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Eilean Leodhais – Isle of Lewis

Isle of Harris | The Uists | Barra

Lewis is an island of contrasts, with an incredible variety of land and seascapes. From the wild cliffs of the north-west to the stunning machair margins of the west; from lively Stornoway to the peace and stillness of the peat moorland interior, Lewis has something for everyone.

At 683 square miles/437,000 acres,Lewis is the UK’s biggest island – larger than Skye, the Isle of Wight or the Isle of Man. In fact together, the joint land masses of Lewis and Harris are the size of Cuba.

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Geography and Landscape

On Lewis the predominant rock type is a metamorphic rock known as Lewisian gneiss. Geologists have dated this rock at nearly 3000 million years, making it the oldest rock formation in Britain. The second rock type is a sandstone conglomerate, which at 200 million years is much younger than the Lewisian gneiss, and is found along the coastal zone of the east of Lewis and on some parts of the Point peninsula where wave action has hollowed out sea caves.  Finally, there are visible igneous intrusions exposed at various points within the gneiss: this is basalt, a softer rock which has resulted in differing levels of erosion and the formation of some of Lewis’ more dramatic landscapes.

Compared to Harris, Lewis is relatively flat, save in the south-east, where Beinn Mhor reaches 1874 ft., and in the south-west, where Mealasbhal (1885ft) is the highest point. The principal capes are the Butt of Lewis, in the extreme north, where the cliffs are nearly 150 ft. high and crowned with a lighthouse, the light of which is visible for 19 miles.; Tolsta Head, Tiumpan Head and Cabag Head, on the east; Renish Point, in the extreme south; and, on the west, Toe Head and Gallon Head.

The impermeable nature of the underlying rock has helped the formation of Lewis’ dramatic peat moorland – a natural carbon sink, formed when decaying vegetation is laid down in layers which average up to 1.5 metres in depth. Across Lewis it is estimated that there are 595 square kilometres of peatland. These peatlands are the home to a stunning variety of bird species.

The traditional home fuel of the Hebrides was peat, cut into small rectangular blocks with a special spade called a peat-iron or tairsgear. The peat is cut in the summer months and stacked to dry on the moor, before being moved to another peat-stack close to the home. Two of the islands’ most famous owners, Sir James Matheson and Lord Leverhulme, planned to harvest the peat commercially to provide power for the islands, but commercial exploitation proved impossible,  due mainly to the nature of the underlying rock base. The smell of peat fires is distinctive and evocative, and even today, small quantities of peat are cut by families to burn in winter.



The main centre of population, Stornoway, was originally settled by the Vikings. It acts as a hub for the whole island chain and offers a range of local shops as well as the islands’ only full-size supermarkets, a modern hospital, TV and radio studios, secondary school and centre of local administration. In truth, Stornoway acts as the capital town of the whole Outer Hebrides and is the third-largest settlement by population in the Highlands and Islands after Inverness and Fort William.

A neo-Gothic castle , Lews Castle overlooks the once-busy fishing harbour. The Arts Centre – An Lanntair (The Lantern) – regularly hosts world-class performing arts as well as being the islands’ only permanent cinema. Stornoway only has 9,000 inhabitants but this doubles each July as the Hebridean Celtic Festival takes over the town, setting up a large blue performing tent on the Castle Green and filling smaller venues with live Celtic-style music from across the globe.

Stornoway – and Lewis in general – remains one of the only large towns anywhere in the world where Gaelic can be heard being used in everyday life. By the time of the 2001 Census, Gaelic was in slow decline. Only in the parish of Barvas on Lewis were over 75% of the population fluent Gaelic speakers. However, significant steps are being made to preserve and develop the language, and the statutory provisions of the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005 may well assist in this process.

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Ecology and Environment

Lewis has some outstanding firsts – populations of both Golden and Sea Eagles and migratory sea birds makes this a destination for birdwatchers the world over. The Barvas Moor and the machair grasslands of Uig are unique and famous ecosystems, flourishing in the clear air.  Altogether, the island has 16 Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

The waters of the Minch which divides Lewis from the Highlands of Scotland are not only busy with boat traffic – they are the summer migratory route for a number of marine mammals, with orcas (killer whales), minke whales, basking sharks, dolphins, seals and porpoises regularly spotted from passenger ferries and from the coastline.

