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Journeying Through History on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland

History on the Isle of Lewis

Visiting the Isle of Lewis is like straddling the past and present, with a foot firmly in each.

How have people come to live on this peat covered moonscape, sustaining themselves over thousands of years? What is living on the Isle of Lewis like now, and how has it changed?

I spent our time on Lewis trying to pinpoint the atmosphere I could feel. Was it isolation? Freedom? Maybe a mix of the two.

There are so many reasons to visit the Outer Hebrides, but perhaps we could seek to better understand this island by delving into the historic sites on the Isle of Lewis, how it was inhabited, and the stories it has to tell.

Much of the history of the Isle of Lewis is, unfortunately, a mystery, but there are plenty of attractions that will take you on a journey through the history of the people and the island way of life. And then there are the tales you would only know if you dig deeper.

So here’s what a week in the Isle of Lewis revealed to me…

Callanish Standing Stones

Stonehenge may be the most popular stone circle in the UK, but the Callanish Standing Stones are even older, and in my opinion, more impressive!

Unlike Stonehenge, you can get up close and personal with these standing stones, and the lack of visitors means you can really feel the atmosphere.

But whatever you do, PLEASE don’t touch the stones! It would be really sad to see these privileges revoked, and I saw more than one person touching, leaning on, and even attempting to shoulder barge the stones when we were there.

Callanish Stones - History on the Isle of Lewis

Arnol Blackhouse

Blackhouses are the name given to traditional houses that were a home for families and their animals, so-called because there was no chimney, and instead, the peat smoke was allowed to escape through the thatched roof, which caused the houses to slowly turn black inside.

At Arnol you can see a traditional blackhouse as well as the “whitehouse”, the newer houses built when health regulations began to dictate that animals should be kept separately and chimneys and fireplaces were built.

Great Bernera Island

Cross from the Isle of Lewis to the island of Great Bernera on the “bridge over the Atlantic” for a real glimpse into the history of the Isle of Lewis.

Many of the islands that make up Lewis and Harries are no longer inhabited, and it’s likely only due to this bridge built in the 1950s, that replaced the more traditional small ferry that Great Bernera continues to be.

At the north of the island, you’ll find Bosta Beach, home of the Bosta Iron Age House. It replicates of the remains of houses found in the area after a storm in 1993. The area was likely occupied by a village between the 6th-9th centuries AD.

The local museum at Braeclete has more information, but you can also go into the house for a small fee of £3. Unfortunately, it was closed when we visited, but will hopefully reopen.

Great Bernera, Isle of Lewis

Gearrannan Blackhouse Village

To be honest, I was surprised there weren’t more abandoned stone houses around the Isle of Lewis, given how many I saw when visiting Shetland. But then it seems that much of the material of the houses was used to rebuild new white houses.

However, just up the road from the Callanish Standing Stones, you can visit a blackhouse village that has been lovingly restored by the local community trust.

Gearrannan Blackhouse Village sits in a scenic spot overlooking the Atlantic and is a great place to experience what life would have been like in such a place. You can even stay in accommodations there! With a few modern additions of course…

The famous Harris Tweed must also be made in local homes on the Outer Hebrides, and the Blackhouse Village offers a chance to see the craft in person.

Blackhouse Village - Historical Sites Isle of Lewis Scotland

Dun Carloway Broch

A broch is a stone circular tower found in the north is Scotland and the islands. No one is quite sure what they were used for, whether they were defensive structures, regular farmhouses or something in between.

Dun Carloway was likely built in the 1st century AD and was used later in the 17th century as a stronghold.

Norse Mill and Kiln

The Norse Mill is another reconstruction of a building that actually existed on the site. The corn mill and kiln would have been powered by the nearby stream and were used up until the 1930s. They provide an insight into what life would have been like in the not so distant past of the island.

Read More: 11 Reasons to Visit the Isles of Lewis and Harris

Lewis Chess Set

The history of the Lewis Chess set, or the Uig Chessmen, is a long one. They were likely carved in a Nordic country (probably Norway) in the 12th century, and are made of walrus tusk and whales bone.

