by Paul Gallagher Published 01/12/2009
The islands have wonderful names, a mix of the tongues of the various nations that have taken residence there over the centuries. From the south you start with Mingulay and then move north across to Vatersay, Barra, Eriskay, South Uist, the Isle of Harris, Benbecula, North Uist, the Isle of Harris and then, finally, the Isle of Lewis. The spine of the islands is about 140 miles in length and you move from island to island via causeways, bridges or by hopping back onto the ferries. The journey time to the islands is 5half hours from Oban, which is itself about 2¼ hours, by road, from Glasgow. Paul joined the islands in the south and then worked his way northwards before boarding the ferry at Stornoway for the sea trip back to Ullapool and the journey back south.
It is not for faint-hearted southerners this trip; it will take several days to get there and back by car, but beware - you are likely to be bitten by the highland bug and need to return again and again.
For our overseas readers, Hebridean family names may resonate, particularly with those from the US, New Zealand, Canada, and Australia.
A combination of the British penal system, the Highland Clearances and religious persecution scattered the island populations far and wide.
They reused many of the local place names at their new homes. The main clans of the outer islands are the Macleods of Harris, the Macleods of Lewis, the MacDonalds (Clanranalds), the MacNeils and a smattering of Campbells. Like all the islands of Scotland they contributed in vast numbers to the British regiments which went off to bully the various nations of the Empire, men of fearless courage, led by upper-class twits from the 'English' gentry who served them badly both home and abroad. The islands bear the marks, in many places, of the crofting life; small, narrow strips of land from which it is (only just) possible to eke sustenance. Like all island communities they are welcoming to the stranger and happy to share their land with the photographic, painting, walking and wildlife-watching pilgrims who make the journey out there. Given what has been done to them over the centuries their ability to forgive is impressive, although much of the hardship was, in truth, visited upon them by their own kin, acting as absent landlords or religious fanatics.
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