diamond geezer

 Friday, June 23, 2006

Postcard from the Hebrides: the remotest village in Britain (1986)

On the northeast coast of Harris, above a long loch looking out towards Skye, is the insignificant village of Reinigeadal [map]. Like many a Hebridean village it grew up as a self-sufficient fishing community cut off from the outside world. But unlike every other Hebridean village that's how it stayed, because nobody ever got round to building a road to connect it to the rest of the island. As late as the 1980s the only way in was by boat, or by yomping several miles over the moors. Residents started drifting away until there were only three employed men left, one of them Kenny MacKay the postman. Three times a week for 20 years, come rain, shine or tempest, he collected the mail from the village's postbox and set off to walk the twelve mile round trip to Tarbert.

And this is no easy stroll [map]. I walked the path in the opposite direction, starting in glorious sunshine from a tiny car park above East Loch Tarbert. First a steady ascent up the hillside to a pass (hmmm, pant, maybe I'm not quite as fit as I though I was) with stunning views from the summit across to distant peaks on the Scottish mainland. Then a steep zigzag descent (which must be a nightmare in the opposite direction) down to the deserted cove at Loch Trolomaraig [photo] and finally a scramble along the clifftops to Reinigeadal. The signpost said it had been 3½ miles, but with all the ups and downs it felt a lot lot further. After all this effort the village was something of a disappointment - the usual assortment of motley white buildings, nothing particularly special apart from their location [photo]. And by now it had started raining quite heavily, so the prospect of a three hour trudge back across the moors felt particularly underwhelming. Thankfully the European Union came to my rescue.

In 1986 the EU, or EEC as it was then, put up a £½ million grant to build a road connecting Reinigeadal to the rest of the island. The road didn't deliver best value, nor provide a positive cost benefit ratio, in fact it made no economic sense whatsoever. But six miles of single track tarmac laid across forbidding terrain brought a lifeline to the village which otherwise would have died away several years ago. And so it was that a kindly retired couple out walking on the hillside offered a welcome lift back to the other end of the footpath, along the road that shouldn't officially exist. The round-about drive was more like 15 miles in total but it was dry, and it was much quicker than the postman's walk would have been. Not all EU subsidies go to support French farmers or Latvian fishermen - sometimes they help to sustain a traditional way of life in the Outer Hebrides... for which my feet give due thanks.

A Road For Rhenigidale (eloquent Washington Post article, 1986)

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