The Isle of Lewis was unique in this trip in that it was the only island on my itinerary that I had already visited, partly due to it being the island where my Dad was born. There was a family trip at New Year in 1999 where I remember being confronted with a million relatives I’d never met who all wanted to kiss me – all a bit much for an 11-year-old. Then there was a church youth trip in 2005; I remember setting off on that trip on my last ever day of school. In my 4th year at university in 2008/2009 I conducted research on Gaelic-English bilinguals despite understanding only about five words of Gaelic myself. My Dad, whose native language is Gaelic (so exotic!), and I went over to the island a couple of times in the depths of winter to record some real-life Gaelic speakers in action. I also went on a wee summer holiday to see my Dad’s stepsister Chrissie later that year. In 2010, just before I went to Japan, I returned to the island to see my university friend Erica marry a Leòdhasach and begin her settled life on the island. That was the last time I’d been in Lewis. Until now!
Six years later, there is still many a MacArthur to be found on the island, and the number of university friends has doubled, with Erica and Dan still living in Stornoway with their baby Jessica, and Invernesian pal Kirsten working in the world of community wind turbines, whilst living with her parents who have relocated to Lewis.
To be honest, the landscape of Lewis is not my favourite; on a cloudy day, it is quite bleak. I noticed this particularly on this trip, as I inevitably compared all the islands I visited. However, there are a lot of cool things to see on the island and it is probably the island I am most likely to visit again, as I have so many personal connections there.
Unfortunately, Lewis caught both Silvia and me at our most exhausted. After being heavily sunburnt on Tiree, our immune systems had crashed and every day we woke up with our bodies pleading “no”, as we forced ourselves up for another day of adventure. That’s something I’d say to bear in mind when you have an intensive itinerary of island hopping – you have to keep going. However, we still managed to see some sights while not coughing or blowing our noses.
On our first evening in Lewis, Kirsten gave us an impressive tour by car. Our first stop was the Blackhouse at Arnol. In the late 1800s, many people in the Highlands and surrounding islands lived in blackhouses, dwellings where people and animals lived side by side. The houses themselves had thick stone walls, filled with earth for insulation, and had roofs thatched with straw. Smoke from the fire, which was used for warmth and to cook food, went through the roof; there was no chimney. Gearrannan Blackhouse Village is a village of renovated blackhouses, now rented out as holiday accommodation – a pretty cool place to stay, I imagine. However, keen to show us the real deal, Kirsten took as to the Arnol Blackhouse, which stands as a memory of what the majority of houses used to look like.
We then went to Dalmore beach, one of the many magical, white-sanded, deserted beaches that pop up on these Outer Hebridean islands. One of the main reasons I wanted to go there was to visit Dalmore cemetery, which overlooks the beach, and is where my dad’s parents were buried. Having never met them, it was important to me to visit their grave, especially on my trip which had focused so much on tracing my family roots. Cue about 45 minutes of four of us searching for Kenneth Donald MacArthur and Marion Macleod, whilst the clouds threatened ominously above us. (The Gaelic for Marion is Morag, hence my middle name.) Reflecting afterwards, I thought it beautiful that both sets of my grandparents have been buried together in a place that they had called home: my mum’s parents are buried in Dingwall, near Inverness, where they lived together for over 35 years in the latter part of their lives, whilst my dad’s parents are buried at Dalmore, very close to the home they shared in Carloway and where my dad was born.
Our next stop was Carloway Broch. Dating back 2000 years, the broch is an iron age structure, thought to have been built to impress and defend, whilst housing the tribal leaders of that time. Scotland is full of these ancient ruins which, as well as providing a glimpse into history, provide an excellent climbing frame-esque facility.
Last but by no means least, we visited the Calanais Stones, Lewis’ very own Stonehenge, and the superior cousin if you ask me (and I did visit Stonehenge in the same month, so feel qualified to compare). Much like the Ring of Brogar that I visited in Orkney earlier in the year, the Calanais stones are thought to have been a place of ceremony and worship. The main difference between this and Stonehenge is that you are able to go up to the stones and touch them. Goodness knows why the world is still flocking over to Stonehenge to walk around a fence. My photos of the Calanais stones come from Kirsten’s extensive collection as darkness was setting in by the time we arrived. Still, it was impressive to see the stones in the near-dark-backdrop – definitely not somewhere I’d like to hang out by myself at night!
