The Edge of Our World

Our February meeting saw the return of retired teachers Sue and Ivan Godfrey. Their talk, entitled The Edge of Our World, began with some tantalising slides of beautiful sunsets, long sandy beaches and ancient standing stones. Only when these were followed by shots of peat bogs, glacial lakes and misty hills did it become clear that we were looking at the Outer Hebrides.

Further from Devon than are the Pyrenees, the island chain stretches some 130 miles from Lewis to Barra. Arrival is usually by boat although it is possible to fly to Barra from Glasgow – but only at low tide as the airstrip is on the beach! Geologically, Western Scotland is much older than the rest of Europe which contributes to the unusual scenery: flat glacial plains being dotted with granite hills; sea stacks and fjords decorating the coast. Historically, all transport was by boat which means there are few inland settlements. Even the coastal hamlets are tiny and often retain names derived from Old Norse reflecting a Viking past.

Much of the land is difficult to farm with workable soil being scarce. Indeed, the deepest soil may well be reserved for burials. Nevertheless, the islands produce a remarkable display of wild flowers in Spring, the contrasting acidic soils from the peat bogs and alkaline soils derived from decayed shells supporting a wide variety of plants.

The islands are excellent for birdwatching. Eagles can be seen along with rare corncrakes, cuckoos and the great skua. Wading birds exist in profusion. Despite the sparse vegetation, deer roam the hills and, if you spot a hedgehog, catch it and you will be eligible for a bounty. They are a menace to the eggs of the many ground nesting birds.

The population of the islands is much reduced from its peak and many former settlements have been abandoned. A particular blow came at the end of the first World War when a vessel bringing islanders back from the war was shipwrecked with the loss of over 1000 men. Nowadays, there are limited employment opportunities with fishing and some sheep farming being the staples plus, increasingly, tourism. Sue and Ivan recommend the islands for their deserted beaches and wildlife. They advise you to take plenty of warm and waterproof clothing (even in summer) but their recommendation is go!