Isle of Lewis | From Ancient Architecture to Time Capsules

| Published: | Last Updated: May 19, 2022 |

Hebridean Landscape Inspires Standing Stones and Wallpaper Pirate

The Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides has the timeless, windswept and dramatic ambiance you would expect from Scotland’s biggest and most northern island 24 miles off the west coast of Scotland. Despite being on the remote, outermost edge of Europe, the Isle of Lewis has been inhabited since the Neolithic Age 5,000 years ago.

Those who were drawn to settle on the Isle of Lewis include the Pictish people in the Bronze Age; the Gaelic-speaking Christian Celts of Ireland in the 1st century; the Vikings in the 8th century; and members of the Free Presbyterian Church in the mid-19th century.

The landscape of the Isle of Lewis bears the tangible imprint of waves of cultures over the eons, with astonishing ancient monuments like the Callenish Stones that have endured for millennia, and architecture . Also very much in evidence is a spirit of creativity and ingenuity that seems to be in the DNA of today’s residents of the Western isles, as the Outer Hebrides are also known.

Let us give you a bird’s eye view of the attractions of the Isle of Lewis, and introduce you to three cultural stewards who share powerful insights into their Hebridean heritage.

How to Get to the Isle of Lewis

From Ullapool, take a gorgeous 2 hour 45 minute Cal Mac ferry to Stornoway, the main town of the Outer Hebridean region and the capital of Lewis and Harris. Though often referred to separately, Lewis and Harris is actually one island that spans about 841 square miles; Lewis takes up the northern two-thirds and Harris is the southern third.

Isle of Lewis Coastline
Lewis Coastline. Photo: Meg Pier.

Hebridean History in the Isle of Lewis

The distinction in these two regions dates back to Clan Macleod of Lewis and Clan Macleod of Harris, who split the land respectively, in the 18th and 19th century. After several disputes and sales, the lands changed owners on a few occasions. Until 1975, each area was considered as two separate counties; now both regions are now administered by the Western Isles Council.

Much like other Hebridean islands, Lewis boasts the smell of peat in summers, the mix of Gaelic and English languages spoken by its people, and a connection with history that hasn’t been forgotten.

Steeped in tradition, the people of Lewis are fiercely Presbyterian. As proud members of the Church of Scotland and the Free Church, many businesses are closed on Sundays, in observance of the rules of Sabbath. This is unique in a world where many expect to be able to conduct the business of everyday life 24/7. For visitors, Sundays are an opportunity to take part in the services available on the island, spoken in Gaelic in the morning and English in the evening. Those that aren’t religious can also take the rare opportunity for quiet contemplation, feeling a sigh of relief from the constant busyness that has become so normalized.

Stained Glass Church Isle of Lewis
Stained glass and religious iconography. Photo: Meg Pier. 

Stornoway, Gateway to Lewis and Harris

After getting off the ferry in Stornoway, the only town in Lewis, visitors can explore this quaint place. Populated by about 8,000 residents, Stornoway is famous for its fishing boats and bustling harbor. Several other settlements can be found all around Lewis but due to its fertile ground and sheltered harbor, Stornoway has been the most inhabited for many centuries. Vikings who frequented the town often referred to it as “Steering Bay” which translated to Stornoway, and thus it had its name!

Stornoway Habor Isle of Lewis
Stornoway harbor, 1981. Photo: © Copyright Helmut Zozmann, under Creative Commons.

You’ll find the capital of Lewis and Harris isles on the Isle of Lewis: Stornoway, with its Presbytarian identity and bustling harbor. On that same harbor you’ll find An Lanntair, the local arts center where you can get a taste of the local art. When I visited, art by painter and sculptor Moira Maclean was on display. Her method was one of smuggling; collecting discarded items and giving them new life.

While in Stornoway, pay a visit to arts center An Lanntair, an active member of the community that focuses on sharing the heritage and art of Gaelic and Hebridean culture. Established in 2005, An Lanntair endeavors to connect visitors to the Gaelic cultural community through a multifaceted approach in the Outer Hebrides. A variety of mediums can be found in An Lanntair, from a cinema to a dance studio to a place for poetry and literature to be performed. Their self proclaimed mission is: “to connect and inspire people in producing extraordinary, creative programmes, uniquely rooted in the place and reflecting the Arts and ideas of our time.”

Lovely Stornoway Isle of Lewis
“Lovely Stornoway.” Photo: LochieGirl / Flickr

Moira Maclean | Isle of Lewis Wallpaper Pirate

Moira Maclean is one of the artists featured in the halls of An Lanntair. Her work is uniquely inspired by the Hebridean landscape and history. Born and raised on the Isle of Lewis, Moira’s visual art focuses on her own unique connection with the landscape. She explores her place in Lewis by examining memories of her childhood and personal history as a mother and a female, from the lens of domesticity. Her own experiences, combined with the lingering impact of the Clearances, play a large role in her art. Using found materials from abandoned croft houses, she creates work that brings history into the present. We caught up with Moira, who shared her inspirations and how her style developed.

