A tour of Lews Castle in Stornoway helps give an understanding to the money Victorian traders made. A few weeks ago we were in Tyntesfield – built by the richest commoner in England on money made in trading guano. Today it was the Chinese opium trade of James Matheson which funded the building of this fine pile. That was after he’d bought the Isle of Lewis for what would now be £44million and a further £25million on improvements to the island’s infrastructure. Reopened last year after being closed for 25 years, it is a fine pile. The museum has some of the Lewis chessmen on show – though it was a bit disappointing to learn they are actually Norwegian and probably stolen. The audio visual show of the island landscapes keeps you transfixed for 10 mindful minutes.
Dodging the end stragglers of the local half-marathon (a hot day for the 200 participants who had probably spent weeks training in blizzard and monsoon conditions), we navigated back to the mainland on a rather swish new ferry.
Leaving Ullapool the next day, we took the main roads to Kinlochewe. Not one, not one, cafe open for 46 miles. No wonder the midges fed hungrily on us when the rain stopped. Faster roads to cycle on, the scenery also kept the mind busy. Fine passes, sweeping moorland, more sparsely populated than the Hebrides. Taking in the Achnasheen Terraces (“These flat topped features look artificial, but are in fact glacial outwash deltas that have been here for 10,000 years or more”), we swooped down into Kinlochewe. The arrival of the Torridon Sandstone and the magnificent Ben Eighe, gave us the fortitude to tackle the landlady’s unique interpretation of hospitality. We quietly took our shoes off so we didn’t wear out her carpet. TV in room? You’ll be wanting hot water too no doubt!
Ah, the bustling metropolis of Stornoway. Its 8000 population is about 30% of the island’s total. Traffic congestion on the high street, traffic lights, roundabouts. It has it all.
Cycling south in a strong headwind and (for us) intense sun meant we toasted slowly and evenly. No trees and open moorland helped this no-end. So diversions kept us cool. The first took in a community museum which held the Racal Decca [radar] positioning kit which once occupied (until 2000) the BnB we stayed in last night before GPS made it redundant. The 2nd was to stand in the shade of Scotland’s tallest standing stone – just over 6 metres. Then for a posh cup of coffee at an art gallery. Well I say posh – they weighed the coffee beans and then timed the brewing time. Good, not too expensive, but 6 minutes is too long to wait. Just add water and stir!
I liked the political posters for the Scottish Christian Party. They miss an opportunity by not adding the slogan “Vote for us: put your cross in the box”.
Stornaway we’ll explore tomorrow. Eaglais Na H-Aoidhe is an evocative church ruin dating back to 13C. The burial ground of many of the local clan chiefs is now within land now owned by the Leverhulmes. How dynasties change. Well maybe not that much – the simple and effective cairn to the late 19C land protests (“Aignish is hugely important in the context of the history of Scottish land reform following the Aignish Riot of January 1888. This took place in the aftermath of land agitation following the groundbreaking legal victory of the Bernera Riot of 1874 and the Park deer raid of 1887. It was part of the Crofters War and involved a standoff between the local landless peasantry and the heavily armed marines that were drafted in.”) is a reminder of the importance of the common people and the rights they had and have to fight for.
Dodging the markers going up for tomorrow’s half-marathon ( the expected 200 runners will be hoping for cooler weather no doubt), we compete with the ladies of Stornaway who are partying where we are staying. It’s all happening…..
The natives are very friendly! Today’s kindness was the receptionist in a museum. “Take my guide book – you won’t want to be buying anything extra when you are cycling”. A good proportion of the people we’ve met are newcomers to the islands. Helps keep the gene pool healthy no doubt. You get the impression of close, tight knit communities acting as custodians of the land and traditions whilst not being stuck in the past. Perhaps it is the numerous BT Open Connect vans that seem to be everywhere which help with that.
The landscape changes again to become more rolling coastal plain, with numerous settlements strung out along the roadside. You can see the generational changes in the housing. With so much land, why demolish? Leave it to collapse and build new next door or, even better, on top of. Today we took in old settlements – the broch at Dun Carloway is worth a crawl over and under- to more recent times. The latter was the superb collection of black houses at Gearrannan built mid 19C and lived in until the mid 60s. The museum just up the road really brings this to life – the peat fire (great smell) was/is never allowed to go out. Again, lived in for real within living memory.
No hedges to be seen anywhere. Just miles of fencing marking off the strips of the crofting lands. This is particularly evident around the Ness at the top of the island, reaching to the lighthouse. Some gems of beaches, eagerly prized by the camper vans.
And that was the end of this chapter – the Hebridean cycle way completed. Fascinating diversity throughout and cycling has been just the right speed to appreciate it.
The upper half of Harris and on into the lower half of Lewis is more like the ‘typical’ highland landscapes. Ditto the weather, with a thick mist and then howling gale. The first 5 miles from Tarbert is a rather steep ascent crossing a wee stream marking the island’s boundary. The strong winds on the windy descent made for interesting cycling. Peddling to go down when heading into the wind and then getting blown sideways when turn a corner. Luckily the now normal dual track road (mainly single track roads up all the Hebrides to this point) was very traffic light and with very polite drivers to boot.
A couple of road side monuments entice us to stop and look. The first is quite a dramatic statement on the skye line. Turns out to be in memory to the Hebrideans sheltering the wee rogue Bonnie PC. It makes clear all persuasions didn’t betray him: despite the £30000 reward (that’s about £2million today). The other is to land rioters in the late 19C, fighting oppression.
