Honeymoon: Lewis

Continuing our Hebridean honeymoon, we travelled north from Harris and crossed the border into Lewis

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The next stop on our island-hopping honeymoon was Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis, the administrative centre of the Outer Hebrides. Stornoway is by far the largest settlement on Harris and Lewis, with a population of around 9000, making it the third biggest town in the Scottish Highlands and Islands. After Leverburgh and Tarbert, Stornoway felt like a vast metropolis to us (which was strange, given that our hometown has a population of over half a million). It’s quite the culture shock arriving in Stornoway and seeing Spar shops, petrol stations with forecourts and an Indian restaurant!

Our accommodation in Stornoway was the Jannel Bed and Breakfast, a nice family house on a quiet residential street. We had a family room, which was spacious and clean—and the bed was particularly comfortable. There’s also free Wi-Fi and a laptop available for internet access, and the B and B seems equally suitable for holiday-makers and those on business or education trips. The hosts, Paul and Maureen, were friendly and had plenty of tips about where to eat and places to visit.

The food was stylish and tasty, and the service was friendly and warm

On our first evening, we decided to try Digby Chick, as it had been recommended by a few people we’d talked to. A contemporary restaurant in a former chandlery, Digby Chick describes itself as ‘a must for anyone visiting Stornoway’—but a word of caution, the restaurant gets really busy and a reservation is advised, especially as the dinner menu is only available 7-9pm (and, like most businesses in Stornoway, Digby Chick is not open on Sundays). We were lucky, as we managed to grab the last table for two that evening. The food is stylish and tasty, and the service is friendly and warm. It’s easy to see how Digby Chick earned its good reputation.

Calanais 1

The following day, we began to explore Lewis. Our first stop was the Calanais (Callanish in English) standing stones. The stones are around 5000 years old (the site is probably older than Stonehenge, though radiocarbon dating has not been carried out to the extent as it has on the English site), but their purpose is not known. Thirteen primary stones (Lewisian gneiss) form a circle at the centre, with a long avenue of stones approaching from the north and shorter rows on the east, west and south. This means the stones form roughly the shape of a Celtic cross. The tallest stones in the central circle mark the entrance to a cairn, and human remains have been found on the site. As with the more famous English stone circles, various suggestions have been made as to their possible purpose—particularly, in the case of Calanais, their potential use as a lunar observatory due to noticeable alignments at certain times of the year. Of course, the stones may have been displaced over time—and they have certainly been weathered—so it’s impossible to say whether the astronomical alignments that are visible to the modern visitor reflect the original impact of the stones.

Calanais 2

Who knows? It could be that the legends are true, and the stones are in fact giants transformed into stone when they refused to be converted to Christianity by St Kieran. Or that, on midsummer morning, the ‘shining one’ walks along the avenue of stones, his coming signalled by the cuckoo’s call. Or, if you’d prefer to stick to more prosaic—but scientific—explanations, you can visit the ‘Story of the Stones’ exhibition at the site’s visitor centre to learn more about the research that has been conducted at the site.

Calanais 3

There are other standing stones close to the main site at Calanais, including Cnoc Ceann a’ Ghàrraidh (known as Calanais 2) and Cnoc Fhillibhir Bheag (Calanais 3). Information is available at the visitor centre if you want to do the circular walk around the three sites. When we visited, there were very few other people there, which meant we were free to enjoy the majesty of the stone circle in peace and quiet (fierce Lewis winds notwithstanding).

You can barely drive for ten minutes without stumbling on a historic site

After Calanais, we got back in the car to explore the western coast of Lewis. We didn’t really have a plan in mind, but this isn’t a problem in this part of the country. You can barely drive for ten minutes without stumbling on a historic or prehistoric site—almost all of which are signposted with brown tourist signs, so you can just let these lead you to some fantastic surprises.

Dun Carloway 1

The next place we visited was Dun Carloway broch. A broch is a type of Iron Age fortification found only in Scotland, and Dun Carloway is one of the best preserved broch towers in the country.

Dun Carloway 2

Standing on a hill overlooking Loch Carloway, the broch has an external diameter of over fourteen metres, with an internal courtyard over seven metres in diameter. A surprising amount of the external wall has survived, and it’s still possible to see the stone steps leading up to the higher levels of the tower. There is evidence that, although it was probably built around 100AD, the tower was still in use as a stronghold as late as the sixteenth century, as it’s understood that the Morrisons of Ness holed themselves up in the tower before being smoked out by the MacAuleys of Uig. There are also local stories that claim the broch was inhabited as late as the nineteenth century.

Island Crafter

Down the hill from the broch is a small visitor centre, built into the hillside and containing a small exhibition giving information about the broch and its function. The centre (and the site itself) is free to visit, and is maintained by Historic Scotland and the Standing Stones Trust. There is also a shop that is run by Sue (aka Island Crafter), who makes and sells jewellery and other hand-crafted items, as well as hand-carded and hand-spun yarns. When we arrived, Sue was carding a gorgeous mixture of local Hebridean fleece with bamboo and silk. By the time we came back down from the tower, she was busy at her spinning wheel. She was more than happy to tell us about her work—not only could she tell us exactly the mix of the fleece she was working with, she also knew exactly which sheep it had come from!

