Monday, November 14, 2016

Rugged beauty of Lewis and Harris shines through the rain, the wind and the cold -- in July

You soon realize how sparsely populated the Isle of Lewis is when you arrive by the large MV Loch Seaforth ferry to its major city of Stornoway, whose 7,500 occupants comprise 40 per cent of the island off the northwest coast of Scotland’s inhabitants.

Stornoway has the typical small town stores, restaurants and pubs you’d expect, as well as a disproportionately large amount of barber shops and storefronts promoting religion and Christianity. If you’re looking to find God or get a haircut, this is your place.

Stornoway is a strongly Calvinist enclave, an important port and the administrative centre for the Outer Hebrides islands. I stayed at Heb Hostel, a clean and friendly place to rest your head and enjoy a warm peat fire after a day exploring the rest of Lewis. And you’ll want to explore, because there’s not a lot to do in Stornoway.

I was with two dozen other people on the 10-day Compass Buster tour of the Scottish highlands, the Western Isles, Orkney, Skye and Loch Ness run by Haggis Adventures, which gets you out and about to see and experience several sights without the hassles of renting a car and driving.

Abhainn Dearg Distillery
Our comfortable and roomy bus left Stornoway for the west coast through a landscape of small, rocky hills occupied by grazing sheep. Our first stop was the tiny and rustic Abhainn Dearg Distillery, where we were greeted by high winds and torrential rains. Thankfully, the staff was much more accommodating than the weather as they showed us their small operation and offered us samples of their Spirit of Lewis and my favourite, Abhainn Dearg Single Malt. It’s a smooth, totally homegrown Scotch with a natural cask colour and a pleasing finish despite its 46-per cent alcohol content. I enjoyed several free shots and while I’m not used to drinking that much Scotch at 11 a.m., you have to take advantage of such things when circumstances arise.

Callanish Standing Stones
We moved on to the Callanish Standing Stones, a large stone circle that’s considered one of the most significant and important megalithic complexes in Europe. Think Stonehenge, the most famous stone circle, on a smaller scale. The pelting rain and fierce wind, unfortunately, dampened my enthusiasm and appreciation for this historic site.

Carloway Broch through a wet camera lens.
It was a short drive to what’s left of Carloway Broch, a round Iron Age structure positioned well from a defensive standpoint on a hill with free roaming shape. It was probably the home of tribal leaders and important members of the community hundreds of years ago.

Gearrannan blackhouses
The Gearrannan blackhouses aren’t as old, but it’s still difficult to believe that they were inhabited until 1974. Blackhouses acted as homes for both people and livestock and were constructed of stone with gaps filled in with earth or peat. Wood frames held up thatched or turf roofs which had to withstand severe weather. I was there in July and shuddered to think what it might have been like to live in one of these structures in January. There were several blackhouses at Gearrannan, some of which have been modernized to house a small museum and hostel rooms.

Butt of Lewis
I’ve always loved rugged landscapes where cliffs meet the sea, and the Butt of Lewis provided an opportunity to enjoy one of these vistas. The rain had stopped and the wind had diminished, allowing us to roam over the soft green turf and peer down at waves crashing into small coves, with seals occasionally bobbing above the water’s surface.

Port of Ness
There was a short stop in Port of Ness, where the tide was out and boats were stranded on sand, on the way back to Stornoway. 

Upon arrival back in town, I went to an unlicensed Thai restaurant and paid $18.50 for a good if unexceptional meal of two chicken skewers, fried rice, beef and vegetables. McNeill’s pub was the place to be later in the evening for fruit-flavoured ciders (which are much more popular in the United Kingdom than in Canada) and musicians covering country songs until midnight.

When morning came it was time to make the journey south to Harris, which is attached to Lewis by a causeway. Harris has higher elevations and its rocks evoke thoughts of lunar landscapes, but the white sands of Loggantir beach were as nice as you’d find at Caribbean resorts. The water, however, was still cold even in July and there was no-one swimming.

Loggantir dunes
I walked alone along the beach for 30 minutes before climbing up the dunes that overlook it. I shared them with sheep and was wishing I had something to slide down on when I came to a sand canyon. I instead climbed down and then back up to get back to where the bus was parked near a small cemetery. 

St. Clements Church
A nip of Scotch did the trick to pick me up before arriving at St. Clements Church, which was built around 500 years ago for the MacLeod clan. It was repaired after a fire in the 1800s and its lovely setting surrounded by rocky hills on one side and the sea on the other would have been an interesting place for a golf course —- and I soon discovered that the Isle of Harris Golf Club wasn’t too far away. Owing to the winds blowing in from over the water, a 215-yard hole was still a par four.

After reaching the southern tip of Harris, we headed back north to the village of Tarbert, the embarkation point for the ferry to the Isle of Skye. It didn’t take long to walk around, so it wasn’t difficult to find Isle of Harris Distillers Ltd. While the distillery is waiting for its Scotch to mature, it’s making gin. I was given a sample, and it was fine, but I didn’t spend $63 for a bottle. Nor did I buy any of the tweed that Harris is famous for before boarding the 4 p.m. ferry to Skye.

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