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.
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 in May 2017, but will hopefully reopen soon.
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.
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 the in the not so distant past of the island.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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?
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