Last day on Lewis

All good things come to an end and so it was with my week in the Hebrides. Our boat left for Ullapool early afternoon so we spent the morning wandering round the ground of Lews Castle, visiting the very good small museum and “supporting the local economy”.

Lews castle overlooksStornoway from across the harbour, standing in its impressive grounds. It was built between 1844–51 as a country house for the drug baron Sir James Matheson, who had purchased the island a few years before. The Matheson family sold the estate, including the mansion tto Lord Leverhulme in 1918. William Hesketh Lever was a Bolton lad who, at one time, lived in the same street in Wigan where I used to live (not at the sme time, I would add!). But, that isn’t is main claim to fame! He founded the industrial giant, Lever Brothers, manufacturer of, what at the time was a revolutionary product, Sunlight soap. He was something of a philantropist and is well known for his Port Sunlight “model village” that he had built on the Wirral for workers at the company’s main production plant.

He had a grand plan for the Island, intending to industrialise and, as he saw it, modernise and bring the island into the 20th Century by reviving and modernising the fishing industry. However, the population, who were mainly crofters, didn’t wwant to become industrial “wage slaves” and resisted his plans. This, together with economic factors which led to a decline of the fishing industry, meant that he wasn’t able to realise his ambitious plans. The outcome was that, rather than sell it on to another landlord, Leverhulme gave the castle and his Lewis estates to the people of the Parish of Stornoway and in 1923 the Stornoway Trust was set up to manage the new public estate on behalf of the community.

Today Lews Castle and its grounds are open to the public. The Trust has also had a modern museum built which is attached to the main building, and the first floor has been converted into self catering appartments

We spent an hour wandering around the grounds. I don’t think I can better the following description from the Castle’s website

The grounds are an outstanding example of a mid-to-late Victorian ornamental and estate landscape, with fine elevated views over Stornoway and beyond to the sea. Carriage drives and an extensive network of paths provide access through and around the grounds, creating numerous circuits and providing a variety of vantage points.

Rain was in the air, and I was keen to look around he modern museum so, after reviving ourselves with a coffee in the cafe, we took a look around the exhibitions which explored life on the Hebrides.

A very apt quote!

The star exhibit had to be the 6 Lewis chessmen, loaned to the museum by the British Museum

After looking round the museum and the ground floor of the house, with a couple of hours before the ferry was due to leave, it was time to have a look around the town centre shops. Stornoway is quite small and, although there were a number of shops catering to visitors, it isn’t particularly touristy. A few final purchases were made – I bought some cards by local artists, ideal for upcoming birthdays.

Then it was time to rejoin the minibus which was waiting in the queue for the ferry. We timed it well as the rain was coming in and not long after it started to absolutely chuck it down. We said our goodbyes to John, our guide, who was returning to his home in Marbhig, and we were joined by Mike, who was to drive us back to Inverness

It rained throughout the crossing so we stayed inside the boat, where we had a brew and a bite to eat and chatting until we reached Ullapool. It was then on to Inverness which took less than two hours. Four of our party were taking a train back to Edinburgh so they were dropped off at the station. That left three of us who were staying overnight in Inverness. Liz and Ria were staying in a B and B more or less round the corner from my lodgings in the Premier Inn, so we arranged to meet up for a last meal together.

Liz was on the same flight to Manchester as me so we arranged to take a taxi to the airport together and split the exorbitant fare. Initially we were told that the flight was delayed but it left on time and we actually arrived in Manchester early. We got through Terminal 3 without any trouble then said our goodbyes as we parted. I waited for me lift and arrived home in good time to catch the Challenge Cup semi final against our local rivals on the TV. It was a tight match but a good result! An ideal end to a great week.

The Calanais Standing Stones

Our next destination was somewhere I was particularly keen to visit – the The Calanais Standing Stones. They stand on the outskirts of the small village of Calanais (Callanish in English) on the western side of the island so to reach them we had to drive through the increasingly heavy rain along the A858 which traverses the boggy interior of Lewis.