And on land there are regular sightings of otters, rare bumblebees, bats and dragonflies in the Lews Castle Grounds. There are also significant numbers of red deer. Less welcome visitors are the invasive species which have set up home on Lewis – the non-native hedgehog and the American mink, which have become predators for the eggs of ground-nesting birds; and the ubiquitous rhododendron, which dominates the landscape of the Lews Castle grounds unless “controlled” by removal.

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But it is the human history of Lewis that adds a special drama to these islands – from the famous megalithic Standing Stones of Callanish, as old as Stonehenge and still accessible to the visitor; to the Norse heritage revealed by village place names. And the recent history of the islands, from the human tragedy of the Clearances to the vibrant fishing, crofting and weaving skills still practised here is made more unique by the use of the Gaelic language, still spoken by over half the native population. 

Peat samples from Lewis show early human habitation as far back as 8,000 BC, when the native woodland was burned to allow deer to graze. Settled human habitation followed shortly afterwards, and remains of these settlements can be found across the island. Around 500 BC, the defensive stone towers or brochs, the best example of which can still be found in Carloway on the west side of Lewis, were built.

Lewis had a turbulent history, with its original settlements invaded by the Scots around 1AD. By the sixth century the Christian faith had arrived, and Lewis was invaded by the Picts. The Vikings followed in the ninth century, and Lewis became part of Norway as part of the Kingdom of Mann until the thirteenth century.  It was during this time that the famous Lewis chess set, rediscovered on a beach in Uig in 1831 was thought to have been made.

Ownership of the Lewis chess sets, made of walrus and whale ivory and carved in a traditional Norwegian style, has been the subject of fierce controversy. It is speculated that the 78 pieces were from a number of different sets, and that they were being transported by Viking merchants when they were lost in Lewis. Many of the people of Lewis bitterly resent the display of these artefacts in the British Museum in London and believe they should belong in the islands. But it has also been suggested that the pieces may be of Icelandic origin, and there have been calls for them to be displayed on Edinburgh, rather than in Lewis.

The bilingual Gaelic/Norse Isle of Lewis was passed back into Scottish ownership after the Treaty of Perth in 1266. Many Norse loanwords, building styles, placenames and personal names still persist on Lewis to this day. Control of Lewis passed to the Lords of the Isles until after 1745, when the first of many waves of mass emigration from the Highlands and Islands began. One of these was the family of Sir Alexander Mackenzie of Stornoway, the famous Scottish explorer, who set out in Canada by canoe in 1789 in the search of the Northwest Passage, and later had the Mackenzie River named after him.

After 1745 the island passed into the hands of wealthy entrepreneurs – Sir James Matheson in 1844 and Lord Leverhulme in 1917. Meanwhile, the hardy and brave Leosachs emigrated to the New World in increasing numbers. A number of families from Lewis reached the sheep-farms of Patagonia.

Lewis and Harris were often referred to as the ‘Isles of Sorrow’ after the 1914-18 conflict – every second man on the islands of fighting age joined up, and every sixth man who did so did not return. There are 1,151 names on the Lewis War memorial. The islands were struck by further tragedy in 1919 when the Admiralty yacht HMS Iolaire sank within sight of Stornoway harbour with 205 souls lost. The passengers were sailors – mostly from Lewis - returning home after surviving the First World War.

The impoverished and adventurous alike left Lewis during the next two decades: many left on the ocean liner ‘Metagama’,which first sailed from Lewis making their way to a life in Canada and beyond. Among the emigrants in 1930 was a young woman from the village of Tong, Mary Anne Macleod, who met a builder from a German family in New York called Frederick Trump. Their son is now the American business magnate Donald J. Trump. It is also rumoured that US rock legend Jimi Hendrix was born in a remote Lewis village on 1st April 1942, a rumour hotly denied by music industry insiders.

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Industry and Economy

The economy of Lewis was subsistence-style farming, fishing and animal husbandry for hundreds of years. Modern economic diversification took place in the Hebrides during the eighteenth century as the traditional feudal ways of life began to fade and more commercial land use became more prevalent. In particular, the clearance of land from subsistence agriculture into extensive animal husbandry took its toll in the Hebrides as elsewhere in Scotland.

