The storm was sharp and violent. Winds shrieked like banshees across the brown-gray wilderness of dead heather and bare boulders. The normally still, almost sinister, surfaces of the black lochans -- the little lakes among the bogs -- were whipped into froth by the gale; the brittle marsh lay broken below the eroded edges of ancient peat banks.
A primeval scene -- no signs of habitation anywhere, no welcoming curls of smoke, no walls, no trees, no dainty patches of moorland flora. The eroded stumps of Archean gneiss break through the peat here like old bones on an almost fleshless torso. On the wild moors of the Outer Hebrides island of Harris, 40 miles out in the Atlantic off the northwestern highlands of Scotland, I found shelter in a hollow among Europe's oldest rocks. Formed more than 3 billion years ago, they were gouged and rounded in three ice ages, and sturdy enough to withstand three more.
There's a Hebridean saying, "When God made time, he made plenty of it" -- and here, on the desolate slopes of Bleaval, you sense the infinitely slow passage of time. This is a fine place to know the insignificance of man and wonder if this is how the earth may have looked at its very beginning.
And then the storm passed on, whirling out toward the dagger-tipped peaks of the black Cuillins on the isle of Skye, crouched on the eastern horizon. The sky was suddenly sparkling blue, the sun warm, and far below was a scene that would seduce anyone: great arcs of creamy beaches fringed by high dunes, and a turquoise-green ocean gently deepening to dark blue, lazily lapping on a shoreline unmarked by footprints for mile after mile.
"Aye -- it's a magic place you're going to," said the bartender at the Ceilidh Place pub in Ullapool, a small port town of tiny whitewashed cottages overlooking Loch Broom on Scotland's west coast. I was waiting for the ferry to Stornoway, on the Hebridean island of Lewis. For years I'd been promising myself a journey to these mysterious islands, where the crofters (small farmers) still weave Harris tweed in their own homes.
"Some of the kindest people you'll ever meet," the barman continued. "Not pushy, mind... . " He paused, then winked. "They're Gaelic and Celtic -- what can y'expect -- they've all got the touch of Irish in 'em!"
A frisky three-hour ferry ride from Ullapool brought me -- a little shaken -- to Stornoway, capital of the 130-mile-long Outer Hebrides chain. This small town of 8,000 people is the hub of life on the main island of Lewis and Harris, and the epitome of all the best and worst of island life. Fine churches, big Victorian houses, lively industries, new hotels, even a mock castle and a colorful fishing fleet mingle with bars, pool halls, fish and chips shops and, according to one local newspaper, "palaces of illicit pleasures whose value to the community is highly questionable" -- referring to the town's two rather modest discos.
Stornoway's stern Calvinistic appearance was no great inducement to dallying, so I was soon off across the bleak moors and peat bogs looking for the tweed-makers in the heart of Harris. And that's how I got stuck in the storm.
But as the weather cleared, I came down slowly from the wind-blasted tops and could see, far below, the thin crofting strips on the fertile land called "machair" that borders the coastal cliffs and dunes.
They say the milk of cows grazed on the machair in the spring and summer is scented by its abundant wildflowers -- primroses, sea spurrey, campion, milkwort, sea-pink, sorrel and centaury. Each strip, usually no more than six acres in all, had its own steep-gabled crofter's cottage set close to the narrow road.
Behind each of the cottages lurked the sturdy remnants of older homes, the islands' notorious "black houses." Some were mere walls of crudely shaped bedrock, six feet thick in places; others were still intact as if the family had only recently moved out. They were roofed in thick thatch made from barley stalks, held in place by a grid of ropes, weighted down with large rocks. Windows were tiny, set deep in the walls, and door openings were supported by lintel stones often more than a foot thick. Nearby were dark brown piles of peats, the cruachs, enough to heat a house for a year.
