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Field Notes

Hebridean shells - Lost homes of the isles



When planning a trip to the Outer Hebrides, one preconception is endless bleak wilderness. Two weeks away from the daily grind was enough to scratch the surface of the most westerly isles of Scotland (with the exception of St. Kilda, saved for another day). Starting from the most northernly tip of Lewis we meandered our way south through Harris and the Uists. Along the way we experienced stunning mountain-scapes, vast stretches of wild lochs, golden eagles and a catalogue of abandoned homes. The crumbling homes were consistent wherever you were on the isles. The evidence of a past thriving community and industry is apparent in every settlement you stumble across. Houses that have been neglected for decades have fallen victim to the elements. It is insensitive to assume one reason for all houses ending up in this state but a common theme appeared to emerge.

During our time spent on the isle of Great Bernera we met an islander who shared some stories from his life in many guises spanning from work on mussel trawlers, running a salmon farm, plumber, courier and now a local postie. The previous sentence summarises the story and point he was making, the fishing industry had declined faster than the Titanic. This industry had once supported the island's community and economy and was clearly deep-routed within the local heritage. If you were not working with our slimy pals, you were harvesting peat from the land. Both sources of income for the islanders had stepped aside to regulated EU fishing zones and alternative fuel sources. Of course there are still some of these trades left to serve the dependant hamlets but the majority of inhabitants had to adapt to a new way of life.

'You have to be versatile and adaptable to survive on these isles'

Swapping a fishing boat and license for a trip to the main land to learn new skills such as plumbing, building and other trades was quite common. The stories were not told in a bitter tone, rather a proud reflection of adaptability. It was inspiring in many ways as I struggle to think of many people that would be able to break away from their 'normality', 'expertise' and 'comfort zone' to thrive on a completely new way of life. 'You have to be versatile and adaptable to survive on these isles' were the words that stuck with me. This was very much a response to our throw away comment along the lines of how great it would be to escape to a more sustainable and slower way of life. The comment resonated during the time we spent on the isles as it hit home how bleak it really is. Our rose tinted vision of sending the drone up whilst swinging flies was quickly confirmed to be a 'visitors' activity. To carve a life here you need to be strong willed and resilient to the lifestyle. Rough nights at sea and hours of digging peat was hard enough when the industry was thriving, those that are left occupying this trade are faced with falling prices and competition with horizon-hugging trawlers from all EU states.

On our journey to Stornaway, the sight of Spanish, French and Portuguese registered lorries queuing at Ullapool harbour was a mystery. It was later discovered that a huge number of the haul from the western isles ends up on plates across these countries within 48 hours. A seaside restaurant in Portugal may be serving fresh seafood, little to the punters knowledge it is actually caught 2041 miles away and not the ocean they are gazing at. We found this quite a sad fact and we really should be considering where our food comes from and the significance it has in supporting the local communities. If there is a demand for fresh seafood in the holiday villas our nation flocks to, there must be a market for it at home - point made. Check out @saltbyjames for some amazing recipes for our sea occupying friends and start supporting your local fish mongers!

Don't forget to check out our video documenting our trip to these wonderful isles. 

- HM