Wednesday, 21 December 2005


Molinginish is one of many villages in Lewis and Harris that lie abandoned. This settlement, which had about 9 houses or homesteads in it, stands on the souther shores of Loch Trollamaraig, about 5 miles east of Tarbert in Harris. It can only be reached on foot or by boat. At the time of writing, late December 2005, there were 3 buildings still in use. One looked like a house, with beds, a stove and all the trimmings of relative civilisation. A second was full of tools, barrow and general junk. These two still had windows and a locked door in them. The third house was in use as a byre, and had neither doors nor windows. Molinginish can be reached by walking up from the Lacasdail Lochs on the road from Tarbert to Scalpay. A sign points to Reinigeadal / Rhenigidale. It is a rough path, slippery on stones in wet conditions. Just over a mile from the road, a large cairn is passed, which is positioned at the highest point of the trail. A small side track leads gently down to the site of Molinginish. A seat is provided above the village; the last stretch is a steep descent into the small valley.
Molinginish means the 'shingley beach by the heathery knoll', which is exactly what the place is. You cannot see any inhabited place from there; only the Shiant Isles on the eastern horizon. Reinigeadal is the nearest village, but this can only be reached by retracing your steps to the top of the hill, and turning east, down an extremely steep track.

From little Moliniginish, on the shores of Loch Seaforth - a tiny, roadless community - five lads went to fight Hitler. Two were lost at sea. Another spent most of the war as a prisoner of the Germans. This broke Moliniginish, and about 1950 the place and its memories were quit by its families. No-one has revived Moliniginish. Its lovely waterfall sings unheard; one house has been restored as a holiday cottage for the factor (with thanks for Dr James Lachlan Macleod and his Internet article on the effects of the two World Wars). The factor is currently a Stornoway solicitor (sic).

If anyone has further information on Molinginish and its residents, do feel free to leave a comment.

Tuesday, 20 December 2005


First of all, it used to be in a different place - just to the south of the current black house village.
The blackhouses were inhabited until the mid 1970s, after which they fell into decay. The inhabitants moved into the modern council houses, just up the road. Blackhouses weren't all they are sometimes cranked up to be. I've already devoted an entry to conditions on St Kilda, and I'd think people were only too glad to move to more comfortable surroundings. The blackhouses you see in the picture were reconstructed in the 1990s, and apart from one, bear no resemblance internally to the original edifices. Several of them are actually holiday cottages with all mod cons; one is in use as a budget hostel under the auspices of the SYHA; one is a restaurant and the one at the entrance is the visitor centre. The museum is a blackhouse as it would have looked at the time of the calendar on the wall, 1955. The pictures in the gallery above show what the interior looks like. Another house has an exhibition about aspects of life in a blackhouse. It revolved around the cycle of the year, whether it be with crops, fishing or animal husbandry.

One of the pictures shows a slightly blurred image of a Hattersley Loom. This piece of machinery was in widespread use across the island until fairly recently. No longer so. There used to be nearly a dozen Harris Tweed mills [factories] in Lewis, mainly concentrated in the Newton area of Stornoway, but also at Sandwick, Shawbost and Carloway / Gearrannan. Information from within the industry has told me that a good exercise of squeezing out competition, bad banking and shortsightedness on the part of various authorities reduced the number of mills in Lewis to 4; the one at Carloway appears to be on the verge of going out of business. Net result is, that there is nowhere near the amount of work for the crofters to do on their looms. The majority of them have thrown them out (as I have noticed in Dalmore) and cursed their decision to invest in buildings and machinery. Or cursed those involved in the decline in the industry. It was the perfect industry for Lewis. Wool would be processed at the mills and yarn brought to the crofters to be woven into tweed. Once that was done, the lorry from the mill would pick up the raw tweed and take it back for processing into a final product. There is a standard for tweed to meet in order for it to be called Harris Tweed: it's the Orb.

copyright Harris Tweed Authority The Harris Tweed Authority keeps a close eye on anything that is being marketed as Harris Tweed. As I stated above, the industry shrank about 10 years ago and nowhere near the volume of tweed is produced in Lewis as was before. Nowadays, the tweed produced is used by Nike to put into trainers and caps. Or purchased by private producers to make garments themselves. It's just as well I don't have the Gaelic, because I would have heard a few choice words in that loomshed last May, I'm sure.

