Monday, May 25, 2015

The Isles of Harris and Lewis: Natural Beauty and Antiquities

The attraction of the Outer Hebridean islands of Harris and Lewis rests in the natural beauty of the landscape and a multitude of ancient and historic sites.  
Loading the ferry from Uig to Tarbert.
We traveled by ferry from Uig on the Isle of Skye to the main town on Harris, Tarbert.  It was rough crossing the Little Minch, an area of wild and changing currents, in winds up to 35 miles per hour, 
Rough seas and the lighthouse near Tarbert.
but not as rough as the crossing a few years ago over to the Orkney islands.
The small village of Tarbert on Isle of Harris.
While we expected to be awed with the ancient stone circles at Callanish, we had not expected the show nature puts on in the islands. First, we found [Well, others had seen it before, obviously, but it was a discovery for us.] a series of cascades or small waterfalls on a river on Lewis.  

Right along the side of the road we stopped to photograph the picturesque river and falls.  Next, we were surprised by the beaches of Harris and Lewis.  Anne and I live in Oregon only an hour away from the Pacific Ocean, we had lived for four years in Brookings on the Southern Oregon coast, and we’d seen the beaches of southern California and Hawaii.  We didn’t expect to be too impressed by the island beaches even though people had said they would be quite an attraction.  

Two beaches on Harris.

Surf was high on this windy day on Harris.
People were correct: the beaches of Harris and Lewis are big, spectacular, and empty.  With a warmer climate these beaches would create a tourist industry on their own.  As it is, the beauty is there for those intrepid travelers willing to drive for hours on small roads, make a lively sea crossing, and drive again for hours on even smaller roads. 
Uig Sands

Two photos of the Bosta Beach on Great Bernera island (Lewis).
At one beach, Uig Sands, we stopped for a look, then drove several miles to another beach lookout.  We got out of the car thinking we were seeing new sands only to discover we were now in the middle of the same beach.  Absolutely huge and almost empty!
Butt of Lewis Lighthouse.
Our next adventure took us to my main reason for venturing onto the Outer Hebrides, 
Callanish Stone Circle from Callanish II, about a mile away. 

the Neolithic or Early Bronze Age Callanish Standing Stones and Stone Circle on Lewis.  
Callanish I

The stones, Tursachan Chalanais in Gaelic, are a set of standing stones in a cruciform pattern with a central stone circle of thirteen stones with a monolith (five meters tall) near the center.  

The chambered tomb at Callanish I.

This circle has a diameter of about twelve meters with a chambered tomb in the middle.  Five rows of standing stones connect to this circle and two of the rows run parallel north to northeast forming an “avenue” of nineteen stones.  
Looking at the circle down the "avenue."
The circle dates back to between 2900 and 2600 BC, with shards of Beaker pottery dating the tomb to about 2000 BC.  No one knows for certain the purpose of the Callanish stones, but a widely suggested purpose is that the circle and rows form a lunar observatory.  Most researchers agree that whatever else Callanish was used for, it certainly had ritualistic or gathering purposes.  
The light begins to change as we get nearer to sunset.

To see the stones on a pleasant day was awe inspiring, but we returned to the circle at sunset.  That visit was even more magical.  We had had to fight crowds during the day (including two bus loads of tourists), 
The sun is ready to drop behind the hills surrounding Callanish.
but in the evening there were only six of us who braved the near freezing temperatures and chilling winds to watch the setting sun light up the stones and then disappear slowly behind the mountains and the stones.   
Besides the main stone circle of Callanish, called Callanish I, we saw three other large stone circles (II, III, and IV) 
Ceann Hulavaig stone circle, also known as Callanish IV.

all visible from the main stone set, as well as a small set of standing stones 
Three stones and the Bridge Over the Atlantic.

near the Bridge Over the Atlantic to the Great Bernera Island, and the largest standing stone in Scotland 

(Clach an Truiseil) at over 22 feet tall.
From Callanish it was a short drive to dun Carloway, a broch built between 100 BC and 100 AD.  

Approaching the broth

Brochs are unique to Scotland and are Iron Age dry-stone hollow-walled structures used either as fortifications or simply wealthy family homes.  Dun Carloway is fairly well preserved and now has walls reaching nine meters tall with an external dimension of 14 meters and an inner courtyard of about seven meters—that means the walls are almost three meters thick.  
The broch's inner passage.

The courtyard of Dun Carloway.
I could climb into the broch through a narrow passage and have views down to the courtyard.  We’ve seen other brochs in Scotland, but this was the most complete we’ve seen.
  The village of Gearrannan on Lewis is a Blackhouse village that was occupied until 1975.  Blackhouses are stone crofts with double wall dry-stone walls with thatched roofs.  Floors were generally flagstone or packed earth.  

Originally each house had a central hearth for fire (heating and cooking), but no chimney for smoke—instead, smoke just made it way out through the thatched roof.  Modernized Blockhouses now come with real fireplaces and chimneys.  At one end of the house was accommodation for animals including sheep and chickens.  

