spent last Christmas and New Year on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. Those who know me well will understand why this was. The stay coincided with some of the most severe storms to visit the UK for some time, but once we arrived after a day’s delay we remained cosy in our warm and well-equipped cottage.
After the storms had eased there were glimpses of blue sky and sunshine offering some great opportunities for photographing the stunning and extraordinarily varied landscape of the islands.
We stayed at Orinsay (Gaelic: Orasaigh) in the Lochs parish of East Lewis. This is a village at the end of a 15 mile road from the main North-South highway for Lewis. It lies on the coast around a rocky bay surrounded by low hills. From the village, and particularly from the house in which we were staying there is a magnificent view of the Shiant Islands which lie in the Minch – that stretch of water between the Western Isles and the mainland of Scotland.A mile or so away lies the larger village of Lemreway (Leumrabhagh) which lies alongside a rocky ridge at the head of a bay sheltered by the offshore island of Eilean Liubhaird.
Between eating and drinking, during the short-lived – but frequently high-quality – hours of daylight, I made several journeys to other parts of the island. At the head of Loch Erisort – a fjord-like sea-loch that extends from the east coast of Lewis to the village of Balallan (Baile Ailein) on the main road – I found some of my favourite photographic subjects – old boats beached next to the water.
I also travelled across Lewis to the famous and mysterious standing stones at Callanish (Calanais) on Loch Roag. These are estimated to have been erected around 4000 years ago – so long ago that a 4 foot layer of peat had to be removed from around them in the 19th century to render them as they first appeared. The best theory as to their purpose is that they were some sort of pre-Christian devotional site.
Following the coast south of Callanish leads to the stunning scenery of the Uig parish of Lewis – with beautiful sandy beaches, jagged cliffs and tiny scattered crofting settlements. A particular highlight is the beach at Mangersta that faces South-West into the Atlantic and so receives the full force of the ocean swell.
The ‘Isle of Harris’ is geographically speaking not a separate island from Lewis but it has its own character in part because the Northern part is mountainous and so forms a barrier to the South Harris with its sandy beaches and moon-like interior landscape. Here is the impressive highest point of the Western Isles, Clisham, at 799 metres (2,621 ft). My hope for a dusting of snow on the summit was happily met!South of Harris’s main village and ferry terminus, Tarbert, the magnificent and famous sandy beaches of Luskentyre, Borve and Scarastavore lie to the west. On the east coast lies the austere, rocky area of the Bays of Harris. When the more fertile west of the island was cleared for sheep farming in the 18th century the population were given the appalling choice of relocating here or emigrating. These and similar events go a long way to accounting for the unique make-up of the Western Isles’ social and economic life.