When they were under Norse rule, the Western Isles were called Innse Gall (“islands of the foreigners”) by the Gaelic-speaking Highlanders of mainland Scotland. First settled 5000 years ago, the Isles have been home to those who farmed and built monuments to their spiritual way of life. The Scots first arrived on the islands sometime during the first century CE, followed in the mid-first millennium by the Picts and Christian missionaries. After years of raids by Norsemen, Edgar of Scotland signed the islands over to the Norse ruler Magnus III of Norway in 1098. Magnus III had already conquered the northern islands of Orkney and Shetland as well as the Isle of Man, and with the addition of the Hebrides, the lands became the Kingdom of the Isles and were ruled by princes of the Norwegian realm. They were divided into the South Isles (Old Norse, Suðr-eyjar) of the Hebrides and the Isle of Man, and the North Isles (Norðr-eyjar) of Orkney and Shetland. More than one hundred years later the Western Isles of the Outer Hebrides remained under Norwegian rule and the Inner Hebrides fell under the rule of Somerled, (Gàidhlig, Somhairlidh; Old Norse, Sumarliði) a Norse-Gaelic warlord who claimed the islands in the mid-twelfth century. The islands of the Outer and Inner Hebrides along with the Isle of Man were ceded back to the Kingdom of Scotland in 1266 under the tenets of the Treaty of Perth which ended the wars for control over the islands. The Outer Hebrides, or the Western Isles (Na h-Eileanan Siar), are 200 islands that stretch for 130 miles along the northwestern coast of Scotland. I have been able to visit two of them.
The Caledonian MacBrayne ferry left port from Ullapool, Ross-shire, Highlands (Ullapul “wool farm”) on Loch Broom (Loch Bhraoin, “loch of rain showers”) and headed out to sea past the Rhue Lighthouse (from the Gàidhlig “Rubha” meaning a promontory) and on towards the Isle of Lewis. Due to our unfortunate circumstances with the tire the day before, we did not get to spend any time walking around Ullapool; that was a great disappointment because it looks like a very charming little town. A couple of people had commented to us that we would be riding the “new” ferry. Christened in 2014, it was built to be more eco-sustainable than the older ferries in the fleet and to give a very quiet and smooth ride. It was indeed beautiful. We ensconced ourselves in the observation lounge on deck 6 and settled in for the two- and-a-half hour ride to Stornoway. We enjoyed a light snack, I napped for a bit while Marsha read, and then we had lunch before we docked. We passed a dozen or so islands, many of which had rainbows over them.
Stornoway (Gàidhlig, Steòrnabhagh, “steering bay”, from the Old Norse, Stjórnavágr) is located in the center of the eastern coast of the Isle of Lewis (Eilean Leòdhais), most often just called Lewis (Leòdhas). As we arrived in the harbor, Lewis Castle (Caisteal Leòdhais) made a picturesque backdrop for the town. It was built in the mid-18th century by Sir James Matheson to serve as a country house. He actually owned the entire island at the time. Interesting what a fortune made in the Chinese opium trade can buy.
We found our way to the car park by the wharf in Stornoway and set about discovering the town on foot. I had created the entire itinerary of our trip to make certain that we were on the Western Isles during the week, since Sundays are still held as Sabbath in the Western Isles and all the stores and restaurants are closed. Marsha was in search of a Harris Tweed jacket and while she wasn’t successful in the moment, we did have some conversations with some very nice people in different shops. I found the Hebridean Tea Store and bought some organic Madainn Mhath (“Good Morning” in Gàidhlig) hand blended Scottish breakfast tea for Kyle. It was 1:00 PM when the ferry docked so we knew that we needed to get on the road to make the three-hour drove up to the northern point of the island and then back down south to Harris to the town of Tarbert before dark.
The name Lewis in Scots Gaelic is Leòdhas, from leogach (“marshy”) and most likely refers to the peat fields that cover the island. As we drove there were waves of rain that heightened the fragrance of the peat, the sea air and the wet heather into a completely ethereal fragrance. Added to this were the magnificent clouds rolling across the sky accented with rainbows and playing their dark grey to white colors against the deep green earth. It was one of the best sensory memories I’ll ever have.
