Places to Visit in Scotland
- Whirlwind Tour of Lewis

It was my daughter Carol who had the great idea of giving me a birthday present of a flight from Glasgow to Stornaway in the Outer Hebrides so that we could drive round the island of Lewis taking lots of photographs along the way and still return to Glasgow the same day. Although my birthday is in March, we thought that there would be a better chance of good weather - and longer daylight hours - by going in May. Booking far in advance, we had to take pot luck on the weather but ended up with a perfect day with lots of sunshine which encouraged me to take nearly 300 photographs in about 12 hours. Here's my account (and a small selection of those graphics) from that trip.

For those of you with a hazy idea of Scotland's geography, Lewis is part of the largest island in the Western Isles, about an hour's flight, north-west from Glasgow. That's a Landsat image of Lewis and Harris.

Getting There
Although it gave us more time on Lewis, the flight was timed for the unseemly early hour of 7am. Allowing for the usual lengthy security procedures, that meant getting up at 5.30am to drive to Glasgow airport.

I had been checking the weather forecast for Stornoway some days prior to the trip and had been led to believe that it would be dry and cloudy. But as we flew over the islands off the west coast there were lots of breaks in the clouds and we landed at Stornoway in sunshine - which stayed with us for most of the day. The girl at the rental car office (who had moved to Stornoway from England the previous year) was full of information about Lewis and was enthusiastic about the place. When the fire alarm went off in the terminal building she assured us it was a false alarm - until everybody started heading for the exit doors. As we stood waiting in the car park, three fire engines turned up - but after 15 minutes we were all back in the terminal. With the documentation complete, we were on our way!

Calanais Standing Stones

Once we had left Stornoway, it was easy to follow our planned route - there aren't that many roads on Lewis and all we had to do was look out for the one turning towards our first stop, the Calanais standing stones (though we did have to stop a few times to take some pictures of the scenery). Having already explored the route via Google Earth, we knew that instead of single track roads with passing places (which can still be found on Lewis and some other parts of Scotland), there was a decent road all round the island. We would be following a circular route which would eventually take us back to Stornoway. Although the weather remained largely bright and sunny, there were a few clouds around and a couple of showers - one even produced a propitious rainbow for us!

It's not often that you can view a monument created by people 5,000 years ago, long before the Great Pyramid of Egypt. But that's what Calanais offers - a series of ancient standing stones that the residents of Lewis at that time thought they should create. Its original purpose is shrouded in the mists of time - it has been suggested that it was because every 18.6 years the moon skips low along the horizon, skimming the tops of a series of distant hills. But despite careful modern calculations of where the sun and moon and prominent stars would be in those days, there is no certain explanation - the Scottish legal verdict of "Not Proven" seems appropriate here.

Calanais (previously known as Callanish) is the centre of a number of satellite stone rings. An avenue of stones leads roughly southwards to a central rough circle, narrowing as it reaches that central point. There is also a line of stones leading further south and arms to the east and west. From the air, it looks roughly like a crucifix - but remember this was built around 2900 to 2600BC. Inside the circle is a small chambered tomb. Some of the stones which used to be part of the formation have been lost - removed in later centuries to be incorporated into new housing by people who had no knowledge of the origins and significance of the structure.

Over the centuries, a layer of peat rose around the stones, masking their true height (and helping to preserve them from the ravages of centuries of wind and rain). In the 17th century, the local people called them "Fir Bhrèige" - false men who had been turned to stone by an "enchanter" and there were theories that they had been set up by Druids, a priestly and learned class active in Celtic culture more generally, during the final centuries before the Christian era. More modern research dismisses such claims.

I have seen many atmospheric photographs of Calanais taken at dusk or dawn, with the sun or moon hovering in significant places. But as we wandered amongst the tall stones taking photographs, the sun was continuing to shine and there were blue skies with fluffy white clouds, so our photographs showed instead the beautiful markings on the stones, having been weathered while theses sentinels stood for 5,000 years.

