DAY 7 - BARRA / ERISKAY / SOUTH UIST

Next morning was nearly another grey one in that the weather appeared not to have made its mind up as to what it was going to do today. There was just a hint of blue sky so hopefully another dry day. We had a ferry to catch at 9.30 and about 5 miles to do before catching it. Me being in total paranoia about getting to these places ridiculously early meant that our arrival at the terminal was just that - ridiculously early.

We did not pass one vehicle in our journey to the 'harbour' (concrete ramp, actually). Which unlike the concrete bus shelters we had previously experienced, this one was a 5-star terminal - a modern wooden building with a grass turf-covered roof and modern wooden sculptures in the rockery garden. There was even a café but we were too early for that being open. I did, however, try the door and much to my surprise it was unlocked although the building was clearly deserted. It appeared that it remains unlocked throughout the year, so access was gained to the toilets and all the hot water we needed to wash with. The café-bar bit was behind shutters but in general it was a 5 star waiting room. Slowly, vans and cars began to appear as well as the café operator who was kept busy supplying bacon rolls and the like to the twenty or so people on the usual Barra rush hour. This time the ferry didn’t make its appearance from a long way off, it suddenly and silently appeared from around a headland and we were soon on our way to the island of Eriskay. Disembarking there and preparing to head off, Chris discovered that he had left his cycle gloves in the toilets at the Barra Ferry terminal. Well, I say his gloves; they were in fact mine as I had lent them to him. We did briefly consider jumping back on the ferry for the return trip to pick them up but it would be midday before we were back at the same spot we were now, so reluctantly that option was abandoned.

Barra and Eriskay are quite magnificent islands

There was a quite a steep climb out of harbour (when I say harbour I mean ‘concrete ramp’). The sun shone as we rolled onto Eriskay, that’s the name of the village as well as the island, it’s that small. We were immediately reminded that while the good thing about ferries is that it’s downhill to get to them, the bad thing about ferry terminals is it’s uphill to leave. To the left of us was the famous beach where Bonnie Prince Charlie first landed on Scottish soil and started the Jacobite rebellion which knocked back Scotland for the next 200 years. In fact, the route from now until our finish would roughly follow his route around Scotland.

The Jacobite ‘45 rebellion after the passage of time needs some realigning and the truth to be told about this so-called hero of Scotland. Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Young Pretender, Charles Edward Louis Philip Casmir Stuart – this doomed hero of the Scottish resistance was a gormless, ignorant, in-bred, aristocratic waster. Brought up in Italy he spoke not a word of English never mind Scots. He managed to persuade France to invade Scotland.

The French didn’t take him too seriously and sent all of two ships to do the job. En-route the French ships were chased back leaving our shortbread-tin hero on the shores of Eriskay. The locals advised him to go home. “This is my home”, he replied in an Italian accent. The rest, as they say, is history. He did wander about central Scotland for a while and had a minor win at the Battle of Prestonpans. Full of self-assurance he now thought ‘why settle just for the King of Scotland’, and went for the big one – the throne of England. And duly took his army south, he did get very near to Market Harborough (about 60 miles away) but the army ran out of steam. The Scots seeing what England was really like decided it ‘wasna worth the bother’ and went back home. Charlie-boy now had a price on his head and was on the run. After posing in full tartan regalia for yet another shortbread biscuit tin he ended up on the moor at Culloden – where, contrary to popular belief, it was the Scots who thrashed the Scots (you could put up a reasonable argument that in fact the Scots won the battle of Culloden). This time 'The Butcher' – The Duke of Cumberland, over-saw the end of Scottish culture and its effect was to last for 200 years. Meanwhile with a £30,000 bounty on his head Charlie hid at various places in the Highlands and Islands. Not one Scot in the five months he was on the run betrayed him. This is where Flora McDonald comes into the picture - she was a real hero in all this. Risking her life and her family’s - what did she get in return – a bottle of whisky and a chicken! Whoopee! Charlie boy meanwhile wasted away back in Italy, an embittered has-been dying a lingering death in 1788. There you go: incompetent, inconsiderate and shameless. In the end he was no more than the King of Shortbread, the Prince of the Whisky bottle label and his legacy was the butchery of thousand’s of Scots and then enforced misery of emigration for a million people.

