Argyll & Bute,  Sea of the Hebrides, Western Isles,  Little Minch,  Isle of Skye, Highland

Our ferry from Oban to South Uist

The day we were due to sail from Oban to South Uist proved to be the most glorious weather; warm, sunny and still.  Rob arrived in his little sporty car and took it around to the garage where it would be stored for the week while we were away on the islands.  He is a very chirpy fellow to have along, always very enthusiastic and inquiring.  Our ferry crossing was calm and I spent the entire 5 hours and 20 minutes catching up on my blog, with one eye on the TV looking at the Olympic coverage.   Although they advertised that they had free WiFi they really meant only if you have an ipad, with the result that I couldn’t work online, I suspect it will be a much slower affair trying to complete each post now that I don’t have the use of our clients’ constant supply of internet.

The tip of the Isle Of Mull

Just a quick explanation as to we were heading: The Western Isles are a collection of 65 islands,  with only 15 inhabited.  The largest is the Isle of Lewis at the north end of the archipelago which morphs into North Harris three-quarters the way down the island and then there’s just a few hundred metres attaching South Harris to this island.  Moving on southwards you come to North Uist connected to Benbecula by a series of causeways and then to South Uist.  We didn’t cross the Sound of Barra to the other smaller islands at the southern end.   Remarkably, there are 7,500 fresh water lochs throughout the Western Isles!

The first thing we noticed after rolling off the ferry near the bottom of South Uist to a little place called Lochboisdale, was there were NO trees!  Reportedly, these islands are exceptionally windy, hence no trees grow here.  We have become used to long evenings in England but we certainly noticed the difference here, sunset at 10p.m and then 20-30 minutes before it’s really dark.  We took a short walk around the very small village, one shop/cafe/post office, a couple of craft shops, the Port Authority Office, maybe 10 houses and a church and then settled down for the night.  It was an excellent introduction to life in a campervan for Rob, as we parked right next to a toilet and shower block!

Cute, wee houses in Lochboisdale

Another surprising thing on South (and North) Uist were the roads!  They were superb, they must have just recently been resurfaced and even had painted lines either side.  The entire island had one lane roads, with passing places at regular intervals.  Dennis had to keep his mind on the job of driving and leave the sightseeing to us.  
The weather was remarkable on the first full day of touring, around 24 degrees.  Big blue skies, reminding me of the wide Wairarapa skies back home.  Bright sun all day and not much wind to speak of.  All the washing lines had sheets and towels out drying, which made me think that the locals thought it was remarkable too!

Causeways are an excellent idea

You can see what a wonderful day, weather-wise, it was!

And then, the beaches were so beautiful and surprising!  The water was very clear and all up the western side of this island of Uist there were these lovely white sandy beaches.  It looked very tropical, only the temperature of the water didn’t match the illusion.  Heaps of salmon farming, with the larger sized fish pens covered to keep the gannets from helping themselves to a free lunch.

Such beautiful beaches and clear, clear water

Not all the beaches were sandy.

A  Dunlin

In the old days landlords owned vast tracts of land which they parceled up into small bits and built houses on each section.  The tenant worked the land, growing crops which he then sold back to the landlord and kept a house cow or two, chickens and a garden for his own family. This whole system of agriculture is known as crofting and not the house, as I had always thought.  Before 1886 the landlord had the final say on who the tenants were and how long they stayed.  If he thought one guy wasn’t supplying him with enough crops for whatever reason or he didn’t like him or when the landlord realised that sheep produced far more wealth to him than crops, he had the right to terminate the tenancy immediately and send the family packing.  Many landlords actually forced crotfers to emigrate and replaced them with sheep but after Parliament passed the Crofters Holdings (Scotland) Act the tenants were given more security and the landlords were restrained.  Nowadays, most of the crofts are owner-operated with the average size being 4-6 hectares, which is still not large enough to make an adequate living so many supplement their income with fishing, B&B’s and working offshore in the oil industry in the North Sea.   We were somewhat bemused with how many houses there were all over South Uist, Benbecula and North Uist  and wondered how they all made a living until we found out the tradition of crofting in this area.   The crofts in South Uist looked like they would only carry a few sheep to the acre sort of thing, what with all the rocks in the paddocks but the further north we drove up this series of islands the more fertile the place looked.  There were even a few places farming beef cattle.   Actually all the animals looked very fat, healthy and contented.  On North Uist they had small sections of pasture set aside for hay making and also grew a mix of wheat and oats for winter feed, I guess.  It looked as if the crofters worked in together with the larger jobs of hay/silage harvesting, as not every farm had the flash tractors that are common in the rest of the UK.  There were lochs everywhere, with many of them growing water lilies.

