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:
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.