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Issue 34 - Legendary Lewis

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 34
August 2007


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Legendary Lewis

John Hannavy captures the beauty of the Lewis, the northern part of the largest Hebridean Island

Despite have travelled extensively throughout Scotland with my camera for more than 40 years, there are still countless places I want to visit before I check out. One of those, until recently, was Callanish, Scotland’s most famous and stunning group of standing stones. A visit to Lewis and Harris in summer 2006 rectified that.

We drove up to Lewis from Tarbert, Harris, on a dark grey August day – “you should have been here a fortnight ago,” the locals told us, “it was baking hot” – across miles of empty landscape, pausing briefly at Stornoway, the island’s capital, to fill the car up with the most expensive petrol I have ever purchased. Then further north, and west to the blackhouse at Arnol – where the ticket price ranks up there amongst the most expensive admission charges ever for a look round a two-room cottage! We didn’t pay it, restricting ourselves to looking at the exterior and driving on. And what a wise decision that turned out to be for, a few miles west, at Gearannan, a restored blackhouse village offered a wonderful visit for a fraction of the cost – and a nice little teashop as well.

Gearannan’s restoration has been achieved at significant cost – and a hefty grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund – but is worth every penny. What has been achieved here is a superb exterior restoration of a typical blackhouse coastal village – this one was lived in until surprisingly recently – while internally, one cottage has been restored as it might have been in the 1950s, the other is a museum, and the remainder are inspired holiday lets. The ensemble of buildings, especially when seen against the backdrop of an approaching storm, is at the same time both dramatic and picturesque. A delivery of peat arrived while we were there, so watching the peat stacks being built outside one of the cottages was a bonus. Inside the restored cottage, a smouldering peat fire gave off the most wonderfully evocative smells.

On the way to Gearannan, we had also visited a restored Norse Mill and Kiln – a glimpse of the Scandanavian influences which have coloured the island’s past – nestled at the foot of a hill at Shawbost, and looking out across Loch Roinavat. To add to the occasion, we met a cycling photographer who delighted in telling us he had spent the night in the kiln rather than pay for a room.

At Carloway, the superb 2,000 year old remains of a huge Broch – Dun Carloway – sits in a wonderful landscape between hills and sea. From the hill above the broch, the views are simply stunning. I have always had a fascination with brochs, those uniquely Scottish buildings which look for all the world like drystone power-station cooling towers!
Carloway is the finest in the Hebrides – but on your way to Skye, Dun Telve and Dun Troddan on the Scottish mainland are equally impressive. From Dun Carloway, it was only a short drive to our hotel at Doune Braes – an excellent base for touring Lewis.

One of the main attractions for visiting Lewis are the Callanish standing stones.

There is, remarkably, no charge for visiting either Dun Carloway or Callanish – which makes the high admission charge for Arnol Blackhouse all the more unexpected.

Even on a grey drizzly day, just walking around the standing stones is a wonderful experience. To walk amongst stones which were raised more than 5,000 years ago, and contemplate the changes the landscape has seen during those 50 centuries, makes one feel very small indeed. In fact, since they were built, the landscape, the peat and the heather had almost completely hidden them before their rediscovery in the 19th century.

The most famous Callanish stones – known as Callanish 1 – are just one of several groupings of stones in this austere landscape. They are the biggest, and the most frequently visited, but the three smaller circles are, in their way, just as evocative.

Back at the hotel, I noticed a chink of blue in the otherwise grey of the sky, and, picking up the camera, quickly drove back down to the circles. By this time it was late in the evening, the tour buses had all gone, the visitor centre had closed, and I had the stones to myself.

For half an hour, under a fantastic sky and in clear sunlight, I got the pictures I had travelled far to take. Wonderful.

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