Bothies, brochs, and standing stones

We were lucky to be staying with Cath, who lives on the island of Harris and Lewis in the Outer Hebrides.

For our first full day, Cath drove us around the island. It was beautiful and I kept wanting to get out of the car to take photos. I was happy when we did a short hike to this cliff view. The first photo shows a common sight in Scotland: a bothy. Bothies are extremely basic accommodation, usually for hikers. They have few, if any, facilities and staying in one is like going camping without a tent! The one below had a place to make a fire (but nothing to make it with) and a raised stone platform for sleeping on. Sometimes, you just rock up to the bothy and stay if there’s room; other times, as in this case, there was a number to call to book your stay.

During our drive, we came across several beaches. I wasn’t expecting that. They were deserted and in pristine condition. Even at the height of summer, Cath told us, they’re not that busy.

I’m reading a fascinating history of the area we’re in called The Outer Hebrides, A Historical Guide by Mary MacLeod Rivett. (Much of the history below is from the book.) It starts at the beginning, when the first people arrived in the Outer Hebrides — about 10,000 years ago during the Mesolithic era (7000-4500 BC). I learnt that lithic is related to stone and Mesolithic is the intermediate (meso- denotes middle) period between the Palaeolithic (earlier stone age) and Neolithic (new stone age).

There are over 100 islands in the Outer Hebrides. When the first people arrived, the islands were larger and more connected. They’ve shrunk as the sea has risen. There were also many more trees, which have now largely disappeared. At one time, the Outer Hebrides were covered in ice. The result is that few large animals survived on the island. It therefore became a paradise for birds and the lochs were full of fish.

One way of knowing there were people in 7000BC was the presence of tiny air-borne charcoal, suggesting that woodland was being cleared by burning. This is a pattern seen elsewhere in Scotland.

One of the legacies of the Neolithic period (4500-200BC) are the standing stones. Probably, the most famous stone circle is Stonehenge in England, but many of the standing stones in the Outer Hebrides and northern Scotland are older than Stonehenge. They were part of a wider trend in north-western Europe of people creating megalithic (big stone) monuments. There’s been much speculation about what these stones mean. Early visitors suggested that they were people who had been turned to stone! Some archeologist said they were observatories marking the progression of the sun or moon. I noticed that the one we visited was aligned north-south, east-west. Maybe the stones were places of worship or played a communal role, given the effort and coordination required to quarry, move and raise the stones. This would have created and strengthened bonds between people. The truth, the author of my history book says, is that the stones probably had multiple functions.

Unknown to me at the time, Cath took us to one of the “finest groups of Neolithic standing stones anywhere in the British Isles.” Calanais/Callanish was a wonderful sight, made even more beautiful because we had the place to ourselves most of the time.

Our final stop was to see one of the most spectacular remnants of the Iron Age: the broch. These rounded houses were occupied mostly by people of higher status and were first built over 2000 years ago. The word broch comes from the Scandinavian Old Norse language. The Scandinavians, who arrived at the end of the Iron Age, saw these large houses on the islands, and called them borg, which means fort. This was transformed into the Gaelic word broch.

The broch we visited (Dun Carloway/Charlabhaigh) was probably built around 200BC and is open to the public. You could go inside and walk wherever you wanted! Since half of the structure has collapsed, we could see a cross-section of the house. There are two outer concentric walls, with an air gap between them, probably to keep the heat inside. Between the walls is a staircase, which would have provided access to the upper floors. The broch’s low doorway is typical. It’s been suggested that this was to keep warmth in the building and to force those entering the building to bow down low, making them vulnerable to attack. This broch could house an extended family and livestock over winter.

Despite appearances, the building became one of the first legally protected ancient monuments in 1882. Efforts have been made to prevent further deterioration. You can’t see signs of maintenance but that’s because of the skill of the masons who replace cracked stones, re-insert pinnings (the small stones between the large blocks) as frost dislodges them, and sometimes rebuild sections of the wall.

The most prestigious brochs are circular towers, reaching 13m high with two or three floors of accommodation. For drystone structures this was an astonishing achievement!

After the full day of sightseeing and walking, as the sun set, it was time to return to Stornoway.

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