Beautiful water lilies were another surprise

So many people lived way out here in South Uist!

Clever sheep!

South Uist used to be where the Catholics lived and shrines to Mary are still to be seen at the entrances to the small settlements today.  Although North Uist was traditionally Protestant we did see many Church of Scotland Churches in both islands.

Very satisfying to see Highland cows in Scotland!

A Meadow Pipit

Wildflowers are so pretty

Dennis had read that years ago a giant lived around Port nan Long.  We drove through every street in town looking for a memorial or plaque and had been assured by a couple of locals that it was “just up there, turn left at the yellow house and just round the back.  You can’t miss it!”  Dennis is not a fellow to give up easily so we had quite an extensive tour around the streets looking for the as yet unseen statue or whatever.  Eventually we gave up the search and called it one of life’s mysteries.
Another ferry was needed to take us north to South Harris and as we hadn’t booked Dennis took the initiative to park first in the line at the ferry terminal the night before we were due to cross and we slept the night there.  We woke in plenty of time to have our breakfast before boarding at 7a.m.  While Dennis was busy providing us with toast and coffee I was telling him about the otter I could see swimming in the sheltered bay beside us.  Of course, you had to be quick to spot him as he was surfacing for a quick breath and then diving down again and since you couldn’t predict in what direction he would come up again you needed to be watching keenly.  So each time I said, “There he is!” both Rob and Dennis missed it, time and again.  They sent me off armed with the camera to prove that it wasn’t a hoax but then of course I couldn’t find him anymore!  Nevermind, I did come back with a photo of an owl flying right over top of me!

You will need to enlarge this photo to actually see the owl flying directly at me, but it’s there!

Although only one lane, with many, many passing places provided, the road surface was excellent. A brilliant change from the mainland!

Hundred’s of starlings resting for a while

Dennis’ cunning plan worked and we were first onboard the small ferry!  The ship hardly sailed in a straight line for more than a minute, apparently the sea around here was quite shallow normally and littered with undersea rocks and on as well, that day it was an extra low tide, so low that one sailing was actually cancelled.  We sat near two women looking at holiday pictures on a computer, it was lovely to hear them speaking in Gaelic, well a mix of English and Gaelic really, they kept changing mid-sentence from one to the other.   It only took a little under an hour to berth at Leverburgh.
We were back to poorly maintained roads again and the scenery was quite different.  More mountainous, fewer houses, lots more rock, less pasture and a few trees here and there!   On the western side of Harris  the beaches looked beautiful with golden rather than white sand.   Stornoway, which is the capital of Lewis is a sizable town of 8,000, and had all the mod cons it is half way up on the eastern side.   We were unsure as to which church to attend out of quite an unfamiliar selection and happened to choose the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland.  Oh, my, what an education!   Realising that I was the only woman with my head uncovered, I ended up getting out my lovely little wooly hat, it’s quite uncomfortable to be causing offense so I thought that was better than nothing.   The people were so unfriendly!  The family who came to sit beside us in the pew did not even acknowledge us and after the service just one man stopped to have a short conversation.  He kept reassuring us that the preacher would come over and talk to us soon, but he never did!  It was a good lesson for me to make sure I’m more hospitable to visitors in our own congregation – what a terrible feeling to be the odd ones out!  The minister had a thick Scottish accent and a very quiet voice.  He had a habit of speaking quickly for three or four sentences then stopped to take a real, deep breath finishing with a loud sigh and then with many “umms” thrown in between!  It required sustained concentration to understand him and with all that effort you sort of lost the flow of what he was saying.   Four elders sat in the four corners of the platform beneath the pulpit and took it in turns to fall asleep, all through the sermon.  (Admittedly, it was difficult for them to look up at the minister from their angle and directly into the lights.) They had a precentor, who sat directly under the pulpit, in a small “box”.  It was his job to select the tune and lead us in singing the chosen psalm.  The singing was slow and one chap tried his best at tenor (I guess, it was) and the combined effect had an uncanny resemblance to the bagpipes!  We all stood to pray but sat for singing.   Rob took a look on their website and found to his surprise that only the home page was open on Sundays showing the times of services and the address.  Downloads of sermons, information about their theology, etc would be available on any of the other six days.    All in all, the three of us all agreed that it was an unpleasant experience, not to be repeated.  45 minutes of BOREDOM, no coffee after and everyone off home like startled chooks.  

