Saturday, July 27, 2019

Scotland! Outer Hebrides.

That structure, perched on the hillside is Aird Druim an Tolla, the home of Alasdair Leonard and his trusty four legged companion, Ross in Finsbay, Harris, Outer Hebrides.  Alasdair rents out a twin room and for one night, Pat and I will be sleeping there.

After just a few short days roaming through the Scottish Islands, our roadtrip will continue, via ferry, to the Outer Hebrides. Our arrival point will be the town of Stornoway, the capital city of the Isle of Lewis and Harris, the northern most island in the cluster of islands that make up the Outer Hebrides.

The Outer Hebrides, like much of the islands in Scotland, are about Mother Nature. I am hoping the weather is nice so we can get out of the car, soak up some sun and just enjoy the tranquil beauty of the landscape.

We will be based in Stornoway for just a couple of nights. We'll be staying in an Airbnb apartment which will give us opportunity to do some laundry and food shopping for a few picnic lunches as well as Sunday night dinner. More about the dinner later.

On our first full day on Lewis, I have planned a scenic drive route that will take us to several of the highlights on the island.  We'll be starting with the famed Calanais Standing Stones - the stones are the opening image of the video above.

The Calanais Standing Stones are an extraordinary cross-shaped setting of stones erected 5,000 years ago. They predate England’s famous Stonehenge monument, and were an important place for ritual activity for at least 2,000 years.

The standing stones at Calanais are not a henge and while archeologists don't know the exact purpose of them, the general belief is that the site was a kind of astronomical observatory.

Risso's Dolphin.  Easily identified as their bodies typically bear a lot of scars.
Photo by "Mike" Michael L. Baird. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)
From Calanais, our drive will take us to the very northern tip of Lewis where we will visit the Butt of Lewis and the lighthouse that is situated there.  There's really nothing interesting about the lighthouse except that it's constructed of red brick and is unpainted.  It's really all about the location.   The Butt of Lewis is one of the spots pinpointed on the recently established Hebridean Whale Trail.  The trail was put together by the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust and it pinpoints the 30 sites on Scotland's west coast that are considered to offer good opportunities for spotting marine mammals.   Fingers crossed, big time, and maybe we'll catch glimpse of at least one of the marine animals that roam around this area including Risso’s dolphins, Bottlenose dolphins, Minke whales, Killer whales (orca), Harbour porpoises, seals, fulmars, and gannets.

Gearranan Blackhouse Village
Photo from TravelMag.  Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)
I had also planned for us to stop by for a quick visit to the Arnol Blackhouse but unfortunately, it will be closed during the time of our trip so sadly, I had to remove it from the calendar.  Instead, we'll be driving to the Gearranan Blackhouse Village, a cluster of thatched roofed, stone cottages perched atop a hill overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. This cluster of houses was built in the late 1800s and are the traditional blackhouses that once dotted the Hebridean landscape. 

For centuries, Highlanders and their livestock lived in these traditional, one-room homes. The houses featured packed earth floors, drystone walls, and thatched roofs. A fire in the central hearth kept the space warm, and a divider separated the human inhabitants from their farm animals, which were kept at one end of the building.

Incredibly, people lived in these houses until the 1970s, when the village’s remaining elderly residents moved into more modern homes. It seemed as though the village would then be lost to time, destined to crumble and decay until it was no more than a ruin but  thankfully, it's been preserved.  You can actually spend the night here - either a bed in the hostel or a family room.

Dun Carloway Broch.
Photo licensed under Public Domain.
Dun Carloway Broch is also on our must see list for the Isle of Lewis.  Let's start by asking "What is a broch?"  Simply put, a broch is an Iron Age dry-stone hollow-walled structure that is uniquely found in Scotland.

It is estimated that at least seven hundred brochs once existed across Scotland - predominantly in Orkney, Shetland and the Hebrides as stone was more readily than timber for building.

Huge windowless towers, ingeniously engineered, brochs were primarily built during the last few centuries BC and the first few centuries AD.  They combine features of fort, fortified house, and status symbol, and could feasibly have served several different purposes in different places and at different times.

