White sands and ancient stones in the Outer Hebrides
Lewis and Harris form a single island that, together with the Uists, Benbecula and Barra, provides a 150 mile long storm-break for the Inner Hebrides and the Western Highlands. Though some 25,000 people live on Lewis and Harris, the island nevertheless contains huge areas of emptiness. What is not peat-bog and water is mostly rock. The seas are cold, but the white sands are wonderful to walk upon and the antiquities are spectacular.
TWEED FROM THE ISLES
Weavers working in their own homes make the Harris tweed that is famous the world over for its quality. The cloth is identified by the symbol of an orb. Weaving takes place not only in Harris, but in Lewis and other islands of the Outer Hebrides. The work is always done by hand using traditional methods.
The metropolis of the Western Isles and the only town of burgh size in the Hebrides, Stornoway is not particularly beautiful, but poised as it is between the sea and the bleak and boggy hinterland, it has a gallantry to be admired.
The town, sitting at the end of its fine natural harbour, is a seaport, a fishing port, a market and a centre of the Harris-tweed industry. The mock-Tudor Lews Castle at the west end of the town is a technical college, but it is also a monument to forlorn hopes. It was built in the 1840s by Sir James Mathe-son, a merchant who had amassed a fortune in the Far East; he also imported vast amounts of soil from the Scottish mainland in which to plant the splendid woods that surround the house. Sir James and his wife spent a fortune on land improvement, building schools and starting new industries, but the islanders were reluctant to abandon the old ways and the scheme sank into oblivion.
In 1918 Lord Leverhulme bought the estate, and all of Lewis and Harris with it. His dream was to turn Stornoway into the greatest fishing port and fish-processing plant in Europe, but after spending £750,000 he too met the island’s indifference. A dispute over claims to land by returning ex-servicemen, supported by the Government, was the last straw. Sadly, Leverhulme presented the Stornoway estate to its inhabitants and went to Harris, where Leverburgh was named after him.
At the beginning of the Eye Peninsula,
BUTT OF LEWIS
The shiver experienced at the Butt of Lewis is not entirely due to the gales that blow much of the time; the Butt of Lewis is the northernmost point of the Outer Hebrides, truly a Land’s End. To the north, 46 miles away, is the tiny island nature reserve of North Rona, and beyond that the Faeroes; due west lie northern Newfoundland and the entrance to Hudson’s Bay.
A little below the point are the village of Eoropie and the restored Teampull Mholuidh, or St Moluag’s Chapel. Moluag, a companion of St Columba, established a church there in the 6th century, but the present building dates from 600 years later, the period of the Norse occupation. Until the Reformation it was a place of pilgrimage and was especially noted for the cure of lunatics. But despite its fame, the building fell into decay until it was restored by the Episcopal Church in 1912. The 7th-century cross on the altar came from North Rona, and the Celtic cross by the door is a monument to the men of Lewis who fell in the First World War.
A glimpse into the old – and not so old -way of life in the Outer Hebrides is afforded by the folk museum in this small township on the west coast of Lewis. It is a tigh dubh -’black house’ – which has stone walls 6 ft thick and a roof of thatch tied down by ropes weighted with stones; this type of house had no chimney, and the smoke from the peat fire in the centre of the floor stained everything a rich black. Such houses are rare in the Inner Isles and on the mainland.
However, on the western shores of Lewis, exposed to the full weight of the winter gales, ‘black houses’ had many advantages. Cunningly sited, and with never a crack to admit a draught, they lay warm and snug beneath the west wind. The one at Arnol, with its straw-filled box beds and crofters’ furniture, was still a working household 60 years ago.
Standing stolid on a crag above the village is the Iron Age dun or fort that gave the place its name. Though it was built some 1,700 years ago, its walls still rise in places to a height of 30 ft, with quite enough remaining to give an excellent idea of the strength and brilliance of the construction of such places. It consists of a central courtyard, some 25 ft across, surrounded by double walls between which are galleries, chambers and stairs.
