The Western Isles of Scotland, also known as the Outer Hebrides, are so different and varied it is exciting to sail across the Minch to begin our adventure. We travel by ferry from Ullapool on the mainland to Stornoway on Lewis. Here is a map showing the area and hostels on the Outer Hebrides. When we reach the islands we like to journey from the Butt of Lewis in the North to the islands of Barra and Vatersay in the South. One pleasure we look forward to are the two nights we will spend in a blackhouse at the GEARRANNAN VILLAGE HOSTEL & BUNKHOUSE near Carloway.
When our party was small, just four, we based ourselves in the Hostel in Gearrannan Blackhouse. I remember our first ever stay. The four of us were wet and cold. It was in October and growing darker by the minute. The wind blew and souched around the thatched houses. The rain was carried on the wind and it was wet. Our spirits were low. We opened the door of the blackhouse hostel and stepped inside. We closed the door and there was silence. It was warm, cosy, snug and … yes, quiet. The thick walls and the deep thatched roof kept all the noise of the wind outside where it belonged. All thoughts of rain and wind disappeared and we relaxed for a good night’s rest. We have returned a number of times. Now so smitten with Gearrannan Blackhouse Hostel that our party has swollen to eleven in number.
The places we visit from Gearrannan Blackhouse include the Butt of Lewis where the lighthouse warns the shipping of the hazardous rocks at this most northerly point. Another interesting place is the lovely Arnol Blackhouse, curated by Historic Scotland. Arnol is an original blackhouse with peat fire which is never allowed to go out. It was a tradition in blackhouses that peat fires were kept alight twenty four hours a day. As there was no lum (chimney) in the houses the occupants tended to be dark from the peat smoke and soot. Some say well preserved. Perhaps it was the comforting wee dram of whisky that helped with the internal preservation.
Callinish, the five thousand year old standing stones, is set in a spectacular landscape not far from Gearrannan Blackhouse and should not be missed. The ancient standing stone circle has the feel of a timeless place. I believe that the stones are full of stored up energy some of which you can soak up by hugging them! I do. We once witnessed a wedding in the middle of the stones. Man and woman accompanied by a child of about five, were joined together in matrimony during a lull in the visitors approaching the stones. I found the occasion very touching and had a tear in my eye and a lump in my throat. The small party retired to the excellent Visitors Centre and Cafe to celebrate their wonderful occasion.
Peat is a traditional fuel in the islands. We stopped on the moor to take pictures of peat beautifully set out to dry and a passing motorist stopped her car and asked what we doing. “Well I’ve never seen anyone taking pictures of peat before” she laughed and drove off leaving us with the strong impression that she believed we were all mad!
Within ten minutes of Gearrannan Blackhouse is the beautiful private garden of Leathad Ard, Upper Carloway, set in a fairly bleak island landscape typical of the area. What has made this garden possible is the extensive shelter belts of trees and shrubs. And, of course, twenty five years of hard work by Rowena and Stuart Oakley. Rowena gave us a guided tour and our party agreed that the garden was amazing. Our visit was one of the highlights of our time in the Western Isles. This garden is worth visiting to see what is possible in an extreme environment with frequent gales from the Atlantic Ocean, several reaching in excess of eighty miles per hour in winter. It is amazing to see beautiful plants and flowers surviving and thriving in this special garden.
When in the Western Isles take the opportunity to listen to the local folk speaking to each other in Gaelic. It is the most beautiful lyrical language and is magic. I found that the best place to hear Gaelic being spoken is in the Co-op Stores which are on many of the islands. Regrettably when the locals realise that you don’t speak Gaelic they start speaking in English and most of the magic melts away before your ears. However even their English has a lyrical lilt to it so all is not lost.
Gearannan Blackhouse village is a magic place to stay whilst on Lewis. Whether its in the cosy hostel or the spacious house for parties of up to fourteen, which is more basic, or in a blackhouse holiday home it is special. One of the blackhouses is occupied by a weaver and you can see Harris Tweed being woven in the traditional way on a hand and foot operated loom. It’s also fabulous to be in a car free village looking down at the Atlantic Ocean as it rolls into the small bay. Staying here has been a highlight of our visits to the Western Isles for a number of years. Mairi Macritchie, the friendly lady in charge, has always been most helpful and has made sure that everything is in good order and that we are happy when we visit. Mairi is a star! We love Gearannan Blackhouse and are looking forward to our next Hebridean holiday.