island of the Outer Hebrides in northern Scotland

"Bheir me o, horo van o; Bheir me o, horo van ee; Bheir me o, o horo ho, Sad am I, without thee" - Eriskay Love Lilt

Eriskay is an island in the Outer Hebrides or Western Isles, linked by causeway to South Uist, and extending 3 miles north-south and 2 miles east-west. Its population in 2011 was 143, concentrated in the low-lying northwest corner, where the settlement is helpfully called Balla, "the village". The rest is rugged poor grazing.

Eriskay is Èirisgeigh in Gaelic but the name is Norse, "Eric's island", whoever he was. The island is best known for the 1941 running-aground of SS Politician, laden with whisky. The islanders rowed out and grabbed the whisky, not necessarily to help lighten and re-float the ship, and this inspired the novel and film Whisky Galore!

Understand edit

Along the road to the ferry pier

Go into a bank in the Outer Hebrides, if you can still find one open, and try to exchange a wad of oily, salt-tinged Jamaican £5 notes. You'll be met at best by suspicious looks, with the teller scurrying away to phone headquarters. Now imagine this in wartime 1941, when Hebrideans did not take holidays in the West Indies and Sandals in Montego Bay was undreamed of. Such was the £3 million treasure of SS Politician that the film versions somehow ignored.

This 7900-ton freighter was built in Stockton-on-Tees in 1923 and initially called SS London Merchant. She was sold in 1935 and renamed Politician — Polly to her crew — plying to South Africa. She was requisitioned at the onset of the Second World War to join the Atlantic convoys, and on 4 Feb 1941 was sailing north to rendezvous with a convoy when she ran aground. The exact spot is best described as "duh, somewhere round about here" and the crew had only the foggiest idea, as their distress call placed the Polly on the south coast of Barra, where the lifeboat made a fruitless search. She was probably off Acairseid Mhòr the sea inlet on Eriskay's east coast. The crew were all taken ashore safely, and happened to mention the cargo to the islanders, which included 22,000 crates of Scotch whisky, some 264,000 bottles. That cargo began to disappear.

Then followed a pantomime in which whisky was pilfered by the legitimate salvors and by boat-owners from across the Hebrides not just Eriskay. Stashes buried by one group were unearthed and carried off by others. Salvaged whisky returned to the mainland was sent by sealed train to warehouses at Kilmarnock, and lo and behold it didn't all arrive. Perhaps 7000 crates were taken by islanders. There were seizures, prosecutions, confiscations of boats, and the Bank of Jamaica withdrew the most-compromised note series, but the party only came to an end in August. McColl the Customs & Excise officer had chased the islanders hither and yon, and suffered at their hands, until in pique he had the ship blown up, with plenty of intact cargo still aboard. With whisky under wartime rationing, and a valuable export to fund the war effort, it was an act of cultural desecration to rival the 1687 detonation of the Acropolis of Athens.

Get in edit

By boat edit

1 Eriskay ferry terminal has Calmac ferries from Ard Mhòr on Barra, taking 40 min. There are five sailings M-Sa year round; Sundays there are five Apr-Oct and two Nov-Mar. Until end of March 2025, return fares are £25.30 per car, £7.30 per adult including driver, and £3.70 per child aged 5-15. Bikes are free but you should book your space. Buses connect between the ferries at Ard Mhòr and Castlebay the main village on Barra. Eriskay ferry terminal is a simple cabin waiting room with toilets and there's no village or shops here, just a slipway for the ro-ro.

This is the only ferry to Eriskay. You can also get here by sailing to Lochboisdale on South Uist (usually from Mallaig taking 3½ hr, occasionally from Oban taking 5½ hr) then driving across the causeway; or by sailing from Uig on Skye to Lochmaddy on North Uist then a longer drive south.

With your own boat use Acarsaid Mhòr, the sheltered sea inlet east side of Eriskay.

By plane edit

Benbecula (BEB IATA) is the airport for the Uists, with flights daily from Glasgow and M-F from Stornoway.

You could also fly from Glasgow to Barra (BRR IATA) then take the ferry.

By road edit

Eriskay is linked by causeway to South Uist. It's a good paved road passable at all tides and in all but the worst Atlantic weather.

Buses W16 / W17 run thrice M-Sa down the Uists from Berneray via North Uist, Benbecula and South Uist to Eriskay ferry pier. By catching an early bus from Stornoway on Lewis, you can get all the way here in a day. Two other buses start from Benbecula airport.

Get around edit

Eriskay is small enough to explore on foot. The roads are single-track with passing places and in good repair. The principal route is Rathad na h-Eaglaise or Church Way between causeway, village and ferry pier, which is "unclassified" so it doesn't even count as a numbered B-road, yet it's part of the inter-island spine thoroughfare.

