(Gaelic - Eric's Island)
(Gaelic - uruisg = Old Norse - ay = Goblin Island)
(Norse - Eiriks ey - Eric's Island)
(Gaelic - Eilean Na h-Oige - Isle of Youth)
For me, this small island is the jewel of all the Scottish islands. Eirisgeigh is a stunning place. Catch it on a sunny day with big skies, blue seas and white beaches and you discover what the word "idyllic" really means. It is somewhere you will want to come back to, and while nearby Barraigh comes very close; Eirisgeigh is the highlight of any tour of the Western Isles.
This island, that has an area of 3.75 square miles and a population of about 200, is formed by two barren and knobbly hill peaks Ben Scrien (610 ft) and Ben Stack(400 ft) that rise resolutely out of the Sound and capture the fluid movement of radiance as the clouds frolic overhead. Although the island may not seem very inviting to you at first sight, it is a sactuary for ancient customs and particularity, an islander's island virtually untouched by the hustle and bustle of modern Britain. It has become prominent worlwide by "The Eriskay Love Lilt" and other beautiful Gaelic melodies, and by the shipwreck of the SS Politician, which stimulated Sir Compton Mackenzie to write the book Whiskey Galore. Also it takes its place in the quixotic story of teh portentous rising of 1745.
The two hills are pastures for the Eirisgeigh ponies, a small breed (12-15 hands) that still work on the land, hauling wagons of seaweed and peat. When they are born they are black in clolour, but as they mature the colouration turrns to grey and in some cases almost white. This animal, the nearest pony to a native Scottish breed, is now becoming an endangered species. So if you are fleet of foot and wish to see these delightful animals, find a good pair of walking shoes and go hill-walking.
In 1550 MacNeil of Barraigh owned Eirisgeigh and a visitor noted that it was home to a small fishing community taking full advantage of excellent fising grounds nearby. Until 1758 when it passed to the Macdonalds of Clanranaid. Which is pretty much how it stayed for three hundred more years. Everything changed in 1838. A Colonel Gordon of Cluny purchased Eirisgeigh, Barraigh, Bein A'Bh-Faodhia, and Uibhist a Deas. He cleared most of the islands of the people who had lived there for generations and grazed sheep. Eirisgeigh land was too poor to support sheep so Colonel Gordon generously permitted some of the people he had displaced to resettle there instead. As a reasult, Eirisgeigh's population of eighty was quickly swollen by 400 refugess.
One of Erisgeigh main claims to fame predates Colonel Gordon's clearances by nearly 100 years. On 23 July 1745 the French ship "Du Teillay" put ashore a small boat at a beach on the west side of the island. This is now called Coilleag a'Phrionnsa, which translates as "the Prince's cockleshell strand". Out of the boat stepped Bonnie Prince Charlie; the first time he had ever set foot on Scottish soil.
On Eirisgeigh, Charles met with Alexander Macdonald of Boisdale who urged him to go home. Chares is reported to have said "I am come home sir" before sailing for the Scottish mainland to raise his standard at Glenfinnan. Unfortunately the black house where he stayed was demolished in 1902. It is said that during his first night on the island he had to keep rising from his bed and into the open for fresh air, such was the smokey atmosphere inside. Today, as you walk along this the beautiful beach on which he landed, you will see a vibrant pink flower, (Calystegia Soldanella), known locally as Prince Charlie's Rose. It is white striped pink sea bindweed, a flower not native to the Hebrides. The first seeds are said to have fallen from Charles' pocket as he removed a handkerchief, and the local people will tell you that it will not grow anywhere except on the island. Please not do try to disprove this hypothesis by taking the plant away, just enjoy this magnificent pink flower where it grows. The main village and harbour of the island is Haunn (Haun). Here you will find a shop, school, post office and a church, for this village is the centre of all the activity on the island. The populace of this flourishing locale are Roman Catholic, have immense pride in their well-maintained and colourfully painted houses, and have an unwavering affection for their native island. Their principal line of business is fishing (a small fleet takes lobster, prawn and herring), but this is augmented by crofting and the manufacture of hand-knitted classical fishermen's ghanzies. These are self-coloured garments lighter than the more prevalent Arran and are also decorated with story-telling patterns.
So the influence oft. Michael's church that was built in 1903 is of great interest as is another that has succumbed t Father Allen Macdonald, a folklorist and eminent poet. You would not be mistakenSt. Michael's church that was built in 1903 is of great interest as is another that has succumbed to the influence of Father Allen Macdonald, a folklorist and eminent poet. You would not be for noticing a Spanish influence, as Father Allen worked for some years in Valladolid. The church bell was rescued from the German battle-cruise Derfflinger that was scuttled in Scapa Flow in 1919 and the altar bas was built from the vow section of a lifeboat from the aircraft-carrier HMS Hermes, and is painted brilliant white and is supported by golden anchors and coils of rope.
