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Notes from an author: Mark Rowe

A place of bleak, wild beauty, the islands off Scotland’s west coast are abuzz with tales of marauding water spirits, ghostly hamlets and psychic cows

Notes from an author: Mark Rowe
Mark Rowe. Illustration: Jacqui Oakley

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It’s 10pm on a fine day in July and I’m walking over a pass a mile north of the tiny settlement of Huishinish, on the westernmost edge of Harris. The light is still good and it’s all wonderfully remote. To the north are the southern islets of Uig, in Lewis, a distance of some four nautical miles across Loch Réasort but a journey of 75 miles by car. To the east, the western outliers of the north Harris hills rise up abruptly from the shoreline. This is a truly ancient landscape: the rocks are 2.8 billion years old — among the oldest on our planet — while the loch marks part of the timeless and blurred boundary between Lewis and Harris. I’m pretty sure I’ll be the only person today — and possibly this week — to take in this view.

Then I hear a creaking noise and the thump of a heavy footstep behind me. I’m certain I’m alone (there are no other vehicles in Huishinish). Turing around, I can see for 400 yards in every direction and there’s no one; nothing. The hairs on the back of my neck rise. I gaze towards the rusting gate, just out of sight below the hill and I spot a snipe. The wading bird is aloft, and drumming (a beating, winnowing thwump produced by its wings that forms part of its courtship display). A rational explanation is at hand for unexpected noises in the middle of absolutely nowhere.

The fabulously empty moors and hills of the Outer Hebrides offer hugely atmospheric landscapes, with some of Britain’s finest walking routes for new and experienced hikers alike. South Uist is my favourite,
and breathtakingly beautiful; the silence on this island can be deafening. Towards the south of the island, in Glen Choradaile and Glendale, are landscapes as remote and gloomy as you can find anywhere in the UK. In Choradaile, the terrain has been smashed by the elements and, before the bracken rises in May, remnants of centuries-old houses are visible: human occupation dismembered by the Highland Clearances in the 19th-century. There’s a powerful sense of walking both in the past and the present.  

In Glendale, you can hike out towards Bàgh Marulaig at the coast, where the tidal range is fearsomely wide. This particular place is really for experienced walkers only; it’s the kind of end-of-the-earth spot where you can get into trouble when the light fades at 3pm in November.

I’m about five miles from the road, and I can’t see anyone else out here. Even so, there have been moments where I’ve felt I’m being watched — and many other travellers before me have said the same thing. The most likely explanation lies in the one or two local people who still keep ancestral peat-cutting plots here, and discreetly keep an eye on the occasional stranger exploring the moors. 

When I’d mentioned this sense of being watched to islanders, I was told tales of unwary outsiders being swallowed up by land-raiding kelpies (water spirits); and hikers stepping into holes dug to hide bottles of whisky ‘salvaged’ from cargo ship SS Politician after it sank in 1941 — a disaster that inspired the classic film Whisky Galore. “The spirit life is quite strong in Glendale,” one local tells me. “I’m not saying you’re communing with ancestral ghosts but I’ve been out there on a silent day and you become very aware of any noise and of history.” A guesthouse owner nods in agreement: “Glendale gets you time-travelling, in your head. Maybe more.”

The Outer Hebrides could keep folklorists and ethnographers ever busy. In 1703, the writer Martin Martin described islanders’ stories of cows with second sight that could foretell the death of their owners by yielding blood from their udders. Then there are the Blue Men of the Minch strait: kelpies said to patrol the waters between the Outer and Inner Hebrides, who jump onto ships and sink them (perhaps they like whisky). There are, of course, plenty of literary accounts of how the combination of empty terrain and isolation can trick the mind. The Minch can indeed be perilous for smaller vessels, with opposing tides clashing over a fractured seabed to create steep-faced pits in the surface of the water, into which boats can take tragic plunges. 

There’s usually a rational explanation for everything. But get chatting in the Outer Hebrides and every now and then you’ll be given something else altogether.

The Outer Hebrides, The Western Isles of Scotland, from Lewis to Barra. RRP: £14.99 (Bradt Travel Guides) markrowe.eu

Published in the October 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)