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Gaelic: Leòdhas

Outer Hebrides

Carloway - geograph.org.uk - 176470.jpg
Carloway Broch and village

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Location: 58°12’0"N, 6°36’-0"W
Grid reference: NB426340
Area: 683 square miles

Lewis, also known as the Isle of Lewis is the northern part of the island collectively known as Lewis with Harris, the largest island of the Outer Hebrides. Lewis is part of Ross-shire, while Harris belongs to Inverness-shire. The total area of Lewis is 683 square miles, of which dry land covers 404,184 acres, inland water 24,863 acres and saltmarsh 230 acres. The foreshore extends over 7,775 acres.

Lewis and Harris are treated as separate islands, and are known as the Isle of Lewis and the Isle of Harris. They are in separate counties. However they are not in truth separate but there is a land border between them, running from Loch Seaforth in the east over to Loch Resort in the west.

Lewis is in general the lower lying part of Lewis with Harris, while Harris is more mountainous. The flatter, more fertile land means Lewis contains the only town of the islands, Stornoway, where three-quarters of the population of the Outer Hebrides live. The island's settlements are on or near the coasts or sea lochs, being particularly concentrated on the north east coast. The interior of the island is a large area of moorland from which peat was traditionally cut as fuel, although this practice has become less common. The southern part of the island, adjoining Harris, is more mountainous with inland lochs.

Beyond human habitation, the island's diverse habitats are home to an assortment of flora and fauna, such as the golden eagle, red deer and seals and are recognised in a number of conservation areas.

Lewis is of Presbyterian tradition with a rich history. It was once been part of the Norse Kingdom of Mann and the Isles, and most of its place-names are from the Norse language, albeit altered through the Gaelic tongue. Life on Lewis is very different from elsewhere in Britain in many respects, not only for the remoteness of its dwellings and the isolation of its folk. The Sabbath is strictly observed, the Gaelic language and peat cutting retaining more importance than elsewhere. Lewis has a rich cultural heritage as can be seen from its myths and legends, which have survived in the telling here more than in other isles, and in the local literary and musical traditions.


The name of Lewis appears to derive from Old Norse The Gaelic name is Leòdhas but this may come from the Norse Ljoðahús (possibly meaning "song house"), by which name the sagas know the island. Other origins have been suggested, for example seeking a Gaelic origin philologist have suggested the word leogach ("marshy").[1]

Lewis may be the place referred to as Limnu by Ptolomey in his Geographia, which name would also mean "marshy".

Another name usually used in a cultural or poetic context is Eilean an Fhraoich, ("The Heather Isle"), to refers to the whole of the island of Lewis and Harris.

Geography and geology

Satellite photograph of Lewis and Harris
The uplands in the centre of Lewis

A cross-section of Lewis would see mostly sandy beaches backed by dunes and machair on the east coast, giving way to an expansive peat covered plateau in the centre of the island. The Atlantic coastline is markedly more rugged and is mostly rocky cliffs broken by small coves and beaches. The more fertile nature of the eastern side led to the majority of the population settling there, including the largest (and only) town, Stornoway. Aside from the village of Achmore in the centre of the island, all settlements are on the coast.[2]

Lewis is fiercely exposed to the Atlantic Ocean and conversely to the Gulf Stream. The latter warms the sea but the former brings violent wind in the winter. Overall, Lewis has a cool, moist climate, but the variations of weather are striking. There is little temperature difference between summer and winter, both of which are very cloudy, and all year one may expect significant rainfall and frequent high winds, the latter particularly during mid-autumn. The winds indeed can be so strong that a man may find he cannot stand up in it. These winds have led to Lewis being designated a potential site for a significant wind-farm which has caused much controversy amongst the population.

Compared with Harris, Lewis is relatively flat, except in the south-west, where Mealisval at 1,883 feet is the highest point, and in the south-east, where Beinn Mhor reaches 1,877 feet; but there are 16 high points exceeding 1000 feet in height. Southern Lewis also has a large number of freshwater lochs compared to the north of the island.

South Lewis, Harris and North Uist collectively constitute a "National Scenic Area", and there are 4 geographical "Sites of Special Scientific Interest" on Lewis - Glen Valtos, Cnoc a' Chapuill, Port of Ness and Tolsta Head.[3][4]

The coastline is severely indented into a number of large sea lochs, such as:

  • Loch Resort and Loch Seaforth which form part of the border with Harris;
  • Loch Roag surrounding the island of Great Bernera and
  • Loch Erisort.

