Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Borne away to Stornoway

I've just spent a very pleasant brace of days teaching in the Outer Hebrides. On the Isle of Lewis to be precise; home of the famous Viking chessmen, gaelic speaking crofters and more sheep than you can shake a jar of mint sauce at.

I've always fancied visiting the islands because of the stones. The Outer Hebrides, or Western Isles, are home to some of the UK's most impressive neolithic sites. But, for one reason or another, I never quite got around to it. Which is no excuse really as the islands are so easy to get to. I took an hour's flight from Heathrow to Glasgow and then hopped on another hour-long flight from Glasgow to Stornoway. Even allowing for a changeover of an hour and a half at Glasgow, I made the journey in under four hours ... It can sometimes take me that long to get to the far side of London from here in High Wycombe.

I arrived on the evening of Sunday November 5th - Guy Fawkes' Night - and expected to have an unusual view of the celebrations below. How fascinating to see fireorks and bonfires from above! Except there weren't any. The islands are staunchly Scottish Presbyterian and they don't allow that sort of malarkey on the Lord's Day. In fact, I was lucky to have even flown there on a Sunday. I was told that when flights first started on Sundays, outraged ministers blocked the runway.
But I'd finally got there. Stopping to collect my bag from the smallest baggage retrieval system in the world (and while being glowered at by a chessman), I attempted to get a cab to my hotel. I was told that there would be at least a half an hour wait as only one taxi driver ('he's an Englishman') works on Sundays and he was having his tea. So I waited. I couldn't walk. Although the hotel was less than a mile away, there are no pavements, no street lights and it was pitch black outside.
I was to learn that the darkness is something you have to get used to this far North. As it's November, the islands are dark by 4pm. I soon realised that all I was likely to see of Lewis was the inside of my hotel room and the inside of a classroom. Sigh. Sio much for prehistoric standing stones. But then, one of my participants offered to give me a whistle-stop tour of the main sites that evening.
It was already gloomy when we began our tour. We took a circular route around the West coast, taking in the Carloway Broch, the black house villages and other sites. By the time we got to Callanish, it was really dark. Or it would have been if we hadn't had a full Moon. It was almost bright enough to drive by. It certainly added to the atmosphere. Callanish by moonlight is magnificent.
The stones were worth the trip alone. Amazing things. But just in case you can't make anything out in the picture above (which is, after all, illuminated by nothing except moonlight and the car's headlights in the background), here's what they're supposed to look like if you see them in daylight.

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