Moira Maclean Artist Isle of Lewis
Moira Maclean describing her work. Photo: Moira Maclean.

Moira’s work has gained a dedicated following both on and off island. She calls herself a ‘wallpaper pirate’; her work is based on a practice of ‘raiding’ the abandoned croft houses of the island. From these interiors, or “time capsules” she collects the old wallpaper, which she calls “silent witness” and uses both her paintings and in her installation pieces to different ends.

“The paintings are the result of deep mining memory, trying to recapture the feeling of walking through a snowy village in my childhood or looking out over glittering sand and sea to outlying Islands, birds, flowers, picnic flasks and paraphernalia, tents and glinting caravans. Shelter, whether croft houses or exotic palaces, caravans or bell tents, is integral to my paintings. Signs of life and lifestyle, paint and vintage wallpaper, tangible evidence of real lives and generations rescued from abandoned houses, are reborn, represented. A new life is made from forgotten remnants- a glimmer of light and life through a window, a flicker, a memory.”

Hebridean Landscapes Moira Maclean Artist
“Hebridean Landscapes” by Moira Maclean. Photo: Moira Maclean.

“‘My installation pieces explore issues of my cultural history, transience, dereliction and diaspora. Also personal history and motherhood as seen from a female, domestic perspective,’ Moira said. “The Outer Hebrides are saturated in tradition, custom and folklore, drawing on Irish (Gaelic) culture, Scandinavian (Viking) influence and all parts between. Some practices have disappeared, some have endured. Some faintly echo or dimly reflect the past. Some resonate. An island, a village, a house, a person can be a crucible for beliefs and practices, where culture grows as on a Petri dish,” Moira explained.

Materials Moira Maclean Artist
Moira sourcing materials. Photo: Moira Maclean. 

Moira described a 2011 exhibition at An Lanntair, entitled “Buisneachd” (Gaelic for witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment): “It focused on ideas related to these themes: about the home, the hearth, the earth and the ether. Domestic detritus, mirrors, bibles, accretions of wallpaper and images of abandoned spaces, insinuate unseen forces and unsettling, sometimes malign, influences.”

Moira Maclean Buisneachd Exhibit
Part of Moira’s “Buisneachd” exhibit. Photo: Moira Maclean.

Butt of Lewis Beacon

Following a trip to An Lanntair, take a 45 minute drive north to the Butt of Lewis, a famous lighthouse on the island and in the Outer Hebrides as a whole. Lighthouses are a distinctive feature of Scotland’s many miles of coastline. These beacons have long been essential to the safety of the many fishing communities, as well as the growth of trade in Scotland.

At the northernmost tip of Lewis, the Butt of Lewis which has been recorded by the Guinness Book of World Records as the windiest place in Britain. The Butt of Lewis consists of a series of cliffs, made from rocks that are estimated to be 3000 million years old. Those brave enough can climb the 168 steps to the top of the Butt of Lewis lighthouse, which shines light to ships passing in the night.

Lighthouse Buildings Butt of Lewis
Lighthouse buildings, Butt of Lewis, Rubha Robhanais. Photo: Rob Farrow, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons 

Blackhouses of Arnol

Following a trip to the Butt of Lewis, a short drive will take you to the famous Blackhouse of Arnol, to take a peek at what life would’ve been like for a resident of the Outer Hebrides as recently as 100 years ago. A blackhouse is a thatched dwelling

Peter Macphail is a Steward at Historic Environment Scotland, an organization dedicated to educating on and preserving Scottish heritage and culture. A descendant of those who lived in the Blackhouses of Arnol, Peter was directly involved in its restoration.

“The houses of number 39 and 42 Arnol tell a continuous story of over a century of housing in Lewis, making them highly significant, particularly for their ability to authentically demonstrate a past way of life and culture,” Peter explained. “They contribute hugely to the Arnol community’s sense of identity and belonging, being tangible evidence of a hard and rich heritage.”

Extorior Blackhouse Isle of Lewis
The exterior of the Blackhouse. Photo: Meg Pier.

“The link with the Gaelic language is very strong, the Blackhouse giving a wealth of background to many stories and songs, as well as a focus for education. Young children from the community, including Arnol, who attend the local school, Sgoil an Taobh Siar, visit the house regularly as part of their Gaelic curriculum.”

“The Blackhouse is perfectly suited to its natural environment,” Peter said. “Unaffected by the Atlantic gales and blending into the surrounding landscape due to its low profile and rounded design. The double stone walls, with earthen and clay core, and their broad turf tops give a sense of permanence, as though they would stand long after being abandoned. The roof on the other hand seems so transient, made of driftwood and shipwreck salvage and partially covered by turf, overlaid with straw and a lattice of ropes, all weighed down with stones to hold it in place. This clearly ties the house to its inhabitants, both utterly reliant on the other.”

Thatched Roof Blackhouse
The thatched roof of the Blackhouse in the Outer Hebrides. Photo: Meg Pier.