In the middle of the eighteenth century, the people of Lewis became involved in the kelping industry - which involved the gathering of seaweed from the shoreline and its incineration in a seaside cairn. Demonstrations of the kelping trade took place in the 1730s, but it was not until the 1770s that it began to be widely practised. Kelping was hard, physical work which involved the whole family and which was poorly paid. The price of the finished kelp (for use as fertiliser or in the chemical industry) fell drastically after the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 and many of Lewis’ former kelpers emigrated. Following years of potato blight in the 1840s the population fell even further as emigration became less of a choice and more like the only option for survival.

One of the unending themes of Lewis has been the struggle of the people to hold their own land. Feudal land holding traditions persisted in Scotland for hundreds of years after land reform elsewhere in the UK. After 1745, most traditional feudal land holding was replaced with landlord and tenant relationships. As in England, this land reform led to dispossession and impoverishment on behalf of the tenants, and much exploitation from (often absentee) landlords. The honesty and competence of the agents appointed to manage the land locally often varied wildly, and many tenants were cleared from uneconomic holdings in a brutal manner.

The existing system of crofts (small, rented, tenant land-holdings) grew out of this time, but initially there was no protection for crofters to secure their tenancies. But in Lewis, a number of poor tenant farmers took well-documented and courageous stands during the 1870s and 1880s to challenge the status quo; there were similar riots in Glendale on Skye in 1882. The unrest led to a Royal Commission in 1883, which indirectly led to the 1886 Crofters’ Holding Act which gave legal protection to the tenants. Many of the Lewis riots actually took place after the publication of the Commission’s findings. Perhaps the best-known of these are the Pairc Deer Raid of 1887 and the Aignish Riot of 1888. On the latter occasion the protestors found themselves facing Marines armed with fixed bayonets. Further riots took place in Gress between 1918 and 1920 when landless war veterans discovered that no further crofts were planned by Lord Leverhulme, who envisaged Lewis as a ‘factory island’ and who had little time for the landholding aspirations of the Leosach war heroes. A complex body of law has subsequently grown up to protect the interests of crofters; and monuments have recently been erected to commemorate the struggle.

Economic choices in contemporary Lewis are still difficult. Many industries have taken root in the Hebrides but many have not been successful in the longer term. The public sector provides some of the most consistent and well-paid work on the island. Many other Leosachs still travel considerable distances to find work – in the latter half of the twentieth century many skilled workers found employment on the oil rigs in the North Sea – when employment declined there, many looked further afield to the offshore oil industries elsewhere in the world. Others still travel as merchant seafarers; the Gaelic-speaking Lewis diaspora stretches round the world. An apochrypal story is told about a police chief in one of Canada’s major cities in Ontario during the twentieth century who ruled that only Gaelic would be spoken on police radio – on the basis that almost the entire police force was Gaelic-speaking. 

One emigrant from Lewis to Canada did more than most to exaggerate the reputation of the Hebrides. Donald Morrison from Lac-Mégantic in Quebec was the son of Lewis parents from Uig, who were swindled out of their farm by their landowner, also from Uig. Falsely accused of arson, Morrison went on the run for 10 months in 1888, shooting a bounty hunter sent to find him , and hiding with the help of other Scottish emigrants in Quebec. Finally caught and imprisoned, his story caught the imagination of poets and he became a folk hero in Quebec.

One of the main traditional industries of Lewis and Harris is, of course Harris Tweed – the Clò Mór of the Hebrides. This is the only cloth whose designation is protected by Act of Parliament. Produced only on hand-looms within the Outer Hebrides using virgin wool that has been dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides, the nature of the tweed was protected by the Harris Tweed Act 1993. The tweed had been homespun, dyed using local vegetable dyes and handwoven for centuries. However, in 1909 the Harris Tweed Authority was formed to promote the cloth and maintain its quality, and from this time tweed production became a major source of income for weavers on the islands. The cloth fell out of favour when synthetic fibres became fashionable, but has recently been ‘rediscovered’ and promoted by such unlikely fashion icons as Dr Who and the fictional hero Robert Langdon created by author Dan Brown for his thrillers including ‘The Da Vinci Code’. 

