We passed the first test of our week-long walking tour late Sunday morning. Along the Lews Castle trail, we wandered through drizzle and wind, boosted by the occasional kite-lifting gust, remnants from the previous night’s storm that had battered Stornoway. Afterwards, by the time we finished our indoor picnic-style lunch, the sky had brightened; the storm was already becoming a distant memory.
We arrived at the Arnol Black House just as the rain stopped. The sky, still gray and cloudy, allowed the sun to play hide-and-go-seek.
Fooled you, didn’t I, said Mother Nature.
Deceived by the warm coziness of the minivan, we forgot the tour company’s warning: “The weather in the Hebrides is famous for its unpredictability.” From the moment we stepped from the van fierce winds whipped hair and jackets; we hustled to pull on hats and gloves.
John said Black Houses – long, low and built of rough stone –lacked windows or chimneys; this helped keep the harsh weather outside. Heat came from fires on the ground; the smoke made insides dark and smoky. People and animals lived together under one roof. On a positive note, the smoke from indoor peat fires helped keep insects at bay.
Too cozy for my taste, I thought. But, it being just a wee blustery, I saw the benefit of such a design. I huddled closer to catch John’s words before the wind tumbled them down the lane.
It was Sunday. The museum was closed. Stacked nearby was a pile of peat. A pleasant scent –moist and earthy – signaled that peat was burning. A marker depicted an interior. Despite the homely scene – smiling occupants – I wasn’t convinced that living in such circumstances was as lovely as it would have us believe. Obviously folks back then were a hardy bunch.
These days, islanders appear as resilient and determined as their ancestors. Despite modern advances, custom and tradition remain strong, particularly out in the countryside. Sundays are quiet days. Gaelic is spoken. Crofting –farming small parcels of land, these are some traditions that continue.
Many of the houses are small, made of stone and whitewashed. Peat remains a source of fuel, despite it being a labor-intensive process: cutting, stacking, packing, and hauling. Traveling through the islands you often see dark earth trenches. Close by, brick-like stacks of peat are left to dry, not an easy thing when there’s so much moisture in the air. Fortunately, near-constant winds help in the process.
Also not easy to do are crofting and keeping alive the Gaelic language. Nevertheless, there is an interest and determination to keep these from dying out.
According to John, an Englishman who found his spiritual home in the Outer Hebrides, many islanders are crofters. He became one when he married his wife. Crofting involves raising sheep and/or cattle on small plots of land that are either owned or rented. For many folks in Scotland and the islands, this practice provided (and continues to do so) a form of living and income. John keeps 25 sheep, more or less. One evening, as he shared with us some tasks he does as a crofter, he joked with Bob telling him that the lamb he was eating and raving over may have been one of his sillier ones.
Crofting, as in any farming, can be a dangerous and unsure way of making a living. Until the Crofters Holdings Act of 1886, which gave tenants legal rights and some security, it was an even more shaky business. Tales of cruelty and eviction are many; the history of the Highland Clearances attests to that.
Times have moved on. Islanders are proud but not too proud to resist change or forgive the deeds of the past. The larger part of the population speaks both English and Gaelic, although there are some who speak only Scottish Gaelic. On the islands, as elsewhere in Scotland, and there is a growing interest in reviving the use of the old language. Throughout the Western Isles you will often see road-signs written in both English and Gaelic.
Time, weather, everything changes. As we reached our next stop, Dun Carloway Broch, the rain increased making us pull on rain gear before heading uphill. At the summit, brisk breezes played kickball with us. To escape, we pushed open a Hobbit-size wooden gate and ducked beneath a stone arch. What a surprise to find the half-ruined broch still provided shelter.
People were tough back then, to build a place like this, way up here. It wouldn’t have been much fun being me, I thought as I clambered around the hilltop stack of stones before walking back to the van.
If it was hard work building a broch, it must have been back-breaking to erect the Standing Stones of Callanish. Like the more famous Stonehenge, the who, what and why remains a mystery; celestial alignment, as is the case with Stonehenge, is one theory. Shorter than their southern cousins, nevertheless, according to The Outer Hebrides: 40 Coast & Country Walks, they “date(ing) back around 5000 years – older…than Stonehenge”; an impressive feat of aging well for such short stacks.
As is true in all real estate, it’s location, location, location that makes a property prime. Unlike Stonehenge, on Lewis, with tons fewer tourists, you’ll have peace and elbow-room to ponder life’s mysteries all while being able to touch and wander among the stones. Add to that two more, smaller circles nearby and you’ll have a better chance of getting in touch with your spiritual side.
For me, after a while the physical took over the spiritual; my growling stomach said, Feed me.
It was still light when we finished dinner. The winds having settled down, and since it was our last evening in Stornoway, Tami, Ingrid and I explored the harbor-front.
At the pier a wood carved statue — Herring Girl caught my eye. Later, when I saw a photo in the book, The Outer Hebrides: 40 Coast and Country Walks, the author described the statue as “charming”. A week later, while in the Heritage Center in Mallaig, Scotland I learned more about the reality of life during the Herring Boom of the 1800s.
Next morning, John drove along winding roads, soon entering a new landscape: mountainous, rugged, and deserted –Harris. I was thrilled to finally see “my island.”
Before coming here, I had no idea how the Outer Hebrides can challenge a traveler’s mind, body and spirit.
It wasn’t long before I found out for myself.
Check out the following links for more information on:
- Peat Cutting Traditions in the Outer Hebrides
- Information and brief history of Crofting, check out the Scottish Crofting Federation’s link at:
- Dun Carloway Broch and Iron Age Brochs
- The history, life and times of Herring Girls: