Welcome to Isle of Lewis
Lewis occupies the northern two thirds of the largest of the Hebridean Islands, which it shares with Harris. The word Isle, often used to describe both Lewis and Harris, is here used to emphasise their separateness. The border between Lewis and Harris is marked by two sea lochs and a range of mountains, which have made communication between the two most common by sea until only fairly recently. Despite the size of the island (825 square miles) the population is just 23,000.
Lewis lies in the extreme northwest of Scotland: remote by anyone’s standards. The island is separated from the main areas of population not only by the turbulent waters of The Minch but also the awesome terrain of the Scottish Highlands, while due west the next landfall is Canada. Nowadays getting to Lewis is much less trying than it once was; there are regular ferry crossings from Ullapool to Stornoway, the capital and only town on Lewis, as well as flights from Inverness and Glasgow to Stornoway Airport.
Standing Stones at Callanish
These islands are a paradise for many different types of explorer. Geologists are drawn to the 3000 million year old Lewisian Gneiss rock, which forms the archipelago. It is the oldest rock in Britain and amongst the oldest in the world, around half the age of the earth itself. The sea lochs and turbulent waters around Lewis teem with otters, seals and dolphins. Eagles majestically soar through the air in search of prey, scores of gannets plummet headlong into the foaming sea in search of fish and, in the hilly south, deer can be spotted on the higher lands. The varied vistas of Lewis - the broad sandy beeches, the tall rugged cliff faces, the mountainous south and a hinterland of boggy moors - have proved a fertile ground for the growth of a rich culture which has been over eight thousand years in the making.
The hunter gatherers who arrived following the retreat of the ice fields at the end of the last age developed an agricultural economy over thousands of years, aided and abetted by newcomers who joined them in a series of migrations from the south. An agricultural economy created the basis for permanency of settlement and newfound ties to the land led the inhabitants to adorn their landscape with monuments. While the people of Lewis were in no way unique in this the archaeological legacy from this era, which began around 4000 years ago, it is particularly impressive on Lewis. The Calanais (or Callanish) Standing Stones on the east coast of Lewis, built between 2000 and 1000 BC, are amongst the most spectacular in north western Europe. In total there are 20 monuments at this site, the largest, named Calanais I, consists of 50 stones arranged in a complicated pattern reflecting significant points in the lunar cycle. Nearby the broch (or circular fort) at Dun Carloway gives an insight into the island dwellers of the final century BC. Today’s islanders take a special pride in the work of their ancient forebears.
Carloway Bay Sunset, Isle of Lewis
By the first millennium AD loose tribal groups had amalgamated into more significant kingdoms. This process culminated in the island’s incorporation into the Celtic kingdoms of Pictland and later Dalriata, the seed from which Scotland would eventually grow. In the 6th or 7th century, during this period of early Celtic kings, Christianity arrived in the islands from Ireland. The old church of St Columba on the Ui (or Eye) Peninsula at Aignish, which dates from the 14th century, is said to rest on the site of the 7th century church of the Irish monk, Saint Cartan.
From the end of the 8th century Viking raiders and settlers came. Intermarriage with the native Gaels created a largely mixed Scandinavian-Celtic population. The famous Lewis Chessmen, made in the 12th century, most probably in Norway, are some of the most beautiful artefacts which have been uncovered from this period. They are now exhibited in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. Another of the many remnants of this time are places names such as Lewis itself, derived from the Old Norse for homes of the people. The Vikings, though, did not eliminate the Gaelic language which remains the first language of many Lewis’ people.
Cliffs at Carloway, Isle of Lewis
At the battle of Largs in 1263 the Scandinavian overlords were once and for all driven from the Western Isles. The real benefactors of the change in power were the MacDonald clan whose most powerful chiefs, the Lords of the Isles, ruled the islands like an independent kingdom and frequently came into conflict with Scottish kings. On Lewis their staunchest supporters were the clan MacLeod, who as a result became the most influential of Lewis’ clans. It was James IV who finally put an end to the stranglehold the Lords of the Isles had enjoyed for centuries when he seized their lands on charge of treason in 1493.
Agricultural change and the destruction of the clan system which marked the end of the medieval period radically changed island society. But while land clearance decimated the population as a whole it led the town of Stornoway to grow. The focus of the town’s development was the harbour. Stornoway had a particularly important period of growth during the 1800s as a result in the boom in herring fishing and the ferry links, established from Glasgow and Oban at this time, did much to open up Lewis to trade. The harbour remains the centre of Stornoway’s life, occupied by fishing and freight vessels as well as visiting leisure craft and ferries. This is a island capital unlike any other, one of the major cultural centres on the remote and unique Hebridean archipelago and the proud torchbearer of the ancient Gaelic civilisation.