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Outsmarting Voltaire in the Hebrides

February 02, 1986|CHRIS TUPPER | Tupper is a Houston free-lance writer.

STORNOWAY, Scotland — When French intellectual Voltaire first heard his friend and fellow writer, Dr. Samuel Johnson, talk of visiting the Hebrides, Voltaire asked Johnson if he were expected to accompany him. When assured he was not, Voltaire said: "Then I am very willing you should go."

The 212 years that have passed since Johnson's journey have made surprisingly little change in the group of islands off northwest Scotland. The common dwelling has gone from black house (so called because the peat fire blackened the ceiling and walls of the chimney-less dwelling) to modern, though modest, homes of wood, stone and concrete. Roads have stepped up from country trails to mostly two-lane highways.

But between the fury of the seas and the misty skies, the years have done nothing to dim the often starkly barren but always rugged beauty of the Hebrides.

Outer Islands

The island of Lewis and Harris (the northern part is Lewis; the southern, Harris) is the most northerly and largest of the Outer Hebrides. For an adequate view of the outer islands, one need go no farther than this one.

Many of the attractions were ancient when Johnson made his trip.

The island's largest town, Stornoway (pop. 5,000), was settled as a Norse stronghold in the 11th Century. Since then the beautiful natural harbor has offered shelter and facilities to the island's fishing fleet.

Across the harbor stands a monument to the memory of Prince Charles Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie). Legend says it was at Stornoway that the prince's plan to buy a boat for his escape from Scotland to France was frustrated.

On the opposite side, another monument pays tribute to the more than 200 servicemen who lost their lives on New Year's Day, 1919, when the Admiralty yacht Lolaire, bringing them home from World War I, sank within sight of the town.

Woods and Paths

Near the ferry terminal is Lewis Castle. The surrounding wooded grounds, known as Lady Lever Park, are open to the public. The grounds are lovely to walk in, with little paths jutting in all directions among the trees and along the seafront.

From the top of Gallows Hill one has a full view of the harbor and town. The castle, built in 1818, functions as part of a technical college.

Sixteen miles from Stornoway, the austere megaliths of Callanish triumphantly defy the ravages of time. After Stonehenge, these standing stones are the most important in Britain and, in their untamed setting on a peninsula jutting out into East Loch Roag, are far more impressive than the Salisbury Plain monument--fenced in, labeled and thronged by tourists. The Callanish Stones probably date from between 2000 and 1500 BC and constitute the largest temple of the sun in Scotland.

The stones can be visited day or night; the best time to appreciate their impact is at daybreak with a mist rising, or at moonrise of a summer evening.

The stones were once known as na fir breige (Gaelic for the false men), an apt description; when viewed from a distance, some of the megaliths bear an uncanny resemblance to human figures with tiny heads, like Henry Moore sculptures.

Ancient Fortification

A few miles north of Callanish stands another ancient edifice, the Doune Broch. A broch was a fortification built by villages in ancient time. The Doune Broch, partially standing, is the best-preserved broch in the Western Isles.

Legend maintains that the broch's strength was penetrated when centuries ago a warrior from the Uig district climbed the outer wall with a dirk in each hand. He then lit bundles of heather his comrades sent up by a rope and dropped them through the flagstones on the roof to suffocate those sleeping inside.

The invasion must have taken place in fall, after the heather that covers the island in August and September had gone to seed.

When not covered by heather, the most common vegetation is peat moss and gorse.

Plenty of Peat

Some call Lewis a large peat bog and they're not far wrong. Before the Ice Age the island was a forest, but with the changing climatic conditions all the vegetation decomposed to form peat, a basic fossil fuel like coal. All across the island, families cut, dig and pile the peat to dry, to use as fuel during the hard winters.

The supply seems endless; the inhabitants have dug it for centuries. Until World War II most citizens still lived in black houses. These homes had thatched roofs that remained light in weight because they were constantly dried by the open peat fires in the middle of the floor. They were simple dwellings, often with one end reserved for animals.

The black houses have been abandoned now, though their remains are scattered over the island. The walls still stand straight but the roofs have caved in because of heavy storms that soaked the thatch.

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