The impetus behind our trip to Scotland is Tim’s heritage. While I have some Scottish ancestry, it is several generations back and frankly, it is a not part of my family that I have a connection to. But Tim’s maternal grandmother was born in Scotland, on the Isle of Lewis. According to Tim’s sisters and multiple English cousins, Nanny Hodgson née Mackenzie was delightful, with a wicked sense of humour. Unfortunately, he left England when he was too young to have a memory of her.
While tracing ancestry doesn’t particularly interest either of us, we love having an excuse to travel. And I must admit there is something poetic about going to an island that has the same name as me.
Lewis is a two-and-a-half-hour ferry ride across the Minch, the strait between Lewis and the mainland. It’s a journey into a different world, a world of crofts, peat, weaving and deep Presbyterian beliefs. Sheep and long-haired Hebridean cattle dot the fields. The Sabbath is observed and the “We Free,” The Free Church of Scotland, has a solid base. It’s a country within a country. The Hebrides are as different to Edinburgh as Nunavut is to Toronto.
We land in Stornoway, the capital and main town on the island where Tim’s great grandparents lived and where his grandmother was born in 1884. Although their actual house no longer exists, the streets of Stornoway look much as they would have in the nineteenth century. The signs are all in Gaelic. The people are friendly, if guarded. We get a sense of the peace of this small port town.
From Stornoway we head across Lewis, over miles of peat fields, to the other side of the island to see the standing stones of Calanais. High atop rocky hills overlooking Loch Ròg, this arrangement of stones is 5,000 years old, older than Stonehenge. Rows of stones radiate from a central burial mound (added about 500 years after the initial stones were set) and are arranged in a shape that has been likened to a Celtic Cross. Apparently, the site was used for worship and ceremony for over 1500 years. The stones’ placement seems to have astral significance –– there is a lunar phenomenon that occurs there every 18.6 years.
You can’t help but be impressed by the humanity behind this structure. The stones have a majesty to them. A permanence that speaks to a commitment to a place. People who built these standing stones did not leave these hills, let alone this island.
Visiting in February, we get the full Hebridean experience. The rain and wind pick up as we weave in and out of these monoliths. Thankfully, there is a Visitor Centre with hot coffee and cream teas to round out the experience and give us a chance to dry off. A bit.
We head south into the rocky hills, climbing through clouds toward Harris, which is not a different island but a separate region, with a very different landscape. Remote roads become even smaller as we turn onto a single lane track that ends in a small car park beside dunes. Only slightly deterred by rain, we walk over the dunes and stop dead.
Luskentyre Beach is listed as one of the largest beaches in the UK – surely it is one of the largest in the world. We have miles and miles and miles of sand to ourselves, dotted only with seaweed from the tide. Apparently in the summer, it is used as a stand-in for advertisements for the Caribbean. It’s that kind of vast, isolated, stunningly beautiful beach.
We’ve come here to stand at the edge of Lewis, to contemplate the distance to the next body of land –– North America. As settlers, our ancestors crossed this divide at some point, for better or for worse. In creating new lives for themselves, they changed the history of the world. And no matter what I think about tracing ancestry, I can’t deny this connection. Just as I can’t deny my historical role as a settler.
We perform a small family ceremony, letting the wind blow our thoughts offshore and the rain seep into our clothes. I dance my gratitude for this place, for our tenacious forebearers, and for our common humanity.
We head back to Stornoway to dry out with a wee dram.