Something Completely Different: The Outer Hebrides.

View from Harris by Linton Chilcott.

The week has passed in a blur of beekeeping activity similar to the previous two this swarm season. Only one enormous colony on 15 frames of brood shows no sign yet of swarm preparations so I place a box of Ross rounds over the top brood box and hope for the best. I watch another large colony every afternoon around 3pm as the entrance blackens with drones scrambling to get in from their afternoon exhertions.

This morning I wait for an experienced beekeeper to arrive from Aviemore to pick up a 6-frame nucleus of bees. I was planning to unite the wee nuc (part of swarm control) back to the parent colony but the new queen in the parent colony has just laid up 8 frames of eggs and the beekeeper is keen to have bees again as she misses them in her garden.

A Rest is as Good as a Holiday.

My rescue rocker under the blooming gum tree.

An email arrives this morning from a beekeeper friend who needs a holiday and is off to the west coast near Gairloch. I identify with that and only yesterday my bee buddy Cynthia told me I need to slow down and read a book in my rocking chair. She was telling me about an interesting climb up Ben Wyvis learning from rangers and geologists about the history of the land around here and showing how the Ben affects our climate and keeps this small geographical region drier than anywhere else in Scotland. I can’t go anywhere right now but on re reading an account of a holiday I enjoyed 3 years ago I’ve decided to share it with you today.

Harris.

I hope that my descriptions conjure up images in your mind and make you want to visit Harris as well. Nearly everyone has heard of Harris tweed which is still produced on this lovely outer Hebridean island.

Ferry boat The Loch Seaforth left on time from Ullapool on Sunday afternoon, the 14th October. It was sunny but too breezy for me to spend time on deck so I watched as the township slipped by from the comfort of a reclining chair in one of several lounges on board. As we came out into the Minch, seabirds skimmed the coruscating waves and I felt quite drowsy after an early start to the day.

However, my new book, bought in Ullapool’s bookshop, was captivating my attention and I resisted the strong urge to doze. Charlotte Peacock’s biography of Nan Shepherd (1893-1981) skilfully unravels the somewhat enigmatic life history of one of Scotland’s finest and yet most modest writers. I had no idea that she had also written novels as I have only read her account of walking in the Cairngorms in “The Living Mountain”. She apparently didn’t like writing that much and only wrote when she had something to say.

Nan Shepherd and Neil Gunn, another of Scotland’s great writers, were great friends and supported each other throughout their literary careers and it was interesting to read of the renaissance in Scottish writing that took place around the turn of last century. Nan features on our new Scottish five-pound note along- side her famous quote from “The Quarry Wood”, “It is a grand thing to get leave to live”, and it seems appropriate that she is now being recognised for her contributions to literature in this country.

It was an anti-climax waiting an hour and a half in the hold to disembark at Stornoway because the front hold door wouldn’t open. However, after the manoeuvring around of the large ferry was completed, we all had to turn our vehicles around in the hold and come off at the back where we had driven in instead of simply just driving forwards to the front doors which were now firmly shut despite the engineer having been called out.

The sign posting from the ferry terminal wasn’t clear but, after a false start, we followed traffic and were soon lumbering our way south to Harris arriving at a wild spot on a disused road below the highest mountain, An Cliseam, as it got dark. An Cliseam is 799 meters above sea level and almost a Munro (mountains over 3,000 feet as recorded and tabled by Mr Munro). Our plan was to climb to the top after breakfast if the weather improved. Since our arrival heavy wind driven showers batter the island and it was to be a night of more heavy rain. Miraculously next morning it cleared and, although the wind was strong, we set forth.

Under foot the ground was waterlogged after recent rains broke the unusually dry summer and it was hard going most of the way. Foaming burns rushed noisily downhill past us. I managed not to slip and fall over and was grateful for the bare grey and pink granite that lay in sheets for a foot hold and a break from the squelching tread.

