By Fred Silver
Despite having lived on the Isle of Lewis for almost 25 years, I still have done relatively few boat trips…yet travelling by boat makes the Islands understandable in a way that little else can.
The old way of life on the Isle of Eriskay was once recalled for me by the late Father Calum Maclellan, parish priest there for many years. Then the constant availability of boats, and the limited quality of roads, meant the island was very close to its neighbours on South Uist but the modern era of fixed ferries and safety regulations, prior to the building of the causeway, left it almost isolated. Equally, the Outer Hebrides were linked throughout history to the other islands like Skye and to the mainland, so a family connection between northern Barra and Arisaig, which I came across in a story about the origin of Long John Silver, was quite normal.
But governed as we are now by roads, when I went out to the Island of Taransay, I was baffled that we set out from Ardhasaig in Harris. Surely Taransay was just off the coast of Luskentyre much further south. Well it is, but it is almost as close to North Harris as well – the road to Leverburgh loops a long way to the east on its way south.
Similarly when I went on one of the regular sea tours offered by Seatrek from the pier at Miavaig in Uig, west Lewis, I was surprised to find us quickly passing under the pioneering Great Bernera bridge – again the road distance between Bernera and Uig is quite misleading as the route loops away from the coast.
Equally, the coast can appear quite different from what you might expect – the Point area of Lewis seems quite flat and relatively low-lying if you drive across it by car, but if you were to take a trip with Sea Lewis or Stornoway Seafari along its Minch coastline out of Stornoway, a dramatic coastline of cliffs, caves and craggy bays can be seen.
Unexpectedly, if you want organised boat trips to unusual islands, it is the Islands Book Trust that could be your first port of call. For instance, they are running a boat trip to the Shiant Isles in June, 2016. It’s on Saturday 18th, 09.30–17.30 at a cost of £75 per person. Places must be booked in advance through Eventbrite only – either through the book trust website or at www.eventbrite.co.uk
I have been on excellent Island Boat Trust trips to Ensay in the Sound of Harris and to Scarp, off north Harris. For both occasions the boat transport was provided by Seatrek, who deal with one-off hires as well as regular trips. For Scarp in summer 2015, with around 80 people to transport back and forth across from Hushinish, they effectively set up a ferry service for the day.
Seatrek offers a range of boat trips around the Uig coast, and as far as St Kilda. There are wildlife trips, special charters and family trips. I went on one popular trip which leaves the jetty at Miavaig, in Uig, most days throughout the summer (with the exception of Sunday) weather permitting. Heading out into Loch Roag and past the village of Reef, you may see sea eagles and otters, then you head for the sweeping length of Traigh na Berie towards the island of Siaram, then on to Pabbay Mor, slowing down to explore the amazing depths of the sea-caves, before going round the north end of Pabbay to see its impressive natural arch and spectacular lagoon surrounded by sandy beaches.
On your return journey, you stop off to see the seals and lift a couple of lobster pots to check the day’s catch, a highlight of the trip, especially for younger passengers. I have also been out to Pabbay by canoe and that is also spectacular.
Everyone talks about St Kilda– Seatrek can take you there, too – and I have been there twice with Kilda Cruises. Hirta is a really special place…but if you want to go to a less publicised island with an abandoned village around a sandy bay, one with vast cliffs on the other side of the island, one which the population left a century ago, then try Mingulay…a little more than an hours trip from Castlebay, Isle of Barra. Mingulay – occasional summer home of the artist Julie Brook – is an overlooked gem.
But for city dwellers, the two inter-island CalMac ferries on the Sound of Harris and the Sound of Barra can be quite amazing, particularly the last ferry of the day across from Eriskay to Ard Mhor on Barra. On a sunny, summer’s evening, lingering on a seat out on deck can sweep you away to oceanic imaginings of the past sea roads of the Isles.