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Lewsiana
The East Coast


WHAT a glorious stretch for a donkey gallop! How Londoners out for a holiday would revel on such a magnificent expanse of the purest sand!

Broad Bay, the El Dorado of Lews fishermen, is at our feet, rolling in with every wave myriads of shells of brilliant colours, whose defunct ancestors, in all stages of disintegration, form the beach for some feet deep beside us. Many waggon-loads of the little beauties are lying piled up among the sandy dunes, to be burned down for lime. They have a “higher destiny ” than their friends on the beach; like a country boy on his way to town, to be ground into mortar for the social edifice of city life. We prefer them where Nature flung them in such rich profusion, after handing over their late owners to the tender mercies of the famous Broad Bay flounder.

The extensive sand dunes close by are almost entirely composed of such disintegrated shells. Upon them the bent grows luxuriantly, and crawling all over them may be seen the bearers of little land shells (Helix) of delicate structure and varied colouring.

In the season this district produces a large crop of mushrooms, whose value is well understood by a few discriminating immigrants. The otherwise omnivorous natives, however, look upon them with horror and disgust.

To the right of the bay stretches the hilly peninsula of Aird—a narrow neck of deep bog-land dividing Broad Bay from the Stornoway waters. Here, on the side towards Stornoway Bay, the remains of an extensive wood may be seen at low ebb tides. The cotters have been in the habit of repairing thither, at such times, for the roots of trees for firewood, and a friend exhibited a hazel nut procured from the same locality. This, along with various other indications, seems to point to a gradual sinking of the land.

Nowhere, so far as we could learn, are trees found of any large growth, but like the bit of natural wood still remaining on the Lochs district, merely a larger species of brushwood.

A deposit of fine clay on this peninsula is worked for tiles, and is of so good a quality that vases and figures of superior excellence, both as regards design and workmanship, have been produced by the accomplished manager.

Close by, on the summit of a hill, are the remains of an extensive stone circle; and on an opposite hill, about a mile off, another known as the “Little Stones,” of which only one large stone remains standing.

Alongside the shore of Broad Bay, the waters of which have already carried away a portion of the ancient graveyard, strewing the beach with human bones, stands the ruined church of Knock. The graveyard is still in use, but is covered all over with the densest vegetation, breast high. There is no enclosure, and, although apparently the most aristocratic burial-place in the Lews, is utterly disregarded. The stranger may stumble over broken capitals into the doorless church, and there find massive monuments concealed beneath a rank vegetable growth. We cleared away a mass of weeds from one corner, that we might view the monument said to cover the last: of the Macleods. No inscription whatever could be found about the kilted figure in a pointed helmet, with cross-hilted sword and dagger, that commemorated the last of a race whose star had fallen.

There were monuments of beauty and value, but what desolation! Is it from the struggle for subsistence concentrating their whole energies upon themselves, that the Lewsmen can spare no care for the dead? Or does it arise from sheer laziness and carelessness, and account for their terror of the “spirits,” whose former habitations they treat with such neglect? If they care nothing for the “tenement of clay,” after the spirit has fled, let them raise no visible records of contempt!

As we turn from the unsatisfactory survey, our ears are lulled by the “rock” of the waves, and our eyes freshened by the rolling bay. A noble bay, indeed, it is, and one on which the gazer can never tire to look, whether dwelling on the innumerable gifts of ocean spread along at his feet, or raising the eyes to the broader aspects of nature on sea and shore.

Skirting the coast northward, at one corner of the bay is the pool of Tongue, where the river of the same name enters. Near this is the tract of Tussock grass, acclimatized from the Falkland Isles, which seems to have found a congenial home. We will hurry over the sands, and skirt the coast-line, until we reach another point of interest and beauty.

About eight miles north from Stornoway, finely situated amid undulating downs, lie the farmhouse and shooting-lodge of Gress. It is acknowledged to be one of the loveliest spots on the island, lying, as it does, on the finest bay on the coast, and commanding pleasant prospects both seaward and landward from its cheerful green-fringed-garden.

On the shore close by is the fishing-station of Gress, giving life and animation to the neighbourhood, and studding the waters with dancing boats, from the small cod and ling or stout herring-boat, to the more important-looking smack.

This place is interesting on several accounts, besides its own intrinsic beauty of situation and fertility, amid the omnipresent moor.

On the shore below the shooting-lodge, the entrance to a primitive subterranean dwelling has been recently discovered by Mr. Liddell, the tenant of Gress farm, who takes a keen interest in all antiquarian subjects. This has been followed up to a certain extent, and found to lead under the green before the house, but the bulging in of the rude stone walls renders further progress dangerous, if not impossible. Its form seems to have been the customary one with such dwellings. A very small entrance leads to a vestibule, and a short way up the narrow passage two small recesses in the walls were evidently made to allow of two passing. Some ten or twelve yards beyond these, the roof suddenly showed an open ascending space, as if a chimney had been built. This might have been another entrance, a stone laid across the top closing it up, as the ground beneath was beaten hard, as by the feet of those leaping down. Upon clearing away the sand, with which it was silted up by the force of the wind and sea driving it from the beach, a layer of dark-coloured slimy matter, intermingled with bones and other remains, appeared. Some depth beneath this a fine layer of white sand, such as is not seen immediately about, seems to have been spread as a carpet. Upon and among this the most ancient remains were found, honeycombed bones split to extract the marrow, with the rude marks upon them where they had been struck for this purpose. They were principally bones of sheep and deer, of a small species, as would naturally be the case with progenitors of the present native breeds. The tusk of a wild boar also showed up, and many shells of the “roaring bucky,” still sticky with oil, from having been used as lamps, as at the present day in Zetland. We could not find among the natives any who knew of the employment of this shell in such a way in recent times, although up to a very recent date shells of various species played an important part among the domestic utensils of the Lews.

