458: West Lewis

OS Explorer map 458, West Lewis: Callanish & Great Bernera – I own this map, and have visited it before starting this blog. Visited again for this post 16th July 2018. (This is the seventh of fourteen posts concerning my July 2018 trip to Harris and Galloway with my Cambridge friends.)

After returning from our over trip to the Uists to my family’s cottage on Harris where we’d been staying for the last week, we spent the next three days in a fairly relaxed fashion, going for short walks, playing board games, going out for a nice dinner, and notably we went geohashing (not geocaching) [1].

On the fourth day after returning from Uist, though, we did a bit of a longer trip, driving north to Lewis, and visiting the two remaining Lewis map areas that I haven’t posted about yet. There are a load of sites of interest on Lewis’s west coast, and so the plan was to visit a few of these.

Now, dear reader, in my Uist post, I told you about the Nicolson Outer Hebrides map and how it is very thorough in its coverage of tourist places, including some that are of very marginal interest. Our first stop turned out to very much be another one of these. [2] The map marked a tourist site on Lewis called “Benedictine nunnery”. Naturally the monastic enthusiasts that we all are, we had to see this place, and so off we set on the morning of Monday 16th August to Mealasta, which, although at the south end of Lewis is actually pretty much the very most distant point you can drive to from our cottage, because of how the roads work. (Queenie, alas, wasn’t feeling all that great that day, so it was me, Cheremy, Vesper, Millicent and Erithacus who went on that expedition).

The circuitous route to Mealasta (marked in green arrows)

We would therefore be driving for about two hours, on progressively tinier and tinier roads, during the first part of which drive we had a wonderful time listening to past Yule Plays – the silly Christmas sketch shows produced by the students in our Cambridge Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic. (For example…) First, though, we stopped not too far off – and in this map area – for a toilet break at a caravan park near Uig.

IMG_8458 (1600x769)
Stopped for caravan park toilets near Uig

Some of the scenery in south-west Lewis was unbelievably pretty, helped by the fact that it was wonderfully sunny that day; the sea was an amazing blue, the landscape of rocky, heathered hills alternating with sandy wildflower-covered areas of shore as pleasing as ever. [3] Near the end of the drive, as we crested a little ridge, I spotted some islands in the far distance, just about visible. I was very excited, because I’d read that from a few places in the Hebrides, like the peak of Beinn Losgaintir I think, it’s possible to see all the way to St Kilda, [4] 50 miles away. I duly announced to the others that we could see St Kilda; we stopped the car and had a look, at the islands in the distance and the view more generally, and I ran off up a rock to take a photo of the car with everyone in it.

It is only now, writing this blog entry, that I closely inspected that photo and noticed a lighthouse on the island. There is no lighthouse on St Kilda. Those photos do not in fact show St Kilda, but the much closer Flannan Isles, only 20 miles distant rather than 50.

Eventually, we got to the very end of the road, as far as one can go in this direction on Lewis – for some puzzling reason it ends not at the last house, but at a little turning place where there was a chap working with a digger. (This may be because there were military installations here in the war, as we later read on a sign.) Since the Nicolson map didn’t show where the nunnery was in any great detail, being at a scale that would fit the whole of Lewis and Harris on one side of paper, we were a little stuck, as our OS map didn’t show it.

Taigh nan Cailleachan Dubha

Fortunately, though, I spotted a place on the map about 700m back along the road where a collection of buildings was marked – not in the sites of historical interest font, but in the ordinary place-names font – on this Explorer map as “Taigh nan Cailleachan Dubha”. My Gaelic, while pretty much non-existent – I having never formally learnt it and picked up what I know only from my two years of Old Irish, tiny bit of modern Irish, and general reading about Highland and Irish culture – was just about sufficient to realise this meant “house of the black old women”. We’d found our nunnery.

We turned around, drove there, parked in a convenient flat pebbley area, and went to the ruins. There really wasn’t much there, just some walls that the best efforts of Millicent and Cheremy couldn’t make much of, not agreeing where the chapel was or whether there was a cloister.

