The Outer Hebrides (September 2019)
The Outer Hebrides are almost a by-word for “remote”, located as they are on the Northwest edge of Europe. They retain a distinct identity and, as people repeatedly said to me when I was there, the pace of life here is much slower than on the mainland. It’s somewhere I’ve wanted to visit for many years and this September I finally got to see them.
There are over 100 islands in the Outer Hebrides, 14 of which are inhabited, with a total population of about 30,000. Rather than try to see them all, I decided to focus on the two largest islands, Lewis and Harris, in the north. Actually, though they’re described as separate islands, Lewis and Harris exist as a single landmass, though they have a distinctly different feel. Lewis is in the north and dominated by bleak blanket bog; Harris is in the south and more mountainous. I based myself in Stornoway for the week.
I flew into Stornoway from Inverness. The flight was delayed by four hours but, as compensation, the islands looked incredible as we were coming into land, bleak and ethereal.
Stornoway is the main town in the Outer Hebrides (in fact, it’s the only real town), with a population of about 8000. It has a working harbour and lots of interesting little shops.
Gaelic is still spoken quite widely in the islands, and all the street signs in Stornoway are bilingual. Many of the words were quite familiar to me from my days learning Irish at school.
I knew my doctorate would come in useful one day; you certainly needed one to interpret the Hebridean bus timetables. You could certainly get to most places. Whether or not you would ever get back was another matter. I pretty much gave up on going to Bernera.
The central part of Lewis is dominated by swathes of blanket bog, stretching almost as far as the eye can see. In the distance you can see the beautiful hills and mountains of North Harris. This was on the bus to Callanish stone circle.
The wonderful Neolithic stone circle at Callanish, one of the most impressive in the British Isles. There is a central stone circle, with several alignments of stones radiating from it, almost in the shape of a Celtic cross. The central stone in the circle is 12 feet high.
The gneiss stones have amazing patterns and really are quite spooky and human-like. In the 17th Century locals called them the “False Men”. There’s also a legend that on Midsummer's morning something called the “Shining One” comes walking down the main avenue to the stone circle. Though I suspect the “Shining One“ may actually just be the sun as it seems a rare enough sight around here.
I was fascinated by how visitors loved to touch and hold the stones (something not possible at Britain’s most famous stone circle, Stonehenge).
This is part of a separate stone circle near Callanish; there are quite a few in the area. Again, the stones have that strange human-shaped look about them.
A little abandoned boat near Callanish stone circle.
This impressive abandoned house was quite close to the stone circle, almost in the middle of nowhere. You could look through the window and right out the other side of the house to the hills beyond.
On my second day I took the bus up to the most northern part of Lewis. This is the little harbour at Port Ness. It’s here that the famous - perhaps infamous - Guga hunt starts; every August ten men from Ness set sail for the island of Sula Sgeir, to hunt young gannets (guga). The hunt is mentioned as early as the 16th Century. It features prominently in Peter May’s “The Black House”, the first book in a trilogy set in the Outer Hebrides.
This is St. Moluag’s chapel, which probably dates back to the 14th century, though it’s on the site of a much earlier structure, supposedly associated with pagan rituals worshiping the sea god Shony. The chapel itself was associated with the healing of wounds and sores. Apparently mental illness could be cured by walking around it seven times and then sleeping in the church.
Wikipedia has this interesting entry about the church:
One of the most enduring traditions associated with the church is its power as a place of healing, especially for those afflicted with mental problems. Many people were brought here in the hope of healing, and even those who could not reach the church sent wooden effigies of their afflicted parts. Captain Dymes who came to Lewis in 1630 recorded that people who could not visit the church "were wont to cut out the portion of their lame arms or legs in wood with the form of their sores and wounds therof and send them to the saint where I have seen them lying on the altar of the chapel.
Even today there seems to be an association with cures. The picture above shows a corkboard to which parishioners have attached requests for help. The one in the middle appears to say:
”She needs to be released from her daemons”
The lighthouse at the Butt of Lewis, the most northerly extreme of the Outer Hebrides. According to the Guinness Book of Records this is the windiest part of the British Isles and it certainly felt like it during my visit.
You can really hear the wind howling around the lighthouse in this video.
Returning from the lighthouse I found this beautiful little bay, where I had my lunch. I had the beach entirely to myself.
Ness football club, which is pretty much in the middle of nowhere. It’s so windy here I don’t know how they can actually play! Somewhat amazingly, the building on the horizon on the left is a sports centre with a 10-pin bowling alley.
Back at the stop too early for the next bus (and in fact not entirely sure where the bus stop was, as there was no sign) I went to this little cafe, The Wobbly Dog, so named apparently because the owner’s dog can’t run in straight line when chasing a ball. I had an excellent coffee and delicious slice of chocolate cake. And I managed to catch the bus back, more by chance than design.
