On 16 December 1997 Scalpay's oldest resident, 103 year old Mrs Kirsty Morrison, became the first person since the ice age to cross the 300 metre wide Sound of Scalpay without using a boat. Mrs Morrison was in the first of a convoy of cars to cross the £6.4m Scalpay Bridge. In the eyes of some this fixed connection between Scalpay and Harris ended Scalpay's separate existence as an island.
For others it was simply the most recent (at the time) example of the Western Isles Council's long-standing policy of securing the long term viability of island communities by replacing ferry links to small islands with causeways or bridges. In Scalpay's case the benefits were not long in coming. The bridge was a key factor in the subsequent decision of Stolt to site their £5.7m salmon farming operation here in 2001: sadly it then closed in 2005 with the loss of 100 jobs.
This was only the latest twist in a long story of a populous small island that has used its natural assets to make a good living from the sea. Scalpay measures just three miles by two, yet has a population of around 400 people. This is rather lower than the peak of 636 in 1931, but is about the same as it was through the 1800s. This makes Scalpay feel more urban than just about anywhere else in the Western Isles outside Stornoway: but it certainly doesn't detract from the beauty of the island.
The south west coast of the island faces into the shelter of Loch Tarbert and is deeply indented and protected by a line of small islands. The indentations forms two superb natural harbours, North Harbour and South Harbour: amongst the best in the Western Isles. From 1912 Stornoway was the focus of the Scottish herring fishing industry and home to over 1,000 boats. Many of these made use of Scalpay's harbours in preference to Tarbert or sometimes Stornoway itself.
Native Scalpachs developed their own fisheries over the years, often for prawns, and seafaring is said to run in the blood. This was demonstrated in 1962 when six Scalpachs set out in a small open boat to assist a trawler that had been blown onto rocks to the south west of the island, managing to rescue three of the crew before the trawler broke up in the teeth of the storm.
Today over half the male workforce is still engaged in fishing. And many of the women on the island are engaged in an equally traditional activity, the production of distinctive Scalpay jerseys from Harris wool.
At the south east tip of Scalpay is the first lighthouse built in the Western Isles, at Eilean Glas. The tower was enlarged in 1824, but the original lighthouse was built in 1788-9. The work was started by the Northern Lighthouse Board, but ran into problems. The estate manager hired local labour and completed the job using the original plans. The NLB heard what was happening through a report from the captain of a ship who had seen the building work, and returned in time to give the finished lighthouse their belated blessing.
Scalpay's main settlement surrounds its North Harbour, the south side of which provides some superb views across the harbour and the village, many taking in the grey rock of mountainous North Harris rising steeply in the background. The harbour is a busy, bustling place and the village reflects the relative prosperity of the island. And today you can enjoy it via a five mile drive from Tarbert, before following in the tracks of Mrs Kirsty Morrison across the beautiful Scalpay Bridge.
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