A coo wi' a view.

Back at Charlie boy’s beach – this was as white as anything on a South Pacific island. The sun was shining, bringing out a very bright turquoise colour to the water. The islanders themselves don’t do a lot of colour; houses come in one colour – white! The occasional rusty red corrugated shed roof broke up the monotony of it all. The houses that are lived-in are modern — they keep the heat better. The rest are empty and in various stages of beautiful decay, abandoned to the mercy of the ever-present wind. I did insist on a quick detour to a sheltered sea loch on the east side which I had visited twice on yachting holidays many years ago. I was surprised by the amount work going on in that a new road was being built to it – clearly EU budgets were having another hit. My feeling was it wasn’t for the better. The scar across the landscape to give greater access for the fishing lorries was, I fear, on a hiding to nothing. We called in the local Co-op Supermarket where we bought the usual collection of postcards and discounted foods near their sell-by date.

The next stop was the pub – 'The AM Politician'. In there we had a great time with the bar operative – a young girl from the island but due to leave soon for University. I mentioned about being here many years ago and she produced from under the bar a log of visiting yachties – and I was mentioned – 1994. It brought back a lot of good memories. I was telling Chris about the story of the Ealing film, Whisky Galore, which was enhanced further by the bar-girl producing two bottles of the very same recovered from the wreck, as well as an assortment of ship debris. The old whisky bottles containing what looked like ancient pee. Eriskay’s only pub the AM Politician trades shamelessly on the event of what happened in the narrows between Eriskay and South Uist. The SS Cabinet Minister (changed its name to Politician, for the film) was a Second World War cargo boat which wrecked its way into fame and other people’s fortunes.

Bar Person with an old relic and with a bottle of whiskey recovered from the SS Politician. Crossing the causeway to Sth. Uist.

The hard truth behind it all is long lost to romantic nonsense. The truth was that an over-authoritive campaign by Custom and Excise to prosecute the islanders (the islanders and the local Police in their own minds had done no wrong – the whisky was not going to be officially salvaged). At least twenty adult men were imprisoned in Inverness for stealing the whisky. This was at a time of great depression on the islands, causing near starvation for their families. But her story was not quite over. In 1987 a local South Uist man found eight bottles of whisky in the wreck. He sold them at auction and walked off with £4,000. It seems that the people of Eriskay can still turn a tidy profit from the sea.

The way to the next island was across a very long causeway. Luckily it was dry and not particularly windy; otherwise it would have been a major obstacle. After the obligatory photographs were taken we were now on the island of South Uist.

This island seems to get right under your skin. The landscape ranges from the most stunning coastal scenery with white unspoilt beaches and crystal clear water, to empty moorland nothingness. It’s just beautiful. Their central strand is as flat as the Fens — but without pubs. As we pedalled north the setting sun compressed between the clear west and a heavy black line of clouds in the east. I didn’t see one stand of cereal crops, no wheat, no barley, just small fields sweet and thick with buttercups and red clover, the flower heads the size of golf balls. The southern islands of the Outer Hebrides are connected by one main road — the A859. Feeding off this are narrow single-track lanes with passing places. The main road weaves between pools — the colour of a peaty whisky, and covered in white water lilies.

