Last landfall before Greenland / Newfoundland, etc. (well, nearly)

Published: May 31st 2006
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Stornoway harbourStornoway harbourStornoway harbour

view from Lews Castle
A little known fact about my family is that the three brothers, of which my father was the oldest surviving, went in very different directions. OK, so you could say that being a solicitor in Edinburgh (my father) is not a million miles away from being an academic lawyer at Cambridge (my younger uncle), but - to my mind - the most interesting brother and his family ended up on the Isle of Lewis where two of my three cousins still remain. (For the geographically-challenged, the Isle of Lewis is the northern-most island of the Outer Hebrides, a little further from Edinburgh than Edinburgh is from London). In the capital, Stornoway, one of my cousins, Moray, runs a pub/nightclub/pool bar, but is better known in the family for having appeared on the front page of various national newspapers a few years ago after introducing pole-dancing to this uncharacteristically (for the UK) Church-dominated environment. My other Lewis-based cousin, Keith, has had a variety of jobs, varying from working on trawlers and crewing for sailing trips to St Kilda (EVEN further away from mainland Scotland), to type-setting and proofreading; he knows more about the sea and the English language than almost any other person I know: in my opinion, he gets the Most Interesting Weir award.

Anyway, this is not meant to be a lesson in Weir genealogy nor a career guide, but a little background to my long-standing desire to go back to the Isle of Lewis (I had only visited once in the past, just after my cousins moved there in the mid-70s). A related aim was to explore more of the Outer Hebrides, the chain of islands that spreads approximately south-south-east from Lewis for roughly 130 miles.

And so it was that I found myself on a plane out of Glasgow one Saturday afternoon. I didn't quite know what to expect from the coming week in a number of respects. But the most surprising hit me almost immediately: as we flew over the West Highlands and out over the Minch - the sea channel between the Islands and the mainland - I found myself looking down over endless seemingly-uninhabited glens and empty lochs... and then I realised what was so unusual: I could see the ground with crystal clarity. Moreover, when I landed in Stornoway, I found myself - albeit momentarily - regretting not packing shorts. It was SUNNY and WARM: neither adjective having even had the audacity to appear on my wish list for the week's weather. Yes, here I go again, talking about the weather, but, for a part of Scotland that even the Scots consider to be predominantly cold and wet, the sunshine was the defining factor of the week and my unusual experience in this regard was commented upon by almost every local I met.

Stornoway airport is adorable. This is, I accept, an unlikely adjective for an airport, but here it is justifiable. It is so refreshing to find an airport where a toddler could run around to her heart's content, from the baggage carousel (singular) to the cafe in what would, I suppose, normally be called the "arrivals hall" (except that it was the departures hall too), without her parents being concerned that she was in imminent danger of abduction nor any sign of official security folks getting their proverbial in a twist. I could feel my London/sod-u-all/I'm-in-a-rush mindset evaporating as, entertained by this young person's running around and chatting to her adoring grandparents, I waited for my luggage to come through.

Once out the "other side" - well, a couple of steps from the baggage carousel I could see a board with my name on it: Angus of Lewis Car Rentals was waiting to introduce me to my sturdy steed for the week. And, to be fair, the little Ford Fiesta didn't do too badly, albeit, as Keith and I later concluded, it had several design faults: no cigarette lighter (for him), a driver's side seatbelt that was nearly impossible to do up without opening the door to get the belt buckle through (not helpful for someone like myself who tends to do the belt up a little after setting off!), and a bumper that didn't protrude sufficiently to be sat upon (as requested by Keith when he came back before me after one walk).

Lewis has bad press. It is reputed to be "boring" and "flat", comprising endless peat bogs and occasional grey houses. Harris, so its natives maintain, is the Interesting One, with hills and beaches. However, when one local tried to include in the list of reasons-Harris-is-better-than-Lewis historical sites that are uncontroversially located in Lewis, I began to think that he was not the best source of objective analysis! In any event, I disagreed. Yes, Lewis has the "blasted heath" of the peat bogs in the north of the island, but elsewhere the island boasts deserted golden beaches (unusually, on both the east and the west sides of the islands), hills that vary from the rolling to the mountainous, a myriad of lochs and lochens, fabulous views and ancient sites, some of which make Stonehenge look youthful. In my opinion, Lewis was the most varied and interesting of the Islands.

