Past & Present
The Bays of Harris
Moody Skies, Bays of Harris (Photo: John Walsh)
How did people survive in such a barren environment? This question is often asked by visitors to the Bays of Harris, who cannot see how any crops could be grown in the rocky landscape.
Whilst not obvious to anyone walking or driving along the road, a careful look through the eyes of Google Earth will reveal the answer; an intricate pattern of ‘lazybeds’ can be seen which utilised every available bit of workable soil and produced an abundance of barley, oats and potatoes. At the time there was stable population which provided the labour. Likewise the harvest of the sea provided enough sustenance, and a surplus which could be traded.
There is ample evidence of human settlement over many centuries, mostly along the coast since the sea was always the main highway.
Manais (Photo: Jamesd Smith)
There are remains of ancient dwellings in distinct groups for a mile or two inland along with other interesting archaeological features, which at some time in the past were completely abandoned. In fact there appears to have been a systematic destruction of those buildings at some time, for they all bear the same marks of an outward felling of the stone walls.
All along the coastal strip, remains of the stone walls of what were thatched houses can be seen; the older type which had rounded ends and a later style with squared corners. There were no long-houses which were common in other parts of the islands, in which the livestock shared a common home with the people. The ones which were still occupied up to the 1950’s and 60’s were clean and comfortable – untouched by the ‘black’ myth – and despite the lack of piped water and electricity, all of them were happy homes. In fact when piped water and electric lighting became available there were many who would not have any of it, and even up to thirty years ago there were still some houses with only a stand-pipe and tap outside.
When roads for motor vehicles were being built in the 1920’s and 30’s many of the small townships were by-passed as the crofters did not want to sacrifice precious arable land to satisify the needs of the one or two people on the island who had motor cars. It was between thirty and fifty years later before branch roads were built into all those villages.
Loch Stocinis, penetrating well inland as far as Bayhead, Ceann a Bhaigh Mhoir, forms a natural divide in the Bays of Harris, and separates the Golden Road district from what lies ahead as far as Lingerbay.
By John MacAulayNext Section