Cycling the Outer Hebridean archipelago, from Barra to Lewis
Day 1: Oban to Barra
We met on Oban pier. Paul had arrived on the Glasgow train; I had pedalled the 20 miles from Lochawe in a mixture of torrential rain and bright spring sunshine, giving me ample time to settle into my new identity as a cycle tourer, to slow down in response to my heavily laden cycle and enjoy the view through my special rose tinted cycling spectacles. The railway line rubs shoulders with the road by the narrows at Connel, where the placid waters of Loch Etive turn briefly to white water as they surge through the Falls of Lora. By chance Paul’s train rattled past above me at that moment. I waved, but the sun glinted off the dirty windows of the carriage, hiding any response from within.
“Strange that nobody else has a racing bike – most folk have brought tourers.”
Paul laughed. “That’s because this is a tour, not a race.”
I emerged from the ticket office with a great sheaf of tickets: Oban to Barra; across the Sound of Barra to Eriskay; from Berneray to Harris; finally from Lewis back to the mainland. This was to be a challenging route, taking in entire the length of the Outer Hebrides over a long weekend. One day to get from home to Barra. Our first real day’s cycling would take us as far as North Uist. A further long day in the saddle would see us as far as Lewis. The third and shorter day of the trip would be the journey home, to Stornoway, Ullapool and Inverness. Having left work on a Thursday evening I would return the following Tuesday having rendered another of my dreams in the ink of reality.
A stormy crossing
As we drank in the saloon bar at the front of the ferry bar I absorbed the Stornoway Gazette. It contained a story reporting a softening in the attitude of the Free Church towards homosexuality. No longer were homosexuals condemned to burn in the fires of hell, redemption could be theirs if they were to renounce their evil ways and come to the house of God with tears of repentance in their eyes.
Initially the hills of Mull provided shelter from the strong sou’westerlies but as we emerged from the Sound into the Minch the boat began to pitch and roll on the deep ocean swell. Becoming hungry I encouraged Paul to accompany me aft to the galley. Strangely we found it deserted, save for the stewards. Soon I was alone, for Paul, though not quite seasick, made his excuses and departed for the bar so that he might be spared the sight of my drunken gluttony.
We had debated long and hard whether to ride until we ran out of land at the Butt of Lewis or to take the easy way out and cut across the moors to Stornoway. Emboldened by lager we chuckled and cackled like Beavis and Butthead as we toasted our new plan and its accompanying slogan.
“Butt or Bust!”
Synchronicity meant that I had an appointment to keep on Barra. My mother, on her first visit to the outer isles, was at that time ensconced in a hotel on the west coast of the island. We had arranged to drop by for a by then completely unneeded pint. We sat in the bar of her hotel and enjoyed, through salt-stained windows, a commanding view of the Atlantic breakers rolling in. We were celebrated as heroes among her coach touring companions, both for the distances we proposed to cycle and for our plans to pass this wild night under canvas.
As night fell we left in a blur, carried by the wind round sweeping bends, eager to find a camping spot. At one point my speedometer rose above 40 mph. After pintage in the double figures, on a fully laden bicycle, this was exhilarating and life affirming as only the more irresponsible and dangerous activities can be. The wind direction rather than the map dictated our eventual destination. We ran out of road at the ferry slipway.
A surfeit of wind and a deficit of flat ground made the unlocked waiting room more appealing than the tent. After settling into our bags we were unable to locate the light switch. So tortured was I by this unsolicited brilliance that I went outside with the intention of pitching the tent but returned before long, driven indoors by horizontal rain and hummocky soil.
A minute’s exposure to the elements had sharpened my faculties. I found the sensor responsible for the unwanted light, stood upon the bench below it and pulled a glove over it. Mercifully this did the trick, after a few minutes darkness descended on the waiting room, allowing us to enjoy a few hours’ kip before the arrival of the ferry crew roused us from slumber in the morning.
