There is a strong wind blowing from the north as we approach the pontoons in Lochmaddy harbour. It is also just on low water near the spring tide, so that the depth is almost the lowest it will be. There are no free berths on the outer fingers of the pontoon, but there seems to be one on the main pontoon. The First Mate calls out to a couple sitting in the cockpit of their boat whether they know if there is enough water for a 2 m draft, but they don’t hear her. I decide to give it a go anyway. We make it in with some help from the couple, and then try and pull Ruby Tuesday forward a metre or so by hand to give more room to the boat behind, but she won’t budge. I check the depth sounder and find it reading zero. It seems that we have grounded! Luckily, the tide is now rising and within ten minutes we are floating free again. I hope that there has been no damage to the keel, but a local fisherman assures us the bottom is silt and mud.
I check the tide tables and find that the spring tide is still two days away, and that it will drop lower still. With the bottom of the keel just touching now, another 20 cm might mean undue stress with the weight of the boat resting on it. It is OK for the moment, but we can’t leave it there, so decide to move to another spot on the other side of the main pontoon, albeit with a narrower entrance. Not the easiest operation with a big boat in a strong wind.
The drama over for the time being, I look at the woman who has helped us. Something in my memory stirs; there is something familiar about her. Recognition dawns.
“Mandy!”, I blurt out.
“I thought you looked familiar too, but couldn’t remember from when”, she says. “It’s been a long time!”
She is a former colleague whom I last saw in Indonesia nearly 20 years ago. We had explored the rice fields of Sumatra together along with a number of others working on the same project. It’s a small world. She has a background in AI, but is now a writer. Her partner, Bill, was a prime mover in one of the first community buy-outs in Scotland, when crofters put their resources together and bought the North Assynt Estate from the owner.
Over a cup of tea, Mandy tells us about her latest book, the Walrus Mutterer, one of a trilogy. It is set in Iron Age times and is based on the archaeological finds at High Pasture Cave on Skye, thought to be the centre of some sort of religious worship. She tells us of how she went on an expedition to Svalbard and wandered amongst the walrus there so she could experience the sights, smells and sounds to be able to write about it authentically. She has some copies of the books on their boat, so we buy them for some reading on the next rainy day.
That evening, we eat at the Lochmaddy Hotel overlooking the bay. Another couple come in, who we recognise as having been tied up on the other side of the pontoon to us. There are no tables left, so the First Mate invites them to share ours. They introduce themselves as Clive and Bardi, and have sailed all the way from Bristol where they live. They are travelling as far north as Stornoway, then back down again along the mainland coast. We find out later that they have sailed around the world, spending time in New Zealand, and that we have a mutual sailing friend who has sailed halfway around the world as well. It’s certainly been a day for realising how small the world really is!
The next day, we decide to take the local bus that goes clockwise around North Uist just for sightseeing. As the bus pulls up to the stop at the ferry terminal, we see that the bus driver is a woman, and also that we are the only two passengers. She asks us where we want to go.
“Nowhere in particular,” we say. “We really just want to get a feel for the island by doing the round trip.”
“No problems, she says. “Jump in and since there are no other passengers, I will give you a sightseeing tour of the island and tell you all about it.”
She is as good as her word. Her name is Katherine, and she was born and bred in North Uist. However, her father had originally come from Devon, had been in the army stationed on the island, and had met her mother here and had decided to stay. She has two daughters, one of whom is very musical and plays the bagpipes. She runs the bus company, her father repairs the buses, and her husband is one of her drivers. We ask her how the bus business is going.
“Och, it’s not that easy”, she says. “We wouldn’t be able to keep going if it wasn’t subsidised by the government as an essential rural service. We only cover about a third of our costs from fares over a year. We have a three-year contract that is coming up for renewal next year. We’ll be bidding again.”
We slow down behind two cyclists who are taking up much of the single lane road by riding abreast.
“These cyclists”, she says with a sigh. “They think they own the road. If only they would ride one behind the other, they wouldn’t be so bad.”
We don’t mention we are cyclists, and make a mental note never to ride abreast on these narrow roads. Or any road, for that matter. As if they heard her talking, the cyclists realise they have a bus behind them, and start to ride single file. Katherine changes down a gear and accelerates past them. “Och, they are not all bad”, she says with a cheery wave to them. There is something very likeable about her.
We stop at a junction to meet the other bus coming up from Benbecula, driven by Donald, Katherine’s husband. All the bus drivers are in touch with each other and coordinate the buses coming from different parts of the island to get people where they want to go. Katherine tells us that Donald is from Edinburgh, but moved to North Uist when they got married. He loves it here, but perhaps won’t stay for all of his life. Katherine too thinks a change later in life would be good. New Zealand might be nice.
A single mum and her five-year old son transfer from the other bus. They are going camping together and all their gear takes up two seats. The woman herself takes up another two seats and the little boy another one. There isn’t much space left in the bus. Just as we are setting off, the little boy remembers that he left his rucksack in the other bus. Luckily it hasn’t left yet, so the rucksack is retrieved and we get going. A couple of stops later, the woman and her son get out. We wish them a happy camping trip and hope that the midges won’t bite.
Further on, we pass a small loch on the left with a tower in the middle of it. On the horizon is a rambling farmhouse in a state of disrepair.