We drove the A857 west across the island and then turned north along the coast at the community of Barabhas (Barvas). The Western Isles have the strongest Gaelic influence in their culture than any other region of Scotland; more than 70% of the population is fluent in Scots-Gaelic,Gàidhlig, and 60% use it as a daily language. All road markings on the maps are in Gàidhlig first and in English parenthetically. As in the rest of Scotland, the road signs are bi-lingual in Scots-Gaelic and English. In 2005, the Gaelic Language Act was enacted by the Scottish Parliament to support the use of Gaelic which had fallen greatly since the Education (Scotland) Act of 1872 forbade the use of Gaelic in the classroom forcing the language to become almost extinct, the same as many First Peoples’ languages in the Americas. The other language of Lewis is a combination of Scots Gaelic and Old Norse with a blend of English that is called “Highland English”. With 64% of the population of Barabhas Scots-Gaelic speaking, the community has the highest concentration of Gàidhlig speakers in Scotland.
Just a couple miles north of Barabhas is Borgh (Borve) and the exquisite Borgh Pottery Studio where we spent some time admiring both the pottery and the gardens. Marsha bought a pair of tea cups that thankfully survived the trip home.
We continued on to the Rubha Robhanais, (Butt of Lewis) “the point of the whole headland” which is in fact the most northerly point on the island. Just south of the Butt is the community of Port Nis (Port of Ness) a harbor which was built in the early 19th century. In 1882 there was a report by a German ship sailing a few miles off the coast there of a sea monster that was about 44 yards long with several large bumps along its back which rose above the water. We did not see Nessie’s cousin, but the clarity of the water and the white, almost-like-powdered-sugar-sand reflected in the gathering darkness of the clouds made for a remarkable sight.
We drove south again on the A857 and joined the A858 at Barabhas and continued along the western coastline to the Clachan Chalanais (Callanish Stones). Standing on a hill above Loch Ròg (Loch Roag), the site is formed of a stone circle, a chambered tomb, and five rows of stones; two of the rows are in parallel, making an avenue out from the center. The main circle of the standing stones was built between 2900-2600 BCE. The central and largest of the standing stones is oriented north-south. There are thirteen stones in the circle around the center that is just over 37 feet in diameter. The chambered tomb is 21 feet long and was built in between the standing stones at a much later date than the stones themselves.
Excavations in the 1980s gave insight as to the placement of the stones. In the Historic Scotland guidebook (2002) it states: “The most attractive explanation … is that every 18.6 years, the moon skims especially low over the southern hills. It seems to dance along them, like a great god visiting the earth. Knowledge and prediction of this heavenly event gave earthly authority to those who watched the skies.”
There are two traditions associated with the standing stones from more modern times. Some say that they stones are petrified giants who refused to convert to Christianity; in the 17th century, they were called fir bhrèige, “false men”. There are also the stories of the “Shining One” who walks the length of the avenue at dawn on Midsummer morning.
We drove eastward across the island again and picked up the A859 to head south to the Isle of Harris. Driving along, we were made well aware of the poetry behind the name for the Lewis and Harris as “The Heather Isle”, Eilean an Fhraoich. Leòdhas agus na Hearadh (Lewis and Harris) share what is called “the Long Island”, an t-Eilean Fada, with Lewis in the North and Harris in the South. The landscape of Lewis is more flat, and it’s when the hills start to appear that it becomes the Isle of Harris. The boundary line stretches between two Lochs, Reasort (Resort) in the west and Shiphoirt (Seaforth) in the east. It may seem that the obvious boundary would be where the greater narrows are at the town of An Tairbeart (Tarbert, “the isthmus, or crossing point”) but there is much of North Harris to be seen and enjoyed before then.
We arrived at the Harris Hotel just as the sun was setting (on what was a glorious day!) and were overjoyed to find that our wayward luggage was there waiting for us. After a bit of revelry at being reunited with our clothes after five days and a hot shower, we went down to the hotel restaurant and had a wonderful dinner. The hostess said she wasn’t a whisky-drinker, but showed me her grandfather’s favorite; the Clynelish was a wonderful way to end the day.