A friend of John Clifford’s (our B&B host), John Angus, was actually born in one of the Blackhouses in this village.  We’ve met John Angus several times at Merlindale B&B, and now we’ve seen where he was born.  Today, the village is in the care of a trust and includes seven or eight complete Blackhouses, a few in ruin, a museum, and a tearoom (good egg mayo sandwich).  
Cut peat--the fuel supply used in the Blackhouses.
The name Blackhouse may mean “inferior” as opposed to the upper class “white houses.”
We’ve only scratched the surface of what the Isles of Harris and Lewis have to offer in the way of natural beauty spots as well as ancient archeological or historical sites.  The ferry ride back to Uig on the Isle of Skye was even rougher than the trip over had been—winds this time were over 40 mph.  Both of us though, only slightly green around the gills, were firm on one thing: we’ll get back to Isles a Harris and Lewis and we’ll get to some of the other Outer Hebrides on future trips.

Our trip is at an end.  We leave in a couple of days for home.  The next post on the blog will come when we've gotten rid of jet lag.  


Saturday, May 16, 2015

Isles of Harris & Lewis: The Outer Hebrides, Part One

The Isles of Harris and Lewis

     Two of the main islands in Scotland's Outer Hebrides are the Isles of Harris and Lewis, which in reality are/is but one island that is just called two.  I know it is a bit confusing, but there are some geological  and cultural differences between the south part of the island (the Harris part) and the north (the Lewis part).
     Anne and I spent four nights on the island(s)--one on Harris in the main town of Tarbert and then three on Lewis thirty-seven miles away in the largest town of Stornaway.  On both sides of the island there are fantastic sights to see (which I'll save for Part Two), but first I want to detail some of the small interesting things we found on Harris and Lewis.  Again, I'll let the photos do the talking:

The sabbatarian rule still has a strong affect on Harris and Lewis.  In fact, up until about five years ago the ferries from the mainland didn't run to Harris and Lewis on a Sunday--no way on or off the island.  And while there is still no fishing on Sunday, they do provide very interesting church services at the "New Wine Church."

And then around the corner came a missed opportunity.  I was getting ready to take a picture of a local pub, but before I could get the camera out of my pocket a priest came out of the pub with his collar askew and staggered down the street. Anyway, the pub is interesting.

While wandering though the town of Stornaway one evening I was taking pictures of old rundown buildings when a local asked me about my picture taking.  When I explained that I liked the looks of abandoned structures, he said, "Follow me."  He then led us to an abandoned girls' school which he described as the "town's eye sore."  He and I saw a different building--he saw the large ruin and I saw lovely detail.

It was not just in town that I found interesting ruins.  This old croft on Lewis has a magnificent view but there is nobody to enjoy it.

To get to the various sites we visited we had to travel some of the smallest single track roads we've driven in Scotland.  The picture below is of a road wide enough for a small car.  Now imagine this road with hairpin turns every hundred feet or so and blind summits on every other hill.  This is called "The Golden Road" on Lewis.  I couldn't get an actual picture of the scariest part of the road because I was too busy clutching the steering wheel with every ounce of strength I had.

Now, put sheep in the middle of the road every quarter of a mile or so and you have an idea of what driving on Harris and Lewis is like.

 When you reach the end of the road you arrive at the "Bridge to No Where."  It is a real bridge built on a road on the east side of Lewis from Stornaway north.  After the bridge the road just stops!  There's enough room to turn around, but the bridge simply goes no where.

 Here's Anne....going no where.

We really did go somewhere while on Harris.  I played the lovely 9-hole Isle of Harris Golf Course, a links course set along the sea.

The clubhouse is dug into the side of a hill so it's mostly out of the continuous wind.  The course plays over and around the links hills.

Here (photo below) I am chipping onto the green at one hole--the flag is down on the green, as were eight of the nine flags, because in the 25-30 mile an hour breeze (the locals don't call it a wind until it reaches 60 mph) blows them out of the holes.

The view from the course is a major hazard--distractingly gorgeous!

The locals we met, aside from one jerk driver, were all friendly, although I didn't get too friendly with the local Hairy Coos.

The people in the North Harbour Bistro & Tearoom on Scalpay Island, Harris, were quite friendly.  The exterior might not look like much, but past the small grocery section was a lovely, quaint tearoom that served up one of the best seafood chowders we've had anywhere.

In another pub in Stornoway another night we stayed after our dinner to listen to a session of local amateur and professional musicians playing celtic folk songs.  One girl sang in Gaelic, a form of music called "mouth music."

 Finally, we saw this couple on the highway or wee road (we'd call it about the size of a driveway at home).  They were making a point, though.  A sign to the side said, "Vote for Us."  UK politics are so much more entertaining than ours.

These examples may all be small, but they all represented the joys we found on the Isles of Harris and Lewis, whether called one island or two.  The next post will soon follow and it will detail some of the big, and I do mean BIG, sites we saw on our trip north.