An old travel diary, day 9: To the outer Hebrides

Another travel day today, this one with an especially early beginning, as we had to be at the harbour for our 9:30 scheduled departure a full 45 minutes early.  This one departs from Uig, near where we split from the road for the fairy glen yesterday.
Porridge with honey for breakfast this morning – not much of an anniversary meal, but nicer than I would have thought; not slimy as I usually fear with porridge.  It rained heavily as we got into the car to leave – that “unsettled” weather again – but as a nice little trade off, we got to see a rather magnificent rainbow, a full, sky-spanning arch with the complete spectrum brightly represented.  (I hope it’s a sign.  Perhaps it’s an anniversary sign.)
I think this is easily the biggest of the ferries we’ve ridden yet, and the longest crossing so far: disturbingly, before getting on board we had to hand in a little card with our names, sex, and ages.  What is that for?  In case we sink?
Be that as it may, we had a few minutes before boarding to check out the tiny pottery next to the pier.  It’s known for its whimsical designs – puffins, chickens, and whatnot – and there’s a little workspace where you can watch the potter – a cute young girl with a ponytail, in this case – work on new pots.  We bought a little something here – a “quaich,” a kind of drinking cup that was typically filled with whiskey or brandy and shared communally as a mark of hospitality.  This one’s blue and white, like our other tableware, and has a simple knotwork design that should, I think, suit its purpose well.
This morning’s sailing is packed to the gills with…runners and their families; it seems there’s a half marathon on Lewis today.  And now, half an hour into the crossing, I am the only member of my party not asleep, and I am watching blue-gray sea meld with blue-gray sky, the horizon only briefly disturbed by misty ripples of rock that must be various other isles of the Outer Hebrides.  There is something incongruous about knowing that out there somewhere in all that slate-colored wildness there are seals and dolphins and sharks and all manner of creatures, living as they have for always, while here we are inside on a boat full of dogs and long-distance runners, with some sort of home auction program flickering bland enthusiasm and faded flowered wallpaper on a screen at the fore of the cabin.
Perhaps it’s just a sign I need some coffee.
— Some time later —
I spent the rest of the ferry ride sitting in the canteen having a coffee and a bit of shortbread and watching the seas drift past.  When at last we emerged, it was into the tiny town of Tarbert, on the Isle of Harris.  The first thing one notices out here is that English starts to take second place to Gaelic on the signs; there are more Gaelic speakers here than in most other places.
Lewis and Harris are actually a single island connected by an isthmus on which Tarbert sits, though their landscapes are quite different.  The isles are, I’m told, very strong in their culture yet, including the fairly rigorous observance of the Sabbath; we discovered very quickly that we’d have a hard time getting into anything on Sunday as the sidewalks would essentially be rolling right up during that time.
Very well, then: we set up a plan to take in most of the isle’s interior attractions, though there aren’t many.  For a start we set off on a loop road round Harris, the southernmost portion.
The guide refers to this part of the world as “an inhospitable moonscape,” and that’s not far off.  In some parts of the world nature bothers to cover up the rock beneath our feet with, say, dirt or grass or trees or something; not so here.  Admittedly Magnus Barelegs is supposedly to blame for the trees; lore says he burnt them all down and left the island bare.  But there is precious little else in the way of vegetation: heather and coarse grasses in amongst the rocks, but that’s about it.
There are sheep, though.  Of course.  Here they provide the most important of raw materials for the famous Harris Tweed, the only fabric with an Act of Parliament dictating what qualities a textile must have before it can bear the name or the orb trademark: dyed and hand-woven on the outer Hebrides, much as only a small subset of the cheeses calling themselves Parmesan are true Parmigiano-Reggiano.  Traditionally many of the dyes come from the isle as well: green from nettles, purple from iris roots, and so on.
We learned all this at a tiny visitor centre in the middle of nowhere; the cheery proprietress informed us that she’d been to Petrolia in the past.  Afterward, we took a brief pause at a beach.  The Outer Hebrides is known for its beaches, apparently, and are popular for kayaking and surfing (!), though I doubt very much I’d have the stamina to swim in water that cold.  It’s also extremely windy, or was during our visit.  Personally I don’t think of a proper beach as somewhere you have to wear a jacket to go to, but the Brits apparently disagree.