Blackhouse Village 1

After Dun Carloway, we continued around the A858 a little further, until we reached Gearrannan Blackhouse Village. In case you don’t know—or haven’t read Peter May’s Lewis trilogy (which, by the way, appears to be on the shelves of every B and B in the Western Isles!)—a blackhouse is a type of house that used to be found in the Hebrides, the Highlands and Ireland. It is constructed with dry stone walls and a thatched roof. The blackhouses on Lewis often had floors made half of flagstones (for the portion of the house that was used as living accommodation) and half of packed earth (for the portion that was used if animals were brought indoors in the winter months). These buildings are not large, and usually had no chimney—smoke from the fire heated the building and treated the thatch on the roof, which needed to be regularly replaced. Most of the surviving blackhouses on Lewis date from the nineteenth century. It is presumed that earlier houses were built of turf, rather than stone, and returned to the earth once they were abandoned.

Blackhouse Village 2

Visitors can learn more about the traditional life of island crofters

The blackhouses at Gearrannan—as elsewhere on Lewis—were still occupied until the 1970s, though most of the occupants were elderly crofters who had resisted the lure of houses with indoor plumbing and electricity, and which didn’t require such difficult work to maintain the thatching and stonework. Eventually, even these hardy folk were moved into newer accommodation and the blackhouses mostly fell into ruins. Recently, however, a number of the houses have been restored, and there is a blackhouse museum at Arnol that allows visitors to learn more about the traditional living arrangements for island crofters. The renovated houses at Gearrannan are now offered as self-catering holiday accommodation.

Blackhouse Village 3

Shawbost Kiln

Travelling a little further around the coast, we came to Shawbost Norse Kiln and Mill. These renovated thatched buildings stand a short walk through the fields near the A858, and house a traditional horizontal click mill (known as a ‘Norse mill’) and drying kiln, of a type that was very common on Lewis even in the nineteenth century. Still operational in the 1930s, the Shawbost mill and kiln were first restored in the late 1960s, but the current restoration was completed in 1996 by the Norse Mill Society. Supposedly built on the site of an Iron Age mill (powered by water from nearby Loch Roinavat), the restored buildings allow visitors a clear impression of an important feature of crofting life. There is no visitor centre or charges at the site, although there are some information boards outlining the mechanics of the mill—but there is an honesty box for donations towards the upkeep of the site.

From Shawbost, we continued to Bragar and its whalebone archway. According to the story, as told by Mary Macaulay, in 1920 a blue whale floated into an inlet called Geodha Nam Muc (which appears to have been named after a previous unfortunate whale), dragging a harpoon behind it. A whaling ship was sent to tow the carcass away but was unable to navigate the waters. Instead, permission was given to the people of Bragar to dispose of the poor creature, especially as the stench had become unbearable. The postmaster, Murdo Morrison, took an interest in the jawbone and decided to erect it as an arch over his gateway. It was erected with stone pillars to support it, and the archway was completed with wrought iron gates. In more recent years, the West Side Historical Society has carried out restoration work on the arch to ensure its preservation for future generations.

A little further along from Bragar is the village of Arnol (mentioned above), where the ruins of numerous blackhouses can be seen. After this, we picked up the A857 and headed back down to Stornoway for our final evening on Lewis.

Shops and restaurants are closed on Sundays, and there are no Sunday papers

The next day was Sunday. Lewis has a strong Presbyterian tradition of observing the Sabbath, and this continues today. Most shops, restaurants and petrol stations are closed on Sundays, and there are no Sunday papers. In 2009, a Sunday ferry sailing began operating between Stornoway and the mainland—though this was, and still is, a point of contention. We decided to respect the peacefulness of a Stornoway Sunday by exploring a little more of the local landscape.

Steinacleit

We travelled towards the north of the island, and our first stop was at Steinacleit stone circle and cairn, which is accessed by a short walk up the hill from a small parking area. Due to recent heavy rain, this walk involved navigating some very waterlogged and boggy ground—but the destination was well worth it. This prehistoric site has ten stone slabs circling a central mound, which marks the remains of a chambered cairn. Very little is known about the site, and Historic Scotland describe it as ‘an enigmatic structure’ and there is no current consensus on dating the site (it’s estimated as dating from somewhere between 1500-3000BC). There is even some debate over whether or not the site is a cairn at all, with some reports claiming it as a homestead or the remains of some other defended building. With its windswept setting and dramatic views, ‘enigmatic’ seems an apt term for the stones at Steinacleit.

