Over the past couple of weeks the weather improved – over 20degC some days and the wind eased. But with a good southwest wind, from the small isle of Canna we headed north to visit the largest town in the Outer Hebrides, Stornoway.
Stornoway is located on the island, Lewis and Harris, the largest Scottish island and the third largest in the British Isles (after Great Britain and Ireland). The population is around 8,000, around one third of the entire Outer Hebrides population. Harris is the hilly southern part of the isle, while Lewis is to the north.
This region is quite remote. Less than 200nm away to the north are the Faroe Islands, and a similar distance to the northeast is Shetland. Stornoway attracts tourists, but fewer than say Portree on Skye. The pubs don’t have typical sidewalk outdoor seating as there’s a good chance of rain most days. But inside is warm and cosy. While the EU suffers yet another heatwave, Stornoway’s temperature struggled to reach anything close to 20degC.
Over 60% of the locals speak Scottish Gaelic and the Hebrides has the highest number of Gaelic speakers in Scotland. Children learn Gaelic and it’s compulsory learning in the first two years of secondary school.
To the ears the dialect is either a charming rhythm or a baffling mumble of sounds where you might be lucky to identify a word or two. Either way, the locals are friendly and offer a cheery ‘hello’ as you pass. Signs throughout the region are bi-lingual.
Crofting is a big part of the local economy and has been for many years. The Highland Clearances of the 1800s had a big effect on the island as landowners took up up large swathes of land. Denied their rights, many crofters left the islands to seek new beginnings overseas. Nowadays, in most cases a crofter pays rent for the land and buildings, while roads and fences are provided by the crofter. A croft is typically around five hectares but can be more or less.
Tourism has certainly helped create diversity among the crofters. Local outlets that produce of meats, honey, jams and liquor, and creative artisans are dotted around the island and sell their products in Stornoway or directly from their croft. One of the most recognisable products is the famous Harris Tweed. To supplement their income, many also have other jobs within the community.
Another of Stornoway’s well-known products is Black Pudding. This sausage is tasty and bursting with zinc and iron, as it’s made from pork blood, suet, and oats. Definitely not for vegetarians! A Scottish breakfast is tasty and filling on a cold morning – beans, mushrooms, sausages, black pudding, egg, square sausage and a tattie scone!
To keep the fires burning, peat has been used traditionally for hundreds of years. Though nowadays many have more modern methods of heating in their homes. Peat is an organic soil with more than 60% organic matter and exceeds 50cm in depth and gives off a unique scent when burnt. The low fields of Lewis are rocky, lumpy and boggy, and apparently the peat can reach down to 5m or more.
Like many locations in this part of the world, evidence of our ancestors can be found on Lewis and Harris. The Calanais Standing Stones are a bus ride away from Stornoway and presents another intriguing glimpse into the past. Archeologists can only speculate as to why they exist.
The stones were erected around 5000 years ago and in the mid 1800s were discovered buried under a thick layer of peat. Today the stones provide entertainment for the many visitors, particularly children. Some people were spotted with their hands pressed to a stone and eyes shut perhaps trying to connect to something spiritual.
Back at the Stornoway marina, Blue Heeler is safe from all winds and tucked in nicely in the town centre. We arrived on the final day of the HebCelt Festival, held on the grounds of Lews Castle. We didn’t have to buy tickets as we were right next door and could hear the music – light Celtic music, modern rock, and some heavy techno with a bass that vibrated through the boat.
There are many local yachts, a few foreign yachts – French, German and Norwegian, but we are the only Aussie boat. There are plenty of shops in Stornoway, a good-sized fisherman’s co-op to poke around in, plus plenty of pubs and fish’n’chip shops too.
Heavy rain and strong winds from the southwest kept us on board for a couple of days, so we used that time to catch up on other jobs until we had a weather window to depart and head back across The Minch and return to Portree, Skye.