Pabbay and The Sound of Harris

Pabbay is an island in the Sound of Harris. Its a lovely island with a history perhaps all too familiar in Scotland, an island where once over two hundred people lived and now only sheep and deer roam. From South Harris, especially Northton beach, it is unmistakable, a pyramid shaped island floating in the Sound. And its also the reason our wee hoose is called Pabbay Cottage…..but thats not important right now.

Theres lots of wee islands in the Sound of Harris and the ferry from Berneray has to zigzag its way across the water enroute to Leverburgh. If you climb Roinebhal on Harris you get an amazing view of all the islands. I’ve been lucky enough to be taken out in a boat by a local, once to drop a shepherd on an island and another time to let a man dive for scallops.

Both trips were an education for a mainlander. I sat there as a local crofter steered the boat in and out all the rocks and skerries. He had to take the boat in close to an island to allow the shepherd to jump onto the rocks. He then threw the sheepdog in the sea and the shepherd fished it out with his crook. Poor dog but probably safest way to get it onshore.

The scallop diver, in a wetsuit on the other hand, went under for a good ten minutes and came back up with a fair haul. We waited a while for his body to readjust before he could dive and again he resurfaced (gasping) with a netful of scallops. These were sold to a local hotel for £1.10 each I was told. It was a privilege to watch both the island shepherd and scallop diver.

My third trip in the Sound was to Pabbay. It was brilliant, an experience I’ll not forget. That morning in May, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the Sound was like a pond. It was like being in the Mediterranean and visibility was perfect.

Perhaps it was because I knew the history of Pabbay, but I found it very atmospheric. The outlines of the houses are there, almost 175 years after they were abandoned, grass grown over the thick stone walls. On the island, the grass was short, reminding me of a links golf course and sheep wandered around. We spotted a bird of prey, sitting on a boulder nearby. It looked huge but I was assured that it was a just a young sea eagle.

The ruined temple is still standing and I had a good wander around it. The views back towards Harris and also south to Berneray and North Uist are incredible. You also have to remember in the 1800s, living on an island was not a disadvantage: boat travel was easier than crossing the rocky terrain of the Western Isles. Pabbay was therefore a great place to live, especially as its fertile soil was good for growing crops.

And that’s where it went wrong. The islanders grew barley and used it to distill illicit whisky. The story goes that whenever the exciseman visited in the 1840s, the ferryman would hoist a flag as a warning. Except one time he forgot. The islanders were then evicted and many settled on Harris.

We believe that’s when the house at No. 2 Obbe was built, around 1846. We believe it was built by a Pabbach, in an elevated position up the glen above Obbe (Leverburgh), so that they could see their former homeland.

So it was fitting that when we renovated the blackhouse, which had become a ruin, we called it Pabbay Cottage. Every day’s a school day, eh !

PS Tomorrow is the 90th anniversary of the St Kilda evacuation and theres an online commemorative event. The difference here being the islanders requested to be evacuated.

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