Another reason this island springs to your mind is an alcoholic one. For it was just off the northern coast that the SS Politician which struck rocks just off the north shore of the island on 5 February 1941, having confused the Sound of Eirisgeigh with the Sound of Barraigh, on her voyage to the United States with 24,000 cases of malt whisky. As soon as the crew were safe, the islanders thought that it was their business to liberate such an expensive shipment, and nearly everyone on the island, and some people will tell you the livestock as well, were inebriated. There was such a plethora of the spirit, that it was even used for lighting the peats! It is thought that over 2,000 cases or 24,000 bottles were liberated before the authorities arrived on the scene. In the aftermath, police and customs officers searched the entire island and several islanders were actually jailed for theft. It was on this event that Sir Compton Mackenzie based his book Whisky Galore, set on the mythical island of "Todday". A film was made in 1948 by Ealing Studios and filmed on the island of Barraigh. The remnants of the stern of the ship can still be seen today at low tide surfaced in seaweed, and intermittently an undrinkable bottle, of this cargo, is washed up on the beaches.
Today it is possible to see (but not sample) bottles of "Polly" whisky in Eirisgeigh only pub, the Am Politician. And stories continue of bottles turning up hidden in peat or long forgotten under floorboards. The Am Politician is to be found at the southern end of Eirisgeigh main settlement, which is scattered across the rocky northwest corner of the island, and is dominated by St Michael's Church, built in 1903.
Also dominated by St Michael's Church is the new causeway linking Eirisgeigh to the Uibhist a Deas. Work began in May 2000 and was completed in July 2001. The end result is a 1650m long causeway containing 700,000 tonnes of rock, and carrying the island's water and electricity supply as well as the more obvious road. It cost 9.4m (British pounds). The causeway should help stem the decline of the island's population, which has fallen steadily from 421 in 1931 to 179 in 1991. Eirisgeigh is now much more accesible from Uibhist a Deas than in the days of the ferry; and services in Uibhist a Deas and Beinn A'Bh-Faodhia are more readily available to Eirisgeigh residents.
Coinciding with the construction of the causeway, new harbours and ferry slipways were built on Eirisgeigh, at the south end of Coilleag a'Phrionnsa, and on Barraigh. A new ferry linking the two islands, and providing a quicker and more direct alternative to the existing triangular service from Loch Baghasdail to Bagh A Chaisteil and Oban uses these. In 2002 this operates with a small landing craft-type ferry that can carry a few cars; but from 2003 the service will become much more significant when the ferry currently crossing the Sound of Harris from Leverbutgh takes up the Barraigh to Eirisgeigh route.
Just off the southern tip of the island are the Stack Islands, where you will find the ruins of Weaver's Caisteal on Eilean Leathean. This was a camp for the privateer and pillager of shipwrecks, Macneil.
The Eilean Bhearnaraigh at Ceann a Ghraidh, Erisgeigh
The best way to transport a vehicle between Barraigh and Uibhist a Deas has for many years been via the triangular service linking Bagh A Chaistell on Barraigh, Loch Baghasdail on Uibhist a Deas, and Oban. That is all changing dramatically, and for the better.
To accompany the building of the Eirsgeigh Causeway, fine new harbours and slipways were built at Ardmore on the north east of Barraigh, and at Ceann a Gharaidh on Eirisgeigh east coast. These have been used by the small landing craft type ferry, the Elean Bhearnaraigh, to run a direct ferry service across the Sound of Barra. This is limited to carrying 35 passengers or a few vehicles and the result in Summer 2002 was that demand often exceeded the capacity of the ferry to carry it.
That will all change with the start of the Summer 2003 season. The Loch Bhrusda will be replaced on the Sound of Harris service by the new, much bigger vessel and will then come south to the Sound of Barra. The Loch Bhrusda will for the first time be able to provide a fast, short and accessible vehicle ferry service linking Barraigh to the rest of the Western Isles.
And it will do so with more frequency than the current ferry. For the winter period from 20 October 2002 until 29 March 2003 the current ferry operates three return journeys per day from Monday to Saturday, and two return journeys on a Sunday. Timetible and fare information is available on 01851 701702.
From 30 March 2003 the Loch Bhrusda will operate the service and there will be five return journeys every day of the week in Summer 2003 (including Sundays) and three return sailings every day in Winter 2003.
The fully operational Sound of Barra service in Summer 2003 will complete a project that been under way for 60 years, since the first bridge was built across the South Ford between Beinn A'Bh-Faodhia and Uibhist a Deas in 1942. In 2003, for the first time ever, you will be able to travel by car from the Butt of Lewis to Bhatarsaigh within a single day.
This is a distance of only about 140 miles, but it is an achievement unimaginable until recently. It relies on the existence of the fairly long-standing causeways at North Ford and South Ford, plus the more recent additions linking Bhatarsaigh, Bhearnaraigh and Eirisgeigh to their larger neighbours. And the new ferry services across the Sound of Harris and Sound of Barra complete the chain and confirm the Western Isles as a single interconnected series of communities with internal transport links as, or better, than those with the mainland.
All text and photographs are the copyright of
Dr. Jean-Michel Ducheney, HSM International S.A..
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