Scottish Road Trip Nights 5,6 and 7: The Outer Hebrides; Standing Stones, Beaches, and Gin.
This was a part of Scotland that neither of us had been to previously, and consequently we were very excited, partly from dipping into Julian Cope’s book, “The Modern Antiquarian”. (Yes, the same Julian Cope of post-punk/new wave group The Teardrop Explodes).
The book is split into 2 parts, book 1 is a series of essays and poems about this 8 year journey, and book 2 a comprehensive catalogue of prehistoric Britain. I’d heard of the Callanish Stones on Lewis, but hadn’t appreciated how many other prehistoric sites there were on the islands for us to explore. So we left Loch Ness on a beautiful day and made our way to Ullapool.
Having checked the car into the ferry queue, we went in search of a cup of tea, and found a lovely little café, aptly called Tea by the Sea, facing Loch Broom where we enjoyed some home-made cake and a cuppa in the sunshine. We were lucky to find seats by a huge picture window on the ferry bow and amused ourselves watching the seabirds and enormous Jellyfish; we even got a tiny glimpse of some dolphins in the distance.
Our original plan had been to arrive at the Callanish Stones for sunrise the following day, but the forecasts were for wet weather in the morning, so instead we set off straight away, amazingly enough with the top down.
Viewed from the air, these stones form the shape of a cross. Unlike Stonehenge, we were free to wander amongst the stones and touch them. There were a handful of other visitors, so this really did feel like something special; it was incredibly atmospheric.
There are many legends about them. One tells of black men who arrived in boats with a high priest who directed them as they built Callanish. Another says that one midsummer morning as the sun rose ‘The Shining One’ would walk down the stone avenue, his arrival heralded by the call of a cuckoo, the bird of Tir-nan-Og, the Keltic Land of Youth. Whatever the truth is, this is really quite an experience, the stones were nearly lost to the peat, but now can be seen in their full beauty. It is now thought that the alignment of the stones was for astronomical purposes, and that they were placed on Lewis as some kind of place of pilgrimage.
We’d been told about the ‘Black Houses’ of Lewis and attempted a visit to Gearrannan Blackhouse Village where there are 9 restored houses. Unfortunately this were closed to the public due to the pandemic. Blackhouses were common dwellings in the Hebrides, the origin of the name is debated, but could have been from the effect of the central hearth. There was no chimney for the smoke to escape through. Instead the smoke made its way through the roof. This led to the soot blackening of the interior which may also have contributed to the adoption of name blackhouse. This was the last group to be occupied, being vacated in 1974.
We were staying in an apartment for this part of the trip, located in Stornoway it was near to restaurants and shops, so we could eat out or in as we fancied. This is a great place to stay if you are intending on doing some walking, as there is a washing machine and drier for wet walking gear.
This part of Scotland is pretty religious, so we knew that there wasn’t likely to be much open on a Sunday and had booked a restaurant in advance. The Boatshed was about a 5 minute walk and situated within the Royal Hotel. I was a little disappointed that due to the need to space customers that we were placed in the café-bar rather than the restaurant. However, the menu was the same and the staff friendly. My Hebridean mixed seafood served with macaroni was absolutely delicious. There’s nothing quite like eating fish from the place that it’s been caught.
We had made the right decision not to try for the sunrise view of Callanish as it was tipping it down first thing in the morning. Instead we headed to Harris in search of gin and Harris Tweed. As you'd expect, the distillery tours weren't happening, but the shop was open, and a bottle and a couple of beautiful martini glasses were purchased - my kind of souvenir. We then stopped in Tarbet for a spot of lunch before driving onto Borve, where we walked along the stunning beach Traigh Iar to Macleod's stone.
Obviously, this 2.5 metre high stone wouldn't have been called that by the people who erected it over 5000 years ago. There are a number of large stones showing through the turf close to this magnificent slab and there hasn't been an archeological excavation here, so we don't know it's purpose. There is some speculation that it may have been a burial site. Whatever its use, the medieval naming of the stone, Mhic Leòid, reflects valued links with the distant past. The MacLeods of Harris and Dunvegan were the clan chiefs who held Harris from the 13th or 14th centuries until the late 1700s. The beaches of the outer Hebrides by the way are frankly incredible! Despite not perhaps having the warm weather associated with the typically idolised Caribbean or Brazilian beaches, they are just as, if not more beautiful. It's difficult to get across just how good these beaches that are relatively on our doorstep are.
