eais.
Fresher winds were beginning to sweep away the dreich of yesterday and the early morning, and it was delightful walking along the beach, close to the water. A flock of sanderlings, scurrying amongst the shallows and whirring away when we got to close (and then settling behind us and soon passing us again), kept us company all the way to the far end of the beach.
Turning off the beach and through a narrow gap in the dunes, we got lost amongst the marram grass and machair : our goal – the airport terminal building – was clearly in sight, but remained out of reach. Eventually, though, we negotiated a way through and we sat down with some relief at a picnic bench on the grassy bank opposite the airport building. Denise went in and joined a cue at the café (passengers were arriving for a flight to Glasgow) returning outside with coffees and delicious home-made cake – coconut and raspberry.
We were tired by now, but from here back to the motorhome it would be just walking along quiet lanes, only slight rises and falls. With a bit of food inside us, so we extended the walk by walking around the back roads, on the east of the machair, and as the weather was now fine and sunny, with a refreshing breeze, we had the leisure to take in the interest of the crofts and croft houses, the cattle and tractors, buses and building works.
Back at the motorhome, we had lunch and then drove back south to Castlebay, where we browsed in the community shop (the old Co-op building opposite the medical centre), shopped at the new Co-op, had a coffee and cake at the Post Office, and walked in the sunshine – by now that sweltering warmth so typical of an Autumn in the Hebrides.
Back to the west coast for our last hour in Barra, this trip. Just north of Baile na Creige [Craigston], the road curves around a rocky headland, and there’s a big layby above the golden sands of Tràigh Tuath [North Beach]. Here we stopped and just watched.
Then it was time to get back to Ardmhor and join the queue for the ferry back to Eriskay, South Uist and home.