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.


Isle of Skye – More Highland Clearance Villages

After short walk yesterday out to an abandoned village now lying empty as a result of the Highland Clearances, I found another, longer, walk today to two more such settlements.

Whilst yesterday’s weather wasn’t sparkling, today’s was awful – raining continuously that fine soaking rain and a strengthening wind with it.  However, I’m on holiday so why waste it stuck indoors when there are spectacular places to be.

The start point of the 10-mile walk was a bit of a drive away and the weather deteriorated further before I got there, but I wasn’t going to let a bit of water get in the way.  I was soaked from the first five minutes and my walking boots were full of water for the second half of the walk – I gave up avoiding the puddles and the paths-come-streams.

After about a third of the way round the route, along a good but rocky track, I came to the first village, Suisnish. It appears larger than Lorgill, which I visited yesterday, but I didn’t stick around for long as the rain came down heavier still.

The landscape between the two villages is particularly spectacular, high cliffs with some tall cascading waterfalls; the path winds its way at the high water mark above the beach.


Rounding a corner a white-tailed eagle launched itself off the cliff-face and disappeared.  As I came around further cliffs, two eagles appeared and were soon joined by a third; the first two again disappeared quickly but the last hung in the wind for a while. I sensed it was watching me as I approached and it finally glided off slowly into the rain shrouded distance.


I began to see the remains of buildings as I crested a rise and eventually a village was laid out in front of me – Boreraig is larger again than Suisnish.  There are buildings dotted all over a low wide valley, facing directly onto a rocky beach. The scale of the place is quite breathtaking; that a large community once lived here but now there are only the crumbled remains of their homes and the harsh environment to surround them.


32 families were cleared from the two villages in 1854, the furniture smashed and the doors barred, the women and children had to fend for themselves on the nearby beaches until their menfolk returned from working on the mainland. It strikes me that all three Clearance villages I visited are extremely remote from the larger settlements on the island and are in very exposed locations. I wonder just how harsh the living was there and just how sustainable the communities were in the longer term if they had been allowed to stay – we’ll never know.

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Walking on, the track led over the top of the moor behind Boreraig, up more paths and tracks turned into streams by the incessant rain.  The sky brightened momentarily but the gloom gathered once more as I descended past one last abandoned building and made it back to the car.


Whilst getting soaked to the skin in pouring rain and a strong wind, walking along flooded paths and tracks, to go to look at some tumbled-down old buildings may not be everyone’s idea of a good day out when on holiday, I’m very glad I did it.

Isle of Skye – Lorgill: Left only to the Eagles

Tucked away at the end of a long, rough track, not far from the westernmost point of Skye, lies a hidden valley. I approach from a height, the track drops steeply to meet the valley bottom with a more shallow descent towards the sea. A narrow but fast flowing river makes its way between the two long hills, cascading from the moorland plateau through high falls and swift rocky channels, and begins to meander as the ground widens into a plain. As I walk down the slope, the track passes piles of rocks in amongst the short sheep-clipped grass and the thicker rushes covering the sodden areas of pasture. I approach a single one-storey house standing next to the river, built from stone but now without a roof, only one window left with a pane of glass. The track crosses the river and rises up the opposing hill and disappears over its summit.

I turn towards the sea, the wind whipping up the narrow channel between the hills, cooling me quickly and trying to take my hat. I follow the line of the sinuous river past further piles of rocks and then through low walls and enclosures, laid out on both sides of the water. These man-made structures are now a few cold and sunken remnants of what was once here, a community now gone and their homes now little more than lines of stones being overcome by grass and gradually consumed back into the earth.

Slowly picking my way along the sheep tracks, I finally come to the beach; not of sand but of dark grey rocks and pebbles, worn smooth by the powerful sea constantly trying to force its way over the lowest grassy reaches of the valley. Little can be heard over the sound of the wind and the rising waves, all except for the cries of the gulls and the calls of the oystercatchers whisked away on the air. The sights and senses of desolation are made more stark by the growing gloom brought on by encroaching dark rain-baring clouds, moisture now starting to cover my clothes and face.

Appearing from high above the southern hill slopes, an eagle floats on the wind, making its way northbound towards the high sea cliffs. It is joined by another, both now playing in the updrafts as the surging air is forced to rise as it hits the flat cliff faces. They look down on a valley that now has no human life, just the remains of a now long gone community, once living on the edge of this far northern land.





In 1830, the inhabitants of Lorgill were read the following statement by the sheriff officer:

‘To all the crofters in Lorgill. Take notice that you are hereby duly warned that you all be ready to leave Lorgill at twelve o’clock on the 4th August next with all your baggage but no stock and proceed to Loch Snizort, where you will board the ship Midlothian (Captain Morrison) that will take you to Nova-Scotia, where you are to receive a free grant of land from Her Majesty’s Government. Take further notice that any crofter disobeying this order will be immediately arrested and taken to prison. All persons over seventy years of age and who have no relatives to look after them will be taken care of in the County Poorhouse. This order is final and no appeal to the Government will be considered. God Save the Queen.’



The were twelve houses in the valley as well as 21 other buildings and 10 enclosures, but very little of this not insubstantial settlement remains; one roofless building, one standing enclosure and numerous piles of rocks and old lines of walls.

I was looking for a walk to take and this short amble out into the Lorgill valley over a rough track got my imagination going. To my embarrassment I don’t know enough about the Highland Clearances but it is plainly obvious that great wrongs were done to many; communities broken apart by those with the power and will to do so. There is a real atmosphere in the valley, an emptiness that is obvious in view but also in spirit.

The whole experience was made more spiritual by the wildlife; a close encounter with an otter as I started the walk was incredible. However, I saw four, not two, white-tailed eagles in one view (the following picture has three specks – three of the eagles – this is the best I could do with my phone). I spent 10 minutes watching the eagles playing and soaring in the wind – a spectacle I doubt I’ll forget for long time.


This is only my third day on Skye and already it has given me amazing memories.