Day 2: Barra to North Uist
The ferry departed about 0800, carrying us across the choppy sound to Eriskay. On another trip we could have spent a week savouring Barra, but our whistlestop tour saw us arriving, partially tranquilised, in the fading light of dusk, sweeping along the narrow roads from south to north, leaving almost before we had time to contemplate our arrival. This transience is both the blessing and the curse of cycle touring, it is a truly dynamic pastime.
The landing point on Eriskay was no more than a slipway protected from the waves by a breakwater of piled stones. On the climb from the slipway I paused by the tumbledown outline of a ruined blackhouse to admire the scene. The blue-grey waters of the sound were flecked with white and a rainbow arced towards the slipway. Nettles at my feet rustled in the wind, a lingering signature of lives played out between these squat walls.
The Outer Hebrides convey an overarching sense of dereliction. The ruins of the old black houses sit adjacent to the slowly crumbling white houses that replaced them, and beside these are often modern bungalows. Here the past seems to coexist with the present – many people alive today passed their smoky childhoods beneath the thatch or corrugated tin of a traditional black house.
The other inescapable feature of these outer isles is the wind. I have a map of Scotland at home that is coloured according to the average windspeed. These outer isles are depicted in dark purple, corresponding to an average annual windspeed of 16 mph. This equates to Force 4 on the Beaufort scale: a moderate breeze; sufficient to raise dust and loose paper, to move small branches. Perhaps because of the wind there are few people in evidence. Presumably the residents sit indoors most of the time, perhaps lamenting the incessant, harrying wind and fretting over the integrity of their roofs.
Both sky and sea were blue as we crossed the first causeway of the trip, that linking Eriskay to the long sweep of South Uist. ‘Caution: Otters Crossing’ proclaimed the sign. The sleek form of the otter scurried along the base of the red triangle – it needed the full width of the sign to accommodate its wiry body and long tail, leaving the upper portion void, a blank canvas. Piles of stones lined the road on each side, fortifications designed to keep the sea from invading the surface of the tarmac. The causeways are one of the great pleasures of touring through these islands. Instead of suffering the discontinuity imposed by a ferry journey, the transition from island to island is seamless, almost too fast. I pause to savour the proximity of the water, to inhale the refreshing aerosols.
A trip like this is a blur. In a crowded office or through the bustle of family life the memory will only ever recall snapshots, as if the experience had been filed away as an album. Yet the whole trip is lodged deep in the recesses of the subconscious. If the relaxation felt at the time could be recaptured, in a meditative moment – or under hypnosis – whole sections could be replayed, relived.
As we cruised past boats bobbing in a bay and lobster pots piled by the roadside, a golden Labrador ambled out to greet us. It would have been churlish to spurn its curious, friendly advances so we pause to clap it, savouring the scene, filing more snapshots in our minds.
I paused at a war memorial, perched above the road on a hillock. Paul had been lagging behind. His gear cable has snapped, leaving him stuck in a lower gear.
“I hope there’s a bike shop soon” I admired his optimism, but realistically don’t expect there to be any such thing until Stornoway. It will be a long trip in first gear. I thought I was well prepared, but it did not occur to me to bring spare cables. There is always more to learn.
We stop off at a shop. Outside a short man with the honest face of a Gael struck up a conversation. In the pocket of his black staypress trousers nestled a can of Stella, the top peeping out at his waistband. A nice touch, you never know when an unexpected turn of events might require you to crack into a can of beer at short notice. He conveyed the unlikely good news that a bicycle repair shop awaited us about 8 miles up the road.
We swept northwards, the rush of wind through my helmet and the larksong providing the soundtrack as we sailed up the single track roads with the sea to our left and the Uist hills to our right. My rose tinted cycling spectacles lent the spring grass a vivid hue, like the dyed greens of the Augusta National golf course during Masters week. The Uist hills were another feature of the journey that were gone almost before we had seen them, to await another day.
