I’ve never done anything but dream. This, and this alone, has been the meaning of my life. My only real concern has been my inner life. FERNANDO PESSOA

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Butts, Brochs And Blackhouses

One Friday morning I took the Calmac car ferry from Ullapool to Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis...


Lewis is the largest and most northerly island in the archipelago of the Outer Hebrides or Western Isles. (Actually it's joined by a narrow isthmus to the Isle of Harris further south, so the two 'isles' are in fact one complete island - known as Lewis and Harris.) Most of Lewis is flat, featureless terrain, a plateau of peat stretching from horizon to horizon. Peat cutting has always been an important part of the island's frugal economy, and you can see now and again stacks of cut turves from the roadside...

I followed the straight western coastal road right up to the Butt of Lewis, the island's most northerly point. The landscape was desolate and treeless, buffeted by North Atlantic gales. It took some getting used to after the majestic peaks and troughs of the Scottish Highlands. At the Butt fulmars and kittiwakes had colonised the high sea cliffs and gannets divebombed the choppy ocean. (Amazing how the gannets' wings fold back just before hitting the water - perfect aerodynamics!) Here was an abandoned lighthouse, designed by David Stevenson, uncle of the writer and adventurer Robert Louis Stevenson, one of my favourite childhood writers, author of Kidnapped and Treasure Island and A Child's Garden Of Verses - and, of course, Travels With A Donkey In The Cévennes, one of the books which fed my own emerging wanderlust...

Travelling south again I reached the isolated crofting community of Arnol and its cluster of deserted blackhouses. Most are in ruins, but one of these long, low cottages is preserved in Arnol's Blackhouse Museum. It's built in the traditional way with thick, drystone walls packed with earth, wooden rafters and a thatch of turf and straw. See from my pic how the roof is roped down against the wind...


In these old crofting houses man and livestock shared the same space. The living room stood next to the byre - sometimes without a partition. The floors were of flagstones or compacted earth. An open peat fire burned in the centre of the living room, and the smoke percolated up through the roof. There was no chimney. This helped dry the thatch and killed off any bugs. Why were they called 'blackhouses'? Perhaps because they were dark and smoky places. Or perhaps because of a confusion between the Gaelic words dubh (black) and tughadh (thatch)...


A little further south I came upon the broch of Dun Carloway. (You'll recall my previous post on the brochs of Dun Telve and Dun Troddan...)



It was getting late in the day, and I still hadn't found a campsite in this barren and windswept wilderness...

7 comments:

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Such a barren, but in its own way, beautiful, place.

One of the things which strikes me in your photos is how indigenous the old buildings seem, almost as if they arose from the very earth around, always—then and now—being a part of the land…and how, by contrast, those modern houses in the background are so obviously out of place, so alien.

Just curious…were you traveling afoot or in a vehicle? I'd think the latter. And do they have designated campsites there, or is it more informal?

The Solitary Walker said...

Indeed - they were built from the materials which lay around: earth, turf, the straw from the oat harvest.

I know what you mean about the modern houses looking alien - but actually you get used to them, and they are a practical solution to the claustrophobic, smoky old blackhouses (which aren't so old - some were still inhabited until comparatively recently).

Just by the way - but Lewis and Harris, like many remote country areas, contain little pockets of seemingly incongruous modern 'litter', if we can call it that - rusty corrugated iron roofs, dessicating tractors, satellite dishes etc. But actually I think that's fine... They will meld into the landscape - in a postmodern kind of way - just as, say, the lead mines in Derbyshire's Peak District now seem beautiful rather than an eyesore, or railway lines (abhorred by Wordsworth and co in their day) soften into the natural landscape, or coal mine slag heaps eventually cover themselves with grass and become natural-seeming hills...

Yes, I was car-camping for the whole of the 3 weeks in Scotland. There are 'proper' campsites' - but you are legally allowed to camp anywhere within reason. I 'wildcamped' a couple of times...

The Weaver of Grass said...

Looks a bit bleak for my tastes Robert.

The Solitary Walker said...

Bleak is the word, Pat. But further south, in south Lewis and Harris, a dramatic shift: rocks, mountains, lochs and lochans, a wild coastline. But still desolate. And wildly beautiful.

Dominic Rivron said...

Never been to Lewis. Once went to Tiree (highest point 141m), though.

Apparently Billy Connolly is know to do a drunken Scotsman who waxes nostalgic about "the hills of Tiree" although I've seen or heard this :)

AktoMan said...

Jonathan Meades did a good program from Lewis/Harris last week (maybe still on the iPlayer BBC4, "Off Kilter").

As to campsites, I only know of the one in Laxdale, but that's round the circular or across the Pentland Moor road (unless you cross the other moor road via Achmore). There are campsites down by the beach on the way to North Tolsta.

There must be some on the west side, but I just can't picture any. When I was in the scouts, we just used to head across to Reef or wildcamp across Uig way.

The Solitary Walker said...

Yes, I saw that programme, Akto - his approach is original, and I quite liked it, though the next prog in the series about Scottish football grounds was way beyond my comprehension!

In the end I camped 2 nights at Cnip (on the W. Coast - a site with gorgeaous views, run by the Cnip Village Grazing Trust) and pitched on the machair. And the final night in Stornoway - a great little site, where freshly laundered towels were replaced several times a day in the shower/toilet block! Now, that's what I call luxury camping.