The Western Isles – A Picture of Tradition
By Al Gentile
**As appears in the Fall 2017 issue of Dispatches, Overseas Adventure Travel’s quarterly travel magazine.**
Many places around the world conjure a picture in the mind, an emotional postcard of sorts. Tokyo is metropolitan, the Pyramids are ancient, the Amazon Rain Forest is wild, and the list can go on.
Cut to the western coast of Scotland. Miles away from these destinations, the Outer Hebrides paint a different image. The allure of the Isles is not from an exotic culture or some relic millennia old, but in qualities more subtle.
It’s in the craggy remoteness of the Cuillin Hills, inspiring lonesome folk melodies. Or, in the pristine white-sand beaches the Isle’s residents use to escape everything. It’s in the tinny harmonies of a melodeon dancing from a back alley pub in Stornoway. It’s the balking commands of a sheep herder to his flock. At this point, you’ve hit on it.
The Western Isles are the epitome of “provincial” — singular in a special way that anyone from a small town can relate to.
Signs of human life on the islands began about 12,000 years ago. Our knowledge of the area’s ancient history is shrouded in mystery and conjecture. The early people of the Isles were not monolith-builders, nor keen on writing their history. Most of what we know of their story comes from myth and sparse archaeological remains.
One piece of the Isles’ ancient puzzle are the Callanish Stones—Tursachan Chalanais in Scottish Gaelic. Encrusted with crystals, they glitter in the rising and setting sun. How they got there, or why the site was built, is still a mystery.
One myth describes the stones as petrified giants. In the 17th century, they were known locally as fir bhrèige—“false men”. The debate over the site’s use has lasted for centuries. Some archaeologists believe it was the site for pagan worship, while others see it as a kind of lunar calendar.
Unfortunately, the true origins and purpose of the Callanish Stones, much like the historical record of the Isles’ prehistoric people, will remain a mystery.
The Vikings and the Clans
While the Romans reached up through Britannia, the islands were another story. The coasts are often inhospitable; an aspect of the Isles immortalized in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Ultima Thule”:
Whither, oh whither? Are not these
The tempest-haunted Hebrides,
Where sea gulls scream, and breakers roar,
And wreck and sea-weed line the shore?
It was the Vikings, in advanced seafaring vessels, that landed next in the eighth century, wiping out Dál Riata—a Gaelic kingdom in the area. It was around this time they founded Stornoway, the largest town on the Isles. The name comes from the Old Norse Stjórnavágr — meaning “Steering Bar” for its exemplary natural harbor. As a seafaring people, Stornoway was a perfect stage for a bustling fishing and trade industry.
Several centuries later, Gaelic clans would ultimately drive out the Norse. The MacLeods—the name meaning “Son of Leod” who was a Norseman — and several other dynasties would live on through the modern day. In almost every neighborhood, someone with a clan name is sure to be close by.
Few other vestiges of the past endure. At Stornoway’s pier, a castle of Clan MacNicol in the eleventh century once jutted into the sea. The site of many battles between the clans, it was ultimately reduced to nothing by the 19th century.
In the 16th century, the Treaty of Union absorbed the Hebrides into the Kingdom of Britain. A period of social unrest ensued, sparked by the Crown’s desire for absolute control. Uprisings, mass evictions, and even genocide ravaged the countryside.
The Isles are now a part of Scotland, a member of the United Kingdom. Fishing, farming, and textiles have given way to wind energy and tourism. The world travels to the Hebrides for remoteness and authenticity, something valuable in an increasingly globalized world.
Identity through Language
For centuries, the main language of the Isles was Scottish Gaelic. Walk through any pub, school, or side street in Stornoway and you’ll hear English and Gaelic interchangeably. Today, many people are bilingual, which came at a price. Once subjugated, it wasn’t long before the Crown took measures to wipe out Gaelic. By the mid-19th century Gaelic was banned from public schools to stamp out one of the Isles’ most distinctive qualities.
Getting the ruler in school for speaking Gaelic is almost a communal memory, yet through it all the language lived on in the hearts, parlors, and pubs of the Isles.
Since 2005, the Scottish Parliament has recognized Gaelic as an official language. Measures to promote Gaelic—in education and in public services—ensure it lives on. As of most recent estimates, half of residents in the Outer Hebrides over the age of three can speak Gaelic.
Only in the Isles
Blood pudding and tweed—two things almost synonymous with the United Kingdom—have their own distinctive relatives in the Isles.
Various products receive some level of protected status when they embody a local tradition under threat by outside forces. Stornoway Black Pudding — made primarily with particular proportions of blood, beef, onions, and Scottish oatmeal — can only be produced in what is known as the “Stornoway Trust Area”. The pudding’s status was so coveted, outsiders began labeling their pudding with the name “Stornoway”.
For years butchers lobbied to protect Stornoway Black Pudding’s integrity. The European Union in 2013 granted the pudding a Protected Geographic Indicator of Origin status.
Even more specific is Harris Tweed, which can only be woven in the homes of weavers from the Isle of Harris. Known as clo-mor — meaning “Big cloth” in Gaelic for its thickness—perfect for the harsh climate of northern Scotland. The cloth was so ingrained in provincial culture it was even used as a currency by the tenant farmers who wove it.
The Industrial Revolution changed the textile in Britain and around the world. Between the 19th and 20th centuries the cloth became fashionable among hunters and sportsmen. Still handmade in weavers’ homes, Harris Tweed became a brand of high distinction.
Rising popularity brought greater demand. Poor weavers from outside the Isles flooded the market with low-quality imitations of Harris Tweed. In the early 1900’s the Harris Tweed Association was created to preserve the fabric’s distinction and quality. Anything with the Flying Orb trademark was true Harris Tweed.
In 1993, an act of the Scottish Parliament created the Harris Tweed Authority. Additionally, the fabric gained a legal definition:
“…a tweed which has been hand woven by the islanders at their homes in the Outer Hebrides … and made from pure virgin wool dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides.”
Now, certified inspectors examine every 50 meters of fabric and stamp it with the Orb Trademark.
Looking to the Future
Globalization and a more highly-connected society are often seen as enemies of the provincial way of life—and for many of us, the beloved peculiarities of that “hometown” image are under threat.
Maybe it’s in the fact that much of the population can derive their lineage from a handful of clan names, or that they live in the same land area as Samoa with one-seventh of the population—for many reasons, this destination epitomizes the best parts of that postcard image we have in our minds. Life is slower here, and the Isles are a treasure to experience because of their rarity.
After experiencing this region, it becomes understandable why “Hebrides” is practically a buzzword for poets. From Poe to Milton, Wadsworth and more, the word describes remoteness and inner peace wrapped in biting ocean air—and a sense of home impenetrable as the mystery of the Tursachan Chalanais.