The road to west Lewis in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, starting with the A858 in Carloway and passing near the standing stones at Calanais, is probably the longest dead-end in Britain. As it runs into the B8011, and its unclassified extension, plus side turns, it snakes across rocky moors, past scenic sea lochs and on to wonderful white-sand beaches. There’s a diversion to visit the island of Great Bernera and the reconstructed Iron Age huts at Bostadh, before heading to the end of the road at Mealasta.
This landscape was part of a very ancient mountain range, once as high as the Himalayas. This has been eroded by time, and more recently ground smooth by vast sheets of ice leaving the muscular bare hill and beaches of Uig.
Lewisian gneiss are the oldest rocks in Britain – and some of the oldest in the world. The rock is metamorphic, in that volcanic heat and pressure has altered its structure somewhat. Originally, the rocks were like granite which changed as the Earth’s crust became molten and they solidified: you can see great variations in the way the layers are displayed, ranging from the white to pale grey and even very dark grey.
- Iron age broch at Dun Carloway
Located on a hilltop above a crofting township, about a mile and a half from Carloway and 16 miles north-west of Stornoway, is a great circular tower that stands 30 feet high and commands a panoramic view of Loch Roag.
Dun Carloway is one of the best-preserved iron age brochs in Scotland. These fortified roundhouses, made with with dry stone walls, were built in the period from 100 BC to 100 AD, and it’s thought Dun Carloway probably sprang up in the first century AD. Inside, there are chambers at the ground level which were used to house animals, while the human residents would have lived higher up with access via stone stairs.
The world famous Calanais standing stones are older than Stonehenge and much more sculptural and beautiful. Erected 5,000 years ago, they were an important place for ritual activity for at least 2,000 years. The main complex contains around 50 stones in a cross formation, with 13 stones and a small chambered cairn in the inner circle.
- Crofter Kenneth Macdonald with his sheep at Calanais. Below: Lambs play near the Calanais Standing Stones.
The main Calanais circle was excavated in 1980 and 1981 by the then Inspector of Monuments, Patrick Ashmore. As to their purpose, Ashmore said: “The most attractive explanation … is that every 18.6 years, the moon skims especially low over the southern hills. It seems to dance along them, like a great god visiting the earth. Knowledge and prediction of this heavenly event gave earthly authority to those who watched the skies.”
Heading south to the Island of Bearnaraigh, it is important not to miss the beautiful beach at Bostadh. The famous white sand beach is surrounded by rock with a variety of coloured strata. Beyond are the islands of Flodaigh, Bearasaigh and Old Hill in Loch Roag. Bearasaigh is where 17th-century Hebridean pirate Niall Odhar tricked English pirate Peter Love and robbed him of the treasure of the pirate vessel Priam, before turning him over to the state who hung him and his crew on the sands of Leith.
- The iron age house at Bostadh, and interior of the reconstructed building.
In 1993, a winter storm cut away some of the dunes at Bostadh beach and revealed substantial stonework from an iron age village. Excavation work in 1996 unearthed five Pictish figure-of-eight houses – two circular sections linked by a doorway – and in 1998, a reconstructed Pictish house was built away from the excavated site.
The road through these areas is generally single track with passing places, and offers starkly beautiful views along with a sense of travelling along the edge of the Atlantic Ocean.
Uig takes its name from the Norse Vik, meaning bay, and the Uig districts are a group of scattered settlements around the bay of Camas Uig and the Bhaltos on the west coast of the island.
The large open beach is surrounded by zigzag “lazy beds” or feannagan, as they are called in gaelic – a method of arable cultivation.
Uig Beach is best known as the site where the remarkable Lewis Chessmen – elaborately carved chess pieces made from walrus ivory and whales’ teeth in the Middle Ages in Norway – were found in the dunes in 1831. They are now exhibited at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh and the British Museum in London.
- An abandoned black house at Timsgearraidh, overlooking Ardroil beach, Traigh Uige, Eadar Dha Fhadhail.
Over the rock in much of the landscape lies a partial blanket of peat. A living, growing shawl topped with moss and heather. For centuries it hid and protected the Calanais standing stones before they were excavated in the 19th century. It provided cooking and heating fuel for crofters for generations and the ritual labour of its slow extraction and drying became a crucial part of the culture of Gaelic-speaking Hebrideans.
There is a wide vocabulary covering many of the stages and facets of this tradition – there’s even a document called Some Lewis Moorland Terms: A Peat Glossary. In song, peat and the moor are the stage setting for many stories of love consummated and love crushed with betrayal.
- The Maclean family cut peat for fuel. Below: Julia MacLean.
Large parts of the Uig area were cleared in the 19th century to make way for empty deer shooting estates and a gentrified salmon fishing wilderness. Much of Uig was not repopulated until the early 20th century.
- Mary Smith worked as a nurse and grew up in the Ness area at the far north of the island before marrying and settling in Cradhlastadh. Below: A pay phone in a call box at Mangarstadh and a bus shelter at Miabhaig
As well as the stunning coastal landscape and beaches, there is an abundance of bird life in the Outer Hebrides. From white tailed and golden eagles to colonies of puffins, gannets, fulmars and terns. Rarities like the corncrake, with its distinctive rasping call, also arrive here to breed in the summer.
The area has a long boating tradition. The Hebridean clans sailed Viking-styled galleys long after the Scandinavians had abandoned them. They fished for cod and ling from open boats voyaging out into the perilous Atlantic for nights at sea. Roads came lately to this remote corner – not until the late 1930s and early 1940s. Until then, everything from provisions, visits, weddings and funerals involved travelling by boat or on foot. Traditional boat sailing is enjoying a renaissance through the nearby North Lewis Maritime Society (Falmadair) and a rash of community-built clinker rowing boats are making appearances in Lewis sea lochs.
- Looking out from Griomabhal Hill to Eilean Mealasta island in the Uig area of the Isle of Lewis
The end of the road
Mealista, or Mealasta in the Gaelic spelling, is a small township in the west of the Isle of Lewis that has been uninhabited since the Highland Clearances of 1838. The road past Uig meanders on through the moorland with the great Atlantic Ocean on the right and passes the often deserted Mealista beach, with its beautiful rocks and rock pools.
The road then carries on for only a few more yards and ends at a little stone pier or jetty. From here, on a good day, you can see the Isle of Scarp, St Kilda and the Flannan Isles. If you climb up the sloping rocky outcrop at this point, you will be rewarded with sweeping Atlantic views and, if you’re lucky, eagles riding the thermals.
You are less than 15 miles from a similar road end in North Harris. There were once plans to link the two roads, but it never happened, which goes to help make this spot extra special.
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