Farming rocks?


The most northern beach on the eastern side of Lewis. (Obviously, at low tide) All the eastern ports had excellent protection from the weather.

Rob on the Butt of Lewis, yes that’s the correct name, for the most northerly point.

The weather had turned again to rather cold and blustery.  With 12 degrees being the top temperature in the daytime many fires were burning and we were thankful of the gas heater in the van.  Lots of peat on this island so no shortage of fuel.  It smells lovely and is very distinctive.

Magnificent sheep around these parts!

Well prepared for winter with this stack of peat turf, actually they use it any time of the year as the weather is so changeable

Dun Carloway Broach is a fascinating place, quite unlike anything we have seen before.  Broches were built about 2000BC and were the dwelling places for the principal family in the area.  They were made using the local stone, of which there is no shortage!  Double drystone walls leaning in towards each other, four stories high and topped with a thatched roof.  Remarkable to think these walls have survived so many years. In fact it turns out it was inhabited until the 1870’s.

Probably the remains of one of the pleb’s houses

Such clever people, hardly cavemen!

Watch out, Dennis! It’s narrow and short in there

This side looked impressive enough…

So intricately built

Look at that lintel stone

Calanais Standing Stones are another remarkable sight.  4000 years old and huge!  These stones where unusual as they were erected in a cross pattern rather than a circle.

Standing Stones – how on earth did they get them up, and how far are they buried?  This one is 5 metres tall.

Rob loves to photograph things even more than me!!

Another one and three-quarter hour ferry ride crossing The Little Minch took us to the Isle of Skye where the scenery changed radically again.  Very mountainous this time, interesting rock formations, tall cliffs down to the sea, all the houses painted white rather than plain stone and real forests!  

So beautiful, looking back at the ferry which brought us to Skye

Impressive rocks all over the place

The Old Man of Storr

We found a Museum dedicated to the old days and decided to take a look.  It had six stone houses with a separate display in each focussing on a particular theme, e.g. fishermen and their vessels, working the land, housewife’s working day, etc.  It looked really well done and we were just getting involved with the displays when a couple of bus loads of tourists descended on the site, Americans, Germans, French among them.  So rude this lot, pushing in as many people into each of the small houses as physically possible, standing in front of you and elbowing you aside!  I took to my heels and left them to it in disgust and went and enjoyed a cuppa in the motorhome and waited for the other two.  They were keener to see the items on display than me in the first place but I marvelled at their patience and determination to stand their ground!  Dennis came back with the story that if fishermen were on their way to their boats and they met a woman while walking to the boat, superstition had it that it was unwise for them to go out to sea but if they had met a red-headed woman then that was certain suicide to take the boat out or at very least no fish.

On this windy island they took extreme measures to secure the thatch on their houses! Nowadays they often cover the thatch with chicken wire to stop the birds from purloining it for their nests.

Lots of common grazing so sheep wander all over the place

At one point Rob and I had a good laugh, we were driving past a shop on the Isle of Skye advertising the local chocolate as “Rich, Dark, Deep, Intense, Sublime”!  Dennis glanced at it and remarked  “that he thought it was a good description of himself” – Yeah right!
Portree is a beautiful small seaside town, with a small fishing harbour.  It was obvious with the number of people walking the streets that tourism keeps this little place alive and thriving so it was quite odd to see that many of the shops had closed for the lunch hour!  The streets were narrow and the parking was at a premium so when Dennis spotted a small space just outside the grocery shop he attempted to park our rather large motorhome.  It took awhile to squeeze into the little space available and really wasn’t his best attempt at parking but he was hungry, there were no other parking places available and I needed to get to a grocery store to gather provisions for lunch.  I leapt out the van and shot straight into the store and it wasn’t till I returned with a couple of shopping bags that I realised the other two had left the scene and locked up.  I stood beside the door for a while before it dawned on me that the conversations around me were all about that campervan and how poorly it was parked!!  The back-end was causing an obstruction to the oncoming traffic in the narrow roadway and creating quite a stir.  I was so embarrassed I walked down the road a way with my groceries and pretended it had nothing to do with me, which in fact it hadn’t after all, and waited for the driver to return!

