Back in the Day Feature - New industry links in Hebrides

The North harris hills seen from Ardhasaig on the island which gives its name to the world-famous tweed.
The North harris hills seen from Ardhasaig on the island which gives its name to the world-famous tweed.

In the Outer Isles most of the place names are Scandinavian, and very strange they sound. Loch Trollamarig, near Tarbert in Harris, seems pure Ibsen. The track, in places is as steep as the one up Ben Nevis, climbed over five miles of desolate moorland, and then swooped down to the sea.

And there are people living at the end of it. Twelve at Rainingdale to the north. Two single men at Moliginish to the south. It is one of the Herbidean tragedies that places like this, which depended on the sea, should be so isolated not that the use of small boats has been largely lost.

The men have a radio but it does not work, and there is no means of getting it repaired. Everything that the communities need must be brought back over the five miles and 1,000 ft of moor.

It doesn’t seem possible that a guided missile range should exist in the same world as these crofters but that’s the Hebrides for you – a land of astonishing contrasts.

You will see primitive houses and outside them, smart new cars. Since the war it has been a violent change, in which the new causeway between North Uist and Benbecula marks one more step

Gone forever will be the romantic passage by pony and trap over the shifting sands of the North Ford. North Uist, a sternly Protestant island, will be directly linked with South Uist, a no less fervently Roman Catholic one, and Benbecula will no longer be in quite the same way a buffer state.

Some of the mild boom and bustle which the rocket range bought to the South Uist capital of Loch Boisdale will be transferred to the North Uist capital of Lochmaddy.

The Range itself hardly serves the amount of ink that’s been spilled over it. It is an unimpressive spectacle, little more than three hangars and a water tower, and you need to be right on the spot to see a rocket fired. The material for the Range is brought over in flat-bottomed landing craft and dumped on the hard white sands of the South Ford at low tide, and then removed by lorry. Many of the men are there on short training courses and do not really meet the islanders. Those who are permanent are encouraged to take up mountain-climbing, canoeing or bird-watching and genuinely enjoy these things, unlike the servicemen stationed in the Hebrides during the war, most of whom were bored silly.

The people in the nearest crofting village have made friends with them, particularly one old lady, in whose cottage there is always a cup of tea for a soldier.

Much more impact on island life has been made by industry. In the Uists, there’s the alginate (seaweed) industry, based on the “tangle of the Isles”. It is seasonal, but the crofter who really puts his back into seaweed-collecting after a storm can earn as much as £30 a week. The stuff is dried and processed on the islands, which gives more work, and then it goes off to play its part in “making water stand up straight” in custard and ice cream and similar manufactures, and seems to have a dozen other uses, too.

In Lewis and Harris there is the tweed, an ancient craft, of course, but now highly mechanised. The actual weaving is done by hand, or rather by foot, on elaborate treadle-looms costing over a hundred pounds each. Wherever you go you hear their clackety-clack, usually proceeding from a shed attached to a cottage. But the wool is dyed and spun and prepared for the loom in one of the several large factories in Stornoway. Then the woven cloth goes back to the factory and is shrunk, pressed and finished there.

The end product is much lighter and more supple, and more generally acceptable to American and England markets, than the old completely handmade stuff which a few diehards still produce in Harris.

There is even an industry in happy-go-lucky Barra, which otherwise is exactly the island of Sir Compton Mackenzie’s novels, with a waterfront full of colourful characters – he hasn’t exaggerated one bit.

His former home over looks a magnificent beach of cockleshell sand, and large amounts of this are now being scooped up and carted away by lorry for poultry grit. The same beach – but a different part of it – serves as the Barra airfield. It is a charming sight to see the daily small aeroplane skim down on the sands, and the Gaelic-speaking passengers get into it casually as though it were a bus.

The skill and efficiency that Herbrideans bring to these various complicated processes give the lie to legend that they do not take kindly to industrialisation.

What does not suit the Celtic temperament is precisely the sort of life the climate and soil impose – the hard, unassisted drudgery of the croft. That that they are lazy about it now, whatever they may have been once.

The setting up of the Crofter’s Commission in 1955 brought them many advantages, but it also meant that sanctions could be applied against those who neglected their crofts.

There’s a high standard of husbandry all down the fertile machairs on the west coasts of the Isles, and what was even more striking, the cultivation of tiny pocket handkerchiefs of land among the stones down the terrible eastern coasts. Here the rock outcrops so much that if you climb a hill, the landscape below you is not green or even brown but just grey. Compared to the mainland, the Isles are still thickly populated, and it seems a miracle that people can exist at all in some of these places. There are unseen sources of income – the merchant navy son or husband sending money home, the old-age pension, the dole.

But the young people will not stay, in spite of all that is being done to make life easier for them, the roads, the water, and electricity schemes – a lot of the crofts now have both water and electric light.The population is declining and it is ageing. A good proportion of the young men always did go off, mainly into the merchant navy, but now the girls leave too.

There remains the tourist industry, on which great hopes are pinned. A ferry is planned, and will probably materialise, between Uig, in Skye, Lochmaddy, for the Uist group, and Tarbert, for the Lewis-Harris island.

This means that the motorists will pour in in hundreds, instead of dozens, as at present, attracted by a scenery as beautiful as any in Europe, and by a sun which in June is capable of shining for 18 hours a day. They will bring the greatest revolution of them all, for where are they to sleep?

Scarcely anyplace but Stornoway has more than one modest hotel. The crofters are being urged to take visitors in their houses newly fitted with modern conveniences, but so far they show diffidence, and the island tradition have been to give hospitality, not to sell it.

And what about the language? Gaelic is universal; the children play in it, the village youths bunt each other about in it. But it won’t long survive a real tourist invasion. With it will go so much else that makes Herbrideans independent, and excitingly different from the rest of us conveyor-belt characters.

Still, there has always been a good deal of heartbreak about the Isles, and they have always somehow resisted outside interference and found their own solution.

Their language and their monuments go back a very long way, and they were probably civilised when the rest of us were still barbarians.

They may outlast us yet.