Sunday, May 16, 2010

Failte gu Steornabhagh!

Welcome to Stornoway!

Three Rotary scholar girls and I recently returned from a visit to one of the farther reaches of Scotland - the Isles of Lewis & Harris. Is it a rule that the farther away you go away from humanity the more beautiful it gets?

I don't actually think that, because people are great.

That said, there was some intensely beautiful scenery that continues to pop into my daydreams since I've returned back to the city. Landscape so windswept, so mournful and joyful at the same time, so diverse and evocative that you hardly believe you are on planet earth.

Incredible beaches of South Harris

The trip was inspired by our resident Anthropologist, Annie, who is pursuing a PhD in Gaelic culture in Scotland. The Outer Hebrides are home to Scotland's largest Gaelic population, so it is the perfect place for Annie to do her research. We contacted the Rotary club of Stornoway, Isle of Lewis. The club went out of their way to open their homes to us. They were generous enough to drive us all over the islands, and we got a great sense of the area from such a thorough tour. I've compiled a "Best Of the Hebrides" list for anyone who might find themselves out on the islands some day.

1. The highland coos grazing on the side of the road

With our Rotarian host Ken MacDonald

2. Harris tweed shops

The Harris tweed production is fascinating. If it isn't done by hand by a local artisan weaver, it is not Harris tweed. We actually got to watch some of it being made. There are thousands of varieties in beautiful colors and patterns. As an artist, I found it intriguing that such a unique, now internationally recognized form of art/craft making started out on this tiny desolate island, made by humble locals who just saw it as a means to feed their families.

3. Stornoway Harbour - where you'll see seals and salty sailors

4. The Western beaches of Uig - next stop America. As you might be able to tell from the photos, it was windy out there. Luckily our host keeps a stationary camping caravan at the side of the beach, so the girls, our host Ken, and another Rotarian nicknamed Kenny Lemons* popped in from the winds for a cup of tea and a bite to eat.

* Everyone in Scotland is named Kenneth, so they all need nicknames. Similarly, there were 10 pages of MacLeod surnames in the Stornoway phonebook.

5. Old Blackhouse villages - people used to live in small stone huts where they made fires inside without any chimneys or windows. They would cut peat soil from the fields into small logs and burn them all year long. We went into a house that they had done up to look authentic. It smelled nice but was thoroughly smoky and dark. So the photo is taken from the outside.

6. The Sheep Fields. Oh wait, it's impossible to go anywhere in Scotland without seeing sheep. Which I think is great, since they were my favorite animal as a little girl in Connecticut. The wee lambs were frolicking around everywhere, so adorable.

Get this- one of the Rotarians assigned to drive us around was this sort of staunch, slightly grumpy old-school guy. He drove a mint condition, cream white antique collectible car. Well, the car is now in the repair shop because HE HIT A SHEEP! No joke. The poor thing hobbled away, thank god, but we all thought it was just absurd! Who hits a sheep!? Only a grumpy old man in Scotland!

6. And last but not least, The Callanish Stones. This ancient rock formation of 16 stones was set up in near-cross like formation around 2900 BC. It's very hard to even conceive of human beings setting up these monoliths that long ago. Or even to conceive of life that long ago. And the fact that they have remained in the same place and haven't toppled over.

I can't recommend the Outer Hebrides enough. The trip was worth the long haul from Edinburgh, which totaled about 16 hours there and back and about £90 worth of travel expense.

Once again, we have Rotary to thank for an unforgettable trip. As the Scottish Gaels might say, Slainte Mhath! Cheers!

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