Hebridean Hop 3: Callanish and beyond
Monday 30th July 2018
Our day began close to our hotel at a memorial to those who died on HMY Iolaire, a terrible tragedy which hit the island of Lewis just after the close of World War 1. Over 200 returning soldiers drowned on New Year’s Day 1919 when the yacht hit rocks just a mile from Stornoway Harbour. Each stone on the monument signifies a township which lost someone, a very sad representation.
From Stornoway, we made a circular tour taking in some of the main archeological sites of the island. The most famous of all is Callanish (Calanais) where the standing stones are believed to be older than both Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Giza. We last visited as part of an earlier island-hopping holiday in 1989 (then and now pictures below).
What has changed? I don’t remember a Visitor Centre in 1989 – this year, the first thing we did was have coffee in the Visitor Centre Café. Like our visit to Orkney and Shetland a few years ago, in that case after a gap of 20 years, tourist infrastructure has come on in leaps and bounds in the intervening decades.
There are far more tourists (though it might not always look it from the photographs) but it’s still possible to see the same people all the time. In Callanish, we recognised several groups who had been on the same ferry. A Swiss couple took the table next to us at coffee. When we had lunch at another site later, they took the table behind us, and when we had dinner at night they were already in the restaurant. This type of thing happened again and again, to the extent that we greeted some people with a cheery hello as if they were long-lost friends!
A short circular walk took us to two lesser stone circles (above), Callanish II and Callanish III, before we headed off to our next stop, Geàrrannan Blackhouse Village. I believe the correct term in estate agent language for the house in the background of Callanish II is “potential”.
Blackhouses were the most common living quarters for islanders right into the 20th century. Made of stone, turf and straw thatch, one end was for people and the other end for cattle. Nine houses have been restored at Geàrrannan, some providing (much modernised) holiday accommodation and the rest the museum and its facilities (where we had our excellent lunch).
The interior above shows how the houses would have looked in the 1950s or 60s – by the 1970s, only a few ageing residents were left and in 1974 they moved to new council houses nearby. As the Trust which took over the deteriorating buildings wasn’t formed until 1989, this was a new museum for us.
After lunch, we backtracked slightly to Dun Carloway, one of the best preserved Iron Age forts in Scotland.
We then stopped at a restored Norse Mill in Dalbeg, before visiting another blackhouse museum at Arnol. This we remembered from 1989, and wondered how its visitor numbers had since been affected by the more extensive Geàrrannan.
It might seem shocking that people lived in blackhouses until the mid-late 20th century. In 1989, it must have been unusual as we have made a point of snapping this one which is obviously still occupied because it has smoke coming out of the chimney. However things come full circle, and on our travels this year we spotted many which had been restored extensively, like the holiday cottages at Geàrrannan, some of which seemed to be private dwellings. I’d love to see inside – they must be cosy with such thick walls, but I’m not sure I’d like to live in one permanently.
From Arnol, we drove back to our hotel in Stornoway. We had one more day on Lewis to come.