Isles of Harris and Lewis: The Coffin Road

The land is bare, like in one great sweep a giant hand has wiped away the trees. Bare, cracked rock dominates; the meagre soil that clings on in between the great slabs of stone supports only tough grasses and spindly heather. Spring has yet to reach these parts, out in the extreme far north-west, the islands on the edge, the lands with nothing between them and the new world. In the early summer, the machair is resplendent with flowers and in the autumn the heather blooms across the hillsides, but now, it is a scene of dull browns, made darker by the low, dense cloud hanging heavy over the hills and glens.

On the east of Harris, a small collection of houses intermittently lines the narrow bay. Out on the edge of the water, one of the boulders, tumbled down from the slopes above, has a common seal dozing atop, almost unnaturally straight when a sprawl would seem more comfortable. The wind is light and there are only the merest of ripples on the loch’s surface, a few paddling birds dot around, too far away to distinguish. 

There seems to be a little living to be had here, fishing but not much else; they were sent here from the more fertile west, banished in favour of sheep. The ground is so thin and poor that little grows here but at least there is shelter, protection from the worst of the winter storms surging in from the Atlantic west. But survive here they did, for decades, they lived off the plenty of the sea and what they could meagrely derive from the land.

However, when survival came to an end, as for each one, in turn, it did, they had to return west to be sunk into the deeper ground, so shallow was the soil in the east. Their last journey was across the narrow pass, a rise between the two sides of the island, from the barren to the rich, a reversal from life to death.

The final journey was by hand and by shoulder, starting in the village and ascending up the slopes and through the high valley. There was no well worn path, just rock, stream and mire. The struggle in life became a struggle through death for the bearers, but bear it they did. The solemn procession stumbled, sank, tripped and drenched their way up through the sodden pass. With death coming more in winter than in summer, the task of taking the Coffin Road in the darker, colder, windier months, must have been harder still and some of the dead, so it is said, didn’t make it to the other side, planted on the way, where the depth of the soil allowed.

On cresting the last rise, the view opens up and down below, further still, lie the vast, effervescent sands of Losgaintir. Now, the westerly wind would hit them with full force, pushing their heads lower as they struggled to keep their feet on the uneven ground. Downward they would trudge, still no path and still only treaterous footing beneath. The miles were few but long and energy sapped as the hill began to flatten out and the ground became firmer. Alongside the bay, the procession continued around numerous small headlands until, at last, the cemetery came into sight. Only now for the empty shouldered trudge to return over the hills, with the gulls incessant calls at their backs to hound their departure from their former lands.

The first walk I did in Harris was one I had planned to do when I stayed in North Uist a couple of years ago; there’s a ferry linking the two islands but I didn’t get round to going across for the day. I used the excellent Cicerone book ‘Walking on Harris and Lewis’ as my guide – this is one of a vast series of great books covering many locations with detailed directions and an Ordnance Survey extract for each walk. As I was staying at Luskentyre, a good two and a bit miles from the route, I decided to start from my cottage and extend the walk from almost nine miles to nearly 14. The day started off bright but as I walked along the undulating and twisting road, the cloud closed in with a slight hint of moisture in the air. Joining the route at the far end from the suggested starting point actually made sense to me as it saves the best bit to last and it also gets what is a bit of a unpromising traipse along the route of the former main road between Tarbert and Leverbrough.

Once off the road, you drop down a side road into the old township of Aird Mhighe, the starting point for the Coffin Road. From here there is now a good path all the way across, laid with gravel in places and stone channels for the frequent streams; there are also marker posts at useful intervals. It’s not a particularly hard walk now, relative low-lying compared to many of the mountain walks further north but it’s easy to see how those coffin-bearers would have struggled all the way across without the modern path. There is certainly a sense of desolation as you get to the top of the pass, nothing in sight apart from rocky and marshy hillsides. However, without a solemn duty myself, cresting the last rise through the pass was a delight as the Luskentyre sands were laid out below. The sun had come out as I walked up the track and it dazzled as the tide had gone out to reveal the sands of differing shades of gold, cream, steel. The water, as it laps across the beach is of the most incredible colours, ranging from dark blues and greens to an almost electric turquoise. Heading down the hill as the Coffin Road comes to an end is on a better made track and eventually meets the main north-south road again. I crossed it and walked back along the lane to Luskentyre – views of the beach and its bays all the way home. 

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