White Lightening on South Uist


Howmore horses

Ah! Your dog is a native of the Gaelic”, observed Tommy MacDonald, crofter and handyman at the Gatliff Trust hostel in Howmore, South Uist, where his wife, Betty, is warden. Dogs are not allowed in the main bunk house, but Bonnie was welcome to camp with me outside and receive the kindness of strangers.

Tommy MacDonald, note the 1pence pieces for buttons on his work overalls.

Tommy MacDonald outside Howmore Hostel

Tommy warmed to Bonnie, as we both did to him. While soothing Bon with words of lilting, softly-spoken Gaelic, he shared his frustrations with me (in English) about the recent community council meeting and the local authority’s decision to charge the Feis (volunteer-led, Gaelic music festival) £1000 for use of the school hall. The annual South Uist Feis takes place in July during the school holidays and the PFI- employed janitor watches over an empty building. And so, unprompted and while repairing hostel bed-frames, Tommy had given me my first Voluntary Arts policy briefing of the day on community engagement and asset management (something to take back to the Local Government and Regeneration Committee at the Scottish Parliament in its consideration of the Community Empowerment Bill…).  As an afterthought, I asked Tommy if he was musical himself. “Oh, not really, I just play the box [accordion] and sometimes keyboard in church”.

A pre-arranged meeting with Ceolas (traditional music development agency) in Dalibrugh filled in the gaps about local cultural infrastructure and I was impressed with the archive material at the Kildonan Museum (much of the curating done by a volunteer-led historical society). Across the road from Kildonan is a memorial to Flora MacDonald- famous heroine to the fleeing Bonnie Prince Charlie over the sea to Skye after the failed Jacobite rebellion- on the land believed to have been her birthplace. It was interesting to learn that in later life she travelled to America with her husband, fighting on the side of the British in the American War of Independence. More interesting though, was the old woman wrapped in an over-sized red cardigan, watching us from the neighbouring cottage. When she beckoned Bonnie over for a pat, she told me that she had lived her entire life in the cottage.

camping at Howmore

camping at Howmore

Sailing from Barra to Eriskay, Ian sought me out as a fellow solo-traveler. He asked me if I minded being alone and I said that, for short stints, I liked the space and solitude. Newly widowed, Ian very much didn’t like the space and solitude. Over the short crossing, he recounted to me how he first met his wife of forty years, Helen – a founding member of the SNP and an inspirational primary school teacher- of his pre-retirement days as a crew member for CalMac ferries, and how he profoundly missed ‘being told what to do’ by his wife. Off the ferry, and as me and Bonnie sped past in our lift from friendly Eriskay postie, Donnie (MacDonald), the sight of Ian’s sparkly eyes and wiry frame pedaling up the steep hill to the Uist causeway faded into distance from the postal van wing mirror and he looked sad to wave us off. I think Ian will have a lot of steep hills to climb ahead.

Tidal patterns

Tidal patterns

By some coincide, Brendan and Charlotte (of the CalMac crossing to Oban and Fishing News), live in their caravan at no.4 Howmore, a short walk from Howmore hostel. I recognised Brendan’s ‘missus’ (his words) at once as I approached a young woman with long, white-blonde hair combing out the tail of a white horse called Lightening. Originally from Devon in the milder south of England, Charlotte is coping well with life in South Uist. I was invited for an evening feast of mackerel, pollock and lobster, all freshly caught by Brendan earlier that day. Over what will undoubtedly have been the best meal of my trip, the couple told me about life in your 30s in South Uist – of house-building grants, of the lack of a village pub, and of all the names of their menagerie of hens, ducks, chicks and dogs. They kindly lent me an extra duvet and I slept well in my tent through the brief darkness of a June night; dreaming of flowers on the machair, the Beinn Mhor mountains, wild ponies, and then awake in the dimming dawn; listening to the sound of geese flying low overhead, corncrakes croaking in the long grass, and a snoring dog twitching as she chased sandpipers in her own slumber world.

Charlotte and Brendan Johnstone outside their warm caravan.

Charlotte and Brendan Johnstone outside their warm caravan.

Dimmer Sim

Down, the pelt

Of two foxes curled

Up, one tail

The shape of a celtic broach

Geese eating the flora

MacDonald on every letter




Greylag geese

Greylag geese.  We listened to Karine Polwart’s King of Birds song.

 “It was morning, and the new sun sparkled gold across the ripples of a gentle sea” blah, blah, blah, said a SEAGULLL (with the ridiculous name of Jonathan Livingston?!).

Not so, in South Uist, where the grey cloud across a strong sea, did not prevent me from chasing feathered friends along the sand dunes of Howmore beach, and onwards into my dreams.

Tommy missed his old collie dog, Sheila, and wanted to tell me all about her. Despite no doubt being a ‘know it all’ collie, I think I would have quite liked Sheila and have been impressed by her loyalty to the MacDonald family and some brave excursions to the mainland.

Meanwhile, Bhria, Patch and Maggie were evicted to the caravan porch and I could lick my lips in peace with the smell of mackerel fillets cooking in the oven. I gave the Howmore hounds a cheeky wink. Nobody puts Bonnie in the corner.

The remains of creatures that did not pay their camping fees.

The remains of creatures that did not pay their camping fees.


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