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24 September 2014

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Thursday 7 December: The Outer Hebrides


The Outer Hebrides

Map showing the Outer Hebrides

This rugged remote coast is a wonderland of stacks, secret inlets and wind swept secluded beaches. The dramatic coastline is rich with culture and traditions which are deeply rooted across the 120 islands that make up the Outer Hebrides.

Island of Mingulay - Past occupation of the island
Aerial picture of the islandMingulay is the second most southerly of the group of islands known as the Bishops Isles which are to be found at the Southern tip of the Outer Hebrides.

It takes its name from the Norse for "big island". It measures two-and-a-half miles by one-and-a-half, and has an area of just under 1600 acres. Largely comprising gneiss rocks that have stood here for 3,000 years, they have eroded to form impressive rock stacks and majestic cliffs rising over 150m in height.

Aerial picture of the dramatic rock stacksIt's hard to imagine that anyone could settle here. For 2,000 years a community lived here until 1912 when Mingulay lost its community for good. In the 1880s the island had a thriving community with a population of 160.

Neil Oliver meets up with Callum MacNeil whose ancestral family once owned the island and lived here for generations.

The community had an age old lifestyle with work being shared between the men and women. When the men went out fishing the women would tend to the cattle, do the weaving or pluck the sea birds so that feathers could be sent to the neighbouring Island of Barra and onwards to Glasgow.

One of the ruins left on MingulayHistory and traditions were passed on by word of mouth. Many people memorised their family line by adding the names of their ancestors to their own full names. It's a tradition that survived the test of time, and one that means Callum can trace his family line back for 500 years.

Mingulay has been owned by the National Trust for Scotland since 2000 and two buildings still stand: the Schoolhouse, which was built in the 1880s by the Free Church Ladies' Association and later used as a sheep farmer's bothy; and the Chapel House, a Catholic priest's house built in 1898.

Island of Vatersay
Aerial picture of the causeway linking the island to the mainlandA causeway links the small island of Vatersay to the rest of the world. In 1991, the population increased by over a third to just under 100 people. With such a small population the local inhabitants are use to multiskilling. Local postman, Michael Campbell can turn his hand to most things. He provides a glimpse into his life, the community on the island, and one of his real passions music and his band The Vatersay Boys.

Island of Eriskay - Whisky Galore!
During the Second World War merchant ships would gather at Loch Ewe before heading out to sea in convoy - trying to avoid German U Boats.

Route taken by merchant ships'Whisky Galore!' is a post war (1949) Ealing comedy film about a ship that ran aground of the coast of Scotland. Based on the book of the same name by Compton MacKenzie, the book and the film tell the story of how local people tried to get their hands on its cargo - several cases of scotch. But one story that isn't fiction is that of the convoy ship, the SS Politician.

In February 1941 the ship, packed to the gunnels with an unusual cargo, a quarter of a million bottles of the finest scotch whisky left Liverpool docks on course for the north west of Scotland where she was to rendezvous with the rest of the Atlantic convoy.

But just south of the Outer Hebrides the weather took a turn for the worse and with lighthouses working on reduced power due to the war, the ship went badly off course and hit a rocky island between Eriskay and South Uist.

The crew all abandoned ship leaving the cargo onboard. News of the precious cargo spread around the islands in a flash. Within a short while nearly every islander had a clutch of whisky bottles hidden in their homes.

CGI showing the SS Politician stranded on the rocksOne of the crew was Maurice Watson, a 17 year old cadet at the time. Miranda Krestovnikoff joins Maurice as he returns to the site for the first time in 65 years.

A government salvage team stripped the SS Politician by day but the islanders took their turn at night. One of the locals was 97 year old Iain Smith. He tells Miranda about how he managed to salvage four cases of the ships whisky.

But local customs men weren't happy that all this duty free whisky was flowing so freely across the islands. Homes were raided, whisky bottles confiscated and even fishing boats were impounded. In all 35 islanders were arrested and 19 were sent to prison.