We passed the honest faced Gael with the can in his pocket once more. He was standing incongruously by the road, like an apparition or guardian angel. We slowed and greeted him. He repeated his promise of the bicycle repair shop that awaited us up the road.
He was true to his word. His promise delivered, he passed from our journey and continued his own, still fingering the can of Stella in his pocket and waiting for the appropriate moment to ingest its contents.
While Paul saw to the bicycle repairs I cycled down a side road adjacent to the cycle hire and repair shop, past quaint renovated houses, their thatched roofs secured with necklaces of lassoed stones. The road through the Uists is primarily an inland road and this detour allowed me to meet the sea face to face. In Scotland the sea is never far away, yet the indented coastline and profusion of offshore islands makes the opportunity to savour a true ocean horizon a rare treat. Clouds scudded overhead, their damp cargoes held in reserve, to be released later in response to a tickling from the high peaks of the mainland. On the hunt for titbits, a flock of sandpipers wheeled amongst the foaming surf as it pulsed over the sand towards the dunes.
Paul’s steed was invigourated after its snack of steel thread; our paces were equal once again. We devoured the remainder of South Uist without ceremony, savouring first the inland causeway over Loch Bi, then the inter-island causeway to Benbecula. In a fit of enthusiasm we took the coastal route round the island, stopping for lunch in the bar of a hotel. It was by now a sunny day and it felt wasteful to be cooped up inside a bar. The cushioned chairs and sticky toffee pudding were welcome, as were a couple of pints. The pints would have counted as a hair of the dog but we had put so many miles between ourselves and the previous night’s excesses that any lingering trace of hangover belonged to other people in another place.
To make up for the sunny lunchtime spent indoors we paused by the shore. An unfamiliar smell tempted me to explore and I found the partially decomposed remains of a grey seal, presented on a bed of gneiss boulders – a macabre and inedible dish. Its skin was leathery like dried seaweed and a gaping hole had opened over the ribs A few tufts of ginger lent it the impression of having been dragged over a barber’s shop floor on its way to this final resting place. The skull too was bleached and exposed; in death all seemed to be jaw, all the bone recruited to the task of driving sharp teeth through the flesh of its prey, or its rivals. The flippers were gone, the stumps like finger bones. Caught in a reverie, I revisited myself as a slightly younger man, standing on the shoreline to the west of the Golden Gate Bridge on a grey, overcast day, inspecting the matt black carcass of a sea lion. So many threads run through our lives, bringing continuity, linking disparate events across time and space. The start of this particular thread was recorded in a photograph on my granny’s table. My papa had taken me to a bay where the body of a basking shark had been washed up. I posed for a photo beside it. Neat cubes of its flesh had been removed, for dog food I was told.
None of this trivia distracted my attention from the road as we swept round the coast of Benbecula, through the incongruously shabby prefab settlement of Balivanich and onto the series of causeways that would see us clip the western end of the island of Grimsay before making landfall on our final island of the day, North Uist. Benign today in the spring sunshine, these causeways were the scene of a tragedy during the January storms of 2005. Five members of the same family were taken by the sea as they attempted to flee from their homes on North Uist to Benbecula. The winds that night were reported as gusting to 120 mph. For the family to have been sufficiently terrified to leave the shelter of their homes to take their chances outside they must have felt that it was certain that, were they to stay put, the sea would come inland and sweep their lives away.
Tiring now, the roads presented us with a choice. When the map is turned upside down, the shape made by the A roads on North Uist bears a passing resemblance to the outline of the Australian coast, with our current position being Darwin and our destination Perth. We chose the shorter, clockwise route and cut overland, through lochan studded moorland. Sturdy crofters were stacking cut peats so they would dry in the wind. It looked backbreaking but satisfying work. As an enthusiastic burner of logs I know the pleasure that comes from heating a winter’s evening through honest sweat rather than hardearned cash.
