Last year I spent a week on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. After my trip many people asked me to write a blog post with my recommended attractions that they could refer to for their own trip. However, even after a week, I felt I had only scratched the surface and although I could have easily written a classic '10 things to do' list, I would have been doing the island and my readers a disservice.
I strive for my Scottish travel guides to be among the best out there which means they are well researched and I personally visit every location I write about. There is no point in me churning out another blog post that only features the popular attractions or I wouldn't be giving you anything that hasn't been written about widely already. I want my Scotland travel blog to offer you something fresh, original and comprehensive which also showcases some of the many hidden gems that other guide books and blog posts miss out.
I only write about a place once I feel I have gotten to know it fairly well and have explored beyond the stereotype. Often this involves multiple visits and in this case it took a second trip later in the year for me to feel comfortable enough to write about this captivating island.
Lewis has a long history and a deep culture so to sum it up in a 'top ten' list doesn't do it justice. Although travel blogging is my job, at the heart of what I do is travelling to learn about and understand the destinations I visit on a deeper level. I hope to encourage others to do the same.
While this blog post featuring my recommended things to do on the Isle of Lewis could be used purely as a tick-list, I would suggest it is better used as a starting point for learning about the many aspects that have contributed to moulding the people and the culture of this interesting island in to the place you see today.
TRAVEL TIPS TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
From top attractions to hidden gems, activities to try, and places to eat and shop - hopefully you will find something that appeals in my recommendations. They are all tried and tested by me so you are getting the benefit of my personal experience to help you put together your own Isle of Lewis itinerary.
Incidentally, if you are still needing some help to put your Scotland travel itinerary together or would like a local to check your plans are doable, then I offer a range of Scotland itinerary planning services that might be of interest.
Here are a few things to note when planning your trip to Lewis -
Parking at some of the popular attractions is quite limited and those with motor-homes seemed to be struggling to find a big enough space. Arrive first thing if you can is my top tip for the popular places.
Religion is a big part of life on the island and most places close on Sunday, which is a day of rest and worship. This is worth remembering when you plan your itinerary.
Public transport is limited so I do recommend a car to make the most of your time.
You can sail to the Isle of Lewis from Ullapool with CalMac Ferries - you might also like to read my recommended things to do in Ullapool
You can also reach Lewis by sailing from the Isle of Skye to the Isle of Harris and driving to Lewis, which is the route I followed on my west coast of Scotland road-trip
I've also marked all of the places mentioned in this handy interactive map to help you plan your itinerary.
A HANDY MAP OF LEWIS WITH ALL THE LOCATIONS MENTIONED
My recommended things to do on the Isle of Lewis
Stroll along the beautiful beaches
While the Isle of Harris may be better known for its breathtakingly beautiful beaches, Lewis's southern neighbour definitely has some competition in the north. In fact the beaches of Harris get so much limelight, the stunning offerings on Lewis tend to get a little overshadowed. I wasn't aware of the plentiful large expanses of pristine sand on the island until I arrived.
On my first trip I stayed in North Tolsta and everyone in my family unanimously agreed that nearby Traigh Mhor was our personal favourite, with the adjacent Tràigh Ghearadha (Garry Beach) also being highly rated. In case you are wondering - tràigh is Gaelic for sandy beach.
On my second trip I stayed in Ness and explored the nearby Eoropie Beach which turned out to be another favourite. Other places I highly rate include Reef Beach, Cliff Beach at Valtos. and Tràigh Uig which is enormous and stunning but a I found it to be a bit busier than the others.
I have no doubt there are many more I have yet to discover but these were a few favourites.
Calanais Standing Stones & Visitor Centre
The Calanais (Callanish) Stones are the most popular attraction on Lewis so they can get very busy, especially when tour buses arrive. Even when I was there in May the car park at the visitor centre was bustling, but we managed to time our walk to the stones just as one coach tour departed and another one arrived. We were lucky to get the place to ourselves for 10 minutes! My tip is to arrive first thing in the morning or at the end of the day.