We were having a conversation about how amazing the roads here on Harris and Lewis were for driving, especially when driving a small fast sporty thing.... But also how you wouldn't want to fall off the road here as it could be a while before anyone came. Then we came around a corner to this! And realised that it hadn't been there a short while before when we were driving the other way. We stopped and ran over, but thankfully no one was in it. Remarkably the keys were out, and it was locked. Although all the contents of every pocket and the glove box were strewn all over the inside. Looking at it, the airbag hadn't deployed, and there were no skid marks, so we reckon it was a low speed tip over. Still.... Bit weird though!
We also visited Clach an Trushal, the largest stone in Scotland. It's almost 20ft tall, and there may have once been another circle here, there's some suspicion that the stones got re-purposed to build walls.
We returned to Stornoway where we were just in time to catch Charles Macleod's butcher shop open (it was just down the road from our apartment). We bought some beautiful venison chops, a ready made Balmoral chicken meal, breakfast items including the award-winning black pudding, various vegetables and were set for self-catering for the next couple of nights. The quality of every item was superb.
We had an early start again the following day, having booked the ferry from Leverburgh to North Uist. This was a much smaller ferry, and due to Covid we were required to remain in our vehicles. Hence I really wanted a trip to the 'ladies' once we arrived; we set off in search of that and a coffee, but got distracted. The hotel we thought that we'd pop into was on the footpath to Pobuill Fhinn, so we detoured there instead. Situated on a hillside, we were the only visitors to this multi-sized stone circle. (You may have noticed that there's a theme of 'Sarah for scale').
The derelict boathouse below just added to the atmosphere.
We back-tracked on ourselves to visit the cairn of Barpa Langass. It's 80 ft in diameter and rises up above the ground about 15 ft in height. We weren't able to go inside the burial chamber unfortunately; archeologists have found pottery and arrow heads here.
We carried on to Benbecula for lunch (I really was in need of the ladies by then!), and then onwards to South Uist where we walked along a cockle strewn sandy beach and picked some samphire to go with the smoked salmon that we picked up at the award-winning Hebridean Smokehouse.
And then back on the ferry and back to Stornoway to our apartment for a hot shower and dinner. With a few hours spare the following day before catching the ferry back to the mainland, we visited a restored Sheiling where farmers would spend the summer keeping an eye on their animals. Tiny, but homely, it was lovely to see a preserved example of island life.
We also stopped to see the whalebone arch on Lewis. There is a great story behind this. 100 years before our visit to Lewis, in September 1920 the corpse of an 80-foot-long blue whale drifted into Bragar Bay, on the western Atlantic side of the Isle of Lewis. It had a harpoon in its head, trailed by 50 feet of rope. The harpoon had not detonated, shooting the barbed “stun” into the creature, and so had merely become lodged into the whale’s body thus sentencing it to a slow death.
The beached whale attracted a great deal of attention due to its size, but the issue of what to do with it soon took center stage. Village officials contacted a whaling company to retrieve the body, but no ships ever arrived, perhaps because of Bragar’s remote location. A few industrial buyers from the mainland expressed interest, but none took the bait. 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. Looking at the skeletal remains of the whale, local postmaster Murdo Morrison thought the jawbone might make a nice addition to his gate - as you do! So with the assistance of two horses and a lot of village men, he hauled the jawbone up to his workshop. He toiled away on it there, filing the bone and hammering iron joins. Morrison had claimed the harpoon as well, and while being cleaned it finally detonated. It tore a hole in the wall of his garage, but luckily the Murdo was unharmed. Soon after, the jawbone was raised as an arch in front of his home. It still stands there today, 25 feet tall and 4 tons heavy, with the harpoon at its apex. I just wonder what Mrs Morrison had to say about it all! Or maybe he was a single man! Would you want this in your garden?
We drove back to the ferry, and set off for the Cairngorms. Please do join us again as we explore Speyside, single malts, Pictish stones, and finish our trip back in England in gothic Whitby.