Hiking the Coffin Road in the Outer Hebrides
A few weeks ago I looked at the UK map and tried to find the part of it that I knew the least about. I focused on the Outer Hebrides and then paused. I knew about the Lewis Chessmen story but rarely tried to connect it with Lewis. I had heard about the intellectual property issues related to protecting Harris Tweed but had not connected that much with Harris. For some reason it had a huge stone circle on it. And, it looked like one island but locals referred to it as if it were two (I’m going to refer to both of them collectively by their old name, “The Long Island”). That was pretty much all I knew. It was clean, safe, and relatively unknown to me.
I wrote this piece to share a landscape that is probably better articulated through sketches than words. The Long Island has beach, moorland and some bits of forest, but the element that seems most central to its atmosphere is its broad cover of marshy peat bogs. In particular there is one trail I learned about, Harris’s Coffin Route, which seemed to show great contrast between different parts of the island.
A Lichening of Landscapes
From the air, the Long Island looks like a giant lichen, cragged by streams and pitted by pond and puddle. The North Atlantic winds that roll over the low lying moorland wrinkle its inner waters with shimmering creases. As the plane descends into Stornoway and the clouds part, direct sunshine turns the lochs and lochans into mirrors. Their surfaces hide brown depths fed by ancient bog lands. Here, bleak is beautiful.
The moorlands are nestled under one and sometimes two blankets. The inner blanket is the layer of thick moss and heather that covers much of the Long Island. The sometimes outer blanket is the Haar, a Norse term for low lying fog that can bathe the land in ethereal uncertainty. Beneath these blankets are fragments of Neolithic monuments, ice age flora and rocks that are two thirds the age of the Earth. The moss has grown so thickly in recent millennia that when the Callanish Stone circle was fully excavated, diggers had to remove five feet of soil to reach the level where the stones were placed.
As the plane flies lower, it becomes clear that some of the links in the moorland aren’t natural. Cutting peat is an ancient community tradition that produces ridged lines in the hills and plains. The land is shaped just as much by what the blades cut as what they leave behind to regenerate. Those lines in the landscape tell of neighbour helping neighbour, as they gathered the main fuel that could keep them warm throughout the North Atlantic winters.
Understanding Tweed at Speed
When you ride through the countryside, you can gain a better appreciation of the tweed fabric that that has become the area’s most famous export. When you stand still, the colours glow in radiant distinction: the purple hues of heather, the tawny shades of grass, the browns and oranges of lichens, and the greens and reds of moss. As you roll down the window and the car speeds up, the colours blur and you may come to a satisfying revelation. Tweed fabric gives an impressionistic view of what the landscape looks like if you view it from afar or view it as speed.
Memory in the Moor: the Land Remembers
There was much to see in the Hebrides, but my most memorable trip was walking along a hiking trail called the Coffin Road. As ever, I’m vulnerable to being a story-driven traveller. Stories are a kind of mental wallpaper that adds texture to journeys. So when both my Air BnB host Scott and a tour guide Nigel separately told me about life in the moors I knew I had to seek out this route in Harris.
There is a mystical quality about peat bog landscapes that lay in their liminal nature: they are where earth and water mingle in the murk and where thick pastel fog can add a third, ethereal element. All mixed together they create anywhere-anytime places that allow you to feel ambiguously placed in the universe. They are places to find yourself, to be found or just to be pleasantly dislocated from frenetic modern living.
The bogs are trappers of memories that last beyond the minds and mouths of bygone societies. Buried deep beneath the sphagnum moss, liverworts and grass, the moors hide ice age oak and hazel tree stumps, their seeds waiting for a new millennium to germinate and tell an old story anew.
They are difficult to traverse, let alone cultivate. Yet in Europe’s peat bogs they appear to have been special places for ritual and a limited economy. The low oxygen waters were often the source of bog iron, which were iron-laden minerals that could be extracted with limited technology. The oxygen poor swamp and the tannins from mosses helped preserve artefacts, animals and even people.