Butt of Lewis

We continued onwards to the Butt of Lewis, the most northerly point in the Outer Hebrides. Gazing out onto the North Atlantic, we were whipped by the intense winds (and we thought the winds were wild on Harris!) and watched the enormous, spectacular waves crash on the rocks below—the Butt of Lewis has apparently been listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the windiest place in Britain. The last viewpoint we visited in Lewis was certainly a memorable one. To our backs was the Butt of Lewis Lighthouse. Built in 1862 by David Stevenson, this red brick structure is now automated, but between the 1930s and 1971, it was the radio link for the lighthouse keepers on the isolated Flannan Isles. The Flannan Isles—also known as the Seven Hunters—are a small island group about 20 miles west of Lewis. Although there have been no permanent residents of the islands (probably) since the ninth-century Viking invasions, a lighthouse was designed and constructed in the 1890s (also by David Stevenson) on Eilean Mòr. The lighthouse was first lit in 1899, but in 1900 it was to enter into Scottish history as the site of a (still) unsolved mystery: in December of that year, the three lighthouse keepers on the island vanished without a trace. No bodies were ever found, and no explanation has ever been given to fully account for the disappearance of James Ducat, Thomas Marshall and Donald Macarthur. Since then, the lighthouse has been noteworthy for its communication technology (perhaps unsurprisingly!), and it was fitted with an experimental wireless telegraph link in 1907 and a radio telephone in 1925. The Flannan Isles Lighthouse was automated in 1971, and the last lighthouse keepers (the last residents of the island) left at that time.

Chessman

And with that, it was time for us to leave Lewis. We drove back to Stornoway to catch the controversial Sunday ferry back to the mainland. Our Hebridean adventure was at an end. Although we’d only been on the islands for a week, it felt like we’d been there for months and we were so sad to say goodbye. We will definitely go back though—and we can’t wait!

Lewis Ferry

Postscript: Ullapool and Back to Edinburgh

Ullapool 1

The mountainous landscape is rugged and formidable, but the town is regular and neat

Leaving Lewis wasn’t the end of the honeymoon, though it was the end of our time on the Western Isles. Our ferry crossing across the Minch took just over three hours, and we arrived in Ullapool in the early evening. Surrounded by mountains—including Beinn Ghobhlach, An Teallach and Beinn Dearg—and on the east shore of Loch Broom, Ullapool is the largest settlement in Wester Ross. There’s a quirky contrast to the scenery in Ullapool. The mountainous landscape is rugged and formidable, but the layout and design of the town is regular and neat—a legacy of the town’s origins. Ullapool was designed by Thomas Telford in 1788, and built as a herring port by the British Fisheries Society. Nowadays, the town is popular tourist destination and the home of a number of music festivals throughout the year.

Ullapool 2

We stayed one night in Ullapool before heading south. Our accommodation was the delightful Tamarin Lodge, a modern and stylish B and B overlooking Loch Broom. Our hosts, Valerie and Richard (though Richard was away in England for a football match while we were there), offer very comfortable and spacious ensuite rooms. Our room had huge windows overlooking the loch, surrounded by the chickens who provide the eggs for breakfast.

Dalwhinnie

After a lovely stay at Tamarin, we headed back down towards the Lowlands. We took the A9 from the Highlands, through the Cairngorms and Dalwhinnie, where we made a brief pit stop. There was still a lot of snow around, so the drive through the heart of Scotland was beautiful (though it was very weird to be on a dual carriageway after so many single track roads). Sadly, we didn’t have time to stop for any sightseeing as we were on a rather tight schedule and had to return our hire car.

Eventually, we reached the Firth of Forth—and a trip over the Forth Road Bridge. While the road bridge (a suspension bridge constructed in the 1960s) is certainly impressive, it can’t quite beat the rail journey across the historic Forth Bridge that runs close to the road bridge. Opened in 1890, this three-towered cantilever structure was constructed with 55,000 tonnes of steel, 640,000 cubic feet of granite and 8 million rivets (the last of which was gold-plated and driven home by the Prince of Wales at the bridge’s opening ceremony). The bridge is perhaps one of Scotland’s most recognizable landmarks and a rail trip across it is always a pleasure. The bridge has also become proverbial: the phrase ‘like painting the Forth Bridge’ is used to mean a time-consuming task that needs to be started again the minute it’s finished (based on the belief that, by the time maintenance teams had reached the end of the bridge, it was time to begin painting the other side again). Apparently, this phrase is no longer strictly accurate, as the bridge has now been treated with a special coating intended to last at least twenty years. Network Rail are currently considering suggestions and feedback from the public about a proposed visitor centre called the Forth Bridge Experience.

Over the bridge and into Lothian, we soon made our way to Edinburgh Airport to drop the car off. We were just in time to check in for our flight: we were flying off to Norway for the second half of our honeymoon (a week in Oslo and Bergen).

But since this blog is just about our travels around the British Isles, that trip will have to remain a secret…

Honeymoon: Harris

From Skye, we travelled to the Outer Hebrides and to the beautiful island of Harris

We sailed from Uig (in Skye) to Tarbert on the Isle of Harris. Lewis and Harris are, in fact, the same island (technically), though it’s probably more accurate to say that they share a land mass with Lewis occupying the northern part and Harris the southern. Historically, the two are treated as separate islands and even fell under different authorities until relatively recently. Geographically, there are also distinct differences between the two isles—but we’ll mention some of these shortly.