Peter then explained the importance of peat and the hearth in Scottish cultures of the past. “The fire was the center of family life; it was never allowed to go out and is still kept lit today. It provides light, warmth and keeps the building dry, a crucial part of maintaining the structure. The smoke rises slowly, spreading throughout the roof space before escaping through the thatch. This prevents fungus from growing inside the dwelling, acts as an insect repellent and covers the roof timbers with a tar-like residue which protects them and stops them from rotting. The fresh breeze coming through the open doorway aids the movement of air, significantly reducing humidity levels.”

“Peat is the material used in the fire, being the only safe solid fuel for this setting due to its spark resistance and tolerable fumes. It is widely available locally, traditionally cut by hand during the spring months and dried on the moor and then in a stack at the side of the house. This is a vital part of the ongoing process of maintaining the Blackhouse and is an activity still carried out by some of the Arnol community.”

Inside Blackhouse Isle of Lewis
Conversations to be had around the hearth of the Blackhouse. Photo: Meg Pier.

Isle of Lewis Icon | Callanish Standing Stones

To go even further into the past, visitors can drive just 30 minutes south of the Blackhouse to the ancient Standing Stones of Callanish. These stones were erected nearly 5000 years ago, giving a unique perspective into ancient Hebridean people.

Stefan Sagrott is Senior Cultural Resources Advisor at Historic Environment Scotland. He specializes in the care of historic locations and monuments, ensuring that they are maintained and protected. Creating spaces to learn about Scottish heritage is essential to the preservation and engagement in Scottish culture.

The Callanish Standing Stones is one such place that has been around for approximately 5000 years, giving a unique insight into the tribes of ancient Scotland. Though it is hard to know exactly what these standing stones were used for, there is no question that the magical energy is present. Standing Stones are famous all around Scotland, an embodiment of years and people gone by.

The Calanais Standing Stones Isle of Lewis
The Calanais Standing Stones. Photo: Kristi Herbert on Flickr.

“On the west coast of Lewis, on a low but prominent rocky ridge overlooking Loch Ròg and Loch Ceann Hùlabhaig you find the ancient Callanish Standing Stones also known as Calanais I,” Peter explained. “The landscape around the stones is a natural amphitheater, and the 49 stones that make up the monument are a prominent skyline feature from almost any vantage point within this.”

“Within the landscape are more than 10 other stone circles and standing stones which along with the natural features of this landscape are likely to have been understood in relation to each other by prehistoric inhabitants of the area,” he continued. “The builders of similar monuments across Europe frequently oriented monuments according to astronomical events such as the midwinter sunrise and sunset. Research at Callanish Stones has shown that it has both astronomical and landscape alignments although we do not understand the meanings behind them.”

“Exploring the stones, you cannot help but marvel at the feat of those prehistoric people who maneuvered the giant slabs of the local Lewisian Gneiss into their carefully calculated positions,” Peter observed. “With stone and antler as the only hard implements available to quarry and shape the rock, the stones would have been moved with rollers, wooden frames and brute strength. Pottery recovered from Callanish shows that they were in contact with, and likely had affinity with, other groups of people in northern Scotland, especially those from Orkney.”

“Locally the stones are called Na Fir Brìghe (‘The False Men’) as folklore holds that they are giants who had been turned to stone for refusing to convert to Christianity. But it was actually about 5000 years ago that the local community came together to erect the first standing stones on what was then their farmland.”

“Clearly Callanish Stones held a memory and importance for subsequent generations, as over the next thousand years they erected further stones and undertook ritual activities at the site; a burial chamber was placed in the center of the site, eventually being turned into a chambered cairn where cremated bones and pottery was placed. When spending time here it is easy to sense the memory and significance it had for these people.”

The Calanais Standing Stones Isle of Lewis
The Callanish Standing Stones.

Stefan went on to describe how these traditions and lore has developed over the years. “Eventually the beliefs and practices of the local people shifted, and they stopped using Calanais I in the same way. From around 1500 BC the area was plowed over and farmed again, although the stones remained. This carried on for the next 2000 years until peat started to accumulate over the site, eventually covering them completely.”

“Callanish Stones were first mentioned in the modern period in 1686 and the first plan was drawn in 1703 which shows that some of the peat had been removed. The site was fully exposed in the 1850s when peat 1.5m deep was removed across the site by the landowner. The importance of the monument was recognised soon after and it was included on the first Schedule of Ancient Monuments in 1882 by the Inspector of Ancient Monuments, General Pitt-Rivers.”

“The stones are magical to visit all year round and attract visitors from all around the world. It is also worth taking the time to visit Calanais II and III a kilometer to the east. The solstice sun rises, and settings are especially memorable times to be at Callanish, and the stones have inspired countless artists and writers over the years. Anyone who visits can’t fail to experience the deep time of the monuments and the majesty of the stones along with the surrounding landscape will likely evoke feelings of spirituality, awe and wonder.”

The Calanais Standing Stones Isle of Lewis
The Calanais Standing Stones of the Isle of Lewis

There is no question that the Isle of Lewis is a place that awakens our human need to connect. This can be seen through the countless artists that find inspiration in its landscape and heritage, and evidenced by historians’ desire to understand the past of this place. Perhaps if you are a seeker of connections, you will get the call to Lewis.

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