The views from the dun are astonishing. To the east and south-east there is the old crust of Lewis, worn by ice and time into a thousand holes filled with dark water, and to the south-west the shattered archipelago of East and West Loch Roag. The largest island is Great Bernera, which is reached by a road that goes by the Grimersta river, said by many to be the finest salmon river in Scotland, and thence by a bridge that runs over an arm of Loch Roag and thus, technically, over the Atlantic.
There are a few villages and a lobster fishery on Great Bernera, but mostly it is a picturesque waste of rock and water where it really is possible to see golden eagles. There is a lovely beach at Bosta, though the waters are chill.
One of the great sights of Lewis – and, indeed, of Britain – is the stone circle at Callanish, which rivals even that of Stone-henge in its inscrutability and the majesty of its setting. The dozens of stones and the chambered cairn in their midst were quarried locally and raised into their present position some 4,000 years ago, but for what purpose is likely to remain forever an enigma. The stones, which are planted roughly in the shape of a Celtic cross, seem to align with other circles and standing stones in the area, but it is possible to read almost any meaning into them.
Harris’s capital and principal port consists of a single row of houses and shops leaned over by bleak, boulder-strewn hills. However, it has a hotel, a motel and an information centre, and the shops are cheery, selling everything from Harris tweed and sweaters to Iamb chops and cheese.
Tarbert is also the heart of Harris’s road system – one narrow road and a number of others narrower still – that for the most part hugs the coast, since the inland terrain is so fretted by lochans that it seems as though Harris cannot make up its mind whether to be land or archipelago. One of the narrowest roads runs round the inlets and sea lochs of South Harris’s eastern coast, mostly a wasteland of rock and water. Here and there, however, there are crofting settlements worked by people whose ancestors were driven from the more fertile west coast to make way for sheep.
Because they had no other means of making a living, they built small fields, or ‘lazybeds’, of peat, rotted seaweed and shell-sand upon the naked rock, and planted oats and potatoes in them. All the work was done by hand. Lazybeds occur in many other places in the Highlands and Islands, but nowhere have they been created from less promising beginnings than on Harris.
The hamlet on the shore of Traigh Lusken-tyre in South Harris is shielded on the seaward side by deep sand-dunes populated by rabbits, sea-birds and waders. A marvellous place to picnic in, the dunes are also a fine introduction to the machair, that soil formation unique to the western coasts of the Hebrides. It consists of wind-blown shell-sand on which marram grass has taken root to make a pasture where cattle graze. If enriched with seaweed, it can be turned into an arable soil 12 in. deep; but for visitors and generations of Gaelic bards, the chief joy of the machair is in early summer when it is covered with shoals of bright flowers.
Some 2 miles north-west of Rodel, reached by a road that overlooks a confetti of islands, is Leverburgh, a township that started out as Obbe but was renamed by Lord Leverhulme in 1923 when he attempted to turn it into a major fishing port.
Despite some initial success, the dream slowly crumbled after Lord Leverhulme’s death, and though it still incorporates some of the best housing in the island, Leverburgh has a somewhat forlorn air. A ferry runs through the lovely scatter of islets and reefs to North Uist on weekdays in summer and three times a week in winter.
The handsome little port at the very tip of South Harris is further blessed with what is still, despite two major patchings and restorations, the finest example of ecclesiastical architecture in the Hebrides. The cruciform St Clement’s Church, constructed of Mull sandstone, was built at the beginning of the 16th century by the MacLeods of Dunvegan, and contains three MacLeod monuments. The finest of them, carved in local black gneiss and dating from 1528, depicts Alastair Crotach, 8th Chief of Dun-vegan, as a knight in armour.
It was the custom to inter the standard-bearers of the Dunvegan MacLeods in a tomb in the chancel. The body of the dead standard-bearer was laid in a stone coffin floored with an iron grating, the bones of his predecessor being sifted through into the recess below.
The busy little island of East Loch Tarbert is the home port for a dozen or more fishing boats whose crews supplement their incomes by growing crops upon the small fertile lazybeds. The island is served by a vehicle ferry from Kyles Scalpay on Harris.