Our path wound in and out along a pretty steeply-slanted one lane road through this weird moon-landscape until we reached St. Cuthbert’s, a tiny, tiny medieval church on the isle’s far southern tip.  A pair of female bards are buried here; one, at her own request, was buried face-down, to keep her “lying mouth” – her own words – from causing further trouble.  (There’s a story there, I’m sure.) Nearby, a hotel offered food and drink; we stopped in at the nearly empty restaurant for some excellent fish chowder before winding our way back north and west onto Lewis.
Most of the weaving industry has been relocated here, and there are some 600 weavers still on the island; we drove past several houses that seemed to have sunrooms to one side with big looms ready to be worked.  It’s also marginally less inhospitable, though instead of steep rocky hillsides like Harris, Lewis looks very much like wild moorland. A little deceptively so, honestly; most of that stuff that looks like rolling grassland is in fact peat bog.
Peat happens when there’s especially poor drainage in soil; plants sprout and die but then cannot fully rot, as there’s not enough oxygen getting in down there.  This suffocating plant mass eventually sort of merges with the soil to produce a substance that the locals slice off in brick-sized chunks, resulting in what looks like a pile of the world’s least appetizing brownies. These are dried out and then carefully stored until it gets cold, at which point they’ll be burnt for fuel, resulting in that distinctive smelling smoke we can taste in whiskey.  Peat-cutting is a summer activity in the isles, so here and there we were able to see people slicing off the bricks, or piling them up to dry.
Our first stop was the visitor centre for the Callanish standing stones, which we’ll be making a proper visit to tomorrow.  Like Stonehenge, this stone circle was erected approximately forever ago by people nobody really knows much about for reasons that are largely unknown but are (say it with me) probably of religious significance.  More on these tomorrow.
It was already getting a bit late by this time, and we hadn’t yet checked into our B&B, but we thought perhaps we might just have time to pop round to Argol Blackhouse on our way to Stornoway.  A “Blackhouse” is a type of construct that was the done thing in the isles many years ago and which had two primary features: one, your animals lived in the same house as you and two, everything was warmed by a central peat-burning hearth.  On the upside, this meant you could keep everyone warm a lot more easily, and the rising smoke killed bugs that might otherwise have been lurking in the thatch.  On the downside, I expect people had a pretty strong tendency to die of lung cancer back in the day.
Sadly, as we arrived the little one-room centre was just closing down, but we had a chance to roam the site and investigate the nearby ruined blackhouse, which helpfully labeled all the rooms.  I don’t know about you, but I think I would be…reluctant…to have my kitchen quite so directly across from my cowshed. (The smell must have been astonishing.)
Our B&B in Stornoway is…interesting.  Weirdly sparse furnishings, no art on the walls at all, and the general feel about it of a staged house.  (Which it may well be given that there is a big for sale sign out front.) In comparison with some of the prior places we’ve been it just doesn’t quite seem like they’re trying as hard, though the person on hand to help out (not the owner) seems kind.  Stornoway itself didn’t make much of a good first impression, either; gray and dark in the rain, with a number of shops that seemed to be going out of business.
As in Skye, it turns out that restaurants and other such establishments book up very, very quickly on a Saturday evening when everyone and their dog wants to go out; the only place in town we could get a spot was this crazily expensive place at a local hotel.  And…true, it had local lamb on the menu (and Lewis lamb is apparently particularly unusual in flavor; the huge amount of heather in their diet means their meat is sweeter than the norm).  But…
We were tired.  And hungry.  And even though it was our anniversary, did we really want to eat out at a pricey place because it was the only thing available?…
In the end, we ended up going to “Golden Ocean” – a cheap Chinese takeaway with a vivid turquoise shopfront, an equally vivid purple interior, and a seating area equipped with abundant IKEA.  The cider was a bit bland and tasteless, the fried rice bore no resemblance to anything I’ve had before…but it was inexpensive, and different from all the pub food we’ve eaten lately.
Afterward, we spent some quality time together watching a British mystery show and wished each other happy anniversary and a good next year.  Starting from a bare little white room at the end of the world, it seems sort of symbolic.  May it all be up from here.