Continuing our exploration of the Hebrides, the island group off the west coast of Scotland, today we are on the Isle of Lewis. Isle of Lewis and Harris is the largest island in the Outer Hebrides; the Outer Hebrides are also known as the Western Isles. Lewis is the northern part of the island. The major city of Stornoway is where we are anchored. Of the 30,000 people who live in the Western Isles, 9,000 live in Stornoway.
Our original plan was to visit Harris, the Southern part of the island and home to the weavers of the famous Harris Tweed. Unfortunately, there was not enough interest in that excursion, so we are going on the Lewis Highlight Tour instead. This may have worked out for the best. Having not done my homework, I was unaware of the major stone grouping at Calanais on Lewis. I am so glad we didn’t miss that.
Our guide worked hard on her English and only a few times struggled to find the right English word. Gaelic is promoted here and the signposts are written in both English and Gaelic, with Gaelic listed first. Since Gaelic is the major language spoken here, I assumed that it was our guide’s first language. (I learned later that she is a student from Germany and German is her first language.) Leaving the dock, we passed the wonderful town hall with its red accents; both Rocky and I liked the building and the way it stood out.
As we passed through the town of Stornoway, we saw the Lews Castle, rebuilt in the 1800s. In addition to being a residence, it has also been a hospital and college and is now a luxury hotel. The castle is set on a tree-filled estate, valued parkland on an island where each tree had to be brought in; they are not native to the island due to the soil and the heavy winds that plauge the island. The castle estate grounds are really the only area where trees are found on the Isle of Lewis. Tents were set up all around the castle for the area music festival, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.
The typical Lewis landscape is flat with peat. Harris, the southern portion of the island, is more hilly with rocks. The peat makes an excellent, cheap fuel, but it is very hard labor to remove it. Some of the peat on the island is 1,000 years old. The peat burns smokey and warm. The island is also battered by wind and lots of wind turbines are in evidence. As in Skye, they are controversial. Fish Farming (mostly salmon and mussels), also found on Skye, is another controversial measure.
We saw of couple of single stones before reaching the Calanais Stone Circle (Tursachan Chalanais in Gaelic) believed to be 4,000 years old. (The are often referred to as the Callanish Stones. I use the spelling given on the translated markers at the site.) “The stones were probably moved with rollers, wooden frames and brute strength.” It is actually a complex of multiple stone sets, sometimes used for burials. At some point the rituals had Celtic origins, but not druid.
Our next stop was the Dun Carloway Broch, an iron age structure. The broch is found exclusively in Scotland. The round house is built of stone and tapered to create the illusion of height. There was an interior staircase of stone and multiple levels created in the interior by timber. The roof was thatched, but lower than the height of the structure to insure it was not blown away. This type of structure was used between 300 BC and 200 AD. It is difficult to have anything of great height on Lewis due to the wind, so the broch was not a practical structure.
The final stop on our tour was Garenin Blackhouse Village, a collection of historical structures now serving as a living museum. The houses were lived in until 1976. Up to 15 people lived in a single structure based on an original Viking design with a fire in the middle and a hole in the roof above. This rendered the interior walls black. The name, Blackhouse Village, is either a reference to the color of the interior walls or maybe was just a translation error as “Thatched House” and “Black House” in Gaelic sound almost the same.
The village did not get electricity until 1952 and piped fresh water did not arrive until 1962. Even then, it was a single tap for the entire village. We were given an orientation by a young male museum guide who lives in this area of Lewis (he made a joke about the townies who enjoy the luxuries of Stornoway; our guide was clearly enchanted by him) and then had the opportunity to wander around. You can now stay in these structures as a holiday rental or as part of the youth hostel.
In one of the museum structures, Rory worked on an old loom making the famous Harris Tweed cloth. Although we saw so many sheep, there are not enough sheep on the island to produce that quantity of Harris Tweed wool. To qualify as Harris Tweed, the cloth must be made on the island by local weavers . Only the softest wool is used. The color is added to the wool before it is spun into yarn to saturate it. The individual designs are done at home by the weavers and then sent in. There are a few factories on the island with multiple looms for the weavers to work at as another option. The fabric is later used for furniture and purses.
On the way back to Stonoway, we passed a whalebone from a blue whale that beached itself nearby. The whalebone is now covered in fiberglass to preserve it and still has the original harpoon from the whale’s injury. Our guide also talked about the crofting history of the island, a tenant situation with no opportunity for ownership. The law changed in 1950 giving crofters the opportunity to buy their own land.
As we passed a large monument on a hilltop, our guide told us of the New Years Day drowning in 1919 of 205 islanders who had survived World War I and were on their way home. The ship hit rocks and sank just 20 yards from shore while waiting family members watched. The waters were freezing and although there were 284 men on board, there were only 80 lifejackets. The lifeboats were quickly overwhelmed and capsized. 39 did survive the freezing water and 40 more were pulled ashore by a sailor who tied a rope to the rocks on the shore. The Iolaire Disaster was “the worst peacetime disaster of a British ship since the Titanic”.
After that sobering note, I needed to cheer myself up. Having spotted a Harris Tweed shop in town, I decided I better pay the store a visit. I had been eyeing the Harris Tweed purses for several days now. This store sold the fabric and clothing made from it, mostly men’s jackets and some women’s jackets in a masculine design. Not for me, but then I found a jacket in a unique design. The purple tweed one was not in my size and I tried on a dark one which was more flattering than I thought. Then the manager pulled out a lighter colored one with a thin pink stripe running through it in my size. Sold. This will be my birthday present to myself and the big purchase of the trip.
After my successful shopping trip, we took the tender back to the ship. Mainland Scotland tomorrow.