Landscapes of ‘The Lewis Man’

I rarely read fiction. I’d much rather get my nose into some interesting historical tome. But as I’ve found from experience over the past years, not all historians are adept at stringing an interesting narrative together.

Our public library here in Bromsgrove has quite a large history section, but the majority of the books are about WW1 and WW2. I did begin reading some of these, but frankly one or two made me quite depressed after reading one commentary after another about the barbarity of 20th century warfare.

However, when I was looking for a book last week, there was nothing in the history section that attracted my attention, and I’d already read those that would.

lewis-manSo I was drawn to the fiction shelves, and suddenly had the bright idea to check out if there were any books by acclaimed Scottish author Peter May. Now I have to make a confession here. Until my recent trip to the Outer Hebrides I’d never heard of Peter May (although I think my wife Steph had read a couple of his books). Anyway, to cut a long story short (excuse the pun), I found a couple of May’s books on one of the lower shelves and decided to take them out on loan.

I finished his The Lewis Man (second of his Lewis Trilogy, published in 2012) in a couple of days, and have just started Runaway that was published earlier this year. I don’t intend to write a review of The Lewis Man here. It was an easy read, the narrative guided you through effortlessly, and there was an interesting twist to events at the end.

But what brought the book alive, for me at least, was the fact that I had just completed a road trip that took me from the north of the Isle of Lewis to the southern tip of Eriskay—many of the places and landscapes described in May’s book. So I could really imagine myself there as he describes how events unfold, and in particular how the weather inflicted on the Western Isles has determined where and how humans settled and adapted to this challenging environment.

In collaboration with Lewis photographer David Wilson, May has also published an anthology of prose and images titled simply Hebrides. Now I can’t claim that my images compare in the slightest with the beauty of Wilson’s. I had just the one opportunity to catch the moment during a few days whereas he’s a resident. But here are just a few of mine that came to mind as I absorbed myself in The Lewis Man.


A glorious Hebridean double act . . .

Morecambe and Wise? Ant and Dec? Lewis and Harris? Not another comedy or presenter duo, surely?

Not by any means. Lewis and Harris is the largest island of the Outer Hebrides. Often referred to as the Isle of Lewis and Isle of Harris, Lewis occupies the northern half of the island, and North and South Harris the southern end. South Harris is almost an island, and there is only a tiny isthmus at Tarbert connecting North and South.

Our journey around the island took one and a half days, to the northern-most tip at the Butt of Lewis, to Rodel on the southern tip of South Harris. We set out from Stornaway to the Butt of Lewis under heavy grey skies, that grew darker and darker the further north we traveled. It was blowing a real gale by the time we reached the Butt of Lewis, the rain was horizontal, and I did wonder whether we’d get chance to see anything at all. But, as on most days of our holiday, the weather improved at the right moment, and it stopped raining. The wind did not drop, however.

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Blowing a gale at the Butt of Lewis.

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Butt of Lewis panorama – next stop North America!

On our way to the Butt of Lewis we had seen a signpost for a stone circle known as Steinacleit, near the township of Upper Shader. So we decided to stop there once we had begun to make our way south.

At first there didn’t appear to be much to see on the ground. But once we had our bearings, it was possible to discern the remains of an outer circle of stones (the remains of an enclosure, perhaps) surrounding a central cairn. The site has not been excavated scientifically, so not much is known about who built the circle and when. What artefacts that were found in the 19th century have been lost.

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Next stop on our Lewis itinerary were the Standing Stones at Callanish—a truly remarkable, mystical yet peaceful location, erected on a low hills overlooking mountains and lochs to the southwest.

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Our third archaeological site was at Bostadh on the north coast of Great Bernera, where an Iron Age village was discovered, and one of the houses reconstructed.

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Then we headed further south, into Harris and on to our B&B a few miles south of Tarbert, at Drinisiadar.

Loch Seaforth

Loch Seaforth.

Hills of North Harris

The hills of North Harris.

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Evening sunshine across the loch in front of our B&B.