The 5000 year old Neolithic monument can be accessed at any time and is free to visit but I recommend paying the small fee to enter the exhibition in the visitor centre which also has a shop and cafe. You will really appreciate the history and mystery of the site if you do.
Did you know that there are actually three stone circles at Calanais? The most famous is the one shown above, Calanais I, which is located next to the visitor centre. However, Callanish II and III are located nearby and are generally much quieter.
The Blackhouse, Arnol
In Arnol you can step back in time to experience what life was like in a Hebridean blackhouse. This thatched cottage here was a former crofting home for a family and their animals. They moved out in 1965 and it has been preserved almost as they left it.
The blackhouse was built between 1852 and 1895 but these types of buildings were used as homes for centuries in the Hebrides and all the homes built in Arnol up to 1900 were blackhouses.
Although the animal smell hasn't been recreated (thankfully!), the dark and smokey interior is authentic to a former way of life. I can imagine it would also have felt quite claustrophobic when people and animals lived side by side in the cramped space.
The peat fire in the centre of the living room was never allowed to go out. Not only did it provide warmth and light, it was used for cooking and the smoke also killed off insects.
The building is now cared for by Historic Scotland and there is an admission fee to visit although it is free admission for HS Members and those with an Explorers Pass. There is also a visitor centre and a white house to explore. The white house was built in the 1920s and lived in until 1976. You can view the interior to compare the modern homes that replaced the old dwellings.
Gearrannan Black House Village
If one blackhouse isn't enough for you, what about a whole village of them? Gearrannan Blackhouse Village is primarily holiday accommodation with a mixture of self-catering cottages and a hostel. If you are looking for somewhere unique to stay, this will tick a box.
However, for a small admission, day visitors are also welcome to explore this historical crofting township. There is a shop, cafe, exhibition and a demonstration of weaving Harris Tweed on a traditional loom. A short uphill walk provides a fantastic view over the village and you can also continue on down to the beach and along the coast for a longer walk.
The houses were occupied until the early 1970s and the village has since been declared a conservation area. Unlike in Arnol, the blackhouse interiors have not been preserved, however walking around the outside gives you a feel of living in a crofting township.
We had to wait in a queue for a space in the car park which was really busy by the afternoon so arrive early if you can.
Dun Carloway Broch
Brochs are circular drystone towers, found mainly in the north and western coastal regions of Scotland. They are thought to have been fortified dwellings with some defensive function and built as a display of status and wealth although no-one really knows for sure.
Dun Carloway Broch on Lewis dates back to about 200 BC and evidence suggests it was still being used about AD 1000. It is one of the better preserved brochs you can visit in Scotland and is said to have been used as a stronghold by members of the Morrison Clan during the 1500s.
The Iron Age structure is cared for by Historic Scotland and is free to visit at anytime, although dogs are not permitted along the track. There is also a shop with a small exhibition next to the car park. The broch commands a fantastic view over the surrounding landscape so don't forget your camera!
Norse Mill and Kiln
By now you have probably realised there are many periods of history to explore on Lewis. You can get another glimpse in to the past at the reconstructed and restored Norse Mill and Kiln near Shawbost. These types of mills were used to process grain in to oatmeal and barley meal, and were once common in the townships of Lewis.
In the past self-sufficiency was important in rural areas and these mills were used by groups of crofting families. They remained in every day use into the 20th century, with this particular mill still being active until the 1930s.
The Vikings that once controlled and inhabited Lewis are thought to be responsible for increasing the use of these types of mill on the island, hence the name Norse mill. However, recent archaeological work suggests this style of mill may have come to the Hebrides from Ireland where there is evidence of them being in use since at least the 6th century.
This is another free site to visit and as you can see from the photo, the setting alone makes it worth the short walk. Again, this is a site with limited parking
Shielings are huts or bothies which were used by families when they would take their livestock out to graze on the moors. There are many abandoned shielings on Lewis, however the Barvas and Brue Historical Society have recreated one that is open to the public.
