Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Doing Lewis and Harris

This is our main day on Lewis and Harris, so we’d done a fair amount of research for how to do the island in a day.  The bottom line is that you can’t “do” this fascinating and varies island in one day.  There’s just too much to see.  But we’d at least give ourselves a taster.

We left Stornoway on the A857 as we did yesterday but this time at the Atlantic turned left – south - onto the A858.  Immediately we saw the contrast from the north part of the island.  Both the “feel” – the atmosphere - and the landscape changed.  We saw much more character and depth.  The homes were in groups – villages might be too strong a word, maybe hamlet would be better.  Yesterday we’d seen lots of individual houses, here we saw communities.  Farms, too.  The land must be better here.  Interesting that there were quite a few bits of serious farm equipment that were apparently in community ownership since they were left in laybys and passing places.  The land undulated and the Atlantic Ocean could be seen between the hills.  Mind you, those gaps in the hills also let the wind through – serious wind that had been unchallenged since North America.  More of that later.  It was a pleasure to drive through this area.

Now, here’s something you don’t see every day. 

This archway is the bones of a whale that beached in Bragar Bay in 1920.  The corpse of the whalte had a harpoon lodged in it, but it hadn’t detonated as it should have so the whale escaped death at that point, only to die slowly later of its injury.  It is said that “The corpse began to rot, and Bragar was overwhelmed by the stench. With no one coming to retrieve the whale, the villagers rolled up their sleeves and dealt with it themselves.  The blubber was used for oil, disinfectant, ointment, tar, and medicine. It was harvested by tapping into the whale’s body and filling bottles and barrels with the gloopy fat. After a year the skeleton lay bare and the decaying organs washed out to sea.” (Atlas Obscura)  The archway was erected, together with the harpoon that you can see swinging in the wind at the peak, which welcome you into the village!

Having done the obligatory photo shoot, we drove on the Callanish where one of the finest set of standing stones we’ve seen can be found.  What a wonderfully refreshing change from the usual setup at these places – no entrance fee, no fences preventing entry.  One can just walk through to the stones, wander amongst them, feel the energies and see the layout from all angles.   

Once can touch and feel these stones, just as those who erected them touched and felt them.  Stonehenge take note (although, in fairness, they probably get more visitors than Lewis!)  The Centre stone and a few others have a wonderful shape to them – a bit like people.  This Circle is around 5000 years old.  There’s a chambered tomb in the middle, where fragments have been found so it’s clear what at least one of the uses was.  The Circle fell out of use around 2500 years ago and it ended up being covered up with soil and grass, to be uncovered in 1857. The stones are of Lewisian gneiss which is one of the oldest rocks in Britain and dates back to around 3000 million years ago.  These are metamorphic rocks having been crushed, melted and folded for over those 3000 million years to form this hard crystalline rock that sparkles in the sunshine.  You could believe that you can actually see the energies of the stones and you can’t help but take a spiritual journey and think about what they’ve seen and represented in their past.  Because of the way that they have formed, the stones are layered, a bit like plywood, so they weather in intriguing ways that really are beautiful.  Now, there is no doubt that this setup takes a lot to keep it going and provide visitors with this wonderful experience, so we are full of awe that they don’t charge to visit the stones but instead make a bit of money from visitors through there excellent visitor centre – a good café and bookshop and a good exhibition which charges.  A great, and very sensitive, way of doing things we think.

We then went back over to the eastern side of the island, heading down towards Harris.  The rest of the western side will have to wait for our next visit.  Again, the scenery changes – the hills become much more evident as we head south.  We were looking for the Lewis/Harris border – it’s not at Tarbert as you might think looking at the map, but well north of there.  It’s at a bend in the road at the tip of Loch Seaforth (coincidentally that name of the ship that brought us here).  We kept our eyes peeled for the “Welcome to Harris” sign, which we nearly missed! 

 Now, being from the south and one of us from London, we can’t help but mention the cockney slang of Harris for arse!  (These are the conversations we have on these trips – apologies!)  It’s an obvious one – Harris becomes ‘arris … and how do we get to that?  Well, arse becomes bottle and glass, shortened to bottle … or Aristotle, shortened to ‘arris which then gets bent into Harris.  Obviously!  Sorry, I’ll get my coat!