Further up the road, on the northwest flank of Beinn Langais, we paused to visit a chambered cairn. From the outside it was a flattened hemisphere of piled stones, presumably unearthed when the surrounding area was cleared for agriculture during the brief window of fertility that opened between the ages of ice and peat. It was possible to stoop and pass through a low entrance into the depths of the cairn. We settled briefly on the floor, and enjoyed the darkness and the cool, dry atmosphere. Most appealing about a site such as this is the lack of commercialism and its associated officialdom. It is not yet subject to the tyranny of organised preservation, where salaried guardians extract a levee from visitors and issue instructions about where it is proper to walk and what it is acceptable to touch.
It threatened to rain as we approached Lochmaddy, so after a brief visit to the local shop we settled ourselves in the bar of the local hotel to sit out the showers. The local shop window contained an announcement from the local Lord’s Day Observance Society. The sanctity of the Sabbath was being threatened by Sunday ferries and a protest was planned. Protesting the proposed Sunday ferry presented the Society with a terrible conundrum. They could hardly form a picket line on the Sabbath. Accordingly their protest would pass unnoticed, consisting as it did of prayer and sermonising indoors.
A ray of bright sunshine heralded the passing of the showers and we embarked on the final stretch of our journey, from the bustle of Lochmaddy on a Saturday night to our chosen camp spot, located down a side track past a burial ground on the Machair Robach, Traigh Hornais is an idyllic beach on a coastline composed almost entirely of idyllic beaches. Exhausted but satisfied after our day’s exertion of 70 miles or so, we lost no time seeing to our essential tasks: pitching the tent; opening a beer; rolling a joint; preparing food.
As night fell we strolled on the wave-smoothed sands of the beach. The pulsing sea had deposited offerings of great leathery scarves of kelp at our feet, but this was mere windblown chop, not the great Atlantic breakers of the previous night on Barra. Though right by the sea, our camp was sheltered from the worst excesses of the ocean by a slender peninsula to the west and by the isles of Linaigh and Boreray to the north. As the sinking sun painted a peach band between the dark, flitting clouds and the gunmetal grey of the sea, the wind began to feel cold and in silent agreement we retraced our steps along the sand, the flutter of the flysheet diluting the rush of the surf and easing our drift into sleep.
The morning dawned bright, warm and full of promise. The wind had dropped overnight, the door of the tent hung limp and the clouds were puffy and rounded, complacently resting in the sky, not the ragged clouds of the previous evening, stretched and harassed by the wind.
Day 3: North Uist to Lewis
Our last ferry ride within this archipelago did not leave from North Uist, but from the island of Berneray, linked to North Uist by another causeway. At the slipway we found another palatial waiting room, with running water and electric lights. On a wild night it would have been preferable to the tent.
I do not know how long the service of which we availed ourselves that morning, the small ferry that plies the Sound of Harris between Berneray and Leverburg, had been running on the Sabbath, nor how vigorously its introduction had been protested by the local Lord’s Day Observance Society. It seems that where Sabbath ferries are concerned it is tolerable to travel between islands, but not to the mainland.
It was a shame to leave Berneray without savouring the miles of straight and uninhabited sandy beaches that make up its west coast. I knew now that they were there, filed in my memory as a destination to visit in the future – as an ambition? When my dreams started to become as commonplace and attainable as camping by a windswept Atlantic beach I realised that I had taken a step towards old age. I had passed from the unlimited possibilities of youth to accepting that the reservoir of opportunity provided by one lifetime is finite. There is not yet any rush, I expect another forty summers during which I may make my camp by that beach, but by next year the number of potential opportunities will have shrunk to thirty nine. In my thirties I feel as if I am standing in the no man’s land between youth and old age. Looking forward I see myself as an older man, my nose sagged to a hooked beak like my grandfather’s, pitching my tent and announcing triumphantly that in doing so I was achieving an ambition nurtured over a lifetime. But I can also see how sad and pathetic my victory would appear when viewed through the eyes of a young man, through those eyes it is just a tent and just a beach, a commonplace event to be taken for granted, to be dismissed rather than celebrated..
