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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Postscript: Ullapool and Back to Edinburgh
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.
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.
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…