Next stop was Tarbert.  A lovely sleepy little town which is mostly orientated around the Calmac ferry to Uig on Skye.  Today, the ferry had been cancelled because of high winds - we understood that wholeheartedly … it’s not a very bit ferry and the seas were quite high!  It was quiet for that reason and because we arrived between 12:00 and 1:00 when everywhere including the tourist information office closed for lunch.  The Calmac terminal building was open too, with a very nice guy taking phone calls from people who couldn’t get to Skye; he was offering excellent advice we thought, and in a very nice way.  It’s a pity we couldn’t watch the ferry unloading and loading  because we couldn’t work out how they did it!  The “Tarbert Stores"
was, shall we say, idiosyncratic but seemed to have everything people needed judging by the turnover of customers.  We went to the grocer’s store just up the road for lunch.

Then on to Leverburgh which now is much changed from what it was, and left one wanting to come back to explore.  It has an interesting history - William Lever, 1st Viscount Leverhulme (he of Lever Brothers and Unilever - Knorr, Hellmann's, Dove etc etc)) fell in love with the Western Isles of Scotland. In May 1918, he bought the Isle of Lewis for £167,000 with the intention of rebuilding fishing but demobbed servicemen from the Great War settled on Lewis instead so in 1919 he purchased the South Harris estate for £36,000 with the intention of turning the village of Obbe into a “consolidated major fishing centre”, with the fish to be distributed through the 400+ Mac Fisheries fishmonger shops.  In 1920, with local consent, Obbe was renamed Leverburgh, and a new pier and seashore fishing infrastructure was built.  Some of that development is still evident.  The idea was to have the inner sea loch converted into a harbour to accommodate 200 trawlers and a sea lock to ensure a constant 25 feet depth.  Leverhulme paid for upgraded roads to accommodate the additional traffic.  However when Mac Fisheries ac quires Wall’s in 1920, the crash of 1920-21 slowed development, resulting in Mac Fisheries being incorporated into Lever Brothers Ltd in 1922.  To cut a long, quite interesting story short, Leverhulme died in 1924 and his executors and the board of Lever Brothers had no interest in the Leverburgh project, and so ended all work. They sold off the village and production facilities for £5,000, and the estate for £300, to the Campbell brothers, a local family.  We’ll be back to see more of this place … it’s a really interesting social history project.

West Harris is made of high cliffs and huge sandy bays.  The seawater when we visited was a lovely aquamarine that doesn’t show up well on the phots – sorry!  But the wind was very strong and the white horses with their long trailing manes very evident on the water! 

The southern tip of the island sees Rodel and St Clement’s church.  This is a lovely little church – no longer used but beautifully looked after by Historic Scotland.  It’s built from Lewisian gneiss … so that’s the second spiritual site we’ve seen built from this rock.  Interestingly it has a rocky outcrop built into it – the pics show the outcrop from the outside and the inside of the church.  You can climb right up to the top of the tower … although we didn’t.

We then took Route C97 … the Golden Road.  Not as well known as Route 66, it’s true.  And it doesn’t have the adverse environmental and social impact as Route NC500 is having, either – it has a much more positive story.  The Golden Road is so called because it was said to have cost so much to build!  In reality, it probably didn’t cost all that much because it would have used inexpensive local labour, but that didn’t stop the mainland newspapers coming up with the name!  Another story tells that it’s called that because it took so much persuasion by the locals to the authorities to build it.  Either way, it’s a wonderful road to drive.  Not so scary as Bealach na Ba (the Pass of the Cattle, or road to Applecross) and the views are better … but most of all it hasn’t been ruined by the number of camper vans and big convoys of vintage cars that blight the Bealach na Ba as a result of the NC500’s ill-considered advertising.  It’s very twisty, though, because it follows the coast quite closely, visiting the little villages which have retained their Gaelic names and the bays which are more like fiords.  It also has some startling blind summits, where you really don’t know where the road goes next … and if you were to get it wrong you’d be in a ditch … or down a cliff!  But take it slowly, which you’d want to do anyway because of the scenery, and all is fine.  The landscape to the landward is lunar.  Huge smooth grey rocks that really do look off-worldly!   
Then back on the main road, which on the way down felt narrow but now in contrast with the Golden Road is positively motorway!  We got the sign this time!

A terrific day – social history, geology, local economics … it was a curriculum in its own right.  And more places on our “much get there” list that we’ve ticked off!  Such is life!

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