Our motorhome adventure up through the beguiling islands of the Outer Hebrides was made all the more interesting not only by the wonderful ferry crossings, but also the causeways that link some of the islands to one another.
The journey from Eriskay to South Uist is via one of these causeways and the excitement I felt as we drove onto one end of the causeway was real and for me heightened the sense of adventure that these islands were instilling. If you look at these crossing points on a map they look like taught wires holding the tension between two independent land masses and as we drove across I could feel the anticipation of a new land to be discovered. I imagine this was probably just what Edmund Hilary and Sherpa Tensing felt like, except they weren’t in a motorhome and we didn’t climb any mountains.
As we began the drive along the road crossing the Sound of Eriskay, clear water lay on either side and up ahead a new island rising up from the shore, it really did feel like we were leaving one part of our journey behind and travelling on to another yet undiscovered (by us) place. Look out to the left and it’s next stop Greenland. Look out ahead for ‘Otters Crossing’ as the sign warns you as you approach the causeway.
Money Well Spent
The causeways that link some of the Outer Hebridean islands haven’t always been there and in the past 15 years there has been around £14million spent on improving the roads on the ‘Spinal Route.’ It has been money well spent and not only because the road surface is good and a whole lot better than many of the road surfaces at home. A quick look at the map will show you that there are actually not that many roads on the islands and the investment in this main road which runs the length of the Western Isles and the causeways which link some of them, are essential veins for the lifeblood of economic development which ensures sustainability of these outlying islands.
These 135 miles of improved roads, bridges and causeways from the top of Lewis all the way down to Vatersay aren’t just there for the driving pleasure of tourists like us. They are an essential route for islanders, for trading of local products and access to services. These roads are a lifeline for isolated communities, enabling people to live, work and socialise in different locations across the western isles, and help to curb the threat of rural isolation.
I wondered about life before the causeways, when one community would be isolated from their neighbours just across the water, linked only by a boat trip with their movement governed and so often restricted by the weather and the sea conditions. Life here during the long dark winter months before these causeways were in existence, must have been very different to our own experience of an easy journey from Eriskay to South Uist on a well surfaced tarmac road bathed in early summer sunshine.
I was surprised to find out that the Eriskay causeway was built only relatively recently in the year 2000 and at the time was the biggest civil engineering project happening in the UK. Around the islands you’ll see many abandoned crofts and derelict houses as evidence of life in the past, these sad, hollow ghosts of homes tell the story of the past. They are the tired monuments to the consequence of people living in rural communities who were unable to travel easily outside of their own few square miles and as the traditional ways of self sustaining crofting declined, people increasingly needed to be more mobile.
Holding Back the Sea
While we were on Barra, we noticed abandoned half buried whole vehicles appearing out of the dunes behind the beach, they looked like skeletons of ancient dinosaurs. We asked a local why they were there and he told us that they had been put there years ago by the islanders to help prevent erosion and stabilise the dunes. However, he said that when the new causeways had been built across stretches of once uninterrupted water, the tidal flow had changed and so the erosion on the beaches had returned and was now unearthing these abandoned jeeps and tractors. The west coast of these islands are prone to flooding and what might at first sight seem an eyesore on the beach, turns out to be a homemade attempt to fight back against the mighty power of the ocean. Difficult to imagine in the beautiful weather we experienced, but flooding threatens a staggering 94% of the homes on the west coast of Barra, South Uist and Benbecula. I don’t know if his reasoning was factually correct, but who could blame these islanders for trying to protect their homes.
The Eriskay causeway we travelled along in our motorhome is not only a lifeline for residents of the Western Isles, but also a rite of passage for all the other visitors who come to travel the length of the Outer Hebrides. They are also part of the reason that the islands have become so accessible and increasingly appealing as a tourist destination.