I took a stroll across town in the general direction of the harbour. It was Sunday and the place was dead. Not a shop, not a bar, not a café was open. Bizarrely, the only money changing hands in the whole of Stornoway was in the public toilets - where an attendant demanded 20p for the use of his pristine facilities. I roamed aimlessly through deserted streets. Apart from the occasional scream of gulls, the only sounds came from the churches: a congregation's swell of voices, a preacher's hectoring boom.
Religion is big here on Lewis. Strict observance of the Sabbath is still adhered to. Traditions are ingrained, preserved like the bog corpses which are sometimes dug out of the surrounding peatland - proudly-kept traditions such as crofting, turf cutting, speaking Gaelic. A deep strain of Calvinistic Presbyterianism holds sway, particularly amongst the older generation. Even the smallest settlements often have their own church - crude, not pretty buildings, but generously proportioned, dominating the rest of the village. Scottish Presbyterians believe in hard work, abstemiousness, simplicity - the extravagance of ornate, expansive church architecture would offend their moral rigour. In these austere churches the decor must not detract from the business of worship.
The Presbyterian Church of Scotland was founded by John Knox (a follower of Calvin) in 1560 as a consequence of the Scottish Reformation and the break from Rome. Unlike the Church of England, it's completely independent of the 'state'. In its fervent desire that everyone should read the Bible, the Church promoted the idea of universal, public education - and Scotland became the first country in the world to adopt such a system.
Over the following centuries, various splinter group churches formed and reformed, seceded and reunited. There is now a plethora of Presbyterian denominations - the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland, the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, the Free Church of Scotland, the United Free Church, the United Free Church of Scotland, the Associated Presbyterian Churches... Don't ask me to make sense of it all! Suffice to say that all these churches are united in their belief in education and life-long learning, and put a strong emphasis on Bible study and church doctrine. But they also keenly advocate turning passive knowledge into informed action: there are firm traditions of generosity and hospitality, the pursuit of social justice, and the witnessing of Christ's Gospel.
In the afternoon I took a delightful saunter through the grounds of Lews Castle - the only deciduous woodland on Lewis. This was the country house built for the businessman-philanthropist, Sir James Matheson, in the mid-nineteenth century - and paid for with his profits from the Chinese Opium Trade. (Matheson went into partnership with one William Jardine, and this was the origin of today's Jardine Matheson company - which still maintains such a strong presence in Hong Kong and the Far East. Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, the company's present promotional literature erases any reference to opium, upon which the fortunes of the firm were built.)
Whether the influence of Matheson - who actually owned the whole island before selling it to Lord Leverhulme in 1918 - was baleful or benign is a controversial issue in Lewis to this day. Though I think it's beyond dispute that Matheson did much to alleviate the islanders' one-time starvation and poverty - the result of a potato famine.
There are several water mills on Lewis, and I came across one on Matheson's old estate (now belonging to the democratic Stornoway Trust) at Lews Castle. Its overshot water wheel has been painstakingly restored - the wheel fed by a reconstructed leat which channels water from a nearby stream (see top pic). The mill stones - vertically positioned - were used to grind grain, and the grain was dried in kilns. Other mills (Norse mills, saw mills, carding mills) in the area had horizontally placed grinding stones. Anyone who read the recent post I wrote on my father will not be surprised at my more-than-casual interest in these pre-industrial mills...
Early next morning I took the ferry back to Ullapool. I could have caught one a day earlier - on the Sunday - as Calmac, the ferry company, had just won a decades-long battle with the religiously entrenched authorities on Lewis to allow a Sunday crossing. But I decided to leave on the Monday. Just for old times' sake...