No cutting instruments, so far as we could see, had been found, nor flint implements of any kind. An old quern found was not among the more ancient remains. The only other stone showing signs of manipulation was a circular flat stone like a discus, that had evidently been chipped into a more perfect form: its use was not apparent. As flint is thrown ashore in considerable quantities by the sea, the total absence of implements of this, or indeed any other article, seems strange. The height of the interior passage must have been considerable, as it enabled an ordinary-sized man to walk almost erect, when the sand had been cleared away. Originally it would have been much wider than at present, since the bulging in of the sides has narrowed it.

Of remains of a presumably later date there is a specimen in a ruined dune, of large size, on the top of a hill two or three miles inland.

This tower would have commanded a view of the Minch and a great tract of moorland. It had been built of very large unhewn stones, and as usual with such erections showed no signs of lime.

About a mile along the shore from Gress is a fine specimen of a trap dyke running through the conglomerate, and entering Broad Bay, showing again on the other side the bay near Garabost. The sea has ground out the conglomerate from one side of the dyke, forming one of the innumerable caves along the coast. The trap stands up like a huge black wall of great width and height direct from the sea on one side, the other being connected with the curving coast-line. It is the finest example we have seen.

Still continuing along the coast, the land traveller is directed to a huge cave hollowed out of the conglomerate. This is an enormous excavation, dry at low water, but into which the sea soon returns to continue its vigorous mining labours. It presents a huge cavernous aspect from the sea, as the roof slopes gradually back until at the further end it meets the gravelly floor at a sharp angle. Close by is a broad natural bridge, also of conglomerate, through which the sea sweeps at high water. Indeed, the freaks of these energetic Hebridean waves seem almost inexhaustible.

A short way along the coast, about a mile from the station of Gress, the celebrated seal cave runs into the conglomerate for two hundred yards or more.

This cave is formed in quite the opposite manner from the opening near the great trap dyke, for in place of the pudding-stone being washed away, here a large trap dyke has been cut away straight into the land. This has left a beautifully clear-cut sea-cave the whole width of the dyke for sixty yards from the entrance, thence it is so narrow that only the very smallest boat can proceed farther. Some way in it again widens into the furthest cave, which is high and roomy, with a gravel beach on one side.

The water is deep and clear, the rocky sides cut straight as walls, and studded under water with many large sea-urchins. It is a favourite resort of seals, and one rose with a splash close by our boat, retreating into the further recesses of the cave, where we were unable to fqllow.

Altogether it is one of the finest and most beautiful sea-caves to be seen, and although not so imposing outside, is, in our idea, a much more imagination-stirring and weird-like cavern than the more celebrated cave of Staffa. No one visiting Stornoway should ever leave without seeing this great natural curiosity, when a few hours is sufficient to bring before the bodily eye as charming a haunt of sea-nymphs as ever startled the brain of a poet into dreamy activity.

The road is continued past Gress, and ascends a long sloping hill; from the top a fine view can be had over the Bay and across the Point of Aird to Stornoway Bay. The bold hills of Harris bound the view towards the south, and beneath us a long, sweeping, undulating green land repays the labours of the husbandman. The soil is greatly composed of that valuable shell sand which, under judicious management, becomes so fertile. It has a fish-furnishing, friendly, fertile sea alongside, such as is of rare occurrence in the Lews; and the general impression left on the mind, after a survey from the highest point of the road, is that of a pleasant, open, cheerful, green, breezy land of milk and porridge, if not of milk and honey.

Gress itself lies snugly at the foot of the slope, and shows signs of steady and continuous improvement ; but, as usual in the Lews, wherever the vicinity of a homestead shows money expended, it is the money of the tenant.

Still on the way to Tolsta, we descend the northern side of the hilly road and reach a fine valley running down to the sea, containing a little community of cotters. After a long ascent we reach the village of Tolsta, occupied by a mixed community of fishers and cotters, although situated at a considerable elevation over the sea. A steep road, a mile or two in length, leads to the station. The road continues on to a farmhouse, about a mile past the clachan, occupied by a hearty Yorkshire-man. It is an agreeable situation, although terribly secluded, with undulating green fields down to the rocky seaboard, and rolling hills closing in the scene. Even in the opinion of its Southern tenant, it only requires a good sprinkling of plantations to be delightful. The view is cheerful, and enlivened by numerous sails that dot the neighbouring sea; but the place has no shelter from the gales, which sweep away everything, except the cobwebs of centuries that conceal the value, and hamper the activity, of the native mind.

A rocking-stone is poised on the top of a hill about a mile off. Although estimated to weigh thirty tons, it is said to be moved with ease.

On the way back to Stornoway we pass Coll, a farmhouse amid rolling sandy pastures sweeping down to the sea. It is placed on a little rising ground between two pleasant valleys, and commands a lively smiling prospect both landward and seaward.


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