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Benbecula, South Uist and Eriskay

Published
September 30, 2022
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The following blog post is based on a chapter in my new book, The Scottish Isles: Part 2: Skye and the Outer Hebrides. The first volume, The Scottish Isles: Part 1: Shetlands, Orkneys and Hebrides is currently on sale at a reduced price, US $2.99 for the Kindle and US $9.99 for the paperback. The two front covers follow, after which the post begins.

Benbecula, South Uist and Eriskay, among the other isles nearby. North at top.

FROM North Uist, I crossed over to the island of Benbecula. Meaning ‘mountain of the ford’ in Scots Gaelic, Benbecula refers to the way that the island, with one sizable hill upon it, sits between North Uist and South Uist.

Tidal sands known as the North Ford and the South Ford lay between the three islands. The South Ford was about 650 metres wide across open sands and the North Ford was several kilometres wide, but with a small island called Grimsay and many smaller islets along the way in case you got caught by the tide.

Today, causeways span both fords.

The main town on Benbecula is Balivanich, which means ‘town of the monks’. The name refers to a religious centre founded in the 6th century, much like the ones on the Farne Islands, Iona and Lindisfarne.

During World War II an air base was built near Balivanich, from which RAF Coastal Command flew Vickers Wellington bombers and Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses, with British markings, against German U-Boats.

A posed, full-colour wartime publicity photograph of an RAF Coastal Command B17 Flying Fortress anti-submarine aircraft and a final briefing for its ‘crew’ (commanded by an Air Ministry public relations officer) taken either at Benbecula or in the Azores in 1943 or 1944. Imperial War Museums image TR 1082, now in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

After the War, the base, named RAF Benbecula, was not closed. It became an equally important Cold War air base, the ‘enemy’ now Soviet bombers potentially swarming down onto Britain from the direction of the Arctic Ocean.

The air base, still in business and with links to a rocket range in South Uist, now doubles as the regional civilian airport.

You wouldn’t think of such a quiet place as the Outer Hebrides as being a sensitive military area, but it is. That kind of makes sense, I guess, if you think of the archipelago as guarding the rest of the British Isles, in a way.

The base at Balivanich

There was a nice restaurant in Balivanich called the Stepping Stone, where I had a cappucino.

The Entrance to the Stepping Stone Restaurant, with cycle tourists’ bikes

I checked out MacGillivray’s Hebridean Crafts and Gifts, a long-established gift shop in the town. The date of foundation, 1941, suggests that it was originally set up to sell souvenirs to the fliers and mechanics of wartime RAF Benbecula.

There is also a health centre at Balivanich. As with the gift shop founded in 1941, I don’t know if there was anything very much there at all before the base went in. But there are a lot of facilities now.

There was, as elsewhere, a bus service that ran through Balivanich a couple of times a day.

Fortunately, I was able to rent a car there in spite of the keen competition from European tourists. That hinged on a stroke of luck. When I was in the museum at Lochmaddy on North Uist, I mentioned to the woman in charge that I hadn’t got a car. And she said that her husband rented them out and that he had one available. He was in charge of Westside Motors, near the airport at Balivanich. I’ve put their phone number in the travel tips chapter of The Scottish Isles, Part 2.

Unless by a similar fluke you run into somebody who just happens to have a spare car to rent out, you need to prebook car rentals, especially in summer. The same goes for ferry trips, car ferry tripes above all. And probably for plane rides as well.

It was good having a car for two days. For I didn’t have a bike. And this meant that I didn’t have to rely on the bus service or hitching anymore.

South of Balivanich, there are the ruins of old buildings associated with the religious settlement. Some call the ruined chapel there the Chapel of Columba, or St Columba, though it would surely have been built after his time.

Nunton, a.k.a. the Town of the Hags

Others say that it was an old nunnery, whence the Gaelic name of the locality: Baile nan Cailleach, meaning the town or castle of the nuns, or ‘hags’, that curiously unflattering term that appears in the English version of many a Gaelic placename though in this case it is translated as Nunton.

(I looked up where this strange word comes from. It turns out that in Gaelic folklore, there are several powerful spirits that take the form of cailleach, meaning old women. The word has usually been translated as hags, or hag in the singular, even though the implication is that these creatures are wise. After all, nobody holds it against Gandalf that he looks like a doddery old man. In Christian times, the word cailleach also came to be used for nuns.)

During the Reformation, many monasteries and other Catholic religious institutions were destroyed in Scotland, as well as in England and Wales. The nuns of Nunton are said to have been tied to a rock in Cula Bay and drowned in the tide. The nuns are supposed to have cursed the island as they expired, swearing that no priest would ever be born there. People say that the rock still bears the impression of the nuns’ hands, somehow magically burned into the rock. I must check that out next time.

As elsewhere in Europe, the Outer Hebrides tend to be Protestant toward the north and Catholic toward the south, even to this very day.

The ruins are also said to have been pillaged to build nearby Clanranald House, where Flora MacDonald persuaded Bonnie Prince Charlie to dress up as her maidservant before their famous journey to Skye.

The Mediaeval Graveyard at Nunton
Information sign about the mediaeval graveyard at Nunton

Nunton was also the scene of the Nunton Land Raids of 1923, an uprising and land occupation by ex-servicemen frustrated at having to go back to being tenants of the local landowner. There were similar upheavals elsewhere. They eventually led to the formation of the communal land trusts that now own much of the Hebrides.