The families would migrate to the dwellings between May and July, with the shieling sites usually never more than 6 miles from the village they belonged to. I'm sure leading animals and carrying everything you would need over that distance and across boggy moors would have been a a bit of a task.
Although it was a simple life, apparently everyone looked forward to the change of environment which was also said to be good for the health. There were different styles of dwelling from basic to more comfortable and the recreated one looks like it would have been at the higher end of comfort with stone recesses for storage and a small fireplace for cooking.
The Shieling is free to visit and is situated on the main road near to Brue. Unfortunately I couldn't find the exact location on Google maps so I've just indicated the approximate site.
Butt of Lewis
I always find it satisfying when I stand at the furthest extremities of any landmass, knowing I really have arrived at the end of the road. It seems I'm not alone as when I visited the Butt of Lewis, the most northerly part of the island, it was busy with fellow tourists all wanting to photograph the lighthouse which stands as a symbolic marker.
Unfortunately the distinctive red brick lighthouse isn't open to the public but it is still pretty photogenic from the outside. Although many people seemed happy to snap a quick picture and leave, there is actually a great4 mile circular coastal walk which you can start from the car park at the lighthouse or the car park at Eoropie Beach.
From the dramatic clifftop vantage point you can also spot whales, dolphins and porpoises. Take care though because although it was lovely and calm when I visited, the headland is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the windiest place in the UK!
Port of Ness
There are many scenic little villages dotted around Lewis, however Port of Ness was my personal favourite. Its elevated position overlooking the historic harbour and sandy beach give it a coastal character that reminded me of scenic fishing villages on the Aberdeenshire Coastal Trail.
A fishery memorial erected in 2014 is dedicated to everyone involved in the construction of Port of Ness Harbour and celebrates the once thriving fishing industry which a quote inscribed on the memorial states is 'A PRECIOUS HERITAGE THAT IS WORTHY OF REMEMBRANCE'. This strong sense of heritage and history is something I really noticed during my visits to Lewis. Memorials like this are common around the island and I've written about more below. I love that Lewis visibly recognises the stories, people and events that have shaped its unique identity.
Another nice place to visit in the village is the Harbour View Gallery owned by local artist, Anthony J Barber. He produces lots of bright paintings with a strong island theme. Alongside his original art, he sells very reasonably priced prints and cards. I'm a big believer in shopping local and supporting small businesses when I travel so I bought a few prints and cards as souvenirs of my time on the island but they would also make lovely gifts.
Bridge to Nowhere and cliff top walk
The Bridge to Nowhere is just north of the village of Tolsta. The bridge was part of Lord Leverhulme's plans to build a road linking Tolsta with Skigersta. Lord Leverhulme owned Lewis and Harris between 1918 and 1923, and had ambitious plans to improve Lewis which would also create additional employment on the island.
His plans weren't embraced by the locals who wanted land to croft rather than jobs in industry. The plans for the road were abandoned and today the bridge does lead to nowhere as there is no road at the other side.
However, there is a walking track so I highly recommend parking up at the bridge and continuing on foot along the clifftop trail. On my visit in May I spotted minke whales, dolphins and porpoises from about a mile along the track although you can keep walking for about 10 more miles if you want.
I suggest packing a picnic, your binoculars and camera, then picking a comfortable rock and settling in for some marine wildlife watching.
St Moluag's Church
This was probably my favourite hidden gem that I found on my travels around Lewis. St Moluag's Church in the township of Eoropaidh is a very atmospheric little place. I'm not a religious person but as soon as I stepped inside I felt goosebumps - more to do with a sense of history than a divine experience. The interior is dimly lit by small windows as there is no electricity although oil lamps and candles are lit for the services which still take place.
Archaeological evidence suggests that the church dates from the early 16th century, but its origins are believed to be more ancient and others believe it dates from the 12th century. The current building was restored from ruin in 1912 and I have to say if feels very authentic. I was also interested to learn that the roof tiles came from Orkney, a little connection to my home.
