Scottish weavers by the sea. On these remote islands, shaggy sheep outnumber the people
Lewis and Harris Islands, Outer Hebrides — FEW places in the Western world are as remote or as different in their way of life as Lewis and Harris, the islands of the Outer Hebrides which are farthest from the Scottish mainland. On a craggy terrain often shrouded in fog and mist, surrounded by a sometimes stormy, sometimes breathtakingly beautiful sea, the people weave the tweed that has made the name ``Harris'' famous. The distinctively shaggy Hebridean sheep, far outnumbering the human population, thread their way along rock-strewn hills, finding barely enough grass to sustain life. The fresh sea air is often mixed with the sweetly pungent smell of peat, used to heat the stone cottages that dot the islands.
Our car ferry from Uig, on the Isle of Skye, arrived at Lewis and Harris at the port of Tarbert, which sits on the narrow isthmus joining the islands. The MV Hebrides of the Caledonian MacBrayne Line - whose ships connect 23 Scottish islands - made the trip in two hours.
Unlike Skye, a tourist attraction only 15 minutes from the mainland, Lewis and Harris are a very different world. Not that one is completely removed from the amenities of life. The bustling, modern city of Stornoway, on the east coast of Lewis, is the largest center of population on the island (6,000). Its economic base, traditionally herring fishing, now includes a variety of fish. We strolled through the pleasant streets, stopping to peruse books and compare them with our American reading fare, and to buy tartans. Everywhere we were greeted cordially.
From Stornoway we drove to the Butt of Lewis, on the tip of the island, where we found rugged cliffs, a small settlement of houses with a pier and fishing boats, and elderly men organizing enormous piles of peat for winter fuel.
There were stunning views of the Atlantic as we drove south to the Standing Stones of Callanish, which sit on a plateau above the juncture of the two branches of Loch Roag, jutting inland from the sea. The stones, unearthed in 1857 by tenant farmers, or ``crofters,'' as they dug peat, date from pre-Christian times, but are nevertheless in the shape of a cross. They are more worn and, therefore, less imposing than the formations at Stonehenge. An overcast sky and a wind sweeping across the rise added to the sense of mystery.
We passed several attractive farmhouses with discreetly posted notices advertising bed and breakfast. Here were crofters supplementing their income from crops, sheep and cattle, and weaving by offering hospitality at modest price.
At Carloway, we happily discovered Charles MacDonald's Doune Braes Hotel. The comfortable dining room, lounge, the sparklingly refurbished rooms, and, most of all, the bright faces of the MacDonald family members popping into the public areas from time to time, lent a homey atmosphere. A little concerned about the brown color of the water from the faucets, we wondered if there was a plumbing problem, but the lady of the house said, ``Ohhhh, no! The water around here is very peaty.''
In the long northern evening, we hiked along the neighboring roads, giving an insight into the lives of the crofters. One road led to another historical mystery, the Broch at Carloway. A husband and wife and grandson were at work repairing the fence that keeps local sheep at a respectable distance from this striking circular tower. The Broch is one of 500 similar fortifications that are found across the Scottish Highlands and nowhere else. Scholars are fairly sure the structures were built over a 200-year period from about AD 100, but aren't in agreement about who built them.
Looking down from the hill on which the tower sits, we saw many old stone houses - some minus roofs and windows - abandoned by those who migrated to America and elsewhere, seeking to escape hard times. The current residents inhabit newer dwellings within a stone's throw. It's clear that the economic situation is not as difficult as earlier, thanks to development aid from the European Community, and the increasing demand for the local tweed, especially in the United States.
Our trip to the Isle of Harris took us through Tarbert again. Our first goal was Leverburgh, on the southwestern side of the island, and the exhibition on the history and present state of the tweed industry. Our curiosity about how the fabric is made was stimulated by seeing bolts of cloth sitting in front of houses at the edge of the road. We soon realized that weavers leave their products to be picked up by a collection lorry.
We then drove to the extreme southern tip of Harris. At Rodel, we visited the Church of St. Clement, built in cruciform shape about 1500. The interior of the building has been restored, but no attempt has been made to furnish it.
That Harris is a collection of hills and mountains of rock and grass, with rock outcroppings predominating, became dramatically clear on our drive back to Tarbert along the east coast. As in much of the Highlands, the road is mostly single lane, made all the more challenging by patches of fog and mist. Fortunately, we drove out of the fog often enough to behold the majestic, clear-blue sea pounding against the rugged coast.
We had one destination in mind before making for the ferry, so down the jutting peninsula to Plochrapool we drove, to Mr. and Mrs. Alistair Campbell's workshop, perched on the rock above the sea. Mr. Campbell was a fisherman for 21 years, but now devotes most of his time to weaving. As he worked the treadle with his feet, he demonstrated how the loom incorporates the strands from several spools and brings them together in multicolored patterns.
Seeing the results of his labor in bolts piled up on his workshop tables, we felt a strong desire to buy some for skirts and jackets. It takes 4 yards for a sport jacket, three for a skirt, he told us. The cloth for the jacket cost a mere 21 ($39), that for the skirt half as much. The tailoring back in the US turned out to be considerably more, but the results will endure for years to come.
If you go
Ferries of the Caledonia MacBrayne line connect Uig on the Isle of Skye and Tarbert on Harris twice daily. Ullapool, on the western coast of the mainland, is connected with Stornoway on Lewis on generally the same schedule. Recommended accommodations are the Ferry Inn in Uig, the Ferry Boat Inn in Ullapool, and on the Isle of Lewis, MacDonald's Doune Braes Hotel.