It felt as though we had left the mainland far, far behind

The ferry journey took around an hour and a half, as we crossed the body of water known as the Little Minch. We were lucky to have a good sailing, as the weather turned a bit rougher shortly after we arrived on the island. The stretch of water is around 15 miles wide, but the crossing makes it feel like you have travelled so much further. By the time we arrived in Tarbert, it felt as though we had left the mainland far, far behind.

Harris 2

Our accommodation on Harris was at Borrisdale House in Leverburgh. Leverburgh is around 40 minutes’ drive from Tarbert, and the winding journey on the A859 was our first taste of driving in Harris. There were two characteristic features of the Harris roads to get used to: the fact that most of the roads are single track (with passing places), and the fact that the sheep on Harris are ridiculously brazen. They will stand in the road and stare down oncoming vehicles without a hint of anxiety. Our drive took us past many sheep, but also along the coast and past some of the glorious beaches for which the island is known. We’d been told that photographs don’t do justice to the Harris beaches—and that only the Caribbean can rival the white sands and blue waters—but we were still blown away. The coast is made all the more dramatic by the mountains (in the north) and the rock formations (throughout Harris). There is an otherworldly quality to the scenery in Harris—but this shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. One of the most dominant rock types is anorthosite, a type of igneous rock formed as lava slowly cools; anorthosite is also found in the lunar highlands—much of the Harris landscape is similar in composition to moon rock.

Harris 3

We arrived in Leverburgh in the late afternoon, and then made our way a little further on from Harris’s second largest village, to Borrisdale. We were greeted by Jackie and Norman, the wonderful hosts at Borrisdale House B and B, and shown in to our comfortable room. Borrisdale House has hill-view and sea-view rooms; we were lucky enough to get the latter, which gave us a fantastic vista to wake up to in the morning. (We were also provided with a nice bottle of champagne—as it was our honeymoon—plenty of biscuits and chocolates, and homemade shortbread each day.) Borrisdale House is one of the nicest B and Bs we’ve ever stayed in, and it gets a glowing recommendation from us.

Harris, like Skye, pretty much closes down for the winter season. Although there is a hotel and a restaurant in Leverburgh, they weren’t open during our visit in March. Fortunately, our travel agents had warned us about this, and so we headed back out to Tarbert for dinner on our first night. (The landscape looked quite different in the twilight… very evocative.) We ate at the Harris Hotel, which offers friendly service and good food and is another of our recommendations.

Harris 4
Photo: Ben Barker via Creative Commons

On the way back from the hotel, our Hebridean adventure took a slightly scary turn. As we headed up the hill towards Leverburgh, we realized our car had a puncture! It was quite late by this point, the wind had got up, and the rain had started to fall quite heavily. We just past the last of the lights of Tarbert, and the sheep began to circle the car in a rather menacing way. Fortunately, we managed to get the spare wheel on the car (and, surprisingly for us city folks, the only cars that went by slowed down to ask if we needed any help) and head back to our accommodation. After two long drives on single track roads (one in darkness), navigating the strong winds and rain, and a tyre change, Rob was happy to get back to our cosy room and the little bottle of Talisker whisky we’d brought from Skye!

Breakfast included fresh eggs from the chickens pecking around the garden outside

The next morning gave us our first taste of the characteristic Harris weather. By the time we’d had breakfast—which included lovely fresh eggs from the chickens pecking around the garden outside the dining room window—we’d seen snow, sleet, rain, wind and glorious sunshine. During our stay in the Western Isles, we got quite used to seeing all four seasons in one day. Obviously, our next task was to sort out the punctured tyre from the night before. We had a funny conversation with the hire car company, who tried to insist that we took the car to the nearest branch of Kwik Fit. Turns out that’s in Inverness—around 160 miles (and a ferry ride) away. Instead, we persuaded them to let us use the Harris Garage, the only garage on the island, who were happy to get us back on the road as soon as possible.

Harris Tweed

Once the wheel was sorted, we finally had chance to explore Harris a bit more. Our first stop was the Harris Tweed shop and warehouse in Tarbert. Harris Tweed has been woven in the Outer Hebrides for centuries, and is still a significant export for the islands (though it is now mostly produced on Lewis, rather than Harris). The cloth is called Clò-Mòr in Gaelic, and was originally produced entirely by hand. Island crofters would card fleece from their sheep (by hand), spin it (by hand) and weave it (by hand) into a distinctive twilled pattern. Colours were created through the use of local plant dyes, and the use of lichens gave the original Harris Tweed a characteristic scent. In the nineteenth century, the Countess of Dunmore—whose husband had recently taken ownership of the North Harris Estate—took an interest in the cloth and began to promote it on the mainland as a fashionable fabric for aristocratic hunting garb. Since then, the cloth has remained popular with high-end clothing designers, and it has been under a protective trade mark since the early twentieth century. Manufacturing methods have changed somewhat during that time, but, legally, any cloth calling itself Harris Tweed and carrying the Orb Mark (Britain’s oldest certification mark) must be ‘hand-woven by the islanders at their home in the Outer Hebrides and made from pure virgin wool dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides’. Despite this illustrious history, once you wrap yourself in a Harris Tweed shawl you feel much more in touch with its origins than with its status as a designer fabric known around the world. When you’re being buffeted by the wild winds coming in from the Atlantic or the Minch, you realize that there’s nothing better than Harris Tweed for keeping you warm. No wonder the crofters produced so much of it!