“The tower in Loch Scopaig is only a folly”, Katherine tells us, “Built in Victorian times. No one has ever lived in it. In any case, it will be coming down soon when the space port gets built. Same with the house.”
“Space port?”, we chorus. “What space port is that?”
“Oh, they want to develop this area as a place to launch rockets and satellites”, she says. “The locals have mixed feelings about it – apparently it will bring 70 jobs, but who wants to live next to a rocket firing range?”
Further on, we pass Katherine’s house. “That’s where we live”, she says. “And over there is where my Dad keeps the buses in good shape”, pointing to a long low shed on the other side of the road. The view out over the brooding North Uist landscape has an elemental beauty of its own. We can see why they like it here, but are not sure we would like it for ourselves.
“We still use peat for heating the house”, she continues. “Some people still go out and cut it by hand, but most of it is mechanised these days.”
“Have you seen the statue of Hercules the Bear yet?”, she says suddenly. We confess we haven’t.
“Ah, you have to see that. Tell you what, I’ll drop you off near to it, you can walk up and see it, then walk along to the chambered cairn next to it, and I can pick you up again on my return journey in and hour and a half’s time.”
She drops us off at a signpost with a paw on it. We walk up to a carpark and follow a track to the left along a small woodland until we come to the rangers’ hut. A small path leads from there up to a clearing on the edge of the wood where there is a wooden carving of Hercules.
Hercules was a grizzly bear that had been bought by a wrestler in 1974 and trained as a sparring partner. He became famous for his performances in the ring and was soon in demand by the film industry, eventually starring in several movies. In 1980, he had been brought to North Uist for the making of an advertisement for Andrex. He had had a busy day of shooting, and as it was very hot, his owner decided to allow him a swim in the sea. Unfortunately most of Hercules’ swimming had been done in freshwater lakes, and he wasn’t used to salty seawater. He panicked, broke his leash, and swam off into the distance. Of course, his distraught owners mounted a search, but couldn’t find him anywhere. Then nearly a month after he went missing, a walker found him in the patch of woodland 20 miles away, safe and well, albeit somewhat hungry as he had not eaten a thing since then, not even a sheep or a lamb. The owners saw this as a mark of his good upbringing, although with his pampered lifestyle it is more likely he didn’t have a clue how to kill anything!
Of course, all this didn’t do Hercules’ film career any harm at all. He was in still greater demand, even starring in the James Bond film, Octopussy. Even Ronald Reagan wrote him a letter. When he died, Hercules was buried just near the statue on North Uist when he had been found.
We walk back to the road, along a bit, then up to the Neolithic chambered cairn, Barpa Langais. This was built about 5000 years ago, around 3000 BC, about the same time as other monuments were being built for burials and rituals.
When we reach it, we sit for a moment and try to imagine the landscape as it might have been then. The blanket bogs of peat that we see now would not have been here; instead the area would have been heavily wooded with numerous clearings where the people lived and farmed. The cairn on the hill would have dominated the landscape and probably functioned as a ceremonial focus for community life.
I pretend to be an archaeologist and pull out my compass and measure the direction that the door is facing. It is exactly eastwards. I guess that it must have been towards the sunrise in the morning at some auspicious time of year. My act seems to be convincing, as two French tourists ask me if I know what the cairn was for. I tell them that it was probably a kind of community centre where Neolithic people came together and may have buried their leaders there. They seem impressed. I feel glad I had read the information board in the car park first.
We walk back down to the road, just in time for Katherine to pick us up on her return journey from Balivanich and take us back to Portmaddy.
In the evening, we walk out to the Sponish Peninsula, following the small path that leaves the town at the Sherriff’s Office and Court House. We wend our way through a number of small sea inlets, hoping that we might catch a view of some otters, as apparently they can be seen here, but no luck. We come to a bridge which we were told had been condemned, but it looks safe enough, so we gingerly cross it one at a time. It sways a bit in the middle, but otherwise we make it safely across.
On the other side we come across a small hut on a little knoll overlooking the bay. The sign says that it is a camera obscura, so always willing to try something out, we push open the gate and slowly feel our way into the narrow curved passageway. As our eyes slowly adjust to the darkness inside, we see there are two seats built into the wall and sit down. After a couple of minutes, a hazy picture forms on the wall opposite which we recognise as the view out over the bay. There is a small pinhole lens build into one side of the hut which projects the image onto the far wall. On a brighter day, it would probably be better.
On our way back, we see the kelp boats returning. These are long wide boats with a small outboard engine on the back that go out at low tide with a couple of men on board with sharp rake-like tools that they use to cut the kelp at low tide, load onto the boat, and bring it back to the harbour. There the kelp drains overnight, and in the morning is loaded into a lorry with a forklift and taken to a factory a few miles away where it is processed into alginate used in the pharmaceutical industry and as a thickener in the food industry. Harvesting kelp has been a traditional industry on the island for centuries, and was often the fall back activity for ex-crofters after the Clearances. Nowadays there is a quota set for the amount that can be sustainably harvested each year.
The winds are favourable tomorrow, so we decide to bid Lochmaddy goodbye, and continue our voyage northwards. We have enjoyed it here and met some interesting people. We motor out to the entrance of the loch and anchor there so that we can get an early start in the morning to catch the north flowing tidal current, and are rewarded by a beautiful sunset over the hills of North Uist.