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Behold the Hebrides
At The Uist Fords
Memories of a Fugutive Prince

THE efforts that at present are being made to preserve the ruined remains of the home of Flora Macdonald, in South Uist, close to Lochboisdale, have brought to mind certain fascinating associations of the Isle of Benbecula, on the north and south sides of which stretch the vast, sandy, islet-studded fords, that from low to, half tide have served for untold generations as a means of communication between North and South Uist. The origin of the name Benbecula has long confused both Gaelic and Scandinavian etymologists. At least one Gaelic authority suggests that, deriving the word from a Cymric root, it means the Herdman’s Isle, an appellation very appropriate for an island devoted mainly to pasturage. Other translators have rendered it as the Mountain of the Fords (beinn na faodhail), a name which, from the peculiar geological formations impinging upon it, seems equally suitable. Benbecula, at all events, has been appositely described as a place ‘where the sea is all islands, and the land is all lakes’—a description not unlike that which MacCulloch gave of North Uist, when he wrote that so much of the latter was occupied equally by water and by land that he found it impossible to discern with the naked eye which of the two predominated. That this topographical phenomenon impresses itself on most observant voyagers to the southern Isles is adequately borne out in the accounts given by subsequent wanderers and explorers. One writer says that the manner in which North Uist is intersected by the most complicated reticulations of fresh and salt water is ‘altogether unparalleled in the history of mother earth.’

In bygone days Benbecula and the Uists were numbered among the ancient properties of the chiefs of Clan Ranald, though the lichened and dilapidated remnants of the Castle of Bone (Caisteal Bhuirbh), where the lairds of Benbecula resided long ago, and of the Weaver’s Castle, only testify in a very meagre degree to the glory of pristine baronial days, when the mighty descendants of Somerled, the Rex insularum, and grandfather of Donald who founded the great and noble clan of MacDonald, and of Roderic who founded the Clan MacRuairi, established themselves so firmly in the more southern of the Outer Hebrides that latterly the chiefs of the MacDonalds were able to assume the dignified title of Lords of the Isles. Those were the days when to Caisteal Eilean Bheag Rum, the Castle of the Island of Small Dimensions, which stood on an islet in Loch an Eilean, a lake near Howmore, the captain of Clan Ranald and his family were obliged to flee for protection from the threatened attacks of their fierce neighbouring foes.

Oh, those were grand old times in Uist, for at this period the Islands were peopled by clansmen who feared neither God nor man, and who reviewed the restraining attempts of central authorities as an opportunity of demonstrating to kings and to princes their prowess and their dauntlessness.

Be it said, parenthetically that though comparatively little is known of the Uists during the end of the thirteenth century and the beginning of the fourteenth, several members of the MacRuairi family, which at that time held possession of the North Isles, were imbued much in the same way as the MacNeils of Barra—those fearless sea-rovers who were included ‘among the best seamen of the British Empire ‘—with a good deal of the piratical spirit of the ancient Vikings, whose blood flowed freely in their veins. From the Annals of Ulster we learn that in 1212 Roderic, the aforementioned grandson of Somerled, successfully harried the Irish coast with an armament of nearly eighty galleys. Then, again, we are told that about 1286 Alan MacRuairi, the son of Roderic, accompanied by some of his clansmen, plundered the valuable cargo of a Spanish vessel, which in a storm had been driven ashore in the Hebrides; and ten years later these same gentlemen had sufficient temerity to carry their marauding expeditions into the Long Island and Skye.

Loch Maddy was long the rendezvous of these wild pirates. It was not until about the year 1609 that the clan system in the Hebrides received its first real shock, when, through the signing of The Band and Statutes of Icolmkill, the Western Isles were brought under the control of the Scottish Parliament, and some measure of order was established. This change, however, was not effected without the exercise of a certain amount of compulsion, because, although the island chieftains assembled at lona and affixed their signatures to the covenant, in spirit, at any rate, they were long recalcitrant.

Among its nine clauses, the covenant required inns or ‘oistlairis to be set doun in the maist convenient placies within every Ile,’ and demanded that the ‘extraordinair drinking of strong wynis and aquavitie’ be put a stop to; while the inhabitants were forbidden to ‘beer pistolletis out of their awne housis, or schuit thairwith at deiris, hairis, or foullis.’ Furthermore, the expulsion of ‘vagaboundis, bairdis, idill and sturdie beggaris’ was to be rigorously resorted to, it having been the belief that no order could be established while the Islands harboured so many vagrants and ruffians.

No account of the history of Uist, however short, would be complete without at least a passing reference to a fugitive prince, who among the wild rocks and creeks of the southern Hebrides sought to conceal himself from the wrath of his oppressors, and who, during his sojourn there, met, in the person of Flora MacDonald, an Uist woman whose loyalty in face of adversity was as the shibboleth of her race.

In the summer of 1745 Prince Charles Edward with his attendants landed at Eriskay from La Doutelle (Dutillet), a small French frigate of eighteen guns, which had been placed at his disposal by its owner, Antoine Walsh, a merchant of Nantes. At Eriskay it is recorded that ‘he set foot on the kingdom of his ancestors’ for the first time.

The voyage was an adventurous one; and that first night he put up at the house of Angus MacDonald, the tacksman, where he was visited by a number of sympathisers, including the brother of Locheil, who at the outset tried hard to persuade him to abandon his undertaking, because of the uncertainty of its success.

‘What a plague is the matter with this fellow that he can neither sit nor stand still, and neither keep within nor without doors?’ exclaimed Angus, who did not realise that the prince, having been accustomed to large, airy apartments, was, in consequence of the stuffiness of the chimneyless and peat-reeked habitation, obliged to go outside every few minutes in order to get a breath of fresh air.

