The Discovery of the New (and Old) World

21 07 2009

It’s well known that the Vikings have a cast iron claim to have discovered the New World around 1000AD- a good few hundred years before yon Christopher Columbus cove. But it’s a little known fact that Leif Erikson actually set off for the far side of the Atlantic from Lewis. Eric the Red, Leif’s father had been banished from his Sandwick homelands for over claiming his sheep subsidy and had already fled west to discover Greenland in 985AD (mistakenly thinking that it was Ullapool- he was always getting port and starboard mixed up). Some years later, Leif was sent back to Lewis by his old man to stock up on blackpuddings.  However, on his return journey with a longship full of marags, Leif decided to keep on rowing as far west as he could to see where he would end up.

At the same time as Leif was heading west, an intrepid party of Mi’kmaq Indians were setting sail from their homelands in present day Nova Scotia. They were aiming to see how far east they could get before falling off the edge of the world. Under the leadership of their chief Padd’ehh-W’aq, the Native Americans set out in a large raft made out of dug-out Spruce trees.

With friendly waves, the two bands of explorers took their leaves and set out for their respective destinations, buoyed with the knowledge that there was dry land waiting them at either side of the Atlantic and not sudden drops into space.

As fortune would have it, at exactly the same time, some two weeks later, Leif set foot in Newfoundland and Padd’ehh-W’aq set foot in Uig on the Isle of Lewis.The Lewis Vikings made the Mi’kmaq very welcome after hearing that they had passed Leif in mid Atlantic. The Native Americans were showered with gifts of marags and chess pieces by the Vikings and in return the Mi’kmaq gave presents of tweed patterns and a really good recipe for guga.

Before leaving to return to the America’s, the Mi’kmaq chief presented the local Church of Odin with an ornate carved bone amulet depicting the two Atlantic crossings. This notable occasion passed into common folklore as ‘Mi’kmaq Padd’ehh-W’aq Gave A God A Bone’

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Go West Young Man!

29 10 2008

Back in the 1840’s, the people of Stornoway became aware of the rich resources lying far to the west, in the uncharted lands of Uig and Bernera. A few brave and hardy trappers had forged a route across the moors into the unknown ‘Wild West’, looking for adventure and trading opportunities with the natives (the Uigeochs). These hardy souls, bedecked in rabbit fur bonnets and sheepskin jackets,  had brought back tales of rich salmon rivers, wild deer and prime quality sheep. These ‘mountain men’ would risk life and limb for the rich pickings offered in this Promised Land, bringing peats, rabbit skins, Uig sheep fleeces and chess pieces to the town and finding a ready market for their spoils.

It wasn’t long until settlers from the town started to think about making the long trail across the moors to find a new life amongst the scenic beaches and rich mountains of the west. This was to become known far and wide as the Uig Trail. Promises of vast tracts of land and easy going Common Grazing’s Committee’s soon attracted eager settlers in their droves. Soon carters and wheel-rights throughout the town were working to capacity to build covered wagons in preparation for the great trail westwards.

The first wagon train set out from Stornoway in 1841, leaving from Mitchells Wagon Emporium on Cromwell Street, (where Mitchells Bus Station used to be) to the cheers of the populace. 20 wagons in total, with a trail of sheep, cows and hens behind them, left the safety of the town for far flung Uig. The journey was to be a long and arduous one, taking nearly two days, with an overnight stop off in Garrynahine. Eventually, Garrynahine would become a major node on the Trail to Uig and saw the establishment of an Inn (later to become Garynahine Lodge) for use by the pioneers.

The wagon trains encountered many difficulties on its way to Uig. There were rivers to ford, long sea-lochs to negotiate and narrow mountain passes. There was also the constant threat of the natives nicking hens under cover of darkness. Often the wagon trains would have to form a defensive circle as Bernera coves appeared on the skyline, waving their weapons (poaching nets and tarrisgeirs), until they could be calmed with the promise of beads and trinkets (and a few casts on the Creed). And of course Mac in s’ tronaich would appear every now and then and make off with a hen.

But eventually the wagon trains bringing their cargo of townie settlers would get through. New villages sprang up all over Uig and Bernera and soon Stornoway was awash with poached salmon sent home to grannie.

Gradually communications between the town and the far west improved. A new speedy mail service was soon started, where a trained ‘homing’ sheep had bags of letters attached to its back and sent on its way along the Uig Trail. The Sheep Express became famous throughout Lewis and became known for its slogan ‘The mail quite often gets through’.

And, as everyone knows, the coming of the railways to Lewis opened up the entire western seaboard and brought civilisation to the Uig Hills but this is another (true) story, for another day.