By Eric John MacDonald
Mary Sherwood Campbell - author of the sadly forgotten classic ‘Flora of Uig’ - made her first visit to the Hebrides in the summer of 1939.
She wrote later:“ I had been told that the finest scenery in the Outer Hebrides was in Western Lewis. Even so, I was surprised by its wild magnificence. Rocky hills giving an illusion of much greater height than their actual maximum of 1855 feet; coastal cliffs more rugged and precipitous than those of Cornwall or Land’s End; sandy bays fringing a sea of Mediterranean colour flanked by dunes and flower carpeted machair. Beyond them, tiny villages, some with cottages of the old thatched type interspersed with strips of cultivation and ample peat stacks. And all around one sees evidence of ancient settlements and long vanished cultures.”
If you stand in the middle of Uig Sands - the Traigh Mhòr - today the scene she so vividly described 70 years ago is barely changed. The thatched houses are gone but the hills, the flower carpeted machair and the rugged cliffs remain. Within 15 minutes you can visit an Iron Age fort (Dun Borranish), a couple of Bronze Age cairns, the site of a probable Neolithic chambered tomb and the ruins of an early Christian chapel. On one side of the bay is the spot where the Viking Age chess pieces were found; on the other the 18th century manse Baile na Cille and its ancient cemetery. Nearby is all that remains of the old village of Erista, cleared of its inhabitants in the 1840’s.
Overlooking the sands is Sir James Matheson’s Victorian hunting retreat, Uig Lodge, built in 1876. Once the exclusive haunt of sporting parties, nowadays it’s accessible to all in search of soothing tranquillity, a hearty breakfast and a decent dinner.
The ending of the last Ice Age was year zero for the landscape as we know it today. Millions of tons of ice melted, gouging out enormous scars in the landscape, like Loch Suainabhal…over twice the depth of any other loch in the island. The retreating glaciers rounded off the tops of hills like Mealisbhal and Teanisbhal and dumped millions of tons of gravel in Carnish. Uig Bay became an enormous lake blocked by ice from access to the sea - and millions of gallons of meltwater became a mighty river flowing eastwards creating Glen Valtos.
The ancient rocks contain hidden treasures – in April 1995 readers of the Stornoway Gazette read the following headline: 242 carat sapphire found on Lewis”. To date, the sapphire found in Uig is still the largest found in Britain. But there are other rarities – like the Belted Beauty. It’s a moth. And not just any old moth but one of Britain’s rarest, and the Uig machair is one of the very few places where it can be seen. It’s a medium sized moth with distinctive black and white markings; rather furry, as moths tend to be, and it will not dine on your favourite tweed jacket being a plant eater. Then there is the Hebridean Orchid, there are several varieties but again, Uig is the ideal spot to get a close up view of this natural beauty.