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
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
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
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
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
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
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.