Isle of Eriskay – a Hebridean ‘must-see’

The Isle of Eriskay is small and totally charming. It has classic Outer Hebridean dazzling colours of sand and sea when the sun shines. It also has a pub for when the sun doesn’t shine, as well as a causeway connection to South Uist. It’s a totally ‘get-away’ relaxing location. 

Pictures of the Isle of Eriskay are always unmistakable, any time I end up scrolling through my photographs on screen. It’s that characteristic Hebridean blue jumping out.

For sure, Scotland is a colourful place: the vibrant greens of Argyll’s woods by the sea-lochs; Grampian heather moors in August when the heather is in bloom; the weird silvery flat light of the far north as it glints off the quartz-strewn slopes.

And so on, and on, till autumn sends us tourism scribblers into adjectival overload.

Why should you go to Eriskay ?

Well, it is totally charming for a start – a complete Hebridean experience in a small package. Climb to the highest point (Ben Scrien 607ft / 185m) and you can see all round the island and away south to Barra.

And from the Isle of Eriskay – thanks to the causeway that links Eriskay to South Uist – it’s the simplest thing to tootle up north to explore the Uists and Benbecula.

In fact, the Isle of Eriskay makes a pretty good base for exploring the southern end of the Outer Hebrides island chain, as you can get south by ferry to Barra easily as well.

Approaching Lochboisdale pier
This is NOT Eriskay. This is Lochboisdale pier in South Uist where you could get off and make your way via causeway to Eriskay.

Getting To Eriskay

Yes, the convenience of the modern causeway from South Uist must have changed things for the folk who live on Eriskay.

As a visitor, you should note that the island sits between two ferry connections from Oban on the mainland: Lochboisdale on South Uist and Castlebay on Barra. 

However, to reach Eriskay from Barra you would need to take the 40-min ferry crossing from Barra to Eriskay.

Or you could fly to Barra…or, probably better still, fly to Benbecula and hire a car in advance. Island car rental companies will arrange for vehicles to be delivered to meet flights or ferries.

Ferry from Barra approaching Isle of Eriskay
The picture here shows the ferry from the island of Barra approaching Eriskay. It was taken from the highest point on Eriskay, Ben Scrien, which I have just walked up. (Don’t be impressed – it’s just a wee hill. No, on second thoughts, be slightly impressed.) And that’s Barra on the horizon.

Just as sheep are unavoidable on the island of North Ronaldsay, then it’s hard to avoid the eponymous Eriskay ponies on the Isle of Eriskay.

Some say these are the descendants of the original native ponies of the Scottish islands. Their proportions are similar to those of ponies carved on Scotland’s Pictish stones a thousand years ago and more.

Isle of Eriskay ponies and causeway
Eriskay ponies – and also the causeway, in the distance, right, opened in 2001, joining Eriskay to South Uist – and just in time to stop a decline in the number of people living on the island.

Wildlife On The Isle Of Eriskay

If you enjoy wildlife-watching then one of the most endearing characteristics of the area is that sightings of some bird species, comment-worthy in other parts of Scotland, are positively everyday here.

After a while you give up mentioning the corncrakes, for example.

Changes in agricultural practices years ago meant corncrakes disappeared from hay fields in other parts of Scotland. But they have their stronghold in the islands here.

Will These Isle of Eriskay Corncrakes Ever Shut Up?

Basically, corncrakes are common enough to make you want them to stop that infernal, scratchy, creaking that went on for much of the night (in our case) from just beyond the garden fence. (We went self-catering.)

And as for short-eared owls? Or hen harriers? I’m sure I saw one owl almost collide with a crofter’s washing line as it sailed past a row of shirts and socks.

Otters? Please, not another otter. Just stroll quietly around the tidelines and you can’t miss ’em.

The Prince's Beach, Eriskay
The Prince’s Beach, where, in 1745, Bonnie Prince Charlie came ashore for the first time in Scotland. He landed from a wee boat off a French frigate.

Oh, No, It’s Bonnie Prince Charlie

‘Uh-uh, here comes trouble,’ thought the locals. One of them even told him to go home. Anyway, the Jacobite PR teams put a spin on the whole affair and even had the Prince doing a spot of gardening.

Sea bindweed, Calystegia soldanella, grows along the shore – though I’m blowed if I could find it and had to make do with some foreground daisies and thrift for the pic.

Sea bindweed is not uncommon in coastal locations in several parts of the UK.

But the myth has grown up that it grows uniquely here, where it is (apparently) called ‘The Prince’s Flower’ in romantic Scottish guidebooks because – yawn – some seeds must have fallen from the Prince’s handkerchief as he stepped ashore for the first time on the Isle of Eriskay.

Yeah, right. So where exactly did he get them from? 

The Real ‘Whisky Galore’

‘Whisky Galore’, the 1949 Ealing Studios film, was called‘Tight Little Island’ when released in the USA. Much of it was filmed on nearby Barra.

(The 2017 re-make was very different and inferior to the original in every way.)

It was based on Sir Compton Mackenzie’s 1947 novel and in turn, as many people know, based on a real event – the wreck of the SS Politician in February 1941.

It was based on Sir Compton Mackenzie’s 1947 novel and in turn, as many people know, based on a real event – the wreck of the SS Politician in February 1941.

Bound for Jamaica and the USA with mixed cargo, the skipper mistook his position in poor weather.

He was trying to pass south of the island chain but instead ended up at the east end of the shallow Sound of Eriskay between the island and its larger northerly neighbour, South Uist.

SS Politician grounding place, Sound of Eriskay
The shallow Sound of Eriskay running off to the left. Uninhabited Calvay Island centre and South Uist beyond. SS Politician, heading west (left) grounded somewhere centre of pic, off Calvay.

The locals rescued all of the crew and quickly learned that there were around 264,000 bottles of whisky aboard the vessel.

The upshot was the ‘liberation’ of c 24,000 of them and the eventual imprisonment of several islanders.

The Customs authorities eventually dynamited the cargo to remove further temptation! So it really wasn’t quite as jolly as it appears in the 1949 classic movie.

What To Do On Eriskay If It’s Raining

…and the south-westerlies bring an, uhmm, moist airflow off the Atlantic. (Oh, how we copywriters formerly in the pay of the tourist boards find it hard to write ‘rain’.)

You know what the Scottish weather can be like. Well, the Isle of Eriskay has a pub, the Am Politician, (Gaelic for ‘the politician’ – guess what it commemorates.)

It has a bottle of the famous whisky on display. (Though we didn’t see it the last time. Hmmm.) Or you can nip across the causeway, drive north and hole up with some fine coffee at Hebridean Jewellery, at Iochdar on South Uist.

It does proper coffee and is something of a surprise, sitting out in the open, green, loch and sea-interlaced western edge. It’s all very tasteful.

Eriskay from South Uist
Isle of Eriskay from South Uist

The Eriskay Love Lilt

Finally, because you must be really keen on the Isle of Eriskay to read this far (thanks!), for a lot of folk, the only context in which they have heard of the Isle of Eriskay is in the traditional Gaelic song known as the Eriskay Love Lilt.

It has been covered by an extraordinary variety of artistes, including Paul Robeson, Nana Mouskouri and Judith Durham of the 1960s Australian band, The Seekers.

The song was among many collected on Eriskay by Marjorie Kennedy-Fraser from 1905 onwards. She was a music teacher and collected the original material on an early wax cylinder phonograph.

Modified and with additional English verses it appeared in her later three-volume ‘Songs of the Hebrides’.

More on Scottish music here.

More on the Outer Hebrides here. (From there you can pick an island!)