The “nunnery” ruins (drone photo from directly above)

When we got back home, we looked up things on the internet, and, alas, we don’t even know whether it really was ever a nunnery. The idea stems from local tradition that consists primarily of that one place-name – it’s reasonably possible therefore that there was something like a nunnery there at some point, there is value to local traditions, but also there may well not have been. Canmore, the unbelievably comprehensive Scottish archaeological survey, doesn’t believe that there was, saying that “the site is a typical deserted pre-crofting settlement”.

However, nunnery disappointment aside, the views from there were amazing. It was sunny, and there was a gorgeous rocky beach, covered in the most lovely large rounded stones, of which we (somewhat dodgily) took three away with us to be doorstops in mine, Erithacus and Vesper’s house this year. I got my camera drone out and took some aerial photographs of us and we generally had a very pleasant time.

It being nearly lunchtime, we decided to start driving back and stop somewhere soon for lunch – I was aiming for somewhere along the road where I’d seen a sign marked “to the coast” near some dramatic looking craggy stacks. Getting there, though, we had the most wonderful surprise: as we walked down a track from the road to the coast, the view opened up to a  beautiful sandy beach, Tràigh Mhangarstaidh, Mangersta Beach, which can’t be seen at all from the road. It was framed between high rocks on each side, empty and completely undisturbed. Erithacus has a severe dislike of sand, so we stopped on a grassy slope above the beach and ate our lunch.

After lunch, we got back in the car and carried on northwards, stopping next at the Callanish Stones. Those are in this map area, but in the overlap with map 459, and I’ve written about them before in my Central Lewis post, so I’ll leave those. I’ll pick up the day’s travelling in my next post, which will be about North Lewis!

Previous visits

The first time I visited this map area was the first time I came to the Outer Hebrides, on my July 2013 trip around Scotland with my parents and cousin. After we’d stayed the night in Stornoway and visited the Callanish Stones (see my map 459 post again), we drove south a little way onto the little island of Great Bernera, which is connected to Lewis by a bridge. What we did there was go to Bosta beach, where there is a reconstructed Iron Age house on the beach.

I admit I don’t remember it all that well, except that there was a lady inside who explained things to us, and that nearby I bounded up some rocks and made the Dearest Progenitors worry I was going to fall – despite my generally sedate nature I do like clambering up little rocky hills and things, which occasionally leads Father Dearest to call me “mountain goat”. [5] From there, we drove all the way to Leverburgh on Harris and got a ferry over to North Uist.

The other time I’ve been is on my July 2015 trip to Scotland when I came with Father Dearest looking at potential holiday cottages; that was the trip when we found the Harris cottage that we later bought, and where I was staying with my Cambridge friends on the holiday during which the main part of this post took place. We came to Uig, in this map area, to look at a house that in the end we rejected because it was too large (it had four bedrooms) and was quite far from amenities, being a forty-minute drive from Stornoway with only a tiny community co-op nearer at hand. And of course it was just a whole lot less lovely than the one we ended up going with, and also more expensive. However, as well as look at the house, we had a brief wander around Uig beach, which was nice.


[1] Geocaching is the fairly popular hobby whereby people leave “caches”, typically a little box with a few things in, at locations that they then post on the internet, which other people then go out and find as an outdoors activity. Geohashing is a parody of this created by the webcomic xkcd, which parodies the activity’s apparent pointlessness by making it even more pointless – each day, a set of geohash coordinates for each 1 by 1 degree square of the earth’s surface are generated using a formula based on the index of some stock market figure.

While it was meant only as an amusing parody, of course, this is the internet, so a community of people grew up who actually do it, and although the hobby’s heyday has somewhat passed, there are still people, now including me and Erithacus, who occasionally make outings to randomly generated coordinates near them. When people visit a hash, they post about it on the Geohashing Wiki (read about what we did in our post), and thereby can gain lots of more- or less- serious achievement points and things. As no-one had ever hashed in the Outer Hebrides before, we earned the Virgin Graticule achievement, for being the first ever people to hash in this 1-by-1 degree square of the earth.

