Lewis and Harris is the northernmost island of the Outer Hebrides, one island with two names separated by a range of rocky gneiss mountains, one of the oldest rocks in Europe. For over 55 million years The Outer Hebrides have been ceaselessly pounded by Atlantic waves, the action of ice wind and rain has created a remote and beautiful landscape, forming the barren fragile peat uplands in north Lewis and sweeping white sandy beaches on Harris’s west coast. Inspired by land sea and sky; the emptiness of windswept beaches and the neutral palette of winter, texture and cloth the Isle Lewis and Harris, home to Harris Tweed has been on my list of places to visit out of season for many years.
An opportunity for a road trip north to Glasgow presented itself at the beginning of April which is only a short flight away from Stornaway, so with rucksack packed with thermals, waterproofs, thermos, watercolours and small pots of raw earth pigments ready to capture the colours of the landscape using the format of Sean Scully’s beautiful paintings I left for a two day retreat.
Landing at 08.00 to a howling northerly gale, driving rain that even the locals thought was inhospitable I decided to head to the Butt of Lewis to face the gale head on. Driving through the desolate peat bog landscape I only saw a bus, the postman and the Harris Tweed Authority lorry going from home to home. At Ness the rain stopped briefly so wrapped for a bracing walk on the beach, the brine spraying my face I was in heaven, looking to the horizon and the blurred watery lines between land sea and sky.
A short distance away is the Butt of Lewis light house that has protected many a sailor from the full force of the sea crashing against the black jagged cliffs.
Onwards as the rain set in again, stopping to capture the colours of the peatland landscape from the shelter of my car with the promise of sunshine by mid afternoon. Close up the peat bogs are a mass of different textures and colours from dull lime greens, greys, dusty pinks and rusty orange of the mosses, winter grasses and heather, all submerged in water.
I was hoping to visit Carloway Mill but it is under new ownership and they are no longer doing tours. I did buy a treasured bag of yarn ends that show the uniquely blended yarns of Harris Tweed and depict the colours of the landscape evening using synthetic dyes.
Harris Tweed must be made by law under the terms of the Harris Tweed Act of Parliament 1993. It has to be handwoven on a treadle loom by a weaver at their home with yarn that is dyed and spun on the Outer Hebrides. Carloway Mill is one of the mills where the undyed raw wool from Scottish sheep is taken to be washed and ‘dyed in the wool” a unique process to Harris Tweed. After dying the coloured wools are blended to secret recipes, then carded and spun producing a spectrum of colours in the yarns that enhance the uniqueness of Harris Tweed. The spun warp and weft yarns are then delivered to the home’s of the weavers for weaving along with the pattern instruction cards. Once completed the bolts are collected from outside the croft gate and returned to the mill for finishing, presumably by the Harris Tweed Authority trucks I had seen on the road earlier. The greasy cloth from the oily loom is washed, conditioned and any impurities removed before the Harris Tweed Authority’s inspectors can stamp if with the Certification Mark or ORB MARK as its known worldwide. The orb stamp and woven label issued with the cloth confirms its authenticity.
Next stop was the Gearrannan Blockhouses somewhere I really wanted to visit, but sadly they were closed for the filming of the Christmas Special of “Call the Midwives”. I loved this old croft roof blending into the landscape soft green and russet landscape on the road to the Blackhouse Village.
With more time and the skies turning blue I headed to the tip of Great Bernera Island and Bostadh Beach where the Iron Age Village was discovered after a large storm cleared the sands in the bay a few years ago revealing the remains of the village. A replica of the Iron Age houses has now been built tucked up in the valley nearby.
There was not a sole on the single track road to the tip of the island apart from a gathering of 3 cars by the first shop I had spotted since leaving Stornaway at 08.30 in the morning. I used the passing places to pull over and marvel at the stunning views south to the mountains of Harris, over to Loch Roag and the derelict crofts that blend into the landscape and sheep!
Tucked down out of the northerly wind on Bostadh beach staring out over the Atlantic Ocean I painted the changing blues of the sea.
Below is the view from Otter Bothy where I stayed, perched on the edge West Loch Roag, I was thrilled to spot an otter diving for breakfast out of my window in the early morning sun. It could not have been a more perfect location for exploring both Lewis and Harris with the bonus of a shop 5 minutes away - shops and places to eat are few and far between and I was glad to be self catering.
Day two I drove down the Golden Road on the east coast of Harris overlooking the Minch, stopping and look down at or walk along the edges of rocky inlets, seeing seals lying on rocks out in Finsbay, staring out over the teal blue turquoise sea beyond small fishing harbours protected from the storms, ‘townships’ that comprised of a few houses. Incredible rock formations covered in the bright yellow lichen called ‘crottle’ that was scrapped from the rocks to create the rusty coloured vegetable dye used for Harris Tweed. I tried to capture the colours with my pigments.
The Mission House Gallery near Finsbay is home and studio to the ceramic artist Nickolai Globe and photographer Beka Globe, an inspirational stop off where I really enjoyed chatting with them, admiring their work and talking about lifestyle decisions. www.missionhousestudio.co.uk
I was not disappointed by my decision to drive back to Lewis up the west Harris coast with it’s miles of beautiful sandy beaches. The joy of walking in the late afternoon sun, alone with only my footsteps in the sand mesmerised by the sun casting rainbows in the breaking surf. I climbed the headland to the MacCleod Stone with views over Luskentyre Beach and the Harris Mountains to the North, Toe Head and Scarasta Beach to the south and the sculpted hillside below created by the peat fields.
As I reached the turning home the sun was about to set behind the ancient Calanais Standing Stones that have stood their for the past 4,500 years, nobody really knowing why they were placed there. It was magical standing alone watching the sun disappear over the western horizon and feel the wind suddenly turn cold as darkness fell.
Walking across the large expanse of Uig Beach where the Lewis Chessmen were discovered with the dunes and machair grasslands made up of tiny fragments of shells providing well drained lime rich soil that mixes with the acid peat water coming down from the mountains beginning to show signs of the flowering. The low early morning sun casting rays across the mirror like wet sands reflecting the mottled grey sky, I had been blessed with good weather, this was a visit to explore the landscape, the island was still peaceful, empty and in winter mode, the colours were incredible and I am looking forward to getting back into my studio.
As I emptied the sand from my walking boots into a bin at airport security I looked out at an adorable Loganair tartan tailed prop plane that was taking me back to Glasgow where I had a night out booked with my son who’s at University there before heading South via 3 days in the Lake District.
A big thank you to Claire Benn for invaluable notes and loan of Ian Lawsons’ stunning book of photographs “From the Land Comes the Cloth” before I went.
“Eriskay A Poem of Remote Lives” by Werner Kissling is a short film shot in black & white in 1934 about him arriving by sail boat to the Outer Hebrides and the lives of the locals he encountered. Click here to watch.