Shetland Life Columns: Notes from a niseach

Passing places: Uist and Unst

Aside from a single letter, there are a number of differences between Unst in Shetland and the islands known as the Uists in the Outer Hebrides.

One of these is, of course, the existence of causeways that link together the communities between Berneray in the far north and Eriskay in the south. Across some of them at various times of year, travel can be difficult. Waves can lash across tarmac; shingle and seaweed blur the divide between land and sea. On some of them, as the storms of a number of years ago reminded us, the difference between going forward or back and remaining where you are can be as great as the gap between life and death itself. Sometimes – on these thin tracks of road – it is better not to travel hopefully. As a family whose loss I mourned discovered one night, it may mean that both the driver and passengers never arrive.

Another distinction is that in Uist, whether North, South or Benbecula, one has to be aware at all times of the Protocols of the Passing Place. As drivers throughout Shetland will know, this involves a curious Hesitation Waltz when we sit behind the wheel. Do we allow the oncoming car to go to the next passing place, taking our foot off the accelerator to permit this to happen? Can we assume that he will do the same for us? Do we speed? Stay still? Go into reverse? Driving through the Uists gives a person ample opportunity to ponder such mysteries, especially when one is forced to reverse back down the causeway by a juggernaut stacked full of writhing, wriggling prawns between the edges of North Uist and Benbecula.

A further difference one might be aware of while travelling in the two sets of islands is that while Shetland seems to have become the world’s greatest purchaser of bus stops, the Western Isles seems to have spent more of its transport budget on vehicles that travel between them. Unst must have the largest number of unused bus shelters in Europe, the Western Hemisphere, Planet Earth and beyond. They appear everywhere and are clearly the earthbound equivalent of the tardis for those hardy trows concealed behind rocks. There are so many that, to the islanders’ credit, one has even been turned into an ad hoc art gallery.

By contrast, the Western Isles Council seems to employ more of its cash on actual buses. As a footbound tourist I met in Berneray informed me, it is much easier to get round the Hebrides using public transport than Shetland. Bus timetables connect together. Their outlying areas are far better served with regular services. It is difficult to decide why this is the case. Perhaps, in a more economically prosperous place, people are more likely to forget that the poor are always with us. Instead, its richer inhabitants speed past in their 4 x 4s and Volvo Estates, barely aware of others trudging through the rain as they make their way to the local council housing estate. Perhaps it is simply because places like Uist have more low-lying areas, making them more aware of the dangers of Global Warming . . .

Yet most of all, it is the similarities between Uist and Unst that strike the onlooker. One obtains the same three-fingered wave from car drivers passed en route; a curious manoeuvre that involves clutching the wheel with one finger while raising the others to acknowledge a passer-by. (A friend of mine from the tip of South Uist who occasionally drove on the mainland confessed he would be in the centre of Edinburgh before he quite abandoned this habit. One can only imagine the chaos he must cause.) Both areas have large swathes of moorland, terrific beaches where people can enjoy a moment or two of sunshine between long hours of rain. Birds also add their sounds and shades to the scene. (In Unst’s case, there are puffins, bonxies, terns, while Uist probably has a greater range – seabirds too but also great numbers of wading birds at certain seasons of the year, kestrels, eagles, short-eared owls hunting in the twilight . . .) There is little doubt, too, that both islands also contain some of the most breath-taking scenery in the whole of Scotland.

Much of the housing also seems to have been shaken out of the same (un)lucky bag with similarly shaded estates of – what are now – largely empty or, in Benbecula’s case, demolished buildings. There are too, in both places, great domes perched on top of its hills. Radio towers jab like thin and enormous needles into the air. They act as reminders that in the twentieth century, both communities had to pay host to the defence industry, part of Britain’s protective ring against a country which has once again shown that it possesses claws in recent months. In Unst’s case, it served – among other things – as a listening post to the Soviet Union, taking note of its troop movements, the way its fleet and flight squadrons manoeuvred across sea and air. Uist provided this country with a Rocket Range, firing missiles across the low-lying machair lands on its shores and out towards St Kilda.

In both places, crofters had to adjust to the new ways of life this created, observing unfamiliar nine to five hours of work, the demands and disciplines of having (or even being) a boss. Mostly, they adjusted well to this, enjoying the regular income this provided. (There were, of course, exceptions to this. There is a gentleman in Uist who when employed as a Security Guard took the order to “check all boots and bonnets” very seriously indeed. Cars were left untroubled but all visitors to the Camp had to remove their caps and footwear.) Now, of course, both communities have been forced to adapt to another change. Much, if not all, of that regular work has gone. The Services have moved out. The island buildings – whether its houses, offices or schools – are emptier than they were a decade or two ago.

Of the two communities, it seems that Uist in the Outer Hebrides has been the more fortunate one. It still retains its Rocket Range, run by SERCO. Many of the jobs once performed by Army Personnel are now done by locals. Yet there is still a sense of retreat, an awareness that it is never good to rely too much on a single source of employment. The hour may come when it packs its bags and moves out. It is this challenge that Unst is attempting to meet just now, doing so with real imagination and flair in the creation of the Saxa Vord Hotel, an alternative “green” fuel, a brewery, a chocolate “factory” . . . There is similar work going on in Uist – with Taigh Chearsabhagh, Salar Salmon, a network of small industries.

And all this is being done to prevent both these communities becoming “Passing Places”, islands which modern society used for its own ends for a short time before moving on and passing by.

Donald S Murray


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