Time Travel: Sunday in Stornoway

Lews castle from the grounds; moored boats.

Today was Sunday, or rather, on Lewis: The Sabbath, which means absolutely everything on the entire island is closed down; there are intense (and very austere) religious practices here, and a great many churches and religious bookstores.  No busses or ferries run on Sundays, and the harbor is full of unused boats.

Though, last night, there seemed to be an equally intense amount of Saturday night ritual partying, loads of folks crowding a fair number of pubs and clubs, hanging out in front of them, smoking, groups cruising the streets, intently pursuing some fun, alcoholic or social or both. Interesting contrast.

Stornoway Sunday

At breakfast, I met the only other guests, a young English couple.  They were both in fine shape, but the male half, Steve, was just incredibly fit, all lean muscle, not an ounce of body fat on him, like a human greyhound.  He is a professional runner. They travel the world, he competing for the purses in major races, she his support system and training partner.  There had been a race on Lewis a few days before, and tomorrow there is a 26-mile race on Harris, which is the mountainous part of the island.  My knees ached just thinking about it.  They had been to Chicago, for the marathon that runs past my old Pilsen studio (for an entire day), so we found plenty to talk about.  They are nice folks, from the Lake District, which they enthusiastically encouraged me to visit. (They left early for the race, and left the island right after, so I didn’t see them again. Angus and I did go down to Harris, and we saw the stragglers walking and huffing.  Mrs. B told me the next day that Steve came in fourth.  Good on him!)

I knew I would be based around Stornoway on The Sabbath; even if I could have gotten to Callanais or the Black Houses, they would be closed as well.  But that was fine; there were some good walks in and near town.  I figured I’d spend my morning in the Lews castle grounds, and in the afternoon, either go to an old kirkyard four miles away, where there are gravestones of some of the Lords of the Isles, or else head across the causeway and find my way to the lighthouse visible from my room. 

Lews castle is not very interesting, being only around 200 years old, looking like some administrative building, anywhere. The grounds were said to have a marvelous variety of ‘plantings’, so that attracted me.  I thought I’d spend a morning strolling through pleasant formal gardens.  I was wrong.  Around the castle, it began that way, but the ‘grounds’ were a huge maze of twisting, intersecting paths through a jungle of vegetation gone wild, running along the rocky coast and up onto high hills, through a slew of varying environments.  I spent the entire day there, walking, climbing out onto coastal crags at sea level and far above.  I found and explored caves, islets, sheltered bays, climbed Gallows Hill for a gorgeous view of Stornoway’s peninsula and beyond, drank from a fountain at an ‘iron spring’ (horrible).  It was also an unexpected motherlode of things I’d proposed to observe with my grant; I found a number of species of lichens I hadn’t seen on the mainland, curious primitive-looking ferns growing out of the sides of trees and on bare rocks, lichens like bright Spanish moss in the process of killing trees, beautifully, with their graceful draping.  Parts of it reminded me very much of Black Mountain, North Carolina; there were the same huge tunnels of rhododendron on rounded hills, purple to Carolina’s pink-blushed white. I even found my second sample of Scottish fungus.  It amazes me that in such damp, lush places as the Highlands and islands, replete with life in all its cycles, fungi seem to be such rare finds.

And, I met people.  Angus is right; everyone spoke to me: kids, families, groups of teens, couples or lone men and women of all ages: all said hello and most had some comment on the day (which was superb) or the habitat.  There was absolutely no evidence of the ‘urban trance’ with which we habitually ignore our surroundings and our fellows in the states; I didn’t see a single person tuned into ‘iPod armor’. Everyone seemed so alive to me, fully engaged in just being where they were, in and at and of that moment.  Only a few folks were without joyous canine company. As the morning turned into afternoon, and the church services let out (and, presumably, the revelers shrugged off their hangovers), more and more people came to the grounds, though it never became what I would call crowded.  I began greeting the people I saw first, and that led to several conversations, mostly with older couples.  Invariably, I was asked where I was from, and then, immediately, if I had ‘Scottish connections.’ Like my friend on the boat, a few folks mentioned my hair (and I do see a lot o’ bushy heads). Also invariably, every single person I spoke with who asked those two questions, asked me if I would be back.  That truly, truly moved me.  One pair of folks, both with glorious thick snow-white hair, asked me if there were many Highland people in Chicago. I didn’t know what to say, so I named some suburbs: Glencoe, Bannockburn, Elgin, Midlothian, Dundee, Inverness, McHenry, Highland Park, Matteson (their name was similar to that). I also told them about the huge attendance at the Highland Games and the Grant Park Celtic Fest.  And that seemed to move them, in turn.

The paths were twisty and mazelike; they left each other and rejoined at several points.  I kept passing a short, tanned-to-nut-brown bald man wearing a backpack, enough times that we started to laugh when we saw each other.  At one point, I climbed a steep wooded hill and went through a gate at the top; the riotous woods ended abruptly and became the native scrub and heather.  I decided to turn back and keep exploring all the wooded paths I’d passed by.  At the gate, I passed him again, still laughing, coming out to where I’d just been.  A short way back down the hill, I saw a small object in the path; an empty digital camera case.  Just as I picked it up, a tall white haired woman rounded the bend with her collie, and greeted me.  I asked, “Are you going up top?”  She said yes, and I gave her the camera case, and asked her if she saw a short bald man, would she give it to him, and if not, leave it on the gate?  She said, “Of course.” About two hours later, I was climbing the switchback path to the top of Gallows Hill, and there he came in the opposite direction, beaming, saying, “Thank you so much!”  I love when things work like that; and because the people are so fully aware here, it was, as they sincerely say, no trouble at all.

It’s late, and now I’m off to the single open restaurant I found, which is, wonderfully, the Stornoway Balti House. I get to top an outstanding day with Indian food, and tomorrow, I will have my bard-guided tour.

I am loving it here, beyond belief. That’s all I can say.

Stornoway from Gallows Hill.  The big black boat is the Eilean Leodhais ferry that I came in on; the bigger blue one carries all the island’s freight.


5 thoughts on “Time Travel: Sunday in Stornoway

  1. Your tale of the highland folks being moved by the ‘hoods of Chicago reminds me that the Scottish diaspora is a miraculous thing to behold.

    When I lived in DC, I had occasion to drive down to Norfolk, going the backroads on purpose to visit Kilmarnock, VA, which was settled, of course, by a number of persons who had emigrated from my ancestral home of Kilmarnock in Ayrshire, SW of Glasgow.

    It was amazing to drive down the main street and see so many businesses (from attorneys to plumbers) all bearing my last name. Had some nice Chesapeake Bay seafood, but couldn’t find a “real” pub.

  2. Actually, this is a test comment from another browser, to see if it will work, because I’ve gotten mail saying comments can’t be left.
    There are a lot of Craigs in the mountains of North Carolina. My friends there gave me two keychains from Craig’s Guns, and I used them till the type wore off.

    Now, will this work?

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