Isles of Harris and Lewis: A walk on Luskentyre Beach

Pulling the door firmly closed behind me, I leave the cottage and am buffeted by the keen wind as I move away from the shelter of the building. It was warm inside but now out in the open there is a chill and the breeze cools me as I make my way down the gravel drive to the narrow single-track road. I cross to the gate, lifting the latch and pushing through, closing it behind me again. Down the grassy slope alongside rows of headstones spaced across the short-clipped lawn of the graveyard. All around the gulls are crying their screeching calls, chasing each other and playing in the turbulent air. I approach the second gate, going through, but struggling to close it properly, the two parts not lining up until finally the metal clank of the latch slots into place. 

I’m now out onto the dunes, pale, almost white sand held in place by tall stands of beach grass. In amongst the rolling hills are two grazing ponies, one grey, one white, their long pale manes and tails being gathered up by the wind. One looks up as I pass but it soon returns its head to the grass, pulling another mouthful and slowly chewing away. The going is soft but down a slope I’m soon onto firmer ground of the beach. There is crunching beneath my feet as I step on a shell-covered surface and I have to shade my eyes as the sand blows across the flat open expanse. I turn away and make for the headland with my back to the onrushing wind. Out here, the sands are of differing shades, yes, there is the pale cream and white but there is also steel grey and black mingled in amongst. The wind has created swirling patterns from the different shades, a myriad of shapes set only for a few hours before they are covered by water and eventually renewed with different patterns.

The tide is on its way in but it is slow running and there is still an hour or more until it is at its height.  Depending on the day its waves can break all the way up to the base of the dunes or it can fail to take away the footsteps of the day. As the water spreads across the low flat sands, piping oystercatchers stand as its edge, gradually moving closer inland as the waves slowly make their way towards the land. Sanderling and ringed plover also forage at the water’s edge, scuttling to and fro with the movement of the waves. They take to the air as I approach and drop down a little way further along the beach. They lift several times as I make my way along the water until eventually tiring of my presence and arching around me to move back to where I first met them.

The footing is firm down by the water, the sand made solid, some of it rippled, some of it smooth. I turn past the headland and the wind drops, the waves take over as the dominant sound; this part of the beach is met with strong forces of the sea with great breakers rolling into the sands. A large log is being rolled up and down as each band of rushing water meets the land. The bark has been stripped away and the revealed wood has been worn smooth by this same action over uncounted days.

Behind the beach, the land rises steeply to a peak and as the air rushes up the face of the mountain it condenses, creating great billowing clouds that trail inland. With the light from the dipping sun shining orange on the slopes, the land looks to be alight with flame and plumes of smoke.

Looking out to sea, Taransay looms large but further behind are the great hills and mountains of North Harris, a line of splendid peaks spreading off into the cloud-filled distance, their summits obscured. The sea between me and the far off coast is simmering with the wind, white water breaking away from the beach. As the waves peak, momentary glimpses are seen of rafts of duck, scoters and long tails floating out the winter in relative shelter of the great bay, their calls occasionally being brought inshore on the wind. I listen out for the wildest sound, the divers, but there are none to be seen or heard.

As the sun drops slowly behind the off-shore island, the shadow creeps up the beach, turning the steel shaded sands to a deepening blue and the gold into caramel. Finally, even the top of the peak it unlit and the darkness creeps in, brought on more quickly by the gathering rain clouds. There is one last pattern in the sand amongst the prints of man and dog; unseen a wilder animal walked along the beach, an otter searching along the water’s edge, gone now but its feet and tail gave it away.

I turn for home, up the narrow stream-bottomed valley and up and out into the open, past the small lambing fields. There are the first drops of moisture on the ever strengthening wind and I have to walk more purposefully to counteract the gusts. Eventually, I come back to the view from the cottage, overlooking the cemetery and vast sands beyond.

 

Isles of Harris and Lewis: The Abandoned Village

It’s not a long walk but if you lose the path, it becomes a cross-country bash across the heath and bog. Rising up and around the first hill, the modern day village soon disappears behind and won’t reappear for another couple of hours. Up and down through the wet grass tufts and squelching mass of moss and peat, the going is tough and the strong chilling wind is taking edge off the day; what sunshine appears is soon choked by grey cloud once more. 

A second hill follows and then, once rounded, a boggy plateau. At the end of this small, flat plain the sea begins to come into sight and as the edge appears so do the sheep-clipped smooth grasslands on the slope down to the water. At first there are just two of them, rectangular stands of stone walls with doorways and window openings but as further down the slope I go, others appear along the coast up to the shallowing bay and rocky beach. I pass from one to another, walking into former homes and walled fields, only the stone left, no signs of roofs, doors or window frames. This was a place of people, of farmers and fishermen, of community and family life. Now it is an empty, desolate place, the last signs of people slowly disappearing back to the ground from which they came.

Each time I go to one of these places, I’m visited by an eagle. A white-tail appears from behind the headland to a chorus of alarmed gulls mobbing from above and below. The usually majestic soar is replaced by a buffeted glide low down between the cliffs of the indented coastline. It dives suddenly but pulls up short of the water and then disappears from view around the next rounded promontory. The eagles seem to watch over the abandoned villages, the guardians of their souls and signifying the wild reclaiming these places. The grass is growing over the tumbled down walls of the houses, physically drawing them back into nature but it is the eagles who have taken back the wild spirit of the once populated valleys. 

Ever since my trip to the Isle of Skye two and a half years ago, I have been drawn to the old abandoned villages of the Scottish Islands – largely the result of the Highland Clearances. The Clearances occurred across vast swathes of the Scottish Highlands and Islands and Harris was not immune from the terrible actions of the landowners and their henchmen towards the local inhabitants. In Harris, people were ‘cleared’ from the fertile Machair grasslands of the west coast and given the choice of being shipped to the New World or struggling to survive on Harris’ rocky and almost barren east coast. Many chose the latter and survive they did, living off the sea and what they could grow on the small amounts of good land they had. However, some of the villages, townships, were also cleared on the east coast including the one I visited. Steimreway was cleared of its 80 inhabitants in 1857 but was repopulated in the early 1920s by five families. The last of these families left only 20 years later and the houses have remained empty since. It’s hard to tell which of the houses were from which period of occupation although some are in slightly better condition than others; some walls are almost completely overgrown by grass while the gable ends of some houses remain. 

Throughout Harris and Lewis, there are abandoned buildings, some much older, as a result of the clearances but others must only recently have been left to their own. Walking through one present-day village, there was one house right in its heart that appeared unoccupied, the chimney breast had collapsed but the rest of the house, from the outside, looked reasonably well maintained but empty and unwanted. There are great contrasts across the islands from the neolithic stone circles and roundhouses, the crumbling homes vacated during the Clearances, the lighthouses and their ancillary buildings decaying on the very edges of the land to the currently occupied houses and farmsteads in the villages or standing alone and the modern Nordic-style holiday homes of the west coast, all wood and big picture windows. The populations of the islands may be small but there can’t be many places in the UK where the full breath of human existence in the British Isles is so easy to see.

The blog posts for two walks to such ‘Highland Clearance’ villages on the Isle of Skye can be found by these links:

Isle of Skye – Lorgill: Left only to the Eagles

Isle of Skye – More Highland Clearance Villages

Despite my interest, I still now very little about the Clearances but I have book waiting for me at home that I hope will fill in gaps in my knowledge.

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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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