One sight that we weren’t able to see on this trip was the Lewis Chessmen. The Chessmen were found on a beach in Uig, Lewis in 1831 and are one of the most well-known archaeological finds from Scotland. As the name suggests, they are chess pieces, of Norwegian origin, estimated to date back to AD 1150-1200. Who knew the game of chess was so old?! The Chessmen are believed to have been made in Trondheim, and buried in Lewis for safekeeping by a merchant, en route to Ireland (like Orkney, the Western Isles were once part of Norway). Not sure where this theory came from but let’s go with it. 93 of the chess pieces have been found: 82 of these are now housed in the British Museum in London, whilst the remaining 11 reside in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. ‘So none of the pieces are on display on the Isle of Lewis, despite being found there?’ I hear you ask. That is correct, though a new museum opens in Stornoway in July 2016, so maybe some of the Chessmen will find their way back home soon. Still, all is not lost, as there are a number of replica chessmen hanging around in Lewis, including at the original discovery point, Uig. Here’s one photo I took earlier, i.e. seven years ago (note, photo quality suddenly diminishes!)
My last full day was spent touring the homes of the MacArthur relatives I rarely see. Whilst Silvia recovered in bed, Kirsten and I went to see Chrissie, my Dad’s stepsister, who spends half of the year in Inverness, my hometown, and the other half of the year in her house in Uig, the home of the famous chessmen. We also visited another cemetery in Uig, overlooking another beautiful beach, to see the grave of Chrissie’s mother, who married my Dad’s father later in life. I was fortunate enough to know her growing up and thought of her as another grandmother; she only passed away in 2007. The backdrop of the photo below sums up my impressions of the Lewis landscape – green, bleak, and lots of sheep. Still appropriate to wear sunglasses though. Obvs.
Visiting Chrissie was just the warm-up to an even larger MacArthur reunion. My Dad was born in a semi-detached house with his parents, Kenneth (Kenny Dol) and Marion. Kenneth’s brother lived next door with his two children, Norman and Dollyanne, my Dad’s first cousins. A door inside the houses linked them, meaning that if his own house got too much for him, my Dad could make a quick escape. At least this is what Dollyanne claimed to have done! Today, the houses remain in the family, and Dollyanne’s sons Calum and Angus live in the two houses with their respective families – though the inside door has since been removed. Talking with the family I barely knew could have gone either way but fortunately, Dollyanne’s family are hilarious. No Calum, for the public record, my brother has never had a career in radio!
I visited this house when I was 11, but it made much more of an impact when I returned aged 29; I could appreciate the significance of visiting the house which my Dad first called home.
When I told Kirsten I wanted to go and see Norman MacArthur, Dollyanne’s brother, at Stornoway Shipping Services, she was very excited. “I can’t believe you’re related to Brot!!!” she exclaimed, more than once on our trip. The following morning, after dropping slightly-recovered Silvia off at the airport to make her long journey back to Norway, we dropped in to see Brot, and his nephew Alastair, brother of Calum and Angus. I quickly learned why Brot might be so well known: he tells it how it is, and he’s full of stories. “Why is my Dad’s nickname Chop?” I asked, believing that if anyone could explain it, it would be Brot. Right enough, he could…
“In those days, we had to live in a hostel in Stornoway in our early years of secondary school,” Brot explained. “As there were so many boys with the same name or similar, we were all given nicknames to identify ourselves easily. They gave you a nickname even if your actual name was really unique! The older boys decided what your nickname would be. They called you in for a private meeting and asked you a series of questions. What’s your name? Where are you from? Do you have any sisters? Do you have a nickname already? I already had the nickname Brot (because I told my friends one evening about my dinner of Scotch broth) and as no one else had that nickname, I was allowed to keep it. Then your Dad came in and again they asked the series of questions. Do you have a nickname already? No, your Dad said. Do you have any relatives at the hostel who do have a nickname? they asked. Yes, my cousin Brot is here, your Dad said. Ah, yes, they said. Do you understand why that is his nickname? they asked. Yes, your Dad said. And what is your favourite food? they asked. Ohhh, lamb chops! your Dad said, without a moment of hesitation. And so your Dad became Chop!
My last island-hopping appointment was with my old uni friend Erica with whom I spent a lot of time in my first two years of university. We sampled the delights of new trendy café Kopi Java in Stornoway whilst catching up on the last three years of our lives since Erica visited me in Brussels. On seeing the photo below, Jané (a mutual unviersity friend) commented that we both looked exactly the same as we had done in our uni days (minus the fringe). And that is exactly how it felt – just like the good old days!
And with that, Kirsten dropped me off at the airport, and I flew back home to London.
This will likely be the most expensive holiday I conjure up in this year of travel around the British Isles. However, the opportunities and memories I have gained are worth far more than money can buy. Now if only everyone had ancestors in the Hebrides!
My return journey started at the airport in Stornoway, the main town in Lewis, where I flew to London, via Glasgow. This cost £133.64. You can also take the ferry from Stornoway to Ullapool, on the west coast of mainland Scotland, with Caledonian MacBrayne.