Every time I traverse this landscape, I am moved by it. As the world seems to become louder, more clamorous and hotter, my need for a landscape that would get Robert Burns reaching for his quill grows greater.
But if solitude is your thing, choose your Hebridean locale with care. I’m told Skye is jam-packed in high summer and that Lewis is busy, too. Stopping in the mainland ferry hub of Oban, with its challenging parking and surfeit of tourist shops and tourists, reminded me of some of the crowded English seaside towns of my youth.
Better to find a far-off island you’ve never heard of. How I came to be driving a zippy black-and-white Citroen through the twisting, ferry-bound highways of the Highlands is a story that begins almost a year ago. I was having dinner at my friend Jane’s in Northwest Washington. Her brother James, a forester and ecologist who lives near Edinburgh, was visiting.
“You have to see the machair,” he said. “You have to go to Uist.” I thought the machair was the title of the Scottish poet laureate, but kept my mouth shut. (That would be Makar, by the way.)
The machair, James explained, is a unique biome created by the prevailing westerly winds and storms that race across the North Atlantic and find landfall in the Western Isles. After many thousands of years, the soil has been altered by a mix of windblown sand and particles of seashells. The machair unfolds, first the curving strands, then the dunes behind them, and beyond, the low-lying fields, reaching inland a mile or so. Trees have little hope here — the wind is too persistent — and this strange confluence of forces has given rise to rich grasslands and meadows whose wildflowers bring waves of changing color from late June to mid-August. In this distant, boreal place, the sea had turned into a gardener. How could I not see its handiwork?
The same conditions have created similar plant ecosystems on the west coast of Ireland, from Galway up to Donegal, the other Western Isles of Scotland, and the Orkneys and Shetlands. Scotland is home to two-thirds of this unique habitat. James told me the whole west coast of South Uist was prime machair. (Purists drop the definitive article in deference to its Gaelic origins, derived from the word for plain.)
To get there, I had to make my way on the last mainland leg from Fort William to the port of Mallaig along the A830, the “Road to the Isles,” where the enveloping countryside changes from the broad glens south of Fort William. Here the road cut closer to the hills, which are high but soft with moss.
Mallaig is a small maritime community of slate-roofed, terraced houses sitting above a breakwatered harbor. I noticed a Norwegian-flagged trawler in dock, a reminder that this is a corner of Britain with close historical ties to Scandinavia going back to the days of the Vikings.
The ferries that are the lifeblood of the Western Isles are operated by Caledonian MacBrayne. CalMac vessels have distinctive black hulls and red stacks with rampant lions but vary in size, depending on their mission. One of CalMac’s biggest, the MV Lord of the Isles, came chugging into Mallaig harbor just 30 minutes before departure as I waited in ordered rows of parked cars at the ferryport lot. By then, it was late afternoon, and the voyage would take most of the evening. In early July, I add, evening is a state of mind. It stays light until 11 p.m.
The first phase of the 3½-hour voyage saw the ferry threading its way between Skye to the north and Rum to the south, the latter a sparsely populated isle known as a haven for seabirds. This watery part of the world reminds you, constantly, that nature holds dominion here. The sea, dark and rarely placid, is deceptively vital. From the ferry I saw pods of striped dolphins, but it is the sea birds that seem to rule the waves.
I detected gannets, various gulls and terns, but sadly no puffins, those garishly beaked beauties of the North Atlantic. I did, though, see many shearwaters, a bird that skims and wheels just above the rolling waves. The bird is black above and white below, so that it appears alternately black or white, depending on its gyrations.
The sun was lower but far from setting when the Lord of the Isles eased slowly into the quay in Lochboisdale, the main ferry port on South Uist.
The Uists — South Uist, Benbecula, North Uist and smaller islands, all connected by causeways — stretch about 60 miles from top (Berneray) to bottom (Eriskay). You see visitors in camper vans and hardy souls cycling — not so pleasant when it turns wet and windy. I also broke bread at a campground with a hiker who was following the Hebridean Way (10 islands, two ferries and 156 miles). Even in a car, it takes longer to get about than the map suggests: The roads are narrow, and if there is an oncoming vehicle, you or the other guy has to pull over in a passing place. People drive kindly, as if they know one another.
Forty minutes later, and on the other side of the island, I found my way to the stone and thatch cottage, the traditional abode of the Hebridean crofters, or tenant farmers, and renovated as a holiday cottage by Ronnie and Helena MacPhee. After I arrived, Ronnie came down from the house up the hill to say hello, chat about the cottage renovation and explain where things were. That was the first and last I saw of him.
