At the head of the Outer Hebrides sits Ness, the last link in this spinal chain of Scottish islands. The archipelago’s most northern community is made up of a number of villages each as warm and welcoming as the next.
After the mass expanse of moorland that makes up much of north Lewis, the landscape of Ness is surprisingly lush: the grass is a glorious green, and small flowers are freckled across the machair and along the sides of the single-track roads.
The first stop for most visitors is the last bit of land, the Butt of Lewis. Perched on a cliff edge is the lighthouse, below which the waves beat angrily even on the calmest day. With almost nothing ahead but open water until the Arctic, you could be forgiven for thinking this is the edge of the world.
It is here that local wind speeds are measured, winds that in winter can easily reach three figures, causing the waves to crash over the clifftops. Winter brings beauty too: the scenery is striking in its starkness, and sightings of the aurora borealis are common.
In the nearby village of Eoropaidh is a beautiful beach, a brilliant playground that attracts children from across the island, and the fascinating St Moluag’s Church. Surrounded by legend, theories abound on who founded this ancient place of worship – St Moluag maybe, or the son of a Scandinavian king.
Marked only by a small gate at the side of someone’s home, the entrance to St Moluag’s is easily missed – I had unknowingly driven past it many times myself before this visit. The gate opens onto a narrow grassy pathway that leads to the entrance of the church, an imposing image as you approach on foot. Episcopal services are still held here in the summer months, as well as an advent service near Christmas. With no electricity in the stone building, candlelight and oil lamps add to the atmosphere.
Driving back along the road you reach the Port of Ness, a pretty little village overlooking the harbour of the same name. A narrow road marked only “To the shore” drops down to the port. In the summer it presents a tranquil picture, colourful boats roped to the concrete maze of the pier, the white stretch of sand reaching out along the coast.
This pier is where the guga hunter boats land each autumn, after their stormy sail back from the desolate Atlantic island of Sula Sgeir. In recognition of this centuries-old Hebridean tradition, Ness is the only community in Europe that has been granted permission to hunt gannets for meat.
Characteristics of the crofting lifestyle are still to be seen in this part of Lewis: tractors in driveways, traditional peat stacks standing proudly at the edge of gardens, potatoes being gathered and sheep being herded into their fanks. But don’t let this fool you into thinking Ness is stuck in the past. There are pubs as well as peats, shops as well as sheep, and a certain charm in this place by the sea – Ness is a very self-contained community, with every need catered for.
You can’t miss the bright and cheery Ness post office on the main road; a little further along you can find the multi-purpose Cross Stores. Watering holes like the Cross Inn and Ness Social Club provide an evening’s entertainment close to home, and there are plenty of cafes dotted here and there for some light bites.
With a bowling alley and a swimming pool (as well as the aforementioned adventure play park), kids will always be kept busy. In the old Cross school, visitors with a penchant for the past can enjoy a cup of tea as they explore the archives of the local historical society, Comunn Eachdraidh Nis, which provides an insight into the community’s collective history.
For those in search for a souvenir with a soul, Buth Lisa in Habost is the place to part with your pennies. The now-whitewashed building with bunting outside began life in 1910 as a store selling homemade candy by local Elizabeth ‘Lisa’ Morrison, who had returned home to Ness from Canada. It passed through the generations, with incarnations as a butcher, a grocer, and an office, before being brought back to life last year as open studios by two talented local artists.
The art here has a heart – and a history. Alison Macleod of Tiger Textiles and fine art painter Elaine Murray are both inspired by heritage; their art is strongly flavoured by local landscapes and life. You’ll be hard-pressed to leave this happy Habost gallery without some art in your arms.
Like the rest of the Western Isles, Ness is home to more than just dramatic landscapes. When you head to the Outer Hebrides, don’t neglect to discover the north.