The Isle of Strangers

The beach of Luskentyre – looks Caribbean but is thoroughly Scottish

I don’t mean to be overly British and start with the weather … but I have to start with the weather and hide this fact as best I can with literary allusions.

“Wind and Wave” is the title of a collection of dark hebridean folk tales and it’s impossible to better sum up the isles than with those words.

The wind is a constant companion on the Outer Hebrides and not unlike Hamlet the visitor may be convinced after not too long a time that the direction of the wind can influence one’s mood as well as one’s sanity. You can walk along narrow lanes or drive your bike along the roads for hours and be astonished by how easy it is to move along. Perhaps it is the road itself that keeps you moving. But woe unto you if you try and turn around to return the same way you came from. If you do that, you’re bound to find out that it was a Southerly wind after all, the proverbial wind in your sails, that benevolently carried you along. Now the wind is in your face. The wind is like an unceasing swarm of insects that enters even the tiniest openings of your clothes. You feel it in your bones. You feel that the wind knows all of your deepest, darkest secrets and that is why it wants to keep you from returning. You feel faced with true cunning and evil. It is old and clever. It does not take long for you to curse the wind in intimate detail, like an ancient enemy.

In short: Headwind makes you go mad, faster than you think. Like a man searching for shade in the desert, that is what you are, on a windy day on the Western Isles looking for still air.

If you manage to brave wind and madness, there are a lot of discoveries to be made. The Outer Hebrides, specifically the isles of Lewis and Harris are remote. (strictly speaking those two form a single island; but in the imagination of it’s inhabitants it always appears as two islands; Lewis is the island of the Protestant workers and Harris is the wild and exotic South in which – at least in whispered rumours – traces of flamboyant Catholicism appear). In the books of the Greek historian Strabo they appear under the name of Hyperborea, the furthest North, and once you’ve made it from London to Stornoway you have already made it halfway to the North Pole. In an age of cheap flights distance doesn’t mean very much, but we have become so complacent that something like changing flights twice already seems like an impossible imposition. And since this is the way things are, most of us will never make it to the barely inhabited isles.

Which isn’t too bad for those that do. The relative emptiness of the land (about 18,000 people are living here and population density is about 8 people per square kilometer) makes it easy to draw a line right through time itself. Here civilization did not manage to create enough ruins to cover the old places. The traces of the – often quite harsh – past have not been wiped away.

The foundation of the island, stone called Lewisian gneiss, is the oldest stone that exists today and it was created during thousands of years of volcanic activity. It was the ice age that gave the isles their shape. The heat rising from the Earth’s molten core melted the rocks, the air and the ice hardened them; explosions and eruptions shaped the rock into mountains. It’s a scene from the oldest myths. A world of chaos, ice and fire. Then the ice age passed and temperatures rose. The massive sheets of ice ground down the mountains like titanic sandpaper and the icemelt filled the valleys where it formed the countless Lochs and created the basis for the peat moors that dominate the Hebrides.

The empty isle, a newborn exhausted by the catastrophes and cataclysms of volcano and ice that gave birth to it, was a place of the sidhe, the fair folk, creatures of the otherworld. They lived here in a world that would lie beyond human comprehension for yet a while.

Much later man enters the stage. Human, manipulated or simply guided by the sidhe, who he would not comprehend as his un- and subconscious voices until much later, took his first tentative steps across a harsh landscape where hunger, loneliness, cold and madness where never too far away. Then human learned to hammer bronze and iron. Learned to live in hordes and tribes around a fire and to chase away the fears, the cold and also the sidhe. All of these things he banished to the shadows.

The islands were already settled in the Iron Age. If one takes a car to a place called Bosta, a beach hidden in a bay of the isle of Berneray, which in turn is hidden in a bay of the isle of Lewis, one will find a reconstructed iron age house right in the sand, a few meters away from the waves. It is only a few steps away from the place where archaeologists found the ruins of the original house and the remains of its inhabitants. Until recently the house used to be inhabited. A woman – conveniently, a woman of present day – stayed in the house to explain to curious visitors all the details of the lodging. She was working for the archaeological society but they seem to have run of of money to pay her.

If, instead of their modest and quietly proud character, the Hebrideans would be given to boastfulness, they would never shut up about the fact that the menhirs, the standing stones, that can be found on Lewis are older than Stonehenge. The Callanish Standing Stones are about 30 minutes by car from our beach of Bosta and offer you a somewhat more mystical window on the world of 4,500 years ago.

There are a number of stone circles scattered over Lewis but the largest of them can be found above Loch Roog between windy fields and herds of sheep. The purpose of those mysterious stones is up to debate but in the imagination of most people they are a clear symbol of something mystical and spiritual. It is possible that they indeed were religious gathering places for the druid class but they might also have been astronomical tools, used to calculate weather patterns or the severity of the coming seasons, as well as more complex calculations in accordance with the celestial bodies. One thing that is sure is that there were burial held here. During the time of the beaker culture, which lived at the end of the Neolithic period (about 2000 B.C.), bodies were lain underneath the stones and given ritual gifts. Another sure thing is that during the late Neolithic period the henge stopped being a gathering place of any sort and was instead used as farmland. The henge sunk into layers of peat and was home to cows and sheep who rarely stopped to puzzle about the use of these quizzical stones.

Later inhabitants of the isle, freshly Christianized, now distrusted those relics of a devilish past. If they paid attention to them at all, they called them fir breighe, false men. As far as they understood the stones were non-Christian humans that had been turned to stones as punishment.

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