Isle of Lewis: Mystery and History

From its neolithic ritual stone circles to its Norse mill and kiln, Brochs, Blackhouses, Harris Tweed, and Highland Coos, this is an island chock full of mystery and history.

The inhabitants of this Outer Hebridean island have been building rich and complex societies and architecture since at least 2900 BCE. Read about all the best sites to see on this astonishing and wild Scottish isle.

Stornoway: Gateway to Lewis and Harris

The island of Lewis and Harris is one island, but it is often referred to as two separate Isles.

Photo of boats, the lovely harbor and the town of Stornoway on a bright summer day, on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland
The lovely harbor and town of Stornoway, on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland

Lewis consists of the northern two-thirds of the island, and Harris is the remaining southern third of the landmass. This makes it the largest island in Scotland.

If you’re coming to Lewis and Harris, it’s very likely that you’re coming to the capital of Stornoway. With a population of just over 8,000, Stornoway is the largest town in the Outer Hebrides. 

A lonely but picturesque Croft on a grassy area in front of a small beach on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland
Croft on the Isle of Lewis

It is home to the island’s only major airport, Stornaway airport, (with connections to multiple regional airports across the UK), and the ferry terminal.

It is also the hub for buses but be aware that much of Lewis and Harris is closed on Sundays and transportation is limited on that day.

The town was founded by Vikings in the 9th Century on a sheltered natural harbor and was given the name Stjórnavágr or “steering bay” for that reason.

From that point up until around the 14th or 15th Centuries, a local variety of Norse known as Norn was probably spoken by the locals, before being superseded by Scottish Gaelic, a language that just under half of the Stornowegians speak today. 

Stornoway is a town proud of its culture, and the town holds the four-day-long Hebridean Celtic Festival every July, featuring major folk artists and bringing in thousands of tourists from across the world. 

Just to the west of the town sits the historic Lews Castle, a stately home built by the infamous Scottish Opium Lord James Matheson in the 1840s.

It now features a museum focusing on the island’s local Gaelic culture and a café serving hearty local fare. It’s also a great place to stay!

Callanish Standing Stones

The Callanish standing stone circle is located just outside the village of Callanish and is deservedly known as Scotland’s Stonehenge.  I find this one of the most magical places in the world!

A photo of the Callanish stones standing circle at dusk with Loch Roag behind, Isle of Harris, Scotland
The magical Callanish Stone Circle, Callanish, Isle of Lewis, Scotland

They are also known as the Calanais Standing Stones. They have been placed in the shape of a cross. Thirteen stones form a central circle and in the middle is a large stone known as the Central Monolith.

They overlook Loch Roag (which surrounds the island of Great Bernera) and are a haunting site on the nights of a full moon and at sunrise.

The Callanish stones were placed in this mysterious configuration by Neolithic people sometime between 2900 BCE and 2600 BCE. They were used as a ritual site for a thousand years.

For a comprehensive guide to everything you need to know about visiting the Callanish Standing Stones, read the Amazing Standing Stones of Callanish.

Dun Carloway Broch

Not far from the Callanish Standing Stones (and sixteen miles up the A858 to Stornoway’s north-west) is the broch of Dun Carloway.

Photo of the  mysterious Dun Carloway Broch, in the late afternoon, Island of Lewis and Harris, Scotland
The mysterious Dun Carloway Broch, Island of Lewis and Harris, Scotland

A broch, sometimes known as a dun in this region, is a round and hollow drystone fort particular to Iron Age Scotland. Little is known about this striking monument or brochs in general. 

Dun Carloway was probably built on either side of the 1st Century and was inhabited up until the middle of the Medieval period. Even after being abandoned, the broch was still used occasionally. 

One story from the early 17th Century tells how a clan fled there after a cattle raid, only to have the aggrieved party smoke them out and do their best to destroy the building.

Even after this attack, local residents raided the broch’s drystone walls in search of building materials for their own houses.

The result of this is that by the time it was put under state protection in the 1880s, the broch was a ruin of its former self. 

Dun Carloway stands as the best-preserved broch in the Western Isles and one of the tallest in Scotland.

A visitor center, run by the same authority that preserves the Standing Stones at Callanish, is open throughout the Western Isles’ tourist season, running from April until September.

Gearrannan Blackhouse Village

Also in Carloway is the Gearrannan Blackhouse Village, a collection of blackhouses now preserved by the local community trust and open for tourists keen to spend a night or two in the Scotland of old. 

