Jonathan & Denise >
Today was forecast to be the last day of day-long sunshine before another longish spell of rain and wind, so we shut the Hebridean Woolshed and set up camp (with the motorhome) at the Loch Druidibeag car park, for a day of walking and discovery.Before lunchtime, we followed a route to the east along the north shore of Loch Druidibeag, anti-clockwise around Loch Thamascleit and then back along the road to the car park, with a circuit around the small plantation on the north side of Loch Thamascleit. This walk is very well waymarked, and punctuated with numerous interpretation panels which gave information on the flora and fauna of the area. At the highest point of the walk – north-east of Rubha Hamasclett – we came across tiny rowan trees, with their heads barely above the tops of the heather, stunted by the prevailing strong winds.
The plantation has an interesting story : it was planted in the 1950s, by the the owners of the South Uist estate, with a bizarre mixture of native and exotic trees, including Corsican Pine from the Mediterranean, Rhodendron from the Himalaya, and even Monkey Puzzle Trees from the Andes! It was remarkable for how many of the exotic species succeeded – indeed that they survived at all! Recently, the RSPB has taken over management of most of the land around Loch Druidibeag, and the local conservation team have been removing the alien species (especially the highly invasive Rhododendron) and planting/nurturing native species such as Birch, Poplar, Alder, Rowan, Scots Pine, and the under-story plants including the Rosebay Willowherb and Wild Honeysuckle. The environmentally holistic management practices include leaving dead and dying trees to decay naturally, providing shelter for young seedlings, safe perching for small birds, habitat for invertebrates … and interesting subject-matter for amateur photographers!
After lunch in the motorhome, we set off in the opposite direction, towards the south-west, along a path that is now designated as part of the Hebridean Way – a 150-mile long-distance walking route through the Outer Hebrides (from Castlebay in Barra to Stornoway in Lewis). The first leg of the walk is across low undulating moorland, the bleakness of which belies its richness in wildlife and archaeology. At the south-west corner of Loch Druidibeag we turned west along a track to the main north-south road (in red on the map).
Continuing westward – along the minor road through Dreumsdal [Drimsdale] crofting township, there was much to provoke thought and conversation : the profusion of wild flowers along the verges ; Caisteal Bheagram – the ruined castle (in reality, little more than a fortified tower) on a tiny island in the middle of Loch nan Eilean, accessed by a secret submerged causeway of large boulders) ; the variety of croft houses and their various outbuildings, all as diverse as the individual crofters that built them ; and, at the end of the road, Drimsdale House. This building, together with its walled garden, outhouses and steading (stone barns and byres around three sides of a cobbled yard) was one of several similar farmhouses built in the 1830s and 1840s up and down the length of South Uist by Gordon of Cluny, as part of his scheme for ‘clearing’ the native islanders from the land and replacing them with a small number of tenant farmers, recruited from the border country with England and who bringing with them huge flocks of the ‘big sheep’ named after the rolling grassy hills from which they came – the Cheviots. Therein lies one of the great narratives of British history ; but one we shall have to leave to another time!
Just beyond the big house, we turned right – northward – onto the ancient right of way that runs the length of Uist, along the boundary between (on the right hand, or east) the fields of individual crofts, and on the left hand the unfenced machair, and beyond that the marram grasses and sand-dunes, vast stretches of sandy beaches, and the Atlantic. Now we had the full strength of the sun on our backs, and with a light breeze off the warm sea, the air was hot and very humid, and we had to shed layers of clothing and put on protection against sunburn.
At this time of year the machair is abundant with wild flowers, the scents of which, though individually are scarcely discernible, combine together in such vast numbers as to fill the air with a rich but subtle aroma reminiscent of our store of dried herbs from the walled garden.
North of Stadhlaigearraidh [Stilligarry] the path runs just above the west shore of Loch Groigearraidh [Loch Grogarry], on the far side of which is Grogarry Lodge. That’s another former Cluny-era farmhouse, one which in the 20th C was adopted by the syndicate of families that owned the estate as their private ‘shooting lodge’. Now, the lodge is a valuable asset of our community-owned estate, and is run commercially as luxury holiday accommodation for large parties, a wedding venue, and also as serviced accommodation for traditional field sports (ie hunting shooting fishing) – with hire of ghillies an option. Loch Groigearraidh, being directly below the lodge, attracts substantial fees for trout fishing. These traditional pursuits continue to be a valuable part of the island economy – in fact more so now that they are in community ownership.
On the west side of the loch, the machair rises gently up from the shore, and conditions such as this are much favoured by wild geese, with Greylag geese gathering here in very large numbers. The large quantity of faeces that accumulate affect the delicate low-nutrient ecology of the machair and risk grazing animals injesting bacteria and viruses which can seriously affect their health or even kill, and which can result in pollution of the loch reducing numbers and health of trout. With the consent of Natural Scotland (the government conservation agency), a number of measures have been employed to dissuade wild geese from settling at this particular location, and licences have been issued to the community estate for a limited number of shootings per year of geese, not so much to control numbers as to influence behaviours – ie to persuade the geese to move on to other nearby locations. One of the ways this is done is by the traditional practice of hanging up corpses to warn off other geese : it’s barbaric – but psychologically very effective. As a rule, Natural Scotland do not permit the selling of shot geese for human consumption : perhaps the concern is that it would then be difficult to distinguish between goose that has been shot lawfully under licence, and what has been shot illegally. However, as a special trial, the licence issued to the estate does permit this. J has enjoyed a main course of goose at the Stepping Stones restaurant in Balivanich, Isle of Benbecula : very tasty indeed!
North of Loch Groigearraidh, the machair is owned by the UK government, and with the adjoining seas is used as range for testing of missile systems and for general military exercises by UK and NATO armed forces. Although only a small number of military personnel are resident on even a semi-permanent basis, these installations make up a very substantial proportion of the island economy, with very significant numbers of civilian personnel employed in technical, managerial and ancillary positions. We know of one person in Uist who is a world expert in the acoustics of submarines!After passing Grogarry Lodge, we continued down the lane and across the main road, to close the loop, walking around the north side of Loch Druidibeag, encountering along the way some interesting local characters, who we stopped to exchange the usual pleasantries regarding the weather, how good the grazing is this year – what with the perfect combination of warmth, sunshine, and rain ; and how the children are growing so fast … and we really need to get along as it’s turned cloudy and looks like it might rain.