June 2010, North Uist, Harris and Lewis.
From Eriskay, with the wind from the south west, Innisfree gave us a fast and furious sail north to Lochmaddy on North Uist. Here there are several visitors moorings tucked in behind the CalMac ferry pier providing a safe and secure refuge. Typically after a couple of days the wind turned northerly enforcing a longer stop than we had initially intended. Thankfully, however, there is plenty to do on North Uist and there is a regular bus service to get about the island.
One of our bus excusions was to Berneray, a small island connected by a causeway to the northern tip of North Uist. Compared to the other Outer Hebrides islands, It appeared to us to be a little more affluent. There are certainly many restored blackhouses (the traditional single storey dry stone walled and turf roofed houses), even the Youth Hostel is a cluster of them. However, as the one pictured shows, there are still some in need of some TLC, but as it is the last in a row of restored similar houses, all with a fantastic view of white sand and blue sea, it is likely to be renovated soon.
Berneray is quite small, the perfect size for a days walk around the coast. After climbing a small hill to the north of the island with fine views across the Sound to Harris, we descended to the west beach. This is several miles of sparklingly beautiful clean white sands. Above the high water line the sand is very fine and secured by high dunes. Closer to the water it is firm and easy walking. The sea is shallow and when the sun is shining turns a glorious turquoise blue reflecting the white sands beneath. It is a favourite spot for kayaks and we watched several playing in the surf before paddling off to other nearby islands. The Outer Hebrides are a feast of archeological sites, and a haven for wildlife. Occasionally they combine and this Oystercatcher found the Berneray standing stone an ideal perch for angry piping to warn us away
After a week in Lochmaddy, enjoying various walks and even a days bicycle hire, we moved north first to Scalpay and then on towards Stornoway. Our stay in Scalpay was short and really only to shelter from some wet and windy weather. For our stay in Lewis we returned to the quiet anchorage in Loch Grimshader where we had stopped during the Celtic Festival in 2007. We had thought to go to the pontoons in Stornoway but a call ahead to the Harbour Master determined that they were full. Grimshader is in someways a better location because it is quiet, sheltered and costs nothing.
There are 10 buses a day to Stornoway, from the nearby village of Ranish, so the convenience of the pontoons is not really missed. However, we decides to hire a car for a few days as Lewis/Harris is quite large and with a car we were able more easily to get the laundry done in Stornoway, replace an empty gas bottle and replenish the ice in the cool box.
The standing stone sites in the southern islands of the Outer Hebrides are impressive in themselves but are eclipsed by the Callanish Stones in Lewis. 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." 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.
When we were in Lewis in 2007 we visited the stones and were disappointed because the atmosphere was diminished by a coach party of hurried tourists. This year, as we had a hire car, we decided to get to the stones early in the morning, and the difference was amazing. At 8am we were not the first, but the other couple quickly left and we had the place to ourselves for 20 minutes before more people arrived. Nobody really knows the full purpose of the stone circles. They are certainly magically places to be at sunrise and sunset and sure enough there were a few campers in their tents in an adjacent field. Seeing the moon rise in mid winter must be something else.
Within a few miles are more stone circles, stone rows and single standing stones forming the Callanish complex. We visited three other circles (Callanish II, III, & VIII see more pictures) each of which in themselves would be crowd pullers if they were not dwarfed by the main site (Callanish I).
A few miles further north of Callanish is the Carloway Broch, the best preserved Broch in the Western Isles. Brochs are Iron Age towers. The skin is a double thickness dry stone wall with the cavity spanned by wide stones. These stones allow the walls to support each other making it possible to build a much taller structure than otherwise. The spanning stones are arranged in a spiral forming a stair, albeit with large gaps between each step so a head for heights would have been needed. Apparently they were built to reflect the prestige and status of their owners, and were primarily dwelling-places. But the high walls would have provided some defense against the occasional raiders. The Carloway Broch is on a rocky outcrop overlooking a small loch, and is partly ruined making it very picturesque.
While we had the hire car there was a chance to visit some more remote areas of the islands that are difficult to reach by bus. Most places have a bus service, but some only one service a day, so as soon as you arrive you have to leave by the same bus. One such place is Uig in the south western corner of Lewis. It was here that the Lewis Chessmen were found in 1831. They are carved in walrus ivory and are thought to come from Scandinavia in around 1050. We had seen some of the originals in the British Museum in London during a visit there in 2009, so were interested to learn more. Unfortunately for us the local heritage centre was not open, it only opens Monday-Friday afternoons and we were there on a Saturday! This was a double whammy because it is reputed to have excellent homemade cakes in the tea shop. We had to make do with the 8ft tall wooden replica in the car park, and our sandwiches at the picnic bench.
The Western Isles still support some crofting, with long narrow fields stretching from the houses to the shore. These are mostly for sheep, or growing hay or cereal crops. We did come across a friendly bunch of pigs, though it is probably food they were hopefully expecting rather than pure inquisitiveness, or Judith's chatter.
Occasionally as we drove along there were signs to Harris Tweed workshops. Many of these are hidden away, but some encourage visitors. The wool for Harris Tweed must be grown in the Outer Hebrides. It is then spun and dyed in one of the Lewis mills. To achieve the Harris Tweed mark it must be woven by the islanders on hand powered looms. These looms are a fascinating bit of engineering and great fun to watch. They clatter along at seemingly great speed being able to weave about 3 metres (10 feet) of cloth an hour. However it is not entirely monotonous as the bobbins need to be frequently changed/rewound, and the woolen threads often break requiring running repairs. The pattern is automatically controlled by a chain of metal links acting like a continuous punch tape, and coordinating the turn of the bobbin drum and so which coloured bobbin to send across. Simple but effective.
Some of the weavers sell their tweed directly from their weaving sheds, but the widest choice can be found in the warehouse in Tarbert (Harris). This was Judith's heaven: tweed piled floor to ceiling down both sides of the building - a rather expensive experience!
The only thing we are waiting for now is a decent wind to take across to the Scottish mainland, and hopefully around Cape Wrath. At present the forecast is for practically no wind for all of the next week, so more exploring of Lewis will be the order of the day.