There is a gradual change in geography as you cross the border

We spent the rest of the day touring the northern part of the island, heading up and over the border into Lewis. South Lewis is less mountainous than Harris, and has more freshwater lochs than the northern part of the island, so there is a gradual change in geography as you cross the border. We wandered around, enjoying the scenery, until we ended up stopping for a drink at the Loch Erisort Inn at Balallan. Nestled in what feels like the middle of nowhere, this is a cosy little establishment offering a bar, restaurant and accommodation. Although we didn’t sample any of the food, it is apparently very good. While we were there, we got chatting to some of the other clientele, including Chris and Graham, the couple behind the Virtual Hebrides website, a great collection of landscape and wildlife photography that will give you a flavour of the beauty of the Western Isles.

Our last evening on Harris was a real treat. We headed back to Borrisdale House in time for a delivery of freshly prepared food from Croft 36, a local business that delivers ready-to-eat meals to holiday-makers on the island. They also have a croft shop selling local fish and seafood, vegetables and organic bread. Our hosts, Jackie and Norman, very kindly gave up their living room for the evening, set the table for us, and left us with our delicious dinner and a bottle of wine. Croft 36 provided a tasty vegetarian meal for Hannah, but the star of the show was the fish curry ordered by Rob—he would probably eat that every night if he could! We followed this with whisky and orange pancakes and homemade ice cream. One of the reviews on Croft 36’s website describes it as ‘the best takeaway in Scotland’, and we think this pretty much sums it up.

Sadly, the next morning saw our departure from Borrisdale House. We were pretty reluctant to leave, and we probably drove Jackie and Norman mad with our long goodbye! But we’d had a really memorable (though short) stay, and fully intend to go back to Harris as soon as we can.

St Clements Church 1

After leaving the B and B, we travelled down the A859 to Rodel, the historic capital of Harris (before Tarbert took the title). Here we visited St Clement’s Church, a sixteenth-century church now managed by Historic Scotland. The church was built for the chiefs of the Clan MacLeod—whose ancestral home is at Dunvegan Castle, Skye—and is constructed from local Lewisian gneiss, giving it a rather imposing appearance as you approach the main entrance. There’s no visitor centre—or even staff—at the church (donations to help with upkeep can be made via an honesty box), and there were no other visitors when we went, giving us a chance to appreciate the splendid building in our own time and with no interruptions or distractions.

St Clements Church 2

St Clements Church 5

One of the most impressive features in the church is the wall tomb of Alasdair MacLeod, set into the south side of the choir. The eighth clan chief’s effigy and various memento mori and hagiographical carvings survive, making this one of the most richly carved surviving Scottish tombs of the sixteenth century. There are other tombs and stone carvings around the church, including the graves of the ninth and tenth MacLeod chiefs. External stonework on the church tower (which is accessible from inside the church via wooden steps and ladders) includes a sheela na gig and an image of a boar (presumably for protection). These protective symbols, and the carvings of saints and holy figures, may well have proved themselves of the years, as the church has survived the Reformation, years of disuse and decay, a fire, being repurposed as a cow byre, and a bolt of lightning. The nineteenth-century restoration of the church following its use as a byre was the work of the Countess of Dunmore, the woman who brought Harris Tweed to the attention of the mainland. Given its age and history, and its location on the windswept Harris coast, the church and its graveyard are remarkably well-preserved and we thoroughly enjoyed our visit.

St Clements Church 3

St Clements Church 4

Leaving Rodel, we took the C79—known as the ‘Golden Road’, due to the cost of its construction in 1897 (or, possibly, due to the importance of this road to the communities on the east coast of the island). This narrow, single track road winds through hills and around lochans, passing through a couple of small settlements. Rob maintains that this is one of the toughest drives he’s ever done (especially when an oncoming car overshot a passing place and we had to reverse around a bend to allow it to get round us!)—but it is also one of the most beautiful, if not the most beautiful, drives you can take in the UK.

Skoon Art Cafe

We travelled along the Golden Road until we reached Geocrab. Here, we turned off the road and followed a track up a hill to reach the Skoon Art Café. A number of people had recommended the café for its homemade food and fresh brewed coffee, so we thought it was worth checking out. Opened in 2005, the café is located in a renovated croft house and serves homemade soups and cakes (with a menu that changes daily). Despite its rather isolated location, the café is warm and welcoming, and the cakes are delicious. In the winter months, the café only opens two days a week, but it was clear from our visit that it has a regular clientele outside of the tourist trade. It was easy to see why it had been recommended to us.

