Log #16i Lewis and Harris

September 6, 2000 in Log Series 11 - 19, Logs by Series, Series 16 Scotland, The Logs

Log #16i Lewis and Harris

Written Sept. 6, 2000
At Milford Haven, Wales
Covers the period July 4 to 11, 2000

We spent a week in Stornoway, a most pleasant civilized community, notwithstanding their quiet Sunday routine. The “marina” consists of secure floating docks – that’s it! Except as they say in the real estate business, location and location and location. The marina is accessed by a card key system provided by the Harbourmaster’s office, and is located right downtown, immediately behind the RNLI lifeboat, on the main town wharf 100 yards from the fishing docks, and 200 yards from the center of town, including: the tourist information center, a good ship’s chandlery, a pedestrian mall with a good variety of stores and services, a Harris Tweed Woolen Center, bus and ferry terminals, post office, library (with a delightful café with excellent smoked salmon sandwiches and other local delicacies, as well as computer terminals for internet and E-mail access), very clean toilets and showers, car rentals, museums, hotels, and good Indian and Thai restaurants.

Incidentally, for you non-Canadians, Stornoway is also the name of the residence in Ottawa for the Leader of the Opposition for the federal government, which at present is Preston Manning of the Reform Party (Possibly, until Stockwell Day, leader of the new Canadian Alliance Party, an amalgamation of the Reform Party and disaffected Conservatives, gets elected to the House of Commons in a by-election. Perhaps some of my Canadian friends can inform me of the status of the Leader of the Opposition with this alliance.).

The marina is also right across from Lewis Castle, a majestic turreted building now used as a college, and the site of the Hebridean Celtic Festival to be held shortly. The seals are the “official” greeters to the harbour, accompanying the fishing boats and yachts into the entrance, seeking handouts. They are remarkably tame, bobbing up and down around the docks looking for goodies from the fishing boats or offerings from the yachties. I spent a hectic time in Sprite checking out our new Mariner 10 hp outboard which still was not starting or working properly! A few seals popped their heads up wondering what I was doing out there pulling and pulling on the engine.

The next day we rented a car, quite economically (£25.00 per day), and followed Peter Harris and company for a very interesting circuit around the archeological sites of Lewis. Once outside Stornoway the trees disappeared, and the glorious barren peat moors characteristic of the Hebrides lay ahead, over the hilly coastal terrain. The roads were narrow single lane paved tracks with occasional pregnant bulges for passing oncoming traffic. We had to slow down as well for the meandering sheep. Actually the Isle of Lewis is linked with Harris. The lower portion of the island, Harris, is demarcated by the mountains and intrusive Lochs Erisort on the east coast and Resort on the west. We stayed in Lewis for this circular trip.

We went across Lewis to Great Bernera to the remains of an iron age settlement and a reconstruction of a “round house” of that period; then to the Callanish standing stone circle, second only to Stonehenge in Britain; then to the “broch” at Dun Carloway built by the 9th century Celtic inhabitants. From there we continued up on the west coast to the “black house” museum at Arnol, and on up to the lighthouse at  Butt of Lewis, the stark, barren northern headland of tortured volcanic rock defiantly thrust out into the North Atlantic. A “broch” is a fascinating round, three story high stone defensive structure for a small extended family or clan. The “black house” was the standard crofter dwelling a hundred years ago and some were still occupied until the early 1960’s. These were primitive (frankly, not much more advanced than the iron age dwellings at Great Bernera) double stone-walled thatch-roofed dwellings with a central fire on the floor, no chimney, and with the livestock at one end of the hovel. The walls were sturdy, and some have been adapted to modern dwellings with windows, chimneys, electricity and whitewashed exteriors, but retaining the thatched roofs.

The northern area is described as the densest rural population in Europe, as crofts and homes are stretched out across that barren countryside, occasionally clustered. However, Lewis has a population of over 22,000 and an ancient and honourable history, including, for Canada, one of their sons, Alexander Mackenzie, an explorer of western Canada after whom the Mackenzie River is named. The Mackenzies and the MacLeods are the main clans of Lewis. Gaelic is still spoken quite commonly here; in fact it is in the primary position on street signs, bulletins, and other public announcements. It is not unusual to hear a conversation in Gaelic in a store, followed immediately by another in English. On our way back to Stornoway, I stopped and picked up a few chunks of peat that had been left in the bogs. It was not unusual to see stacks of peat outside modern houses, as peat is still the main source of solid fuel for heating. It burns nicely with a sweet musky aroma in our coal stove on Veleda. In Stornoway we saw coal trucks with sacks of coke and anthracite being delivered to town homes. I hadn’t seen such coal trucks since I was a child in Dundas, Ontario where we heated our home with coal at that time. Several aspects of Stornoway and the Hebrides were like being in a time warp. It was most enjoyable!

