Lewis and Harris: Home of the Chessmen

Sometimes, I astound myself with my own ignorance. It turns out that Lewis and Harris are, in fact, one island – not two as I had supposed……

Overview: 6 days, 258 miles

We arrived in Tarbert on Monday afternoon after a smooth crossing from Uig on the Isle of Skye. South Harris is the area to the south of Tarbert, North Harris covers approximately the same area to the north of Tarbert, and above that it’s all the Isle of Lewis.

We’ve been using SearchForSites to find places to park up overnight. Monday night’s stop turned out to be the best, a sheltered little parking area cut into the hillside overlooking Loch Seaforth and the small settlement of Maraig:

After a quiet night, it was time to drive north and explore Lewis’ main sights.

First stop was Calanais, which is famous for its stone circle. This is another of those areas where people back in neolithic times seem to have got carried away with the whole stone circle thing: there are at least twelve stone circles within 5km of the main one at Calanais. This is the famous Calanais stone circle:

Calanais II and Calanais III are both within sight:

The only thing that’s been consistent about the weather during our stay on Lewis and Harris is that it’s been constantly changing! Tuesday morning was really windy, which made for an interesting walk round the stone circles!

A short distance away, we stopped at a sign for Achmore stone circle….. This stone circle was only discovered in 1981 during peat cutting. Who knows how many other structures are hidden in the peat that’s built up since neolithic times? The circle would’ve been 41 metres across and consisted of 22 standing stones, of which only two are still upright. We could make out one of them (just below the horizon, centre-left in the photo)…. Yes, you really have to be an archaeologist to love this one…..

The north-west coast of Lewis is packed with things to look at. A bit further along the road, we came to the Carloway Broch. This is very similar to the Broch of Gurness, which we visited last month on Orkney (old post here): an iron age fortified dwelling.

The little information hut was firmly shut and there were no information boards outside. From the half of the broch that’s still standing, it was very easy to see the double walled structure, and they’ve left some stone steps and storage niches in the area between the walls. The whole thing did look suspiciously solid to me: I wonder how much of it has been reconstructed?

Next stop: the Gearrannan Blackhouse Village (£3.60 each to visit):

The thing that surprised me about the blackhouse village is that it’s nowhere near as old as you might assume, dating back only to the very late 19th century (sometime in the years following the 1886 Crofters Act, which finally gave crofters some security of tenure).

The village didn’t get mains electricity until the 1950s or piped water until the 1960s. The last residents moved from the blackhouse village to newly constructed council houses nearby in 1974. Nowadays, visitors can look in two houses, one presented as a house and the other as a museum with wall displays and a film. Another house is run as a hostel and the others are now holiday cottages.

Our next stop was the Norse Mill, which the leaflet from the tourist office describes as a “renovated pair of buildings used in past times to process barley grain into meal”. It also tells us that the buildings “give a very rare glimpse into the Scandinavian past of Lewis”.

There’s a very posh path leading to the site but no information at all when you get there. How old is it? When was it last used as a mill? When was it renovated? Make of it what you will!

After a busy day, we spent Tuesday night on a small car park at Shabost Beach South, not far from the Norse Mill, then continued on Wednesday up to the Butt of Lewis at the very northern tip of the island.

We made use of the motorhome service point at the nearby Sporsnis community centre, then drove towards Stornoway, the main town on Lewis and Harris.

The landscape of the centre of Lewis is pretty much open moorland:

We saw a pair of golden eagles on the way, but the photos are even worse than the golden eagle photo I took last week on Skye!

Our main task when we got to Stornoway was to visit Lews Castle and Museum. The castle was built in the mid 19th century for Sir James Matheson (of Jardine Matheson fame) who’d invested some of his profits from the opium trade by buying the whole of Lewis in 1844 for half a million pounds.

The ground floor of Lews Castle has been renovated and is open to look at. There’s no information about the history of the place though. It just seems to have been turned into some kind of conference / wedding facility.

The museum is housed in a modern building attached to the rear of the castle. The main draw here for me was the Lewis chessmen. These are 12th century chessmen found on Lewis, carved from walrus ivory and whale teeth. There are 93 pieces in total: 11 are held by the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh and the other 82 by the British Museum in London who have very kindly (ahem….) loaned six back to the museum on Lewis.

Frankly, I was a bit disappointed. I’m a big fan of the Lewis chessmen, and my favourites are the so-called beserkers (of which there are four), who look a bit like the guy above but are carrying their shield in front of them and biting the top of it….. Surely the British Museum could have let Lewis have a beserker? In defence of the British Museum, their website explains that they’ve loaned to Lewis one example of each type of chess piece: the beserkers are warders, as is the guy above. OK, fair enough, but I’m still disappointed……

The museum does have a queen, though, my second favourite:

I just love the expression. To me, it shouts “oh God, why am I surrounded by all these lunatics?”.