It is believed the site has been consecrated since the 6th century when St Moluag, a contemporary of St Columba, founded a chapel there. The chapel became a place of pilgrimage for those looking to be healed. It is thought that a separate side chapel was used by those with communicable diseases.
During its history those considered 'insane' were brought to the chapel for healing. The treatment involved sprinkling them with holy water from nearby St Ronan's Well, then being led around the outside of the church three or seven times before being bound hand and foot, then laid down on the stone pillow of St Maelrhuba for the night. If in the morning they were still found to be 'insane', they were declared incurable!
Rites and ceremonies connected with mental health continued in to the 20th century - all I can say is thank goodness we have a better understanding of mental health issues today.
St Columba's Ui Church
Another historic church that I found interesting was St Columba's Ui Church (Eaglais na h-Aoidhe) not too far from Stornoway. The ruined medieval church is one of the most important archaeological sites on the island.
Tradition has it that this scheduled ancient monument is a burial place for the chiefs of the Macleod and Mackenzie clans who once controlled Lewis. The earliest part is believed to date from the 13th or early 14th century.
There are some interesting grave stones including that of Roderick Macleod, the 7th chief of Macleod, and the Mackenzie Stone possibly from the tomb of William Mackenzie, 5th Earl of Seaforth, who died in 1740.
The church is free to visit although donations are appreciated to help with the upkeep. There are also a few historical leaflets available so I suggest making sure you have some coins to leave in exchange.
There isn't a huge amount to see at Steinacleit so you will have to use a bit of imagination, however if prehistoric sites are your thing (they are definitely my thing!), then it is worth a stop here.
The stones are the remains of what has been interpreted as a prehistoric farmstead with enclosure which sat on the crest of the hill. The surrounding moorland goes on for miles and if you face away from the road, the landscape is pretty bleak yet wildly atmospheric.
The location hasn't been excavated so its age and exact use are unknown. Theories about the origins of the site include a settlement, burial cairn and stone circle. In the 1930s some items were recovered from a hole which was dug in the centre which have since been lost. They apparently included pieces of pottery, flint and bone.
Steinacleit had lain under peat for thousands of years until it was uncovered by crofters in the 1920s. Although we won't know the exact purpose of the site until archaeological excavations are carried out, analysis of similar structures in the Western Isles have been confirmed as settlements dating back about 4000 years.
Lews Castle & Museum nan Eilean
Although I mostly enjoyed sunshine on my May and September trips to Lewis, on the few days it did rain, I was glad of the indoor attractions on offer. A must visit, come rain or shine is Museum nan Eilean situated in Lews Castle in Stornoway.
The museum tells the story of the Outer Hebrides through the themes of land, sea and people.
The modern museum has interactive displays and interesting objects spanning thousands of years of history.
The most famous exhibit has to be the mysterious Lewis Chessmen. The Chessmen are part of a hoard that was found in a sand dune at Uig Bay some time before 1831. There are 93 known pieces, although only 6 are on display in the museum. Other pieces can be found in the National Museum of Scotland and the British Museum in London.
They are made from walrus ivory, probably from Norway, and it is thought that they are gaming pieces that might have belonged to a trader who was travelling from Norway to Ireland to sell them, sometime between AD 1150 and 1200. However that is just a theory, why they were buried and exactly how they were discovered are a mystery.
Whatever their origin, these enigmatic carvings each have a unique personality and the detail is exquisite. Being able to view them on the island they were discovered was a highlight of my trip.
There is also a cafe and shop in Lews Castle, and some of the restored rooms are open to the public.
Uig Museum is a great local museum run by volunteers from Uig Historical Society. Although it is quite small, there are lots of interesting objects and exhibits. I found myself distracted reading all the boards with fascinating stories about local characters, industry and the Clearances.
If you want to learn more about the Clearances, this is an excellent place to start. There are detailed accounts of the local evictions that took place and the emigration that followed. The difference in numbers of those selected for emigration and those willing to go are really shocking. Tales of resistance and the subsequent Crofters Act are also covered.