One way to describe the cottage is “cozy” — it only has three rooms, one of them the narrow bathroom. The small living space functions as a kitchen, dining room and den. This crampedness is fine, I like such spaces, but it helps if you think of the cottage as an Airstream trailer with walls of stone and a roof of dried reeds.
The Uists are not as well-known as other Hebridean islands, such as Harris and Skye, but they have their own claims to fame. The 1949 comedy “Whisky Galore,” a big film in postwar Britain, was based on Compton Mackenzie’s book of a couple of years earlier, which, in turn, was based on the true story of a freighter — the SS Politician — storm-wrecked on Eriskay during World War II. Its cargo included thousands of bottles of whisky destined for America. A good number of them were “salvaged” by the local population. Who could blame them — it’s not every day you discover a washed-up Politician full of liquor.
The other story is how Bonnie Prince Charlie fled after the Battle of Culloden from the British forces (the 1746 battle signaled the defeat of the clan-backed effort to restore a Stuart monarch to the British throne). Despite a large price on his head, the prince was protected by the islanders. On Uist, Flora MacDonald was immortalized as the woman who shepherded the prince to safety by ferrying him to Skye dressed as her maid.
As I sat in the cottage reading about this, it made the adventure more fun, but it wasn’t getting me any closer to the machair. Then I chanced on a well-creased brochure that spoke of a weekly nature tour from the field office of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. This is in the midst of the North Uist machair, in the Balranald Nature Reserve. I took a wrong turn, and by the time I arrived at the RSPB visitors center — a tin-roofed brick hut, basically — the building was open but empty.
I set out southward along the nature trail, a track between the dunes and meadows. The white beaches and blue sea beckoned from breaks in the dunes, but they would have to wait. I wanted to immerse myself in the flowery meadows.
Some of the wildflowers were familiar — clover, buttercups, daisies, wild carrot. Others were not so: the golden plumes of lady’s bedstraw, or the yellow-and-white buttons of the kidney vetch, or a tiny lemon yellow viola hiding within the tapestry. If South Uist is the exemplar of machair, North Uist is surely not far behind. The coastal meadows seem to stretch for miles.
But it wasn’t the rarity of the flora that was the point; it was the idea that a habitat had evolved to nurture a plant community where each wildflower had found its niche. The resulting dense coexistence and biodiversity of the flora was something the smartest eco-gardeners around are only now striving to replicate. My horticultural friends would go nuts to see this, I thought.
The wildflower season on the Uists typically starts in mid-June and runs until mid-August, but it goes through its own sequence and colors, depending on the dominant flower, from scarlet red (corn poppies) to glowing yellow (charlock) to violet blue (bugle)
. During my visit, the fields were a study in yellow and white, the latter provided by the wild carrot and bladder campion.
The most astonishing aspect? In a world where industrialized agriculture has obliterated ecosystems, the machair relies on the crofter’s gentle, 1,000-year-old system of agriculture. Crofters, who raise cattle and sheep, have their allotted croft but graze their animals on common land so they can move the livestock between pastures. During wildflower season, the livestock are inland, and the grasslands are used to grow Hebridean landraces of barley, oats and rye next to and among the meadows. In fields that lie fallow for two or three years, different wildflower communities thrive.
The grains are harvested in August after the wildflowers have dropped their seed. In winter, the animals graze on the meadows, preventing more aggressive plants from overtaking the wildflowers. The crofters have also traditionally harvested seaweed to process as an organic fertilizer.
Crofting has historically been a hard way of life, and I don’t want to romanticize it. But it is tempting to feel there is much to learn in these pretty meadows about sustainable farming in an age of ecological calamity.
“We have a rare example of habitat enhanced by human intervention,” said Stewart Angus, an ecologist with Scottish Natural Heritage and machair expert. (I spoke to him on the phone later.)
As I rounded the bend in a coastal farm track, I noticed a distant cluster of people — a flock of birders? As I drew closer, I could see a group of about 20 individuals listening to a tall guide with a close-cropped gray beard, a brimless woolen hat and binoculars. That turned out to be Martyn Jamieson, a naturalist and a part-time field officer for the RSPB. He was explaining how certain Hebridean cattle breeds were hardier than the beefier French cattle some crofters prefer, and could be left outside all winter. Jamieson is a transplant from Liverpool, England, as well as a crofter on the island.
The machair is a natural locale for birdwatchers. The nectar-rich plant community is a magnet for insects, including the now-uncommon great yellow bumblebee. The insects, in turn, support a rich bird population. Among the special birds we saw over the next hour were Arctic terns, which will dive-bomb your head if you get too close to the nesting areas; and oystercatchers, noisy wading birds with pied plumage and long, bright-orange bills. Skylarks hung high in the air, twittering, and we first heard and then saw the melodious little corn bunting, a bird that has been lost to much of Britain because of modern agricultural practices. These grasslands also support an even more threatened species, a shy, partridge-like bird called the corncrake, which remained silent and unseen.
