Tag Archives: Erskine Beveridge

Vallay: ruined houses and a tidal island (part 2)

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The overgrown ruins of the tacksman’s house and Finlay’s home are modest when compared with the gloomy Edwardian mansion which lies close by. Erskine Beveridge built his imposing summer home where he could enjoy spectacular views across the strand to the island of North Uist, and north towards the hills of Harris. But it was much more that simply the scenery which attracted this Fife-based businessman to Vallay.

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Erskine Beveridge inherited and expanded his father’s damask linen business in Dunfermline, and made his fortune in the process. He was a keen amateur archaeologist and was very interested in the new art and science of photography. Erskine travelled widely, in Scotland, Europe, America and Canada, but in North Uist he found the ideal location to pursue these two interests of archaeology and photography. He first visited the island in 1897, and bought the island of Vallay in 1901. He then set about building a suitable house for his family – no easy task on a tidal island!

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In 1911 Erskine Beveridge published North Uist: Its Archaeology and Topography, the result of his investigations on the island. Today this can be obtained in a reprint. More evidence of his time in North Uist can be found in a book recently published by RCAHMS, Wanderings with a Camera in Scotland. This wonderful book is an invaluable record of the landscape, people and architecture of Scotland in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The North Uist photos in the collection include pictures of Beveridge’s own excavations in progresss, as well as a mixture of crofting townships and archaeological sites.

Vallay

Erskine Beveridge died in 1920, and left the house to his son. But his son was tragically drowned crossing the strand in 1944, and Vallay House was soon abandoned. As each winter passes, its exposed position on the edge of the Atlantic must be taking its toll. Much of the roof and many of the floors have collapsed, and the building would be dangerous to enter. Still, there’s enough to be seen through the windows – rich red wall colouring, tiled fireplaces, even a tap – to conjur up an image of Erskine Beveridge, perhaps sitting by that fireside reading over his notes of the day, living his own island dream.

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There’s much more to see on Vallay – ruined farm buildings, beautiful beaches, archaeological sites. There wasn’t nearly enough time to see it all before the tide would be rolling in again. Which just means I’ll have to go back ….

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© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.

Vallay: ruined houses and a tidal island

IMG_2471I 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.

IMG_2462There’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.

Faith in a Crisis

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.

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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’.

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It was built for Ewan MacDonald and his wife Mary MacLean, and their marriage is commemorated in a weathered lintel EMD & MML 1742.

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IMG_2477These 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.

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.