Stopping frequently for sips of water and cereal bars kept us going and it was rewarding watching the view unfold in warm sunshine with sea coast on three sides. We looked down into Loch Seaforth which is a sea loch that cuts into the valley on the side of which we were climbing.

A hoarse barking call on my left alerted me to a pair of choughs, Pyrrhocorax pyrrocorax, from the corvid family, sweeping up the glen on the wind wheeling and diving as if playing a game of tag. Smaller than crows they remind me of birds of prey the way they seem to dominate high country and claim it as their own.

The wind was strong and I wasn’t sure if I had heard a stag roar or not in the valley below. I strained to hear again but it was not until some moments later when I saw a majestic lone stag cross in front of us, evidently having come up onto the plateau, that my thoughts were confirmed. Then I heard him roar again, and this time it sounded like a chain saw starting up but there are no trees to be seen for miles around on Harris.

Perhaps this lone male had been defeated in a rut for supremacy over another stag and was on the run, or maybe he had a destination and action plan in mind for attracting the hinds nearby.

I could taste the wind carrying the tangy salted sea smell up from the ocean.

There were no sheep to be seen but plenty evidence that they have been up here recently. It is quite remarkable that they flourish on this island where more than 50% of the land consists of bare rock.

A mountain hare, not dressed yet in full white winter livery, shot out from rocks near me and sped uphill on its long legs at a fast rate. Later I see large hare-sized holes underneath boulders and evidence of their grazing up high by mounds of faecal pellets.

A red grouse flies up uttering its unmistakable “geback, geback, geback” with two more rising to join its downward flight from the mountain, and I think that it is time to take the hint and review our progress along, with the likelihood of reaching the top and back safely before the end of the daylight reducing fast. The wind is fiercely strong and around 40-50mph and I’m having difficulty remaining upright and keeping safe on the slopes.

One of the useful risk management tools involves making frequent progress reviews as conditions and situations change and new challenges present and, although we were not too tired at this stage, we still had a thousand feet to climb up to reach the summit. And, so, we turned back in strong winds but warmish afternoon sunshine feeling satisfied with what we had achieved.

I look up at the slope strewn with enormous boulders and smaller rocks lying in patches like the discarded toys of giants and away up on the ridge glimpse three walkers. I watch momentarily, perhaps a little wistfully. But, I know my limits.

I turn around and head off downhill over soft spongy boggy land grateful for this terrain to cushion my knees which are now aching. By my age, my father had already undergone bilateral hip and knee replacements, but he had lived his life as a hill farmer and shepherd where his joints got a pounding from walking miles over tough terrain.

In his time, my father had no choice but to walk. Today shepherds can get around the hill to gather the sheep on quad bikes in some rough country, and even their dogs get a ride too.

We follow the wee Alt Tomnabhal burn down to the road which we walk a mile or so along to reach the camper van for lunch of soup and oatcakes.

Onwards to Tarbert where, for fifty pence, you can get many minutes under a delightfully warm and efficient shower in the ferry terminal waiting room.

At Luskentyre, the wide expanse of near-white sand at low tide seems to lighten the fast darkening day as late afternoon gives way to evening. A herd of black and white belted Galloway cattle brighten the landscape which consists of a seemingly endless mosaic of rocks and tussock grass. The township clings to the narrow strip of green land with the tenacity of limpets on rocks at low tide.

Camper on Mainland.

The West Harris Trust invites campers to use certain roadside laybys for overnight use at £5 per night payable via PayPal and so we settle down with a view across the sand to the Atlantic rollers far in the distance. Our perfect spot is ruined a few hours later by the selfish behaviour of a party of grizzled- headed kayakers who play loud music with no regard for anyone else. We cannot believe that people cannot be content with the peace and tranquillity here so, not wanting to share space with them, we move a few miles along the road.

Our new spot, on an infrequently used road leading to a quarry, is too windswept but it is late and we are tired. We spend the night with the camper van buffeted ferociously by gale force winds, and the rain clatters relentlessly on the roof.

