The Isle of Lewis (Leòdhas in Gaelic) and the attached Isle of Harris (Na Hearadh) is an altogether different world from any part of the Scottish mainland, and has an even remoter feel to it than the slightly more accessible Isle of Skye. Island life in Scotland evolved quite separately for a number of centuries, including a period of Norse rule, and the effects are lasting. The most immediately obvious difference is the amount of Scottish Gaelic spoken on the street. Statistically, Lewis and Harris are the last true stronghold of Gaelic fluency in all of Scotland, with over 50% of the population able to speak it. Not that I found anyone who didn’t also speak English natively, but there was a certain enjoyment to strolling around Stornoway and really listening to the language for the first time. You don’t hear it in Edinburgh. You don’t hear it (much) in Glasgow.
As in the rest of the Highlands, life is slower. Villages are smaller. Everyone knows just by looking at you that you’re not from the neighborhood, but most people are zealously friendly just the same. For history buffs, it’s an island museum that could take days to explore. For casual explorers looking for a peaceful getaway, 48 hours should do it. Make sure you don’t pack your bathing suit, though. Despite tourist information with photos to the contrary, Lewis is no island in the sun.
What you will get, undoubtedly, is atmosphere. The smell of peat burning well into the late spring, the fog hanging low over the rolling hills that define the Harris landscape, the scattered farming villages that coexist with utterly ancient stonework. If the sun ever does come out, you can stick it to the sarcastic Italians who wrote “Finally it’s raining!” in the guestbook at Dun Carloway, but more than likely you should prepare to feel like you’re on the set of Game of Thrones and dress accordingly.
Dun Carloway Broch
What is a broch? It’s a house. Or a hideaway. Or a lookout. Nobody knows. But they are iron age (100 BC to 100 AD) constructions only found in Scotland, and the broch at Dun Carloway is among the best preserved. You can go right in and make yourself comfortable while you contemplate the view.
Callanish (Calanais) Standing Stones
Dating from some time around 2,900 BC, Calanais is one of the most complete standing stone circles in the country. What is known about these particular stones is mostly speculation, but they follow the usual rules of alignment according to the sun and stars, and once doubled as burial ground. The site has a staffed visitor center with information about stone age cultures on Lewis.
It’s too cold to swim, but otherwise the beaches on the west coast of Harris look almost… Carribbean? The aqua blue water and fine whitish sand is a surprising sight next to the mossy peat-y landscapes around it.
Stornoway (Steòrnabhagh) is the largest town on Lewis and Harris. It’s a scenic harbor community that does have a castle worth visiting, although I would mainly recommend it as a place to spend the night, stop for a meal, or encounter other humans.