Many books have been written about Harris Tweed, but this poem encapsulates the evocative nature of the cloth:

I met a man in Harris Tweed
As I walked down the Strand;
I turned and followed him like a dog
The breath of hill and sea and bog
That clung about that coat of brown,
And suddenly, in London Town,
I heard again the Gaelic speech,
The scrunch of keel on shingly beach;
The traffic's never-ending roar
Come plangent from a shining shore;
I saw the little lochs where lie
The lilies, white as ivory;
And tumbling down the rocky hills
Came scores of little foaming rills,
I saw the crofter bait his line,
The children herding yellow kine,
The barefoot woman with her creel,
The washing-pot, the spinning wheel,
The mounds thrown up by patient toil,
To coax the corn from barren soil.
With buoyant step I went along
Whistling a Hebridean song?
That Iain Og of Taransay
Sang one enchanted day.
I was a man renewed indeed
Because I smelt that Harris Tweed
As I went down the Strand.

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Islands of Lewis

As with the other Hebridean islands, Lewis has a long history of occupation and abandonment of its offshore islands. Some of these islands are no more than rocks, suitable only for summer stock grazing or bird fowling – others had long histories of human occupation. The isle of St Columba (Eilean Chaluim Chille )  at the mouth of Loch Erisort (itself a Norse name meaning ‘Eric’s fjord’) contains the ruins of St Columba’s church.

Great Bernera (Beàrnaraigh Mòr) is the largest inhabited island close to Lewis; connected by a road bridge across Loch Roag since 1953, it has just over 200 inhabitants. This follows the pattern to be found across the Hebrides – islands connected by bridges or causeways have tended to flourish; those left unconnected have been abandoned. It has proved difficult for public authorities to make decisions about such connectivity because of the considerable cost of infrastructure.

The Eye Penninsula known locally as Point or An Rubha – almost an island and connected only by an isthmus 100 yards wide and a mile long.  The ruins of the Eye Church are all that remain of a building dedicated to St Columba. It is among the largest pre-Reformation Churches in the Western Isles. Although the present buildings are probably medieval, the Church is reputedly on the site of the cell of St Catan, a contemporary of St. Columba. This is the burial ground of nineteen of the Chiefs of the Macleods of Lewis. There are two old carved commemorative slabs on the walls of the larger building: one depicts a warrior and is believed to be Roderick, 7th Chief; while the other is for Margaret, daughter of Roderick MacLeod of Lewis, who died in 1503. This church is also a Knights Templar burial ground: escapees from the pogrom initiated by Rome and the King of France in the twelfth century found their way to Lewis. It is an extraordinary thought to imagine the distance these men travelled before their final resting place.

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Lewis Beaches and the Castle Grounds

The beaches of Lewis are wild and deserted; long, clean-swept strands with stunning views both summer and winter. Of special note is Traigh Mhor (Garry Beach) in Tolsta; Coll Beach close to Back Football club; and the Ardoil sands near Uig on the West Side. Close to Ness, the Eoropie beach offers marram-grassed dunescapes and an extensive adventure playpark for children.

There are plenty of beautiful walks through Lewis; there are regular escorted walks around Stornoway all year round. There is now a long-distance footpath on the West Side of Lewis; and an annual walk along the cliff path from Tolsta to Ness. The latter begins at the ‘Bridge to Nowhere’ at the end of the B895, built after Lord Leverhulme planned to link the two coastal settlements by road. When Leverhulme died, this grand plan died with him, and the walk between Tolsta and Ness gives an idea of what conditions were like for many Leosachs for centuries.

Another, perhaps more successful memorial to the former owners of Lewis is the Castle Grounds. Standing on the edge of Stornoway town, and dominated by the Lews Castle buildings, this 64,000 acres of mixed moorland, woodland and parkland was gifted to the people of Stornoway by Lord Leverhulme in 1923. Permanently open to the public and now run by a democratically-elected Trust, the Castle Grounds provide Lewis’ only extensive, permanent mixed woodlands which is set aside for leisure purposes. The Castle Grounds are a haven for wildlife and provide the setting for golf, rugby, football, cross-country running, mountain biking and walking within Stornoway. An annual car rally and a half-marathon takes place within the Grounds; and the waters of the River Creed which border the Grounds provide fly-fishing facilities.

Lews Castle, which is now semi-derelict, was built between 1847 and 1857 as a country house for Sir James Matheson who also bought in 46,000 tons of soil from the Baltic countries as ballast in the holds of Stornoway-bound ships to improve the land.  Extensive glasshouses, with exotic plants inside, bordered the house. ?During World War II the Castle was used as accommodation for the 700 Naval Air Squadron, who operated a detachment of six Supermarine Walrus aircraft from the castle grounds. From the early 1950s until 1989 the Castle served as a Technical College and school - Lews Castle College.

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