As promised, Part 2!
The ferry from Ullapool, on the mainland, to Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis (the Outer Hebrides) takes 2-1/2 hours. Once we got out into the open water, away from the sheltering inner islands, The Minch, as it's called, transforms into big rolling waves with a good bit of wind. (There's a great tune called Crossing the Minch, and yes, it was an earworm that day!) We reached Stornoway without any trouble, but we didn't have a lot of time to explore the town that day. We had more surprises in store for us.
Our next stop prepared us for how we would be living for the next four days, although we didn't know it yet! The Arnol blackhouses are beautifully preserved and presented traditional cottages, the kind that would have been the main kind of houses in northern Scotland. Walls two feet thick; heavily thatched roof made of layers of wood, heather, and straw; peat fires in the tiny fireplaces; a few tiny windows--all combine to make a rather snug and cosy place to be when the wind and weather are threatening. The weather is always something to consider, and one just learns to dress for it. (Something about there being no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing...)
Our next stop was where we would be living for the next few days: Gearrannan, or Garenin, on the far western coast of Lewis. Perched just out of reach of the sea, surrounded by hills and rocks (and sheep), is a community of blackhouses that was lived in until 1974, when the last three residents were moved to more modern accommodations on the opposite end of the village. The sisters, Anne and Peggy Macleod, probably appreciated the convenience of their new home, but with very mixed feelings. They insisted on being able to have peat fires still. And they were allowed to do so!
We stayed in No. 5, where Peggy and Anne had lived. It had been renovated considerably (we had all the modern conveniences, and bunk beds as well, so we were not roughing it). This had to be a tough life. The sisters never married, and they were fisher folk; they traveled quite far to get work fishing. No grocery stores. Electricity only got there in the 60s; running water about the same time.
We settled in and explored our new temporary home. The blackhouse across from No. 5 is the museum, and it retains the peat fireplace and much of the way a blackhouse would have been when the sisters lived there.
The stack of peats was outside in back of the house. Not that different from having logs out back, but the aroma of a peat fire is unique and wonderful. (I wish I could include that peat fire aroma in this short video, but you'll have to imagine it...
On our last night there, the seven students in our programme teamed up to make cullen skink (the recipe is from Alison, who holds the administration of the Elphinstone Institute together!). Cullen skink is a really good hearty soup or stew made of smoked haddock, onions, potatoes, milk and cream. Even the folks in our group who were hesitant about fish found that it was a pretty darned good stew!
After supper, we had a bit of a ceilidh in the museum blackhouse, gathered around the peat fire, using no lights or electricity. We told stories, sang a few songs, and shared an evening the way it might have been not all that long ago, and that had been that way for centuries.
In our few days at Gearrannan, we made trips to some astounding places.
The Calanais (Callanish) standing stones are awe-inspiring. Situated on a hilltop some 5000 years ago, surrounded by small lochs that reflect the changing clouds and weather, these stones could tell stories...and I wish I could hear all of them.
That night was the autumn equinox. We returned to Calanais through sheets of rain blowing sideways. The weather here is unpredictable and can shift in seconds. Mysteriously, as we drove up the track to the stones, the rain stopped, the wind abated, and a full moon appeared from behind the clouds. We walked silently among the guardian stones in the moonlight, feeling touched by more than a bit of magic.
I wish I had a picture of the next surprise in store for us: As we turned away from the stones to return to the van, a moonbow stretched across the sky in front of us. I had never seen one. A perfect half-circle of shades of grey, a rainbow without the colors!
When we were not at Gearrannan, we took field trips, one to nearby Dun Carloway, an ancient broch tower that was very likely used for shelter and protection from seafaring invaders.
|Beasties in the field around Dun Carloway|
Climbing up the hill to Dun Carloway
Another night, we joined the Ness Melodeon Band in a delightful ceilidh at their community center. Much hilarity, dancing, and a bit of spilled beer--a great evening!
On our last full day in Lewis, we drove back across the island to Stornaway to attend a traditional Gaelic church service. Despite not having any Gaelic, I felt as if I were listening to poetry. The Gaelic singing of psalms is lovely, highly ornamented, and very individual.
After we left the church, we drove down along the coast of Lewis, and I was amazed to see wide stretches of pure white sand beaches in places! No wonder the Vikings liked this place. It does have a lot of rocks and a very stony landscape, especially in Harris, but it has a breathtaking beauty.
In Rodel, at the southern tip of Harris, we stopped at St. Clement's Church, a beautiful medieval church built about 1500 by Alexander MacLeod of Dunvegan and Harris. It is the burial spot of many MacLeods, and it houses some outstanding sculptures (on tombstones, and also embedded in the outside walls). The acoustics in this hall must be fabulous, too...
|The beach at Rodel--not white sands, but a peaceful harbour.|
Much as we would have liked to spend much more time on Lewis and Harris, after a week of traveling, it was time to head home. We left our comfortable blackhouse, returned to Stornoway, crossed the Minch once more, and drove back across the land of lochs and highland moor and heather. One more stop for us before we were to return to Aberdeen, though--at the Clootie Well of Munlochy, not far from Inverness.
The Clootie Well is a strange place. It is a remnant of very old ritual and tradition--a holy place where people still come to leave an offering in the well, take a strip of cloth (clootie), and fasten it to a tree. The tradition goes back many centuries, when people did this in the hopes of healing from a disease or illness. As the clootie would gradually disintegrate, so would the disease, or so the belief goes. That doesn't quite explain a hillside of trees festooned not only with hundreds of clootie strips, but also with shoes, bathing suits, shirts, baby clothes, and even a wood plane. It is, however, an undeniably unsettling spot. It is still a powerful holy place--many people come there on Beltain (May 1), but folk come there to leave offerings throughout the year.
Folklore abounds here.
And so, we are now back in Aberdeen, once more studying and reading and writing about all these experiences, and learning how to see the world a little differently. Much work ahead, but it is enlightening and rather a lot of fun!
|My classmates--the new MLitt students at Elphinstone Institute!|
One more short video, taken from the top of the hill behind the Gearrannan blackhouses, overlooking the sea...next stop, somewhere north of Newfoundland! And yes, that is the sound of the wind (apologies!)--it's fierce up there.