Eriskay is a stunning place. Catch it on a sunny day with big skies, blue seas and white beaches and you discover what the word "idyllic" really means. It is somewhere you will want to come back to, and while nearby Barra comes very close, Eriskay is the highlight of any tour of the Western Isles.
In 1550 Eriskay was owned by MacNeil of Barra and a visitor noted that it was home to a small fishing community taking full advantage of excellent fishing grounds nearby. Which is pretty much how it stayed for three hundred more years. Everything changed in 1838. Eriskay, South Uist, Benbecula and Barra were purchased by a Colonel Gordon of Cluny. He cleared most of the islands of the people who had lived there for generations and grazed sheep. Eriskay's land was too poor to support sheep so Colonel Gordon generously permitted some of the people he had displaced to resettle there instead. As a result, Eriskay's population of 80 was quickly swelled by 400 refugees.
One of Eriskay's main claims to fame predates Colonel Gordon's clearances by nearly 100 years. On 23 July 1745 the French ship Du Teillay put ashore a small boat at a beach on the west side of the island. This is now called Coilleag a'Phrionnsa, which translates as "the Prince's cockleshell strand". Out of the boat stepped Bonnie Prince Charlie, the first time he had ever set foot on Scottish soil.
On Eriskay, Charles met with Alexander Macdonald of Boisdale who urged him to go home. Charles is reported to have said "I am come home sir" before sailing for the Scottish mainland to raise his standard at Glenfinnan. Today the beautiful beach on which he landed is home to the white striped pink sea bindweed, a flower not native to the Hebrides. The seeds are said to have fallen from Charles' pocket as he removed a handkerchief.
Eriskay has a more recent claim to fame because of the story of the SS Politician, which struck rocks just off the north shore of the island on 5 February 1941. Amongst the cargo en route to New York were 264,000 bottles of scotch whisky, largely from Edradour Distillery.
As soon as the crew were safe, the islanders set to work saving the cargo. It is thought that over 2,000 cases or 24,000 bottles were liberated before the authorities arrived on the scene. In the aftermath, police and customs officers searched the entire island and several islanders were actually jailed for theft, not something advertised in Compton Mackenzie's bestselling 1947 novel "Whisky Galore" based on the story of the SS Politician, or in the film it spawned.
Today it is possible to see (but not sample) bottles of "Polly" whisky in Eriskay's only pub, The Am Politician. And stories continue of bottles turning up hidden in peat or long forgotten under floorboards. The Am Politician is to be found towards the southern end of Eriskay's main settlement, Am Baile, which is scattered across the rocky north west corner of the island.
The village is dominated by St Michael's Church, built in 1903. Also dominated by St Michael's is the new causeway linking Eriskay to South Uist. Work began in May 2000 and was completed in July 2001. The end result is a 1,650m long causeway containing 700,000 tonnes of rock, and carrying the island's water and electricity supply as well as the more obvious road. It cost £9.4m.
The causeway should help stem the decline of the island's population, which has fallen steadily from 421 in 1931 to 133 in 2001. Eriskay is now much more accessible from South Uist than in the days of the ferry; and services in South Uist and Benbecula are more readily available to Eriskay residents.
Coinciding with the construction of the causeway, new harbours and ferry slipways were built on Eriskay, at the south end of Coilleag a'Phrionnsa, and on Barra. These are used by the Sound of Barra Ferry linking the two islands, and providing a quicker and more direct alternative to the existing triangular service from Lochboisdale to Castlebay and Oban.
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