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A World on Its Own: the Outer Hebrides Islands (Scotland)

June 28, 2024 2:49 PM | Bill Magargal (Administrator)

Photo of seascape with sheep grazing in the foregroundby Alexei Krindatch

The Outer Hebrides islands of Scotland are a place where nature feels untouched... ocean, rocks, green pastures, and sheep are most common features of landscapes here.

The beautiful landscapes of the Hebrides are among the oldest in Europe and people have lived here since Mesolithic era (15,000 to 5,000 BC); and over the centuries, Vikings, Norway, Kingdom of Scotland, and now United Kingdom have claimed their authority here. Surprisingly, the islands’ everyday life remains under the control of the same powerful local family clans: MacLeods, MacDonalds, Mackenzies, MacNeils, etc.

My host, Munro, met me at the ferry and we drove to his home. The ferry journey is about 3 hours and costs about 15 USD $ (more if you transport a car). Munro and his wife, Jane, moved from the mainland to Hebrides 45 years ago, working in the local administration (Munro) and education (Jane). They decided to retire in the tiny village of Keose. They are a combination of traditional style with various added modern features. I was especially impressed by the inside “winter garden” and the dining room with floor-to-ceiling panoramic windows.

Photo of Munro's home with flass gazebo and igloo-like greenhouse

My “home” in the village of Keiso on Lewis & Harris island

The village of Keiso, a collection of “crofts.” The land itself belongs to landlords, but all improvements made to this land (i.e. houses, barns, plants, etc.) belong to crofters. Several provisions allow crofters to keep their control over the land indefinitely and pass it within the family from generation to generation.

Photo of a small shetland-like pony standing in the heath

After we settled in, Munro and I went to check out his sheep – the principal livestock of Hebrides. Alongside the Munro’s sheep I discovered a cheerful pony which belonged to one of his neighbors.

Photo of Jane cutting peat

Munro’s wife Jane was working on another property which collectively belonged to the village. She was cutting the peat, which when dried has been traditionally used as a main fuel for heating the houses. Cutting heavy soil into neat pieces and laying them in a particular manner for best drying is a truly “back breaking” job

Duff, a traditional dish of HebridesMy hosts served homemade bread and a traditional dish called “Duff,” a steamed pudding made of flour, suet, dried fruit and various spices. It was delicious served warm and with generous portion of custard. If interested, HERE is a good Duff recipe.

Munro and Jane showed me some highlights of the Lewis part of the island: the Calanais Stones, a giant structure of standing stones arranged in the shape of a cross with a circle in the middle. Created in stages between 3000 and 2000 BC, Calanais Stones are of the same age and as impressive as famous British Stonehenge.

Calanais Standing Stones, a Neolithic monument on Lewis & Harris

It’s unclear what the purpose of this construction was and how it was built: perhaps some sort of lunar calendar to help ancient inhabitants decide timing for various agricultural tasks. Calanais may symbolize four winds or the signs of Zodiac. The structure’s internal circle was also used as burial grounds: the ashes from cremated bodies were placed in clay pots and buried there. Humans abandoned the place around 1000 BC and peat began to form over the site. Calanais Stones were uncovered again in 1857 with the removal of 1.5 m / 5 feet of peat.

photo of Dun Carloway BrochThe nearby Dun Carloway Broch are Iron-Age tower-like multi-story houses. Their walls are constructed by the “dry stone” method, i.e., without any mortar. Brochs are found throughout Atlantic Scotland, perhaps used for military defense purposes or as living quarters for the extended families of the most prominent local clans. 

Of the dozens of brochs’ sites on Outer Hebrides dated from 100 BC to 100 AD, Dun Carloway is remarkably well preserved, and features a dramatic setting overlooking Loch (sea inlet) Carloway. The external diameter of Dun Carloway is 14.3 meters / 45 feet, and the walls vary in thickness from 2.9 to 3.8 meters (9 to 12 feet). It is unknown how high this broch was, but the remaining structure is 9.2 meters / 30 feet high.

Over time, the stones from the walls were reused to build the blackhouses. A traditional blackhouse had two concentric drystone walls with a gap between them filled with earth. The roof was either thatched or made up of turf and most did not have proper chimneys.. The windows were very small, and homes were filled with smoke. Livestock and other animals lived in separate sections.