Paintings that capture the beauty and drama of the Hebridean landscape

The café’s artist-in-residence is Andrew John Craig—he also runs the café with his wife, Emma—who paints landscapes and seascapes in oil in his studio, a renovated byre next to the café. Craig’s work hangs in the café, and we were really impressed with his work. His paintings really capture the beauty and drama of the Hebridean landscape. Sadly, finances (and space in our luggage) prevented us from buying one of his canvases, but we did buy some small, suitcase-friendly prints of ‘Scarista Sunset’ and ‘Borve Sand Dunes’, which were perfect souvenirs of the island.

It was then time to continue on our journey. We continued on the C79 for a little further, before leaving the Golden Road for the A859, and returned to Tarbert. From there, we headed north to the Isle of Lewis and Stornoway, the next port of call on our Hebridean honeymoon.

But we’ll save that trip for the next blog post…

Honeymoon: Edinburgh and Skye

Our honeymoon began with an overnight stay in Edinburgh, then we went over the sea to Skye

Edinburgh

Our honeymoon began on 16 March 2014 with a train ride from Manchester to Edinburgh. The journey is around three and a half hours, but as intercity train journeys go, it’s a pleasant one. Once the train gets to Cumbria and begins to travel up through the borders, the scenery is fantastic.

Scotsman 1

Our accommodation in Edinburgh was The Scotsman Hotel on the North Bridge. Built in 1905, the impressive Edwardian building was the home of the Scotsman newspaper for almost a century. When the newspaper moved to a new home in 1999, the building was transformed into a luxury hotel (which opened in 2001). There’s a nice family connection here, as Hannah’s uncle worked at the Scotsman offices for a while after leaving school in the 1960s—though we didn’t actually find this out until just before the wedding!

Scotsman 2
Photo: ScotsmanHotel via Wikimedia Commons

The hotel has retained or refurbished many of the original features of the building, which gives you a nice sense of its former purpose. The street-level access from Market Street faces Waverley Station, and was originally used to take the newspapers from the basement printing house to the trains that would transport them around Scotland. Four floors up, and you reach the street-level entrance on the North Bridge (if you’re not familiar with this quirk of architecture, there are a number of buildings in Edinburgh like this). This part of the hotel was originally the editorial offices and trading entrance of the newspaper, and the marble staircase and wood-panelling have been preserved throughout the hotel’s middle floors. The famous Scotsman steps that wind around the outside of the building—104 steps in an octagonal tower, built in 1899 as public access linking the North Bridge with Waverley—have recently been refurbished with colourful marble, contemporary artwork and new wrought iron gates modelled on the original Victorian ones. I believe the gates are now locked at night—just as they were when originally constructed—in an effort to make the steps more pleasant for pedestrians during the day.

The suites have fantastic views of Edinburgh Castle, the Firth of Forth and Calton Hill

The hotel offers a number of different rooms, from the ‘classic’ rooms to the Penthouse suite (originally the newspaper’s pigeon loft). As they knew it was our honeymoon, the hotel upgraded us to one of the wood-panelled suites (and gave us a free box of handmade Sebastian Kobelt chocolates)! There are only a few wood-panelled bedrooms at The Scotsman, though the original oak can still be seen in quite a few of the public areas, but if you’re able to book one, they’re absolutely stunning. Most of the suites at the hotel have fantastic views, looking out over Edinburgh Castle, the Firth of Forth, Calton Hill and Princes Street. If you’re bored of the views, the suites in the hotel all have an Edinburgh Monopoly board for your entertainment. (There’s also a good Wi-Fi connection, but this seems a little less romantic!).

All in all, our brief visit to Edinburgh really kicked off our honeymoon in style.

Through the Highlands and Over the Sea to Skye

For the next leg of our journey, we used a travel agent to make our arrangements. This isn’t something we’d normally do when travelling in the UK, but this was our first trip to the Western Isles, and we thought it was best to get some expert help with the logistics. The company we used, Absolute Escapes, are a small(ish) company based in Edinburgh, who specialize in tailor-made Scottish holidays. The whole experience of booking with Absolute Escapes was great and we’d recommend them to anyone looking to book a holiday in Scotland that’s a little out of the ordinary. They responded quickly to our initial enquiry, provided a personal itinerary based on our request (and worked with us through a few different versions of this until we got exactly what we were looking for), and then provided us with a very thorough and comprehensive information pack complete with touring maps.

Highlands

We collected our hire car from Waverley Station, and left Edinburgh. Our drive took us through Stirling and Callander, before we arrived in the Trossachs and the Highlands. We didn’t have time to stop for much sightseeing, but the drive alone was stunning. We carried on through Bridge of Orchy, Rannoch Moor and Glencoe, at which point we had to stop to take some photographs. It’s pretty much impossible to drive through scenery like this without stopping for a photo opportunity.

We carried on to Fort William and then took the A830 (known as the ‘Road to the Isles’ until we reached Mallaig just in time for our ferry crossing to Skye. Half an hour later, we’d crossed the Sound of Sleat and were arriving in Armadale.

