Huge skies and a constant driving wind. We have been in the cottage for four days. Leurbost feels a long way from Edinburgh. The Outer Hebrides, Na h-Eileanana in the Gaelic, are a 130-mile long string of islands off the north-west coast of Scotland. They were once known as The Long Isle. But they comprise, from the south, Barra, then South Uist, Benbecula, and North Uist, which are connected by causeways, and finally Harris and Lewis, two parts of a single island but with separate identities. We arrived by boat on South Uist from Mallaig.and then drove north.
After a night in Lochboisdale we didn’t really do justice to the Uists. The main road up the spine of the islands is the least interesting feature.The more attractive part is the machair, the strip of grasses and wild flowers along the western [Atlantic] coast. But we pressed on, heading for the CalMac ferry across the Sound of Harris from Berneray to Leverburgh in South Harris. Leverburgh is named after the English William Lever, the first Lord Leverhulme, who bought the South Harris estate in 1919 with ambitious plans to develop a major fishing centre. But after Leverhulme’s death from pneumonia the project collapsed and the village and production facilities were sold. From Leverburgh the road runs up the west coast of Harris, past the word class beaches of Scarista and Luskentyre. But our glimpse of enormous golden beaches was cut short by lowering, dark clouds and driving rain. Tarbert, the biggest township on Harris, is closed on Mondays. Or it may just have been that everyone was watching Scotland v. the Czech Republic. [For Scottish soccer fans, it’s the hope that kills you.] Beyond Tarbert the road climbs through the mountains of North Harris with spectacular views of the sea loch below before the long descent into Lewis
Callanish is a dozen miles away.The standing stones at Callanish are a major attraction. The main site comprises a stone circle surrounding a central monolith, flanked by an avenue of parallel standing stones. All this is set on a shallow hill overlooking Loch Roag. The stones may be contemporaries of, or possibly, predate, Stonehenge.
It is thought that the stones were erected roughly 3000 BC, possibly for ritual purposes; but the site was abandoned between 1000 BC and 500 BC. The stones were only discovered in 1857 when more than a metre of peat was excavated. We were pleased to walk some 5 km to the nearby sites, Callanish II and Callanish III, before the rain came down. Happily the Visitors’ Centre serves excellent coffee, as well as bacon and black pudding rolls and haddock goujons.
Half an hour away, down a long single track road are the famed beaches of UIg. This is where the Uig chessmen were found in 1831; a hoard of some ninety artefacts, mostly chess pieces carved from walrus ivory. There are differing stories of how the hoard was discovered. The majority of the pieces are now in the British Museum, which believes they were made in Trondheim, in Norway. A smaller number of pieces are in the museums in Stornaway and in Edinburgh. A hitherto unrecognised piece emerged in Edinburgh in 2019 and was sold at auction for £735, 000.
From the postcard I had imagined that they were about 2 metres high. But in reality they vary between about 4 and 10 centimetres. The wind blew mightily as we walked by the sea. Outside the community centre there is a bust of Leif Eriksson, a Viking explorer who reputedly sailed to North America in the 11th century, several centuries before Christopher Columbus. The community cafe has a good reputation, but is open only at lunchtime on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. We were there on a Wednesday ! And there is an attractive, new fish restaurant with views out across the sea. But it is only open in the evenings, and when we called was booked for the week ahead
On the west coast, driving north from Callanish, we visited the Gearannan Blackhouse Village. Lewis folk lived in these long blackhouses for centuries, stone walls and thatched roofs, heated by peat fires. It was a primitive existence, without running water, based on subsistence farming and handloom weaving. The crofting community at Gearannan survived until the 1970s, and the houses are now maintained by a charitable trust, who run a small museum and cafe, and have restored some of the houses as self-catering accommodation.
A few miles up the road is the Dun Carloway broch, built on a small hill overlooking a sea loch. Brochs are mysterious phenomena, circular, windowless drystone towers built in the iron Age with a double skin of walls rising to 8 or 10 metres. They may have been defensive structures offering protection against [Viking] raiding parties. It is thought that there might have been several hundred brochs scattered across Scotland, particularly up the west coast and on the islands, but many are in a very poor state of repair.. Dun Carloway is one of the better survivors, though necessary restoration work means that the walls are currently encased in scaffolding.
On our last day in the cottage we drove to the northernmost tip of the island, to the lighthouse on the Butt of Lewis. According to the Guinness Book of Records this is the windiest place in Britain. The 37 metre red brick lighthouse , designed by one of the Stephenson family, stands 52 metres above the sea, as waves roll endlessly in from the Atlantic.
The township of Nis, at the northern end of Lewis is the setting for Peter May’s Hebridean trilogy; the community where Fin Macleod grows up with his first love Marsaili and his schoolfriend Artair; and the community to which Fin returns after the death of his child in Edinburgh and the breakdown of his marriage. May writes convincingly both of the harsh nature of the Hebridean landscape, and of claustrophobic relationships within the small island communities. So I had assumed that he was a Lewis man. But, as we discovered from staff at the Stornaway Museum, that is not the case. Peter May, who has lived in France for many years, was a journalist, born in Glasgow, who first came to the Hebrides as a writer on Machair., a highly successful Gaelic language television series. It is difficult to understand that The Blackhouse, the first book in the Hebridean trilogy, was initially turned down by a variety of British publishers and was first published in France in a French translation, in 2009. The two following books were published in 2012 and 2013.
I began writing this in the cottage at Leurbost. On our last morning, amazingly the wind died down a bit, and the sun came out, and we had breakfast on the table outside the backdoor. On what you might almost call a patio.
And for the crossing back to Ullapool the sea was totally calm, and we sat on deck in the sunshine as if returning across the western channel from Brittany. Then I was savaged by a bloodthirsty mosquito in Poolewe. But that is another story …