Sketchings of the Coffin Road
As I got off the bus, I remembered what I had been told about the trail I was going to walk in Harris. Good agricultural land was hard to come by on island, which was covered by a lot of rugged moorland. The poor often lived in places with little soil. In olden times, the scarcity of good farming land may have made locals consider other places better suited to burials. Beachside cemeteries are common on Harris and Lewis, and apparently the locations matched a preference for plot space that was deep enough to lay someone to rest but would not compete for use with the best agricultural spots.
It is not clear to me whether it is a fact or a legend that the Coffin Road specifically was used to transport the deceased from shore to shore in Harris. But when you walk along it, the story seems reasonable, and nonetheless compelling. The lore goes that when someone on the eastern Bays part of the island died, locals would fetch a reusable coffin that made use of the scarce wood available. The pall bearers would then carry the deceased across a boggy trail to grave yards on the machair of Luskentyre beach. Machair, gaelic for “fertile low lying grassy plain”, is a rare habitat that only occurs in the exposed western coasts of Scotland and Ireland.
The Coffin Road trail is a circuit, so a bridge in the eastern part is a good a place as any to start. If legend holds, this would have been where processions would have begun. Bridges, like the moorlands themselves, can symbolise a meeting of realms. They can also hint at the adventure of crossing from one into the other, and when I travel I find them a compelling feature to experience. For a moment I watch white lines of bubbled froth pour along the blackened river below. Beyond the bridge, a path of stone and gravel scratches its way through a rugged ancient landscape.
Nearby, clouds bloated with mist rub their bellies on hilltops, truncating topography and making some seem identical. A black faced sheep chews indifferently atop a rough grey rock. Its furred brethren follow the habit of clouds, with the animals rubbing their bellies on the hills as well. Branches of dead heather blanch twisted and sit tasselled with wisps of wool; here they are as much plants as they are combs and back scratchers to the things that nibble them low.
All around the colours remind me of the natural elements that would have once been used to dye tweed fabric. Between rocks splotched with white and pale green lichens are the muds, the mustards, the bright greens and the wine reds of wet mosses. The profusion of heathers show pink buds darkly purpling to show a change of season. And the fronds of bracken droop and curl, bronzing from late summer greens to autumn browns in a nod to changing times.
A groggy bumblebee hangs loudly in mid-air; it’s unclear whether it’s pausing to regard me with suspicion, or if its wintering mind has simply forgotten where it can still get more pollen for its upcoming slumber.
In the thickness of valley shrub the texture of pebbles is implied by the way a hidden stream trickles over them. As the trail narrows and the valley widens, the vista of its slopes fully registers. The landscape then seems to swallow any sound, as if it intended to be contemplated in respectful quiet.
Despite its name and the story that goes with it, I find little morbid about this place. It is lush with life that tenaciously endures an environment that affords little cover from harsh elements. Up and over the last hill, the view descends through a long meandering trail that disappears into a broader expanse of mud flats and beach.
Even considering the strong wind at my back, the scene almost demands to be painted. And it’s when you sit and try to approximate Nature through line and colour rather than through words that you can really feel present.
There is much to tell about the Hebrides, and I thought I would hint at some of it mainly through some other sketches. The Neolithic landmarks of Lewis and Harris warrant their own discussions, as does the beach where the Lewis Chessmen were found. But here I leave some impressions.
Coffin Road, Bealach Eorabhat, South Harris. Heritage Paths. URL: http://www.heritagepaths.co.uk/pathdetails.php?path=171. Accessed October 4, 2020.
Coffiin Road circuit, Bays. Walkhighlands. URL: https://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/outer-hebrides/coffin-road.shtml
Goodenough, Kathryn, and Jonathan Merritt. The Outer Hebrides: a landscape fashioned by geology. Scottish Natural Heritage, 2007.
Harris and Lewis IPA. Plantlife. URL: https://www.plantlife.org.uk/uk/nature-reserves-important-plant-areas/important-plant-areas/harris-and-lewis
Robinson, James. The Lewis Chessmen. British Museum, 2004.
Virtual Hebrides: Images from the Western Isles. URL: https://www.virtualheb.co.uk/lewisian-gneiss-rocks-of-the-isle-of-lewis-and-harris-western-isles-geology/
Wolf, Norbert, and Ingo F. Walther. Romanticism. Taschen, 2018.