Photo of the Gearranan Blackhouse Village and road running down to the sea between the homes, Isle of Lewis, Island of Lewis and Harris, Scotland
Gearranan Blackhouse Village, Isle of Lewis, Scotland

Blackhouses are traditional single-room homes made with drystone walls and a thatched roof. 

Blackhouses were typically inhabited by crofters, the small-scale tenant farmers of Scotland, and served as homes to many in rural Scotland up until the latter half of the 20th Century.

The village of Gearrannan was one of the last inhabited Blackhouse communities in the Western Isles, with its last elderly residents moving on to more comfortable accommodations in 1974. 

A traditional Blackhouse was shared by both humans and livestock and needed constant maintenance (especially the thatched roof) to survive the harsh Scottish elements.

In 1989 the Urras nan Geàrrannan took over custody of the village and its Blackhouses, converting them into four self-catering holiday homes alongside a museum and a visitor’s centre. 

The museum shows a Blackhouses with its interior restored to how it would have looked in the 1950s, while a café and gift shop sit nearby catering to tourists in the summer months.

The Blackhouse at Arnol is also worth seeing.

Shawbost Norse Mill and Kiln

Crops such as corn and barley were vital to the isolated and windblown Isle of Lewis. From the Iron Age up until the turn of the 20th Century, the island had hundreds of small Norse-style horizontal mills. 

Photo of the conical thatched Shawbost Norse Mill and Kiln buildings, Isle of Lewis, Island of Lewis and Harris, Scotland
Shawbost Norse Mill and Kiln, Isle of Lewis, Island of Lewis and Harris, Scotland

These mills used the rhythms of nature, namely the movement of the island’s streams and river, to power the wheel that ground their grain into flour. But as the times changed these mills fell out of use.

The last closed at the end of the Second World War when the islanders switched to a more modern and less localized way of getting their food. 

After a hiatus of a few decades, the mill at Shawbost is now the only traditional mill working on the Isle of Lewis.  It offers visitors an authentic and hands-on view of what was once daily life in the Outer Hebrides. 

The mill at Shawbost was in use up until 1930, with its restoration process beginning slowly (at first through the efforts of local schoolchildren) in the 1960s and being completed in its current form during the 1990s.

Situated just outside of Shawbost village (five miles west of Carloway) the site is open all year round though mostly unattended, with a path leading the last 500 meters from the carpark to the mill itself.

The Uig Chessmen

In 1831 a local man named Malcolm Macleod was wandering along Uig Bay on the west of Lewis when he chanced upon the find of a lifetime.

A photo of the life-size replica of one of the Uig chess pieces and an information plaque on a low hill, Uig Bay, Isle of Lewis, Scotland
A life-size replica of one of the Uig chess pieces, Uig Bay, Isle of Lewis, Scotland

It was a chest buried deep in the sand, and inside that chest were 79 well-preserved chess pieces, carved from walrus ivory and whale teeth.

Debate continues over where exactly these pieces were made, but the consensus is somewhere in Scandinavia (probably Trondheim in Norway) sometime in the 12th Century. 

Found alongside these exquisitely crafted chess pieces were a belt buckle and fourteen table pieces (a game similar to backgammon). 

During this period, the Outer Hebrides were under the cultural and often direct political domination of Scandinavian lords, whose presence began there during the Viking era.

After the discovery of the pieces, the set was split between different buyers. Today 67 of the chess pieces (and the fourteen Tablemen) are exhibited at the British Museum while eleven are held at the Museum of Scotland. 

This fact has caused some political division with local MPs from the Western Isles lobbying to have the whole set returned to its home country. 

If you’d like some Uig chessmen of your own, replica pieces are sold at small shops across the island. They make unique souvenirs and gifts.

There’s also a much larger-than-life wooden statute of a Uig chessman (the king no less) at the same beach where the pieces were discovered.

Butt of Lewis

The northernmost point of the Isle of Lewis, where the tumultuous waves of the North Atlantic boil and crash against the cliffs, is called the Butt of Lewis (or Rubha Robhanais in Scottish Gaelic).

a photo of the Butt of Lewis Lighthouse at the top of the Butt, overlooking the sea, Isle of Lewis, Scotland
Butt of Lewis Lighthouse, Isle of Lewis, Scotland

It is apparently the windiest place in the United Kingdom! 