Having immersed ourselves in the mysteries and ancient history, we returned to the 21st century with a bang by calling in at the ultra-modern visitor centre where a freshly made bacon roll went down very well...

For more on the Standing Stones of Calanais, see Places to Visit - Calanais

Dun Carloway Broch

A Broch is an Iron Age drystone hollow-walled structure of a type found only in Scotland. They include some of the most sophisticated examples of drystone architecture ever created. The theory that they were defensive military structures is not accepted by many modern archaeologists but the alternative notion that they were farmhouses is ridiculed by others.

The broch at Dun Carloway on Lewis is remarkably well preserved - parts of the original wall still reach as high as 9 metres (nearly 30 feet) tall. Dun Carloway was probably built some time in the 1st century BC, and radiocarbon dating evidence shows that it was last occupied around 1300 AD.

At the base, the broch is around 14 to 15 metres (45 to 50 feet) in diameter and the walls are around 3 metres (10 feet) thick. It has a circular plan and hollow walls with a stairway between them and was built without mortar. It probably had wooden floors, internal partitions and a thatched roof.

Black Houses
For centuries in remote areas such as Lewis, people and animals lived under the one roof, with animals at one end and people at the other. The buildings had no chimneys and there was a central hearth for the fire. The smoke gradually percolated through the thatched roofs, which had the advantage of keeping the house warmer. But this led to an accumulation of soot on the walls which, it is said, led to them being called "black houses" (although others argue that the term was used to differentiate them from the more recent buildings that had white-painted, mortared stone walls. The black houses were generally built with double wall dry-stone walls packed with earth and wooden rafters covered with a thatch of turf with cereal straw or reed. The floor was generally flagstones or packed earth.

It is very probable that the roots of this type of house, in which cattle and humans shared the same roof, is well over 1000 years old. The Lewis version has a low rounded roof, elaborately roped to resist the strong Atlantic winds and thick walls to provide insulation and to support the sideways forces of the short driftwood roof timbers.

Most of the black houses seen on the island today are around 150 years old. Many were still in use until the 1970s but as people moved into more modern dwellings with indoor plumbing and better heating, most fell into ruin. Some are being restored, and in particular, an entire village of nine houses at Na Gearrannan on the west coast of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland have been transformed into a museum and visitor attraction. These houses were lived in till 1974 and were the last group of blackhouses to be inhabited in the Western Isles.

Although the houses have been adapted to cater for visitors to the museum (with catering facilities and toilets, for example), there are still rooms furnished as they were more than 40 years ago - with a peat fire blazing in a hearth (with a chimney) and ornaments and china plates lining the walls. There is also a working hand loom producing traditional Harris Tweed. There is also a Youth Hostel and there are four self-catering cottages.

The Na Gearrannan blackhouse village has its own Web Site where you can learn more about the place and even book one of the self-catering cottages online.

The black house further along the coast at Arnol is owned by Historic Scotland and gives a real feel of what it must have been like to live there in earlier times. There is an authentic peat fire smouldering on the floor and although there are no cattle or hens in the byre any more, the areas allocated to them within the building can be clearly seen. Traditionally, the peat fire was never allowed to go out and in addition to providing heat, was used for cooking as well. Lighting inside was very limited, with only very small windows and small lamps relieving the gloom. There is no hole in the roof to allow the smoke to escape - this resulted in the thatch becoming impregnated which had the benefit of killing the bugs there and the thatch was later used as fertiliser when it was renewed.

During our drive along this western coast, we stopped and walked down to a small beach. It was interesting to realise that the next landfall to the west was North America..

Lews Castle
When we got to the road that led back to Stornoway (no time to head to the north of the island at the Butt of Lewis) I noted that it was just 11 miles to get to the town, so we were well up to schedule. But I was getting thirsty and the idea of "afternoon tea" appealed to me. I was sure there would be a tearoom at Lews Castle as it seemed to be such a prominent tourist attraction. When we got to Stornoway, the lack of signposts to the castle was the first warning indication. On reaching Lews Castle itself, instead of a major tourist attraction, we were confronted by a crumbling building held together by steel supports and partly surrounded by black security fencing. I did take some photographs - including one with the rhododendrons hiding that ugly fencing - a shot I had seen on a number of Web sites about the castle.

