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Adventure Outer Hebrides

By: Linda J. Converse, Redding, USA
2006 Travel and Transitions travel story contest participant

Two hours and forty-five minutes by ferry from Ullapull on the northern coast of Scotland lies Stornoway (Steornabhagh) the largest town on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides (Western Isles). “Synonymous with remoteness,” according to our Lonely Planet guidebook, the Outer Hebrides beckoned to our adventurous spirits.       

On our second day there, as we boarded the Maclennen coach in Stornoway for a day trip, I noticed a pretty blond girl of about seven, sitting with her family, wearing a sparkling tiara and matching dangling earrings. The bus was empty, so, like excited school children looking forward to a field trip, my husband and I headed for the rear of the public coach. Soon we were headed down a one lane island road, on our way to the Callanish (Calanais) Standing Stones, and from there on to the Arnol Blackhouse Museum.

Within ten minutes of town, the little girl, Catriona, whose name, she told us, is Gaelic for Catherine, had joined us at the back of the bus. Tomorrow is the start of my holiday,”she offered somewhat tentatively. Perhaps as curious about us as we were about her, she was soon answering our questions about life on the Isle of Lewis. Catriona, our little tour guide, who also sported a matching purse for her glittering tiara and earrings, explained in English that she and the rest of her class of thirty-eight, first through fourth graders, were taught both Scottish Gaelic and English.

Looking out the coach window, we noticed a man off in the distance who appeared to be chopping away part of a hillside, so I asked Catriona what he was doing.  “He's gathering peat for the fire,”she said, in her delightful Scottish/Gaelic accented English.

This natural fuel, we learned later, is made of layered dead grass, sedge, heather and moss, cut into bricks, wind-dried in neat piles and stacked outside the homes of families like Catriona's family.

What are the colored stripes on the back of those sheep? ”I asked her. The blue, red and black marks on the backs of the sheep, she explained, helped to identify their owners, as the sheep had a tendency to jump over the fences. The Stornoway librarian who told us the marks were just like brands on Texas cattle later confirmed this.

At Callanish we said good-bye to our little friend, with regret. She waved to us until we lost sight of her. After touring the Callanish Standing Stones, which stood desolate and exposed to the wind atop a hill overlooking sheep-spotted meadows and Loch Roag beyond, we boarded the next bus making the circular route back towards Stornoway. From the quiet peacefulness of the stones, arranged mysteriously in the shape of a Celtic cross some 5000 years ago, we now found ourselves thrust into a group of noisy high schoolers returning home from school in Stornoway. Though appearing to the adult eye no different than American teenagers, I was struck by how different their lives must be, as they departed the bus to walk up dirt lanes to their parent’s croft houses, where peat is still used for heat.

Soon the road narrowed even further and the bus ride became more informal. The bus driver, now holding a little boy of about three on his lap as he drove, meandered slowly along, stopping occasionally to chat with friends as he passed them on the turnouts. The smell of what I thought was burning rubber began to filter through the bus.

 Arnol, the bus driver suddenly called back to us. He opened the door to let us out at an intersection of two country roads, with no museum in sight. Where's the Arnol Blackhouse?” I asked him anxiously. “Down that way” he said, with no explanation, pointing at a narrow road that led off into the distance.

As he drove away, I worried about whether my severely arthritic knees would withstand the walk we might have ahead of us. But, another part of me, after four days of traveling by public transportation in Scotland, felt liberated by our lack of dependence on a car. My normally cautious self decided it would all work out, one way or another. And I was right; my knees weren't as fragile as I'd imagined them to be. I reached the museum with no trouble.

After a walk down the road of about a mile, we came upon the Arnol Blackhouse, a restored 19th century home occupied until 1964, that housed both its owners and their cattle and chickens, all of whom used the same front door. Upon entering, the owners would move to the left, the cattle to the right, and the chickens would stay in the middle. Inside, a peat fire burned in the center of the kitchen. It was then I recognized the smell I’d mistaken as burning rubber while on the bus. After talking with the guides at the visitor’s center who spoke Gaelic with each other and English with us, we headed back to catch the last bus of the day to Stornoway.

The last leg of our trip was as interesting and delightful as the first two. Now that we had a better understanding of the area after talking with the museum guides, we realized that the rock foundations sitting beside each relatively new house along the way, until fairly recently, supported the same blackhouses we had just toured. To think that some people lived along side their animals, with a fire in the center of their kitchen floor as recently as 1964 -- the year I graduated from high school!

The juxtaposition of old and new continually surprised me on the Isle of Lewis. Along the way we also saw a proper looking older woman standing in front of her house, wearing a pleated wool plaid skirt, white blouse, navy blue sweater and hat. Soon afterwards we picked up a blue-jeaned teenager who talked on a cell phone to her girlfriend who she planned to meet in Stornoway.

About half way back to Stornoway, the bus driver stopped the bus, yelled time for me to go home,” got out and started pushing a stalled car into a nearby garage. We were so engrossed in watching him out the bus window, we didn't realize that everyone had exited the bus except us. Evidently taking pity on us, a young man re-entered the bus and pointed to another bus we were supposed to board. Eventually we ended up in Stornoway where we headed for our room at Mrs. MacLeod's Bed and Breakfast. This bus trip, although only for an afternoon, was the most unique part of our two-week Scotland trip.

Stornoway was described as a rather functional, unexciting town by our guidebook. However, we thoroughly enjoyed our visit there, in part because of our bus trip, but also because of the people. Besides Catriona, Margaret Macleod, our B+B hostess was a delightful woman with a wicked sense of humor who made our visit special.

On the second morning of our stay in Stornoway we had to find another place to stay, as our first night's lodging was booked. Calling from a pay phone, we were referred to Mrs. Macleod, who immediately offered to come pick us up in town. Soon we were riding “home ”with a feisty,  fiftyish-year-old woman who made us feel right at home. Once we were comfortably settled in our sunny second story room, we asked if she'd like to be paid the twenty-five pounds room charge now or later. With a mischievous smile she said, Why don't you pay me now so I can go spend it down at the local department store. They've got great sales going on.”  Margaret was the kind of person we immediately felt at home with despite the geographic and cultural differences between us. Although she advertised her B&B as Mrs. Macleod's, as was the custom, we got the sense that Margaret was definitely her own person.

The next morning we had an excellent breakfast in her sunroom where we chatted with Margaret and with another guest, a single woman from Toronto. After breakfast, when we inquired about a launderette, Margaret offered to drive us there. As we said good-bye and she kissed me on the cheek, I felt like I was leaving an old friend.

Our time on Lewis was too short, only two days and nights, and I would recommend at least four or five days, as there are other day trips from Stornoway that looked intriguing according to our guidebook. Garenin (Na Gearrannan) has a Blackhouse Village with nine restored thatch-roofed blackhouses; the Butt of Lewis (Rubha Robhanais), Lewis' most northern tip, has an attractive harbor at Port of Ness and on Great Bernera, a rocky island connected to Lewis by a bridge, you will find a restored Iron Age House with an entire excavated village and a folk history museum in the town of Breaclete. For detailed information, see the Lonely Planet guidebook Scotland.”

The ferry ride to and from Stornoway is a relaxing adventure. The large CALMAC car and passenger ferry houses a cafeteria, bar, dining area, gift shop and several observation decks. Traveling on the open ocean off the coast of Northern Scotland, one cannot help but feel a sense of excitement as you head for the Outer Hebrides, where the street signs are in both Gaelic and English, the people are unique and friendly and if you want, you can step back in time 5000 years.


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