Generally Speaking

Outer Hebrides – 6 – Isle of Lewis

Tuesday 16th – Journey from the Harris Hotel up through the island to Borve House Hotel, Lewis

Annotated Google Map showing sites we visited on our way up to the Butt of Lewis Lighthouse.

We weren’t really prepared for what a large place Lewis is. Or for the fact that once you get much above the half of the island which is Harris, most of the interest in Lewis appears to be round the edges.

Although on arriving from the Southern Islands we had been immediately struck by the evidence of increased prosperity – almost none of the deserted or ruined buildings, almost none of the abandoned and rusting farm and other machinery that on the whole tourists don’t care to photograph..

But after the beautiful hills and mountains of Harris, the central area of Lewis appears to be a huge expanse of more or less uniform peat bog. Which has its own fascination, but would be an heroic trek for anyone determined to complete the Hebridean Way on foot. Bicyclists were a different matter, although for them it is tough going as well, but there were a great many of them doing the trip.

Many miles of road like this on Lewis

Ancient sites along the way spoke of the milder climate in the Hebrides many centuries ago. The.Standing Stones of Callanish are 4,000 years old – older than Stonehenge – and the visitor centre and museum at the site did a good job of telling the various theories about the significance and purpose of the site. Two avenues of stones, one long and one short, crossed at what was clearly some sort of ceremonial centre. We checked the orientation of the long axis out of curiosity and found it ran towards the SSE. The stones themselves were more of the ancient gneiss rock, naturally grained and patterned and very beautiful, especially when the sun broke through the scudding clouds.

We were told that the visitor centre has been awarded a six million pound grant for upgrading, which was a bit eyebrow-raising. Let’s hope the stones are not going to be roped off from visitors as Stonehenge has been – although of course that was for excellent reasons. Progress, and all that.

Please expand the above pictures to get a getter idea.

The second visitor attraction along the way was the Iron Age tower of Carloway Broch. A mere 2,000 years old, this is a surprisingly sophisticated structure of double-skinned dry stone walls, with staircases inside them giving access to what were once upper floors.

This site was even less regimented than the standing stones, and you could go inside through the very low entrance, through another doorway opposite into the space between the walls. and climb up the first flight of the staircase.

It had turned into a sunny afternoon and the close turf was delightful to walk on. There was a steady, spread-out stream of visitors, but I was the only one who climbed the hillside behind to see and photograph the view from above.

From there we pressed on, past what was to be our hotel for the next two nights, to the northernmost point of our journey – the Butt of Lewis lighthouse. After mile upon mile through almost uninhabited country we came to a string of relatively heavily populated habitations at the very top of Lewis: South and North Dell, Swainbost, Habost, Lional and Eoropaidh. We wondered what on earth so many people could find to do up there, but were assured by a local that employment there was good.

The Butt of Lewis is known as one of the wildest and windiest places in the British Isles, but we found it, and its lighthouse, on a beautiful day. It was a lovely place, with intricately-folded metamorphic gneiss rocks, crashing waves, and seabirds, which we recognised as fulmars, roosting on the sheer rock faces in pairs who seemed to spend much of the time billing, though not actually cooing.

Having sat and walked on the short grass and talked to the cosmopolitan visitors, we started back along the road and almost immediately stopped above a little bay to which we descended and Lesley had a paddle in the sea.

The hotel was rather strange and did not live up to its star rating for us. Although it probably ticked all the boxes for a modern building it had fire doors every few paces in narrow corridors with no pictures on the walls, and for us it seemed soulless. Certainly in comparison with the more traditional hotels we stayed at and no comparison at all to the two B&Bs further south.

Wednesday 17th

The weather was deteriorating by the next morning, and we set off to have a look at Stornoway. With a population of around 9,000 it is by far the largest town in the Outer Hebridean chain. The general feel was much more like a mainland town, and a prosperous one at that, with streets of large well-built houses.

But at the same time much of it felt quite run down, and quite grey, It may have been the weather, and another frustrating experience with a charger, but we felt quite dispirited. But we found a Guardian, and the same day’s at that, and sat reading it in the lovely public library which had a delightful young woman librarian who allowed us to use the toilets which were marked ‘staff only’. Which was a good thing because the only public toilets were closed for renovation.

With the car fully charged – yes, I’m afraid I have to admit that doing this trip with an electric car, even one with a big battery like ours, charging does form a constant background preoccupation, and I would be misleading you if I didn’t include this aspect – with the car fully charged, we made our way to the castle and its modern museum, with a film of Hebridean landscape scenes projected onto three large walls, with no narration – just the sounds of nature. The museum continued with well-curated displays of aspects of Hebridean and Gaelic culture and history. Then we had a light lunch in the excellent cafeteria.

Heading west across the moor, on 17 miles of narrow, single-track road, we came to the village of Gearrannan – where a picturesque group of old Black Houses has been conserved to illustrate the very simple conditions in which the crofters lived, often with their livestock at the downhill end – helping to heat the building. At the end of the winter they would apparently take down the end wall, clear out the manure and bedding, and spread it on the fields.

The last families were moved into council accommodation as recently as the 1970s and fortunately it occurred to someone to preserve the village as a record.

The interior of one of the houses has been fully restored, with even a peat fire burning brightly in the grate,

At the other end of the building there was a demonstration of the weaving of Harris Tweed.- a traditional occupation of the villagers. This wonderful character was there six days a week patiently demonstrating to a constant stream of inquisitive visitors.

In the evening we decided to eschew the hotel restaurant, braving the rain to drive 10 minutes up island to The Cross Inn which was situated in what was little more than a scatter of houses called, unsurprisingly, Cross.

The Cross Inn

This was a warm, cheerful and bustling place and suited us fine. As elsewhere, it was a perfectly decent meal, though scarcely memorable. I finished off with a single malt, in valediction to an extraordinary trip, and Lesley drove us back to the hotel.

Completed in the next post…

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