EXPLORING HARRIS/LEWIS (Part 3)

NORTH/NORTH WEST LEWIS

Not all of this large island, the most populated of all the Hebrides, Inner and Outer, is flattish empty moorland (my husband’s complaint until recently).There are corners which are almost on a par with Harris, certainly well worth making the extra time to see. And compared to Harris, Lewis of course has the bulk of the wonderful archaeological/Neolithic sites – Callanish Standing Stones being one (well, there are actually 22 or more named stone sites linked to Callanish!) I can’t claim to know all of Lewis and there are many lonely, winding roads I plan to follow in future to better know this very Norse/Gaelic island. Almost uniquely these days too, Lewis is also where you will hear the haunting, almost primal and deeply moving unaccompanied singing of Psalms in the local churches.Once heard, never forgotten.There are some good YouTube recordings of this soul – shiveringly powerful voice music.

Callanish Stone Circle (5,000 years old)

Only 12 miles from Stornoway, these pre-date Stonehenge.It’s rare to be alone here though possible early morning/late evening. I do wish they had never allowed those houses to be built at the eastern end of the site, which ruins the ambience for me,  but the Stones are certainly impressive.

The visitor centre has a good cafe with some nice home baking (great brownies and scones) and good views across the empty moorland. On a November week on Harris, we once watched a sea eagle fly across the moor albeit some distance away.

More atmospheric to me are the smaller stone circles which are scattered throughout this landscape. Callanish 2 and 3 are walking distance from Callanish main site though taking the car saves a bit of time.A boggy path connects both sites which I thought were just beautiful with fine views too.

This year we found another small circle at Sron a Chail, on the B8011 and marked on the OS map.Not far south of Garynahine and the junction with the A858.It sits on higher ground with a path leading up to it and it really is a wee beauty.Not a soul around, barely a house in sight, just the sheep and the endless moorland.

Carloway Broch

broch

Such a stunning structure, really impressive and on a lovely moorland site.Not far from Callanish and well worth seeing.

Norse Mill and Kiln (Shawbost)

norse mill

A 10 min walk from the parking area, is this wonderful little site with the two thatched roof, stone buildings which were still in use in the 1930s.

Gearrannan Blackhouse Village

gearrannan

gearrannan landscape

A renovated cluster of beautiful blackhouses,  in a wonderful location, with their thatched roofs and thick stone walls. It is partly run as a hostel, so staying there is possible (but book ahead.) These really were eco-houses, made of locally available materials.Very atmospheric and overlooking the Atlantic coast.It’s well worth following for even a little way, the walking trail which climbs above the site and round the coast.Wonderful views of Lewis’s craggy, island studded west coast from here.

Bosta Iron Age House

An amazing reconstruction of one of 4 houses discovered here, dating from the 6th – 9th centuries AD.  Beside one of Lewis’s lovely sandy beaches too.

Arnol Blackhouse

A beautifully restored blackhouse. Not in such a beautiful location as Gearranan but more authentic inside with its dark, smoky interior (a peat fires burns slowly in the centre of the floor) and its old furniture, box beds and byre.Fascinating.

Stacks of peat lie sorted outside and there is another ruin of a house to explore opposite.There is also a 1920s built ‘white house’ that the family moved into for more comfort.Nice small museum as part of the visitor centre too.

The Whalebone Arch

The lower jaw bones of a Blue Whale, complete with harpoon,  are mounted in the adjoining gardens of two private houses just off the A858.The whale was killed in 1920 (though where exactly is not known) and washed up on Lewis. Free access by walking into the house garden.Very kind of the owner not to mind!

Butt of Lewis

point of ness

sheltered cove for tea

The most northerly point of Lewis, a wild rocky headland with the ocean crashing all around. The drive out to here took us through surprisingly populated crofting areas.This certainly isn’t the most beautiful part of Lewis. Very flat for the most part though always with the ocean not far away.

SOUTH WEST LEWIS

To me, this is the most beautiful part of the island, in terms of gorgeous landscapes and coastline and beaches which may even rival Harris’s.

Uig Sands

The long, winding and increasingly beautiful road from Garynahine near Callanish, leads to this wonderful, huge expanse of white sands backed by incredibly rugged mountains.A really stunning area, very wild.

On a sunny day with a cold wind, we followed the signpost for Ardroil beach car park and spent the next hour or so just wandering this magnificent place.Finally, we found a lovely sheltered corner of beach , in amongst the dunes and had our picnic lunch.Pink/orange rocks added to the colours , the turquoise sea retreating on the ebbing tide.There is a small caravan site (isn’t there always now?) tucked in amongst the dunes but it isn’t visible from the beach (that I remember.) Provision is made for those who camp too, with a public toilet and shower block which works on an honesty basis.

Above the beach, way in the distance, is the impressively situated Uig Sands restaurant, with panoramic ceiling to floor windows, giving diners what must be one of the finest views from any restaurant, anywhere.Still to try it  – fully booked in May when we went in on spec!

Mangersta

Scotland’s Colin Prior, one of the world’s top landscape photographers, is the reason I always wanted to see Mangersta, having been enthralled with his images of its wild coastline.Not that Uig Sands is busy as such, but even less frequented is this wild, cliff girt area of this very remote-feeling part of  Lewis. It’ s only a 10 min drive further on from Uig, a tiny cluster of crofts and cottages in a very green landscape.Sheep are the main sound!

We had booked a Shepherd’s Hut,  one of two on the croft of a friendly couple. Very smartly decorated and kitted out inside but I have be honest, just a bit TOO small even for two people. And not cheap at £95 per night.But then, there isn’t a lot of accommodation in this area of Lewis and it IS a very special location.

