Posted by: christinelaennec | April 25, 2014

Eilean Scalpaigh / the Isle of Scalpay

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.

The Isle of Scalpay, off of Harris.  The Scalpay Bridge is visible, behind the streetlight.  April 2014.

The Isle of Scalpay, off of Harris. The Scalpay Bridge is barely visible, a flat line behind the streetlight. Slightly easier to see are the two angled supports of the bridge. April 2014.

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.

Approaching the Scalpay Bridge:  Otters crossing.

Approaching the Scalpay Bridge: Otters crossing.

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:

The Scalpay Bridge, looking back towards mainland Harris.

The Scalpay Bridge, looking back towards mainland Harris.  The passing place is marked by a white triangular sign.

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.

View from the Scalpay Bridge out to the Minch.

View from the Scalpay Bridge out to the Minch.  On a clearer day you can see Skye and the mainland.

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.)

View from Scalpay village back towards Tarbert.  April 2014.

View from Scalpay village back towards Tarbert. April 2014.  Note the whitecaps on the water – it was extremely windy!

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.

Sgoil Scalpaigh / Scalpay School.  Closed in 2012.

Sgoil Scalpaigh / Scalpay School. Closed in 2012.

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!

The tearoom at Butha Scalpaigh / Scalpay Shop.  April 2014.

The tearoom at Bùtha Scalpaigh / Scalpay Shop. A few minutes after opening time, April 2014.

There is a fantastic view of the North Harbour from the cafe:

View to the North Harbour from the tearoom.  Scalpay, Isle of Harris, April 2014.

View to the North Harbour from the tearoom. Scalpay, Isle of Harris, April 2014.

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!

The lady in the house was quicker than I was - came out and whipped her washing off the line before I got my photo.  Rainshower quickly approaching!  Scalpay, April 2014.

Rainshower quickly approaching. Scalpay, April 2014.

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:

Houses in Scalpay.

Houses in Scalpay. (Photo taken through the car windscreen in the rain, sorry.)

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.

Spades left by the peatbanks, Scalpay, April 2014.

Spade / shovel left by the peatbanks, Scalpay, April 2014.

I reached my objective, a view of Scalpay’s South Harbour:

Scalpay: view back towards the South Harbour.  The Clisham (tallest mountain in Harris) visible in the far distance.

Scalpay: view back towards the South Harbour. The pointed peak of the Clisham is faintly visible in the far distance.

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!

walking to Eilean Glas lighthouse, Isle of Scalpay, summer 2004.

Walking to Eilean Glas lighthouse, Isle of Scalpay, summer 2004.

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…

View from the start of the walk to the lighthouse, Scalpay.  April 2014.

View south to the east side of mainland Harris, from Scalpay. April 2014.

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.

Scalpay: showers approaching from the west.

Scalpay: showers approaching from the west.

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!

Our Son climbing down into The Prince's Cave, Isle of Scalpay.  Summer 2000.

Our Son climbing down into The Prince’s Cave, Isle of Scalpay. Summer 2000.

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.

View of Scalpay from south of Tarbert:  Skye, on the other side of the Minch, clearly visible.

View of Scalpay from south of Tarbert: Skye, on the other side of the Minch, is visible in the background.

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.



  1. What a wonderful post, as a family we too have so many happy memories. It has been a dream for a long time to live on one of those beautiful islands, perhaps Scalpay is a step too far for us but certainly Lewis/Harris is a definite maybe. Wonderful to see it through someone else’s eyes. Have a great weekend.

  2. All these island tearooms need some looking into, that one on Scalpay looks lovely. I love your pictures of approaching storms, very dramatic. One of the things I remember about visiting the outer isles is the amazing stormy skies. It looks as if you had some nice sunshine, even if it was cold and very windy.

  3. These posts are proving to be quite the lesson in Scottish geography for me.. Which is actually a tad embarrassing.

    Lovely to see your older pictures alongside those of the most recent trip. What a beautiful looking location for so many treasured memories!

  4. This is all so educational and beautiful! So interesting to learn about the island of Scalpay. I still can’t get over the absence of trees on the outer islands (like Shetland too). I often wonder if I could get used to living without trees or if I would miss them too much. Also wanted to ask about the lichen-covered trees. We saw so many of them on Skye. We thought they were a strange ? (I can’t even get the word — like mistletoe is, draining the host’s nutrients) taking over the trees and killing them. But it sounded like really it is lichen and doing the trees no harm?? I have this new dream I’ve been toying with – of hiking the West Highland Way in a few years. Plenty of physical obstacles to overcome, but it is so fun to think about and dream. Imagine the beauty to be seen!

  5. I can’t express how much I enjoyed this post….I must show it to my daughter, my Scotland traveling companion. We must try to visit here, on our next trip.
    Thanks again for sharing your holiday with us.

  6. so beautiful. I hope some day to go to Harris and Scalpay. thanks for the lovely post, Christine.

  7. What beautiful photos and wonderful memories you have. I am ashamed to say I’ve never been to any of the islands except Millport and Arran. I have however been up the west coast and in fact met my husband while on a school trip to Inveralligan in Wester Ross. All the roads up that way used to be single track with passing places, I’ve no idea if that remains the same today. Some people are so lucky to live in such beautiful surroundings, however as you rightly say, what must it be like during a big storm. A bit scary I should think but I daresay you get used it and there are some wonderful compensations – what a view! Thank you for telling us a bit about Scalpay it was very interesting. x

  8. Thank you everyone, I’m glad you found it interesting.

    Lorna – as you say, the skies in this part of the world can change very quickly and dramatically. The quality of light seems very special to me.

    Heather – the lichen isn’t a plant parasite, like ivy is. It’s simply a sign of very good quality air, and doesn’t harm the host plant at all. So the more lichen on the plants, the better air you’re breathing!

    marksgran – there are still a lot of single track roads out on the islands, but also some two-lane roads (can’t remember the British term for this!), so you aren’t necessarily going along at 30 mph the entire time.
    I’ve never been to Millport or Arran myself – hope to go there soon. There are so very many islands in Scotland, you could spend a lifetime tryng to visit them all!

  9. So fascinating about the lichen — I will tell my Michael.

  10. can anyone remember the song eilean Scalpaigh but sung in English by an old Gaelic singer 1940;s 50s Cant remember the singer. I have the Gaelic on but not the english version

    • Hi Doug, I don’t know the one you mean, but I will see if I can find out!

    • Hello again Doug, I asked my friend from Scalpay when I was there last week, and she didn’t know of any English version of Eilean Scalpaigh. Sorry I couldn’t find out for you.

    • Hi Doug.
      Best person to ask is Morag Macleod , daughter of the original writer and singer of such a classic.
      Morag Macleod.
      Cala Reidh, Camus bheag , Scalpay , Isle of Harris.

  11. I really enjoyed reading your blog, it was enlightening but relaxing as well. The photos are very good. Hope to hear more of your adventures there.

  12. Hi Christine, have just seen your post be it in 2014!!
    My daughter is doing school stuff on the Jacobites so will be taking her to Charlie’s cave here on Scalpay.
    If anyone else requires any info on the island please feel free to mail and will try and help.


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