Looking at these black houses, which until the last decade or so formed the communal living space for families and their livestock, you feel pulled back in time to the prehistoric origins of island life, long before the invasions of the Icelandic tribes and the Norsemen from Scandinavia, long before the emergence of the Celtic clans of the MacLeods, the MacAulays and the MacRaes. All around the islands are remnants of ancient cultures in the form of brochs (lookout towers), Bronze Age burial mounds, stone circles and the famous standing stones of Callanish on Lewis, thought to have been a key ceremonial center for island tribes since 2000 B.C.
Lord Seaforth, one of the island's numerous wealthy "utopian benefactors" during the last century, was anxious to improve "the miserable conditions under which these poor scraps of humanity live" and ordered that "at the very least a chimney should be present and a partition erected between man and beast in these dark hovels." But apparently the crofters were quite content to share their living space with their own livestock. They also considered the quality of peat soot vastly superior as fertilizer for their tiny "lazybed" potato plots when the smoke was allowed to find its own way through the thatch from the open hearthstone fire in the center of the earthen floor.
In spite of such conditions, the crofters were known for their longevity and prolific families. Dr. Samuel Johnson, accompanied on an island tour by the ever-faithful Boswell in 1773, put it down to island breakfasts! "If an epicure could remove himself by a wish," Dr. Johnson remarked, "he would surely breakfast in Scotland." I concur wholeheartedly! My first real Scottish breakfast in the Outer Hebrides included such traditional delights as fresh oatmeal porridge, smoked herring kippers, peat-smoked bacon, black pudding, white pudding, just-picked mushrooms and tomatoes, free-range eggs, oatcakes, bannock cakes, scones, honey, crowdie cream, home-churned butter -- everything in fact except the once-customary tumbler of island whiskey, "to kindle the fire for the day."
"Oh, the breakfasts are still very fine," agreed Mary MacDonald, postmistress of the village of Scarista on Harris's west coast. I had made the long descent from Bleaval and sat by her blazing peat fire drinking tea and nibbling her homemade buttery shortbread. "The world's getting smaller everywhere," she said. "Things are changing here too -- we talk in Gaelic about 'an saoghal a dh'fhlbh,' 'the world we have lost' -- but you can always find a good breakfast!"
I wondered about the changes.
"Well, we're losing a lot of the young ones, that's always a big problem. But those that stay still work at the crofting and keep up the Gaelic." She paused. "I miss the old ceilidhing most, I think -- we used to gather at the ceilidh house to talk about local things and listen to the old tales. Now they're a bit more organized -- more of a show at the pubs, with poems and songs and such. Not quite the same."
I asked about the famous Harris tweed-makers. "Oh, you'll find plenty of them -- more than 600 still, I think -- making it the old way in their own homes on the Hattersley looms. You can usually hear the shuttles clacking way back up the road."
She was right. I went looking for Marion Campbell, one of Harris's most renowned weavers, who lived in a tiny village on the wild eastern side of the island, where the moors end dramatically in torn cliffs and little ragged coves. And I heard the urgent clatter of the loom echoing against the bare rocks long before I found her house, nestled in a hollow overlooking an islet-dotted bay.
Through a dusty window of the weavering shed I saw an elderly woman with white hair working at an enormous wooden contraption.
"Aye, come in now, and mind the bucket."
The bucket was on the earth floor crammed in among a full-sized fishing dinghy, lobster pots, a black iron cauldron, cans of paint and a pile of old clothes over the prow of the boat, just by a crackling peat fire, which gave off a wonderful "peat-reek" aroma.
"You can always tell a real Harris tweed," Marion said. "There's always a bit of the peat-reek about it."
She worked her loom at an alarming pace and the shed shook as she whipped the shuttle backward and forward between the warp yarns with bobbins of blue weft. I watched the blue tweed cloth, precisely 31 inches wide with "good straight edges and a tight weave," grow visibly in length as her feet danced across the pedals of the loom and her left hand "beat up" the weft yarns, compacting them with her thick wooden "weaver's beam." Then her sharp eyes, always watching, spotted a broken warp yarn. "Och! I've been doing this for 59 years and I still get broken ones!" She laughed and bounced off her bench, which was nothing more than a plank of wood wrapped in a bit of tartan cloth. "And mind that bucket."