How they came to be buried in a sand dune near Uig beach is a complete mystery.

The story of their discovery has also been lost over time, but we do know they were first displayed in 1831.

The Lewis chessmen can now be found split between the British Museum and the National Museum of Scotland, although a large wooden replica is present at Uig beach on the Isle of Lewis.

Historical Sites on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland

Iolaire Disaster Memorial

Sometimes there are disasters that time seems to forget, and it appears to Iolaire is one of them. It is one of the saddest tales I’ve ever heard, and yet I almost didn’t. It features in the Lewis Trilogy by Peter May, a series I happily discovered while on the island, and without which I would never have known this story.

The tragedy of the Iolaire took place at the end of World War I when a fifth of the population of Lewis had already been lost with men going to war never to return.

On the 1st January 1919, many of the Lewis men and some Harris men were on the last leg of a long journey home, just a boat ride away from the islands. 284 men crammed onto the Iolaire, eager to get home for New Year Celebrations, but ultimately, 205 didn’t make it.

Just 12 miles off Stornaway the Iolaire failed to change course in the pitch black, and instead went full steam ahead into the rocks known as ’The Beasts of Holm’, and sunk just 20 yards from the shore.

Forty men managed to scramble to safety with the help of some rope and one lucky soldier who had got ashore. Thirty-nine others survived in the freezing water.

But 205 men who were so close to making it home after fighting in a harrowing war, and perished on the doorstep.

There was barely a family, if any, that weren’t affected between the perils of World War I and the Iolaire disaster.

The Lewis community had already lost an astonishing number of its men, and to then have this disaster occur must have been nearly incomprehensible. How could they have survived the war only for this to happen?

But somehow this tragedy stayed mostly within the confines of the island, despite being the biggest maritime disaster involving a British ship since the Titanic.

The epic scale of the tragedy, the loss of life and feats of bravery in the aftermath should surely have been spread far and wide, but instead little was said and even the accounts of survivors have only been covered in one book, written in Gaelic.

It took 45 years for a memorial to be erected that you can now visit, and despite the last survivors living until 1991, it was barely ever spoken about amongst them.

Not so much later, during World War II, a large number of Lewis men joined the war effort once again and more were lost.

Uig, Isle of Lewis - Historical Sites

The Guga Hunt

While not exactly a historic site, the Guga Hunt is an interesting historical tradition in the Isle of Lewis, that continues to the present day.

The town of Ness is at the most northerly tip of the Isle of Lewis and is home to a practice that has been passed down over centuries through its menfolk.

Historically, seabirds like Gannets, or “guga”, young chicks, were seen both as a delicacy at the dinner table and a vital source of food across many of the northern isles and Nordic countries.

After legislation was brought into force from the 1800s protecting seabirds, the practice of “guga hunting” and the image of seabirds as a luxury food item began to die out.

But not in Ness.

The tradition of sailing to the rock of Sùla Sgeir to collect guga dates back before the middle ages, and it continues annually today and is even protected by UK and EU law, with a limit on the amount allowed.

For two weeks a year, a select group of men sail to the rock, and then return with the gannet chicks pickled and salted, to last the year ahead.

And yes, I read about this in the Lewis Trilogy too!

Ness, Isle of Lewis

The Gaelic language

The fact that much of the signage in the Isle of Lewis is in both English and Gaelic, and indeed that some of it is only in Gaelic, isn’t just a nod to history.

Gaelic is a living language on the Outer Hebrides, more than anywhere else in Scotland. Nationally only 1.1% of the population speak Gaelic, but in these islands, it’s just over half. Children are often taught in both English and Gaelic at school, and the language is combined with other traditions like learning to play the fiddle or dance.

Don’t be surprised if you hear Gaelic spoken amongst the locals, or wonder why you can only half understand conversations between them, In this case, it may not be the thick Scottish accent but Gaelic instead!

Isle of Lewis Scotland

I loved visiting the Isle of Lewis because of the opportunity to take a unique journey through the history of one of the oldest inhabited islands, that still holds onto many of its traditions today.

Do you enjoy learning about the history of the places you visit?

