Lewis and Harris
Chronicon Manniae et Insularum (Chronicle of Man and the Isles) 1164-1225.
‘Reginald gave his brother Olave a certain island called Lewis which is thinly peopled because it is mountainous and rocky and is almost totally unfit for cultivation. Olave took possession of this island and lived there ever so scantily. Finding the island could not support himself and his followers, he went to his brother Reginald and spoke to him thus: “You know, my brother and king, that the kingdom of the Isles was mine by hereditary right, but as the Lord chose you for its governor, I do not grudge it you. But I beg that you will allot me land somewhere in the Isles for my own decent maintenance as the island of Lewis which you gave me is unequal to my support.” Reginald promised to take advice on the matter but when next day Olave had come by summons to speak with the king, Reginald ordered him to be seized, bound, and carried in chains to William, King of Scotland, to be kept prisoner at Marchmont Castle. Olave remained prisoner with the King of Scotland nearly seven years before he had his chains removed and was restored to liberty. Returning from the Isle of Man from pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint James of Compostella, Olave again visited his brother Reginald who this time received him in a friendly manner. Reginald caused his brother Olave to marry Joan, the daughter of a man of rank of Kintyre, sister to his own wife and great-grand-daughter of Somerled the Great, and again gave Olave the island of Lewis, upon which Olave took his leave of his brother and dwelt there’ .
Despite the supposed austere nature of the Long Island as portrayed in the Chronicle of the Isles, its beauty is apparent from the images shown in the Virtual Hebrides website. The northernmost part of the Long Island is called Lewis (An Leòdhas) and next door is Harris (Na Hearadh). Despite the use of the terms ‘Isle of Lewis’ and ‘Isle of Harris’, the two names ‘Harris’ and ‘Lewis’ refer to the two parts of the same island. Lewis is, in general, the lower lying part of the island, with Harris being the more mountainous. The Long Island has become well-known as a magnet for nature-lovers drawn to the wildlifenot to be found anywhere else in the British Isles. Lewis is well known for its Druidic standing stones at Callanish and the Brahan Seer (Coinneach Odhar), born Kenneth Mackenzie in the 16th Century and known as the Scottish Nostradamus, came from Baile-na-Cille in the Parish of Uig . Amongst his predictions were :
North Sea Oil: “A black rain will bring riches to Aberdeen”
The Highland Clearances: “The sheep shall eat the men” .
Culloden: “In Drumossie, heads will be lopped off by the score”
Harris is best known for its world-renowned tweed which has sustained crofters the length of the Long Island in work for centuries and which has found renewed popularity with fashion houses. Lewis is widely known to be closed on Sunday since Presbyterianism swept the Outer Hebrides in the 1820s and 1830s. Many Leodhasach church-goers now opt to go with the Free Church which disestablished from the Presbyterian Church, much as the Presbyterian Church had itself disestablished from the national Church of Scotland. A disputed benefit that the Presbyterian Church brought to the islands was Sabbatarianism which was welcomed in the 1800s by a population which had to endure seven days a week of agrarian toil. The only works allowed are “works of necessity and mercy” such as cooking dinner, rescuing a sheep from a ditch, working as a nurse in a hospital, a GP on call, a firefighter or a police officer. Shopping, unnecessary travel, school homework, computer games, sports, housework, watching TV or gardening are generally out and many will take offence at those who hang their washing out on a Sunday. Individual households and churches will have their own variations and the very strict might ban washing the dishes, listening to services on radio or tape, and using public transport even to go to church. The Western Isles are not uniformly Free Kirk, or even completely Presbyterian. While the northern islands of Lewis, Harris, Scalpay, Berneray and North Uist are mainly Protestant, the ‘Southern Isles’ of South Uist, Eriskay, Barra and Vatersay are largely Roman Catholic.
Although one of the most isolated places in the United Kingdom and like the rest of the Western Isles, the young men of lewis played their part in the defence of the realm during both World Wars and many paid the final price. A particularly tragic event and one that is still alive today in the collective memories of Lewis folk was the sinking of the ‘Iolaire’ troopship. Within reach of Stornoway harbour, the local populace witnessed the drowning of their young men who had survived the war in Europe. Around the early part of the 20th century, many crofters from Lewis sought employment in the new sheep ranches of Patagonia. Life in the isles was poor and opportunities for advancement few. Patagonia, despite its remoteness, offered the chance to make a better living. Skilled shepherds were in high demand an, in some cases, islesmen rose to positions of responsibility, such as ranch managers, something unimaginable in the crowded subsistence economy back home.
Counted among the best of the many Gaelic creative writers, singers and artistes that Lewis has produced over the years has been Murdo MacFarlane (1901 – 1982) known as the ‘Melbost Bard’ (Scottish Gaelic: ‘Bàrd Mhealboist’) who was a published poet and campaigner for Scottish Gaelic. Born and brought up in Lewis, Murdo travelled to North America in the 1920s and served in World War II. His poetry was taken up by Na h-Oganaich in the 1970s and this exposure has led to Murdo’s work being made popular by bands such as Runrig (lead singer, Bruce Guthro from Cape Breton) and Capercaillie (lead singer, Karen Mathieson from Oban) in places such as Denmark and the United States. The beauty and eloquence of the words in his emigrant songs are exemplified in “S fhada leam an oidhche gheamhraidh” :
‘S tric a bhios mo spiorad cianail;
Smaoineachadh g’ el cian nan cian uam,
Far ‘m bu mhiann leam dhol a cheilidh.