The monument is in the form of a cruciform with a central stone circle. All the stones are Lewisian Gneiss. It was erected about 5,000 years ago, during the late Neolithic era and pre-dates Stonehenge. This area was clearly of major importance during pre-historic times as there are a number of other circles nearby – 11 other circles and 9 individual standing stones have been discovered within a few kilometres of the main site.

The Stones are managed by Historic Environment Scotland and there is a Visitor Centre operated by Urras Nan Tursachan (The Standing Stones Trust).

The central circle comprises thirteen stones with a central standing stone. The cross is formed by five rows which connect to the circle – two of these running parallel to each other creating an avenue.

Plan showing the arrangement of the stones – By Henry Jamesderivative work: Pasicles (talk) – Rude Stone Monuments in All Countries: Their Age and Uses, Public Domain,

Today we think of Lewis and the other Scottish Islands as isolated backwaters, but in Neolithic to probably right through to the Medieval period times this was far from the case. Travel overland was difficult but communication by sea was much easier. The islands of the Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland were at the heart of the sea lanes and trading routes. The presence of numerous prehistoric monuments like the Calanais stones and ancient structures such as the the many brochs on the islands is evidence that an advanced society developed on the islands during the Neolithic period. But why they built monument such as those in the vicinity of Calanais remains a mystery.

The original plan for the afternoon was to set out on a walk on the coast from Calanais, but with the weather having a turn for the worse we settled in the Visitor Centre and warmed ourselves with a brew!

Rejoining the minibus we drove a few miles further up the coast to take a look at another ancient structure, the Iron Age broch of Dun Carloway. Although a ruin, it’s an impressive structure which stands on raised ground overlooking the nearby countryside and the sea. Unfortunatly, it is undergoing restoration and much of it was shrouded in scaffolding, but it was still an impressive sight.

This impressive example of Iron Age architecture may have been designed to make a bold statement of status, wealth or power. It was also easily defended, sitting high on a rocky outcrop, with wide views for miles around. 

The broch tower is in an excellent state of repair. It’s the best-preserved Iron Age building in Lewis, and at 9m tall, one of only a handful of broch towers surviving to near its original height. 

The collapsed area of wall reveals  a perfect cross-section of the broch. Its main features include: 

– a double-skinned wall with two tiers of internal galleries
– a ground-level low entrance passage into the broch
– a small cell, possibly a guard-room, off the passage
– a stairway that originally led to the upper floor(s)
– a stone ledge, or scarcement, on the inside face of the wall which probably supported the upper floor

Historic Environment Scotland website

Looking down from the monument, close to the modern buildings, we could see the remains of a “Blackhouse“. The walls apparently intact and still at their original height, but with the thatched roof well gone

We returned to the minibus and set off back to Stornoway, taking the ‘Pentland Road’, over the peat moors, which follows the route of a proposed railway from Carloway and Breasclete on the west coast to Stornoway. The railway ran into legal and economic problems and was never built. Driving across the moors we passed evidence of former shielings and old and new peat banks, but there were no settlements until we neared Stornoway. The general feeling of the group was that it would be very unfortunate if the mini bus had broken down on this desolate wilderness! Fortunaely, we made it back in one piece!


The weather forecast for the last full day of my Hebridean adventure wasn’t promising and most of the group certainly didn’t fancy a long walk trudging through heavy rain. So our Guide had a proposal for us. Although he was English – from the flat lands around Peterboropugh – he had married a local woman and lived on a croft in a small, remote village in the South Lochs area on the east coast of Lewis. He suggested we drove over there and he’d take us on a shorter walk and show us around the area. This seemed like a good way to learn about the real way of life in a crofting community so we enthusiastically agreed!