From Gearrannan it is possible to walk round the coast to Carloway, via the lighthouse at Lamishader. Be careful around the cliffs, particularly near the lighthouse. In the other direction, you can walk all the way to Bragar, via Dalmore, Dalbeg, Shawbost and Labost. In 2005, it was impossible to proceed to Arnol along the coast, as the outflow of the Arnol River was too deep and fast to cross. It is actually a very scenic walk, but please, please take care along those cliffs, particularly in wet and/or windy conditions. Earlier this year, a Frenchman lost his life after losing his footing on the tops of the cliffs at Gearrannan, possibly at the location where I took the last picture in the gallery, at the start of this entry.

Sunday, 18 December 2005

Geography and history - 2

Moving back to the eastern side of Lewis, I'm going to focus on the district of Lochs. Apart from sea lochs there is a myriad of fresh-water lochs. Loch Grimshader could almost pass for a fjord, with its steep-sided entrance. The small inlet of Tob Leireabhat, just south of the Arnish Lighthouse, is similarly encased in a steep valley. Going further south, the villages of South Lochs, on the southern shore of Loch Erisort, used to be poorly served by roads. I read a book the other day deploring the advent of the South Lochs Highway (better known as the B8060). Until that road was improved, the mails were delivered from Crosbost to Cromor by boat. And in fact everything in the old days came in by boat. When the doctor had to come in an emergency, he came across the water. In a direct line, it's 12 miles from Stornoway to Cromor. Go by road, via Balallan, and you're looking at 30 miles. The people of South Lochs launched a buy-out of their estate a year ago. Their current landlord has not seen fit to lavish the district with his financial attentions, but is only too keen to cash in on the proposed windfarm development. The same applies to the owner of the adjacent Eishken Estate, to the south. Of both subjects: more later. The southernmost villages in South Lochs are Lemreway and Orinsay. There used to be a third village on the shores of Loch Sealg, Steimreway, but that was cleared in the 1920s. Not for the first time, and actually not for the last time either. The excellent Angus MacLeod archive in the Ravenspoint Centre in Kershader has published a booklet with the history of the village. These days, Steimreway is only a set of ruins in a delightful setting. Like the 30 villages in Eishken, Steimreway was cleared during the 19th century to make way for sheep. Steimreway can only be reached on foot across the open moor. I tried to reach it back in July, but atrocious weather conditions put paid to that enterprise. The village was located along a tidal inlet, the Loden, which linked to an inland water system of lochs. This makes it impossible to reach Steimreway from any other point but Orinsay. Except by boat of course. The village was repopulated between 1921 and 1945. The resettlement got off to a bad start, when a boat containing a flitting went down. And it foundered completely when the government was not interested in putting in a road or any other facilities. Familiar story?

Across Loch Sealg lie the deserted mountains of Eishken. As I stated above, until the 1820s, there used to be some 30 villages in that district. None now remain. It is a private estate, used for deerstalking. In 1887, a group of men, led by a Balallan schoolteacher, mounted a 'raid' on the estate. They shot a few deer and feasted on venison. They only wanted land. However, the estate owner would not hear of it, and engaged the sheriff to evict the intruders from her land. They were read the riot act at Kinloch Sealg, and the men departed. A monument to their endeavours stands at the junction of the Eishken road on the A859 Stornoway to Tarbert road. It is closely associated with the landraid at Aignish, Point, in 1888 where force had to be used to evict crofters. It is all about land, which is so important to the islanders. Because that's where you make your livelihood from.
Planned for the mountains of Eishken is a windfarm project. One hundred and thirty-three turbines are to be erected across the tops of the hills. Each turbine will measure 450 feet in height. This image will give some idea of scale.

Landowner Mr Oppenheimer, currently a multimillionaire, stands to become a multibillionaire if the plans come to fruition. Comhairle nan Eilean Siar nearly rejected the planning application back in June. In his generosity, the land owner has set up the Muaitheabhal Trust, named after one of the hills on which the windfarm is to be built. A year ago, letters were sent round the Kinloch district (which stretches from Lacasaidh to Airidh a'Bhruaich) and the hamlets on Loch Seaforth. The people were invited to join the MT, which would entitle them to a share in the profits. Not joining the MT would mean no share in the profit, although Mr Oppenheimer did say he wanted the community to share in the proceeds of the windfarm. The 50 people on Loch Seaforth, who live in settlements such as Ath Linne, Bogha Ghlas, Scaladal and Maraig, scorned the idea. If memory serves, about half the people in Kinloch were agreeable. Press reports at the time mentioned £16m annually for South Lochs. Aye, fancy what you can do with that. Sports facilities and all that were mentioned. My plea, aired in the local press, for the Comhairle to come up with a development plan with all that money in the kitty went unanswered.