For our first day's exploring - Keith was joining me to act as unofficial tour-guide for the week, providing predictable and less predictable types of information (such as which lochs do not contain any fish and why) - we acquired a passenger. In order to continue my get-fit campaign (in the name of which my gym and I have become infinitely better acquainted than we ever were while I worked), I was determined to get some serious walks in during my week away, so Keith directed me to the grounds of Lews Castle, opposite Stornoway harbour, and the Creed walk which took me past the Castle, through forest (planted at the direction of the Castle's first owner and then-owner of the Isle of Lewis, Sir James Paterson), out onto moorland, and back along the River Creed and the seashore. En route, I found Mike, a Canadian photography student, who was intrigued by my photographing primroses rather than the view, and who was more than a little perturbed by the impact of the Sabbath on what he could - or rather, what he couldn't - do that day. When flights from the mainland were first scheduled to arrive in Stornoway on a Sunday only a few years' ago, the airport was picketed; it is said that you still shouldn't hang out your washing on the Sabbath (although I was mildly amused to see that one of Keith's neighbours hadn't taken in their washing from the day before); and the only thing you can buy is, if ordered in advance, newspapers from one of the pubs in town: even petrol isn't available on a Sunday. Mike had just discovered that there were no buses running and that he could not hire a car. It therefore appeared unlikely that he would get the chance to visit some of the Island's sites as he was only going to be there are a short time; so he joined our "cultural/heritage tour" of the Island.

The Callanish Stones (or Calanais, to give the Gaelic spelling) are thought to have been constructed as an observatory for the stars and the moon in at least 3400 BC, many years before Stonehenge. Although the day was overcast and the fencing around the site a little too close for comfort, the Stones were nevertheless an impressive and slightly eerie site, and you can actually wander around them, in contrast to the restrictions imposed at Stonehenge nowadays. There are other stone rings, and part-rings, dotted around the Islands, but this is the most complete and impressive.

The Dun Carloway broch is the best preserved of this type of building in the Outer Hebrides. It appears unlikely - contrary to appearances - to have been designed for defensive purposes, but it must have been a bleak place indeed to live, albeit with double-thickness dry-stone walls. Like the Stones, its site was deserted of human traffic, although the local sheep were in good voice!

Fortunately, the Sabbath did not prevent the odd hostelry being open, and, having failed - rather pathetically, I admit! - to find the right road to the lighthouse at the Butt of Lewis (the northern-most point), we decamped to one such hostelry for some well-needed nourishment before wending our way back to Stornoway and increasing Moray's profits at the Star Inn.

On the Monday we went up the coast from Stornoway, to find the deserted beaches around Tolsta Head. By this time, the sun was back with us, albeit accompanied by a strong onshore wind. I didn't envy the fulmars trying to land on their perches high up on the cliffs. That apart, it is curious that such fabulous beaches should be so little known. I appreciate that the temperature isn't as reliable as in the Mediterranean, but the beaches are such better quality and there is so much space: oh well, it's not everyone for whom the essential requirement for a holiday is "to get as far away from my fellow human being as possible", as my father once famously commented to a timeshare sales rep!

On the west coast on Tuesday, we found an even more glorious beach at Timsgearraidh, but only after we'd earned it, Keith by fishing a local loch (successfully, and the results made for a gorgeous supper!) and me by hiking eight miles or so up and down the glen to Loch Raonasgail. Incredibly, the track I hiked is actually the only access road for a house on the other side of the peninsula, but it was deserted of human life until, near the point at which I had decided to turn round in order to meet Keith at our appointed time, I ran into (almost literally) a young woman on a similar get-away-from-it all mission; with her it was to recover from just completing her thesis. I was thrilled that someone else - and a full-blooded Sassenach at that! - was finding her surroundings to be so impressive and recuperative.

At Timsgearraidh, I wandered over to where the sea was lapping the edge of the beach, some distance from the dunes. Footsore from my hike, I took my boots off and paddled, and found the sea, coming in over the shallow beach, delightfully warm and therapeutic. By this time, the gusty wind of the morning had blown over, and the afternoon could not have been more beautiful: a cloud-free sky and warm sunshine. Keith and I shared a beer on the dunes: a veritable paradise.

