Blackhouse is a name familiar to us from Peter May’s Lewis novels. A native dwelling made of low dry stone walling covered over by wooden rafters and thick thatch. Inside, the families shared the living space with their animals. No chimney and smokey. Islanders lived in them for 150 years up to the 1970s. They easily fell into disrepair however and modern amenities like plumbing and heating eventually became preferable. Some have been renovated at Gearrannan and converted into a museum, a cafe and several holiday lets.
So we were away again – September 2017. Lewis in the Outer Hebrides with our good friends from Edinburgh, Joan and Dave Hale. Three days travel, first to Edinburgh from Yorkshire, second to Ullapool and third, the ferry to Stornoway followed by 30 minutes or so across to the west coast at Tolastadh. Great facilities including a wood-burning stove. Great uninterrupted view of the village with the island of Bernera in the background across the loch.
It’s not a village as we know it. Higgledey-piggledey mostly single-storey housing, no village green, no pubs, no streets. In and amongst, ruins of many buildings including blackhouses are outlined by damaged walls with no roof, weeds and general neglect. A tarmac road winds through. Access to the houses via scruffy tracks and drives often containing rusty cars and bits of machinery. Gardens and gardeners are uncommon. Not so cracosmia. A favourite orange-flowered spikey plant with us, a weed over there.
Between villages is bog. A combination of scrubby grass, gorse, rock, peat cuttings and lakes. Puddles and ponds to fully grown stretches of water. Few if any parked cars. No trees and no wind breaks. And the wind never abates. Even sitting on the exterior deck in bright sunshine was chilly. The weather generally was kind to us. The cloud and rain tended to be overnight or morning. Lots of sun, and it followed us. No storms.
Already a different planet from Budapest, our recent trip, with its large river and light-coloured-stone monumental churches, university colleges, government departments and so on. Restaurants and bars. Tourist trap and people-mobbed. Stornoway, the islands’ capital was, fair enough, busy with shoppers, especially in Tesco. Whitewashed or rendered houses. Slightly larger public service headquarters, a grand castle with grounds and a couple of comfortable looking hotels. A small number of fishing boats were moored near the ferry. Plenty of road traffic. Some suburbs as well. Ten minutes and we were out into the bog. Most islanders live here in Stornaway and up the west coast of Lewis. There are buses, but cars are more convenient, especially for the more remote places where the roads get narrower with frequent passing places.
Budapest was a family gift, Lewis a thoughtful decision, made early in the year, somewhere we’d been interested in for a while. Interested in Peter May, Fin McLeod and what their islands were all about. Fin is Peter May’s fictional detective in the Lewis Trilogy. He returned to his birthplace after working in Edinburgh. Our appetite was given a kick start by Rhoda, the landlady, and an hour tutorial. Where to visit and where to buy black pudding. In her lifetime there has been just one murder.
Whilst Budapest appears to be a prosperous European city, an escapee from a recurring violent past, Lewis is remote, cut off. You have to wonder what influence government has here. Crofting, fishing and weaving are still alive and there are lots and lots of holiday lets. Think of crofting, and you see The Highlands of Scotland. A croft is a unit of land with a dwelling, for growing stuff. The dwelling probably would have contained a hand loom. Islanders worked together, and still do, to cut peat and to manage surrounding land as common grazing for sheep and cattle. Today, crofting is joined up to many additional ways of earning a living. For example, 40% of the islanders work in the public sector. Making a living is apparently still precarious.
We didn’t make much contact with gaelic or religion. Everyone spoke English. Gaelic speaking was weakened by the clearances, a response in the 18th and 19th centuries by landowners to famine, debt, and the need for more profitable sheep farming. Crofters moved to the coast, lowland Scotland or emigrated. It has made a comeback. It is integral to school life and there is now a gaelic TV channel. Nothing was open and nobody stirred on Sunday.