The western sides of the islands are almost unpopulated, heady expanses of bogs and rocks where the sea lochs reach deep into the body of the land. It’s a good flat road leading north, though the only trees I saw there were of the stumpy weather beaten sort. With barely a car in sight, our road swooped along the spine of South Uist. To one side rose a clutch of fearsome looking mountains, to the other, rolled dunes, sequined with flowers. Even villages are very few in this part of the world, in fact, what makes a village is that the houses become a little bit closer together usually around a Church or a Primary School. Even the occasional road signs do not give any clue has to where you are – all road signs in these islands are only in Gaelic. No multiculturalism here. On a hill at one such place was a building so huge and ugly I had to stop and make comment. It was a concrete monstrosity of a building, totally and absolutely – out of keeping with the area. How does such a buildings get erected? It had very few windows and rough concrete slabs as cladding? What’s wrong with natural materials that have stood the test of time? The passer-by sees nothing but brutality and a dominant presence in the community of such a carbuncle…it’s a Catholic Church…need I say more?

How did this church every get planning permission???? and me in 'Tour de France' mode

Actual tourist spots are few and far between. When there is one – for example, Flora McDonald’s birth place, the brown tourist signs start a count down from at least 20 miles away. The build-up to it becomes positively hysterical the closer you get. Even if you didn’t know who Flora MacDonald was or even cared, the wrath of the tourist board would be on you if you even considered not stopping. As it was, our arrival there coincided with lunch. It took all of two minutes to stare at the fallen masonry – a few boulders were all that was left of her family home. The usual laminated notice board described the site and recited the now famous story. It was interesting to note that in a few days time we would be on Skye and pass Flora’s grave. We were to get there by a more direct route – she went via America. Despite the lack of anything tangible to see (and probably because)… no visitors centre, café, souvenir shop, entrance fee, pay and display car park, burger vans, ice cream vans - the place had a certain atmosphere. That didn’t stop us setting out a picnic (herrings and cheese, if you must know). Just like being at home, what should happen? – Visitors, certainly American or maybe Canadian, but on the plus side there were only just two of them. They passed us without comment to stare for all of two minutes at the pile of rocks just as we had done. On the way back to the car they stopped and we had that embarrassing moment where one of us should speak. It was me that broke the silence with my best joke of the whole trip. I said…wait for it……”We are having lunch at MacDonald’s”. Well, its wit, intelligence, sense of irony, it all combined to make the perfect joke for the occasion, even Chris had a little titter and had a laugh as well. The effect on our two friends from across the pond was stunned silence. I could see they thought I was taking the piss (I was). The way they scurried off to the car, the tyres flying gravel up into the air - suggested they wanted to put us much distance from us as possible.

After ‘luncheon’ it was back onto pedal power. The road was very straight, not particularly wide (for an A road) but it was relatively quiet and we had a good ride to Howmore Hostel. What a great place it turned out to be – its one of four places in the islands run independently of the Hostel Association although advertised by them. It makes use of old buildings and all are well over a hundred years old. The general standard is at the lower end of the scale of about minus one star but in atmosphere definitely 5 star. I choose to sleep in the tent. Chris was in the bunkhouse with the ladies of a certain age. As we settled down for the night in the communal area our co-guests turned out to be two girls from Glasgow - doing the whole trip on public transport, a young French couple, then there was a young German girl on a bike. She had some great stories about her travels all over Europe with the bike, she was an English teacher (or even a teacher of English), thereby plenty of time to do this sort of thing. We all had a great laugh as we attempted to play mad scrabble in four languages (yes four – French, German English and Glaswegian).

Berneray Hostel and no the roof did not blow off and view from hostel.

On retirement to my little nylon bedroom there was clearly a wind of change in the air. The winds have free rein over the vastness of these islands and they seemed to be starting to exercise that right. The good old shipping forecast confirmed our worse fears - by tomorrow night – storm force nine. Yes, NINE! We had 60 miles to do tomorrow, believe me you do not want to be cycling on the Outer Hebrides in a force nine gales. In the morning we sat and had an executive meeting a decided to spend the day here at Howmore. This would of course, put us a day behind schedule but we had the choice of getting the ferry to Oban from Lochboisdale and basically cutting short our tour of the Outer Hebrides. The weather once again being the predominate issue of this trip.