It was disappointing to have missed Barra and Uist completely, so I was very frustrated that we have had 6 days in Harris and Lewis, but I still don’t think that I have a real feel for them. I had a mental image of white sands and rugged vistas covered in standing stones and prehistoric remains – but haven’t seen any of this.
After a long time spent in the Tourist Information Office I found that public transport is not organised around tourists, so the only practical thing to do was hire a car. I’m so gad we did. It was an exhausting day and we covered 146 miles – quite astonishing on a small island that only has two main roads – but we saw a lot. We also realised why there is so little public transport – the interior of Lewis is just vast plains of rather bleak undulating peat moorland, interrupted by electricity pylons, a few scattered communities and very little else. Having a car to travel around for work, shopping, etc. must be essential.
We started by driving north to the Butt of Lewis and Port of Ness. This area is really bleak and wind-swept. It’s fairly flat, and nothing grows except low scrub. Many of the houses seem to be empty, and even the ones still inhabited are covered in grey/brown pebble dash or stained render which just adds to the drab atmosphere. There are no shops, the harbour looked abandoned, and the only cafe didn’t open on a Monday – so you just wonder what people do all day – although there are so many churches that you know where they go on a Sunday! We were just turning away, when a local artist, Anthony Barber, opened his studio. He was so friendly that we cheered up and looked a bit more kindly on the area!
The scenery gets slightly better as you go south, but it still feels fairly hostile. For hundreds of years most people on Lewis had a hard crofting lifestyle and lived in long low stone houses called “blackhouses” with their animals. Some of these were inhabited right up to the 1960s, and we visited one that has been preserved in its original form at a place called Arnol.
Then on to the Callanish Standing Stones.They are an extraordinary cross-shaped setting of stones erected around 5,000 years ago. They predate Stonehenge and are thought to have been an important spiritual place for at least 2,000 years – especially as there are the remains of many other stone circles in the area.
Then to the island of Bernera where a iron age settlement was discovered in 1993 after severe gales revealed the remains. The settlement is now re-buried in the sand so to help visitors to the site picture what it was like there is a reconstructed iron age house – complete with a very smoky peat fire – and an enthusiastic lady to show us round.
Then to the Uig area, the coastline of which has some enormous beaches. They are particularly known because of the discovery there in 1831 of 12th Century Viking chess pieces, carved out of walrus teeth.
What a day! The rain held off until we got back to the boat. Where we collapsed. Driving is much more exhausting than sailing!