Eriskay is the small island to the north of Barra and to the south of South Uist. It is about 3 miles long and 1.5 miles wide with a high point of 185 metres. The whole island is an undulating mass or rock, heather, bog and wild flowers. The ferry from Barra docks here and there are toilets and showers (£1 if you want a hot one) in the rather nice new waiting room at the pier.
Round the coast a bit, on the west side, are the two villages of Am Baile and Rubha Ban that sit side by side – I couldn’t tell where one finished and the other began. It is here that the Am Politician pub can be found. The pub is named after the ship, the SS Politician, that came aground here in 1941. To the islanders’ delight the ship was carrying a cargo of 20,000 crates of whisky to America. At any time this would probably have delighted the islanders, but as this was the wartime and whisky was hard to come by, this was like manna from heaven. The locals carried out their own salvage operation and although some islanders ended up in prison, customs and excise never caught up with the majority and it was a case of ‘finders drinkers’. The story was immortalised by Compton Mackenzie in his book Whisky Galore. The film of the book was later shot on neighbouring Barra.
The east side of the island is where the SS Politician actually came aground but this side has no tracks or roads or houses. It looks an interesting part of the island to walk over and Peter Clarke, when researching his book The Timeless Way, did just this and found faint tracks from years ago.
However, today I was just planning to follow a walk I’d found in a little walk book I’d bought in the tourist office in Barra. I parked at the pub and walked past the two graveyards stopping to investigate a couple of small beaches along the way. After the second graveyard the road forked and I took the right hand track which led to the larger beach known as Prince’s Beach as this is purportedly where, in 1745, Bonnie Prince Charlie first put foot on Scottish soil. He’d arrived from France and was on his way to mainland Scotland.
All the beaches on this side of the island are take-your-breath-away beautiful: white sand, silvery rocks, clear pale blue sea shimmering in the subdued light. There were clouds, but it was warm and there was no rain forecast. I followed what looked like otter tracks for a while – the tracks looked quite fresh, but I didn’t see any. I came up to the road at the far end of the beach near the ferry terminal.
Walking up the road away from the pier I came to the crossroads where I’d earlier turned left to get to the village. This time I turned right and walked a short way before cutting to the left, through a gate and along a track leading up hill to the water purification station. The track ended here but I could see a faint path where people had walked before me veering to the left. My walk book instructed me to walk straight up behind the station however, which I did, clambering over a few rocks in the process. I soon found a faint track again and saw a marker post. I walked out towards the small, still Loch Cracabhaig and then, still following faint paths on the ground and the occasional marker post, headed north through the rocky landscape and over the moor. The ground was spongy with heather and moss and in places quite boggy. Wildflowers were everywhere and these were attracting copious amounts of butterflies of different colours and varieties: red, brown, cream, pale blue.
I was tempted to walk up to the trig point, but decided against it as I was starting to get hungry and I’d not brought any lunch with me. I saw wild Eriskay ponies on the rocks above me. The ponies are native to the island and no more than 12-13 hands in height. In the past they were used to carry peat and seaweed around the island, but now they seem to be enjoying a life of permanent retirement. They are hardy and stay outdoors year round. The ones I saw were white, though I think there may be other colours. They have a different stature to Shetland ponies, being a slimmer build.
As the village came into sight the tracks and marker posts began to lead me downwards. I came out on the road but felt I could walk further on the moorland, so headed back up and descended again just above a roadside shrine to Our Lady of Fatima.
From here it was a short walk back to the pub and my van. The walk is only about 2.5 miles long but took me about 2.5 hours. This was because of my many stops to take photographs or just to stare at the amazing views.