There is another windfarm development planned, for North Lewis, which I'll discuss in the next entry in this series.

Geography and history

Lewis / Harris is one of those curious places where the distances between two places are not what a cursory glance at the map might suggest they are.

If you want to go from Tolsta to Skigersta, the distance as the crow flies is about 8 miles. It's a very nice journey, along some pretty spectacular coastal scenery. Traigh Mor and Garry Beach at Tolsta, Dun Othail, Dibidil, the long valley at Maoim. The forlorn ruined chapel at Filiscleitir, with the demure shielings at Cuidhsiadar. And then the metalled road is reached at Skigersta.

Yep. There is no metalled road from Tolsta to Skigersta. It's a 5 mile bogslog between the Bridge to Nowhere and Cuidhsiadar, with an additional 3 miles along a reasonable track.The Bridge to Nowhere is a relic from the era of Lord Leverhulme, who owned Lewis and Harris between 1918 and 1923. He was a visionary man, who wanted to bring progress to the Long Island. Unfortunately, he came in at the wrong time. In 1918, survivors returned from the carnage and atrocities at the Western Front, and the only thing they wanted was the land they were promised before they left for war. They weren't interested in Leverhulme's grand schemes, such as the whaling factory at Bun Abhainn Eadar (near Tarbert), or the road to be built between Tolsta and Ness. The road only got as far as the Bridge to Nowhere. The men who had returned from war went so far as to occupy land at Back; a monument for them has been erected at the Gress Bridge. It signifies Lord Leverhulme trying to stand in division between the crofters. I don't agree with that view of the Wee Soap Mannie. He was the right man - at the wrong time. People were not ready for his ideas, certainly not after more than 200 men were lost within sight of Stornoway Harbour on New Year's Day 1919.
The story of the Iolaire disaster is well known in the Western Isles, but not much beyond these islands. It was one of the greatest losses of life at sea in peacetime, after sinkings such as the Titanic in 1912 and the Norge in 1904. In brief, 280 survivors of the Great War were on their way back to Lewis from Kyle of Lochalsh. At about 1.55 a.m. on 1st January 1919, the Iolaire struck rocks at Holm, within sight of the lights of Stornoway. The seastate was quite rough, so although the ship was within yards of shore, anyone trying to swim to shore drowned. Some men managed to make it ashore, with a rope round themselves, and in this fashion 75 survived. Just over an hour after the grounding, the boilers of the ship exploded, which sent it to the bottom. 205 drowned. No village, no family in the island was left untouched by this tragedy. The bodies of the dead continued to wash up for several days. The celebratory beacons which had been piled up in anticipation of a new year of peace, and for the homecoming of the men, were never lit.
Calum Ferguson, in his excellent book Children of the Black House tells the story of the woman who had prepared food and a fire for the return of her husband. Her daughter fell asleep shortly after midnight, to awake six hours later. The fire was out, and the food was cold on the stove. The mother was in a great state of distress, and she said "I am a widow", although no one had as yet arrived to break the news. Church elders were seen in the village at daybreak, to bring just that tiding.

Geography and history - 1

Lewis / Harris is one of those curious places where the distances between two places are not what a cursory glance at the map might suggest they are. Did I mention yesterday that it's 40 miles by road from Tolsta to Skigersta?

I was reminded of another example two weeks ago when the Rocket Post movie was shown in An Lanntair, in Stornoway. This story is set in Scarp (although the movie was shot on Taransay), which lies just off the coast at Huisinis, in North Harris. If you want to go there, you'll have to go there by private transport. Nobody lives on Scarp these days. When I visited Huisinish, back in late April, it was alive to the sound of bleating sheep. The slipway is there for going to Scarp, but like Taransay, the island is deserted. At Huisinish, you can go for a lovely walk to Cravadale and even Kinloch Resort if you're feeling energetic. That is, if you're not suffering from vertigo. When looking north, you'll see Mealista Island, scene of the Great Sheep Robbery of 2003, when 60 of the resident flock of 117 were rustled off. Mealista itself, in Uig, is only 7 miles as the fish swims from Huisinish.