One of my other favourite exhibits was on dying wool and how the different colours are obtained. Overall, a really great wee museum to visit which focuses on local history.
The museum is located in the Uig Community Centre and there is a small admission charge. There is also a tearoom next door which is a good place to strike up some chat with the locals.
An Lanntair is an arts centre in Stornoway. It is ideal for visiting on a rainy day or for an evening out as it has a gallery, cinema, cafe bar, theatre and concert hall. From festivals to music, there is always some form of entertainment on offer.
I also love the gift shop as it has some really nice locally made items, a few of which now decorate my home. I struggled to find a quality gift store which had a good choice of locally made items and this was the best one I found.
It is also one of the few places that opens on a Sunday, although it is only open on the last Sunday of each month.
Memorials, sculptures and works of art
One thing that stood out for me about Lewis as I travelled around, was the number of memorials, public artwork and sculptures. I was particularly interested in the ones that commemorated a significant event in the island's history.
One of the most recent and the most poignant is the Iolaire Memorial shown above. It marks the maritime disaster of 1919 in which more than 200 men returning home after the end of WWI, many of them from Lewis and Harris, died when their wooden naval vessel sank near to Stornoway harbour. What makes it particularly sad is that they survived the war and were only 50 yards from the shore when tragedy struck.
The sculpture features a bronze coiled heaving line to mark the heroism of John Finlay Macleod who swam ashore with a rope which allowed 30 - 40 men to pull themselves to the land. Only 79 survived the shipwreck.
I picked up a great wee booklet in the information centre called Made in the Outer Hebrides, you can also download a copy here. It is a free cultural guide and it lists many of the public art locations which include carvings of the Lewis Chessmen, a whalebone arch and a monument to Bonnie Prince Charlie to name just a few.
I found the sculptures a great way to learn about some of the important stories of the island near to the locations they actually took place.
Visit the island of Great Bernera
If you're anything like me, visiting one island isn't enough if you can add one or two more on to your itinerary. Luckily there are two islands that are very easy to visit from Lewis, the first is Great Bernera which can be reached via a short road bridge which connects the two islands.
This is honestly one of the most beautiful wee places that I've visited and I would love to go back for longer as I only had a couple of hours to explore. My highlights included the standing stones on the hillside pictured above - what a view they have! I also fell in love with Bosta Beach and walked along to the Iron Age village. Did I mention that I was welcomed by a couple of hairy Heilan' coos at the beach car park too?
There is also a heritage centre, shop and lots of walking opportunities.
Visit the Isle of Harris
It just wouldn't be right to visit Lewis without visiting neighbouring Harris. Although they share the same landmass, they are very different islands and you can easily drive between the two.
I've not spent as much time in Harris as I have Lewis, hence I've not written my recommended things to do there yet - I guess I need another trip...
I can tell you some of my highlights included driving the Golden Road, visiting the Harris Tweed Exhibition, chilling out with coffee and cake at the Temple Cafe and buying some takeaway lunch from the amazing Croft 36 honesty hut. Oh yes and there are a few nice beaches to walk along too ;-)
I've actually done a few more things than that but I'll save them for a future blog post when I feel I've gotten to know Harris just as well as Lewis.
Try one of these activities
If you're wanting to do something a little bit more active then here are a few activities on Lewis that you can try -
You might also like to read my blog post listing 15 activities you can do on the Scottish west coast
As I've mentioned before, I love to pick up a local souvenir on my travels or support a small local business. Here are some of my favourites places to buy a souvenir on Lewis -
Eating & Drinking
After all your exploring you will probably have worked up an appetite so you my want to check out my following recommended places to eat -
There are more things I still want to do on Lewis - feeding the Callanish Alpacas may be at the top of my list - so this blog post will no doubt get extended even further after my next visit. However, hopefully I've given you plenty of original ideas for what to do on your own trip to the Isle of Lewis.
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