Eventually the SS Politician was blown up, but the tale doesn't end there. Today, if you happen to come across a bottle from the ships cargo it can fetch up to £10,000 at auction!

Since filming, Iain Smith who contributed to this programme has passed away.

Askernish - Forgotten Golf Course
Aerial picture of the forgotten golf course on the coastForgotten among the rolling dunes of the west coast of South Uist is an 18 hole golf course designed by the god father of modern golf, Old Tom Morris. There had long been rumours of a lost course. It had been concealed here for 70 years by grassland and wildflowers and was only discovered last year by local golfers.

Morris, a four times Open champion, criss-crossed the country by train, steamer and donkey cart laying out courses ranging from the renowned Muirfield, to Uist's obscure Askernish.

Neil Oliver getting ready to swing the clubHe designed the 18-hole links course in 1892 at the invitation of the laird, Lady Cathcart, laying it out on a coastal strip used as common grazing for sheep and cattle. It lost half its holes in 1936 when the RAF needed nine for a runway and when the military left it was never put back together.

Neil Oliver meets up with golf course consultant Gordon Irvine and Course Architect Martin Ebert who plan to return it to its former glory, of 114 years ago.

Traditional boat builder John MacAulay at workIsland of Harris - Traditional Boat Building
For many years in these parts the most efficient way of getting around was by boat.

Traditional boat builder John MacAulay shows the craftsmanship and skills of traditional boat building, which have been passed on for generations.

Isle of Lewis - Birth of an Oil Industry
Aerial picture of StornowayStornoway is the largest town on Lewis and the commercial hub for the islands. Over 150 years ago it saw the surprising birth of an oil industry.

In 1844 the island was owned by James Matheson who helped build the area for the community.

Although Matheson had retired he was forever the entrepreneur, and it was more than the natural beauty of the island that caught his eye - it was the islands vast resource of peat.

Aerial picture of the fields of peatFor years peat had been used as a domestic fuel. Matheson wanted to take it one step further and use the peat to make hydrocarbon oil. At the time paraffin oil was used for lighting and it came from fish and whales. But how did Matteson make oil from peat?

Armed with a bag of peat and a metal drum, Mike Bullivant from the Open University illustrates the magical properties of peat. By burning the peat, tar is extracted and distilled further, extracting paraffin oil.

Mike Bullivant carrying out an experiment to show how oil can be extracted from peatOriginally Matheson set up his works at his castle, but the process poisoned the fish in his pond so he moved the process outside. But when all the fish were poisoned in the nearby river, Matheson called in chemist Dr Benjamin Paul to take charge of the distillation.

The process also gave of a flammable gas - which the night watch man discovered when doing his rounds with a candle, resulting in the chimney catching fire. Forever efficient, Dr Paul used the excess gas to burn the peat, which was used to make paraffin lamp oil, candles, and the excess tar was sold as lubricant and sheep dip.

CGI showing the Lewis Chemical WorksAlice Roberts joins Ali Whiteford and discovers how this area of peat land was transformed into a full blown chemical works. The Lewis Chemical Works was the first company to be a commercial success of converting peat into oil. But Dr Paul left and his successor cooked the books, lining his own pockets.

Twenty two years later the site closed and all that's visible today is the track of the Works.

Patrick Winterton's Kayak Trip
Patrick Winterton making his way along his 750 mile journeyPatrick Winterton carried out a 750 mile kayak trip unaided and all alone from Glasgow to the outer Hebrides, with a brief stop at St Kilda and onto Muckle Flugga in the Shetlands, the UK's most northerly point.

Neil Oliver caught up with Patrick who tells him about this magnificent journey, the perils faced and also the pleasure of arriving on islands and beaches that have not been set foot on in years.

