Thursday, 23 June 2016

The Drowned Isles: Owls & Archaeologists on the Uists

This might be a slightly shorter post than usual (more about the pictures than the prose). That’s because, even as I wander the Uists this week, I’m doing all I can to clear my decks of work before spending next month in Shetland (mostly just in a sleeping bag). That month will become the first chapter of the book introduced in the previous post, The Frayed Atlantic Edge: A Historian’s Journey from Shetland to the Channel, which is my new project with Harper Collins. I’ll be out at sea on the good days and in the archives, or talking to Shetlanders, in spells of ferocious North Atlantic weather.

In the run-up to Shetland, the trip to North Uist fulfilled multiple purposes. It was about getting to know places & people I should be more familiar with – conducting the first interviews for the book – experiencing the unique relationships of water & land on ‘the drowned island’. It was also (after casting a postal vote for Remain) about escaping the political frenzy of the referendum while enjoying a second spring of animal, plant & birdlife in northern climes. And Llinos joined me for a while; her birthday (referendum day) was inevitably a day of kayaking some surf:
There was one more practical purpose to the short Uist visit: to test the new gear I’ve bought for the longer journey. This includes the freestanding tent in which I’ll see out rough weather. Here it is on the one night I used it, looking out towards Harris & Berneray from the machair of North Uist.
It also included my wonderful new boat & paddle. Although some of the journey will be walked (I’m particularly looking forward to a snowbound walk from Ullapool via Fisherfield & Torridon to Shieldaig) this kayak will be my stagecoach & my easy chair for day after day at sea. (I also bought a silly neoprene hat, which is why I look mildly criminal in these pics...)
One priority this week was to practice combining kayaking & walking as a way of reaching the best vantage points. This photo gives a sense of how useful that combination is in this area, and why North Uist is known as 'the drowned island':
This was about teaching myself to let go: even in the first flush of enthusiasm for my shiny new boat I had to get used to abandoning it overnight as I explored on foot. By this amphibious method I’ll reach historic sites, learn the lie of land from high viewpoints, and keep appointments with people who know these places better than I do & are willing to share their experience. 

My first journey in the Uists was to paddle the Atlantic coast of the North West, from the wildlife-extravaganzas of Balranald up to the historical riches of Vallay Island. Balranald is a huge arctic tern colony...
...where terns, gulls, waders & skuas fight for existence, here's a bonxie being escorted off:
In the machair & bog cotton waders were plentiful:
And on this bright morning wader chicks, usually adept at staying hidden, popped out & watched me pass...
My destination - Vallay, on the northern edge of North Uist - is home to a rare colony of little terns:
And between Balranald & Vallay are the Uists’ best surf spots – bumpy seas with beautiful beaches:
I travelled slowly, stopping regularly to lay back & read in sheltered, sunny spots.
I wanted to use lots of this trip reading (or re-reading) Rebecca Solnit, the writer whose approach to the world seems to be doing most to shape how I'm thinking of the new project.

Vallay in June is a glorious display of machair - fertile sands drawing forth multitudes of flowers in sweeping technicolour lawns:
 The views across to Harris are glorious...
...while waders, like these godwits, abound... do their predators:
This island was once home to North Uist’s most renowned archaeologist, Erskine Beveridge. In the late nineteenth-century, Beveridge, part of a wealthy Dunfermline cotton dynasty, travelled Scotland's edges, often with a bulky box camera, to record its antiquities. At the turn of the century, having become ever more obsessed with the Western Isles, and having finished excavations in Coll & Tiree, Beveridge decided to build himself a base here. He chose Vallay as a site with its own duns & middens - a 'place apart', he felt, because accessible on foot at low tide only - and close to other major remains he'd soon excavate. He built an imposing dwelling, with 16 downstairs rooms, from stone & timber imported by steamer (even the soil for the garden was brought in by boat). The house now lies ruined, a roost for the pigeons:
Once, from the other side, it looked like this:
And here's the view from the door at low tide, taking in other ruins of the same estate:
With 'Taigh Mor' as his base, Beveridge made an extensive study of the area, published as North Uist: Its Topography & Archaeology, now a classic of island literature. On his death in 1920, the house & 40 acres of surrounding land passed to Beveridge's son George. After a short life of heartbreak & alcoholism, George drowned when making his way back to Vallay across the tidal sands. The historical geographer, Fraser MacDonald, made George the focal point of a study/story, 'The Ruins of Erskine Beveridge', which places both Taigh Mor, and the family's emotional lives, at the centre of the unearthing of the Atlantic iron age.

North of Vallay, the long sands, treacherous seas & glorious views never let up:
My next venture on the Uist trip was to get up onto Eabhal – a viewpoint from which the Uists, Harris & Skye can all be seen. On the night between the two journies, I joined Llinos in a small apartment on the neighbouring island of Grimsay. This tiny island was once the capital of the Uists’ fish & shellfish industry – the Grimsay clinker being a small but ocean-going wooden boat, shallow enough to use the tiniest harbours & therefore popular across the whole Outer Hebrides. The apartment looked out over an intricate coastal world of narrow, twisting sea lochs with Eabhal as its backdrop. Here’s the view from the door:
I spent a day exploring these intensely tidal lochs, as well as islands in the Little Minch, frequented by a family of shy but playful otters (one of which seemed to be permanently blowing a raspberry) as well as deer & red throated divers…
…before upturning the boat in the heather & weaving up through the gneiss sculptures of North Uist’s single hill. Accompanied by golden plovers, I made my way towards the windswept summit. This was the night of the summer solstice, but light & dark were far from absolutes in the thickening gloom...
As I set down my sleeping bag, dullness & drizzle increased the sense of isolation – an atmosphere amplified by huge silhouettes of sea eagles drifting through the cloud.
The many voles in this moorland make it an extraordinary place for birds of prey. Next morning, once I'd got out of the fog that draped the hill, a golden eagle floated past (by the time I had the camera out it was already almost gone into the cloud). 
On another morning I was woken in my sleeping bag by a clamour in the heather & bog cotton. This turned out to be a pair of short eared owls fighting off marauding gulls (I can’t have been all that far from the owl nest):
A merlin zipped by early the same morning, and hen harriers were regular sights. The strangest encounter was with a young marsh harrier (not a bird usually seen on the Uists):
But the short eared owls were the real stars of the show. When up and about before 7am, their presence seemed more-or-less guaranteed:
For most of this trip, the winds were higher than ideal for kayak journeys (in fact, at one point my kayak, left lying on rocky ground, actually blew away – just a few metres, but still perturbing). Yet the great thing about small boats at sea is that there’s a way of engaging the ocean whatever the weather. This is Hosta beach, where the Atlantic rolls in uninterrupted. It's the best place we found to play the waves (just before, shellshocked from the events of the 23.6/24.6, we reluctantly had to cross the Minch & drive South):

1 comment:

  1. This is breathtaking on so many levels, David! I love the interplay of all the birds and beasts, tides and Beveridge's house, which must have been built in the effort to master the elements that ultimately won out, and which you are putting yourself right into... So happy to have found your blog via Valtteri's note this morning. Looking forward to continuing to follow you in this amazing life you are up to.