Marbhig (Marvig in English) is on the coast and is one of 11 crofting villages which are part of the Pairc Estate which is connected to the rest of Lewis by a narrow neck between Loch Seaforth and Loch Èireasort. The villages in the south of the estate were “cleared” in the 19th Century by the then owner of Lewis, by Sir James Matheson, who’s made his fortune selling opium to the Chinese (they’d call him a drug baron these days), so all the inhabited villages are in the north of the huge estate. In more modern times, the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 gave crofting communities the right to buy out their landlords and in 2003 the Pairc community decided that was what they wanted to do. The Landlord, who was an English businessman, resisted the transfer and it took a determined effort by the Pairc Trust that had been set up by the community, including legal action, before they were succesful in 2015. (More detail of their struggle can be read on the Trust’s website). The Estate is now run by the Trust on behalf of the community Pairc which has an active volunteer community which runs a shop, petrol station, museum, hostel, polytunnels, village halls, playpark, cemeteries and grazings.

Although not far from Stornoway “as the crow flies”, we had to take a circuitous route, initially on the Island’s main road which ran along the north shore of Loch Èireasort, before turning down a minor road that ran along the south shore and then taking narrow roads that wound around the rocky landscape to near the village. On the way we stopped off at the shop / petrol station/ museum / cafe / hostel run by the community at Ravenspoint on the shore of the loch. We had a look round the small museum, which has an interesting small local history collection, including extensive information on family history in the Pairc villages, and then bought a few gifts in the shop (“supporting the local community” as Liz, one of our party, liked to put it).

A portable pulpit used in the past by preachers for services in remote communities on this very devout Calvinist island
Exhibits in the museum

Then we carried on towards Marbhig.

We parked up by a small loch just outside the village and then proceeded on foot. John, our guide, gave us a “guided tour” telling us about the history, the crofting way of life and some storied about local personalities – including a certain Rob!

Each of the crofts that make up the village have an allocated strip of land that stretches down to the sea loch. This was so the crofters could subsist by fishing as well as farming the land. Traditionally, crofters raise animals and grow vegetables, while coastal communities supplemented this by fishing and gathering kelp. Today they’re likely to have other sources of income, so John has a joinery business while his wife works for BBC Alba (the Gaelic language service).

The traditional form of heating was by burning peat, and peat cutting is still practiced today. We saw evidence of this during our time on the island- both old, disused peat banks and others that were currently in use with the peats piled up ready to be taken away. However, other fuels are likely to be used today (although still supplemented by burning peat).

There weren’t many boats on the loch – fishing is no doubt much less important for the modern crofters and other residents of the small village. But there is a boat yard on the loch shore which specialises in repair and maintenance of vessels.

The picture below shows John’s croft. Those are his sheep. You can see that the land has ridges and furrows due to the traditional farming method. These are the “lazy beds” (feannagan in Gaelic), also known as ‘ridge and furrow’.

Low trenches were dug with spades at about three foot intervals with the extracted sod and dirt piled in between creating the raised beds. The beds were then enriched with some form of fertiliser depending on the resources at hand e.g. manure, rotted straw, sea weed. This method was well suited to locations lacking warmth, deep soil, and drainage……… The raised beds are drier and therefore warmer than the moist flat ground around them. The beds warm up more quickly in the morning and retain heat longer. At night they protect crops from frost by draining the denser cold air into the ditches and compared to flat fields. According to both researchers and farmers, lazy beds reduce labor time and raise the yield per acre

We walked up across the field towards john’s house to be welcomed by his collie – not much more than a puppy it kept us busy playing “fetch” for a while.

John then invited us into his home, beautifully renovated inside, where we met his wife, born and bred in the village and now working as an Executive Producer for BBC Alba, who treated us to a welcome brew and homemade scones and jam.

We then walked back to the minibus. Driving back along Loch Èireasort I spotted something in the sky. We stopped as it flew over – another White Tailed Eagle.

The weather during the morning hadn’t been as forecast – there was hardly any rain. That all changed as we drove away from Pairc on to our next destination.