I spent last week on the beautiful island of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides. Top of the list of things to do this time was walking across the strand to the tidal island of Vallay. When we were on Uist last year the tide times were all wrong, but this year they were perfect, and the weather on the day we crossed was perfect too.
There’s something very special about a tidal island. I remember spending a few days on Lindisfarne when I was researching St Cuthbert, and being so struck by the rhythms of the place – the way the visitors empty out just before the incoming tide spills over the causeway, offering precious breathing space to those who live there and to the landscape itself.
There’s no causeway to Vallay – just a vast expanse of wet sand – and there’s no one living there permanently nowadays either. But that wasn’t always the case, and the ruined houses which stand silhouetted against the skyline are a reminder of those for whom this place was once home.
In 2012 my book Faith in a Crisis was published by the Islands Book Trust. It explores the role of the clergy during the desperate years of famine and clearance on the islands of North Uist, South Uist and Benbecula. It told the story of three men, one of whom was Finlay Macrae, minister of the Church of Scotland on North Uist. From 1825 until his death in 1858 Finlay and his family lived on Vallay.
Now stop for a moment and think of a minister being dependent on the shifting tides for access to his parishioners. Not exactly convenient! Sources agree that Finlay was very much a farmer first and a minister second, and his sermons were known as ‘the short sermons of the ebb’, as he often had to cut his service short and make a dash for home! The pastoral care of his people must also have often been dictated by the ebb and flow of the sea.
This is the house in which Finlay lived with his wife Isabella – sister of the local factor – and their children. It was said to have been built by James Gillespie Graham in the 1790s.
At right angles to Finlay’s house is another ruined house, known as old Vallay House, which is described on the RCAHMS website as ‘the only surviving example in the Uists of a tacksman’s house with crowstepped gables’.
It was built for Ewan MacDonald and his wife Mary MacLean, and their marriage is commemorated in a weathered lintel EMD & MML 1742.
These two simple, roofless structures are overwhelmed by their neighbour. Vallay House was built around 1902 for Erskine Beveridge, linen magnate, archaeologist and photographer from Dunfermline. Although ruined, his former home still contains haunting echoes of its life as a grand Edwardian mansion.
I crossed to Vallay thinking about Finlay, and found myself becoming increasingly intrigued by Erskine Beveridge. So much so that I think he deserves a separate post. More soon.
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