Hebridean Hop 3: Callanish and beyond

Monday 30th July 2018

Iolaire Memorial, Stornoway

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.

63 thoughts on “Hebridean Hop 3: Callanish and beyond

  1. Jessica (Diverting Journeys) September 12, 2018 / 15:32

    I’ve never heard of the Iolaire, but how terribly sad. It is sort of similar to the Sultana disaster, when a steamboat filled with Union soldiers who had just been released from Confederate prison camps after the American Civil War, exploded, killing over a thousand people. How awful to survive a war, and be so close to returning home, only to die in a disaster like that; especially for the loved ones eagerly awaiting their return.


  2. maristravels September 11, 2018 / 20:18

    Have you thought of doing some research on the HMY Iolaire tragedy? It sounds as though that would make a great subject if you can get hold of the documents from the Army Museum or Kew (I’m presuming that’s where they are but you may have the Scottish ones in your own country). There can’t be much more of the islands for you to see, but I hope that’s not the case as your reports back are fascinating. Thanks for giving so much pleasure.


    • Anabel @ The Glasgow Gallivanter September 11, 2018 / 20:38

      I think the Iolaire has been quite well documented already. As for the islands – be careful what you wish for! There’s a LOT more to come. You might be fed up with them by the end 😉


  3. restlessjo September 11, 2018 / 20:03

    Eunice mentioned Mum being ill, but I didn’t see anything in this post, Anabel? Hope all’s well.


    • Anabel @ The Glasgow Gallivanter September 11, 2018 / 20:35

      Thanks for your concern, Jo – I think it was a carry over conversation from Eunice’s blog. Mum had a bad fall at the weekend so I’m looking after her at the moment. A night in hospital and now lots of follow up appointments. Nothing too serious, fortunately, it could have been a lot worse.


  4. Eunice September 11, 2018 / 18:24

    A very interesting and fascinating place, I’d love to see the blackhouses and that derelict cottage looks quite sweet. I’m sorry to hear about your mum, I hope she gets better soon 🙂


  5. Ann Coleman September 11, 2018 / 17:03

    What a fascinating bit of history! I would love to see the inside of those houses, too. You are lucky to live so close to so many great historical sites, and I appreciate you sharing them with us through your blog.
    As for getting to know fellow travelers: we’ve had the same experience! By the end of the trip, or even just the day, they feel like old friends. It’s one of the nice benefits of being a tourist, I think.


    • Anabel @ The Glasgow Gallivanter September 11, 2018 / 17:27

      It is indeed. The islands are so small, some of them, with so few roads that it’s difficult to avoid following the same route.


  6. Ryan Biddulph September 11, 2018 / 01:05

    Way cool post! I had never heard of Callanish Anabel. So neat to know these stones are about as old as it gets compared to similar formations. Love finding gems like this. Fabulous blog 🙂



  7. Jemima Pett September 10, 2018 / 21:22

    The cottages I go to on Mull (Haunn – https://tresnish.co.uk/cottages/ ) are blackhouses. I could easily live in the two bedroom one. Not sure about the one bedroom ones as a way of life, but it’s only because I would have to get rid of most of my books.


  8. Kev September 10, 2018 / 19:56

    A great adventure so far. Callanish looks amazing. Very close to making travel plans reading this!


  9. Yeah, Another Blogger September 10, 2018 / 19:37

    Beautiful and fascinating. I had no idea that ancient stone placements are on Lewis.


  10. Suzanne et Pierre September 10, 2018 / 18:22

    Lovely photos and nice tour. I had to smile on the fact that you were meeting the same people throughout the day. We had that same experience in New Zealand where we kept running into the same couple with whom we eventually had a long conversation. I think it is still a sign that there isn’t that many tourists as you can recognize those that are around…


    • Anabel @ The Glasgow Gallivanter September 10, 2018 / 19:26

      It happened several times! We didn’t see many of the ferry people after the first day as we all dispersed but we made new friends later.


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