The following account, of a 2019 passage, gives a flavour of the sort of expedition which would be undertaken by the Lewis skiffs, and friends, as part of RowAround Scotland.
We set out to explore and camp our way around Loch Ròg in the Outer Hebrides, against a background of powerful winds and questionable forecasts. Our fleet consisted of four St Ayles skiffs, a Drake and a Sgoth Niseach – all this accompanied by Michael Skelly in his semi rigid fizz boat for support. We numbered between 20 and 25 persons, as participant joined and departed.
An Eathar Rowing Club’s Yackydoola was very much at home as was Falmadair Trust’s Callicvol dipping lug sail “sgoth”. Jenny Skylark and Pascual just about know their own way north by now but had brought the Row Porty rowers with them, regardless. Blue Moon, our constant friend, was kindly loaned again by Steornabhagh based Embark and Charlie Green’s Florence joined from a land base each day, not only taking radio batteries home to recharge but allowing people who were time constrained to join and leave the expedition. Valuable assistance indeed. Our additional participants included six Australian, mostly Tasmanian, veterans of open boat raiding and representation from Uist rowing club also.
Having that first day dodged winds upward of 20 knots from the north east we snacked at the delicious Miabhaig Scallop Shack as we waited for driver Don and the Horshader bus to take us to the Traigh Na Beirghe campsite. There we met the local sheep who looked proper affronted that we were camped on their machair pasture and brayed loudly as a diversion while the bolder ones poked their faces into buckets and dry bags. We walked in the waning wind to the sweeping beach – some to bravely swim. Eventually campsite warden Fin showed up and conversation soon gave way to him squeezing the “Eternal Surge of the Sea” and many other local musical gems from his new melodeon. The girls danced. He also drew our attention to an iron age fort, Dun Bharabhat, and the rocky stream studded with small mill ruins that leads up to the tarn like loch and it’s broch remains. Breathtaking.
We turned north past Bhàcasaigh for Pabaigh Mòr collecting mackerel as we went. Here we met a melodeon ocean pressing and stretching lifting and dropping us. We gave up on Caolas an Ear – the narrow channel to the wonderful lagoon in the northeast of the island – and headed into the safety of Traigh na Cille to make ourselves a short stay Baile na Cille tented village. Here we cooked fish and by erecting an Australian flag attracted a visiting rib from a passing ship. A curious stranger rocked up to our small settlement. Incredibly he was a good friend and colleague of one of our Tasmanians – Martin Riddle – both of them gobsmacked at the chance meeting. In the evening Ian Stephen, standing on the beach told the story of the broken teeth of 15th century Pabaigh resident Tarmod and the vengeful massacre of brothers, hunted down one by one. Tented between the water lily covered lochan and the remains of St Peter’s chapel (1266-1559AD) we slept like the slain.
In flat light and faint winds we departed the priest island, as the Norse knew it, and headed across the open sea to Caolas Fhlodaigh and Beàrnaraigh Beag beyond. The sea was not listening to the wind – it was still playing yesterday’s tune. It proudly raised us and indifferently dropped us, we watched each other marvellously appear and disappear. You’ll never guess what we caught at Bogha na Saoidhean. Yes, the ever popular pollock. Stuffed fish head for tea surely? Beyond the cleft separating the greater and the lesser Beàrnaraigh we beached on Traigh an Teampuill. Baggage ashore we got back aboard and went anti clockwise to land on Traigh Mòr. Here the sun blazed. The beach was hot; the sand harvest yellow and the sea so blue. The scene was Caribbean – the swimming sensation baltic. Shepherded by Michael Skelly we rock hopped and hugged the skerried coast home to the camp. After roasting rionnach and eating stuffed saoidhean head we assembled raptly on Baca Mòr hillock. In the radiating fading rays of sunset Ian Stephen finished off the Pabaigh murdering brothers in turn. The tale told, another day closed.
We awoke to nothing. Beàrnaraigh Beag was enveloped, fading at every edge. Soon a glimmer, then a glow of sun. The golden sea was revealed and coastlines appeared beyond the crosses of the churchyard. The curtain lifted on our closing passage back to Breascleit. We weren’t quite ready to concede so we went back on ourselves through the toboggan tunnel of an Coalas Cumhang to Traigh Bhostadh. Some dived into the past by visiting the iron age house replica nearby but many just wandered and squandered any serious intention to just wilfully soak up undiluted summer.
Eventually we caught a favourable wind and headed home unhurriedly, the memories already banked, souls and seas restful.
An Eathar Rowing Club is based in Siabost, Lewis. Traditional boat building and sea-going skills, once widespread in the community and largely lost in this modern era, are being revived.
The Yackydoola has been named after a boat of the same name that appears in a locally penned Gaelic song written by Kenneth Macleod in the 1920’s or 30’s. Where fishermen from Siabost got the name from is an interesting question – as it bears some similarity to the chorus of a Hawaiian love song recorded by Al Jolson and Bing Crosby around that time: “Yaaka Hula Hickey Dula.”
Kirsty Watt singing a song known in Lewis as Òran Màiri Dhall
The composer was a Mary MacIver from Valtos in Uig, Lewis, although born on Pabay, and was but a year old when the island was cleared, therefore referred to as Bliadhnach Phabaigh. She emigrated to America but was so unhappy with homesickness that she eventually returned home just before the First World War. She remained in Lewis, where she died in 1920.
Interviews with three of our rowers
All photos by Murdo Macleod
Video credit: Anna MacKenzie