Caught by the River

A Postcard From the Outer Hebrides: Fire!

John Maher | 2nd April 2018

John Maher captures muir-burning season in his latest column.

It’s not uncommon to see parts of the Hebridean landscape alight at this time of year.
Here’s a little background info, courtesy of the Scottish Crofting Federation…

“Burning off the heather in a carefully controlled manner is an essential part of managing hill grazing. Burning heather allows it to regenerate providing food and access. If the hill was not burnt then the heather would be waist high and woody, and the habitat would be poorer for all: livestock, wild animals and humans.”

Occasionally things get a little out of hand; as happened earlier this month on the Isle of Barra, when a mile long wall of flame made its way towards a group of houses. Fortunately it was brought under control by fire-fighters, with help from the RNLI, Coastguard and members of the public, including our local MP!

Meanwhile, things were much calmer in Harris during this year’s muir-burning season, although I was treated to a spectacular display one night  last week. Driving along the five mile stretch of single track road between Leverburgh and Finsbay, at one point the fires were blazing on either side of me. In places the heavy haze of peat smoke reduced visibility to a few metres. The smell of burning peat hung in the air for miles. Fortunately I had my camera.

In February 2017 I caught some more muir-burn action while driving through South Uist. I was on a road trip taking pictures for the recently launched Western Isles Architectural Trail (more about that next month). After a day of touring around the island, I retired to the 16 bed Gatliff Hostel in Howmore. I had entire the place to myself.

Browsing through images I’d accumulated earlier in the day, I got a surprise when I took a closer look at the muir-burn photo I’d shot a few hours earlier. Can you see the face in the flames? Hint: he’s on the right. Must confess, it creeped me out a little, but not enough to put me off lighting a fire to warm the place up.