My mother’s ambition had been to walk the length of these isles. While her spirit is willing her ailing limbs dictated that a tour by coach was a more appropriate option. While my back was turned my store of available summers during which I may pitch my tent by the golden sands of Berneray have been quietly depleted, as if by a thief in the night. My true reserves may number closer to twenty than to forty.
On the deck of the ferry there were no melancholic thoughts of opportunities missed or still to be missed. All our attention was focussed on the adventure ahead, a journey that would take away from these flat isles where the winter storms can grant the sea access to the land and onto the Long Isle of Harris and Lewis. It was curious and unfathomable to us as outsiders that one island should carry two names. The line that divides Lewis from Harris is not an international border like that which divides Haiti from the Dominican Republic, nor does it rest at the logical point of Tarbert where the geography squeezes the island to a narrow wasp’s waist, rendering the two parts readily separable, like a pre-scored glass ampule. The map shows South Harris to be the region to the south of Tarbert, North Harris to be the mountainous region to the north of Tarbert and the Isle of Lewis the remainder. Could it be that in times past, before the high pass that were looking forward to cycling today was capped with tarmac, the easiest may to travel between Lewis and Harris was by boat? In that context they are indeed two islands, separated by a channel of mountain rather than a strait of water. An accident of cartography means that the contour lines in the space between rise up from sea level rather than sinking below.
The Sound of Harris is studded with islands. Looking at the map reminds me of Paul Theroux’s description of a chart of the Pacific as a ‘portrait of the night sky…dotted with misshapen islands that twinkled like stars’. If the Atlantic is overcast by comparison, the Sound of Harris is a chink in the clouds. I am now part of a view that profoundly affected me when I looked down on it from the window of a transatlantic airliner a half-dozen years previously. I was in the final months of my doctoral studies, on my way to present a poster at a conference and inspect a dead sea lion in San Francisco. I had recently made the first real decision of my life – instead of taking the easy option of accepting the offer of a well paid job in the south of England, my partner and I would instead return to live in Scotland, letting the rest of the details sort themselves out. Looking down on the hundreds of lochan-studded islands amid the turquoise sea, each one fringed with a great apron of white sand, I knew that we would be returning to paradise. My eyes swollen with tears of emotion, as I recorded in my journal the fear that once we cleared St Kilda, that last star of the Atlantic, and the clouds closed over, I would forget the beauty of the Hebrides.
There being nothing to detain us in Leverburg we cracked on, eager to add a few more miles to a tally that would be close to 100 by the time we rolled triumphantly to the Butt of Lewis lighthouse at end of the day. The coastline of South Harris is however not one that can be rushed, a series of beautiful beaches demand to be experienced, inspected, photographed, recorded for posterity.
This being the Sabbath there were no golfers on the course among the dunes at the head of Traigh Scarasta. Distant figures strolled on the beach, this being a pastime over which the church has no jurisdiction, much, I imagine, to their consternation. A sign expressly forbidding play on Sundays greets the visitor. It must be much photographed, and much shown by returned tourists to their incredulous friends, irrefutable evidence of the backward attitudes that persist in this windswept land of Lord’s Day Observance. Recently it was announced that Sport Scotland planned to withhold funding from the Isle of Harris golf club as their attitude to the Sabbath contravenes equality laws which state that only projects that are accessible to all, seven days a week, may be funded. As we read in the Stornoway Gazette, the Free Church has little regard for equality, or, it seems, any law other than its own peculiar interpretation of the Law of God.
Silhouetted on the skyline on the headland beyond the next beach, Traigh Iar, the dark outline of Clach Mhic Leoid, the Macleod Stone, was visible. I do not know the story behind this stone but this beach holds a story of my own. By Harris standards it is a short beach of around 500 metres in length. It faces due west out to the depths of the Atlantic. My first visit to this beach was fourteen long years previously, in 1993. After my first year at university a friend and I had hitched round Scotland. We passed a few hours on the dunes behind Traigh Iar, smoking and watching the rollers smack into the sands.