The following morning, we had a couple of hours free before we had to take the Sound of Harris ferry from Leverburgh to Berneray (and the Uists). So we had a leisurely drive along the coast of South Harris, ending up at Rodel—the end of the road, where’s there is a beautiful little sixteenth century church of the MacLeod clan, St Clement’s (apparently dedicated to Pope Clement I).

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St Clement’s Church, Rodel, South Harris.

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Peace and tranquility . . . just west of the M6 in Lancashire

Last Monday was the last day of our holiday in Scotland. We’d reached Lockerbie in Dumfries and Galloway on Sunday night, and just had the journey down the A74(M) and M6 to reach home.

Two hours is about as much as I can take driving on the motorway before I need to take a break. And we had discovered that there was a National Trust property, Rufford Old Hall, in Lancashire just south of Preston, about equidistant between Lockerbie and home. The ideal place to stretch our legs, have a bite to eat, and enjoy another of the Trust’s delights. In fact, it seems that many holidaymakers have exactly the same idea. One of the volunteers told me that Monday is usually a busy day, with many visitors breaking their journey north or south at the hall. Rufford Old Hall is very convenient to the M6, just a handful of miles west of Junction 27.

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20150608 057 Rufford Old Hall

Formerly the home of the Hesketh family, Rufford Old Hall (is there a new one?) has two main wings: an original timber-framed Tudor one built in 1530 for Sir Robert Hesketh, oriented east-west, that may have once also had another wing on the west side (there are two ‘external’ doors on the west wall) but this no longer exists; and a later seventeenth century brick wing, north-south. The main entrance opens into what was once the kitchen, but that was moved to another location in the same wing at a later date.

The crowning glory of course is the Tudor wing, which consists primarily of the Great Hall with its magnificent bow window and small section of original Tudor stained glass. The roof of the Great Hall is a wonder to behold in timber architecture and construction. There is also a moveable screen just inside the hall. Photography is permitted only inside the Great Hall as the National Trust does not own all the items on display elsewhere throughout the property.

There is a small formal garden, with renowned squirrel topiaries, and walks through orchards, woodland and meadows alongside the Rufford Branch of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal (built in 1781) on the east side of the property.

Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing . . .

It’s one of the big ‘what ifs’ of British history.

Lost_Portrait_of_Charles_Edward_StuartHow would Britain as a nation and British society have evolved had the 1745-46 Jacobite Rising of the Young Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie (or, to give him his full name: Charles Edward Louis John Casimir Sylvester Severino Maria Stuart, born 31 December 1720, died 31 January 1788) been successful. Would there still be a Union? But he wasn’t successful, and this uprising ended with the last battle fought on British soil at Culloden in 1746. It had a long-lasting impact on Scotland, particularly in the Highlands.

He raised his standard at Glenfinnan on the west coast of Scotland on 19 August 1745 in a bid to reclaim the throne for his father (The Old Pretender, James Francis Edward Stuart, son of deposed King James II, and accepted by many as the rightful heir) from the ‘usurper Hanoverians’.

During our recent road trip round Scotland we came across a number of sites associated with Bonnie Prince Charlie and the 1745. Having made our trip counter-clockwise, we reached Glenfinnan on the penultimate day of our holiday. The weather was atrocious: driving rain and strong winds. In fact I had wanted to make the 15 mile or so detour west of Fort William to see the Glenfinnan viaduct on the railway connecting Fort William and Mallaig. For all you Harry Potter fans, the steam train that runs on this West Highland line featured as The Hogwarts Express in several films.

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The Glenfinnan Monument.

When we arrived at the Glenfinnan visitor centre, I realized that I had seen the Glenfinnan Monument (that commemorates the raising of the standard) on a couple of previous occasions, but never in such weather. We did get tickets to climb the monument—maximum four people at a time plus the guide. It’s an extremely steep and tight stone spiral staircase up the monument, and you have to almost limbo dance to squeeze out through the manhole, that couldn’t have been more than 18 inches square. I did manage my photo of the viaduct from there, and just as we walked back to the Visitor Centre, we heard the steam train puffing its way through the station, where we had been no more than 20 minutes previously. No-one had cared to advise us that the steam train was expected imminently!

