Whisky on the Rocks.

  • Source: The Scotsman
  • Date: 10 December, 2005
  • Author: Antonia Swinson

It is difficult to know what to expect when you plan a trip to the Outer Hebrides. The 150-mile-long island chain is marketed as an oasis of calm in a chaotic world, yet this notion does not begin to get across the stark, dramatic magic of this most outlying part of Scotland. It is certainly a holiday I would recommend to all Scots for a more complete understanding of our own country.

It was a fine autumn day when our Caledonian MacBrayne ferry sailed out of Oban. I had assumed I would spend my time on deck marvelling at Tobermory's passing colourful real estate, but I found myself instead spending most of the six-hour crossing in the comfortable ferry bar, glass of malt in hand, deep in conversation with a mainland farmer engaged to buy hundreds of lambs for a food supplier down south at the forthcoming cattle sale at Lochboisdale on South Uist. Mull swept by unseen in the heat of Hebridean farming economics, but experience has taught me that gaining an understanding of the real-life concerns of your host community maximises the pleasure of any holiday.

It certainly worked this time. The next day we visited the cattle market, and though the auctioneer's patter was incomprehensible, I could see where the good prices were going and recognised some of the local personalities the farmer had described.

The Hebrides have long fascinated me because, as I touched on in a recent gardening column, my late father, Arthur Swinson, spent weeks on the islands in 1962 researching the true facts behind the sinking of the Whisky Galore ship, the SS Politician, which went down in February 1941 with 240,000 bottles of best Scotch on board. Sir Compton Mackenzie's fictionalised account found an international audience with the 1949 Ealing comedy, and the public's fascination with the tale lives on today, with a new film in pre-production on Barra, and last month's re-publication of Scotch on the Rocks, my father's account of what really happened.

I was keen that my children should follow their grandfather's journey. He had stayed at the Lochboisdale Hotel which, though modernised, I instantly recognised from the Box Brownie pictures he had taken all those years ago.

Our own accommodation was a converted barn, in nearby South Boisdale. To my surprise its inner shell was totally encased in polished pine, giving it the feel of a Scandinavian city apartment rather than a traditional but and ben. But when Atlantic storms blew in a few days later I could appreciate our hosts' foresight, because trapped holidaymakers don't want to be further depressed by cold draughts.

However, our first morning as Hebrideans was marked by hot sun and extraordinary cloud formations. A short walk through the fields revealed a deserted, white sandy beach and clear blue water. Though the sea was hardly Mediterranean, Rory and Ella, aged 18 and 13, ran straight in.

This is a fantastic family holiday destination if you have children with a wide age span. There is kayaking, riding, lots of culture and tremendous opportunities to explore. Restless teenagers (and their fathers) will be tempted by tales of the SS Politician's whisky, bottles of which apparently lie buried to this day in the machair, the island's grassy dunes. Younger children, equipped with binoculars, will get into Bill Oddie mode - this is the last wilderness in Europe, home to puffins, basking sharks, whales, dolphins, otters and golden eagles.

History is inescapable in the Hebrides. Having seen the film Whisky Galore so often, it was extraordinary to see just where the SS Politician ran aground and how the ship must have dominated the landscape. I also now appreciated what the local women had coped with. One islander told me they had complained bitterly about their men returning night after night with yet more whisky, when out there on the rocks was an 8,000-ton wartime godsend groaning with bedding, furniture and food.

To add insult to injury, the men wore their womenfolk's dresses on their "fishing trips" to keep their own clothes from being covered in incriminating oil from the ship's holds. I urge every visitor to Eriskay to visit the SS Politician pub, toast the women islanders in malt whisky and check out the original bottle on display on the way out.

There is so much living history in the Hebrides and inevitably this includes the Clearances. On a sunny morning we walked for two hours above a most beautiful loch and found a large roofless, abandoned croft, which commanded extraordinary views of the waters below and the mountains beyond. There would have been fish in the loch and sheep on the hillside - a diet fit for a king.

In the nearby museum at Kildonan, I picked up a facsimile newspaper cutting from the 19th-century Canadian press: "800 Hebrideans all 5ft 9in or more are en route to Canadian shores. Lock up your daughters!"

Alas, unreported, were the real facts as revealed by a knowledgeable local journalist: that the landowner on South Uist, being a major shareholder in the Canadian Pacific Railway, had found a neat solution for getting islanders off her land for ever - exporting them as cheap labour to boost the value of her share portfolio.

One holiday highlight was travelling by ferry to Lewis, seeing the green waters and white sands of Harris and the world-famous Callanish stones which date from 1800 BC. The interaction between stones and clouds should be the subject of a masterclass for any aspiring artist.

Children often have the most unexpected favourite holiday moments. For my kids, their best memory came earlier that day, when, after a long drive to North Uist, they beheld the strange sight of their frustrated father jumping up on the causeway wall and shaking his fist at the departing ferry - also operated by the long-suffering Caledonian MacBrayne - yelling in pithy Ayrshire terms that the ferry should return at once. The sight of the ferry reversing the 200 yards or so back to the jetty will live in our collective family memory for all time.

Scotch on Scotch On the Rocks by Arthur Swinson, with an introduction by Antonia Swinson, is published by Luath, priced ?7.99.

Wednesday, 24 April, 2019
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