Driving from one to the other is a matter of a mere 70 miles. Yes, seventy. 14 to the junction at Bun Abhainn Eadar, then it's 27 to Leurbost, 8 to Garynahine and 26 to Mealista. That's the end of the road. Go any further and you either need that boat, or strong hiking boots to walk round the corner to Hamnaway. The district of Uig has been the scene of many clearances and removals. According to one local source, quite a few people were shunted across Loch Roag to the West Side, between Carloway and Shawbost. Going back to the road journey, take your time on the B887 from Bun Abhainn Eadar to Huisinish. It's only 14 miles, but should take at least 40 minutes, as it's rated as the worst road in Scotland. One person of my acquaintance nearly had a heart attack by the time he reached Amhuinnsuidhe Castle, 9 miles in. Blind corners, blind summits, grit on the road, not to mention other drivers...

A few lines ago, I did mention Taransay, scene of the infamous Castaway 2000 project. Someone asked me about it the other day, and referred to it as Outcast 2000. After stifling a huge guffaw, I patiently explained that yon project was actually a travesty of the Western Isles, and the only good it ever did was raising the profile from a tourist's point of view. The scenery from there is gorgeous, with the backdrop of the Harris mountains. Otherwise, it was an absolute non-community. What do you expect, people aren't prepared to put their backs into something that they know is going to end in 12 months' time. Last week, I went on the BBC's website and found a clip from that program, which contained a lot of screaming and shouting. All the pods, that the participants lived in, have been removed from Taransay. One is sitting along the road in Luskentyre, but when I was there in April, it looked uninhabited and rundown.


Pollution is not a word commonly associated with the Hebrides. Certainly not when I mention that I'm referring to St Kilda. It would appear that pollution was one of the factors that led to the demise of that community. Strange, but true.

The two main pollutants were heavy metals and dioxins. Heavy metals are present in fatty deposits in seabirds. The elements concerned are zinc, cadmium, platinum and many others. The people on St Kilda lived off seabirds, which were culled from the islands' cliffs. After eating the birds, the remains were disposed off by plouging into the earth for the purpose of fertilisation. Once crops were harvested, the heavy metals would come back to the islanders. Heavy metals are toxic.

Dioxins are the products of combustion of carbon-based fuels in the presence of chlorine. They are very toxic at low concentrations. The islanders on St Kilda used peat for fuel. As the islands are only small, the soil is impregnated with salt, which (chemically) is sodium chloride. When the peats are burned, dioxins are formed. These are present in the smoke and the ashes. In the original blackhouse, there is no such thing as a chimney stack; smoke would dissipate through the thatch. After the peat had burned out, the ashes were scattered on the floor. Behold an environment rich in dioxins.

One of the more poignant aspects of life on St Kilda was its incredible infant mortality rate: 50%. Only 1 out of every 2 babies born would survive the first year of life. It was thought that the deaths were caused by infant tetanus (tetanus is commonly known as lockjaw). When a child was born on St Kilda, some fulmar oil would be applied to the umbilical stump after the umbilical cord was cut. Fulmar oil was kept in a dedicated bottle, but not at all in sterile conditions. 

Recent research has suggested that the tetanus bacterium was not present in the oil at all, but in the soil.
The 8-day illness was thought to be the result of unhygienic living conditions, pollution by heavy metals and dioxins. It was eradicated after 1891 following the introduction of hygienic nursing practices.

Postscript: I do want to stress that many factors contributed to the decline and death of the community of St Kilda, but it would appear that health related problems were one of the main causes.

Saturday, 17 December 2005


Callanish I

The Standing Stones at Callanish. The world renowned Stone Age site, dug out of the peat at Calanais during the last century. Looking out to the Sleeping Beauty mountain (near Airidh a'Bhruaich in Lochs), and also looking out over Linsiadar, just across the water. I was already aware that there were 2 or 3 other stone circles nearby. Two along the road, just as you come into Callanish from Gearraidh na h-Aibhne / Garynahine. And another one as you go down the Uig road (B8011) from the latter village.

