The Shape on the Map — South Lochs, Isle of Lewis

IMG_7623Eleven miles east of the main road, six from the nearest shop (closed on the Sabbath), two miles from the open sea as the raven flies. Glen Gravir – a slender thread of houses stretching up a glen, just four more unoccupied dwellings beyond ours before the road abruptly terminates at a fence, nothing but rough wet grazing,  soggy peat and unseen lochans beyond. This was our home for the week, a holiday rental in the Park (South Lochs) district of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides.

IMG_7596Gravir, of which Glen Gravir is but an outpost, is large enough to feature on the map, albeit in its Gaelic form, Grabhair. The village – more a loose straggle of houses and plots – possesses a school, a fire station and a church but no shop. A road from the junction with Glenside next to the church winds its way unhurriedly downhill to the sea inlet of Loch Odhairn where there is a small jetty for boats. Some of the houses are clearly empty; others occupied by crofters and incomers, their occupants largely unseen. Others are long ruined, tenanted only by raven and opportunist rowan trees, with roofs absent and little more than chimney stacks and gable walls surviving. It is only a matter of time before the stones that have been laid to construct the walls will be indistinguishable from the native gneiss that underlies the island, surfacing above the bog here and there in outcrops like human-raised cairns. Lewisian gneiss is the oldest rock in Britain. Three billion years old, two-thirds the age of our planet, it is as hard as…well, gneiss. It is the same tough unyielding rock that five thousand years ago was painstakingly worked and positioned at the Callanish stone circle close to Lewis’s western shore; the same rock used to build the island’s churches, which occupy the same sacred sites, the same fixed points of genii loci that had been identified long before Presbyterianism or any another monotheistic faith arrived in these isolated north-western isles.IMG_7587Ancient hard rock (as in metamorphic) may underlie Lewis, but religion is another bedrock of the island. Despite a respectable number of dwellings the only people we ever really see in the village are those who come in number on Sunday. The Hebridean Wee Free tradition guarantees a full car park on the Sabbath when smartly and soberly dressed folk from the wider locality congregate at Grabhair’s church, which, grave, grey and impressively large, is the only place of worship in this eastern part of the South Lochs district.IMG_7586IMG_8372At the bottom of the lane beneath the hillside graveyard next to the church are a couple of recycling containers for villagers to deposit their empties and waste paper. Larger items of material consumption are left to their own devices. Rain, wind and thin acidic soil are the natural agents of decay here. Beside the roadside further up from our house lie four long-abandoned vehicles in various stages of decomposition. Engines are laid bare; bodywork and chassis, buckled and distressed, rust-coated in mimicry of the colour of lichen and autumn-faded heather. Cushions of moss have colonised the seating fabric. The rubber tyres remain surprisingly intact, the longest survivor of abandonment. Sharp-edged sedges have grown around the rotting car-carcasses as if to hide them from prying eyes, preserving some modicum of dignity as the wrecks decay into the roadside bog, all glamour expunged from a lifetime spent negotiating the island’s narrow single track roads. On Lewis, vehicles die of natural causes, not geriatric intervention.IMG_8301IMG_8306Our cottage was rented as an island base: a place to eat, rest and sleep before setting off each morning on a long drive to visit one of Lewis’s far flung corners. Happily, it feels like a home, albeit a temporary one – a domestic cocoon of cosiness with all the modest comforts we require. Its small garden is a haven. As everywhere on the island,  tangerine spikes of montbretia arch like welder’s sparks from the grass. Rabbits scamper about on the lawn, colour-flushed parties of goldfinches feed on the seed heads of knapweed outside the kitchen window. Robins, wrens and blackbirds flit around the trees and shrubs that envelop the cottage – non-native plants that have adapted to the harsh weather conditions of this north-western island, softening an outlook that on a grey, wind-blown day, with a gloomy frame of mind, might be considered bleak.

Bleak perhaps, but beautiful: nature simplified to an essential dichotomy of land and sky – the former, solid, dark, numinous, unrelenting; the latter, capricious, changing in minutes from Mediterranean blue to storm-cloud black, with a cloudscape that can quickly morph from a liquid mercury-silver  to a rose-pink blush. There seems to be something about the air here that enables a clarity of sight, even when it is overcast or misty – an acuity of vision, a sharper edge to things. The topography is finely delineated, a bold line divides earth and sky like the firm brush stroke of a child’s painting.IMG_7568Most days on our jaunts around the island we would see an eagle or two, golden or white-tailed, sometimes both. The majority of these sighting are in more mountainous Harris, or in that southern part of Lewis that lay close to the North Harris Hills, but on our last day on Lewis we see a white-tailed eagle fly over Orinsay, a village relatively close to where we have been staying. An hour later we spot another bird swoop along the sea loch at Cromore, a coastal village that lies a few miles to the north. It might well be the same bird. White-tailed eagles are very large and hard to miss, and their feeding range is enormous. But that is exactly how Lewis seems – enormous, almost unknowable despite its modest geographical area. A place larger than the shape on the map – a mutable landscape of rock, sky and water that does not easily lend itself to the reductionism of two-dimensional cartography.IMG_8399IMG_8426IMG_8433IMG_8439IMG_7559

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About East of Elveden

Hidden places, secret histories and unsung geography from the east of England and beyond
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8 Responses to The Shape on the Map — South Lochs, Isle of Lewis

  1. Andrew says:

    Fascinating, thanks. Hoping to walk the Hebridean Way next spring, looks like a great place 😉

    • Thanks very much, Andrew. I am sure you would love the Hebridean Way – I am even tempted myself although there looks to be quite a lot of road-walking. I have enjoyed reading your blog – I am a bit of a walker myself but not anywhere near as hardcore as you. It is good to make the acquaintance of another Norfolk resident who, against all the odds, geographically speaking, is drawn to the mountainous and wild places of these isles.

  2. Trying to get my head around that last photograph with buildings. As if a complete section has been removed. Looks like a great place to visit, sadly not been as yet. Like many of the Scottish islands that juxtaposition of outstanding natural beauty, the diversity of the non-human world (Eagles!) and traces of decline and abandonment. Thanks Laurence.

    • Thank you, Murdo. Yes, that picture is strange I agree. It is actually a house in which the middle section has been removed completely. The roof on the right hand section is actually lower, so I think what we see is half a house (the left hand side) plus an add-on extension that now stands free. The building on the left is a separate shed but I thought the picture worked better as a sort of triptych of partial ruin. I wanted to get closer but boggy ground and a fence discouraged this. Clearly, the buildings are still being used.in some way. It is in a coastal village called Cromore, which sounds a lot like Cromer in Norfolk but is in actuality a very different sort of place.

  3. A few years ago I spent a couple of days driving and camping in Lewis and your evocative writing brought it all back. I can’t say I love these parts of Scotland but there is something compelling about them. Much enjoyed this!

  4. Dina says:

    Wonderful photos and a great narrative, Laurence. The bleak and barren landscape is fabulous. The outer Hebrides is a gem and we’d definitely like to come back one day.
    …A place larger than the shape on the map …describes it so well. I’d no idea how vast it is really is when I booked our stay.
    Talk soon, Laurence, we have an idea to discuss with you and Jackie. Say hello to her from us. 🙂
    Best regards,
    Hanne and Klausbernd x

    • Great to hear from you Hanne. You and Klausbernd already know just how wonderful the Outer Hebrides are of course. Looking forward to talking soon… and discussing ideas – sounds exciting. All the best.

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