First, a haiku:
Isle of Lewis Day
Wow, that’s old! What was it for?
Don’t step in sheep poop
It was Sunday in the Isle of Lewis today, which means everything was closed, with the very very few exceptions of a couple of dining establishments that serve tourists. Other than that we were on our own and out of doors: even the grocery stores were shut on Sundays, so it was definitely a good thing we’d picked up some groceries beforehand.
This said, there was still plenty to see on the isle, so like the good little godless heathens we were we loaded ourselves up and headed out for a little further adventure.
Our first stop was the “Bridge to Nowhere,” a concrete bridge that picturesquely spans a little gorge leading down to one of the broad, sandy beaches. This one was built by a gentleman by the name of Leverhulme, a soap magnate of some sort who had the brilliant idea of building a road to connect the two long roads that extend from the main highway north to the very ends of Lewis. The locals didn’t really want to DO roadworks for the rich guy, unfortunately…they wanted land to croft, thank you very little, not industrial jobs. And so they pretty much ignored his grand project, and the bridge that was part of phase 1 is really all that’s left of it.
The beach nearby made for a pleasant walk, as well: the sun was out, making the water a vivid blue-green and turning the sands pale gold. The route down gave us a ringside seat for a flock of geese – goslings and all – some of whom had run across the road in front of our car as we drove out. It was obviously a haven for rabbits, as well; an array of beachfront rabbit condos were tucked into the grassy verge near the beach’s lone picnic table, and judging but the sheer number of holes and…er, other signs…the population must have been substantial.
Toward the far end of the beach were some pretty spectacular spires of rock, as well; at least one of them had a natural tunnel of sorts leading right through it. Too wet to wade through, but pretty to look at, in a sort of mysterious way. Mark was particularly fond of these beach-megaliths, and seemed to quite enjoy his time wandering around and through them. (It was a first class brood spot.) I’m not generally much of a beach person, but the isolatedness of this one was quite appealing, if only it hadn’t been so damned cold whenever the wind blew.
And make no mistake, there’s a lot of wind. Wind turbines are common on the isle of Lewis, and they seem to be moving at a brisk pace most of the time. More on this in a moment.
Our next stop was the prosaically named “Butt of Lewis,” the northernmost point of the isle – and, incidentally, of our vacation. This is, similar to Neist Point, a rocky, craggy tip of the island; huge boulders rise up from the sea here, showing swirling folds along their sides and dozens on dozens of nooks that form havens for seabirds and their nests.
On one of these rocks, quite low to the ocean, a local pointed out a seal, basking in the sunshine. Not doing a whole hell of a lot, to be sure, but I was happy to see him anyway. A seal! In the wild! Something else crossed off the Scottish bingo card. Selkie country indeed, though the waters here are freezing. Can’t be that comfortable for them!
The local also told us a tale or two about the lighthouse that keeps vigil on the point. Vaguely Spanish in flavor, it’s automated now but was manned until a surprisingly short time ago; remember what I said about wind? In the winter the winds here are so very high that the waves crashing against the rocks would be thrown so high that water would come down the chimneys, putting out the fires in the keeper’s family home. (We also asked, on a whim, about peat. Yes, he does cut his own and yes, he does still burn it in fires. He doesn’t sell it any more, though – too much trouble.)
Aside from wind and peat, the other thing the Isle of Lewis is very rich in is Neolithic sites…or, at least, constructs that long predate the advent of the written word, and whose greater purpose, if any, is long forgotten. A surprising number of these are unmanned, as well, seemingly trusting to the honor system and the remoteness of the locations to ensure nobody damages the ruins.
The first of these we visited was Steincleat, a circle of stones with what appears to be a collapsed cairn set into the side of it, not unlike a drawing of a moon in its orbit. Like most things in Scotland, it’s reached by climbing a hill; unlike most things in Scotland, the hill in question is remarkably mucky. All that grass only LOOKS like grass; it’s actually clumps of sturdier ground surrounded by boggy moorland of varying degrees of wetness. Got my feet damp here, unfortunately, as that would stay with me for most of the day.
Steincleat’s hill is ALSO heavily covered in shit. No, literally. Between the rabbits and the sheep there are pellets of various sizes literally everywhere, and it’s worth watching your step. This would, sadly, turn out to be the case most places we went that hadn’t explicitly been sheep-gated.
All this said, there is something weirdly interesting about these old ruins. What were they? A ritual site? A burial cairn? Just a sheep fold? What motivated people, thousands of years ago, to drag all these big heavy stones up there and arrange them just so?
Pondering this, we made our way to a “Norse mill and kiln” a little way down the road. This site was also unmanned, situated prettily in a slightly sheltered bit of the hillside where a brisk stream likely represents the remains of the long-ago mill-race. Two little huts, thatched roofs weighted into place with the same stones that make up the walls, now house the reconstructed kiln and mill.
When I hear “kiln” I think pottery, but not in this case, as it turned out. Back when there was a working mill here, one would have to sort of lightly toast the grain before grinding it, and the kiln was where that was done. Once finished, you could take your toasted grain and dump it into the hopper over at the mill, whence your grain would be fed into the holes atop the rotating millstones for grinding and spill out into a bin at the bottom. A lever allowed you to set the distance between the millstones a little farther apart or a little nearer together to adjust the fineness of your grind.
