The Outer Hebrides or Wester Islands (referred to throughout western Scotland and beyond as Eilean Siar) are made up lots of small islands and some larger ones - Lewis and Harris, North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist, and Barra. We’re on “Lewis and Harris” which is the largest island in Scotland and the third largest in the British Isles - after Great Britain and Ireland. Although it’s one island Lewis is in the north and Harris in the south and are frequently referred to as individual islands. The island does not have a single name in either English or Gaelic, and is referred to as "Lewis and Harris". As we were to find, the character of the whole thing is in three (probably more) distinct bits – north Lewis, South Lewis and Harris.
After we’d checked in at the hotel, we “did” the north end of the island of Lewis. Most of the roads, we were to find, are surprisingly good and mostly better than in the north and west of the mainland of Scotland … something to do with the tourism, perhaps.
What struck us straight away was the significance of churches here. They are huge – no cosy little cottage-like churches here (although there are some notable exceptions as we saw later), they are big, bold and generally surrounded by huge car parks. There’s a lot of religion going on in the north of Scotland, and we’ve seen in many places a rivalry between the various Christian churches here. Lewis is no different and it’s quite stark in north Lewis. There’s Catholic, Presbyterian, Church of Scotland, Free Church of Scotland and Episcopalian and they all have their buildings and it’s almost as if they try to outdo each other in size if not grandeur! We’re sure that the capacity of the buildings outweighs the need of the population.
Large areas of this part of the island are apparently uninhabited and there seemed to be no use for the acres of land except peat diggings which are obvious all over. As we drove through we saw very few farmhouses or buildings – perhaps the land is too poor to make a living from here. To be honest, it was all a bit boring. Even the views out to sea once we got to the north-west coast weren’t up to much. Again, that was to change later! We had to remind ourselves that looking out to sea there’s nothing until Iceland and the Greenland mind you!
At the very top we came to a succession of ribbon villages coming up to the Port of Ness and then the Butt of Lewis lighthouse. This was better! Some signs of life and civilisation (with a nod to JTK). In the village of Cros we saw the post office, with perhaps the most in-you-face roller shutter security we’ve seen for a while. There are plenty of houses – some of them quite grand – some schools and farms and garages here. It changes and lifts the feeling of the place enormously. Even the scenery changed as we travelled up the north east side of the island, eventually reaching the Butt of Lewis Lighthouse which is now unstaffed but is clearly very much an operational facility including a DGPS installation which works with GPS to improve positional accuracy to about 10cm! This is said to be the windiest place in the UK … and we believed that claim! As well as being a very impressive lighthouse, the rock around it are pretty impressive too!
On our way back south, we saw several of these. We’ll tell you what they are later on, but in the meantime we can tell you that they about 2m high and made of solid concrete! Always by a road! We found them very intriguing until we found out what they are.
In the Port of Ness area is a little café – Café Sonas, so we called in for a cuppa. OK, but not great. Nicely served cup of tea with a good outlook. For us it was very welcome indeed and we can recommend that you stop here. However, if you do, don't expect a great range on offer and do expect to pay quite a lot for it. We get the problem for them - everything has to be hauled a long way to get it here, but these are Starbucks prices without their quality.
Just before we got back to Stornoway we took a detour up to North Tolsta – it’s at the end ofthe road! Another change in character – this is such a complex island! Older houses – nicely kept with establish gardens. We saw some wonderful views across sandy bays including the Bay of Stornoway. There’s also a Commonwealth Wargrave site here. What a fine place!
And what are those concrete things? Why, bus stops of course! The wind can come from any direction here, and the cross arrangement provides shelter regardless of direction. And believe us, the wind is strong enough to topple any ordinary bus shelter, so why not build them from solid, reinforced concrete! Mind you, we think that seeing a bus coming would be hard if you’re tucked inside one of those niches!