Islands on the edge
We've all heard of them, but few of us visit the remote Outer Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland. If you do, you're in for a treat, says Alexandra Pratt
It's the oldest group of islands in the British Isles, a place where our ancestors were building megaliths before Stonehenge or the Pyramids were dreamt of. It’s also a place where a foreign king ruled until the 13th century and where 80 per cent of the population is bilingual.
The Outer Hebrides may now be as much a part of Britain as Buckingham Palace, but few can claim familiarity with the islands’ rich culture or dramatic landscapes. What better way to appreciate this fascinating corner of Britain than by renting a traditional Hebridean ‘holiday cottage’ – a restored croft?
It is possible to fly to the Hebrides, but arriving by water has so much more mystique and a sense of having travelled that we decided to take the ferry. CalMac operate five different routes to the islands on modern car ferries which – aura of mystery aside – are probably the most practical choice for those on a self catering holiday.
In gale force winds, we expected a cancellation – but not only did the ferry sail from the Isle of Skye, it sailed smoothly.
Our destination was the west coast of Lewis, the largest of the Western Isles. Hewn from Lewisian gneiss – the oldest rock in the world – Lewis lies the furthest to the north and is known to devotees of the shipping forecast for the ‘Butt of Lewis’ lighthouse, built on its rocky outcrop in 1862.
Lewis may have the highest population in the islands, and the largest town at Stornoway, but driving across the island with only the occasional cottage or Gaelic road sign to be seen – a bilingual map, available on the ferry, is useful – gives the impression of a vast and largely empty landscape.
Sometimes accused of being bleak, Lewis, with its peat bogs and freshwater lochs, has a more subtle beauty than the peaks, white sand beaches and wildflower meadows of the island of Harris. Yet the division between them is one of landscape and name only, as they are part of the same island.
The west coast of Lewis has an impressive coastline with some fine beaches as well as some of the nation's best preserved prehistoric remains.
Our destination was a traditional ‘blackhouse’ nestling in the shelter of a small cove, part of the beautifully-restored crofting village of Gearrannan (pronounced ‘Garenin’). The nine buildings have dry-stone walls several feet thick and are roofed with oat straw weighed down by rocks on ropes. The cottages look just as they did in 1850, although the interiors now have every modern comfort, including underfloor heating fuelled by geothermal energy.
Our cottage, Taigh Glass, is named after an inhabitant, nicknamed Glass who, leaving for a new home in the 1920s, carried roof timbers from his old home on his back for five miles across the bog.
Learning about the living history of the place is what makes a stay at Gearrannan so special. We were lucky to spend an evening with Mairi and Iain – two people central to the restoration project – doing what generations of Gearrannan people have done: taking a dram and having a chat by the fire.