Photo of host Munro and the author in the Gearrannan Blackhouse Village

The name – “blackhouse” may be derived from the comparison to the new – “white” – homes which were built since the late 1800’s. These homes with added fireplaces and chimneys were inhabited until the middle 1970’s when they were largely replaced with homes with indoor plumbing, electricity, and other conveniences. In 1974, when the last family left, the village was preserved as a museum with holiday accommodation for tourists.

Gearrannan Village allows you to truly travel back to the mid 1950s. Volunteer docents explain the past use of different tools and various rooms. When inside, one can enjoy the warmth and fragrance of a peat fire, look at the demonstration of weaving of the famous Harris Tweed, and “meet” the original inhabitants of the houses through the multi-media presentations depicting their lives and challenges.

One home has been converted into a youth hostel, and four became self-catering accommodations. Their exteriors and interiors retain traditional appearances, while offering all the conveniences of a modern home: full kitchen, central heating, electric showers, snug beds. Check out reservations and prices HERE.

Photo of lochs in the northern part of Lewis & Harris island

The island’s scenery is so appealing. The landscapes of the northern (Lewis) part of the island are shaped by endless moorlands many “lochs” – a Scottish Gaelic word for a lake or fjord.

photo of Lews Castle in StornowayThe museum in Stornoway is new, and adjacent to the Victorian era Lews Castle built in 1840s as a residence for Sir James Matheson who had bought the whole island (yes!) a few years previously with his fortune from the Chinese opium trade. Today, it houses a cultural center, nice cafe and luxury holiday accommodations. In the museum, several rooms compare snapshots and key moments of history and present-day life on Outer Hebrides. The exhibits also combine audio and video information.

photo of Lewis Chessmen The “Lewis Chessmen”: 12th century chess pieces made out of Walrus ivory, were found in 1831 at Uig Bay. One of the few surviving complete medieval chess sets, they belong to the epoch when the islands were under Norwegian Kingdom – a period which left little historical evidence and artifacts.

Harris did not have a road until 1990s. The “lifeline” connecting it with civilization was “Postman’s Path,” a 10 km / 7 mi trail through the mountains to the town of Tarbert (the “capital” of Harris). The postman walked this path three times a week delivering not only mail, but also vital supplies like medicines, etc.

photo of Postman’s Path, a paradise for mountain bikers

Postman’s Path, a paradise for mountain bikers

The village of Tarbet, population 1,200 and four times smaller than Stornoway, has a fairly attractive natural harbor with ferries running from there to the Uig on Scotland’s mainland. 

photo of the town of Tarbert with bay in foreground

Tarbert has two excellent options for souvenir shopping, including locally produced "Harris" tweed, a traditional Scottish rough woolen fabric and locally made whisky and gin. Sugar kelp seaweed from the seas around the islands makes Harris gin unique in flavor.

photo of Harris tweed caps, jackets and scarvesWhisky of Harris, a good souvenir to take back home (A single malt Hearach can cost about 60 pounds/76 USD, and includes a fancy crystal bottle.

As we drove further south through the Harris inlands. the scenery changed: the wide green pastures became rocky hills, stones and lochs with bizarrely changing colors of water.

photo of Meadows surrounding Isle of Harris Golf Club

The evening before my departure, Jane and Munro prepared a wonderful meal with fresh produce, bread cheese, and plenty of wonderful wine. We enjoyed the meal in their glass gazebo with views of the gardens and surrounding countryside.

photo of the author's last dinner with Jane and Munro on Lewis & Harris island


  • June 30, 2024 12:36 PM | Anonymous member
    I stayed there years ago and it was one of the most wonderful experiences in my life.
    Thank you for writing so eloquently about how fabulous the experience is. I would love to go back hi Jane and Munro. What happened to that big bull that lived right behind you Scottish high Landing cattle are so beautiful to look at up close
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  • June 30, 2024 6:04 PM | Anonymous member
    Thank you for your nice story about the Outer Hebrides. My travel companion Elisa and I had a lovely stay with Janet and Munro in mid-May. The Hebrides are an other worldly place with a unique beauty. I'd had it in mind to go there for a long time. Our hosts help make it a wonderful experience.
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  • July 02, 2024 6:50 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)
    My yogi Melanie McCleod from Bhadra Yoga spent time here and did her practice romotely. When she came back she introduced me to the Isle of Harris Gin made with the sugar kelp. Their website has a fascinating story about the man who harvests the kelp. Also, each farmer around the shore has access to the kelp to provide supplemental feed for their animals. After this story no doubt they will be bombarded with hosting requests! They will have to recruit more Servas members!
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