As a type of fortified house they typically had one, small, easily defended entrance leading to a central inner circular “courtyard”. They were formed by two concentric, dry-stone walls, producing a hollow-walled tower with small rooms and storage areas between. Steps were also built into the gap between the walls providing access to upper wooden platforms. Perhaps not standard living quarters for all; many people would have only taken refuge in the broch when a raiding party was sighted, squeezing some of their valuable livestock into the central courtyard. It is likely that the whole structure would have been topped with a conical, thatched roof.

As a fort it is believed that brochs were never built to deter serious or sustained attack as their defenses were simply too weak; the rough stone walls could be climbed by determined attackers and the entranceway lacked external protection and so could easily have been rammed. Lacking external windows and access to the top of the walls, the defenders inside were denied both visibility and the tactical advantage of height.

The best and largest example of a Scottish broch is Mousa Broch which is situated on an island of the same name in the Shetlands. At the moment, I don't have it on my Shetland itinerary because I don't know that we will want to venture all the way over to the island just to see a broch but I read somewhere that you can see it from the main island so that's what we might just do instead.

Luskentyre Beach, Outer Hebrides
Photo by Mo Thomson. Posted to by The Afternoon Standard.

In contrast to our time on Lewis where we will be able to take in a bit of ancient Scottish history, our time on Harris will be mainly about nature.  After we leave Stornoway, our first destination on Harris will be Luskentyre Beach which, believe it or not, has been ranked by CNN to be one of the top 25 beaches in the world.  Looking at the images of the pristine white sand against the crystal green blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean, I can see why this beach is so admired!  Who knew there was such a beautiful beach in of all places, Scotland?  In fact, there are plenty such beaches, perhaps not quite as big in size, along the shores of the Isle of Harris.  I think one of them will be the perfect spot for a picnic lunch.

Our drive route will take us down the western coast of Harris.  Wherever and whenever we feel like, we'll get out of the car and take in the gorgeous scenery.  I just hope that weather gods will bequeath us with a bright sunny day.  As much as I love clouds and dreary weather, bright sunshine is best when you want to admire white sand beaches and blue green ocean water!

St. Clements Church
Photo by Gvdwiele.  Licensed under  CC BY-SA 3.0.
I would like to take a short break in the small village of Leverburgh, perhaps for a bit of afternoon tea?  Then it will be on St. Clements Church in Rodel.  Tiny church so again, a short break. 

It will be then off to find our Airbnb in Finsbay.  The place is so remotely situated that there is no street address.  We've just be given some written directions by our host, Alasdair and hopefully, between the rough pin on my Google map and his directions, we'll find the place!  Fingers crossed!

It will be a Sunday when we're in Harris and well, pretty much all businesses, including restaurants, will be closed.  So, there will be no place for Pat and I to grab dinner.  When I booked our room with Alasdair, I came up with the idea to cook dinner for him, Pat and I.  He gladly accepted my offer and in exchange, offered to make a dessert which I gladly accepted!  So, when we are in Stornoway, we will have to pick up the ingredients for our Sunday night dinner.  In his Airbnb profile, Alasdair wrote that he spent the last decade of his working life in Beijing so I'm thinking I will make a Chinese meal for us.  I've got some ideas for a menu already brewing in my head and I'm thinking I might have to bring a few Chinese ingredients from home - things that you might not find in a supermarket in the Outer Hebrides.

On Monday, we will take the ferry from the seaside village of Tartbet over to the Isle of Skye.  My plan is for us to get to Tarbet a bit early so that we can visit some of the stores that sell the famed Harris Tweed.  Yes, this is the part of the world that produces Harris Tweed.  Apparently, the true Harris tweed is still all handwoven by people in their homes or at least in very small factories.  It's a cottage industry of sorts, the heritage of which is revered and protected by the Harris Tweed Authority.  Even if I don't buy anything, it will be interesting to learn a bit more about the production of the cloth.

We don't have much time in the Outer Hebrides but I hope I've planned well enough to give us a good taste of what the region is like. I have a feeling I am going to fall in love with the Outer Hebrides and will want to come back one day.  Until then, here is the map and itinerary for our short visit.