The ruined chapel at Nunton
Another view of the graveyard, with a B&B sign

Another quaint old house, on Benbecula

An interesting old church, not as ruined as some of the others

A coastal bay on Benbecula

Another view of the coast

Highland Cattle

I also visited the ruins of Borve Castle, at one time the most important castle on Benbecula and perhaps even in the whole of the Outer Hebrides, although these days there is surprisingly little that is left.

And then I crossed over onto South Uist, which has a low-lying and sandy western shore and a craggy eastern shore. The western strip has a lot of the sometimes-flowery machair prairie.

A sign on the B888 highway at Daliburgh in South Uist, pointing west to Kilpheder, north to Lochmaddy and southeast to Lochboisedale

On the west side, I explored the 20 mile / 30 km long western white sand beach, via the villages of Homore and Stilligary. Inland from these villages, on the other side of the main road and in the foothills of the island’s ridge lies Loch Druidibeag, a major sanctuary for birdlife.

You can also hike on a ridge trail to Beinn Mhòr, the highest point on the island at 620 metres or 2,034 feet. There is a secondary peak called Hecla, 606 metres or 1,988 feet. Both of these are, of course, more intrepid hikes than sticking to the machair and Loch Druidibeag.

Halfway along the island is the village of Kildonan, where there is the fantastic Kildonan Museum and cultural centre, just east of Kildonan Beach. The following batch of photos was taken in and around the museum.

Replica Viking Longship outside the Kildonan Museum

‘Departure of Emigrants from Lochboisedale Pier for Canada, 1923’ (Kildonan Museum)

A map of St Kilda, which is actually a long way from South Uist. St Kilda used to be inhabited, but was abandoned in the 1930s. Lots of sightseeing boats visit the picturesque island, with its sea cliffs (the tallest in Britain) and deserted village on the main island of Hirta.

Flora MacDonald’s birthplace also lay just to the south of Kildonan. It is signposted from the main road. You turn off down a little side road that leads westward about three hundred metres to what is believed to the ruins of Flora MacDonald’s house, and a monument within.

Flora MacDonald’s Birthplace monument amid what may be the ruins of her family home

Lochboisedale, the main town on South Uist and another key ferry port, was very nice. Unfortunately, it is not on the Hebridean Way, which skirts past it.

Lochboisedale

Instead of passing through Lochboisedale, the Hebridean Way skirts to the town’s west in the form of a machair walk from Cille Pheadair (Kilpheder) to Daliburgh.

The sign at the bottom points to the Hallan Roundhouses, from Daliburgh

The nearby Hallan Roundhouses are an archaeological site, where round houses dating back to around 700 BCE are being excavated.

A road sign near Lochboisedale with the Gaelic names the most prominent, just like the ones in the last photo

As you can see from the road signs, the English names I am quoting very much play second fiddle to the Gaelic on the Outer Hebrides, though they are equal on the Isle of Skye.

The Gaelic names are not as hard to pronounce as they look, by the way, and the English names are often the same names written down as best as possible in the English manner, bearing in mind that some Gaelic sounds don’t exist in English.

It seems that Irish and Scots Gaelic compete with English for the gold medal of the language with the most silent letters. The silent letters in Gaelic often do affect the pronunciation of the word slightly, whereas in English they are just silent. (Manx Gaelic has a different spelling system of its own.).

At South Lochboisedale, across a bay full of islands from Lochboisedale itself, I stayed at Paul McCullum’s hostel, southuisthostel.co.uk. He was a well-known Gaelic singer and he trained singers in Canada where people from South Uist migrated to, Nova Scotia or Saskatchewan, after being dispossessed from their crofting lifestyle by the various landowners of the island, who were all as greedy as each other whatever their ethnic origins, Scottish or English.

Here is an old house, possibly restored.

But others have remained vacant since the Highland Clearances, which Paul told me about, and which you can learn about in the museum.

Paul was really interesting character. He explained to me how it was that while the early language influences on Scotland and the islands included both Gaelic and Norse, that the two were not closely related.

And that South Uist was a Catholic part of the island chain, and maybe Barra, and that the north was Protestant.

As elsewhere in the Hebrides, you have to be pretty organized, accommodation-wise. If you are not organised, take a tent. Because at least you can pitch your tent close to facilities because of the Scottish right to camp: that’s the main thing.

From Paul’s hostel, I made the short road journey to Eriskay, to await the local ferry to Barra. Though it was one of the smaller islands, Eriskay had such beautiful views, with more white sandy beaches and interesting, architecturally designed houses in the blackstone style with grass on top.

Eriskay

Eriskay

Eriskay: In this photograph, you can just catch a glimpse of a modern blackstone type house, with grass on top, on the right. These probably have really low heating bills, I would imagine.

Eriskay Harbour

Eriskay is also famous as the site of the wreck of the SS Politician, carrying a huge cargo of whisky, which was salvaged by enterprising locals. A comedy film about the incident called Whisky Galore! was made a few years later in 1949, and then remade in 2016.

I’ve made a video of short scenes from all three isles:

My previous post was about Berneray and North Uist. In my next post, I head to the last populated islands at the southern end of the Outer Hebrides: Barra and Vatersay.

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