Said bucket was brimming with bits of vegetation, the color of dead skin and about as attractive. "That's crotal. Lichen -- from the rocks. For my dyes." In the days before chemical dyes, most spinners and weavers made their own from moorland plants and flowers -- heather, bracken, irises, ragwort, marigolds, whatever was available.
"I'm the last one doing it now," Marion told me. "By law, all Harris tweed has to be hand-woven in the weaver's own home on the islands here from Scottish virgin wool. But I'm the last person doing it the really old way -- dyeing my own fleeces, carding, making my own yarn, weaving -- I even do my own 'waulking' to clean the tweed and shrink it a bit. That takes a lot of stamping about in Wellington boots!"
I pointed to a pile of tan-colored fleece and asked if it had been dyed with the lichen. "Ooh, no, no," said Marion, giggling. "That's the peat -- the peat soot. Makes a lovely shade." I suppose I looked skeptical. "Wet your finger," she told me, so I did, and she plunged it into a pot of soot by the boat. "Now rub it off." I obeyed again and -- surprise -- a yellow finger! Her laughing made the shed shake. "Aye, you'll be stuck with that now for a while." Three days actually.
Later I sat by her house as she spun new yarn for her bobbins. On an average day, she said, she weaves a good 10 yards of tweed. "I do all the main patterns -- herringbone, bird's eye, houndstooth, two-by-two. I like the herringbone. It always looks very smart." On the hillside above the house I could see a crofter walking among his new lambs in the heather; out on the sound, another crofter was lifting his lobster pots.
"You're a bit of everything as a crofter," Marion said as her spinning wheel hummed. "You're a shepherd, a fisherman, a gardener ... you collect your seaweed for fertilizer, you weave, build your walls, cut and dry your peats, shear your sheep at the fank, cut hay, dig ditches -- a bit of everything. In the past, you'd leave the croft and go to your shieling (summer pasture) in the summer to graze the cows, and each night the girls would carry the milk back to make butter. I remember that so well."
And I, too, remember my moments on these islands -- some sad, all revealing. I remember the shepherd, recently returned after years of adventure in the merchant navy, only to lose a third of his ewes in last year's long cold winter and spring. "You can't win in a place like this," Alistair Gillis said with Gaelic melancholy. "All you can do is pass your time here. Just pass your time as best you can."
And I remember the honest island cuisine. At the Scarista House hotel, guests dine on Harris crayfish, lobster, venison, salmon or grouse -- whatever is fresh that day -- as the sun goes down in a blaze of scarlet and gold over the white sands of Taransay Sound.
And then there were the two Johnnys -- the brothers MacLeod -- whom I encountered on "the first good day at the peats in nine months" slicing the soft chocolaty turf with their irons into even-size squares for drying. I talked with them at dusk as they moved rhythmically together along their family peat bank. "Another eight days like this should see enough for the year," the elder Johnny remarked, still slicing. The younger Johnny nodded and eyed the whisky bottle, half hidden in a nearby sack. "Not just yet," said his brother.
I remember the Sunday silences when no buses run and everyone is at church; the colors of Calum MacAulay's tweeds -- all the tones of the lochans and the rocks and the moors, captured in his sturdy cloth; Catherine MacDonald knitting her highly praised sweaters from hand-dyed island wool; the stooping winkle-pickers of Leversburgh, whose sacks of tiny shellfish leave the island by ferry for the tables of Paris restaurants; that first taste of fresh-boiled island crayfish; 93-year old Donald MacLeod, carving sheep horns into elegant handles for shepherd's crooks; the sight of a single palm tree against the enormous lunar wilderness of Harris (the offshore Gulf Stream keeps the climate mild here).
