Early July 2007– Harris and Lewis
The second week of July is dominated by both the Maritime and Celtic Festivals in Stornoway (capital of the Outer Hebrides, which is on the Isle of Lewis). However we started off with a few days in Scalpay in East Loch Tarbet after crossing from Dunvegan on the Isle of Skye. Scalpay is a small island now connected to mainland Harris by a tall bridge which was opened in 1997, and must make life much easier for the islanders. The North Harbour on Scalpay is very well sheltered and popular with local fishing boats which tie up to the pier leaving plenty of space for several yachts to lie at anchor. The harbour is also a haven for sea birds, surprisingly so given that most of the other bays in East Loch Tarbet are bereft of them. Most mornings we were awoken in the early hours by frenetic activity under the boat. It appears that at a certain point in the tide shoals of sand eels entered the harbour and were mobbed by the resident razor bills (left)and herring gulls. The sand eels then took shelter under one of the anchored yachts but the sea birds just dived for the eels around the boat, knocking on the hull in the process with with lots of splashing and banging. The gulls were even coming up with blue patches on their white heads where they had been in contact with our antifouling!
For the duration of the Stornoway festivals we opted to spend ten days anchored off the village of Ranish in Loch Grimshader rather than join the other yachts rafted up to the town quay - Stornoway (below) is still a very active fishing port and there is not much space available for visiting yachts. Also the town was going to be very noisy with the main festival stage in a marquee just opposite the berthing area. We were therefore very happy to be in a quiet loch a few miles away with a frequent bus service into town.
Having the Maritime and Celtic Festivals simultaneously meant there was lots to see and do as well as go walking and visiting across the rest of Lewis. We particularly enjoyed the afternoon of fish cooking, basket making and music - all inside the fish market building. It was well thought out because both the cooking and basket making had long periods between key activities where nothing much was happening. The chef started off with simple chowder, then while that was heating up, we were introduced to basket making. Once she had got her basket started it was over to a group of folk musicians before going back to sample the chowder, and start on herring in oatmeal. The cooks dishes were very quick to cook, but he only had one pan to cope with a large pile of herring fillets, so he just kept on cooking it and serving it out while we had an update on the basket progress and some more music. This alternating continued until the finale of monkfish kebabs cooked on a gas barbeque, all delicious - we didn't need much dinner after all the freebies!.
While on Lewis, we invited friends Donald and Wilma for a day out. Donald worked in the same office as Judith at Airbus last winter and has recently taken up sailing. He was born on Lewis and was brought up in the village of Tolsta which is north of Stornoway and they were up visiting his mother. For once the wind was a favourable north westerly, and gave us a pleasant sail in to and from the Shiant Islands. The Shiant Islands are uninhabited except by sea birds. We ate our lunch anchored in the sheltered bay east of the largest island where the water and air was full of sea birds and great to watch.
The islands of Lewis and Harris (which are joined and not really islands in their own right) have a great bus service which gave us several opportunities to explore further afield. The bus was a good way to see the 'islands' as well as enjoying our intended destination. Over the ten days we were anchored off Ranish, we got to see virtually the whole of Lewis. Tourism is not as nearly so important as in other areas of the Highlands and Islands. Fishing, crofting and Harris Tweed are the main industries. Harris Tweed, despite its name is really now centred on Lewis. It was quite fun traveling around looking at all the crofts - Lewis has the highest density of vintage tractors we have seen! - virtually every croft has an old tractor. The west side of Lewis has superb beaches, long strands of unspoilt sand which because of their Atlantic rollers are popular with surfers (who wear thick wet suits to protect themselves from the cold!).
One day we did a tour of the west side of Lewis, starting with the Callanish stones. These are described as the "Stonehenge of the North" and to quote the guide book "are one of the most spectacular megalithic monuments in the world, a stone circle in the form of a huge Celtic Cross built over four thousand years ago." There are 13 stones from 8ft to 13ft high forming a ring, with the tallest stone of 16ft in the centre. There are short rows of additional stones to the west, south and east, and then a long avenue of stones to the north (below). It is thought the site is to celebrate the winter moon rise, where once every 18+ years it skims across the southern horizon and sets amongst the stones. It should be an unforgettable experience, but for our visit the atmosphere was muted by a coach party doing a whistle stop tour and all the people wanting their photos taken by the tallest central stone and ignoring the signs to please keep to the perimeter. To cap it all the coach park is exactly at the end of the longest row of stones, so spoils any view of the stones (unless you like 'Golden Tours' coaches). We left on the next bus. Perhaps we'll return another year, but anchor on the nearby so we can row ashore in the evening and enjoy this special site in the peace and quiet it deserves.
Our next stop was Gearrannan Blackhouse Village. The blackhouses are built in the 19th Century with a double thickness dry stone wall with earth between, with the thatched roof finishing at the inner wall. The village was populated until the 1970's when the last elderly inhabitants were moved out into nearby council accommodation. After several years of decay the site has been renovated, and as well as a museum and cafe, includes self catering cottages and a youth hostel. It was very atmospheric with the smell of peat fires hanging over the valley. Though perhaps a self catering cottage in the middle of a busy tourist attraction is not the ideal location for a 'getaway from it all' holiday!
Stornoway itself had many attractions too. The excellent Hebridean Brewery is based there and all its beers are readily available - though they are cheaper from Somerfield in town than in the brewery shop! The Celtic Black Ale was especially good. A retired English teacher from the local school who was spent virtually all her life in Stornoway was giving 3 hour guided history walks of the town - there wasn't much she didn't know.
The Point Agricultural Show held at Aird School on the Eye Peninsular just outside Stornoway was a good afternoons entertainment. The locals certainly took their sheep and cattle competition very seriously (there is a certain spot where no matter how hard they try a cow cannot get to remove their entry sticker - see right). The dog show was more relaxed, one lady got chatting to a friend while in the ring and got left there alone after one class to find she was the only entry for the 'veterans (dogs over 6 years old)' class - needless to say her Yorkie won!
As well as some big bands playing in the main festival hall, there were plenty of traditional music sessions in the pubs and local art centre as well as street entertainment. One street theatre group held large crowds every time they performed. Their acrobatic displays were daring and faultless but their side kick 'The Great Balloono' was hysterical. He performed with a range of balloons in a mock mime act that included a sequence in a giant orange one. At one stage he climbed inside it and bounced around to various tunes much to the amusement of the audience. Hopefully not too many of the local kids will be trying to repeat his antics at home.
Sundays, as the Sabbath, are still sacred on Lewis, all the shops are closed as are most pubs/hotels and there is no ferry or bus service either. We kept a low profile on the boat during the two Sundays were were anchored off Ranish (one of them it was raining hard and the other there was no wind! - it is today (15th July) and we plan to sail back south to East Loch Tarbet tomorrow, no point motoring when there is a good north easterly forecast).
Over the next few weeks we plan to move south through Harris and onto the Uists and Benbecula.