One of the highlights the following day is a walk along Northton beach where the big Atlantic rollers push in mounds of different kinds of seaweed ripped from their moorings far out and dumped on the shore. The sea air is invigorating to breathe in and the colours of the waves before they break are somewhere between green and blue. Rainbows have been common this week as the weather changes from sun to rain in the same breath almost, and an enormous one arcs the sky. A washed-up young seal lies dead at the far end of the shore, a reminder of how fragile life is for such a vulnerable creature in the wild Atlantic Ocean. How easily they can be dashed against the rocks by the savage seas.

We drive around so that we are facing the settlement of Northton, and park just below the hill that the RAF bomber crashed into in 1990. Linton wants to climb up to the memorial and pay tribute to his colleagues. I worked with the pilot’s widow when we volunteered for Riding for the Disabled near Forres in the mid-nighties.

I’m not on for the climb as the wind is ferocious and the intermittent showers pretty heavy. Instead, I watch water being blown along the sand and gulls suspended in the air almost as they try to fly against the force. In a narrow channel on the beach some fish must be running for I see birds swoop and dive hastily swallowing their catch. Some squabbling goes on and fish are dropped in the melee to be quickly retrieved by an opponent.

The top of the small hill climbing up from the right-hand side of Northton is almost completely covered in rocks and clad like a suit of armour. A furrowed vein of rock lies threaded between the grass and heather and runs at an angle up through the middle of the hill. My attention is drawn back to the sand as oyster catchers poke around in the sand completely inured to the weather which is rough with the wind well above 50 mph now.

Linton appears after an hour and a half soaked to the skin but having successfully achieved his goal.

We spend the night near Luskentyre in another roadside camping spot, but on our own this time. It was another night of wind and rain, and, once more, in the morning the sun came out for almost long enough for us to have a beach walk without getting wet. The tide was far out again and the sand was easy to walk on till we reached an area of quicksand, though it was not very quick. Nevertheless, I sank in to just above my ankles and had to yank each welly boot with my hand to extricate myself from the squelching sand which had a firm hold.

Looking to the far horizon, I see a man in black on the strand. As I focus the binoculars I see that he is wearing oilskin trousers and a jacket and has a wheel barrow and some sort of rake or shovel. His looks like he is raking the sand so I imagine that he is collecting clams or razor shells which are common on this coastline. He is there for the hour that we walk and I guess that he lives in a nearby croft house and lives off the land and sea.

Before heading back up north to Lewis and the Stornoway ferry via the east coast, we visit another beach where the waves break on a reef and race into the shore exactly like the heads of horses with white flowing manes. This is the first time that I have ever seen such an amazing sight and it looks like two great horses are racing to the shore. Just further around from this bay the waves are enormous and hit the rocks with a mighty crash sending spume up through a narrow gorge-like channel where the wind picks it up and spreads it out like meringue across the field.

Scotland’s weather is just like our beekeeping season; totally unpredictable so you make the most of every good moment.

4 thoughts on “Something Completely Different: The Outer Hebrides.”

  1. Beautiful to read and reminded me of the 2 weeks I spent on Tiree.

    Can I ask what Ross rounds are?

    Liz

    1. Tiree is amazing too but in a different way I think, Liz. Glad you liked hearing about Harris. I will write more on Ross rounds at the end of the season. I have put them on my strongest colony and it is my first attempt. Some people may not like this way of getting pure comb honey because of the plastic involved. I bought this kit from a beekeeper who was leaving the country. You can find out more here: http://www.talkingwithbees.com/what-i-learnt-from-making-ross-rounds

  2. Lovely story about your trip to Isle of Harris. My wife and I had a nice trip to Isle of Lewis some years ago, going fishing in the boat of my wifes cousin. I took my best photo ever of a Great Skua there when he (or she) tried to steal our fish. Amazing views, not least the beaches with white sand. Your story reminds me that we need to back soon again.

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