Later the prince sailed for Benbecula, having arrived at the island of Wiay one morning after a stormy night-passage. Here he is said to have sheltered in a tumbledown shepherd’s hut. Of this journey we read that the prince ‘was well pleased, and slept soundly on an old sail.’ After his defeat at Culloden, he was again compelled to flee to the Outer Isles, and landed at Rossinish in Benbecula. While in South Uist he found his way to a cave on the water’s edge at Coradale, a bay between Loch Skiport and Loch Eynort. Here he hid himself for some days.

It was at the shieling of a MacDonald near Ormacleit, in South Uist, that, when his capture seemed imminent, he found tenderness and mercy at the hands of Flora MacDonald, who planned his escape to Skye.

O, what romance is commingled with the history and tradition of this little Scotland of ours!

Now, I wish to tell you something about those great fords to which I alluded earlier as being the regular thoroughfare between North and South Uist. Here the Islanders are able to cross as on dry land when the tide is low, unless the weather is very wild and the seas are exceptionally high.

Half-way across the North Ford, which, with its devious and precarious routes, stretches roughly between Gramisdale in Benbecula and Carinish Inn in North Uist, and is about three or four miles in length, lies Eilean na h-Airidh, the Isle of the Shieling. Here one track branches off in the direction of the low-lying and boggy island of Grimsay. The South Ford, which is only about a mile long, is deeper, and lies between Creagorry in Benbecula and Carnan in South Uist. So, you see, one has to travel a distance of over nine miles in all when going from one Uist to the other. Of course, five miles or thereabouts of this distance are traversed in crossing Benbecula.

I cannot think of the Uist Fords without at once being reminded of the Lost Continent of Atlantis, concerning which a valuable book has been published recently by an Edinburgh man, who has devoted many years to the theories associated with this fascinating subject.

A study of the extreme variations in climatic conditions, which resulted in successive denudations on a gigantic scale of areas that once supported a luxuriant vegetation, and an examination of the changes that have been produced by the submergence and emergence of land in what, so far as our islands are concerned, must be regarded as prehistoric times, are convincing evidence that at one period in the earth’s history St Kilda and the Flannan Isles were not separated from Lewis by the sea, and that the whole of the Western Isles once formed part of what we now refer to as the mainland of Scotland.

Though these great geological changes are usually so slow as to be almost imperceptible in a generation, and, indeed, sometimes in a century, they are all the time taking place. The old order is continually changing; every moment the valleys are being exalted and the hills laid low.

We know that within historic times the archæan formations of the Western Isles have witnessed a series of marine and epigene denudations of an important scientific character. From the Exchequer Rolls we learn that in 1542 the valued rental of North Uist was reduced as a result of the encroachment of the sea. And nearly two hundred years later (1721) a further intrusion of the sea is recorded in a document addressed to the Forfeited Estates Commissioners, in which the wad-setters and tacksmen attest and deliver that, besides the severe losses sustained through murrain among the cattle and sheep, ‘about Candlemas last the sea overflowed severall pairts of the countrie, breaking down many houses to the hazard of some lives, which hase impaired the lands to such a degree as its possible it may happen more and more that they cannot answer to the worst sett in former times.’ The relative changes in the level of the sea and land in these regions are further borne out by the Sailing Directions for the West Coast of Scotland (1885).

The sands of the Uist Fords are whitish in colour, being chiefly of calcareous origin. They have been formed by the crumbling and the powdering of sea-shells, which the irresistible force of the Atlantic waves have reduced to an infinitesimal fineness—a process that has been going on uninterruptedly for hundreds of centuries.

When dry, these sand grains are wafted landwards by the wind, where they fall among the bent and other grasses of the machair. In the heat of summer these æolian deposits cause the grasses to wither and to die; in an arid season the machair often becomes parched and sunburnt like a miniature desert, for every fail and blade of grass is shrivelled up, and is rendered lifeless and languid. One writer tell us that, whereas the grasses of the machair-lands on the west side of Uist are in summer dried up by the sun’s heat, in winter the finer and more tender grasses are ‘melted away by the rains and storms and frost.’ The result is that the cattle in the coastal parts often starve, unless they have access to the sea-ware that grows on the rocks, or to a little winter fodder that may have been stored up to tide them over the lean months. Most of the cattle in Uist are outliers; so you can imagine what a severe time they have in winter, especially on the west side.

The white sands of North and South Uist and Benbecula are visited by in-numerable birds—eider-ducks and teals and gulls, and wild, gray, greedy geese and green plovers. In the month of May they are besieged by all manner of fowls, including the curlew, the snipe, and the rock pigeon. These regions are visited annually by swans; and each August great flocks of geese invade the cultivated plains of North Uist, where they do so much damage to the crops that the inhabitants are obliged to light fires and to erect wind-clappers in order to scare them away.

Seals often frequent the vicinity of the Fords; and the shy red deer come down from the hills to drink of the streams that flow through them.

But it is at eventide that you ought to visit the Fords, if you are at all imaginative. Then, should the tide be far out, you will be able to watch the flounders that flop in the sandy channels and adjacent pools at the setting of the sun. And you will see the silent gatherers with their creels among the inexhaustible cockle-beds.

And, if you should tarry until darkness has fallen around you, and the sands are aglow with the soft half-light of the Aurora Borealis and of many quivering stars, you will become conscious of the mysterious meaning of those boulders that by the hand of man have been placed at intervals to guide in safety across the Fords the pilgrim, who may be mist-enwrapped or night-encircled. And you will hear the lonely cry of the sea-birds, and the plaintive piping of the curlews and the oyster-catchers where, at the line of the ebbing tide, the cold green water meets the land. And your ears will be attuned to the sea-music that the breakers of the limitless Atlantic have been making on these Hebridean sands for a million years and more; and you will find yourself at one with the Infinite.

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