The island that time forgot`

Title shamelessly bastardized from Edgar Rice Burroughs.  Rightly so.

The Hebrides islands are sort of a hat on top of Scotland. They wrap around it from west to north and Lewis is sort of the feather in the cap. It’s way up there. It’s way windy. It’s as different from Scotland as California is from Antarctica. But I’m getting ahead of myself, because it’s been three days since I had a chance to sit down and write.

It’s been busy.  Tuesday, we ventured up into the hills and saw the Glenfinnan Viaduct, the famous bridge you see in the Harry Potter movies. While we were there, we got lucky and the train passed through – twice!  We attempted to book a ticket but it turned out to be something we needed to do well in advance, so we just enjoyed the scenery and put up with the midges.

We also got to see Old Inverlocky Castle, which is a completely unattended ruin.  You just walk up, open the gate and climb around.  They trust you not to fall off the walls and break your neck, or maybe they just figure that’s one less stupid person they have to put up with.

Wednesday, we got to visit the Glencoe Museum (it was awesome!) and took a very long drive to Loch Ness, where we toured Urquhart Castle.  I found the visitor center to be awesome, we loved the trebuchet, but the crowds there were rude, pushy and numerous.  It was the first bad experience we had in Scotland, though it’s not the castle’s fault.  The castle was awesome.

From there, we went northwest to Eilean Donan, the castle pictured in my facebook cover photo.  It’s every bit as beautiful as you’d think, and inside they have period furnishings, artifacts, and art work.  There was even a period re-enactor who was very charming!  We were there around closing time so we were the last people out of the castle and we got to photograph it without the crowds.

Thursday, we got up SO early in the morning and said goodbye to Glencoe.  We drove three hours north to Ullapool and boarded a ferry to the Island of Lewis, northernmost and windiest of the Hebrides.

I want to talk a minute about the ferry.

Neither one of us had ever been on the kind of ferry that you can drive a car onto before. They queue you up in long lines and you wait forever, then they OPEN UP THE FRONT of a giant boat and you drive in through the nose. We were on an upper deck, so they raised us up after we drove in like a big elevator, then put more cars underneath us.

We were tired, and we didn’t know how these things work and nobody told us, so we stayed in the car.  Chris went to sleep.  I knitted for a while, then I got tired of the smell down there (think car exhaust and make it more acrid) so I tried to go on deck.

And got locked in a stairwell.

After about an hour I startled a poor employee when she came out into the stairwell, and she released me from my confinement.  It turns out no one is supposed to be in the cars or anything while the ferry is moving, and that’s why all the doors were locked.  We had to get a crewman to go rescue Chris.  Much amusement was had.

Lewis. Lewis is the island that time forgot.  The port city, Stornoway, is much like any other port city you’ve ever been to.  But as soon as you get out of the port city, it changes.

Lewis hasn’t changed in a couple of hundred years.  You think I’m kidding but people are living in blackhouses.  Their roofs are not thatched with heather any more – they’re now corrugated metal.  Beyond that, they’re still crofting the land, burning peat to keep warm, and making do with whatever they can get.  Just like they have for the last thousand years.  It was amazing, to walk around and hear people speaking gaelic – to go in the single store on the island which is also the cafe and the laundromat and the butcher and the post office and the bank.

Beside Lewis itself, we were there for two pieces of history – a blackhouse museum which is maintained very carefully and that you can go in, and the Callanish Standing Stones.

I’ll talk about the stones in a minute, but first I want to mention the pictish tower.  We discovered it on our way to Callanish, saw a sign and turned off.  It works that way here.  “Oh, such and such ancient monument, this way please”.  The tower is remarkably well preserved – it even still has its steps.  It was a residence for about a thousand years and now it rises on its hilltop like a stubborn old warrior who refuses to give up.  MacDonalds or MacGregors once climbed it to attack the inhabitants. Now it’s half-fallen, having outlived them all.

If you’ve seen Brave, you’ve seen the stones.  The artists at Pixar were so inspired that they made Merida’s stone circle in the image of Callanish. If you have seen pictures of them, you know how impressive they are.

Pictures can not even begin to do them justice. They’re HUGE. They’re ancient – 5,000 years old.  They take up a very large space on the top of a hlll overlooking the ocean.  I don’t care what religion or lack of religion you practice; they just feel sacred.  It’s hard not to respect the fact that they’ve seen civilizations rise and fall, watched major world conflicts and tiny personal dramas unfold.  I have never felt quite as moved as I did standing there amongst them.

We watched a sunset there and cuddled, and eventually tore ourselves away as it started to get dark.  We got back to our B&B at midnight and it was still a little light.

So far, Callanish, and sharing them with Chris, is the high point of this amazing adventure.  It’s the pinnacle of a thrilling climb.

This morning was another early rise, and a race back to Stornoway.  Lewis, at least northeastern Lewis, is wide, flat, brown.  You can see peat bogs everywhere to the left and right of you, and occasionally they’re broken by the spiky little teeth of stacks of peat which have been cut out and formed into pointy rows to dry for burning. There are ruins of blackhouses EVERYWHERE – ranging from a thousand years to fifty years old.  There are white houses, which was basically a black house with plaster over the rocks.  And there are the modern or modernized Lewis houses, which are still stone but now they’re covered with a plaster made from tiny pebbles.  They’re all grey, bleak, utilitarian.  Lewis is a strange bird.

Today, we were so tired we decided to take it easy.  When we got off the ferry we drove straight to where we’re saying, stopping only at Benromach Distillery to pick up some gifties.

That brings me to right now, and the delightful experience I’m currently having.

I am sitting in The Library of a 900 year old castle, one of its oldest rooms.  Chris is next to me, and there’s a scruffy sweet terrier dog curled up on his lap.  A fire crackles in front of us, beneath a portrait of a beautiful woman which is surrounded by original artwork from the renaissance, a letter from Winston Churchil, and countless other treasures.  Our host is Sebastian Leslie, clan chief of Lewis, and delightful character. He brought us a bottle of white wine and his dog after making this fire, and left us to enjoy his home.

I can not even begin to explain what this is like.

The bed we’re sleeping in tonight is 500 years old and was taken to the vatican at one point.  WHAT.

I don’t know how tomorrow can beat this, but it’s sure going to try.  Now I’m going to edit a couple of the 2,184 pictures I’ve taken so far, to share with you.

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