UK, Scotland: My Particular Paradise

From BETTINA SELBY'S book of the Outer Hebrides, entitled The Fragile Islands.

There is a place that draws me back again and again, and if I don't manage to get there every year or so, I feel there is something important missing in my life

The place is the Outer Hebrides - a string of rocky islands lying 45 miles off the north western coast of Britain. They stretch from Barra Head to the Butt of Lewis - just a small chain of rocky hummocks, but so totally different from anywhere else that it is like being on another planet. The ancients thought that Tir nan Og - the Land of Eternal Youth lay out to the west of them, but the physical eye can discern only the tiny specks of St. Kilda and Rockall, and beyond them is nothing at all, just the wild Atlantic Ocean rolling on to the eastern seaboard of America.

The islands feel incredibly remote, both in time and space. There is always a marvellous light, even when the sea mist is running. On clear days, a great panorama of mainland mountains and the great cliffs of the Cuillins of Skye form a dramatic backdrop to the east, with a myriad of uninhabited little islets in the blue middle distance. It is an elemental world of water, rock and seabirds; of huge harmless basking sharks; of seals, otters and the ubiquitous black-faced sheep.

There are two distinct sides to this island chain. The east is mountainous with often not even a blade of grass growing on the grey Lewisian gneiss - the oldest rock in the world. The islanders somehow wrested a living from this inhospitable habitat, carrying baskets of seaweed hundreds of feet up the cliffs to create tiny fields. Small fishing hamlets crouch at the head of narrow lochs in the deeply-indented, jagged coastline.

A broad band of silver-white sand edges the turquoise-coloured sea on the western coast, unbroken for mile after mile. From the landward edge of the sand, beyond the marram grass, springs the machair - a close growing strip of fertile grassland, so smooth and green that it looks like the most carefully tended golf links. In spring, the strip is carpeted with a vast variety of wild flowers, the perfume of which carries far out to sea. One old island woman told me that when she was a little girl she thought this machair was the fairyland she'd read about.

Each island has its own character - Harris with its looms clattering away in sheds besides the cottages, producing home-made tweed; towering mountains and the Golden Road - so-called because of the cost of building it through the roughest terrain in Britain (a great bicycling venue). Lewis is one huge central peat moor, fringed with the loveliest bays anywhere in the west, and boasting the finest neolithic monuments after Stonehenge. North Uist and Benbecula have so many fresh water lochs (teeming with trout) that the land appears insubstantial. Barra was the stronghold of the piratical clan, the MacNeils, a 'tight little island' according to Compton Mackenzie who lived there and wrote Whisky Galore around its thinly disguised characters. Barra has an airfield on a vast cockleshell beach which is washed by the tides twice a day - cockles from this beach could change your mind about what passes for seafood in the rest of Britain.

The islands have an unenviable history of social oppression and have gradually become depopulated. Old abandoned settlements and the bleached bones of boats can be seen in many places on deserted islands, as well as more ancient hermit chapels, Celtic colleges, and bronze-age forts in the middle of lochs.

For me it is the freedom of the Outer Hebrides that most appeals. I can pitch my tent almost anywhere I want and stay there for days on end without seeing a soul. If there is a house within a mile or two, I always ask permission first, and have never yet been refused or been allowed to go away without a 'strupak' - cup of tea, sandwiches, cake - a substantial meal in fact.

I like the way the islands have an invisible dividing line, with the Free Presbyterian Church holding sway to the north and a relaxed Roman Catholicism to the south. On most Sundays I make sure to stay south of the line to avoid giving offence to the Sabbatarians who look on all activity on the lord's Day' as work of the Devil. Nonetheless I often attend a service in the Presbyterian churches to hear the marvellous Gaelic singing of the Psalms.

Few tourists take cars out there, so the narrow island roads are virtually traffic free, ideal for cycling. A good range of low gears are essential, as hills are steep. There are exciting off-road possibilities on the east side and plenty of little tracks through the dunes on the west side, so an ATB is a particularly good choice. Although the whole string is only 130 miles in length, to explore the islands makes an energetic two weeks with enough left for a return visit. You could also start at Barra, ride up to the ferry at Stornaway and return down the mainland coast; or even cross from Tarbert to Skye -though in high summer, Skye and the mainland are much more plagued with traffic.

For those not camping, there are a few hotels, plenty of B&Bs and six hostels - two SYHAs and four run by the Gatliffe Trust -primitive but tremendous atmosphere as they are original island 'black' houses. The one at Rhenigidale is a very long way from the nearest road, along a spectacular track where cyclists are advised not to go. The tiny island of Berneray (of Prince Charles' potato-planting fame) has the most splendidly sited hostel of all, where a pair of seals swim up to the windows at high tide.

Of course the Outer Hebrides are not everybody's idea of Paradise; otherwise it would be as overcrowded as the French Riviera or the Costa del Sol. The two things which make sure it remains one of the greatest of our wilderness places are rain and midges - and those who have experienced the Scottish midge will have no doubts about which is worse. Also there are few restaurants or cafes, and precious few shops -nothing really beyond the occasional ceillidh - except the superlative landscapes, seascapes, wide skies and peace.

I had cycled in the Outer Hebrides half-a-dozen times before I spent a summer there to gather the material for a book. It was the wettest summer on record and I was living in a miniscule tent. I also broke a bone in my foot when I was jumping off a wall, and was in plaster to the knee. In spite of all that, I never considered packing up and going home.

Sometimes, even in spectacular places like the Himalayas, the memory of the Outer Hebrides on a cool sunlit day comes flooding over me and I feel a great longing to be out there again, watching the sea-birds riding the wind.

Previous article:
Canada: "What d'ya wanna drive a bike for?"

Next article:
*Bangladesh: Rickshaw riders