Settlements in these parts are very sparse – no tea stops for miles, nor stores, though community halls seem to double up as toilets (open) and cafes (closed). Obviously waiting for the high season – though as most of the places we’ve stayed in are fully booked already it’s not clear how much custom there will be.
Callanish. 5000yr old mystery and here’s hoping it stays that way. 3 main sites – two of ‘standard’ circles and the main site. A place where land and light meet – and all the better for being accessible. Stonehenge can draw the crowds – this is where the real action is: apart from Orkney that is.
North Uist – Berneray – Harris. Relatively small steps yet fantastic contrasts. The relatively new (1999) causeway holds the small 3 mile x 1 mile Berneray in a new umbilical grip to North Uist. What a great wee place: we had more time to explore thanks to the low tide rearrangement of the ferry timetable to Harris. The population has stabilised at 120 from the peak of 700 a century ago, when the kelp trade was at its peak. Renovations and collapsing black houses give a real feel of what it must have been like. The youth hostel marks itself out as a place to return to.
The ferry to Harris was a veritable dodgems course as it skirted perilously close to numerous rocky out crops on its 10mile route. Time was passed by sharing a photo of a bird of prey on Uist. “Oh, that’s special. It’s a Hen Harrier – rare”. We felt impressed at our sense of something worth stopping to look at, even if the descriptor had failed us. And then the topography changed as the ferry docked. Hills.
For our geology experts, it’s mega. FINSBAY HORNBLENDIC GNEISSES AND QUARTZITES is one description. Stanley Kubrick thought so too, using it to film his idea of the surface of Jupiter in 2001 A Space Odyssey. Very gneiss. The many coves with basking seals (Scotland has 90% of the UK populations of grey and common seal, 40% of the world’s population of the former) and lochans are really beyond description. The human signs are more practical: the coffin route once taking bodies to areas where it it possible to dig. This is a very remote and special place.
Uibhist a Deas, Beinn na Faoghla, Uibhist a Tuath: South Uist, Benbecula, North Uist. Connected by causeways and divided by religion: as you cross Benbecula, Catholicism is replaced by Calvinism. Backed up by tonight’s landlady. In the south of the islands you can shop on a Sunday (we were grateful for that) whilst here on in the Sabbath is held. These Calvinists know how to have a good time.
They probably also enjoyed today’s weather. Blowing a gale and sweeping rain. The weather suited the terrain. South Uist in particular is flat and boggy. A haven for the birds – lots of RSPB sites – though they were hunkered down in shelter somewhere. Perhaps that’s why Flora MacDonald, who’s birthplace is marked by a cairn in the middle of a derelict black house, emigrated for a period to America. Quite a character, more than can be said of the rascal she rescued. I wonder if she had realised his exploits would initiate or accelerate the clearances which altered lifestyles for good? The fact that many of those cleared then went on to do the same to the natives of the new territories is story you don’t read here.
Houses dot the landscape with the occasional hamlet – makes for a scarcity of tea shops. Road signs ( for places ) are in Gaelic with the English very much a footnote in smaller font. Shows the Scottish frugality as saves on cost.
Flora was here
Relics of by-gone ages
Ploughing close to shore
Watch the forecast
After we stopped , the sun came out with magnificent sky appearing by magic. The bird song – as if in relief from a day sheltering – was quite a cacophony of sounds. If only we knew what they were!
Bhatarsaigh, Barraigh, Èirisgeigh, Uibhist a Deas: Vatersay, Barra, Eriskay and South Uist. Remote, yet showing visible signs of development through the ages. In Castlebay, the herring trade blossomed after the coming of the telegraph in the 1880s. Eriskay and Vatersay were only accessible by boat until 1991 when the causeways were opened. Now fibre optic cable opens up new opportunities.
The dominant religion is Catholic on these islands – reflected in the open chapels and ruined Kirks. I wonder if there was a priest on hand in 1853 to give succour to the survivors of the Annie Jane. 350 people perished: their mass burial ground is marked by a simple obelisk. How is it that a shipwreck with so much loss of life is not known more widely: they were only emigrants, so no need for a great fuss?
Vatersay – population 90 – is also where we start to see some of the machair which appears along most of our route: “the name given to one of the rarest habitats in Europe which only occurs on exposed western coasts of Scotland and Ireland.” Today’s bird life is mainly oyster catchers and the sound of cuckoos. Others were probably sheltering from the wind and rain.
Barra’s airport is an absolute joy. The landing strip is the beach: it disappears twice a day when the tide comes in. Excellent cafe doubles as check in and departure lounge. The other lounge we studied in depth was waiting for the ferry across the 6 miles of the Eriskay Sound. Here you can read the Western Isles contain 44% of the UK’s remaining fragile saline lagoons. And top up your e-things on the wonderful Caledonian MacBrayne WiFi in the middle of nowhere. Outside remote and unique. Inside, anywhere.
For plane spotters
Missed the plane
Eriskay is probably best known for the SS Parliament, made immortal in Whisky Galore. It was quite impressive to see – but not taste – one of the surviving bottles. Well that’s what they say and I’m happy to go along with it.
Then across to South Uist. Here the ruins of the blackhouses, once the dominant dwellings, dot the landscape. Now just the lower walls and chimney breasts, they are often accompanied by the ruin of the next generation of housing beside today’s buildings. It is also a lot flatter than it’s southerly brethren. Which will suit us on tomorrow’s longer cycling day.