Describe my consternation to discover that there are about 19 associated neolithic sites within about 3 miles. Have a look here.

Thursday, 8 December 2005

Internment in Holland - WW1

The English Camp at Groningen, Holland
It is little known that during the First World War, just over a hundred islanders were interned in The Netherlands. They were men of the First Royal Naval Brigade, who had been drafted in to assist in the defence of Antwerp, in October 1914. When the order came to retreat, they literally missed the train. To avoid detention in a German PoW camp, the 1,500 men were ordered to march into Holland, only a few miles away. As The Netherlands were neutral in that conflict, they were taken into internment, for the duration of the conflict.
Amongst them were about 105 people from Lewis. Click on this link for a list of names. This webpage has a link to the full story of the Lewismen in Holland, and about the camp itself.

Not many stories appear to have been handed down. It would seem that quite a few men found it difficult to come to terms with the fact that they had had a relatively 'cushy' life in the camp, whilst their friends and family were dying at the Western Front. Life in the camp was not cushy. There were severe food shortages in Holland during that war, and at times people were reduced to eating horsemeat or rats. Although several men undertook training courses (one person obtained a second mate's ticket, and another became a minister), the general picture was one of excruciating boredom. By 1916, arrangements were made for some people from Lewis to be allowed home for harvest leave. Although the temptation was great to abscond, the men always came back. Absconding would mean that everybody else would be denied leave. A few men died at the camp, through ill health. When the Armistice came in November 1918, everybody was released and sent home.
In Calum Ferguson's book "Children of the Blackhouse", reference is made to "men who had just returned from internment in Holland ... celebrating noisily", just before Christmas 1918.

Celebrations for the end of the war and the homecoming of the men were abandoned in Lewis on New Year's Day 1919. Early that morning, HMY Iolaire ran aground on the Beasts of Holm, just outside Stornoway Harbour, and sank. 205 men drowned, 75 survived. All were survivors of the Great War, only to die within sight of home. None of the internees were thought to have been on the Iolaire. The story is well-documented, but hardly known outside the Hebrides. Check out this account on CultureHebrides

Wednesday, 7 December 2005


This name is liable to send some people's bloodpressure soaring. It used to be problematic if you wanted to have free access to the countryside. Or if you were the crofter at the top of the road. It is actually the portal to some pretty impressive countryside in the island. Until recently, walkers were not made to feel particularly welcome. Signs like"private" do not exactly convey an image of open arms and all that. However, after I spoke to the owner in early March and following a letter in the Stornoway Gazette, there seems to be a mute understanding that everybody is welcome to walk, provided they don't interfere with the workings of the estate. Which is normal practice.

If you manage to make your way through some pretty impressive bogs under Scalabhal, you'll eventually arrive at the famous beehive dwellings. How anyone ever managed to live in them is a complete mystery to me. I've been in them, cripes, they're cramped to say the least. Other beehive dwellings are situated on the other side of Scalabhal.

A few miles of boggy moorland further on, the ruins of Kinloch Resort (stress first syllable) are reached. A very sad place. Two or three houses, inaccessible, stand on either side of the river, with the long, narrow loch stretching out towards the sea. A stunted rowan tree stands by one of the houses, and reminds me of the story of the rowans.

In the old days, people would plant a rowan tree by their house to ward off evil. However, thousands of people emigrated (sometimes against their will), and the house would remain behind. With the rowan tree standing beside. It would remember all the joys and the sorrows that happened around the house. The births, the deaths. The marriages, and the departures. Once the family had left for good, the tree would lament in the wind. Calling for the people to return - but that will never happen at Kinloch Resort. Or so many places in the West.

Click here to listen to Rowan Tree, the Burns song
One story originates from this area, that of a carpenter who went to Kinloch Resort to do some work. He was going back to Harris, and he was told to take all the wood that had not been used. As he made his way over the mountains, he heard the sound of a hammer on wood. He thought it was the village children playing tricks on him, but when he whipped round, there was nobody about. This continued all the way home. When the carpenter arrived home with all his wood, he found his wife had fallen ill in his absence. He tended to her in the following days, but she passed away. Being a carpenter, he made the coffin himself. And as he sat hammering at the wood, a chill ran down his spine. The tapping noise was exactly the same as what he had heard that day out on the moor, as he was coming back from Kinloch Resort.