By Eric J Macdonald
I’m not sure whether there was a mid- Victorian equivalent of TV presenter Kirstie Allsopp. Probably not. They were a more seriousminded bunch.
But, if there had been then Uig Lodge would surely have prompted a gush of superlatives. Admittedly in the Hebrides it is difficult to find a location that doesn’t come with stunning backdrops but the builders of Uig Lodge really did hit upon somewhere special. There is a kaleidoscope of views, constantly changing depending on the light, the time of day or the season of the year.
Mealtimes are regularly interrupted as guests stampede out of the dining room clutching their cameras to capture a stunning sunset or a fleeting Turneresque landscape of light and water and rock before it vanishes.
The chef takes a dim view of such goings on but moments such as those demand to be captured there and then. A collapsed cheese soufflé is surely a small price to pay in the great scheme of things?
The house was built in 1876 by island landowner Sir James Matheson and intended as a “place of repose” for his many guests who came to test their shooting/fishing prowess in the hills and lochs.
References to the Lodge are many in dusty books of sporting memoirs which were in vogue during that period; normally penned by retired Indian Army officers and boasting splendid titles such as; “Scottish Moors and Indian Jungles” or “Days in Thule” or “With Rod and Gun in Furthest Hebrides.”
Eventually the house came into the possession of Lord Leverhulme who subsequently bequeathed it to his niece, Emily MacDonald as a wedding present.
Since then a succession of owners have come and gone but through the years the Lodge has remained “a place of repose” set in a landscape impervious to the comings and goings of mere mortals.
Today, thankfully, you don’t require an invitation from a millionaire businessman or the generous pension of a retired Army officer to enjoy its comforts.
The journey from Stornoway or Tarbert to Uig is indeed a pleasurable experience in itself. Take the old Pentland Road from the outskirts of Stornoway heading to Achmore; stopping on the way to enjoy views of Skye and The Seven Sisters to the South East and Suilven looming over the hills of Sutherland to the North. Dotted along the roadside and out on the moors the remains of summer ‘sheilings’, some in ruins and some beautifully restored are still in evidence; witnesses to a vanished way of life.
Eventually the hills of Uig appear up ahead to beckon you on. Then you must take the Uig turn off; the B8011 at Garynahine. The road takes you past the Grimersta River, past Scaliscro and Morsgail and countless lochs in between until you arrive at Glen Valtos - the island’s own mini Grand Canyon.
Here, 10,000 years ago, as the last Ice Age came to an end the deep gorge was carved from meltwater running off a glacier where Uig Bay is now. As you emerge from the glen, ideally on a beautiful summer’s day, the view really is breathtaking; the white sands of the Traigh Mhor; the brilliant green of the machair, the russets and purples of the hills and the blue of the Atlantic.
Five minutes later, cup of tea in one hand and home baked scone in the other, you can enjoy the same view from the comfort of the lodge sitting room. The interior of the lodge is reassuringly right. Not chintzy or over fussy. Looking around you might easily imagine yourself an extra on Downton Abbey or Monarch of the Glen.
I hear you say: “Lounging around on sofas, sipping afternoon tea and admiring the views. But what is there to do?” “Lots!” is the simple answer. Fishing, of course. For salmon, trout and sea trout in the river and lochs. Shooting and stalking – in season, naturally (August – late January). Bird watching. One recent party of ‘twitchers’ identified over 40 different species during a fortnight stay; including various plovers, gulls, waders, ducks, three types of divers, green and red shanks and according to a rather cryptic entry in the visitor’s book; “Whooper Swan (dead)”.
The highlight of their stay was a magnificent display of aerial acrobatics by a Sea Eagle just 30 yards from the sitting room window. Archaeology buffs can visit a Celtic monk’s cell, a Viking cemetery, a Bronze Age burial site, a Neolithic shell midden and the ruins of an Iron Age broch all within 20 minutes of the lodge.
Hill-walkers, botanists and geologists can easily fill an entire week making unexpected discoveries. More adventurous types can head off to St Kilda or the Flannan Isles by boat stopping off on the way back to haggle over a freshly caught lobster or crab at the jetty in Miavaig.
Photographers and artists can sally forth and do their own thing or take advantage of a weeks stay combined with expert tuition from an experienced professional.
Writers can follow in the footsteps of Arthur Ransome who wrote ‘Great Northern’ (the last of the Swallows and Amazons series) whilst staying at Uig Lodge.
Malcolm, the resident Ghillie, a man of infinite patience and understanding is also available to induct beginners into the mysteries of fly-fishing.
The lodge is also the home of award-winning Uig Lodge smoked salmon and visitors can avail themselves of a tour and an insight into the ancient art of fish smoking. Did I mention the nine- hole golf course? Very challenging was the diplomatic description. And last but not least there is a whisky distillery, Abhainn Dearg, just five minutes away.
All in all, something for everyone. The lodge has stood now for 140 years looking out over the Atlantic. Long enough to have become a part of the landscape of Uig. And like that landscape, in an ever-changing world it somehow retains an atmosphere of timelessness