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.