Just as I pulled in to the Harris Hotel at the start of my holiday, by “coincidence” the song Scalpaigh Bheag mo Ghràidh-sa (My Beloved Little Scalpay, sung by Jenna Cumming) was playing on the radio. It’s a love song to an island, one with which I can identify to some extent, as we have close friends in Scalpay, and have many happy memories of visits there over the years.
Scalpay is a small island off the east side of Harris. At one time, unless you had your own boat you could only get on and off Scalpay by a small ferry. We first came in the summer of 1996. Our newly-adopted son, just four years old, was with us. I remember Our Son’s godfather waiting for us as we came across in the ferry. We had a wonderful visit that first time. We were overwhelmed with Highland hospitality, and the weather was brilliant that day. We all had to watch the clock carefully not to miss the last ferry back. In those days, the entire island lived by the ferry schedule.
In 1997, a bridge from mainland Harris to Scalpay was opened. I didn’t get a good photo of it from a distance, but if you know where to look, it’s in the photo below. This was taken from Harris, and you can clearly see Scalpay sitting there like a little jewel, with the houses near the North Harbour visible. Behind Scalpay are the Shiant Islands (the subject of Adam Nicolson’s book Sea Room); beyond them lies the Minch.
Because for so long Scalpay was rather cut-off from mainland Harris, it was a very tight-knit and independent community. Scalpay has two harbours, and the Scalpay people have long had a reputation for their skill at fishing. In the 1970s, there was a sizeable fleet fishing for herring, the “silver darlings”. The Scalpay people were also known for their strong Christian beliefs. I have heard tell of how the Scalpay fishermen could be heard singing Gaelic psalms, beautifully, on their fishing boats at sea. Morning and evening family worship at home were a common fact of life on Scalpay not so very long ago (as in other parts of the Highlands and Islands).
The bridge has brought many changes to the island. People can come and go on a Sunday, for example, so they can worship at another church on Harris if they choose, or go for a drive on another part of Harris. While I think most people would never want to go back to the days before the bridge, the ease of access with the world beyond has also changed the community. Certainly my time in Harris was made much easier by the presence of the bridge – I went to Scalpay each of the three days I was there.
I like the “Otter Crossing” signs at either end of the bridge.
Alas, I didn’t encounter any otters on my visits. I thought you might be interested to see that, like many of the roads on Harris, the bridge is one lane with passing places:
Most of the time I was visiting, the bridge was closed to high-sided vehicles because of high winds. I wondered how that affected deliveries of supplies to the island.
Scalpay’s population, like so many places in rural Scotland, has declined over the years. I think there are about 300 people living on Scalpay now, whereas I’m told there were about 600 inhabitants for much of the 20th century. But there are still fishermen based there, as well as independent craft shops and a weaver.
I mentioned in a previous post that until recently, Scotland had very feudal land laws. Since the laws changed in 2004, several communities have done what is called a “community buy-out”: they have raised enough money to buy the land they live on from their landowners. Scalpay took an unusual path towards self-ownership. Its landlord, Fred Taylor, gifted the island to its people in 2012. (It’s a complex matter and you can read more here.)
The island’s residents recently voted by a narrow margin to join the North Harris Trust. The narrow margin indicates that there are still many independently-minded folk on the island.
Sadly, with a falling population, the island’s school was forced to close in 2012. Because of the bridge, children can travel to Tarbert by bus to go to school.
For several years, Scalpay was without a shop. This was a great loss, as the shop was such a community hub. In 2012, after a successful fund-raising effort, Bùtha Scalpaigh (Scalpay shop) was opened. Michael and I are amongst their many supporters, but I had never had a chance to see the new shop before now. I was surprised to be served by a young Englishwoman with tattoos and piercings. She was very friendly and is a keen crafter. The world is changing, even in the Outer Hebrides.
I didn’t stop for a coffee, but the cafe looks amazing!
There is a fantastic view of the North Harbour from the cafe:
One day that I visited, I hiked up to a viewpoint at Ardteaginish. The weather was very changeable. From the road I saw this shower approaching, and stopped to take a photo of the woman who had zoomed out of her house to take her washing off the line (to the left of the car). But she was too quick for me and was back inside before I could take the photo!
Imagine the view she must have from her kitchen window!
At one spot, there is a row of houses built close together and snug to the road. I think the clock that hangs from one of them is pretty:
The showers held off while I climbed up to the viewpoint, though I nearly lost my scarf to the fierce wind. I was glad of my hiking boots as I leapt over a few peat banks and splashed through some very boggy bits.
I reached my objective, a view of Scalpay’s South Harbour:
After my exertions I was warmly welcomed by my friend Catrìona and regaled with tea and an assortment of cakes. She spent a lot of time with me during my visit to Harris, and it was a great tonic to see her. I wish I could show you a photo of her, but she only allowed me to take pictures on the proviso that “they don’t go onto Facebook!”. So I will just say that she is a very lively and elegant older lady. The day that I took her out to lunch she was wearing a sparkly pullover, a beautifully cut skirt, and suede boots. The best kind of “glam Gran”!
On another day, I tried to walk out to the lighthouse on Scalpay. Eilean Glas lighthouse, built by the lighthouse Stevensons, is located on the eastern edge of the island. It plays a critical role guiding ships in the Minch. On a clear day you can see its red and white stripes from the ferry approaching Harris.
This is a walk we’ve done a few times before, and I had happy memories of going there with the children when they were little. Here’s a photo from 2004 – it must have been very windy that day too – my hair is mad, and the Dafter is covering her little ears!
There is a new, paved path to the lighthouse, but I couldn’t find the start of it, so I began on the old path. Even at the very start of the old path, the view is magnificent. The house whose roof you see here is the house at the end of the road. Again, imagine their view! And imagine what it’s like to live there in a winter storm…
I didn’t make it all that far on the day I attempted the old path to the lighthouse. The ground was more like a series of streams than a path, and the wind was so strong it was hard to stand up, nevermind walk. I could see the rain coming from over Tarbert, and I decided not to be foolish. I turned back. The night I’d arrived in Harris, the Coast Guard helicopter had been out looking for a missing walker (luckily he was found); not many weeks before, another missing walker had been found, but tragically not alive. I knew it wasn’t worth the risk of falling or being blown off a precipice.
I reached my car just as the heavens opened.
Another really good walk on Scalpay that we’ve done before is to “the Prince’s Cave”. On his way to exile in France after the Battle of Culloden, Bonnie Prince Charlie took refuge in a cave on Scalpay. You can climb down into it – it isn’t very big. Here we are in 2000 – the Dafter has her raingear on!
So you can see why Scalpay is dear to my heart and holds many happy memories. I’ll leave you with this view of the island on a clear evening, with the Isle of Skye in the background. If you’d like to see what Harris looks like from the Isle of Skye on a clear day, Heather has a good photo (second from the top) in this post.
I was sorry to say goodbye to Scalpay this time, but I hope it won’t be too very long before I can go visit again.