The Hebridean Way is a recently launched 247 km walking route across the Outer Hebrides. With the southwestern wind mostly in the back you may follow it from the island of Vatersay to its official end in Stornoway, the capital of Lewis. But the journey’s logical conclusion is the northernmost tip of the island, the Butt of Lewis, where nothing lies between you and the North Pole but billowing ocean. (And, to be honest, a tip of the Faroe Islands).
It’s a long stretch of asphalt, from Stornoway northward, so we took the bus to North Tolsta, as far as it got. Another 3.5 km and the road ends at the Bridge to Nowhere.
The bridge is a remnant of an unsuccessful venture of the industrialist William Lever, alias Lord Leverhulme, manufacturer of Sunlight Soap. The project – a fishing empire based on the Hebrides – was abandoned in 1923, and so was the road along the east coast. Luckily for the wanderer.
How enticing is that name, Bridge to Nowhere, if nowhere is where you would like to be! Even if all it means is: no roads, no vehicles, no villages. Just another 1.5 km of gravel road, and then you’re on inhospitable moorland, bordered by steep cliffs where only seals and the hardiest seabirds feel at home.
On the moor, wooden posts mark the way. But don’t expect to follow them in a straight line. Every stretch expands into a multiple of zigzags, ups and downs, through peat beds, across tiny valleys, along an endless series of tiny lochs and large puddles. Carefully avoiding those bright green patches of sphagnum that may suck you in to the waist, or worse.
Late in the afternoon we reach the other end of nowhere: a broad, grassy clifftop, called Filiscleitir (or Bhiliscleitir, or Bilascleitear, in the bewildering variety of Gaelic spellings). It’s not far from the cluster of villages around Ness, and their outposts, little sheds or shielings, are visible nearby. The area is a traditional airidhean, a place where crofters’ families used to herd the sheep in summer, play games, tell stories, and engage in courtship.
On this grassy clifftop, oddly spaced apart, stand the ruins of a tiny chapel and a house. They were built early in the 1900s by one John Nicolson. Born in nearby Ness, he had found a new evangelical faith in the US, as well as a wealthy wife, Nora Cushing. After his return to the island he became known as An Fiosaiche (or ‘Ain Fiosaich), The Seer. In the chapel, Edgemoor Hall, he conducted services for the folks of the airidhean, with Nora accompanying the hymns on the harmonium.
Their story seems to have lived on mostly in oral tradition. Some of it is told by Donald S. Murray, a writer born in the area, in his recent book The Dark Stuff:
[the chapel] used to ring out hymns – like ‘Bringing In the Sheaves’ – across that treacherous landscape, songs forbidden on the other side of that community where only psalms could be sung.
[…] it was a place of wonders, one in which the people of Ness gained glimpses of another world in more than one sense. Some of the older generation of the district’s men and women used to tell me that the first time they saw an orange was in the fingers of John’s blind wife, Nora […]. It suggested a richness and fruitfulness glimpsed – for the first time – within a landscape that often appeared bleak and inhospitable, an exotic blaze of colour in an environment sometimes as dark and forbidding as Nora’s gaze. (p. 23)
The little building has an odd East-West orientation, with its entrance close to the edge of the cliff. Maybe it is symbolic: a passage from danger into safety. Desperate for shelter from the southwestern gale we had hoped to pitch our tent within these walls. Strong gusts had once already blown us off our feet, and bent the poles of our tent. But the concrete floor makes the use of pegs impossible.
So we decide to try our luck at the house, known as Dune Tower. Much more delapidated than the chapel, it offers but little protection from the wind. But the ground is soft, and between the tumbled down stones there is just enough space.
An overnight stay in Dune Tower, our guidebook tells us, is described in Island Memories (1937), the posthumous collection of memoirs of John Wilson Dougal, who was a chemist, amateur geologist, and a passionate explorer of the Hebrides. But why should this be mentioned? – the guidebook doesn’t say. Probably we should have guessed. Dougal’s chapter is titled A Haunted Hebridean House.
A few years ago […] I was given a statement of the “happenings” which took place the winter before at Dune Tower, a spot reputed to be haunted, situated on a crag where the wild cliffs of Ness extend for twelve miles toward North Tolsta. This indeed is a dangerous shoreland. A recent “visitation” has strengthened the belief held by many Ness people in the existence of ghosts at this place since, at least, the roaming Berserkers had a strong fort there a thousand years ago […]. (p. 123)
No ghosts troubled Dougal during his stay, nor did they bother us. No moaning and squeaking harmonium sounds were carried over from the roofless chapel by the untiring southwestern. It felt surprisingly homely and secure within these crumbled walls, two hundred feet above the “dashing waters”.
The fresh atmosphere of the next morning couldn’t be described any better than by quoting Dougal’s poetic evocation:
The morning revealed charming impressions of land and sea. The fragrance of the moor still lingered, though it was now late autumn. A few patches of red heather still in bloom and grass of a deep-green hue, growing in sheltered nooks, brightened the dark moor.
A feeling of quietude and loneliness were ever present, disturbed only by sounds of brattling brooks emptying tarns swollen by recent rains. The vicinity gave promise of the full variety of nature’s graces – to wit, the wind, the rain, the sunshine, the tides about the rocks and the beauty and activity of life about one – such things as matter to the campaigner in these Isles. (p. 125)
Even on this bright morning the contending waters heave and surge restlessly, boom and clash into voes and caves, or break in snowy spray against the stark and steep cliffs, standing proudly in deep waters. Yet, in quiet corners opposing currents meet and, in their fine mist, show tiny rainbows which seem within a hand’s grasp. (p. 127)
And at his departure, after seven nights:
The morning was bright when I left Dune Tower with grateful feelings for all that was there. With thankfulness for the kindness of friends, escape from the dangers of the cliffs, the full comfort of shelter from storms of wind and rain, the sight of the little Zion, the shielings of the happy people, the wonders of sea and land, I felt I had seen the symbols of the Eternal. I saw no manifest spirits, but there seemed a host of friendly witnesses who re-echoed a last adieu — “Like the ancient melodie of other worlds.” (p. 136)
Our one-night stay may not have been as comfortable as Dougal’s, with no roof, no fire in the stove. But all the same Taigh ‘an Fiosaich, The Seer’s House, or what’s left of it, had been a gratefully borrowed home.
Rainbows are a frequent blessing of these islands – and a double one, brightly coloured against a grey sky, appeared ahead of us as we hoisted our backpacks on our shoulders. Then, passing along the shielings onto a gravel road, we were “somewhere” again. And as an hour or two later later we trudged along through yet another shower, phantasies about hot tea under a roof became very vivid.
“Are you all right?” a voice called after us. Again, insistently, “Are you all right?”
A woman was standing at her front door. Wet on the outside, we were otherwise fine. But when she became more specific – “You want a coffee or a tea?” – we didn’t say no, of course.
Ghost stories around Dune Tower have been recorded in two books by Alasdair Alpin MacGregor (a friend of Dougal’s and editor of his Island Memories).
MacGregor, Alasdair Alpin. The Peat-Fire Flame. Folk-Tales and Traditions of the Highlands and Islands. Edinburgh: Moray Press, 1937.
––– The Haunted Isles: or Life in the Hebrides. London: A. Maclehose & Co, 1933.
Barrett, Richard. The Hebridean Way. Cicerone Press, 2017.
Dougal, John Wilson. Island Memories. Edinburgh: Moray Press, 1937.
Macleod, John. Banner in the West: A Spiritual History of Lewis and Harris. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2010.
Murray, Donald S. The Dark Stuff. London: Bloomsbury, 2018.