We enjoyed the Harris Tweed museum, which explained the way in which its weaving was introduced and how it has become a world wide fabric with standards set in the Hebrides from the Isles of Lewis and Harris. We also took a local bus that went all the way down to the south tip of Harris, through the mountain divide, along Lochs Erisort and Seaforth to Tarbert and around the “Golden Road”, so called because it was so expensive to build in that barren, rocky, heather-strewn coastal rump of Harris. We have found that local buses are a good way of seeing the countryside. Mid-week we often have the bus to ourselves, and a co-operative driver will explain about the area and even stop for the occasional photograph. Better and far cheaper than a tour bus!

When we commented on a helicopter flying low over the hills on the coast, the driver explained it was for the fish farms, delivering fish food to the land sites where it would then be taken out to the tanks located in several of the lochs. We saw these close up later as we sailed down the coast and anchored in several of the lochs. Primitive sparse settings, but using helicopters in their fish farming! We thought at first that fish farms would be – well – farms, managed by individual farmers who set out a series of tanks to cultivate and harvest fish. No! They are owned by large consortiums, and the managers are hired locally to take care of them using standard equipment, tanks, feed and harvesting procedures – the McDonald’s of fish farming!

The country was magnificent! The barren hills and valleys, strewn with rocks, heather, streams and sheep – created a vista that was hauntingly isolated, primitive, and open. Frequent desolate stone ruins dotted the heather clad pastures, especially around bays and valleys. The purple tinged hills, the outcropping of rocks, the sparkle of brooks, the small bays giving way to the elongated lochs, expanded the panorama of this open landscape uncluttered by trees, but punctuated by sheep in the most unexpected locales. This harsh rough land gave way to the more gentle west coast inlets with lush multicoloured hues of undulating dunes of machair, so thick with wild flowers that milk from the grazing cattle is said to be perfumed. Machair is the result of shell sand being blown onto acidic bog, producing a fertile soil with rages of wild flowers festooning the otherwise stark landscape.

Back in Stornoway I was able to get the cooperation of a local official to interview me for my National Insurance Number, a task I had been unable to accomplish in London, as there I would have had to wait for two or three months to get such an interview. I was not as successful with my National Health Number. This needs to come from my local doctor’s office. OK – that would be in Limehouse Basin in London. Could they send me the necessary forms? No way! I would have to go down there to have a medical and register with the local clinic. It would have been nice if I had known this format while still in London, instead of chasing after regional health services. Bureaucracy!

The Harbourmaster’s office delivered the gas tank for the new outboard. It was not delivered with the engine in Arisaig, so we gave the Arisaig Marina the address of the Stornoway Harbourmaster as a forwarding address. We actually got to know several locals, at the butcher’s, and the bakery where we went several times for morning breads and especially their bacon and bacon and egg baps. (Hot meats in a fresh bun) We really enjoyed Stornoway, a friendly, convenient, civilized small town, complete with flower baskets on the lamp posts.

We were able to get a couple of drive belts for our engine, the ones that are an unusual size because of the heavy duty alternator. We also did a fair bit of maintenance work, such as oil and filter changes. We had to start the engine for an hour or so every second day to charge our batteries, as they did not have power on the docks. However, the price was right at only £8.00 per night (that still translates into $20.00 Canadian, but for the UK that’s good!)

We left in the late afternoon of July 10 to anchor at Loch Mariveg, a 9 mile motor-sail during which we saw our first puffins. We had the loch to ourselves, safely at anchor in fifteen feet of water at low tide, off an abandoned stone farmhouse that I explored the next day. There is a sadness about such ruins; for me, they represent a fantastic amount of work, hope, and dreams invested in constructing the stone house, sheds, and the miles of stone fencing, all abandoned, probably within one generation of use because of non-viability or the “clearances”. Many of the Hebrideans were shipped to Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, a similar harsh rocky landscape. Of course, that is why Nova Scotia is called Nova Scotia – New Scotland, as so many Scots were landed there and settled the area! Much of the music in Cape Breton Island is Hebridean in origin; in fact people in the Hebrides credit Cape Bretoners with keeping the Celtic music of the Hebrides alive after the “clearances” until the latter half of the 20th century. Hebridean music uses the fiddle, accordion, and flute more than the bagpipe.

More about our sail down the east coast of this Western Isle in my next log.