Skye

cuillin hills
Photo: Dave Conner via Creative Commons

We travelled north through the dramatic island landscape

Our accommodation on Skye was in Portree, so we travelled north from Armadale on A87 for just over an hour through the dramatic island landscape. Skye’s coastline is made up of a series of peninsulas and bays, but the centre of the island is dominated by the imposing Cuillin hills—an area that includes some of most challenging mountain terrain in Scotland due to its composition of gabbro and basalt and its jagged summits. Portree, the largest settlement on the island, is a pretty harbour just north of the Cuillin.

portree
Photo: Bert Kaufmann via Creative Commons

Portree has no shortage of bed and breakfast accommodation, as Skye is a hugely popular holiday destination. However, because we were travelling off-season, much of the holiday accommodation was still closed for the winter. The same was true of many of the restaurants, but we managed to find several nice places to eat despite this. On our first evening in Portree, we ate at the Bosville House Hotel, which was lovely though the choice was a little limited for vegetarians (but we knew this would be a theme of the holiday, and the dishes that were on offer were very much to Hannah’s taste… so it didn’t really matter).

Talisker Distillery

Because we were island-hopping, we only had one full day in Skye, so we decided to make the most of it. We began with a tour of the Talisker Distillery in Carbost. The distillery was founded in 1830 by Hugh and Kenneth MacAskill, and has been using local spring water (which naturally flows over peat) and peated malt barley to make their smoky (and delicious) single malt whisky. On the distillery tour, visitors can see the mash tuns where the barley grist is mixed with hot water to release the sugars, then the washbacks where yeast is added to ferment the mash. Perhaps the most dramatic part of the tour is the visit to the still room (Talisker has five stills) where the distillation process takes place—the varying temperatures, aromas and fumes at this stage of the tour make for quite the heady experience. After this, the ageing and bottling process is explained, and visitors can view the maturing whisky casks through a pane of glass. (I assume visitors are forbidden from the cask room to ensure they don’t sneak any of the angels’ share.) The only bit of the whisky-making process you can’t see at Talisker is the initial malting of the barley. This takes place at the Muir of Ord kilns, and the malted grain is then transported to Skye.

Talisker

The trip ended with a short talk about the distinctive Talisker flavours, and a little taste of the ten-year-old whisky. This was also the ideal opportunity to buy Hannah’s brother a little gift to say thank you for all his help with the wedding.

After leaving the distillery, we decided to find somewhere to have a coffee and a bite to eat. The tour guide had recommended a couple of places, but we were rather intrigued by a small sign at the side of the road, directing us in completely the opposite direction and to a place called ‘The Wee Tea Room and Photography Gallery’. Mostly, we were surprised to see that this place was open all year round (quite a rarity on Skye), but appeared to be a tiny little business, in the middle of nowhere, on a road with no real passing trade. We took several wrong turns trying to follow the signs (which were placed at intervals along the road), but by this point our curiosity demanded that we had to find the place… and we weren’t disappointed.

Skye 1
Photo: ARG_Flickr via Creative Commons

The Wee Tea Room and Photography Gallery is situated in Glen Eynort, at the home of Jon and Linda Pear. Jon is a talented photographer, who describes himself as a ‘purist’ and has a wonderful portfolio of evocative and dramatic landscapes and wildlife shots, with particular focus on the Highlands and Islands. Linda makes fantastic homemade cakes, which you can enjoy while gazing out of the window at the incredible views.

Skye 2
Photo: Conor Lawless via Creative Commons

Inspired by some of Jon’s pictures of the island, we spent the rest of the afternoon driving around the Trotternish peninsula, with a small detour to get a good view of the Quiraing, a series of dramatic rock pinnacles that are both beautiful and menacing. Our drive then continued through Staffin, Duntulm and Uig, before we returned to Portree for the evening.

dunvegan castle
Photo: dfritzon via Creative Commons

Skye is a vast and varied land, and we’ve got a lot more exploring to do

The following morning, we took a little drive around part of the Duirinish peninsula and to Dunvegan. The castle—ancestral home of the Clan MacLeod for over 800 years—was closed for the winter season, but the scenery (like that elsewhere on the island) was amazing. If you look at a map, Skye looks like it’s quite small in comparison to the rest of the UK, but we had two long drives and still didn’t get to see the whole of the island. We didn’t even get chance to see all of the Duirinish peninsula! The overwhelming feeling we got was that Skye is really a vast and varied land, and we’ve got a lot more exploring to do on our next visit.

But, on this visit, we had to head back to Uig by lunchtime and get ready to board the ferry to Harris. It was time to continue on to the Outer Hebrides, and the next stage of our honeymoon.

 

Featured image: The Integer Club via Creative Commons

Wedding at the Manchester Museum

We got married on March 15th in the Victorian Gothic splendour of the Manchester Museum

In March 2014, we got married at the Manchester Museum on Oxford Road in Manchester. Since this blog is intended to be a travelogue of the places we go as a married couple, it seemed fitting to start it with a post about where we actually got hitched.

