With short days and relentless stormy weather, summer seems a long time away. We’ve had very few outings this winter so I wrote this post to remind me of summer days on my favourite Hebridean island and paddling in the sea and picnics on The Prince’s Beach.
Eriskay is a small rocky island, only about 3 miles long and 1.5 miles wide and lies off the southern tip of South Uist in the long chain of islands that make up the Outer Hebrides.
It’s a beautiful island and a great place to walk, whether it’s along a white sandy beach or on the rocky hillsides where Eriskay ponies graze. Wherever you go there are magnificent views across the sea to other islands and interesting things to see along the way.
I have to admit that Eriskay is my favourite Hebridean island, despite not having the profusion of prehistoric remains that are found in the rest of the Western Isles. There is virtually nothing to be seen from this period and the only site worth noting is a group of 3 ring cairns from the Neolithic or Bronze-Age. They are situated up above the village on a level piece of ground on the NW slopes of Beinn Sciathan.
The remains are very scant and it’s difficult to make out much detail. There isn’t much to see and not much is known about them. Canmore has a single entry from 1965 which states that the cairns were found below 5 feet of peat (I wonder how they were found – peat cutting perhaps?) and that there are 3 circles of small boulders with small central mounds and a fourth small ring without a cairn.
While we were searching for the cairns we wondered if we would see some of the native Eriskay ponies as we hadn’t seen any so far that day. Sure enough, as we reached a grassy plateau, dotted with bog cotton, we found a large group of them happily grazing.
Eriskay ponies are a hardy Hebridean breed and roam freely about the island.
Eriskay is linked to South Uist by a causeway and as you approach the island from the causeway one of the first things you see is St Michael’s Church, in a prominent position on the hill, overlooking the Sound of Eriskay. It was built in 1903 by the islanders themselves, under the guidance of their much loved priest, Father Allan Macdonald. Fr Allan, or Maighstir Ailein as he was known, worked tirelessly for his flock and campaigned for better rights for impoverished tenants, most of whom were living in terrible poverty at that time.
He was only 46 when he died but he had already become famous as a poet and as a collector of local folklore, traditions and Gaelic language.
The church is beautiful inside and it has a very unique and unexpected feature – an altar created from the bow of a boat! This was a lifeboat that was washed overboard from the aircraft carrier Hermes and ended up on a nearby shore in South Uist.
The church and the altar feature in Peter May’s ‘Lewis Trilogy’, a series of captivating crime novels set on the Isle of Lewis. In his book ‘The Lewis Man’ some of the book is set in Eriskay.
On the Isle of Lewis, an old man with dementia talks about a church with a boat in it and the trail eventually leads the detective all the way down through the islands to Eriskay, where he finds that there is indeed a church with a boat in it!
On the wall outside the church is a special stone which has been hollowed out in the centre. It was specially made and placed here so that a fire could be lit in it and the smoke seen across the water in South Uist. In the days before telephones and long before the causeway, this was the way of signalling that the priest was needed on the island. When the smoke was seen, the priest would be fetched and a fisherman would take him over to Eriskay.
To make enough smoke to be seen, a fire was first lit with dry twigs or straw and once it was alight wet seaweed would be placed on it to create an abundance of smoke.
We left the church and walked through Am Baile, the main village. Following the road south you pass the shrine of Our Lady of Fatima, erected on the site of the original church.
Looking down across Am Baile, with South Uist in the background
Eriskay will always be famous for the SS Politician which ran aground here in 1941 with its cargo of 22,000 cases of malt whisky. Bound for Jamaica and New Orleans, it’s cargo never made the Americas but ended up in the houses of Eriskay, South Uist and beyond. The story of the islanders salvaging as much as they could before the boat sank and then hiding it from the Customs and Excise men was immortalised in Compton Mackenzie’s novel Whisky Galore and the subsequent Ealing comedy of the same name.
One of the buildings in the right of the photo above is the pub, Am Politician, which was built in 1988 and named after the ship. A couple of the original bottles of whisky rescued from the SS Politcian can be seen inside.
Over on the east side of the island is An Acarsaid Mhor, the Big Harbour. Walking round the sheltered bay you come to a clump of trees, some of the very few trees on Eriskay, and above them you can follow The Way of the Cross. The path follows a cliff face where the Stations of the Cross are depicted on slates along the cliff. They were created by a priest in the 1970’s but unfortunately most are looking very weathered now. At the top of the path stands a wooden cross.
Ruined houses on the hill above An Acarsaid Mhor
A short road runs across Eriskay, from the causeway to South Uist in the north down to the pier for the Barra ferry in the south. The road finishes at the southern end of The Prince’s Beach and from here, an hour long ferry journey takes you across to Barra.