This turned out to be a school run, so we went around every nook and cranny of this part of the island. The bus was full of boisterous primary school kids, paying absolutely no attention to their teacher’s stern warning to sit down for the journey or she’d hear about it in the morning.
Another bus journey took me to the well-preserved Iron Age broch (stone tower) at Carloway. It has a commanding view over the surrounding landscape.
This sheep is actually standing on the wall of an old blackhouse (‘blackhouses’ are what the the old crofter’s houses are called; you see their ruins everywhere on the islands). There had been a hamlet here around the broch in the 19th Century, but the villagers were cleared off their land. You can see one of the houses in the old picture when it was still occupied (taken around 1900), and how it looks now.
A lovely little lough down the road from the broch.
I think these islands, visible off the coast near Carloway, are the Flannan Isles, site of an enduring mystery. In December 1900 a boat reported that the lighthouse on the islands wasn't operational. A rescue boat was sent out to investigate and landed on Boxing Day, 1900. They found no trace of the three lighthouse keepers that had been on the island. No bodies were ever recovered.
The log book showed that there had been particularly stormy weather in the week before the disappearance, and the conclusion was that all three keepers had been swept to their deaths by a huge wave. But there was enduring speculation about supernatural causes for the disappearance, or that there had been some kind of fight among the keepers, or even that a sea monster had devoured them all. The 2018 film The Vanishing is based on the story.
I spent a fair bit of time at bus stops, negotiating the complexities of the Hebridean bus timetables; this one was at Carloway, and it was 30 minutes to the next bus, so I amused myself taking photographs through the scratched plastic.
On one journey I overheard a wonderful conversation between the bus driver and another passenger, clearly also a bus driver:
“Haven’t seen S_ B_ for awhile”
“Och, he was banned for urinating on the bus. He urinated on one seat. Then he urinated on another seat. And it was a NEW BUS!”
I liked the particular horror at urinating on the new bus. S_B_ is obviously a bit of a rogue; the bus driver went on to say he’d been in trouble for running off from a taxi without paying:
“The police were involved. After all, it’s FRAUD!”
After Carloway I‘d travelled on up the North coast to see the restored Blackhouse at Arnol. Unfortunately I arrived at the visitor’s centre to discover that it was closed for renovation work (the man in the centre literally winced when I said how disappointed I was. I think he’d been getting this reaction all week). To compensate, a preserved house from the 1950s across the road was open for free. I'd rather have seen the blackhouse.
Waiting at the bus stop at Arnol, prosaically listed in the timetable as “Arnol, phonebox”. There actually is a bus shelter; you don’t have to wait in the phonebox. The wind was howling so strongly around it I thought the roof was going to come off.
One thing I hadn’t known about the Hebrideans was their propensity for dumping wrecked vehicles, particularly buses, in fields. It gives the islands a slightly surreal Mad Max feel. I guess they’re hard to dispose of otherwise.
To see Harris I booked a tour with the excellent Hebridean Isle tours and the wonderfully laid-back Hugh. There were only two other people on the tour and we traveled in Hugh’s car so it felt very laidback and personal. This is the link to his website:
Harris has quite a different feel to Lewis, much rockier and mountainous. It kept reminding me of Donegal, in Ireland.
A nice place to spend eternity - the wonderfully scenic cemetery at Scarista. It plays a significant part in the plot of the second of Peter May’s Outer Hebrides trilogy, “The Lewis Man”.
This must be one of the most scenic golf courses in the world.
The incredible beach at Luskentyre, which is considered one of the most beautiful in the British Isles. You can see why.
The beautiful little church at Rodel, right at the southern tip of Harris.
The church had some beautiful tomb carvings inside.
Walking around the graveyard it was sad to see the inscription on the grave of the 11 year old boy who had died in 1917 , “Drowned through the ice”.
Hebridean sheep are the most nonchalant I've ever encountered. They really don't seem bothered by humans or cars.
Saturday in Stornoway was absolutely atrocious, heavy rain forecast all day. But I had the perfect reading - “The Lewis Man”, the second book in Peter May’s Hebridean trilogy.
In the afternoon I discovered that the Hebridean International Film Festival was on in Stornoway, and that the town actually has a really good cinema (you can even bring drinks into it). I watched ”Neither Wolf Nor Dog”, set on a Native American reservation in the US. Weirdly, there was something similar about the landscape and way of life there and in the Outer Hebrides.
A Hebridean delicacy - deep-fried Stornoway black pudding, from Cameron’s chip shop in Stornoway. Completely delicious. Excellent chips, too.
My last day in Stornoway and the weather was gorgeous. I did a fantastic walk through the grounds of Lewis Castle, past a beautiful babbling river.
Ok, maybe not the rain. And definitely not the bus timetables. But I loved everything else about the Outer Hebrides.
Now I’ll have to come back and explore all the other islands...maybe not by bus, though.