I remember the strange conversations in "Ganglish" -- an odd mix of Gaelic and English; the lovely lilting names of tiny islets in the Sound of Harris -- Shillay, Coppay, Tahay, Ensay, Pabbay; the huge blackface rams on the machair land with their triple-curl horns; the gritty and occasionally grim Calvinistic Protestantism of Lewis, compared with the Catholic-Celtic levity of the Uist and Barra islanders in the southern part of the chain.
Finally, I remember that Hebridean light -- sparkling off the turquoise bays, crisping the edges of the ancient standing stones of Callanish on a lonely plateau overlooking Loch Roag, making all the colors vibrant with its intensity and luminosity -- making the place just the way I knew it would be ...
David Yeadon is author and illustrator of many travel books, including "The Back of Beyond -- Travels to the Wild Places of the Earth" (to be published later this year by HarperCollins). He is currently at work on "Lost Worlds -- Exploring the Earth's Remotest Places" for HarperCollins. WAYS & MEANS
GETTING THERE: There are no direct flights from Washington to the Outer Hebrides, but there are flights from Glasgow to Stornoway on the island of Lewis via British Airways or Logan Air. From Washington, you can fly directly to Glasgow or to London's Heathrow, where you can catch a British Airways shuttle to Glasgow. British Airways is currently quoting a round-trip fare of $856 from Washington to Stornoway, with restrictions. You also can fly directly to Manchester, and take the train or rent a car to drive north.
GETTING AROUND: In addition to tour buses, there is irregular public bus service on the islands, as well as frequent inter-island ferries during the summer. ) Ferries run from Ullapool on the mainland to Stornoway in Lewis once daily from mid-May to mid-September, for $12 one-way. For current information, call 011-44-463-234-171.
TRAVEL BY TRAIN: If you plan extensive travel by train in Great Britain, contact British Rail Travel International, 1500 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10036, (212) 575-2667, for details on BritRail passes. For the Scottish Highlands and Islands Travel pass and the "Freedom of Scotland" ticket, contact Scots-American Travel Advisors, 26 Rugen Dr., Harrington Park, N.J. 07640, (201) 768-5505. Train service is available to the ferries at Oban and Mallaig (for Skye) from Glasgow and at Kyle of Lochalsh (Skye) from Edinburgh (via Inverness).
WHERE TO STAY: Until quite recently it was difficult to find places to stay on the islands outside Stornoway, but now small hotels, guest houses, bed-and-breakfast homes and self-catering complexes ensure accommodation without reservations, even during the peak summer season.
Scarista House on Harris is a dignified Georgian house overlooking miles of empty beaches whose finely furnished bedrooms run from about $65 to $90 per person, including breakfast. Breakfasts are abundant semi-buffet affairs, and the limited-choice, fixed-price gourmet dinners (about $35 per person) feature local produce, fish, lamb and venison, as well as an excellent selection of wine. Less exotic from a culinary standpoint but a landmark hostelry is the Harris Hotel, at the ferry terminal at Tarbet, with doubles from $80 and generous dinners from $25 per person.
For a less remote location, try the modern Caberfeidh Hotel in Stornoway, where rooms run about $120 double, with breakfast. The Seaforth Hotel in Stornoway (from $100 double) is another modern option. Other less expensive town hotels include the Caledonian ($80 double), the Royal ($80 double) and the Hebridean Guest House ($70 double).
Bed-and-breakfast homes in the Hebrides are usually a bargain, with rates starting at about $25 for a double room and typically large Scottish breakfasts.
WHERE TO EAT: There is a wide range of modest restaurants in Stornoway. On Harris, Scarista House wins with its limited-choice, fixed-price dinners (around $70 for two, excluding wine). Reservations are usually essential, since guests have first option for tables in the cozy wood-paneled dining room. INFORMATION: British Tourist Authority, 40 W. 57th St., New York, N.Y. 10019, (212) 581-4700 or, from Washington, 554-7969. -- David Yeadon