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A Small Scalpay Story

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Looking across to our distillery in Tarbert from the Isle of Scalpay.

Since returning home to these islands a decade ago, I've lived and worked in a fair few quiet corners. But, since joining the distillery team, I've been safely ensconced in the near-silence of Scalpay.

Sgalpaigh, as it is known in our native Gaelic, is an island off the east coast of Harris. Or so I thought. I've since been corrected. Harris is, in fact, an island off the west coast of Scalpay.

It's a small detail, but an important one and the semantics say a lot about the geographical and cultural points of difference between the two places.

'Am Baile' - The Village, Isle of Scalpay. Image ©

Scalpay is not Harris, and Harris is not Scalpay, and although now firmly connected by a beautiful, big road bridge, their identities are as distinct as they've always been.

Over the years, many small ferries have crossed the sound which separates the two, sailing a short stretch of water between two slipways just a few hundred meters apart.

In 1964, the first bright red, timber-hulled boat made the journey, its clever turntable deck design carrying up to four cars at a time to roll-on and roll-off.

Scalpay Pier, 1933.

Turntable car ferry, Kyles Scalpay, 1965. Above images ©

But, in 1997 came the bridge, and our two island communities entered an arranged marriage of sorts, courtesy of the Western Isles Council and around £6.4m of European funding.

So, if you plan to visit Harris, do take a detour east of Tarbert, looking out for the red-triangled notices that warn you that otters may be crossing. In more ways than one, it's usually a good sign.

There's an 'open village' system of grazing here too, so sheep have free rein to wander the rollercoaster route which will eventually lead you to the historic Eilean Glas lighthouse. So, best take it as slow as they do.

Scalpay Bridge, 2021.

While mindful of motoring around lambs and mustelids, the long and winding road and its offshoots will take you through many of Scalpay's tiny townships, each with their often tongue-twisting names.

There's Am Baile (The Village), Aird an Aiseig, Ceann a Bhaigh, Rubha nan Cuideagan, Aird na Cille, Aird Aghanais, Laggandaoin, and more.

The roadsides are cluttered with crab and prawn pots, and convoluted coves hide small bright boats and rusting wrecks in equal measure, a testament to changed days since the big herring hauls.

Herring boats and ring-netters, North Harbour, Scalpay 1960s.

Scalpay Harbour and Marina, 2021

The fleets of ring-netters which once tied up side-by-side have given way to a modern marina, with a mix of pleasure craft, sea-cruisers and creel fishing vessels crewed by the likes of Donald and Finlay Ewen.

Their catch doesn't always have to travel very far either, with freshly landed lobster and langoustine put onto plates and served just minutes away by chef George Lavery at the North Harbour Bistro.

And, other small businesses are blossoming too, from artists and home-bakers to Airbnbs...

The fishermen of Scalpay Shellfish.

Isle of Harris Gin at Eilean Glas Lighthouse, Scalpay.

You'll doubtless spy a few lovely local people too, who will always return a wave as they go about the beautiful business of being busy, 21st-century Scalpaich.

And, if you are ever passing through, feel free explore the ends of some snaking side-tracks. Maybe take a left (or a right dependant on the direction of travel) by the old bus shelter, and keep on going until you can't anymore.

There you'll find a wee white cottage by a little sea-loch, the source of this small Scalpay story, written in rare, late spring sunshine, the silence only broken by the sound of drumming snipe in a clear blue sky.


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