The low-lying landscape of the Isle of Lewis is surprisingly striking. An environment that at first glance seems empty soon yields its secrets to more enquiring eyes: lochs glinting in watery sunlight; otters scurrying across the road; heather blooming in its late summer brilliance.
While working at the local branch of Visit Scotland, I learned that the West Side ‘loop’ is the area most coveted by visitors to the island. It’s clear why, as history has deep roots along this road, stretching as far back as the Iron Age at the Dun Carloway Broch, or the Stone Age in Callanish.
There are so many significant sites that the little bus these hopeful tourists took was simply not enough. Hire a car, drive a van, borrow a bike if you must – but time to stop and stare, imagine a way of life lost, or linger at one location that moment longer than the other, is vital.
While the Callanish Standing Stones are a must-see, I prefer to leave them until last, starting the West Side circular from the north, crossing the Barvas Moor and arriving initially at the Arnol Blackhouse. At the end of a single track road is No. 42 Arnol. Here you’ll find a traditional Lewis blackhouse – common up until the early 20th century, made of low stone walls and a thatched roof – preserved exactly as it was when the last family left.
Fully furnished, it’s an insight into an island way of life long gone, with box beds plumped up with hay, a byre through the door from the living room, and a peat fire in the middle of the floor, the smoke escaping through the roof. Be prepared: the peat smoke will seep into your clothes, a smoky souvenir alerting everyone you encounter to where you have been.
A few villages along is Bragar, which boasts the culinary creations – straight from the croft – of 40 North. A shop that serves take-away food from a menu more akin to that of a restaurant, 40 North offers options aplenty, from deli meats and Italian pizzas to Scottish staples and sweet treats. ‘Made at 40’ is the mantra here; not only is everything handmade, but ingredients are nearly all local.
40 North’s deli section is deliciousness defined, so last week I opted for one of the hearty homemade sandwiches: maple and honey chicken paired with caramelized onions. The sweetness of the filling was offset perfectly by the spice of the two doorstop-sized slices of fresh cracked black pepper bread. Eats can be enjoyed at the tables outside or packed as a picnic and carried on to more of the scenic sights.
I picked Dal Beg as the location for my lunch. The beaches of Dal Beag and Dal Mor are beautiful, their fine white shores braced for Atlantic breakers. Surfers are a regular sight at Dal Mor, the larger of the two bays, but the warning at the end of the road discourages water sports for the inexperienced; undercurrents here are strong and sudden. Dangerous they may be, but the might of these waves is mesmerising to watch.
Back on the main road, make for the Gearrannan Blackhouse Village. The village is a unique mix of past and present, where buildings have been restored to their old outer appearance, with modern amenities inside.
One of them was recently remodelled by Porteous Architecture into a modern slice of hostel accommodation for the discerning traveller. There are also whole cottages available for hire, perfect for families, large flocks of friends, or parties of locals booking the space for an overnight escape (the American-style fridge-freezers can stock plenty of bubbly for special celebrations). There’s a museum here too, but a wander through the beautifully restored village is completely free.
The next stop on the historical trail is the Dun Carloway Broch, the hilltop remains of a uniquely Scottish fortification and one of the best-preserved brochs in the country. As children we hurried in and out of the passageways as if we were in an adventure book, and the appeal doesn’t wear off as the years go on.
Then comes Callanish. Aim to arrive at the ancient stones as daylight is slowly seeping away – it adds to the other-worldly atmosphere (although admittedly this might be tricky in the summer time, when the glorious daylight hours can last until midnight).
Whatever the weather, the mysterious monoliths – set in the shape of a Celtic cross – “have an enigmatic, magical quality” to them. Simply put, Stonehenge has nothing on these Gneiss statues. As if that wasn’t enough, the view from (as well as of) the stones is spectacular, a vista of lochs, moors and mountains stretching to the horizon.
If Stornoway seems too far away after a day wandering the West Side, opt for a night of luxurious seclusion at Whitefalls Spa Lodges in the nearby village of Breasclete. My evening here last winter was so fabulous I found it difficult to leave. These award-winning wooden lodges provide the perfect place to wind down after a long day of ‘time travel’ through the landmarks of Lewis.