A musical journey through the Hebrides
STORNOWAY, Scotland — The capital of the Outer Hebrides they call this place, an ancient seaport of 6,200 people on the sprawling Isle of Lewis that somehow seems both larger — and smaller — at once.
It’s summer, and the four-day Hebridean Celtic Festival is underway, a sensory cornucopia of nonstop music that casts a warm, incandescent glow amid the rain and clouds and wind that often cloak and buffet these islands. It’s also a celebration, played out between a castle on one side and a harbor on the other, that embraces the Gaelic heritage of the 130-mile-long Hebrides archipelago.
The festival is my kickoff to a three-week trek through the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, mostly crisscrossing the Hebrides that have fascinated me with their stark, compelling beauty over several trips spanning more than 40 years. My Highland ancestors have lived in North America for nearly two centuries, but the beguiling, sometimes paradoxical temperament of the islanders who stayed behind — friendly yet reserved, polite but toughened, reverent of history yet cognizant of the present — draws me back time and again.
The music this weekend comes from the Hebrides, of course, but also from places as disparate as Denmark, Quebec, and even Portland, Maine — playing a broad but mostly Celtic-oriented range of music to rapt and raucous audiences packed into about a half-dozen tents, some enormous and others intimate, pitched on an expansive pitch of wet grass.
No one seems to mind the weather. Familiarity in this case — or perhaps, shoulder-shrugging acceptance — does not breed contempt.
The festival has been sold out for weeks, and the music is the thing, stretching from early afternoon near Lews Castle until the wee hours the next morning at high-energy after-parties in a compact town of small homes and family shops swabbed in whitewash and pastel.
Too late to buy a ticket for the castle grounds? Not to worry. Nearly every pub in Stornoway features live music throughout the festival, day and night, as locals squeeze among visitors from elsewhere in the Hebrides, mainland Britain, and far abroad, including many from the United States. During breaks in the music, conversations invariably spring up between Lewis natives and tourists who, usually within minutes, are asked about home and heritage.
“MacQuarrie? Oh yes, there are several families in South Uist,” one middle-age Stornoway man, a first-language Gaelic speaker, says after buying his new acquaintance an almost-obligatory dram of whisky. Never mind that South Uist, which my great-great-great-grandfather left in 1825 for Nova Scotia, is three islands and 100 miles to the south.
But history and an appreciation of the past are everywhere in the Hebrides. It’s stunningly ancient history, too, from some of the oldest rock in the world, to the spectacular 5,000-year-old standing stones at Callanish on Lewis, to the ruins of centuries-old Scottish homes and strongholds that dot the landscape at turn after turn.
Heading west from Stornoway on a Sunday after the festival — nearly everything shuts down here on Sundays, the Sabbath, where religion remains a vital part of community life — the narrow road out of town soon dips and pitches across what seems to be a trackless moor of stunted gorse and patches of heather that stretch much of the way to the Atlantic. It’s not driving for the faint-hearted, as anyone who has steered a car across the Scottish Highlands knows. But on Lewis — which is connected to mountainous Harris to form the largest island in the Hebrides — traveling by car can be a full-alert adventure, and not always the fun kind.
But is the effort ever worth the excitement. My destination is Bhaltos, a Viking name for a remote place perched on a wind-scoured peninsula at the far northwestern point of Europe. The oceanside home I rent with a companion — a high-tech, container-shape, salmon-stocked gem — is owned by a former actor on “Game of Thrones.” That connection with vividly imagined, distant times is an apt one here.
Nearby were discovered the famed Uig chessmen, the 12th-century ivory playing pieces whimsically carved by Norse craftsmen, whose Scandinavian overlords ruled much of the Western Isles of Scotland for hundreds of years. The Callanish standing stones, about 500 years older than Stonehenge, are an easy drive away. The cylindrical Carloway Broch, an Iron Age fortress that dates from approximately 100 BC, is only a short trek farther on.
And for anyone familiar with the crime novels of Peter May, who bases many of his plots and characters in Lewis, the ever-changing geography and weather will resonate and fascinate. Stand on Gallan Head, with its 360-degree panorama of conical mountains, sheer cliffs, and wild Atlantic surf, and gaze southwest to the Flannan Isles. Three lightkeepers disappeared without a trace there in 1900, and May’s bloody use of the Flannans in his 2017 novel “Coffin Road” makes eerie sense.
For something completely different, travel only a few miles to Uig Bay, where the unexpectedly remarkable awaits. There, stretching as far as the eye can see, is a horizon-edging carpet of luxurious, smooth, gleaming beige sand — a jarring surprise for the first-time visitor whose travels in Lewis so far have been filled with the wonders of the rough, the jagged, and the sublimely desolate.
The effect is almost numbingly beautiful. A long, meandering walk on the pristine sand, in a hard-to-reach place where few people live, is to be reminded that the magic of the wild still exists. Here is a place devoid of beachside hotels, bars, concession stands, and the distracting noise of everyday life that too often tags along for a trip to somewhere new.
The dawn of human history on the Isle of Lewis has been obscured by time. But its mark, left in unimaginably old stonework, permeates this island in ways that answer some questions but raise many others. What were we like? How did we get here? How did we survive?
They’re big questions, and Lewis poses them over and over. But take a break, and plenty of them. Enjoy the scenery, hoist a pint, talk to the locals, and listen to the music.