The Shiants - Puffins
Aerial picture of The ShiantsThe Shiant islands are three small islands of the east coast of Lewis. Buzzing with wildlife, it is one of the biggest puffin colonies on our coast. Every April thousands of Puffins return here from the north Atlantic to breed.

This is the perfect place for these dumpy, quirky birds who are at home in the air, on land or in the water.

The puffin with a catch of fish in its mouthThe puffin's wings act as fins and webbed feet become a rudder making them fly through water. They can dive to a depth of over 60 metres reaching speeds of 5 ½ miles an hour - faster than a record holding Olympic swimmer.

The sea here provides a rich source of food and they can dig out their burrows in the soft peat soil quite easily with the peat acting as an insulator, but it can get water logged. Miranda Krestovnikoff meets with RSPB conservationist, Martin Scott, and takes a peak into their homes.

St Kilda - Conservation of the Island
The rugged islands of St Kilda have the biggest sea cliffs, the largest sea bird colonies and also the remotest village street in the UK.

Conservationist helping to preserve the pastIncreasing contact with the industrial world helped destroy the traditional way of life and the last islanders left in 1930.

Archaeologist from the National Trust of Scotland, Samantha Dennis, is joined every summer by a team of conservationists who come to the island with a variety of skills to try and help preserve its past.

Isle of Lewis - Calanais Standing Stones
Aerial picture of the Calanais Standing StonesThe standing stones on Calanais are around 5000 years old. There are many stories and theories as to why the circle was erected but no one really knows why.

Some say it's associated with the sun, stars and moon, but we may never know.

Isle of Lewis - Wind Farm
The coastline of the Isle of LewisThe Outer Hebrides has a vast quantity of a natural resource - strong winds. When coming across the Atlantic the north west of Lewis is the first place the strong south westerly winds hit.

With average wind speeds here being 50% higher than the national average it's a natural resource some locals tap into - but developers are keen to take things one step further.

CGI showing the height of the wind turbinesHermione Cockburn join engineer and wind turbine expert Richard Tarves, who uses a kite to illustrate high altitude pulling power and how wind speeds, can make a difference. Basically the higher the kite goes, the higher the wind speed and stronger the wind power.

There's a plan by developers to harness this natural resource and who propose to make the worlds largest onshore wind farm.

Spread over 30 miles of moorland, they intend to put up 180 wind turbines that are 140 metres tall to reach where the wind blows stronger.

Map showing the scale and size of the wind farm which would stretch right across greater LondonThe scale and size of the wind farm horrifies locals - the size of it is the equivalent of it stretching right across greater London.

Hermione joins Catriona Campbell from the local group 'Moors without Turbines' to find out about the impact the wind farm would have on the local area and community.

Would you like to find out what music was used in this programme?

The Outer Hebrides: Thursday 7 Dec, 8pm on BBC TWO


Coast Series 2

Dover to Isle of Wight

Holyhead to Liverpool

Arran to Gretna

Cornwall & the Isles of Scilly

Dublin to Derry

Newcastle to Hull

The Outer Hebrides

Felixstowe to Margate

See Also

Meet your Coast experts:

Neil Oliver
Alice Roberts
Mark Horton
Miranda Krestovnikoff
Nicholas Crane
Hermione Cockburn
Dick Strawbridge


Island Blogging

On the rest of the web
Western Isles Council

Barra Heritage Centre

National Trust for Scotland

The Vatersay Boys Whisky Galore!

Askernish Golf Club

The Shiant Isles

St Kilda

Butt of Lewis Lighthouse

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites

Tel: 0870 900 7788

for a free Open University “Discover Your Coast” pack - or visit

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external links.

Programme 8 South East England - Felixstowe to Margate

Alice Roberts savours the sea salt at Maldon, Miranda Krestovnikoff goes trawling on the Thames and we discover how the houses of Parliament can claim to be on the coast. We end the series with a remarkable cricket match miles out to sea on the eerie tidal landscape at Goodwin Sands.

  Map showing Felixstowe to Margate

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