Isle of Lewis
The Isle of Lewis is the northern part of Lewis and Harris, the largest island of the Outer Hebrides. Lewis is, in general, the lower lying part of the Long Island, with the other part, Harris, being more mountainous. The flatter, more fertile land means Lewis contains the largest settlement, Stornoway, and three-quarters of the population of the Western Isles. Beyond human habitation, the island's diverse habitats are home to an assortment of flora and fauna, recognised in a number of conservation areas.
Lewis has a rich history, having once been part of the Norse Kingdom of Man and the Isles. Today, life is quite different from elsewhere in Scotland with the Gaelic language still being the first language of many. Lewis has a rich cultural heritage as can be seen from its myths and legends as well as the local literary and musical traditions.
The first evidence of human habitation on Lewis is found in peat samples which indicate that about 8,000 years ago, much of the native woodland was torched to make way for grassland to allow deer to graze. The earliest archaeological remains date from about 5,000 years ago. At that time, people began to settle in permanent farms rather than following their herds. The small houses of these people have been found throughout the Western Isles, in particular, at Dail Mor, Carloway.
The more striking great monuments of this period are the temples and communal burial cairns at places like Calanais. About 500 BC, island society moved into the Iron Age. The buildings became larger and more prominent, culminating in the brochs – circular, dry-stone towers belonging to the local chieftains – testifying to the uncertain nature of life then. The best remaining example of a broch in Lewis is at Dun Charlabhaigh. The Scots are recorded as arriving from around 1AD, bringing the Gaelic language with them. As Christianity began to spread through the islands in the sixth and later centuries, following Columban missionaries, Lewis was inhabited by the Picts.
In the 9th century AD, the Vikings began to settle on Lewis, after years of raiding from the sea. The Norse invaders intermarried with local families and abandoned their pagan beliefs. At this time, most buildings changed their forms from being round to rectangular, following the Scandinavian style. At this time, Lewis was part of the Kingdom of Man and the Isles and officially part of Norway.
The Lewis chessmen, which were found on the island in 1831, date from the time of Viking rule. The Norse language persists in many island place-names and some personal names to this day, although the latter are fairly evenly spread across Scottish Gaeldom.
Lewis (and the rest of the Western Isles) became part of Scotland once more in 1266 following the Treaty of Perth when it was ceded by the Kingdom of Norway.
In 1844 Lewis was bought by Sir James Matheson, co-founder of Jardine Matheson, but subsequent famine and changing land use forced vast numbers off their lands, and increased again the flood of emigrants. Paradoxically, those who remained became ever more congested and impoverished, as large tracts of arable land were set aside for sheep, deer-stalking or grouse shooting. Agitation for land re-settlement became acute on Lewis during the economic slump of the 1880s, with several land raids (in common with Skye, Uist and Tiree); this quietened down as the island economy recovered.
In 1917 the Isle of Lewis was bought by the soap magnate Lord Leverhulme who intended to make Stornoway an industrial town and build a fish cannery. His plans were initially popular, but his opposition to land re-settlement led to further land raids especially around the farms of Coll, Gress and Tong. These raids, commemorated in monuments in several villages, were ultimately successful, as the government was prepared to take legal action in support of land re-settlement. Faced with this, Leverhulme gave up on his plans for Lewis and concentrated his efforts on Harris, where the town of Leverburgh takes his name.
A cross-section of Lewis would see mostly sandy beaches backed by dunes and machair on the east coast, giving way to an expansive peat covered plateau in the centre of the island. The Atlantic coastline is markedly more rugged and is mostly rocky cliffs broken by small coves and beaches. The more fertile nature of the eastern side led to the majority of the population settling there, including the largest (and only) town, Stornoway. Aside from the village of Achmore in the centre of the island, all settlements are on the coast.
South Lewis, Harris and North Uist collectively is a National Scenic Area, and there are 4 geographical Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) on Lewis - Glen Valtos, Cnoc a' Chapuill, Port of Ness and Tolsta Head. The coastline is severely indented into a number of large sea lochs, such as Lochs Resort and Seaforth which form part of the border with Harris, Loch Roag surrounding the island of Great Bernera and Loch Erisort. The principal capes are the Butt of Lewis, in the extreme north, with hundred foot (30 m) cliffs (the high point is 142 ft (43 m) high) and crowned with a lighthouse, the light of which is visible for 19 miles; Tolsta Head, Tiumpan Head and Cabag Head, on the east; Renish Point, in the extreme south; and, on the west, Toe Head and Gallon Head. The largest island associated with Lewis is Great Bernera in the district of Uig and is linked to the mainland of Lewis by a bridge opened in 1953.