During the 1745 uprising, the Jacobites marched south into England, reaching Derby by early December. And it was at this point that they effectively lost their campaign. Some historians believe that the Hanoverian government forces could have been defeated at that time, but Charles Edward Stuart turned round and led his forces back into Scotland, where they were caught and defeated at the Battle of Culloden on 16 April 1746. The battle site is just east of Inverness, managed by the National Trust for Scotland property, and seemingly the site for pilgrimage by people of Scots ancestry from all over the world. The displays and explanations of the battle in the visitors centre are excellent.

1746 Culloden battlefield, east of Inverness.

Site of the Battle of Culloden, east of Inverness, on 16 April 1746

In South Uist we passed by the birthplace of Flora MacDonald, who helped Bonnie Prince Charlie escape into exile after Culloden, and also near where she is buried in the north of Skye.

While compiling information for this blog post, I’ve discovered a ‘personal’ link to Bonnie Prince Charlie. My home town is Leek in North Staffordshire: The Queen of the Moorlands. The Jacobite army passed through Leek in December 1745 on its way south. After turning round at Derby, it passed through Leek once again and there is anecdotal evidence that Bonnie Prince Charlie stayed the night in a small house at the top of the Market Place, just across the road from where I used to live, and next to the vicarage of the Church of St Edward the Confessor (where Jacobite soldiers sharpened their swords on a stone cross in the churchyard).

Yesterday, however, I read another account that states that the Prince did not stay in this house after all, but lodged instead in a much finer house, one built in the late 17th century, and located about 200 m east on Stockwell Street. Now a listed building, ‘Greystones’, was once divided into two apartments and rented by the local authority. From 1976 until the mid-1980s, my parents resided in the apartment on the upper two floors. I never had the least inkling whenever I visited them there that this just might have been the place where Bonnie Prince Charlie lay his weary head and dreamed on what might have been.


‘Greystones’ is a late 17th century listed building on Stockwell Street in Leek. It stands in front of the local library, art gallery and museum, the Nicholson Institute, the tower of which can be seen behind. ‘Greystones’ was once occupied by silk manufacturer Joshua Nicholson, who built the Institute in 1884.

The end of the road . . .

I’ve been deceived all these years!

Scotland 123I have to admit being disappointed—but only ever so slightly—to discover that John o’ Groats is NOT the northernmost point on the British mainland (although apparently it is the spot where the ‘last house’ is situated.

Since everyone who undertakes a marathon walk, run or bike-ride the whole length of the country, usually for charity, starts or ends their journey in John o’ Groats (to or from Land’s End in Cornwall, with more than 800 miles between them). I don’t know why, but I’d always wanted to visit John o’ Groats. I guess because it appears in the news on a regular basis, an iconic location in our nation’s geography. So it was one of the places we included on our itinerary during our recent Scottish Highlands and Island road trip.

The actual most northern spot on the mainland is Dunnet Head, about 15 miles to west of John o’ Groats. Turns out that Land’s End is not the most southerly point either. That would be the Lizard Point, but which is actually closer to John o’ Groats by less than 10 miles.

We arrived in John o’ Groats under brilliant blue skies on the Saturday afternoon, and enjoyed clear views over the Pentland Firth, the stretch of what can be perilous waters between the mainland and the Orkney Islands, less than a dozen miles north. After wandering around the harbour, we than drove the couple of miles east to Duncansby Head, lighthouse and Stacks, enjoying even more spectacular views over the cliffs.

Since our B&B accommodation for the night was in Thurso we drove there via Dunnet Head and its lighthouse to see the most northern point of the mainland for ourselves.

In the late afternoon sun we could even see the tip of the Old Man of Hoy sea stack above a headland on the northeast coast of the large island of Hoy immediately north.