Rhoda recommended Norman of Carloway for an insight into home-based Harris Tweed hand weaving. Born on the island, he spent his life in Glasgow, returning in retirement to pedal a Keighley-made Hattersley hand loom as a hobby. A large wooden outhouse with rooms for two looms and storage for finished cloth. Norman pronounced Yorkshire as Yorkshigher while we refer to it as Yorksher. The back room where he worked just took a loom and half a dozen visitors. A metal cartoon monster with a mouth and arms and noise. He was brilliant. Cloth cannot be called Harris Tweed unless it is hand woven on the island and there is a tweed policeman. The fact that the clothes are made in Leeds is neither here nor there.
Ness, right up at the top of the island, is part of the Peter Lewis trail. It was also home to a prosperous fishing fleet, specialising in ling, which doubles for me as a crossword clue fragment. A memorial to the fleet sits next to cafe above the harbour.
Most places have a dig or two, exploring the Iron or some other age. Lewis is no exception. The pick for us was Calanais, five minutes from where we were staying. It dates from 3000 BC and nobody knows why or how. Twenty or so standing stones, four to eight foot high. Sometimes a circle and sometimes straight lines, depending from where you looked. Always a backdrop of the Bernera hills or straggling houses and bog.
Clan rivalry and dispute ruled until 1844 when the islands were sold to Sir James Matheson, on opium trader amongst other things. He carried out improvements in roads and drainage and built Lews Castle in Stornoway overlooking the harbour and Main Street. We walked in the grounds. The second phase of the clearances occurred during his time. Sir James helped the tenant crofters to emigrate. Lord Leverhulme of soap fame bought Lewis and Harris in 1918 and had grand schemes to improve native lives and presumably his profit. He considered crofting inefficient, but failed to appreciate how embedded lifestyle can become, particularly those returning from the first war. Financial difficulties and he left the scene in 1923, keeping Harris. We went on his road to nowhere, north of Stornoway. Intended to connect with Ness, it was never completed. His other ventures in the fishing industry were in South Harris. Other landlords remain but are relatively powerless, because since 1886, as a result of the clearances, tenant crofters have enjoyed security of tenure.
The Western Isles Council was established in 1975. Local community groups have bought land and increased the island’s appetite for politics and self-help. Newly built bowling alleys and sports halls. We had afternoon tea in a converted schoolhouse which doubled as a cinema and concert venue. The MPs if anyone is interested are from the SNP.
History doubles as tourist attractions, such as the Blackhouses and hand looms in outhouses. We also visited tourist spots which are modern businesses. The Hebridean Soap Factory and two Distilleries. The soap lady was an English financial refugee. The history and technique of soap-making are on display, alongside soaps and candles, alone or in presentation boxes. You don’t have whisky until it has been in cask for three years and a day, so only the Abhainn Dearg or Red River nectar from Uig was on sale. The distillery in Tarbert does have one distinction. I bought my tweed jacket next door.
We visited North Harris just the once, bemused by the different name when Lewis and Harris are clearly one island. Mountainous and bleak, beautiful and intimidating. Much more to this landscape than Lewis but no less hospitable.
The beaches are amazing. We visited several at Ness, Bernera and Uig. Light golden sand and azure seas. Brilliant white breakers on rocky outcrops. Always overlooked by a cemetery. You could sit a while. One had a Time and Tide Bell, an artwork which is designed so the bell strikes at high tide. There are five dotted about UK’s coast. Students were playing cricket on another until the tide came in. A signal for the surf school to come out and have a lesson. The famous Lewis Chessmen were discovered on Timsgarry beach in Uig in 1831. 78 pieces of walrus ivory thought to originate from Norway.
Did we mooch and learn about Peter and Fin’s island? There are a number of forces at work. Start with the unforgiving terrain and exposure to the Atlantic Ocean. Gaelic and religious belief are strong. It is an island after all and it feels remote, isolated and different. No pit head skeletons, no railway heritage or other industrial remains. Most islanders live on the west coast and it can be a trek to go anywhere. TV, mobile networks and work are available, but not comparable with lowland urban life. It’s tough to live here. Yet it is a beautiful quiet place and there is a sense that the flip side of apparent disadvantages from our point of view produce a powerful set of values, particularly the strength of community. Important lessons from the past are keeping modernity in check.