Those visiting Lewis for the first time are immediately struck by how big it is (in fact, we’re the largest of Britain’s offshore islands, bigger than Skye, Mull, Islay, Man or Wight) and by the extraordinary freshness and purity of the Atlantic air.
There’s also abiding confusion with Harris. In fact, geographically, we are one island; but there’s a formidable rampart of mountains at the border and it was far into the nineteenth century before the most basic of roads was cut over them. Through centuries Lewis and Harris have evolved as separate communities – until local government reform in the mid 1970s they weren’t even in the same county. Even the Harris and Lewis accents are very different. (Harris, by the way, is well worth a day’s tour while you’re staying at Eilean Fraoich.)
If you’ve arrived by plane, you’ll immediately grasp why the Vikings first called this island Ljeodus – ‘place abounding in pools.’ All that standing water is very obvious from the air. Lewis, built of peat and boulder-clay over one of the oldest and impermeable rocks in the world, is spattered with lochs and lochans – over 1,100 of them. It’s been calculated that it would take one angler, fishing a different loch every day, six days a week, during the trout-fishing season, over four years to visit them all.
Though predominantly treeless – the vast, rolling heath of the island’s Great Moor, under vast northern sky, never fails to impress the stranger – there are more trees here than you might think, especially around Stornoway and the bonny woods of the Lews Castle Grounds.
But the human economy of Lewis is a coastal one. We have only two inland villages (Achmore and Lochganvich) and for centuries people have tilled the soil and raised their families by the sea, where shell-sand and kelp could be hauled to enrich the thin acid soil and where, of course, fish could be won.
At its gentlest, we have that environment, unique to the Hebrides and the west of Ireland, of machair, where fine green grazing has taken root on that white shell-sand and, in summer, is abuzz and aflutter with blazing flowers, busy birds and drowsing bees.
There’s a little machair around Shawbost beach, and there are other fine beaches nearby – the great surf at Dalmore is especially worth a visit – but the coastline here is largely one of cliff, crag and sea-stack, and the signposted ‘West Side Coastal Trail,’ from Garenin to Arnol, is a good tramp for the sturdy. Dalmore, Dalbeag and Shawbost aside, you’ll find our best beaches at Ness, at the northern tip of Lewis; the fascinating district of Uig, to the south of Loch Roag and with, besides, great hills; and on the other side of the island up the coast of Broad Bay from Tong to Tolsta.
Wherever you go on Lewis – and there’s a lot of it – you’ll be struck by the unique scenery, the constantly shifting light, the variety (and occasional excitement!) of our weather, the lovely reek of peat-fires… and the kindly, humorous people.
You’ll also be impressed by Stornoway, its great and sheltered harbour and the range of shops and amenities. It’s the largest west-coast town north of Fort William with a college, a high school, two major supermarkets, an arts centre and plenty of places to eat out or to relax over a coffee.
Lewis now has excellent modern roads; our guests are reminded, though, that – apart from local hotels, and one Stornoway filling-station – virtually nothing is open on Sundays.