Sound of Harris
This passage through the Outer Hebrides chain provides the main connection from the Minches to the east and the open Atlantic to the west. It is much used by fishing vessels and smaller commercial ships seeking more sheltered waters whatever the wind direction. There are two channels through, with sufficient depths, but great care has to be taken as the Sound is festooned with rocks and reefs on all sides. At low tide the view of Sound strikes horror into the unwary navigator, when the true extent of the system of parallel reefs and shallows are exposed.
A dozen or so islands lie in the sound, grazed by sheep these days, but once inhabited. All their names end in the letters “ay”, which indicates the fact that they were, in the first instance, named by the Viking marauders who occupied these regions 1000 years ago. The western entrance is guarded by Pabbay, Shillay, and Coppay; the two large elongated islands in the middle ground are Ensay, which has a fine Victorian mansion on the beach, and a spectacular burial mound at the western end, where over the last thirty years storm erosion has exposed many ancient graves and a spectacular buried chapel on the top, and the adjacent island of Killegray also has a fine 19th. Century house, recently restored by a new absentee owner. Both these islands provided fine grazing, but more recently have been managed in a way to provide suitable conditions for ground nesting birds. Finally, at the eastern end lie the islands named, Langay, Gilsay, Groay, and Scaravay. In particular these islands were used as summer pasture for cattle, and up until 1900 or so it was customary for young girls and children to spend the summer here living in stone shelters, tending and milking the cattle, and catching fish off the rocks, which were then dried in the sun for the winter. Strangely the last and most prominent islet, guarding the eastern end of the Sound, does not carry a Viking name, but a Gaelic one – Dunaarin – which hints that there was once a fortified “Dun” or fort on the precipitous slopes.
Vessels pass through the Sound using navigation marks and lights which are maintained by The Northern Lights Authority and the local Council, together with a series of charted transit marks and bearings. In the 1920s Leverburgh was a busy herring port, a veritable “Klondyke”and the hobby-horse of Lord Leverhume, the soap magnate. It was he who opened up the Navigation of the Sound and built some of the lighthouses and marks. Sadly Leverhume died, the herring moved on, as did the activity of the port. The Royal Navy had shown interest in these waters since Cromwellian times and also when they had hunted Bonny Prince Charlie during his escape from the Battle of Culloden in 1746. During the 1800s and the 1900s Royal Navy survey ships were active, giving their names to a number of the reefs, shoals, and channels, eg. The “Stanton” channel, and the “Cope” channel. The white “Janes Tower”, is said to be named so after the girlfriend of one such surveyor. A bottle of whisky lies within its base.
Fishing practises and methods are ever changing to meet commercial requirements of the market. Lobsters were the main catch until recent times. Nowadays lobsters are scarce but do command a premium price. Today the main local fishery is for prawns, and today’s catch is processed and dispatched to the markets of London and the Continent and even as far afield as Japan. Fishing boats are highly specialised, and equipped with the latest gadgetry.
Many visitors enjoy the various resident and transitory birds in the area, the snipe, the corn crakes, the geese, golden eagles and the newly introduced sea eagles. But, it is the variety of seabirds which can be seen, especially in the early summer, for which the Sound of Harris is renowned. Guillemots, razorbills, fulmars, kittiwakes, shags and cormorants, gulls, terns, skuas and most loved of all, the puffins, all abound in their thousands.
Dolphins, porpoises and whales are often seen. Seals bask on every skerry and indeed breed on the more remote islands. Otters frequent the shoreline and are easily observed by the quiet, patient watcher. Although the destructive mink had been spreading, it is now being eradicated.