One birder thought he saw a short-eared owl, which hunts by day, and I was scanning the skies for another raptor, the white-tailed eagle (wingspan eight feet), which was successfully reintroduced to the Isle of Rum after being killed off in the past century due to its taste for lambs.
The tour had opened up the Uists to me in a way that wandering on my own would not, so when I heard Jamieson mention he was leading a three-hour nature walk on the other side of the island the next morning, my response was, “When and where?”
The day was cloudier and cooler as we appeared in the parking lot of the Langass Lodge hotel, the starting point of the trek alongside tidal Loch Langass. The loch lies between a ridge and the distant sea on the eastern side of North Uist. It is a terrain markedly different from the machair and more typical of the landscape of western Scotland, a place of acidic peatlands and rock outcroppings supporting colonies of heather, bracken, sedges and mosses. Below us, the loch was ebbing, the time of fish movement and, we hoped, of seeing a hungry otter or two. “I must say,” Jamieson began, “the odds are against us. For every 24 hours, they’ll be asleep for 18.”
Half an hour into the walk, with no otter to be seen, the attention turned inland to the upland moor where Jamieson had spotted a bird that from afar looked like a big gull, but with a white rump. It was a male hen harrier, quartering over the moor. “That’s the most persecuted bird in the U.K.,” Jamieson said, echoing the view that the birds are systematically and illegally killed by gamekeepers to protect lucrative grouse shooting operations.
Twenty minutes later, we saw the female, with prey, and Jamieson was able to locate it on a rock outcropping with his scope. He invited me to look through the lens, where I could see it feeding its chicks.
This might have been thrill enough for the day, but I discovered we were ensconced in a circle of great granite stones, which turned out to have been placed on this perch
5,000 years ago
by the indigenous Neolithic population.
Jamieson said he had wondered why they chose this location for the stones, and then one evening he glanced northward to the distant mountain. “My jaw dropped. I saw a huge full moon come up, and it appeared to roll up the hill.”
One mystery solved, but where was the otter? We walked along to the end of the loch, observing some waterfowl and a colony of basking seals. But we were getting cold, and it was time to head back. In an area marked by islands amid the coursing tide, we saw a creature breaking the water. Another seal, we surmised, but Jamieson was soon on it with his binoculars. “That’s an otter,” he said, with a hint of excitement in his voice.
We spent the next 30 minutes tracking its rapid progressions between the islands, the seaweed mats in the fast-moving water and the near shore. It was supremely at home in each environment, moving swiftly and with purpose. At times it would disappear beneath the black water and emerge on its back, appearing to feed. Looking through the scope, I could tell this was a born predator, with broad jaws and efficient teeth. There was a burning intelligence about it, too. I was glad at that moment not to be a rabbit or a fish.
The next day, I set out to see the machair of South Uist and was determined not to let the weather interfere. It was raining steadily and windy with it, so the droplets were like pellets against the skin. I focused on the flora, here more rye mixed with charlock, and more lady’s bedstraw and wild carrot. The track behind the dunes took me to a farm gate, but as soon as I entered the field, a bird rose up from the right and started chattering and threatening to dive. This was another hen harrier, a female, obviously protecting its nearby chicks. I was in no mood to add to its woes and turned back.
I found a beachside cafe and started chatting to the kindly, silver-haired lady at the register while I waited for my coffee. The cold rain was playing on the picture windows, and I told her I was escaping the heat and humidity of Washington, where, I explained, it was now up into the 90s.
“Och,” she said, “it’s not right.”
Where to stay
Lochcarnan, Isle of South Uist
A one-bedroom stone-and-thatch cottage at the north end of South Uist. Rates range from about $382 to about $613 per week.
Loch Eport, Isle of North Uist
This family-friendly hotel offers lake and mountain views and an on-site restaurant; the decor is an homage to its past life as a traditional shooting lodge. Rates vary with season and occupancy; see website for details.
What to do
Balranald, Isle of North Uist
The nature reserve run by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has a small visitor center and a 4.5-kilometer walking trail. See website for schedule of guided nature walks. Open daily, year-round. Donations.
This 156-mile walking route and 185-mile cycling route passes through 10 islands and over six causeways. Build your itinerary on the tourism board’s website, or book through its partner, Hebridean Hopscotch Holidays.
Kildonan, Isle of South Uist
The small museum offers a comprehensive look at the history of South Uist, including the life of the crofter. Open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. from April to the end of October. Adult admission about $4, children free.