The Manchester Museum began life as the collection (or ‘cabinet’) of John Leigh Philips, which was purchased by the Manchester Natural History Society in 1821 and housed in a premises on Peter Street from 1835. In 1868, the museum was transferred to Owens College (which later became part of the University of Manchester). The college asked architect Alfred Waterhouse to design a museum building to house the collection, and this building was first opened to the public in 1890. Alfred Waterhouse is probably best known as the Victorian Gothic Revival architect who designed Manchester Town Hall and the Natural History Museum in London, though he was also the architect behind the design of Strangeways Prison (now HMP Manchester). Though the Manchester Museum underwent major expansions in 1977 and 2003, the original architecture and Waterhouse’s designs are still a significant feature of the venue.

egyptian collection
Photo: Richard Kelly via Creative Commons

Married underneath a dinosaur

The Manchester Museum has a special place in the history of Manchester—in terms of the city’s architectural, intellectual and cultural history—and this did play a choice in our decision to get married there. We’re both proud of our home town, so it made sense to get married in one of the city’s gems. But our decision was also partly influenced by the happy childhood memories both of us have of visiting the museum on school and family trips. The museum’s Egyptian collection has long been a popular attraction for Mancunian kids, and both of us have fond memories of the temporary Lindow Man exhibitions (Rob in 1987 and Hannah in 1991). But, at the end of the day, our venue choice was pretty much decided by the fact that the Manchester Museum allows you to get married underneath a dinosaur…

Stan

Our ceremony was in the museum’s Fossils Gallery, under the watchful eye of Stan the Tyrannosaurus rex (the museum’s famous polymer cast of a skeleton found by Stan Sacrison in South Dakota). Stan (the dinosaur, not the palaeontologist) has the distinction of being the second most complete T-rex skeleton ever found, with a virtually complete skull. This impressive fella loomed over the registrar as we tied the knot.

reception

After the ceremony, we had a drinks reception in the gallery, surrounded by a 3,500 million year history of life of earth. We had quite a few kids at the wedding, so the museum staff arranged a special tour of the Living Worlds gallery for the children and their parents, while the staff set up the gallery for the meal. We weren’t expecting this added bonus, but it made for a lot of happier (little) guests.

skeleton case

Our wedding meal was in the Living Worlds gallery—one of the museum’s galleries that still showcases Waterhouse’s original architectural design, and Hannah’s favourite part of the museum. The guests were shown to their seats, and then we made our entrance by sneaking through the vivarium (with Hannah’s eyes resolutely closed so she couldn’t see the sleeping snakes), along the balcony, and then down the staircase at the end of the gallery. The tables were laid out amongst the exhibition cases—and underneath the imposing sperm whale skeleton that hangs from the gallery’s ceiling.

centrepieces

A few little crystals on the table

Given the surroundings, we didn’t think our wedding needed a theme or over-the-top decorations. The museum provided formal linens, crockery and cutlery, so we just added our own homemade favours and centrepieces (and a few little crystals on the table to catch the romantic lighting of the gallery). We made small parcel-style favours, filled with sugared almonds and black foil chocolate hearts (with a vegan and nut-free jellybean alternative) and tied with organza ribbon. We got all the stuff for favours, as well as our guestbook and table numbers, from The Wedding Mall. For the centrepieces, we placed hand-tied cream silk roses (from Just Artificial) in posy vases (from the very helpful Bluebells Florist in Middleton) and tied big black ribbon bows around them.

layla dancing

After the meal and the speeches, staff walked our guests down to the museum’s foyer, which had been arranged and lit for the reception. As we walked through the Ancient Worlds gallery and down the wide staircase into the foyer, our wedding band—the Dixie Kings—began to play, much to the delight of our younger guests (who all, apparently, love Dixieland jazz). The venue staff had set up the wedding cake at the entrance to the Living Worlds gallery, but they carried it down to the foyer so we could cut it at the reception.

cake

The cake was made by Hannah’s brother, and decorated with black ribbon and black foam roses from Silk Blooms, the company from which we got the bouquets, corsages and buttonholes. If you’re wondering why we chose artificial flowers, there are three reasons for this. Firstly, it was much less stressful to have the flowers delivered weeks before the wedding, rather than worry about a florist delivery on the day. Secondly, Hannah and her bridesmaids really wanted to be able to keep their bouquets as souvenirs of the big day. Thirdly, a wedding in a museum means that certain restrictions are in place for conservation reasons—for example, all real flowers need to be treated with chemicals prior to being brought in, and lilies are strictly forbidden. Silk flowers just made more sense all round.

caketopper and flowers

As well as the pretty black roses, our cake was decorated with a bespoke cake-topper from Little You in Sowerby Bridge (a wedding gift from Hannah’s parents). This lovely clay model was made especially for us, by Kate at Little You, based on photographs of Hannah’s dress and Rob’s suit. She even recreated the black laces on the back of the wedding dress, the bridal bouquet and Robs’s ivory rose buttonhole.

As our night at the museum came to an end, we headed off down Oxford Road to the Midland Hotel—appropriately enough, next door to the site of the original Manchester Natural Society museum—ready to begin our honeymoon the following day.

midland hotel
Photo: Ben Sutherland via Creative Commons

But that trip will have to wait until next time…