Inside a so-called blackhouse in Gearrannan, on the shores of the Isle of Lewis, woody smoke from a fire envelops everything in the sooty chimneyless interior. It’s so thick you feel you’re swaddled as palpably and warmly as if it were a tweed cloak.
For centuries, these low-slung houses sheltered hardy islanders, beneath thatched roofs weighted down with fishing nets and heavy stones, against Atlantic gales. The sea and soil provided the bare essentials of life on Scotland’s western edge, the view from the door taking in an ocean stretching unbroken to the Americas.
It still offers rich history and culture amid majestic vistas – traditional arts and crafts celebrated each July at the Hebridean Celtic Festival in the little island capital Stornoway. There are even wilderness surfers, who venture from farflung places to ride fresh breaks curling into golden sandy beaches. It could pass for the Caribbean if the water wasn’t so cold.
Lewis is the largest and most northern of the Hebrides – a group of more than 100 islands, also known as the Western Isles, arching in a chain over 200km long. Only 36 are inhabited and, even there, slender roads seem like afterthoughts – grey threads dropped on heather-covered moors, loamy peat bogs and coastal grassland known as machair, which is carpeted by wildflowers each May. This natural palette comes together in the local tweed cloth – coveted worldwide after being embraced by designers such as Vivienne Westwood.
Near the village of Callanish are 13 towering standing stones – predating the Egyptian pyramids – that encircle a central monolith, overlooking Loch Roag.
The Lewis Chessmen are much smaller but just as iconic. Believed to be made in Norway circa AD1200, 93 pieces of this Viking chess set were found on Lewis in 1831, and have been shared between the British Museum and National Museum of Scotland. Soon, six pieces will return to new galleries taking shape within Lews Castle in Stornoway.
– TEXT BY NORMAN MILLER
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.