The next day we embarked on our Serious Travels: to explore the other islands. Delayed in our departure, we took the west coast of Harris at a relatively quick canter, but still had time to admire the beaches en route, before reaching Leverburgh in time for the boat to North Uist - or, more accurately, Berneray, which is now joined to North Uist by one of the many impressive causeways that link the majority of the chain of islands south of Harris. We picked up another passenger on the ferry, a friend from Ardnamurchan, so continued our trip down the islands at reasonable speed in order to drop him off. Having eventually found his destination - a place that seemed, for a while, to be a figment of his imagination, unknown to any of our collection of maps - we slowed the pace considerably, and stopped for a late lunch at the Askernish golf course. This golf course is created out of common grazing land, which means that the usual rules don't quite apply: at least, I don't know of any other course across which we could have driven a car! But we did - with the groundsman's express permission, I hasten to add - and ended up at the dunes with clear, unusally calm views across to Barra. Was this the wild and unpredictable North Atlantic? Butter wouldn't have melted, so to speak. Truly, another tough day in the Hebrides!

We continued our meandering some time later, and drove across (yet) another causeway to Eriskay, an island best known for having been the location of the true incident behind Compton Mackenzie's subsequently filmed epic "Whisky Galore": the discovery during the Second World War of 50,000 cases of whisky aboard the wrecked SS Politician - a truly welcome find, particularly given WWII privations. In memory of our thirsty countrymen, we supped a beer at the eponymous pub on the island.

Travelling north up the chain of islands the next day was less memorable. The weather had, inevitably, broken, and the Uists seemed somewhat unremittingly flat and bleak. We stopped at the unlikely-named Trinity Temple on North Uist and I was moved by the mixture of old and more modern (early-twentieth century) gravestones, hinting at the tragedies that lay below them: a young man killed in the First World War (Lewis, for reference, lost the greatest percentage of its young men to that War of anywhere in the UK); three women from the same family, different generations, who had died within days of each other. We also stopped for, respectively, fishing and hiking, but far less successfully on both fronts than earlier in the week.

The road back through Harris, taking us up the east coast this time, was spectacular. Having taken us past the striking St Clement's Church at Rodel, the Golden Road (a reference to how much it cost to build), it winds in - to my mind - true single-track road fashion (no painted lines or recent resurfacing evident, in contrast to other roads on the Islands) around the inlets and through the moonscape-esque hills.

On my last full day, we went looking for mussels at a new place that had been recommended to Keith - and found them there in such numbers we could afford to be choosy about the size of those we picked and the position on the rocks from which we took them (not too near the bottom, where it was muddy, and not too near the top, where they would have been longest in the sun). We finished up with a potter around the South Lochs area in the south-east of Lewis: a delightful maze of bays and harbours, islands and lochs, hamlets and boats - and, in one place, remarkably, solar-powered street lamps. The mind boggles!

That was really it for travelling: we'd covered approximately 530 miles in our week's exploration, not a vast distance, but time-consuming on those roads. We ended the week as we'd begun: contributing further to Moray's profits before dining like kings (or should I say, maharajas?) on Keith's superb prawn curry.

I could go on - and, for anyone that's gotten this far, remind me to buy you a drink next time we meet! But, suffice to say that I found myself in love with the Islands, and Lewis in particular. No doubt the weather helped, but the countryside is stunning, the people friendly and welcoming, the lilting Lewis accent a new one to me, and it all felt a very long way from the Real World - at least, from the Tube, Ken Livingstonā€™s latest monkeying with the traffic system and the most recent shenanigans in the political elite (does "elite" include John Prescott?!). Here people are more concerned about the increasingly nannying style
the trusty steed on Askernish golf coursethe trusty steed on Askernish golf coursethe trusty steed on Askernish golf course

not to be tried unless you have prior permission!
of the Scottish Executive, not just the smoking-ban that had recently come into force, but a variety of other actual and proposed measures. There are even rumours that one MSP (Member of the Scottish Parliament) wanted to introduce temperature controls in hot water taps so as to reduce the risk of the plebs scalding themselves!

I can't recommend the Outer Hebrides too highly.

And it's very different to what I have in store over the next three months...

Additional photos below
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solar-powered street lampsolar-powered street lamp
solar-powered street lamp

(believe it or not!)

31st May 2006

Well impressed by your documentary, coz, and delighted you crammed so much into your week of stunning weather - I look forward to further instalments!
1st June 2006

Thursday morning in London
Y'see, you shouldn't be sending such stuff to a bloke who has just had his car fail on him, who has had to stand for 45 minutes on a train and who has had his waste paper bin stolen. When's the next flight and how much beer am I allowed to drink before being arrested??
8th June 2006

As a Lewis (my mother's maiden name), I had to love this story. I have not been to the ancestral islands for many years (nearly 30, if memory serves). It is high time I went back. Hope you are well. L
17th November 2006

I found this site when browsing. My granparents live at 5 Garyvard in the south lochs and this is an amzing report of an amazing island ^_~ x

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