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BENBECULA

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Benbecula, Life On The Edge by Stella Stewart

LIFE ON THE EDGE OF SCOTLAND

October 2016

I woke early. The first of the morning sun fighting through the sky.  

I had a long drive ahead of me across from east to west to Kyle of Lochalsh to cross over to Skye where I’ll get the ferry to the Outer Hebrides.  You literally climb up into the west coast. The hills rise up from Dingwall and at this time of year, the roads are clear from Summer travellers.  You can feel the remoteness increasing as you drive. Landscape getting bigger, limited visible life.  Stop for coffee in Tarvie.

You rise and fall cutting through the hills, alongside lochs and crofts. The roads get smaller, single track mostly, dodging through the ‘Passing Places’.

The Skye Bridge elegantly reaches from coast to island. The feeling of being on an island is special. Adventurous.  An hour and a half to Uig, where I’ll get the ferry to North Uist.  I stop in the Co-op in Portree for last minute supplies.  

Catch the ferry with not a minute to spare. Squeezed right on the end. The wind has picked up. Suddenly the clouds seem to close in. So quickly it becomes almost completely dark. I stay inside the ferry watching Skye and the Cuillins disappear. The ferry is full of islanders who study or get work on the mainland coming home for the weekend.

Lochmaddy.  A welcome party of parents, loved ones and the Postie greet us.  Cars off.  I head out of the village.  Rain lashes the windscreen.  No service.  I find an old map in the back of the car. Only two roads so I take the one heading north.  My cottage is on the coast on the way to Berneray.  It is a small thatched cottage with a few beds, a stove and a large pile of peat outside. Key in the shed.

 

The weather cleared the next day.  I travel south.

Benbecula is the stepping stone between the North and South Uist. Benbecula in Gaelic is Beinn na Faoghla which aptly means ‘Mountain of the Ford’. This is clear as I can see its solitary hill Rhubhal. The flat watery landscape seems to be more loch than rock.  

The islands are connected by causeways, and I drive over the first to reach Benbecula.

I take a right following the Hebridean Food Trail sign.  Stopped in at Maclean’s Bakery and bought a packet of potato scones and blethered with the old lady behind the counter. Carrying on that road I came to the RAF Benbecula. A military base since the second world war.  

The base operates long range radar tracking over the North Atlantic. It is also the location of the airport and the hospital.  Both of which are a lifeline for the island population as well as tourists.

I recall trips with family friends in which each year a dad over the age of 50 tore their achilles tendon chasing the children on the beach… the hospital was a great asset!

My phone buzzes. 3G!

I drive on.  

I can see empty beaches now.  White sand and turquoise water seem unnatural for Scotland.

The landscape seems almost deserted.  Shells of old cottages lie all over the land providing shelter for only cattle and sheep.  The soil is wet and boggy so the people mostly pastoral farm in small crofts and in open grazing on the hill.  There are large squared off chunks of peat, taken from huge gullies that cut deep and far into the unoccupied moors.  They lie in stacks all over the flat land.

I drive back to North Uist cutting through the middle of Benbecula.

It seems so changeable. The sun is beginning to be low in the sky. The clouds are blown in fast and leave just as quick.  Tomorrow will head north to Berneray.  I can see the Harris Hills already.

 

In 2016 I spent a month on North Uist to create a series of artworks, mainly paintings, recording the weather and changing seasons.  Autumn can be the most beautiful time in Scotland.  The long summer days begin to slow, the sun gets lower in the sky and weather fronts appear darkening the land.  I mainly worked in watercolour as it allowed me to work quickly and outside.  I produced a series of paintings that I exhibited in Edinburgh in December of that year.  The islands had a great effect on me and the way I worked. They are very different from the mainland, even the rural spots, and spending time there you really get to know the way of life.  I also recorded my time in a diary, the extract below is the first couple of days on the islands. My initial impression. 

Stella Stewart

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