Another interesting thing in the museum was a bottle of whisky from the 1941 shipwreck of the SS Politician, which inspired the book and film “Whisky Galore”.

The ship was carrying 264,000 bottles of malt whisky when it ran aground, and the locals had a field day emptying the cargo. Until, that is, customs and excise turned up and started searching people’s houses… The wreck was blown up to prevent any further whisky being recovered. Spoilsports. You’d have thought that with a war on, they’d have had better things to worry about….

Finally, there was some good information in the museum about a local tragedy, the loss of HMY Iolaire, which had been bringing demobbed men back home to Lewis after the end of the First World War when it hit rocks near the entrance to Stornoway harbour in the early hours of 01 January 1919. Of the 280 men on board, only 79 survived. So close to home, yet they never made it…..

From the museum, we headed east out of town and explored the Eye Peninsula before returning for a look round the town proper the next morning. As befits a trip into a town, the rain was lashing down…… Stornoway didn’t seem as touristy as Portree did (on Skye), though we guessed that it probably sees a lot fewer tourist visitors each year. One highlight of the day was the Crown Pub, now the Harbour Bar:

“What?”, I hear you say. Agreed, from the outside it looks pretty awful (we didn’t look inside so can’t say whether that’s any improvement), but a plaque on the wall informed us that this was the very establishment in which a 14 year old Prince Charles asked for, and was served, a cherry brandy. Back in 1963, this minor event prompted national media uproar and a statement from the Palace. I knew about the cherry brandy but not that the event had taken place in Stornoway. I’d always assumed that he’d cunningly absconded from school and slunk into a pub with a pal or two in tow, so I was most disappointed to learn that he’d been with a group from school and that it’d been arranged that they were all going to the Crown for their tea before going to see a film later in the evening. Not exactly an impressive tale of schoolboy rebellion then…..

On Friday, we’d decided to head back down to North Harris. The landscape there is much more mountainous than the flat moorland scenery we had further north on Lewis:

Our destination was the North Harris Eagle Observatory, which is supposed to be a really good place to see the local resident pair of golden eagles. It’s a 2km walk from a small car park up a track through glorious scenery.

We walked further up the valley for a look around as well as sitting in the Eagle Observatory looking at a few sheep and deer.

Needless to say, we didn’t see any eagles…… Oh well!

Friday’s weather was the best we’ve had in weeks. It only rained twice! Saturday got even better. After stopping off to use the chemical disposal point and fill up with water at the recycling centre in Tarbert (£3), we spent the morning driving down the “Golden Road”, a single track road down the east coast of South Harris. I’d describe the landscape on South Harris as rugged rather than mountainous.

You’re never far from a rainbow in Scotland. It must be all that moisture in the air! We saw some amazing scenery along the Golden Road, and some seals. Apparently this is a good place to see seal pups in Autumn, but Mark reckons we’re here a bit early for them.

We reached the ferry port at Leverburgh on the southern tip of South Harris intending to buy our ferry ticket to North Uist. When we got there, we discovered that there isn’t actually a ticket office here, just a sign telling you that you can buy your ticket on the ferry. There is a mobile phone signal though, a very rare commodity indeed in these parts! Having seen the size of the ferry (small) and noted that there are only two crossings on a Sunday, we decided to make use of the phone signal and book online rather than waiting and hoping there would be space for us.

With the ferry booked for 9.35am on Sunday, we headed off up the east coast of South Harris as far as Luskentyre. There are some beautiful beaches up this coast:

If you stay in the van with the heating on full blast you could almost believe you were somewhere tropical:

As we drove back into Leverburgh in the late afternoon, intending to park up at the ferry terminal overnight, we received a text message:

Ah. As we’d had no ‘phone signal for most of the week, we hadn’t been keeping abreast of the forecast. Sure enough, some very wet and windy weather arrived overnight.

So here we are, spending a wet Sunday outside a ferry terminal. We can’t really drive off anywhere (apart from the question of where we’d want to go in this weather) as the ‘phone signal will completely disappear a quarter mile or so up the road (the Calmac text message update system is great, but you only get the message once you’re at the ferry port!).

The latest news is that there’ll be another update after 2.30pm. The only scheduled sailing this afternoon is at 17.35; the 16.30 ferry from the other side will have to run for that to happen (there ain’t no ferry sitting waiting on this side!), so I guess we’ll know what’s happening by then. The forecast is for things to improve as the afternoon progresses and for the weather to be pretty benign again by tomorrow morning, so I guess that if we don’t get across to North Uist this afternoon we should get there tomorrow morning (as long as sea conditions are OK, which the weather forecast isn’t telling us). Oh well, these things are not a major problem when you live in a motorhome…..

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