The Butt is comprised of some of the oldest rock in Europe, formed around 3000 million years ago in the pre-Cambrian period, fitting in perfectly with the wild and primeval mood of the place.

You should make sure to check out some of the area’s majestic natural rock formations such as the Eye of the Butt (Sùil an Rubha), a hole in a nearby cliff face that juts into the ocean. 

Apart from the area’s rugged natural beauty, the Butt of Lewis is also home to an important man-made structure.

Just under 40 meters high and constructed from unpainted red brick, the Butt of Lewis Lighthouse might look a little different to the whitewashed towers you’re used to, but then again it’s not an ordinary lighthouse.

Constructed in 1862 by the father and uncle of famous Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson, it was one of the last lighthouses to be automated back in 1998, and it continues to aid navigation around this important yet treacherous part of the British coastline. 

Harris Tweed

If you only know one thing about the Isle of Harris, odds are you’ve heard of its greatest export, Harris Tweed.

Close-up photo of an old wooden Scottish Loom weaving brown Harris Tweed, Isle of Lewis and Harris, Scotland
Old Scottish Loom weaving Harris Tweed, Isle of Lewis and Harris, Scotland

Now prestigious, with a long and noble history, Harris Tweed started with very modest beginnings.

For hundreds of years, the Outer Hebrides’ islanders wove a fabric called big cloth (clò-mòr) specially designed to deal with the fierce climate of the region.

 By the Victorian Era, this sturdy and water-resistant fabric was popular amongst outdoorsy aristocrats, being sold at hefty prices across the country. It eventually become a staple of British fashion.

The prestige with which Harris Tweed is associated has become so great that the fabric is even protected by law. The 1993 Harris Tweed Act legally defined Harris Tweed as

 a tweed which has been handwoven by the islanders at their homes in the Outer Hebrides finished in the islands of Harris, Lewis, North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist, and Barra and their several purtenances (The Outer Hebrides) and made from pure virgin wool dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides.

The Act created an independent institution, the Harris Tweed Authority, to ensure standards were kept up and to award the famous Harris Tweed Orb Mark to deserving producers. 

Harris Tweed can be bought here where it’s made –  at the Harris Tweed Hebrides shop in Stornoway – giving you the opportunity to buy a very dashing souvenir of your time in this precious place.

St Clement’s Church

The Isle of Lewis and the Isle of Harris are seen as two distinctive islands. In fact, they’re one single landmass, with the two respective “isles” connected by a neck of land in between.

Photo of St. Clement's Church and its surrounding graveyard and stone walls on the Isle of Harris, Scotland
St. Clement’s Church, Isle of Harris, Scotland

You could think of the Isle of Harris as Lewis’s hillier and lesser-known Siamese twin. Yet despite the fact that it receives less attention than its neighbor, there are still plenty of attractions on Harris that make it worthy of a visit.

One of these is St Clement’s Church in the village of Rodel on Harris’s south-east coast.

Built from Lewisian gneiss in the 16th Century, St Clement’s Church was dedicated to Saint Clement of Rome, one of the very first popes after Saint Peter.

It was done so at the command of the local MacLeod clan’s local head, Alasdair Crotach MacLeod, who also constructed an elaborate tomb for himself in the church’s wall, a practice his successors continued.

St Clement’s working life was cut short by the Scottish Reformation which saw most of the country’s population leave Rome for the new Presbyterian Church of Scotland.

After multiple attempts and renovation and ruin across the centuries, it’s now administered by the Scottish government and is free to visit throughout the day for most of the year.

How to Get to the Isle of Lewis

By Air

Only 3 km from the town of Stornoway, flights operate to Edinburgh, Inverness, and Glasgow. 

By Ferry 

The ferry terminal connects the Isle of Lewis to other towns across the Western Isles and to Ullapool on the Scottish mainland.

The Caledonian MacBrayne ferry (the MV Loch Seaforth) takes two and a half hours and there are two return crossings each day but only one during winter on Sundays.

Ferries also sail from Harris to Uist and the Isle of Skye.

By Bus

Buses from Stornaway service Back and Tosta, Uig, Point, the Port of Ness, Lochs and Tarbert, as well as Harris.

By Car

Hiring a car allows you to easily see all of the Isle of Lewis and to cross the isthmus to the Isle of Harris to discover its wildlife and scenic landscape. This includes Highland Coos and dolphins, but many other wildlife encounters await you on these two surprising isles!

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