Hebridean Hop 5: Stornoway to Scarista

Wednesday 1st August 2018

After three nights in Stornoway we were moving on to the Island of Harris, but as we weren’t due at our accommodation, Scarista House, till 5pm we had most of the day to explore a bit more of Lewis. We detoured from the main road to the South Lochs, a sparsely populated area now but once a network of small communities.

We stopped in Kershadar (Cearsiadair), home to the Ravenspoint Visitor Centre, a wonderful place in a beautiful lochside location with a community shop, self-service café, and small museum in one building, and a hostel next door. Highlight of the museum was this travelling pulpit which was wheeled around the countryside while churches were being built in the 1870s so that the population would never miss a Sunday sermon. Perish the thought!

From here, we drove to the small village of Orinsay (Orasaigh) from where we could walk to one of the abandoned settlements. It was a rough, boggy climb with a sense of complete isolation.

This particular village, Steimreway (Stiomrabhaig), was actually abandoned twice, firstly in the 1850s as part of the Highland Clearances. After the First World War, pressure on land prompted requests to resettle it and permission was granted by the landowners in 1921. However, no roads were ever built and access was only on foot or by boat. Eventually families drifted away, and by the end of the 1940s Stiomrabhaig was deserted again. I can’t imaging living in those conditions, however beautiful the setting.

Back on the main road, we headed for Harris. What makes an island? You’d think it would be surrounded by sea, but the islands of Lewis and Harris inhabit the same landmass and crossing the border is hardly noticeable. However, the terrain quickly changes – North Harris is much more mountainous. In the past this would have been a substantial natural barrier to travel, possibly explaining why it was regarded as a different island.

Scarista House, our destination, is on the west coast of South Harris. Excluding the detour, it seemed a quick journey. 29 years ago we travelled the same route when the entire road was single track with passing places. Now, in many sections but not all, we had the luxury of a lane going in each direction, another big change which we noticed throughout the islands.

We were still very glad to arrive. Although I would not choose a chintzy bedroom myself, there was something very welcoming about this one with its big, fluffy duvets. The food was excellent too (proper dishes for vegetarians which weren’t pasta or risotto), and as a bonus the house had a resident cat, who was quite sweet when she bothered to wake up. (She wasn’t allowed in the room I’ve pictured her in. Did she care? You decide.)

We have never stayed in Harris before – in 1989 we just got the ferry from here to North Uist – so everything about the next few days was new to us. But first we needed a good night’s kip in those comfy beds …

Hebridean Hop 4: Lews Castle

Tuesday 31st July 2018

Lews Castle, Stornoway

Lews Castle was built by Sir James Matheson, a Far East trader who bought the whole island of Lewis in 1844. In 1917 the island was bought by Lord Leverhulme, the soap industrialist, who set about trying to replace the culture of crofting (small-scale farming) with a fishing empire. The crofters weren’t impressed and his plans came to naught – the island was put up for sale again in 1923, and the community was at least able to buy Stornoway and the castle. Since then, the castle has had many uses – from 2016 it has housed a museum on the ground floor and holiday accommodation above.

The forecast was for rain later, but the morning was sunny so we set off for a walk around the grounds – the wooded peninsula showing behind Stornoway Harbour in the first image below – before hitting the museum.

By the time we arrived back at the castle it was raining – and definitely time for lunch. We’d had morning coffee in the small café in the grounds, but it was now packed so we headed back towards town to Kopi Java which was recommended in our guidebook. Run by a local couple (she comes from Lewis, he comes from Indonesia) it provides excellent food and illustrates how much Stornoway has changed since our last visit 29 years before. Then, we remember queuing at a counter for “coffee” which was poured from a large metal tea-pot with the enquiry “Sugar?” Had we not said no quickly, sugar would have been poured in for us. Gourmet it was not!

Back in the castle, we were extremely impressed with the museum. Centre stage were six Lewis Chessmen, part of a 12th century set which was found nearby but now belongs to the British Museum which has kindly (?) loaned some of the pieces back. In the morning, we’d passed some large wooden models in the grounds and had a bit of fun with them. Spot the difference!

The castle also has an excellent café, and after more fortification we looked at the public areas on the rest of the ground floor. I don’t know what the apartments above are like, but I suspect they will be very grand. Next visit maybe …

This was our last day in Stornoway – the following morning, we set of for Harris, an island that we didn’t need a ferry to access, or even a causeway. How could this be?

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.

Hebridean Hop 2: Ullapool to Stornoway

Sunday 29th July 2018

Ullapool

I woke up at 4am to the sound of torrential rain and howling gales. No ferry would run in this and, sure enough, by 7am the CalMac app was filled with doom. The 8am ferry would not leave Stornoway in Lewis until at least 10, so the 11:30 return leg on which we were booked would be severely delayed.

Strangely, it turned into a beautiful morning in Ullapool, albeit with a stiff breeze as the horizontal bunting in the picture above attests. However, no such luck in Stornoway where the ferry’s departure got later and later. We spent our time revisiting the Ceilidh Place for coffee, shopping for waterproof trousers – essential items which we realised we’d left at home – and generally enjoying the pretty views.

Eventually, the ferry left Stornoway at 12 noon and, it seemed, everyone in Ullapool turned out to greet its arrival at 14:30. By 15:30 we were onboard and on our way, arriving in Lewis at 6pm, a mere four hours late.

Lewis is a Sabbatarian island and in the past it would not have been possible to arrive on a Sunday because no ferries ran. This has now changed, but most restaurants still close on Sundays, including the one in our hotel. I’d taken the precaution of advance-booking somewhere that was open, about twenty minutes walk away. First, we watched our ferry depart for Ullapool again, then we wandered off to dinner admiring various pieces of sculpture and street art on the way there and back.

And so to bed, hopefully to sleep better than I had the night before.

Hebridean Hop 1: Glasgow to Ullapool

Saturday 28th July 2018

Morefield Motel, Ullapool

So when did Scotland’s beautiful summer weather decide to break? The night before we went on holiday of course! Thunder, lightening and torrential rain – I was quite worried about flooding on the car journey ahead of us. In the end, it wasn’t too bad – stormy in parts, but we survived. Our destination was Ullapool on the northwest coast from where we would catch a ferry the following day to Stornoway on the island of Lewis.

Because we were there for such a short time, we booked a simple motel room. We arrived, had a cup of tea and set off for dinner in the beautiful Ceilidh Place.

The evening stayed dry, but when we came out of the restaurant the wind was gusting, as predicted by the weather forecast. The app for CalMac ferries warned of possible delays and disruption. Would we even get to Stornoway the next day? Read on to find out!