Seeing the sands again brought it back to me what it felt like to be 18 years old with not a care; with all the time in the world to sit among dunes, watching the waves. When one travels to the same places time after time one’s own story becomes woven into the tapestry of the place itself. This is not always the case with urban travel, where often the place itself changes more in the intervening years than the traveller, but it is certainly the case in the relatively timeless environment of sand and machair, of sea and sky, that is to be found in the Hebrides. It is in places like Traigh Iar that we find the punctuation needed to make sense of our stories.
Paul was brought up in Somerset and regards himself as a European first and foremost. He had chosen to settle himself in Glasgow for a variety of reasons, but would happily settle in the Germanic lands, having discovered, to his amusement, that his temperament is naturally inclined towards the Teutonic. I recall one night he put me on the spot as to my reasons for regarding myself as Scottish rather than British or European and the answer came easily to me. It is not the proximity to family, or the desire to live among a people with shared cultural values. It is because of a deep sense of connection with the landscape. My own enquiries have revealed that this attitude is not unique, but neither is it commonplace. What I do know that it is very real for me and that weaving my story round the landforms of the west of Scotland satisfies me in a way that no other environment could. Were I to settle anywhere else in the world I know that I would always hanker after the air and light of the Hebrides.
On the opposite side of the headland from Traigh Iar, facing north into the sound of Taransay, is the beach of Traigh Niosaboist A popular camping spot in summer, it was deserted save for a sheep and her large following lamb. The mother’s fleece flapped untidily in the wind, the lamb’s still snug. Both carried blotches of blue dye on their backs. Sheltered from the wind, the sea lapped gently at the beach. The prospect of bathing was an appealing one, but the miles ahead precluded dillydallying.
We covered barely a kilometre before we dismounted once again. From our vantage point by the road the dunes of Traigh Shieleboist jutted into the sea like the blade of a scimitar, its edge kept keen by the action of the waves. We were in hill country now, swapping the smooth sweep of our journey through the flatlands for a series of gruelling climbs and glorious, effortless descents. The graft of climbing slowed our pace. On the relatively flat section at the top we met a bedraggled collection of cycle tourers, soldiering on into a wind that had been in their face from the start of their journey and would stay there till Barra, disheartening and disillusioning them further with each passing day. Publicly we sympathised, but once they were out of earshot we congratulated ourselves on our superior route planning skills. As W.H. Murray remarked concisely in his book ‘The Hebrides’ when describing this Long Isle of Lewis and Harris:
‘The outstanding climatic feature is wind.’
This fact, combined with the prevalence of the sou’westerlie, makes south to north the logical choice for a tour through these isles. Nothing in life is guaranteed, but we had certainly stacked the odds in our favour.
The surging descent to Tarbert was a delight, our first chance since Barra to indulge ourselves with breakneck speeds. Still wary of my heavily laden bike I was more cautious than Paul, who euphorically announced a new personal speed record of close to 50 mph when we compared notes at the bottom.
We did not pause in Tarbert, a jumble of buildings occupying the quarter mile neck of land that links South and North Harris, instead we climbed slowly round the coast and up into the cool air of the hills, the heights of An Clisham rising to our left. In contrast to South Harris, where we lingered and procrastinated at every point of interest, here we swept onwards, eating up the miles. Once on Lewis strong tailwind assisted us on the undulating roads, often providing the helping hand needed to unlock a rise and provide access to the sweeping downhill that followed. It is often said that there is no such thing as a free lunch and this was never more true than on that glorious sunny Sunday, for as we soared northwards with the wind at our back we were drifting inexorably to the east. This eastward drift would have to be recovered and though we did not know it at the time, the 10 or so westward miles traversing the moorland to Callanish with the wind in our faces were to be decisive.