What a cute wee place Portree is

We carried on after lunch taking a circuitous route through the Isle of Skye, following our rule of where possible not travelling over the same road twice, when we happened upon a sign proclaiming a Museum to the Tallest Man in St Ann’s.  It turned out the previous place Dennis had been looking for mention of him was the town he was born in 1825 but this place was the town he lived in for most of his life.  The museum had been set up by one of the Giant’s relatives, a man in his 80’s (Mr MacAskill), who was so very proud of him!  He had all sorts of stories to tell us and really enjoyed the opportunity to do so.  We were the only three people in the place so he had all our attention!  He had a strange way of talking, he would relate each tale with his eyes closed!  The giant’s name was Angus MacAskill and when fully grown stood at 7 feet 9 inches.  He was a “natural” giant, not suffering from any hormonal condition, etc.  He was a fisherman by trade and would fish just by himself with ballast in the front of the boat to stop him tipping out!   A visitor from New York met him in St Ann’s and became his agent, he persuaded him to travel back to America and along with General Tom Thumb, the smallest man alive in those days, became a celebrated “circus” act.  Tom would dance a jig on Angus’ outstretched hand and then Angus would slide him into his coat pocket!  He spent the 1850’s travelling around with the show and was invited to tea with Queen Victoria who presented him with two gold rings.  He returned to St Ann’s a wealthy man and set up two grist mills and a general store, which he ran until 1863.  After a week’s illness (brain fever) he died at home, aged 38.   We were about to leave when we noticed a poster, displaying a young man on one of those stunt BMX bikes, attached to the back of the door.  We wondered why it was there and then heard the next set of stories.  This was Mr MacAskill famous son, Danny, who tours the world performing with the Red Bull Stunt Bikers team.  The old man was so proud to think that his direct descendant in the 1800’s was famous in his day and now his son is famous today!  Danny’s had 50 million hits on YouTube.

Cheeky monkey!

Even Rob couldn’t look him in the eye

Just drove past and voila!

There is a beautiful bridge that leads from the Isle of Skye back to the mainland.  Once again the scenery change is quite remarkable.  This time it was very reminiscent of the Marlborough Sounds back in NZ, with steep-sided mountains falling directly into the lochs.  So beautiful.  More and more forestry on the lower sloops, amazing to us that they don’t practice the art of pruning around Scotland, they just plant the trees very close together and as a consequence the timber when milled is of fairly small diameter.  We stopped off at the castle of Eilean Donan in Dornie, a few miles south of the bridge.   Though the tiny island is surrounded by salt water it has a fresh water spring and has been inhabited since the 6th century, by the Picts.  Since that time there have been several castles on this site and then later destroyed, the castle there today was rebuilt around the ruins by a Lt. Col. John MacRae-Gilstrap from 1919-32.   He employed Farquhar MacRae, who was a highly skilled stone mason, he claimed to have had a dream in which he saw, in the most vivid detail, exactly the way the castle originally looked.  The extraordinary thing is that after the restoration was completed, the plans for the castle were discovered in the archives of Edinburgh Castle, and lo-and-behold, they were exactly as Farquhar had dreamed them to be!  That is why Eilean Donan Castle is known as the Castle of Dreams. The Lt. Col and his family lived there for many years and the displays are set up as if the family has just popped out for half an hour.  One curious fact is that this is one of the only two surviving castles in Great Britain that has a left-hand spiral staircase.  The reason behind this is the reigning king at the time of building held a sword with his left hand.   (so now you know!)  This castle is the home of the Clan of Macrae and any member of the clan gets in for free.

The Skye Bridge

Western Scotland has great mountains

Eilean Donan Castle is apparently the most photographed castle in Scotland

Rob wanted to continue on up to John O’Groats, which is almost the most northerly tip of the GB mainland, while he was this far up the island, so we dropped him off at a B&B in Invergarry.  He planned to take a bus back down to Oban and collect his car and then head north again.  The way we travel it will be ages before we get there as our plans are to go back to the western coast and follow the coast road up to there.  It turns out the B&B where Rob stayed the night was built in 1840!  That’s the year the treaty of Waitangi was signed, it still amazes me the age of things around this side of the world.

A typical Scottish scene, murky, cloudy weather, lochs and stone house

The 1840 B&B where Rob stayed