[2] [Or, a digression on linguistic prescriptivism] Ooh, I split an infinitive there. I fairly often do naturally split infinitives, so that’s not particularly noteworthy. Of course, there is also nothing wrong with that, since prescriptive grammar is, broadly, wrong; I, like every other native speaker of any language, have grammar defined by the way I produce language, and the main worthwhile academic thing to do about it is to be descriptively interested in it, to find interest and patterns in its similarities and differences with the language of others, in the processes that led to it being what it is, how those processes interact with factors like region and class, and all sorts of interesting other ideas.

Now, policing other people’s language is usually a bad idea, and doesn’t do much more than punch down the ladder of prestige. However, there are good reasons in a widely varying macrolanguage to have a standard defined narrowly enough that everyone can produce something everyone else can understand. Standardised spelling is also probably a good idea in a lot of cases, especially now that it’s not just humans but computers that need to understand our text. (I could argue against this though – non-standard spelling is going to be better at staying rooted in the sounds of the language, is going to be better at reflecting dialectal differences. Standardised spelling could be easier to learn, but is also conservative, which has led over the last seven centuries to the unholy mess that is English spelling – certainly far far harder to learn than a sensible phonetic system would be.) Standard English, though, goes far beyond this in its prescriptivism – unfortunately success at adhering to the standard, whether in one’s vocabulary, morphology, syntax, or accent, serves only as a mark of prestige, class, privilege, education.

However, there are very good practical reasons for individuals to adhere to the standard – that very same prestige – and especially in formal writing pretty much all of us do it. (Not so informal writing – consider text messages and so on.) Furthermore prestige dialects are not in themselves bad, it is forcing them on people, and placing value on them above others rather than appreciating the wonders of linguistic diversity that is bad. There are many people whose circumstances, whether just the communities they’ve lived in or a past of prescriptive forcing, will have resulted in their natural language production being fairly in line with the prestige dialect. I am one of these people, right down to even naturally using “whom” in quite a lot of places. (That one is definitely the result of my ugly past self being self-important and training himself to do that.) I do, though, split infinitives entirely naturally, and even in my arch-prescriptivist phase, I never found split infinitives particularly annoying, having grasped pretty early on in that one case that it’s a completely spurious rule, resulting from inappropriate application of Latin norms to English by late eighteenth-century reformers.

So because of that, it’s pretty rare, even in formal environments, that I find myself having to consciously change my language use towards the formal, and even rarer to find myself corrected. I’ve been through three years of writing Cambridge essays, and almost never been corrected. It was therefore – and here we finally get to the point about splitting infinitives that led to this meandering digression – a bit of a suprise for me when writing my most recent dissertation (about Ælfric’s Colloquy) when, on the first round of her looking at my full draft, I found a few places where my supervisor had highlighted split infinitives, as well as my adverbial usage of the word “likely”, which she said was American. I don’t resent this, of course – and she very nicely gave an apologetic little note each time saying that she doesn’t mind such things herself, but there are examiners who will deduct marks for them. This was good practical advice, and I did indeed duly change them all, because I would like all my marks, thank you very much. But still, it was an odd experience, and I was reminded of it when I noticed that split infinitive up there. If you’ve got all the way through that, reader, well done!

[3] Normally I have a severe dislike of sunny summer’s days, because I hate the heat, but I will admit that they do make things look pretty.

[4] St Kilda has a wonderfully exciting story, and I really hope to visit it someday, but I’ll leave off describing it for now, because I think I’ve written enough long and rambling footnotes today…

[5] I really like goats. Not that I’ve spent all that much time with them, but I do think they are very cute. When I was in Norway recently we were at a very exciting 12th-century stave church, which was really very cool, stave churches are glorious, these ancient wizardly-looking wooden structures that are huge and still there – Vesper loves them dearly – but there were also some baby goats in the field next door and I thought they were the best. Also my background image on my mobile phone is a baby goat, and some have found it very amusing that I’ve placed the icons on the screen in such a way that the goat is still maximally visible.

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