Thursday, 12 July 2018

The stones of South Harris

Baigh Steinigaidh faces out to the Atlantic at the south end of the Sound of Taransay.  Heading on a straight line westward you would arrive at St Kilda some 70 kilometres distant.  Beyond that, only the wild Atlantic all the way to the east coast of Canada.  Small wonder that this beach gets some big surf, and on the day we visited, a fresh onshore breeze was bringing crashing rollers up the beach.  The settlement of Borve (Buirgh) just above the shore is the site of a ruined broch, and a truly astonishing holiday property based on a broch design.

In a field overlooking the bay is a prominent standing stone, some 2 metres tall.  It's the only remaining stone of a complex consisting of a stone circle, burial mound and circular ditch and has stood here for more than 5000 years.  Intriguingly, this is one of three stones overlooking the Sound of Taransay.  The second is on the headland which can be seen beyond the bay in this image, known as Clach Mhic Leoid (the McLeod Stone) and the third is on the east side of the island of Taransay.  The presence of three prominent megaliths in such close proximity shows that this area was settled and well populated 5000 years ago.

In Borve cemetery, among the stones is this one erected by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.  It commemorates Deck Hand Kenneth Maclean of the Royal Naval Reserve who served on HMS Venerable and who died on 1st January 1919.

The bare facts on the stone only hint at the full story.  1st January 1919 was a full six weeks after the Armistice which ended the First World War, and is one of the blackest days in the history of the Outer Hebrides. On 31st December 1918, HM Yacht Iolaire left Kyle of Lochalsh bound for Stornoway, packed with servicemen who had survived the horrors of the war and were either being demobilised or returning home to the islands for leave.  Just after midnight on 1st January 1919, approaching Stornoway in foul weather and pitch blackness the ship hit rocks known as the Beasts of Holm just off the harbour.

The ship foundered and sank quickly and in the dark and cold, 205 men died less than 200 metres from the shore.  It was a disaster which touched just about every community in Lewis and Harris - and the graves of the dead lie in cemeteries close to their homes across the islands.

We were thoughtful as we left the cemetery and headed to Traigh Niosabost, our favourite beach in Harris and a place Kenneth Maclean would have known well.

On our way back towards Tarbert, we passed what's arguably the finest view in Harris - and there are many fine ones to choose from!  Between Horgabost and Seilebost the road climbs steeply to pass over a rocky headland.  The view looking over Seilebost to Luskentyre where we'd been that morning is simply stunning.

The day had one final flourish; having been out for dinner we drove back towards our accommodation and were treated to a slow-burn sunset across the hills and the Atlantic - a super end to a super day.

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