The owner described a nice cliffside circular walk which would take us eventually to the beach, but would also allow us to visit somewhere I’d been very curious about – the Mangersta Bothy.To many, this is THE most incredible bothy of any in Scotland.

We set off over the fields, through gates helpfully marked with arrows until we found ourselves above the crashing ocean, gazing dizzily down onto the ocean swirling below.A little easy scramble down a jumble of rocks took us onto the wide ledge where the stone bothy lies, blending perfectly into the surroundings cliffs.It’s always open so we had a peek inside but soon noticed a rucksack – someone was obviously using it  -so we retreated quickly.We were later told that climbers also use the bothy and leave gear while scaling the cliffs.

As we left, Chris noticed a large bird flying with slow, heavy  wing beats across the sea.It was a sea eagle, heading no doubt for the nests of the kittiwakes and fulmars and guillemots that were sitting on every available ledge.The sea birds were soon squawking and keening as the great predator swooped in, looking for an unguarded nest or straying chick.

A bothy is very basic accommodation, free to use, in a remote place, with a fire or stove, cooking facility of some sort usually and some wooden benches to put your therma  – rest and sleeping bag. They are used these days mostly by hillwalkers and backpackers (rather than farmers or shepherds) and are a much appreciated part of the Scottish outdoor scene. This one I have to admit, while an absolute gem, was just a bit too spartan for me and being so perched on the cliff edge isn’t really where I feel most comfortable! In fact, to be honest, bothies – where anyone can pitch up for the night –  aren’t for me, I much prefer my own private space in a tent.

We continued on round the cliffs on a good dry path, admiring the raw scenery of this relatively unknown part of the Western Isles.It really was stunning with the dome of Mealabhal providing the backdrop.A grassy track soon led us to our first view over golden Mangersta beach itself – a gorgeous sweep of sand edged by low cliffs and washed by a turquoise sea.I was also taken by the lilac blue wildflowers which carpeted much of the cliff top, a flower I hadn’t seen before.

Just as we began to descend on a nice grassy path, I spied a large bird circling a distance away –  it was either the partner of  – or the same –  sea eagle of earlier! There was an elderly couple ahead of us, also making for the sands and I shouted to them , ready to point out what was above them but they were deaf to my cries.

We stood watching this magnificent bird for 5 mins or so, circling as if he had spied something worth eating, until suddenly he flapped a little harder and took off towards the hinterland, disappearing in seconds as his powerful wings swept him over the moorland.

The beach was deserted when we got there, the couple having headed off back towards the crofts.There are, to me, very few things better than strolling beside a pristine beach with just the surf pounding and rolling in.It’s a much smaller beach of course than Uig but a real gem too.

We were now so taken with the whole area, we thought of wild camping here tomorrow night.(Next day, we walked back out along the path above the beach, heading for a little patch of white sand we’d spied and which was just the most glorious little corner of ‘secret’ beach.)

Later that night, after dinner of spicy chicken and home made potato salad, I drove out to catch the cliffs with the sun going down.Expecting to have them all to myself I was shocked to find a large group of 12 or so photographers all lined up waiting for perfect light! They were part of a photography group, German or Dutch from their accents and some were balanced VERY precariously on the cliff edges.

I walked out to a cairn then wandered back, feeling very amateurish with my lack of a tripod and just snapping away on Auto mode.I was really glad I’d made the effort to see it  at this time of day (leaving Chris sipping his wine in our Hut.)

Reef Beach  – the best of all?

I was really keen to see more of this remote corner of West Lewis on the really beautifully sunny day we had; I’d also really wanted to climb Mealisbhal but the coast and beaches drew me too much.The hill would have to wait!

We did manage a short walk up Forsabhal, a small hill with a radio transmitter on top which gave superb views over the whole Uig area, and out to St Kilda and the Flannan Isles. I’ll write this up separately.

There is a fine driving loop which we then followed round the coast, signposted to Reef (or Reiff) and our first sight of the pristine white arc of shell sand had Chris pulling up sharply to stop and park, just to savour what we were seeing.It is incredibly beautiful, as is the whole area and I knew this was where we would pitch our tent tonight.

We had a wander through the small and busy campsite but the pitches were so close to each other.It’s much preferable to simply head out with all the gear even a short way and find some private space.A 15 minute wander through the dunes found us at a small bit of flattish grass, a perfect pitch, well away from everyone else.

Once set up it was now 6pm and I was starving! So lamb steak and potatoes were got on the go, using the faithful Trangia stove and a glass of bubbly poured to celebrate a really fantastic day and the discovery of a superb new area.

Some chilli olives and crisps staved off the hunger pangs before we tucked into a great tea.The rest of the evening we spent sitting on the chairs (which we’d also lugged the short distance), reading and watching the light – and weather- change at Reef. The forecast tomorrow was for rain.A wonderful end to our time on Lewis and an area that deserves much more exploration and enjoyment.

STORNOWAY

Surprisingly large, this is the most populated centre in the whole Outer Hebrides.Never a huge favourite of mine, too urban and although there are some fine sandstone villas and properties, it’s a bit rough around the edges. Plenty places to eat and drink though and a fine museum at Lews Castle. In fact, much improved is Stornoway these days though it’s not where I would like to be based. This is where the ferry from Ullapool docks,  if arriving from the mainland.Supermarkets aplenty to stock up in.And a pleasant walk through Lews Castle grounds along the coast.We spent a night with the tent in Laxdale campsite, well run but with very uneven pitches but it was fine for the night and handy for an early ferry next day.

For Harris/Lewis Part 1  – EXPLORING HARRIS AND LEWIS(Part 1)

And Part 2  – EXPLORING HARRIS/LEWIS (Part 2)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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