Past & Present
Comings and Goings
There are great views of Scarp from the footpath to Traigh a’Chaolais (Tràigh Mheilein). The small flat green isle of Fladdaigh is also visible. The land beyond is part of Uig in Lewis. (Photo: Chris Murray)
Until a weekly postal service started up in 1899, the Scarp mail had to be collected and dropped off in Tarbert. The new service still involved quite a round trip for the postman, who brought the mail on horseback from Tarbert to Amhuinnsuidhe, where the road ended at that time, and then walked the five miles to Tràigh a’Chaolais (Beach of the Sound, Tràigh Mheilein on the OS Maps). Here he left and collected mail from a wooden post box. The road from Amhuinnsuidhe was finally extended to Hùisinis in 1925, part-funded by the then landlord Lord Leverhulme. The postman was then able to use a motor van for the journey, speeding things up considerably. The road made a huge difference to the communities along its route. Their gratitude was personified by Aonghas Ruadh (Angus MacInnes) from Scarp, then 82 years of age, who walked over 20 miles from Traigh a’ Chaolais to Tarbert to thank Lord Leverhulme in person, when the proprietor was visiting the island in June 1924.
Traigh a’Chaolais from Mèilein (Photo: Harris 365)
Infrastructure was very gradually improving; in 1930 a post office opened on the island, and in the late 1930s a jetty was built in Scarp. In 1947, a submarine cable was laid for a telephone line. Before then, people coming to Scarp had to shout across the Sound at Clach na h-Eigheach (Stone of the Shouting) or raise a flag at am Port a Tuath (North Port) at Huisinis. It was not until the early 1950s that a jetty was built at Hùisinis, when there were still 74 islanders living in 19 houses, and three lobster boats still operating from Scarp.
Before there were jetties, if the sea conditions were calm and the tide was high enough, people could step on the boat from a rock. Otherwise people had to be lifted on and off the boat by a crew member. Annag Seònaid (Annie Maclean) from Tarbert, recalls her visit to Scarp in 1946. She taught there for six weeks, relieving Miss Lamont, a native of Uist, who taught in Scarp for eighteen years. This was shortly after Annag qualified as a teacher and before she took up her post at Seilebost School, where she taught for 33 years. Annag’s mother, Seònaid a Choffee House (Janet Macleod, who ran a shop and café in Tarbert) came with Annag to Scarp for a few days. Seònaid’s shop in Tarbert was one of the outlets where the socks and pullovers woven by Scarp women were sold, and this was Seònaid and Annag’s first trip to visit their friends in Scarp. Annag recalls her mother’s look of trepidation as she was lifted over the shoulder of a burly Scarp man to get her into the boat with dry feet. Annag got a fit of the giggles, as she too was hoisted aloft, finding it all great fun.
Aonghas Dhòmhnaill a' Phuist (Angus Maclean) from Hùisinis has fond memories of the closeness between the communities on either side of Caolas an Scarp (the Sound of Scarp):
‘We saw a lot of the Scarp people on their comings and goings. They would come over and stay with us the night before they travelled, if the weather forecast was not good for the following day. It was the same on return journeys when they could be stormbound for a day or two. If they were only one or two of them and travelling light, they would sometimes walk to Traigh an Scarp (Traigh Mheilein on the OS Map) for the shorter and at times more sheltered crossing.
Once a year, usually in the summer, the minister from Tarbert would be preaching in Scarp and two or three boatloads of people would go over from the mainland. They were so hospitable to us on these occasions, demonstrating clearly the love and high regard we all had for one another. After all, we were family or extended family. When the communions were on at Tarbert church twice a year, a bus load of Scarpachs would leave on Thursday, stay with relatives and friends in and around Tarbert, returning on Monday afternoon after the Thanksgiving service.’
In earlier times, when travel was by boat, there were a lot of interactions, and inter-marriages between Scarp and Uig in Lewis. For most of the 1800s, after the people were cleared from the villages of North Harris, the people of Uig were for a long time their nearest neighbours. The people of Scarp regularly attended the Communions in Uig. Angus Duncan recalls the young women of Scarp waulking* the tweed, a great social occasion. Of the many songs they sang in the course of their work, one of the most entertaining described the characteristics of the young men of the villages of Uig.
*Waulking the tweed was the process which produced felting of the cloth to make it thicker, and therefore more hardwearing and weatherproof. This was done by beating the cloth on a ridged board, which a group of women did sitting together around the board, working rhythmically. Songs were composed and sung to the beat, and the waulking of the tweed was a great social occasion.
Since the last two crofting families left for new homes elsewhere on mainland Harris in 1971, Scarp’s regular visitors have been those fortunate enough to have holiday homes there, and the crofters who inherited the Scarp tenancies. The crofters still keep sheep on the island, and travel back and forth in the beautiful boat, Stiuir Mi. Stock are ferried back and forth in the boat as needs be - the rams going over for tupping and the lambs leaving Scarp for the September sales in Stornoway. Stiuir Mi was commissioned from the boatbuilders of Grimsay in Uist, who still maintain the traditional boat building skills and pass them on to the younger generation through a school course.
Since 1978, Scarp has been in separate ownership to North Harris, passing through the hands of Swiss and then London based businessmen, before being purchased by the current owner, Anderson ‘Burr’ Bakewell. The mission house and hall have been restored and converted as his residence in Scarp. Burr is behind the malt whisky distillery currently taking shape in the inner harbour in Tarbert, an enterprise which will bring a very significant boost to the local economy.
By Joan Cumming, 2014