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.

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