I’m not sure whether the “Norse” in “Norse mill” means it was actually used BY Norsemen (not unlikely given the Viking tendency to come ransack the place) or whether it just means “in the style of Norsemen”, but it was pretty similar to other mills I’ve seen in my life, albeit much smaller and more remotely-set. The stones were horizontal, though, and massive. I found myself staring at the little hopper where your flour was meant to come out, just three slabs of coarse slate, and thinking for about the four millionth time how damned difficult life must have been then.
This theme carried on into our next stop – Dun Carloway Broch. A “Broch” is a round tower with an unusual double-walled construction, found as far as anyone knows only in Scotland; they look a bit like watchtowers, but may also have served as housing for important folks in the surrounding lands. This particular one happens to be the best preserved of the lot, and stands on a high, windswept hill (not that everything on Lewis isn’t windswept) that must in its time have been rather lonely, though today there are a couple of crofter’s homes nearby. As you scale the hill for a look at the tower, you can look down into them – and, if you’re versed in the construction of blackhouses, there are unmistakably the foundations for some in the croft yards, now being used as material storage or sheep folds. (Some of the sheep were obligingly hanging out in the remnants of the fold where their ancient ancestors probably slept.)
There isn’t much left of the tower itself, of course. Doors so low that they barely seem to qualify as human-scale let you duck through a low wooden gate and out of the wind, but none of the original floors of the broch survive. (Interestingly it seems that the stairs may have been nestled into the space between the two walls, though.). Again the impression is one of deep remoteness.
Not so much, of course, as the remoteness embodied by the Callanish Standing Stones, which we returned to as our next stop. I neglected to mention the broch’s age, but it’s believed that it dates to the time of Christ. This seemed pretty goddamn old to us, until we considered that the Callanish stones date back to 5000 BC as far as we know. That would mean that they predate the great pyramid of Giza. By about, oh, 2500 years, give or take. I honestly have no capacity to comprehend time on that scale in any meaningful way; these things are so old that their age is literally meaningless.
The obvious parallel here is Stonehenge – but unlike Stonehenge, here you can actually walk up to and around the stones – touch them, even; run your hand, as I did, over a band of pink granite and ponder the site’s purpose. What could they have been for? Astronomy? Ritual? Burial? Did they come here to celebrate Beltane, put out all their fires, then light them again from a central flame kindled by a priest? Did it have something to do with the distant outline of a reclining woman some say you can see in the hills? Did they sacrifice here, as Mark thought, looking on the great central stone and the eye-like nodule in its side?
The new age-y folk have come here, to be sure; remnants of their passing linger in the bouquets and remnants of garlands and such that they leave behind. I cannot begrudge them; who can say whether any of us are right? Does it matter? Are things like the Callanish Stones not a mirror of sorts, reflecting ourselves back to ourselves?
Either way, it’s a wild and mystical sort of spot. (And, like other places of power we’ve visited this trip, it drained Mark’s phone battery instantly, only to have it restored to 75% immediately after returning to the car. What do the ancients have against the iPhone 4S? The pagan and the Christian gods both seem to have it in for it, for some reason.)
By this time it was getting quite late in the day, but we had one more stop we wished to make: at least getting a view of the beach where the Lewis Chessmen were found. This proved easy enough to do, though we did manage to take one wrong turn and found ourselves in the…settlement (“village” seems like too strong a word) of Ard Uig, which seems to consist of…a few houses in poor repair, a handful of battered vehicles, and a general air of desolation. Even the “shop” some villages on the isles have – a kind of combination post office, general store, laundrette, etc. – was absent, and we were more than happy to turn right around and leave the ill-maintained track of a road behind.
The beach itself is like others on Lewis, and there was not time to hunt for the spot – but Mark did pose for a picture with a “life sized” chessman before we made our way back to Stornoway.
There was still some time before dinner when we made it back to town, so we stopped in at Stornoway’s war memorial. It seems that, for some reason, the isles suffered heavy losses in the war, heavier than most of the rest of Britain, and the monument was meant to be a grand and somber tower one could climb and reflect. However, the tower quickly became unsafe to climb, and so it’s barred to visitors, the plaques within relocated to a nearby circle of standing stones for those who wish to pause and reflect.
It was while pausing and reflecting that I heard it: a song, a female voice in a language I didn’t recognize, soft and mournful and plaintive against the cold, ever-present wind. Curious, I climbed the hill to investigate and soon located its source: the female half of a pair of backpackers, standing at the base of the tower in one of the few sheltered spots. It seemed…rude…to disturb her, and so I simply stood by, waiting and listening.
As she finished, Karen asked what she had been singing (she’d been attracted by the song, too.) It was, the girl said in broken English, a traditional song from her home in the Ukraine. Something about remembrance, though the language barrier precluded much more information than that.
A somber sort of note on which to move to dinner, but a haunting moment.
It being Sunday, of course, hardly anything was open to serve us food – but we did manage to get reservations at “Eleven,” the buffet restaurant in essentially the island’s answer to Holiday Inn. This was…more or less exactly what you’d expect in the circumstances; some rather nice pork roast complemented by indifferent mashed potatoes along with some sort of beet business and…cabbage with cheese?…I’m not entirely certain. Still, there was a light, fluffy mango cheesecake in the offing before we returned to our hotel and collapsed with an episode of something British Detective-ey. (“Wycliffe,” which I’d never seen before. Not as fun as “Lewis,” though. Why are British detectives so craggy, anyway?)