Our footsteps disappear with the tide.

We’ve come here to stand at the edge of Lewis…

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.

Standing Stones at Calanais

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.

Tim walking along the “avenue”

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.

We cross the dunes to the beach at Luskentyre

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.

Tim and I on Luskentyre 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.

Our footprints will vanish with the next tide.

Dipping into Scotland

Tim has a lot of family in the U.K., cousins who he didn’t know when he was growing up. One of the driving forces of our trip has been to connect with family, to visit with them whenever possible and see where their lives have taken them.

Cousin Victor and his wife Ayleen live in Edinburgh, one of the great capital cities of the world. During the Enlightenment, the city spawned some of the world’s most influential thinkers. It continues to be a mecca for artists and scientists and is sometimes described as “The Athens of the North”. Apparently, Robert Louis Stevenson said “Edinburgh is what Paris ought to be.”

Old Tolbooth Wynd, the Tollbooth road into the city

The protective Edinburgh castle, perched atop an extinct volcanic crag, guards the city.

Edinburgh Castle, atop an old volcano

The Royal Mile, the main pedestrian thoroughfare, stretches from the Castle to Holyrood Palace, nestled under the ancient volcano of Arthur’s Seat, “a hill for magnitude, a mountain in virtue of its bold design” (Robert Louis Stevenson).

Looking from Edinburgh castle through the city to Arthur's seat

Our first destination was Holyrood Palace, one of 9 royal residences in the U.K. “Treasures from the Queen’s Palaces”, is a special exhibit at the palace, celebrating Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee. There are Jubilee events throughout the U.K. this year, and we were lucky to catch this one in Edinburgh.

The Treasures have been selected from vast collections that have been assembled by various monarchs over the centuries. There were exquisite paintings, manuscripts and sculptures, but I think one of the things that most impressed me was a Faberge Egg, made of a delicate wire grid filled with a mosaic of tiny jewels. In the egg was a miniature with portraits of the Russian Imperial family. I’ve only ever seen Faberge Eggs in photographs and this was a stunning piece of art, although to my way of thinking it was also a frivolity symbolizing excessive Royal wealth. The kind that starts revolutions.

Directly across from the Palace is the new Scottish Parliament building. Built in 2007, it aims to reflect a union of the natural landscape and the urban city. It sits just at the confluence of the two, nestled at the base of the Royal Mile, under the shadow of Arthur’s Seat.

Scottish Parliament Building

It’s a striking piece of architecture that I think looks much better in the photos than it does in real life. The Scotland Act of 1998 brought in a devolved Scottish Parliament (the English and Scottish parliaments had been merged in 1707), and this building represents a pride in Scottish representation.

Scottish Parliament council hall

We had happened to arrive in Edinburgh on cousin Alistair’s birthday. Alistair is Victor and Ayleen’s son, a bright young man who had recently run in a bi-election and had an insider’s view of many facets of the Scottish electoral system. (“Alistair Hodgson: A New Voice for Edinburgh”) Although he didn’t win his seat this time, I fully expect he will the next time around. We celebrated his 28th birthday in style at restaurant eating fabulous Scottish beef and “Cullen Skink”, a smoked Haddock chowder.

We had been to Edinburgh briefly before, but I had never been outside the city. We were thrilled when Victor and Ayleen took us out to explore the countryside and some of the historical towns. Our first stop was South Queensferry on the shore of the Firth of Forth.

Looking across the Firth of Forth, from South Queensferry, to the Kingdom of Fife

As the name implies, South Queensferry was the location of the ferry going across the estuary (the firth) of the River Forth.

The main street in South Queensferry

It is a picturesque little village that has a long history of drying herring, bottling whiskey, pirates and smuggling.

South Queensferry

There seem to be castles in every corner of Scotland. On our way toward the Highlands, we passed Doune Castle, a 14th century courtyard castle that looks down protectively on the surrounding countryside. The 100 foot high gatehouse inspired its use as the castle in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”.

Doune Castle

We made a brief pilgrimage around the walls, imagining the Trojan Rabbit.

The back of Duone Castle. Neep-neep.

We lunched in the town of Callander, “a place where Lowland meets Highland”. Just beyond the town are the Tossachs, a beautiful area of locks, mountains and rivers. Dorothy and William Wordsworth stayed in Callander in 1803, and in the centuries since it has been frequented by many writers, taking inspiration from the landscape. Sir Walter Scott set his poem “The Lady of the Lake” in the Loch Katrine in the Trossachs, ensuring the area’s population as a tourist destination.

The main street of Callander, looking toward the Highlands

There is, apparently, the remains of a Roman Fort just outside Callander. Armed with a town map and guidance from the tourist office (“It is hard to see. It’s mostly overgrown”) we set off on a little walk along the River Teith in search of Rome. We found something that might, or might not, be a piece of the wall. But we had to turn back quickly as the weather began to change.

Tim, Ayleen and Victor, atop a Roman wall?

Within moments we were deluged by a downfall of rain and hail and had to race to the car.

Drenched, but invigorated, we headed to “Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park” for  a quick peek at Loch Katrine, the setting of Scott’s poem. This was our first view of the Highlands, and it was exquisite. You can easily tell why it so profoundly affected Scott and others. A century old steamboat can take you around the loch while giving you bits of history and recitations from the poem. “Each purple peak, each flinty spire 
/Was bathed in floods of living fire” Definitely a place we hope to return to and explore in more depth. Perhaps do a bit of fishing…

Loch Katrine and the "Sir Walter Scott" steamship

It was getting late. We were about 50 miles from Edinburgh, yet it felt as though we were in an entirely different world. The sun came out as we headed back toward the Forth and the bustle of Edinburgh, thinking how lucky we were to have family to open up new worlds for us.

Tim & Amanda overlooking the Forth bridges

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