At Callanish we slumped, exhausted, on the soft, freshly mown grass by the car park and soaked up the sun’s rays. We gorged ourselves on as many ready calories as we could cram down. Though nothing was said we both knew that the needle was shifting from ‘Butt’ to ‘Bust’.
The stones at Callanish are among the most spectacular in the UK. Rather than a circle, the slivers of Lewisian gneiss are laid out in the shape of a Celtic cross. I found it liberating to learn that, contrary to the teachings of the church, the Celtic cross predates that of Christianity by millennia. Gneiss is a rough, textured stone and in the afternoon light pink hues became apparent between their grey contours. I wandered amongst them, stroking their rough surfaces and allowing my eyes to drift from stone to setting, trying to absorb not just the form of the wonderfully irregular slabs, but the situation of the monument. Why here, on this ear of land, sheltered by the sea loch, but jutting into the Atlantic nonetheless?
The stones were formerly partially buried in around 5 feet of the peat that was laid down as the climate dampened between the construction of the site, almost 5000 years ago, and the present. It is humbling to be reminded of how much the landscape of these isles has changed in a comparatively short time.
I had visited these stones some years previously. On that occasion my arrival coincided with that of a tour bus which disgorged its aged hordes onto the stones all at once. They swarmed around, a fluid circle of flesh, making it impossible to focus on the stones. The arrival of further buses made it clear that there would be no lull in the proceeding. I knew that I could derive no pleasure from the place when it was sullied by such a mass of chattering humanity so I left, vowing to return one day. That day was today, and we had the stones to ourselves, vivid and crisp under the blue sky of a May afternoon. There were none of the tie-died, dreadlocked New Agers that I had encountered at Stonehenge, inviting passers by to remove their shoes and stand on the ley lines. Most of them claimed to feel something. Whether this was due to the mystical energy of the lines, the power of suggestion or simple politeness – not wishing to offend the self appointed guardians of the ley lines – I do not know. What I do know is that Callanish was all the better for the absence of such people. I left, renewed as much by the late afternoon sunshine as by the stones, with the idea that I would return once again in years to come, to fill the spaces between the stones with the next chapter of my story.
Our Butt dreams came to an end in the public bar of a hotel overlooking a small lochan a mere five miles or so from Callanish. It was clearly open, despite this being the Sabbath. I could not credit our good fortune. Kris and I had spent a Sunday in Stornoway during our 1993 hitching trip. At that time even in the capital there were no pubs that officially opened their doors. Fortunately we had been tipped off by a local that the Crown Hotel unofficially opened its back doors between the hours of 1100 and 1300. As we walked through the deserted streets to the securely bolted front door of the Crown Hotel we felt sure that we had been spun a line, but on turning into the car park at the rear of the premises a faint noise of revelry – the chink of glasses and the muffled roar of barroom chat – reached our ears. We entered through a fire exit which lay ajar and passed through the gents’ toilets to the packed main bar. The fun came to an end on schedule at 1300, but the locals left with bulging carrier bags, beer cans straining at the sides, to continue their celidh elsewhere. I realised there and then that Sabbath Observance is not the will of the people; it is a reflection of the fact that in our supposedly secular society an unacceptable amount of power still rests in the hands of the church.
Murray referred to the excesses of the ‘‘Stornoway Saturday Night’, when men from the dry outlands come in to drink hard’- how times have changed. Here were we in what was formerly the dry outland, being offered the chance to drink on the Sabbath!
It would, no doubt, have been possible to cycle to the Butt. What dissuaded us in the end was the need to show solidarity with these plucky outlanders, fighting to reclaim Sunday for its true purpose. How could we turn down an opportunity to take direct action against Lord’s Day Observance? Taking our seats towards the rear of the bar we raised our glasses in a toast to what, rather than a being a failure, was an unexpected victory over the tyranny of the Free Church.
“Butt or Bust?”
As we slaked our hard-earned thirsts there was only one answer,