The northernmost island in the Hebridean archipelago, Lewis is the largest and most populous of the Western Isles. Stornoway, on the east coast, is the only substantial town in the islands, but it’s really only useful for stocking up on provisions or catching the bus. Most of Lewis’s 20,000 inhabitants live in the crofting and fishing villages strung out along the northwest coast, where you’ll find the islands’ best-preserved prehistoric remains – including the Calanais standing stones. The landscape is mostly flat peat bog, but the shoreline is more dramatic, as is the south of the island. Here, where Lewis is physically joined with Harris, the land rises to just over 1800ft, providing an exhilarating backdrop for the excellent beaches that pepper the isolated west coast.
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At Carlabhagh a mile-long road leads off north to the beautifully remote coastal settlement of GEARRANNAN (Garenin). Here, rather than re-create a single museum-piece blackhouse as at Arnol, a whole cluster of nine thatched crofters’ houses – the last of which was abandoned in 1974 – have been restored and put to a variety of uses. As an ensemble, they also give a great impression of what a blackhouse village must have been like.
Overlooking the sheltered, islet-studded waters of Loch Ròg, on the west coast, are the islands’ most dramatic prehistoric ruins, the Calanais standing stones, which occupy a serene lochside setting. These monoliths – nearly fifty slabs of gnarled and finely grained gneiss up to 15ft high – were transported here between 3000 and 1500 BC, but their exact function remains a mystery. No one knows for certain why the ground plan resembles a colossal Celtic cross, nor why there’s a central burial chamber. It’s likely that such a massive endeavour was prompted by the desire to predict the seasonal cycle upon which these early farmers were entirely dependent, and indeed many of the stones are aligned with the positions of the sun and the stars. Whatever the reason for their existence, there’s certainly no denying the powerful primeval presence, not to mention sheer beauty, of the stones.