Returning to Hogha Gearraidh after 49 years

It was summer 1966. I was seventeen, and decided to visit the Outer Hebrides, more specifically North Uist, where the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) had just established a new reserve at Balranald near the village of Hougharry (Hogha Gearraidh in Scots Gaelic) on the west coast. Originally the reserve was aimed at protecting breeding populations of two special summer visitors: the corncrake and the red-necked phalarope.  Sadly, the phalarope no longer breeds at Balranald.

So, with rucksack on my back, including a one-man tent and all the paraphernalia necessary to support me for a couple of weeks, I set off for Glasgow (where I spent a few nights with my eldest brother Martin and his wife, Pauline) before taking my first ever flight on a Vickers Viscount from Glasgow International Airport (formerly known as Abbotsinch) to Benbecula airport at Balivanich.

I pitched my tent in front of the small cluster of houses in Hougharry, and was invited in for several meals by the old lady with whom the recently-appointed (and temporary) reserve warden was lodged. If I remember, her name was Mrs MacDonald, and she was very kind and hospitable. I don’t remember the name of the young warden. He had just graduated in geography from the University of Hull. Well, I didn’t get to see the corncrake nor the red-necked phalarope, and when I visited again in 1967 I was also unlucky. But the experience was wonderful, and I fell in love with the Outer Hebrides, particularly North and South Uist. What a combination of nature! The machair and all its plant and animal diversity, the lochs and mountains, not to mention the sea life such as grey seals and killer whales. Pure air, no pollution!

I must have been almost the first visitor ever to Balranald in 1966. And I have just returned from a trip to North Uist—a walk down memory lane after 49 years. Still no corncrakes, however, though we did hear them.

Of course the islands have changed a great deal over the past five decades. Almost all of the old whitewashed and thatched croft cottages have disappeared, once so typical of the Uist landscape. Many cottages are now roofless shells, the roofs presumably deliberately removed to remove any property tax liability. There has been an enormous house building boom in the past 20 years or so, I guess. I was told that with government grants it was cheaper to build new, energy-efficient housing (necessary against the icy blasts that pour in from the North Atlantic) than to renovate.

I wasn’t able to work out where I had camped in Hougharry nor which was Mrs MacDonald’s house. But I was pleased that I had been able to return and revive good memories from my youth. We stayed a couple of nights at a B&B at Balranald, overlooking the reserve, with Hougharry on the horizon. Run by Mrs Julie Ferguson, Balranald View was excellent. Julie was extremely welcoming, and her scones (with butter and mixed fruit jam) melted in the mouth.

North Uist towards Lochmaddy

Looking southeast and southwest from South Clettraval, east of Hosta on North Uist.

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Looking south towards Kirkibost Island from South Clettraval

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The bay at Hougharry with the village in the background.

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Along the machair around the bay at Hougharry.

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Kilmuir Cemetery, from Hougharry village.

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A typical North Uist landscape, south of Hougharry.

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Red deer on the B894 to Loch Euport, near Sidinish.

Road to Lochmaddy North Uist

The mountains of North Uist with Eabhal on the right, taken from the A867 to Lochmaddy.

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A dreek morning wait for the ferry from Lochmaddy to Uig on the Isle of Skye.

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Our B&B accommodation at Balranald, where hostess Julie Ferguson and her husband Roddy made us very welcome. Roddy was born in Hougharry.


Julie Fowlis

As a fan of the BBC series Transatlantic Sessions, I have increasingly become a fan of singer and TV presenter Julie Fowlis who has appeared regularly on that programme, and who I see from time-to-time whenever I tune into BBC Alba on catch-up TV. Well, she hails from North Uist—from Hougharry, in fact (so Julie Ferguson told me).

Here she is talking about her Hebridean roots and music. It’s a six minute film.

This song seems to have almost become her signature tune now: Hùg Air A’ Bhonaid Mhòir (Celebrate the Great Bonnet).

And in this song, she sings about The Dun-Coloured Old Men of Hoghaigearraidh (Bodaich Odhar Hoghaigearraidh)



Gardens, lochs and castles

Steph and I have been members of the National Trust since 2011, and so we took advantage of reciprocal membership to visit several National Trust for Scotland properties during our recent Highlands and Islands holiday.

