We are not a rampaging clan but a community rowing club come to reacquaint ourselves with our coastal environment and heritage on a four-day tour off the coast of Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides. Our fleet comprised 40 rowers and sailors in five skiffs, a one-man row boat, a 10-metre dipping lugsail and two safety craft.
Our goal was to row and sail our traditional-style small craft south from Maraig, on Loch Seaforth, to Scalpay. But a wind gusting to 20 knots scuppered our plans and instead we headed north up Loch Seaforth and explored Seaforth Island.
Above: Lunch stop at Seaforth Island
Loch Seaforth is a dramatic, deep sea loch between Lewis and Harris. To its north is the deer forest of Park, a huge area of land that is connected to the rest of Lewis only by a narrow neck between Loch Seaforth and Loch Erisort. This is where it was once believed “two-tailed deer and four-footed fish were to be found”, according to the Geographical collections relating to Scotland by Walter Macfarlane, who died in 1767.
Because of the wind, we trailered the boats to Scalpay, which is just 300 metres away from its nearest neighbour, Harris, across the narrows of Caolas Scalpaigh. There we bunked down for the night in Scalpay Community Centre, replenished by a meal prepared and brought to us by 40 North Food’s Croft Kitchen. It certainly beats the overnight camp of the fishermen recorded in the Gaelic song Balaich an Iasgaich, who bedded down under the stars with a boulder for a pillow and a sailcloth for a blanket.
Scottish coastal rowing is deeply rooted in the myth and lore of the islands but is also very modern. Based on the original skiffs, the blueprint for the new 6.7-metre plywood and epoxy St Ayles came from the Scottish Fisheries Museum with the assistance of boat designer Iain Oughtred and boat kit-maker Alec Jordan less than a decade ago. This self-build rowing skiff has provided a growing armada for coastal communities rediscovering the seas and reacquainting themselves with the special skills needed for life in an open boat. Our fleet was organised by An Eathar Coastal Rowing Club of Siabost and Falmadair Trust of Stornoway, two excellent community initiatives.
On the third day, we departed from the beach at Bhaltos in the Uig district of Lewis and set out for the uninhabited island of Pabaigh Mòr.
I arrived on Pabaigh Mòr with my teeth intact and my grown-up son by my side, unharmed. It was not so for Tormod MacLeoid when he made the crossing back in the early 1700s. Tormod was an old man loading his cattle onto a boat to take them to their island home when there appeared a lad named MacAmhlaidh who remonstrated with him over the ownership of one animal. They jostled around the beast aboard the unsettled boat. Old Tormod was toppled and fell, smashing his teeth.
Enraged by this cattle thieving insinuation and the bloody injury to their father, that night his sons set off without the old man’s knowledge – and murdered not only the MacAmhlaidh boy but all his brothers as well. Except for one, Iain Ruadh MacAmhlaidh, a child being fostered at distant Mealasta. Many years later, a full grown Iain Ruadh returned and took revenge. The MacAmhlaidh men were doggedly tracked down and killed coldly, one by one. I have taken no risks. I have not allowed the crew to bring cattle and my son is not murderous, he is a chartered accountant
On the east coast of Pabaigh, there is a natural archway that leads to a deep, wide cave. In 1861, the crews of two open fishing boats were found living in the cave along with the two women who cooked for them.
Many local fishermen were evicted by the island’s owner and former opium trader Sir James Matheson, but, obstinately, these crews remained in the area and continued to fish their familiar waters beneath red dipping sails above chequered gunwales.
On day four, we headed for Traigh Bhostadh on the island of Great Bernera.
With the islands of Bearasay and Seann Chnoc in the background, we arrived on the sandy beach at Bostadh on Great Bernera. The island, under the name of Borva, was the setting for the 1873 novel A Princess of Thule by the Scottish novelist William Black.