Driving down the two-lane road that links north and south Lewis, I panicked. It looked and felt like driving through a moonscape – flat, featureless moorland and peat bog, with not a human being nor a house in sight. The road signs, written in Gaelic, with English translations in much smaller characters, just added to my sense of dislocation. It made me want to drive very, very fast – if only in the hope of seeing a tree. I could have saved myself the effort. On this island, I was to find out, there are none.
The monotony of the landscape was broken by an occasional cluster of small grey houses, dominated by churches so large they looked completely out of place. Their appearance spoke volumes: this island, like most in the Outer Hebrides, is a stronghold of Presbyterianism. The Sabbath is so strictly observed that no one, I was told, would risk hanging out their washing on a Sunday. It’s only a few years since planes from the Scottish mainland, forty miles away, were granted permission to land here on the Sabbath. Ferry companies are still fighting for the same privilege.
I live in London, but being on the Isle of Lewis felt very much like being in a foreign land, and in a way it was. A foreign land battered for much of the year by lashing gales and driving rain. Only in summer, when the days are long and (sometimes) the sun shines, can a visitor truly appreciate its stark beauty: vast skies, endless white beaches and silence, pierced only by the sound of wheeling seagulls. But as one person put it, it takes a certain intestinal fortitude to live here. Even in company, the sense of solitude and isolation can be overwhelming.
This string of islands some 150 miles long, forty miles off the Scottish coast in the North Atlantic, is of course part of Great Britain. But the islands’ remoteness – and until recently, their inaccessibility – has ensured that they retain a character all their own. The Gaelic and Norse history of the communities here is ancient and unique; many still grow up with Gaelic as their first language. The music that they make also celebrates this uniqueness – tunes hundreds of years old, played on the bagpipes, the accordion, the tin whistle, the fiddle and a small harp known as the clarsach. Not to mention the utterly haunting sound of unaccompanied Gaelic singing.
But decades of depopulation and unemployment have taken their toll on these islands, undermining the viability of both the economy and the culture. The challenge they face now is to open up to the world outside and embrace the future. Not all the islanders are ready for that. But it may be the only way of conserving what they value most about their way of life.
– Vera Frankl