Meet some members of the West Harris community:
I was born in Scarista in 1921 and attended Seilebost School. For the duration of the war I was away in the ‘Wrens’ (Women’s Royal Naval Service). After I demobbed, as we called it, I got an office job with the Harris Crofters Association, a local co-operative. Many years later came the Post Office. My sister ran it first, then after she married I took over.
Did I ever think about leaving the island? Well…having a job and earning a wage was important to staying here, and my parents were getting older by then and I was the eldest child so I accepted the responsibility of looking after them.
Harris was very different back then. Lots of people were using their own wool, raw wool, to make Harris Tweed. Every house had a cow, and we made our own butter, our own crowdie. Each croft was self-sufficient. At one time, it was a great way of life.
After the war, the class system changed – Jack was as good as his master, whereas before, you see, there had been landlords with crofters on the bottom rung. Crofters were no longer happy being sort of subservient.
The area is much quieter now. Everyone has a car. People will stay home watching television rather than go to a ceilidh. Before, a lot of things were done together – two or three crofters would plant potatoes, for example, on the same day. So you’d start at this croft and then have your breakfast here, then all go to plant another croft and have your lunch there, and so on. There is none of that now. Having said that, not a day goes by someone doesn’t pop in. My husband has been dead for fourteen years and there are only two days in that time when I haven’t had someone visit. But I don’t think that’s the way for a lot of people.
Kate, primary school student
In West Harris our neighbours are all so kind, friendly and helpful. Such nice people live here. I absolutely love going to Seilebost primary. It’s sad to think that a great school might close; it’s like a family there. The weather here is good in the summer and I love going in the sea even though it’s sometimes cold. We live in Luskentyre and my mum runs her own homebaking business. She is going to have a website soon, ‘Really Good Cakes’. In the future I would like to see more people come to the area, the school to be open and more activities going on.
Fiona and John, self-employed, and children
We arrived in West Harris with a family of three children of secondary school age. We had first come to Harris on a holiday, tempted by the unspoilt mountains, crystal clear seas and the remoteness. We are an active family and sought locations to walk, climb mountains and enjoy nature and the great outdoors together.
The climate was raw at Easter while we were visiting, the dark unpolluted night sky was lit only by natural moonlight and the turquoise sea met miles of desolate sandy shore on the West Side. Our holiday was both peaceful and invigorating as we explored the natural treasures on our doorstep, sand-blasted beaches, blizzard-swept summits and seals heaved up onto the rocks watching us with even more curiosity than us watching them. We were even treated to a couple of days of brilliant sunlight when the landscape truly opened up and revealed to us the intensity of its beauty.
Harris made a deeper impression on us than we anticipated. Within three months we had moved up. Harris in the summer was more intoxicating still with the machair in full flower and long hours of daylight. We explored deeper and began to make acquaintances with neighbours and friends. We were delighted to have found somewhere safe to raise our family, away from some of the pressures and influences of modern life. The children experienced the freedom and carefree life we had wanted to allow them but knew it was unsafe to do so where we had previously lived.
For work John soon began setting up a professional business but also still worked away some of the time and I seized the opportunity to pursue a lifelong interest and hobby. We eventually moved into our self-build after renting for a year and now enjoy a degree of self-sufficiency growing some vegetables, keeping hens and cutting peats for burning in the stove in winter. This lifestyle keeps us busy but we also enjoy time with friends we have made here.
It was easy for the children to settle into school as the small secondary school was a tenth of the size of the mainland school they had been attending. The local children were friendly and welcoming, differing from previous schools in that the years all mix socially. They benefit from both small class sizes which helps them achieve their potential and a brand new school building that was only opened in 2012.
As a family we like living on an island out to the west of Scotland. When nature bites back and the gales claim another outbuilding, prevent supplies arriving on the ferries or the power fails and some schools and businesses close for the day, the spirit of the people prevails and everything continues again the next day, valiant individuals having been out in the weather and the dark to restore normality. Apart from the natural dangers around us there are not the worries and concerns of safety and security that plagued us in parts of Britain where we have lived.
We enjoy being part of the present and future of West Harris, an area rooted in Gaelic traditions and culture but facing the challenges of an ageing and diminishing population. Our children like many of the indigenous youth will more than likely leave to further their education on the mainland and the big challenge facing the region is to secure quality employment and opportunities to keep them, entice them and other young adults back and stem the flow of people to the mainland to maintain a viable population.
Sandra, school secretary
I’m twenty-five and I have been a resident of West Harris all my life, apart from a four year stint in Aberdeen where I studied Corporate Communication at university. It was in Aberdeen where Billy and I met. Billy is a time-served joiner and is currently employed by FES as one of Sir E Scott School’s caretakers. We have one son, Rory, who is four months old. I am currently on maternity leave from my post as school secretary in Seilebost school*. Having been brought up in Harris myself, I always knew that if I had a family I would want them to be brought up here too. The freedom and the space Rory will have to play in the garden and on the croft when he’s bigger is exciting to think about. With an ageing population in West Harris it is nice to see that there are now three children under school age in the area. Ideally, it would be amazing to see families moving into West Harris.
*Sadly, Seilebost school will close in June.
Roddy and Dolina , retired
I was born in Seilebost, West Harris, two crofts away from my present home. My wife, whose parents were from Harris and Lewis, was born and brought up in Glasgow, and she used to come to Harris on holiday to visit relatives.
I moved to Glasgow in 1960 to begin a marine engineering apprenticeship and lived there till 2005. That’s where Dolina and I met, and married. We used to come to Harris on holiday every year, staying with family and in rented accommodation.
In 2002 I retired from the Merchant Navy. Over the next couple of years we decided to move to a more sedate environment, and as I had been born in West Harris, and as my wife liked the place, we built a house here. While building our house we found that a lot of people, mostly tourists, stopped and asked where they could buy a plot of land in West Harris. It is very scenic with beautiful beaches, and views over to the North Harris hills and the Island of Taransay. On a clear day the hills of St Kilda are visible from high spots on the main road.
As the population of Harris in general has been declining we need an injection of young people, and families to the area. This could be encouraged by affordable housing and more full time employment; otherwise the up and coming generation will drift away. We hope that the Rubha Romagaidh development [community building and houses at Horgabost], for instance, will come to fruition.