There are 15 Sites of Special Scientific Interest on Lewis in the biology category, spread across the island. Additionally, the Lewis Peatlands are recognised by Scottish Natural Heritage as a Special Protection Area, Special Area of Conservation and a Ramsar site, showing their importance as a wetland habitat for migratory and resident bird life.
Many species of seabirds inhabit the coastal areas of Lewis, such as shag, cormorant, fulmar, kittiwake and black guillemot - you may also see manx shearwaters during your ferry crossing. Gannets and skuas are often seen, but they are travellers from colonies on St. Kilda and Sula Sgeir. Waders are numerous - golden and ringed plovers, oystercatchers, curlew, redshank, greenshank and many more.
Golden eagles live in Uig and Bernera (and can be seen flying over the house) and there is also a population of white-tailed sea eagles in the area. There are many species of mountain and moorland birds - raven, merlin, grouse, buzzard and a few pairs of peregrine falcons survive on coastal cliffs.
Red and black-throated diver are common on the lochs and summer visitors include cuckoo and corncrake. In the winter, the bird population is boosted by visits from redwing, fieldfare, brambling, whooper swans and several species of duck, such as eider, merganser, goldeneye and long-tailed which can be seen on lochs and in coastal waters.
Salmon frequent several Lewis rivers after crossing the Atlantic. Many of the fresh-water lochs are home to brown trout. Other freshwater fish present include arctic char, European eel, 3 and 9 spined sticklebacks, thick-lipped mullet and flounder.
Offshore, it is common to see seals - both common and grey, and with luck, dolphins, porpoises, sharks and even the occasional whale can be encountered.
There are only two native land mammals in the Western Isles, red deer and otter, with the former very common and the latter very difficult to see!! The rabbit, blue hare, hedgehog, and polecat were introduced. The origin of mice and voles is uncertain.
American mink are another introduced species (escapees from fur farms) and cause problems for native ground-nesting birds, the local fishing industry and poultry farmers. Due to this impact and following a successful eradication of the species from the Uists and Barra, the second and ongoing phase of the Hebridean Mink Project aims to rid mink from Lewis and Harris in similar fashion
Reptiles and Amphibians
In common with Ireland, no snakes inhabit Lewis, only the slow-worm which is merely mistaken for a snake. Actually a legless lizard, it is the sole member of its order present. The common frog may be found in the centre of the island though it, along with any newts or toads present are introduced species.
The island's most famous insect resident is the Scottish midge which is ever-present near water in the late summer.
During the summer months, several species of butterflies and dragon flies can be found, especially outwith Stornoway.
The richness of insect life in Lewis is evident from the abundance of carnivorous plants that thrive in parts of the island.
The machair is noted for different species of orchid and associated vegetation such as various grasses. Three heathers; ling, bell heather and cross-leaved heather are predominant in the large areas of moorland vegetation which also holds large numbers of insectivorous plants such as sundews.
Lewis was once covered by woodland, but the only natural woods remaining are in small pockets on inland cliffs and on islands within lochs, away from fire and sheep. In recent years, Forestry Commission plantations of spruce and pine were planted, although most of the pines were destroyed by moth infestation. The most important mixed woods are those planted around Lews Castle in Stornoway, dating from the mid 19th century.
Peat is still cut as a fuel in many areas of Lewis. Peat is usually cut in late spring with a tool called a peat knife or tosg (sometimes toirsgian, or tairsgeir) which has a long wooden handle with an angled blade on one end. The peat bank is first cleared of heather turfs. The peat, now exposed, is cut and the peats put on the bank to dry.
Once dried, the peats are carted to the croft and built into a large stack. These are usually broad, curved at each end and tapered to a point. Peat stacking is a traditional skill and a well built peat stack can be a work of art.
While peat burning still goes on, there has been a significant decline in recent years as people move to other, less labour-intensive forms of heating; however, it remains an important symbol of island life.
Lewis has a linguistic heritage rooted in Gaelic and Old Norse, which both continue to influence life today. Both Gaelic and English are spoken, but in day to day life, a mixture of English and Gaelic is very common. The Gaelic culture in the Western Isles is more prominent than in any other part of Scotland. Gaelic is still the language of choice amongst many islanders and around 60% of islanders speak Gaelic, whilst 70% of the resident population have some knowledge of Gaelic (including reading, writing, speaking or a combination of the three). Most signposts on the islands are written in both English and Gàidhlig and much day-to-day business is carried out in the Gaelic language. Almost all of the Gaelic speakers are bilingual.
Most of the place names in Lewis and Harris come from Old Norse. The name "Lewis" is the English spelling of the Gaelic Leòdhas which comes from the Old Norse Ljóðhús, as Lewis is named in medieval Norwegian maps of the island. Various suggestions have been made as to a Norse meaning such as "song house". The name is not of Gaelic origin, the Norse credentials are questionable and it may have a pre-Celtic root.