See edit

  • 1 St Michael's, 1 Cnoc Lachlainn, Eriskay HS8 5JJ, +44 1878 720201. Until 1852 Eriskay had no Roman Catholic church, but visiting priests would be brought over by fishing boat. Then hundreds of RC crofters evicted from South Uist settled here and the first homespun church was built, similar to a crofter's cottage. It was replaced in 1903; its site is marked by a roadside chapel. The present church has an attractive interior resembling an upturned boat, and the altar sits upon a boat. Mass is held Tu Th Su at 10AM.    
  • 2 Prince Charlie's Beach (Coilleag a Phrionnsa) north of the ferry pier is where Prince Charles Edward Stuart landed on 23 July 1745 (Old Style) to launch the Jacobite rebellion. Coilleag means a forest, but his landing beach is as treeless and windswept as the rest of the Uists — perhaps the name was to indicate his hunting ground, with the crown his target. He landed in the French privateer Du Teillay with seven companions and some artillery, but his transport ship with most weapons and men had limped back to France after a battle with the Royal Navy's HMS Lion. Charles continued to Loch nan Uamh on the mainland, where the clan chiefs were horrified that he'd come almost empty-handed. After defeat at Culloden, the fugitive Charles zigzagged across the Highlands and Hebrides but didn't return to Eriskay.
Eriskay pony on Beinn Sciathan
  • 3 Acarsaid Mhòr is a quiet cove on the sheltered east side of the island. Along the lane at the head of the cove, the rock face has been painted with the Stations of the Cross.
  • 4 Standing stones are at the northeast tip of the island, the Roisinish area. They're just a natural grouping, not a prehistoric megalith, and you only come for the walk. Calvay (Calbhaigh) is the uninhabited island a quarter mile north. The Politician was re-floated and brought into these shallows in hopes of repair, but broke upon another rock to put the matter beyond doubt. This resting place was even more convenient for the whisky looters.
  • Eriskay Ponies can be seen grazing by the roadside, though they prefer the quieter east side of the island. They're grey, about 12.5 hands tall (130 cm), stocky and docile, used for children's rides and light haulage they helped cart away the whisky from the Politician. Similar ponies are recorded back to Pictish times and they were common throughout the Hebrides, but were crossbred with others to create heavier haulage beasts. Only on isolated Eriskay did the breed remain pure, but with the onset of mechanisation their number declined to about twenty by 1920. There are now stud books and conservation, but they remain critically endangered with less than 300 worldwide.
  • 5 Slack islands are the group a quarter mile off the south tip of Eriskay - you get a distant view from the ferry. The largest, the bifurcated Eilean Leathan, has the ruins of a medieval tower house. It's called Weaver's Castle (Caisteal a' Bhreabadair) but "weaver" is a mispronunciation of "riever". A pirate lived there, until soldiers did away with him and his kin. The larger islands seen further south and west are part of Barra.

Do edit

  • 1 Beinn Sciathan   is a Marilyn of 186 m (609 ft) and the island's highest point. The hike from the village might take 45 min. The view from the top takes in South Uist, Barra, and on a really clear day St Kilda 68 miles out in the Atlantic. On a gloomy day, give the summit a miss and stay on the waymarked trail south to Loch Cracabhaig. You then return to the road by the ferry pier.
  • Sea-kayaking lets you explore the many islets, inlets and beaches. The nearest organised excursions start from Barra.
  • Hebridean Way is a way-marked hiking and cycling trail the length of the Outer Hebrides. Northbound you arrive on the ferry from Barra, and cyclists simply follow the road from the pier to the village and causeway to South Uist. Walkers follow the beach to rejoin at the village.

Buy edit

Causeway to South Uist
  • 1 Eriskay Community Shop, Balla HS8 5JJ, +44 1878 720236. M-Sa 9AM-5:30PM. Small but well-stocked community shop, with Co-op brand products. There's no ATM here or anywhere on Eriskay.

Eat edit

  • 1 The Politician, 3 Balla HS8 5JL, +44 1878 720246. Daily noon-11PM. Friendly pub and restaurant with good food, and sometimes live entertainment. Named for the whisky-laden Politician, it's the only place to eat or drink on the island, unless a scuba diver surfaces with a find or a crofter's spade clinks upon a forgotten stash.

Drink edit

The Politician and the shop are the only places to buy a drink on the island.

Sleep edit

  • Camping: no site on the island, wild camping may be allowed, enquire locally. Kilbride campsite on the south coast of South Uist is only 3 miles away by road.
  • 1 Oir na Mara, 5b Balla HS8 5JL, +44 1878 720216. Clean welcoming B&B with two rooms.
  • 2 An Taigh Mor, 15B Balla, +44 1878 720717. Charming dog-friendly B&B, 2 nights minimum. B&B double £130.
  • Self-catering places generally let from Saturday to Saturday, see tourist website.
  • 3 Aird na Haunn, Haunn HS8 5JH, +44 7531 095754. Two comfy self-catering apartments available all year. Ground floor sleeps 8 and upper sleeps 4. Dogs by arrangement. Ground £800-1000, upper £600-800 / week.

Connect edit

As of Sept 2023, Eriskay has no mobile signal.

Go next edit

This rural area travel guide to Eriskay is a usable article. It has information on how to get there and on restaurants and hotels. An adventurous person could use this article, but please feel free to improve it by editing the page.