Blackhouse is a name familiar to us from Peter May’s Lewis novels. A native dwelling made of low dry stone walling covered over with thick thatch. Inside, the families shared the living space with their animals. No chimney and smokey. Islanders lived in these, alongside more modern houses, up to the 1950s. Some have been renovated at Gearrannan: a museum, a cafe and several holiday lets. Otherwise, in and amongst villages, ruins of many blackhouses are outlined by damaged walls with no roof, weeds and general neglect.
So we were away again in September 2017. Lewis in the Outer Hebrides with our good friends from Edinburgh, Joan and Dave Hale. Three days travel, first to Edinburgh from Yorkshire, second to Ullapool and third, the ferry to Stornoway followed by 30 minutes or so across to the west coast at Tolsta. Great facilities including a wood-burning stove. Great uninterrupted view of the village with the island of Bernera in the background across the loch.
It’s not a village as we know it. Higgledey-piggledey mostly single-storey housing, no village green, no pubs, no streets. A metal road winds through. Access to the houses via scruffy tracks and drives often containing rusty cars and bits of machinery. Gardens and gardeners are uncommon. Not so cracosmia. A favourite orange-flowered spikey plant with us, a weed over there. Between villages is bog. A combination of scrubby grass, gorse, rock, peat cuttings and lakes. Puddles and ponds to fully grown stretches of water. No trees and no wind breaks. And the wind never abates. Even sitting on the exterior deck in bright sunshine was chilly. Few if any parked cars.
Already a different from Budapest, our last trip, with its large river and light-coloured-stone monumental churches, university colleges, government departments and so on. Restaurants and bars. Tourist trap and people-mobbed. Stornoway, the islands’ capital, was busy with shoppers, especially in Tesco. Whitewashed or rendered houses. Slightly larger public service headquarters, a grand castle with grounds and a couple of comfortable looking hotels. A small number of fishing boats moored near the ferry. Plenty of traffic. Suburbs as well. Ten minutes and we were out into the bog. Most people live here and up the west coast of Lewis.
Budapest was a family gift, Lewis a thoughtful decision, made early in the year, somewhere we’d been interested in for a while. Interested in Peter May, Fin McLeod and what their islands were all about. A kick start from our landlady who gave us an hour tutorial. Where to visit and where to buy black pudding. In her lifetime there has been just one murder.
You learn about a place from its location, history and what the people are currently doing. Talking to locals as well to a limited extent. Budapest appears to be a prosperous European city, an escapee from a recurring violent past. Lewis is remote, cut off. You have to wonder what influence government has here. It is the largest employer however. Crofting, fishing and weaving are still alive and there are lots and lots of holiday lets.
Most places have a dig or two, exploring Iron or other age. Lewis is no exception. The pick for us was Calanais, five minutes from where we were staying. 10000 years old and nobody knows why or how. Twenty or so standing stones, four to eight foot high. Sometimes a circle and sometimes straight lines, depending from where you looked. Always a backdrop of the Bernera hills or straggling houses and bog.
The islands were clan ruled McLoed seems to be the most prevalent name today. Somme thing about the strife. Mac somebody bought them and ruled like landowners did in the nineteenth century. Lewis Castle in Stornoway was commissioned by him and very grand it is, overlooking the harbour and Main Street. The clearances occurred during this his time, landowners preferring the income from raising sheep rather than collecting rent from mean crofts. Lord Leverhulme of soap fame took over and had grand schemes to improve the native lives and presumably his profit. He considered crofting inefficient, but failed to appreciate how embedded lifestyle can become, particularly those returning from the first war. Financial difficulties and he left the scene, keeping Harris. We went on his road to nowhere, north of Stornoway. Intended to connect with Ness, it was never completed. His other ventures in the fishing industry were south of the town along the coast but we didn’t have time to take a look.
Up at Ness there is a memorial to the once thriving ling fishing industry. It’s mostly a crossword clue fragment for me, but big and profitable for the locals. Then local authorities. More recently local community groups have bought land and set up shops and activities appropriate to their needs.
So yes a history of violence, oppression and self-interested entrepreneurship, but now the SNP, referenda and brexit. And taking over some of the things that they can.
The history also doubles as tourist attractions. Blackhouses and hand looms in outhouses. We visited Gearrannon where the house interiors are clad with wood and have flushing toilets. Norman in Caloway was recommended by our landlady, Rhoda. Born here, spent his life in Glasgow, returned here in retirement to pedal a Hattersley hand loom as a hobby. Cloth cannot be called Harris Tweed unless it is hand woven on the island and there is a tweed policeman. The fact that the clothes are made in Leeds is neither here nor there.
Two tourist cum business spots which are new include The Hebridean Soap Factory and two Distilleries. The soap lady was an English financial refugee. The history and technique are on display, alongside soaps and candles, alone or in presentation boxes. Thriving I perceived. You don’t have whisky until it has been in cask for three years and a day, so only the Uig nectar was on sale. The distillery in Tarbert does have one distinction. I bought my tweed jacket next door.
Almost everything shuts on Sunday and no washing out on the line. A reminder of the strong island religious traditions.
The beaches are amazing.