Fishing boats, Lochmaddy harbour. Picture taken 23 November, 11:41
I spent three days last week in Lochmaddy, courtesy of taking advantage of some training in museum documentation (incorporating the Adlib categorisation package) on behalf of the North Uist Historical Society. Lochmaddy is the largest settlement on North Uist (thus two (actually three, including Grimsay) islands hence from South Uist). More people actually live on the west side of the Uists, with land on the east side substantially broken up by sea lochs and enclosed freshwater lochs, and substantial hills) but Lochmaddy’s proximity to Skye, and thus its port facilities for the ferry (a key one among Calmac routes), as well as a long-established, but now largely disappeared fishing industry, makes it the only settlement on North Uist with a clutch of co-located services.
Getting there, however, presents something of a challenge, especially from the south. It’s a trip of just over 26 miles from our house which, even in a car, takes around 45 minutes. For me, bearing in mind my status as a confirmed non-driver, it takes a wee bit longer. For this trip, getting to Lochmaddy in the middle of the day entails a three-mile walk to the main road to pick up the bus which runs up and down the spine of the islands and then a change of bus in Balivanich, the islands’ only town, on the central island of Benbecula.
None of this is a problem, I should add: I’m perfectly happy both in walking and using public transport (interestingly, the number of the bus: W17 (from South Uist to Benbecula; W16 from Benbecula to North Uist) is the same as the service both in Reading from my childhood home into town; and also from a home I shared in a small village outside Perth into Perth itself). And I have absolutely no complaints either about the companies or any of their excellent staff either in the offices or driving the buses themselves.
But, door-to-door, the journey is 2 hours and 4 minutes (including a brief stopover in Balivanich and allowing for the detour to Balivanich adding four miles to what is otherwise almost exactly a standard marathon route): at least eight separate Kenyans and Ethiopians would be likely to arrive at Taigh Chearsabhagh before me were they to set off from my house at the same time as me. Taking the high road, indeed.
As I changed buses, the driver reminded me to show my ticket to the driver on the W16 (it is possible to buy a through ticket) and then, in cheery farewell, said ‘You’re the first I’ve had for months!’ Not many people, it seems, want to travel beyond Balivanich (at least, not by public transport, not in the middle of the day, and when there’s no ferry due). And I suspect that’s almost as true from north to south as it is from south to north.
There could be any number of reasons for that, of course: Balivanich is the central town, and has both the airport and more shops and services than anywhere else north or south (a situation which, it seems, is likely only to become more pronounced); and the length of the journey by bus, the relative infrequency of services and the inconvenience of having to change buses in mid-trip means that a car journey is simply more practical for that journey (to say nothing of the three-mile hike at the start!). It might also be a little to do with the history: that people from the south have little reason to go that far north, and vice versa, stemming partly from the different socio-religious characteristics of north and south but also (and more likely) as a result of the simple practicalities: that journeys, in typically poorer societies, were rare except in cases of necessity and/or God, or animal heath and welfare; were undertaken otherwise only to visit friends and family who, typically, would be nearby anyway; and that travelling around the Uists, being a series of separate islands, would in the past be seen as risky (and still can be, by the way, in bad weather even though the islands in the Uists are all connected by causeways). All of this does add to the very different characteristics, and atmosphere, that constitute the different islands in the chain. Moving south, as we did on finding this house, did raise a few eyebrows from some of our friends in the north, even in 2015.
But back to my journey: 30 miles, via Balivanich, and I passed fewer than 2,000 people in making it: marathon runners would pass fewer than 1,000. A friend of mine recently remarked on how different life must be from London (and even from Perth!) and there is no clearer example of the starkness of the difference. Goodness knows how the Hebridean Pizza people find it: from working in media jobs in bustling Soho to bringing pizzas to the Uists (even to the bright lights of Balivanich!), and beyond, is about as dramatic a lifestyle change as you’ll find. Whatever it is they’re in search of, I hope they find it.