In May this year we booked a holiday. To explore the scenery, landscape and, of course, the history of the Outer Hebrides. It was not intended as a Jacobite tour, but from the very start we kept bumping into Charlie! I knew some of his story, of course, because I researched much of it while writing my Highland Trilogy. Two of the books actually mention Bonnie Prince Charlie.
In the footsteps of Bonnie Prince Charlie (Almost)
We drove south to the beautiful port of Oban to catch the ferry to the islands, but on the way we made a long-overdue visit to the Glenfinnan Monument.
Charles Edward Stewart arrived in Glenfinnan to find it almost deserted. Then, the story goes, he heard the sound of pipes and over the hill arrived more than 1000 clansmen, come to pledge their allegiance to Bonnie Prince Charlie. A local landowner, Alexander MacDonald of Glenaladale commissioned the monument but he died at the age of 28 in the year it was completed. Renowned for his life of excess, he was also heavily in debt. Sounds like many a Georgian rake, I think.
What made it very, very special was that on the very edge of Loch Shiel a man was singing an old ballad. I have no idea what it was, it sounded like a lament to BPC but I felt too awkward to actually interrupt him to ask!
From Oban we took the ferry across to Castlebay on Barra, where we sailed in past the ancient Kisimul Castle, a MacNeil stronghold since the 11th century. No BPC links there but the following day we took the ferry to Eriskay, where BPC landed first in Scotland in July 1745. You see? We can’t get away from the guy.
A quick (literary) detour
Or maybe you know the story. Compton Mackenzie made it famous in his book, Whisky Galore. The SS Politician left Liverpool bound for Jamaica and New Orleans with whisky for the American market. She was caught in gale force winds which drove her onto the sandbanks off Eriskay.
260,000 bottles of whisky on the stricken ship
Supplies of whisky had run out on the island, due to war time rationing, so the locals embarked upon an (illegal) salvage operation of the duty-free whisky before the Customs and Excise officials arrived. News travels remarkably quickly in the islands and boats came from as far away as Lewis to help with the “salvage”.
However, the local customs officer made an official complaint to the police. Villages were raided, crofts searched but the islanders hid or drank their whisky to hide the evidence. Eventually the ship was dynamited to stop any further pilfering.
Sadly, the real story did not end quite so merrily as the book. Many of the islanders were fined. Some of them were sentenced to up to six weeks in prison in Inverness and Peterhead.
To end on a happier note
And on, northwards
Here short-eared owls hunt in daylight and we saw plenty of them. I was even fortunate enough to have my camera in hand when two of them decided to squabble right in front of the car!
Another link to Bonnie Prince Charlie
We were driving north through the rather bleak landscape when we came across the birthplace of Flora MacDonald. A small signpost points to a grassy track where we parked and walked up the gentle slope to the monument. A drystone wall encloses a cairn bearing a metal plaque to Flora.
One can see no sign of her actual house now. The village has disappeared.
I wonder if any of her family thought, when little Flora came into the world in this bleak, beautiful place, that she would one day be so famous?
We drove on to Lochboisdale, where Calvay Island lies in the entrance of the loch. Bonnie Prince Charlie hid in the ruins of Calvay Castle before setting sale for Skye with Flora.
Our tour continued over the causeways that link South Uist to North Uist, via the islands of Benbecula and Grimsay. The drive included stunning viewing points, stone circles, blackhouses and deserted villages.
Then it was a tortuous ferry-ride to Harris and on to our hotel.
The Harris Hotel, in the main ferry port of Tarbert, has several things in its favour. Not only is it a short walk from the Harris distillery, but the hotel also has a secret library!
Actually, it is not really a secret, although I did have to ask one of the staff how to find it. Some years ago, the hotel staff had the brilliant idea of putting shelves in this tiny space and the local library donated books they no longer had room for on their own shelves. I spent a fascinating half-hour browsing the shelves before taking several books back to my room to read. Bliss.
And one last sighting of BPC
In the village of Arivruach there is a monument to BPC. He landed there on 4th May 1746 after the battle of Culloden.
It really is difficult to go anywhere on the eastern side of the islands that he has not been, from Stornaway in the north to Lochboisdale in the south. In all he travelled around 500 miles around the remote North-West Highlands of Scotland and the Western Isles before escaping back to France.
Interested in the Jacobites?
There is a lot of detail on the Jacobites.org website here
But it’s not just about Bonnie Prince Charlie
There are the beautiful Callanish Stones for a start. And Uig beach (where the Lewis Chessmen were found).
An iron age longhouse has been restored there, following the discovery of several round houses beneath the sands. They have been reburied now, to protect them
The iron age house is particularly fascinating. The guide we met has been almost living there for the past couple of years, learning about how people could live in such a building. We experienced for ourselves the way the cold air settles in the dark back room, making it perfect for storing food. Even the curving path down to the entrance keeps out the cold winds.
Finally, a wee dram
We visited the Abhainn Dearg, (Red River in English) a distillery on the remote western coast of Lewis at Uig. It is at the end of a spectacular drive and oversized Lewis chessmen keep guard at the gates. It’s a small distillery but the passion for the product shines through when you talk to the staff. And the whisky’s not bad, either.