Remote possibilities: A journey of discovery through the Isle of Lewis

Margaret Campbell retraces her family's Celtic roots where the Outer Hebrides crumble into the wild North Atlantic

So, what is there to see?" The question took me by surprise. One of the rare but-reliable-bus services linking the most interesting spots on the west coast of Lewis had just dropped us a few hundred yards from the Callanish Stones visitor centre. A fellow passenger had clearly failed to do her homework about this most magnificent site. Not that it mattered; even without the numerous explanatory boards, the 54 grey standing stones leading to, and circling, a long-empty burial chamber speak for themselves.

Smaller and less monumental than their Stonehenge counterparts, they impose a sense of wonder – together with curiosity about the unknown individuals who erected them five millennia ago.

The Callanish Stones also attract about one-5,000th of the visitors of the more celebrated collection of old stones in Wiltshire. Nothing to do with the relative value of the sites; indeed, at Callanish you are welcome to come within a few feet of these mystical monoliths. It is simply that Lewis, lying well beyond the mainland of north-west Scotland, is considerably harder for most people to reach than is the downland of southern England.

Yet the question remained: what was there to see? I have family roots in Lewis, but I wanted for once to see the largest component of the Outer Hebrides with fresh eyes and to go beyond the usual route from one relative's home – replete with tea and scones – to another's.

I found a world shaped by capricious natural elements and a singular history, where the pressure of urban existence is almost totally absent. Man-made stress has been replaced by the challenge of insular life on the wind-buffeted edge of 21st-century Europe, where the struggle to preserve a unique way of life, close to the land, is countered by rural de-population. As a visitor, however, I could enjoy the island's more appealing aspects.

The term "island" is used a little loosely. The Isle of Lewis is actually part of a larger landmass; it shares territory with the Isle of Harris, which it meets at the tranquil waters of Loch Seaforth. Though connected by land, they are different entities in everything from geology to culture.

A feel for Lewis starts with the journey: the long road across the far north-west of Scotland to Ullapool, watching the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry, Isle of Lewis, sail in and unload her human cargo, then finding the best seat on her outbound voyage as she sailed through Loch Broom and into the Minch.

The choppy stretch of water separating Lewis and Harris from the mainland is more easily crossed by a scheduled flight, but it is aesthetically preferable to take the boat: a sense of Lewis' geographical and social "otherness" begins to emerge on the three-hour trip. As does the sense of community: locals scan the public areas for friends or relatives, then scan the harbourfront at Stornoway for loved ones awaiting their arrival from the mainland.

Lewis is defined by water. The coastline is spectacular: dramatic headlands, buffeted by wind and tide, alternate with sea stacks and picture-perfect beaches.

Stornoway is the only town of any size in the Outer Hebrides, and the focus for culture, administration and commerce. First stop: An Lanntair Arts Centre, which has a busy schedule of art exhibitions and live music. Next, the Museum of the Isles, housed in a renovated former school on Francis Street; it tells the intriguing story of life on the edge of the British Isles.

Separation has done Lewis some favours. For example, Stornoway still has many of the decorative iron railings that were once common across the UK, until they were melted down in most areas to provide metal during the Second World War. The distance from Stornoway to the mainland made this practice unviable; several examples remain – take a walk along Matheson Road or Goathill Road for some splendid patterns.

Across a bridge from the town centre lie the grounds of Lews Castle, the name a reminder of the island's original spelling. The castle is a mock-Tudor mansion awaiting redevelopment, and its grounds contain the island's only woodland of any significance – mixed forest planted and carefully nurtured in the 19th century (trees are rare elsewhere on account of the acidic soil). Residents come here to walk, jog and cycle, and the nearby 18-hole golf course has some tricky holes and panoramic views over the Minch.

Emigration is a long-established reality, carrying Celtic culture to unexpected locations, such as Alabama. Sunday may be a quiet day here, but it is when a unique form of traditional music can be heard: unaccompanied psalm singing in Gaelic has recently been under the spotlight, as its influence on Black American spirituals and early jazz has been explored. The curious are welcome, especially at Back Free Church, whose minister has been instrumental in developing cross-cultural ties and the "Salm" CDs.

Culture extends a long way back in this sparse land. Humans began to settle on Lewis 9,000 years ago, and their history is strewn across the island. In addition to the Callanish Stones, there are numerous other megaliths. Jumping on another bus, our next stop was the Iron-Age broch (a dry-stone hollow-walled tower) at Carloway. It is the best preserved of several similar defensive structures found throughout the Western Isles. Perched on a grassy promontory, this circular fortification once housed entire families, sheltering them from what were presumably regular attacks.

Scandinavian influence is evident in the Norse barley mill and kiln near Shawbost, a few miles north of Carloway. But by the time it was the Vikings' turn to raid and settle the island, the Picts had been here for several centuries. The complete walrus-ivory chess set discovered in a sand dune on Uig beach in 1831 dates from this period; most of the 93 "Lewis Chessmen" are now in the British Museum.

