A little gem cast adrift in the North Atlantic
Walk of the Month: Lewis, most northerly of the Outer Hebrides, has some of the best coastal views in Britain. Mark Rowe had an eyeful
Sunday 04 July 2010
There was much going on as I struck out from the village of Carlabhagh for the north-west coast of Lewis.
A flock of crows glided towards the inland moors, a starling alighted on a sheep's back in search of a mid-morning insect snack, and flocks of hedge sparrows shimmied to keep their distance as I walked past. A disproportionately stolid church stood on the skyline, the thin strip of houses that make up Carlabhagh seeming to tremble in its shadow.
The island of Lewis is the northernmost, largest and the lowest-lying of the Outer Hebrides. It is characterised by peat moorland and crenulated with freshwater lochs where, should you sit for a while, starlings, black-headed gulls and arctic terns will fly low, occasionally allowing their flight feathers to leave momentary rings on the water.
Gaelic is widely spoken and, along with Sunday observance (even leisure centres are closed) can make Lewis seem more of a living island than its counterparts Skye and Mull. There are few second-home owners, and tourism remains a marginal source of income, some way behind tweed weaving, crofting and fish farming.
Soon enough, I reached Na Gearrannan, a collection of restored blackhouses, sturdy stone dwellings topped with thatch and turf where occupants would share floor space with cattle. Although they date back several centuries, blackhouses are a gateway to an immediate past: the last ones were occupied right up to 1974, electricity came in 1952 and, until the 1960s when mains tap water arrived, clothes were washed in nearby lochs.
A boggy plod led north to the modest summit of Aird Mhor. The day was clear and I doubt there can be a finer coastal view anywhere in the British Isles. A mountainous wall to the south marked the border with Harris, while to the south-east the hills of Uig (pronounced "oog") sprung abruptly from the Atlantic, almost encircling Loch Roag, through which salmon start their upstream run this month. Out to sea stood the Flannan Islands, scene of the bizarre, unresolved disappearance of three lighthouse keepers in 1900. After a violent December storm, coastguards arrived to find the table set for dinner, an upturned chair but no trace of the keepers.
The path weaved between exposed boulders of Lewisian gneiss, at three billion years old, some of the earliest known rocks on the planet. The best examples are a few miles further south at Callanish, where they were cut into Neolithic standing stones, patterned with contorted, banded gneiss, 5,000 years ago. Turning away from an in-cutting cliff, I skipped and squelched over Fivig Burn towards two more headlands straddling a deep sheep-grazed valley. Scout around and you may find traces of three whisky stills uncovered by archaeologists. Close to the last of these headlands, Aird Ghobhann is a superb developing sea stack, known as stac a chaisteil. It is a perfect auditorium for a handful of screeching kittiwakes, and if you have your binoculars you might pick out a cairn and the remains of an Iron Age fort on the hill.
Reaching a grassy bluff, I zig-zagged down turf terraces to the beach and a lonely cemetery at Dhail Mor. Leaving the beach, I encountered the first midges of the season. At this time of year, it's a trade-off – hang around and you'll find out they can drill through denim, but you'll be rewarded with superb landscapes. The Machair, the low sandy coastal plain, comes alive in summer, yellow with buttercups and iris, silverweed and eyebright.
If anywhere can justify the midge bites then it's the lonely loch at the end of this walk behind Dail Beag beach. At this time of year, this loch, fringed with seaweed and fertilised by the limerock sand blown from the beach, comes alive with white lilies.
How to get there
Mark Rowe travelled to Lewis by train and ferry. Cross Country Trains (crosscountrytrains.co.uk), offers services to Edinburgh, from where East Coast (08457 225225; east coast.co.uk) runs a route to Inverness. Bus services run regularly to the ferry terminal at Ullapool, or you can hire a car through Arnold Clark in Inverness (01463 236200). Ferries to Stornoway take two hours 45 minutes and are operated by Caledonian MacBrayne (0800 066 5000; calmac.co.uk). Lewis is well served by public transport (cne-siar.gov.uk), but buses do not run on Sundays.
Mark Rowe stayed at Callanish Farmhouse (01851 621422; callanishvisitor centre.co.uk), a converted two-bedroom farmhouse managed by a local community trust and located by the Callanish stone circle. Weekly lets from £350 to £550.
Visit Scotland (visitscotland/walking).
If driving, park by the lower Stornoway road that cuts underneath the bridge at Calabhagh by the A858 (grid ref 206426). Otherwise, ask the bus driver to drop you off at the turning for Na Gearrannan. Walk for 1.5 miles along the paved road to the blackhouses. Bear right by the information point at the bottom of the lane. Yellow waymarkers trace most of this walk but they wander around and are sometimes quite spaced out through the boggier moorland. The path leads up to Aird Mhor, drops slightly, rises and then bears right and drops down to Fivig Burn.
It then bears left and rises again up to Aird Mheadhonach. The path dips and climbs to the last promontory Aird Ghobhann but keeps below the summit. It then drops away and zig-zags steeply down to a stile over a fence to the beach at Dhail Mor and continues the other side of the cemetery between a fence and a stone wall. Walk below the hill of Creag an Taghain, cross a stile, continue ahead and bear right, down along the fence line to a stile and cross to reach the paved road to Dhail Beag. The beach is to your left, while 200 yards uphill is the main west side road.
OS Map: Explorer 460 North Lewis
Distance: 5.5miles (9km)
Time: Three to four hours
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