Gardens always feature high on our list of National Trust “to do’s”. Steph’s the gardener at home however. I’m just the admirer and mow the grass. But when we found that we’d be quite close to one of Scotland’s most important gardens, Inverewe in Wester Ross, we made plans to visit before crossing to the Outer Hebrides. We came across the other big garden, Arduaine in Argyll & Bute, quite by chance. It was just a few miles from our accommodation on the penultimate night of the holiday. The third garden was attached to Brodie castle just east of Inverness that we visited on Day 3. We turned up at Brodie only to find that the castle was not open to the public on a Friday, so we spent an hour wandering around the small garden and learning more about daffodils! More of that later on.

Inverewe Garden
This is an oasis of almost tropical splendour on the banks of Loch Ewe in northwest Scotland, about 50 miles southwest of Ullapool.

We spent the night of Day 5 of our holiday at Braemore about 12 miles south of Ullapool at the southern end of Loch Broom.

Loch Broom from the south.

Loch Broom from the south.

Having booked passage on the 17:30 ferry to cross over to Stornaway on the Isle of Lewis from Ullapool, we had the whole day to visit Inverewe. The weather was not promising when we started out for Inverewe, with low cloud and spitting rain. Typical Scottish weather you might think. However, within just a few miles, the clouds lifted and we were treated to a bright sunny day for the rest of our journey and the two to three hours we spent walking around the garden before heading back to Ullapool for the ferry. Given that a major storm was expected later that evening, and as ferry crossings had been disrupted in previous days we did try to change our booking to the morning crossing at 10:30. No such luck as it was already fully booked. So we just went ahead with the plan we’d already made—and thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Inverewe Garden.

Scotland 373Opened in 1862, the garden was the brainchild of one Osgood Mackenzie who, having planted 100 acres of woodland to protect the garden, set about creating a sub-tropical paradise at almost 58°N, and nurtured by the warm waters of the North Atlantic Drift, full of exotic plant species.

Inverewe map

It was taken into ownership by the National Trust for Scotland in 1952. Inverewe is famous for its rhododendrons and azaleas (some of which were damaged in gales in early 2015, especially some very old and large specimens), and is laid out in informal blocks representing different parts of the world, such as China, Tibet, Japan, New Zealand and the like. There are even tree ferns and several specimens of the very rare Wollemi pine from Australia.

Arduaine Garden
Just 20 miles south of Oban beside the A816 (and 12 miles short of the village of Ford where we had a room booked) Arduaine Garden was a complete surprise. We originally passed it at about 17:30. It was already overcast, windy and drizzly, but we pulled in anyway to get our bearings and see when the garden was open. 09:00 to sunset! So we decide that if the weather was fine the following morning we would retrace our steps and spend a couple of hours there before re-retracing our steps to Ford, Loch Awe and on to Loch Lomond.

Scotland 877Established in 1898 by James Arthur Campbell on a peninsula jutting out into Loch Melfort (and with views from the headland all the way to the mountains on the Isle of Mull to the northwest), Arduaine lies at 56°N. It is full of rhododendrons and azaleas that were still in full bloom compared to what we had encountered at Inverewe. The garden was gifted to the National Trust for Scotland in 1992.

Arduaine has a more intimate feel about it than Inverewe, and perhaps for that reason I enjoyed my visit here more than to Inverewe.

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Or was it because there were far fewer visitors at Arduaine? Afterall, we did arrive just a short while after garden opened and we had it almost to ourselves for the duration of our visit.

Brodie Castle
Lying just to the west of Forres on the north coast of Scotland, Brodie Castle has been home to generations of the Clan Brodie, and the last clan chief lived there until 2003.

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The castle was built in the 16th century. Major Ian Brodie, the 24th Brodie of Brodie, began assembling a collection and breeding daffodils in 1899, and eventually there were more than 400 different varieties grown. Some have been lost, but the National Trust for Scotland is attempting to re-establish this important collection. I never knew there was so much to daffodils.