Until the beginning of the 20th century, most of the island's population lived in "blackhouses" – long, low buildings where the living area and animals' quarters were under a single thatched roof.

The demands of this life can be imagined in the smoky interior of Arnol's turf-covered Blackhouse, inhabited until 1964, and especially in the village of Gearrannan, where a few hardy souls stuck it out until the 1970s. Here, nine blackhouses have been carefully preserved: one has been converted into a youth hostel and another into self-catering accommodation, but one of the blackhouses remains decorated in traditional style.

Demonstrations of peat-cutting and tweed-making indicate two of the regular occupations of its former inhabitants. Survival was undoubtedly difficult, but perhaps the spectacular setting provided a certain compensation. Gearrannan huddles behind low stone walls at the edge of a circular bay, a few metres from a west-facing shoreline where bright blue tangles of jettisoned fishing ropes lie among the pebbles and the sleek heads of seals glint between the waves.

Back over on the east coast, I visited the roofless 14th-century St Columba's Church on the sandy isthmus connecting Stornoway to the Point peninsula: the church grounds were once the burial site for senior members of the MacLeods of Lewis clan, and a few carved grave slabs remain. A project is under way to re-roof the building and rescue the churchyard from further erosion. In contrast, the 12th-century St Moluag's Church (known locally as "the temple") in Europie, Ness, is still used as a place of worship.

Throughout the island, cairns and statues commemorate more recent history, from the "land raids" of the 1880s which resulted in greater rights for crofters, to the tragedy of the Iolaire, shipwrecked within sight of shore in 1919 as it carried home 200 naval reservists returning from the First World War.

The profound attraction of Lewis, though, lies in the scenery and rugged beauty all around. Everywhere there is the pervasive and welcoming smell of burning peat, glimpses of sapphire or slate-grey freshwater lochs under an ever-changing sky and the omnipresent salty breeze.

The crashing waves at the Butt of Lewis lighthouse, and further south along the Atlantic coast, calibrate the surfer's dream. The long, beautiful beaches at Breanais, the Garry Sands at Tolsta, Port of Ness or the Reef Sands near Valtos are saved from tourist crowds only by the unpredictably of the weather.

Summer in this northern island means long evenings and blazing sunsets lighting up a broad horizon. The machair, common grazing land where delicate wild flowers cling tenaciously among grass-covered sand dunes, gives way to coastal villages and then in turn to boggy moorland and deceptively empty wetlands that are ideal for bird-watching. Elsewhere, the outlines of lazy beds, hard-won plots where thin soil was painstakingly gathered into platforms for growing food, are still visible on grassy slopes.

Several traditional coastal walks have now been signposted, including one from Gearrannan north to Dalmore and Dalbeg: panoramic views, surprisingly rich vegetation (my favourite was a bright red mushroom hidden among the heather) and another wonderful stretch of white sand at the end.

The 10-mile route between Tolsta and Ness is more challenging; the route passes by the intriguingly-named Bridge to Nowhere, all that remains of a job-creation scheme begun by Lord Leverburgh to build a real road between the two villages. The trail crosses the moors where crofters once spent the summers minding cattle, and where they still cut peat. Expect to meet plenty of sheep on any walk.

Ness itself is a string of 16 small villages, stretched along a main road south from the port, where colourful lobster creels and fading yellow buoys are stacked by protective dry-stone walls.

Europie may look like a misprint, but it boasts one of the best surfing beaches in the UK (and an excellent activity park for children), while the Taigh Dhonnchaidh centre in Habost is a popular venue for culture and music. Up the road, the Historical Society exhibits items covering the entire area's archaeology and recent history. As I pored over artefacts and photographs, I hoped that my Callanish companion had also found plenty to satisfy her curiosity.

Traveller's Guide

Getting there

Caledonian MacBrayne (08000 665 000; calmac.co.uk) operates ferries between Ullapool and Stornoway on Lewis. The nearest main line rail station (08457 484950; nationalrail.co.uk) to Ullapool is Inverness, with services from Glasgow, Edinburgh and London King's Cross.

By air, Stornoway airport is served by Flybe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com) from a range of Scottish airports, including Edinburgh and Glasgow, and by Highland Airways (0845 450 2245; highlandairways. co.uk) from Inverness.

Staying there

Garenin Blackhouse Village (01851 643416; gearrannan.com). Rental of a one-bedroom cottage starts at £84 per night.

Visiting there

Callanish Stones Visitor Centre (01851 621422; callanishvisitor centre.co.uk). Open Mon-Sat 10am-6pm; admission to the stones is free, £1.95 for the exhibition.

An Lanntair Arts Centre (01851 703307; lanntair.com). Open Mon-Sat, 10am-late. Admission free.

Harris Tweed Centre (01851 702862; harristweed hebrides.com). Open Mon-Thurs 8am-5.30pm, until midday Friday.

Museum of the Isles (01851 709266; cne-siar. gov.uk/ museum). Open Mon-Sat 10am-5.30pm; free.

Lews Castle (01851 709495; lews-castle.com).

More information

Visit Hebrides: 01851 703088; visithebrides.com

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