The original castle in Stornoway was originally built around 1300 by the Nicolsons who were of Norse origin. Lewis was controlled by the Vikings from 800 to 1266 AD.

King James VI granted ownership of Lewis to the Mackenzies of Kintail in 1610. By about 1680, Lord Seaforth had established his estate house, Seaforth Lodge, on an area of rough ground on the west side of Stornoway harbour. Parts of this original building can still be seen within the stripped out walls of the mezzanine at the rear of the present Castle. The last male descendant of the Mackenzies of Kintail was Francis, Earl of Seaforth, who died in 1815 and in 1844 the Lewis Estate was sold to James Matheson who bought the whole island with his fortune from the Chinese Opium trade. The present Lews Castle is thus a Victorian era building which was built in the years 1847-57 as a country house for Sir James Matheson. It was designed in mock-Tudor style by a Glasgow architect Charles Wilson. Then in 1918, the Lewis estate including the castle was bought from the Matheson family by the wealthy industrialist Lord Leverhulme. He invested in the castle, introducing central heating, electric lights and internal telephones and extended the ballroom to accommodate his lavish parties. Leverhulme gifted the castle to the people of Stornoway in 1923.

The Heritage Lottery Fund recently announced initial support for a project to revitalise Lews Castle. The plan is to restore the castle to create a modern museum with an archive facility alongside a commercially operated hospitality venture. With enhanced learning services and education staff, the new museum service will be able to increase support to a very active community heritage sector of over 20 historical societies throughout the Outer Hebrides.

Stornoway's population is approximately 9,000 (out of a total population of 26,370 for the whole of the Western Isles) so it is a small town, even by Scottish standards. The harbour is an important aspect of the town and, apart from churches, there are no really tall buildings - even the Town Hall rises to only two main floors.

An Lanntair (Gaelic for a lantern) is an arts centre which began in 1984 and moved to its impressive new £5.4 million building overlooking the harbour and the sea in 2005. It features a 50-seater restaurant, art gallery, shop, and auditorium seating over two hundred. The auditorium houses the first cinema in Stornoway since 1995. We went into the arts centre and after browsing round the pictures on display (and for sale) we enjoyed a relaxing drink in the café bar which is clearly used by many locals as a place to meet, relax and socialise.

The ferry terminal is also eye-catching with its circular design thrusting out into the harbour. Driving around Stornoway did highlight the street names being in Gaelic (with an English translation in a much smaller font below). While that added to the character of the town it did make following the printed street map more difficult!

Homeward Bound

Our flight back to Glasgow was at 7.30pm so we had been on the island for less than 12 hours. Although we had visited many of the tourist attractions on Lewis I was wishing I could have stayed for another couple of weeks. We had missed the wonderful deserted beaches and the cliffs in the north of the island and it is only a short ferry trip to reach the attractive islands of North Uist, Benbecula and South Uist (all linked by bridges). Despite the shortness of our visit, I fell in love with the island (helped no doubt by the sunshine) and the slower, friendlier pace of life. That was illustrated so well by the workers improving a stretch of road. In mainland Scotland we would have been held up in a queue of traffic. Instead, the driver of a digger immediately drove to the side and another worker gave us a friendly wave to drive through!

For those of you who want to see lots more of the photographs from the trip to Lewis, there is a slide show on YouTube accompanied by a couple of CD tracks from Moira Kerr.

The perfect day was made complete by the clouds parting again on the flight back home, with the Mull of Kintyre and Loch Lomond sparkling below. I'm already looking at where else I can go in a similar vein - Islay looks a possibility. The island does not have quite the same history - but all those whisky distilleries there could be interesting...

May 2010

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