Roadless Communities

Another bit from DDC Pochin Mould’s West Over Sea, published in 1953; at the time even quite substantial and central townships like Geshader were just getting their proper roads.

Crossing the moor between Loch Raonasgail and the yellow road by the sea at Uig, I had plenty of opportunity to consider living without roads.  Probably the first thing one notices is the silence.  In a roadless community the noises that make up the background of our road-driven civilisation are lacking: the swish of tyres on wet tarred highways, the creak of carts, the echoing of horse’s hooves, heels tapping on a pavement, boots crunching on gravel.

The second thing that strikes the visitor is the extra effort that is needed to move from one place ot another. If you live, as at Tamnavay, upon the roadless bog with no path to your door, you have always to step cunningly from tussock to tussock, rock to rock, not thoughtlessly as on the pavements, never thinking where you place your feet.

The Isles have the whole historical sequence. There are good roads in the main islands, good paths in some of the smaller like Eriskay and Vatersay. On the paths you miss the coupl carts and find them replaced by the pony with creels, but it is as easy to move about on Eriskay or Vatersay as in a town, for the paths are good. Then there are the smaller communities, more isolated, mainly dependent on the sea for supplies but still linked to the road by a bath, like Renigadale in Harris. And lastly, there are the true roadless communities, the odd houses placed among the moors like Tamanavay and Aird Bheag, or the cluster at Kinlochresort.

Tamanavay depends for its rations upon the postman walking along his line of little cairns to link u p with the Kinloch Resort postman who walks from Morsgail. The heavy things, like meal [but not sewing machines, which were carried by the postman], are brought in by sea in a small boat from Hushinish in Harris. At Hushinish there is no pier and one has to wade ashore and then wade back carrying whatever is to be loaded.

Tamanavay, being in a rocky country, is outwith the range of the ambulance planes. It is six miles and a thousand foot climb to the nearest telephone and the end of the Uig road; a patient for hospital must wait for a calm sea before he can be shifted.

It is more expensive to live off the road than on it. The sea becomes your roadway. There is the cost of the boat and its fuel, and then the high freight charges of carrying goods to or from the lading place.

In some roadless communities ponies with creels can be used to carry in peats, cart manure and so forth, but in others, like these amongst the Lewis and Harris hills, there is not enough keep for both them and the cows. Transportation becomes a matter of a creel on your back, for all the seaware for the croft, for all the peats you need to burn, for the potatoes to the clamp. There is no horse traction for a plough; you use a spade or a light two-wheeled tractor – supposing that the fields you have are big enough for it to work and for its cost to be justified.

These roadless communities are a problem both in the islands and on the Scottish mainland. Many once existed; now they are dwindling rapidly because few people are willing to put up with the difficulties of living off the road. Many of them are fertile, snug and in attractive spots, to which it would be better that the road should come than that the people should leave to seek it. Furthermore, these are the very places that the tourist industry should have an eye to. How many people would visit the Trossachs if the access road was the same that Walter Scott followed on his first visit?

There is an estate track to Hamnaway now, though not to Ardbheag or Kinresort, and the area has long been without permanent habitation.