Read More: 11 Reasons to Visit the Isles of Lewis and Harris

Sonja x

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Historical Sites and Stories From the Isle of Lewis, Scotland Historical Sites and Stories From the Isle of Lewis, Scotland

32 thoughts on “Journeying Through History on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland

  1. Lee @ BaldThoughts says:

    Those little cottages are so cute. It feels like you’re in the middle of Lord of the Rings. And those vertical stones remind me of Easter Island. I want to go explore Scotland and experience these for myself.

    • Migrating Miss says:

      That’s true I never thought about comparing it to Lord of the Rings before! In some ways the scenery can be similar to parts of New Zealand, although we have many more trees haha.

  2. Cynthia @Journal of Nomads says:

    Scotland and its most northern isles have always played to my imagination! I sense a similar vibe from your photos to my journey on the Isle of Man (it’s not too far from each other either 😉 ). I love the mystery, the interesting history and the enchanting tales that these isles have to offer. It looked absolutely beautiful there and thank you for sharing more background info about the Isle of Lewis. Waw, really want to go there myself now 🙂

    • Migrating Miss says:

      There is something about the islands that sparks the imagination! I’d love to spend some time just journeying from one to another. Somehow the stories seem even better there!

  3. Rachelle says:

    What a beautifully written post! I love visiting new places that are so full of history and unique, and Scotland has that in droves! I also find it sad when people don’t respect the local laws surrounding historic sites. Hopefully we can enjoy a closeness to the stones for many years to come!

  4. Claire Summers says:

    Scotland is such a beautiful country and such history. So much of if is so sad too. Your photographs are lovely and its really made me want to take my road trip even more. Sadly it will have to wait a few years as I’m over the other side of the world!

    • Migrating Miss says:

      Thank you! I’d love to just journey all over the country from place to place, there’s so much to see and learn about here. You’ll have to make an epic plan for when you’re back!

  5. yukti says:

    Callanish Standing Stones is so photogenic and it would be first in my wishlist. The combination of green grass and blue waters with cloudy skies is perfect for nature photography. Gearrannan Blackhouse Village looks interesting. Lovely post.

  6. FS Page says:

    I just the love the blackhouse village is so beautiful. I cant imagine how it would feel if i get a chance to live one day in these stone houses. The whole isle lewis is gorgeous and has such scenic landscapes.

  7. Abhinav Singh says:

    Whoa. It looks like a picture perfect place. One of my friends live in nearby Shetland and tells me how amazing Scotland is. I would love to see those abandoned stone houses. They seem so mysterious.

  8. Manjulika Pramod says:

    My best friend lives in Scotland. I would actually love to walk around this place and be lost in history.
    And you rightly mentioned, people should not touch these stones because we should not be harming the heritage.

  9. Alice says:

    Wow, that place looks pretty amazing. It’s everything I imagine I want to be seeing when I go in Scotland! Lots of history, traditions, etc. I remember seeing stuff about the Chessmen in the British Museum and found it fascinating, I’m so glad to see they have a replica there, and I would love to go and check it out! Isle of Lewis is now on top of my UK bucket list!

    • Migrating Miss says:

      That’s great! I hope you do make it up there, there really is so much to see and it’s such a different part of Scotland in my opinion. I actually never knew about the Chessmen before, even though I’ve been to the British Museum and the National Museum of Scotland, so I kind of did it backwards to you haha.

  10. Ania says:

    Wow! The Outer Hebrides look absolutely magical (especially the Isle of Lewis here). I would seriously love to go, so I’ll be saving this post for when I do. Also, I have to add – super well-written post 🙂

    • Migrating Miss says:

      Haha perfect!! I might have to try and join you on some of that trip! Maybe… I’m not sure… I’ll probably regret saying that. There really is so much history there though I love it!

  11. Whero says:

    Tena Koe Sonja
    Nga mihi mo tou matauranga. Ataahua korero. Thanks for sharing your knowledge. We discovered a whakapapa connection and travelled to Lewis with our kids to reconnect them using your posts as a guide. Arohamai we had to touch the stones. They are our ancestors and we had to hongi them to greet them with reverence and respect. Haerenga tupato. Safe travels.

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