The principal headlands are:

  • The Butt of Lewis in the extreme north, with hundred foot cliffs (the high point is 142 feet high) and crowned with a lighthouse, the light of which is visible for 19 miles;
  • Tolsta Head, Tiumpan Head and Cabag Head on the east;
  • Renish Point, in the extreme south; and
  • Toe Head and Gallon Head in the west

The largest island associated with Lewis is Bernera or Great Bernera, which is linked to the mainland of Lewis by a bridge opened in 1953.


Lewis is composed of gneiss rocks, excepting a patch of granite near Carloway, small bands of intrusive basalt at Gress and in Eye Peninsula and some sandstone at Stornoway, Tong, Vatisker and Carloway, originally thought to be Torridonian, now considered to probably be Permo-Triassic in age.[5] Sedimentary rocks cover some low-lying areas around the Broad Bay area as well.[2]


The Callanish Stones

Peaty, treeless Lewis has preserved traces of ancient man here. The earliest evidence found in peat suggests that about 8,000 years ago much of the native woodland was torched to make way for grassland to allow deer to graze. The earliest archaeological remains date from about 5,000 years ago when farming took hold; small, early houses have been found throughout the island, in particular, at Dail Mhor, Carloway. The more striking great monuments of this period are the temples and communal burial cairns at places like Callanish.

From 500 BC came the Iron Age, culminating in the building of brochs – circular, dry-stone towers belonging to the local chieftains – testifying to the uncertain nature of life then. The best remaining example of a broch in Lewis is at Dun Carloway, which was used in clan warfare as late as the eighteenth century. Gaels are recorded as arriving from around AD 1.[6] In the sixth and later centuries Christianity spread through the islands, following St Columba's missionaries.

Two kings and two queens from the Lewis chessmen

In the 9th century AD, the Vikings raided the islands mercilessly and then began to settle, eventually intermarrying with local families and becoming Christian, and though their language did not take over the population, this is when old, round houses ceased in the isles and Norse, rectangular building was established. Lewis became part of the Kingdom of Mann and the Isles and officially under the Norwegian crown.

The Lewis chessmen, which were found on the island in 1831, date from the time of Norse rule. The Norse language persists in many island place-names and some personal names to this day, although the latter are fairly evenly spread across Scottish Gaeldom.

Lewis (and the rest of the Hebrides) became part of Scotland in 1266 following the Treaty of Perth when the islands were ceded by the Kingdom of Norway. Under Scottish rule, the Lordship of the Isles emerged as the most important power in north-western Scotland by the 14th century. The Lords of the Isles were based on Islay, but controlled all of the Hebrides. They were descended from Somerled (Somhairle) Mac Gillibride, a Gaelic-Norse lord who had held the Hebrides and West Coast two hundred years earlier. Control of Lewis itself was initially exercised by the Macleod clan but after years of feuding and open warfare between and even within local clans, the lands of Clan MacLeod were forfeited to the crown in 1597 and were awarded by King James VI to a group of Lowland colonists known as the Fife adventurers in an attempt to anglicise the islands. However the adventurers were unsuccessful and possession eventually passed to the Mackenzies of Kintail in 1609 when Coinneach, Lord MacKenzie, bought out the lowlanders.[6]

Following the defeat of the Jacobite 1745 rebellion, Parliament, egged on by the Lowlanders, took fierce measures to pacify the Highlands and Hebrides. Personal weapons were forbidden and even Highland dress. Clan chiefs lost their hereditary jurisdiction and became mere landowners. In time, the new landed chiefs discouraged the use of Gaelic and required their rent in cash rather than kind. The islands are barren places and were never sufficient to maintain their people, but the situation came to a head and emigration to the New World became a flood during the latter half of the century.

In 1844, Lewis was bought by Sir James Matheson, co-founder of Jardine Matheson, but subsequent famine and changing land use forced vast numbers off their lands, and increased again the flood of emigrants. Paradoxically, those who remained became ever more congested and impoverished, as large tracts of arable land were set aside for sheep, deer-stalking or grouse shooting. Agitation for land re-settlement became acute on Lewis during the economic slump of the 1880s, with several land raids (in common with Skye, Uist and Tiree); this quietened down as the island economy recovered.

HMY Iolaire in 1908

During the First World War, thousands of islanders served in the forces, many losing their lives, including 208 naval reservists from the island who were returning home after the war when the Admiralty yacht HMY Iolaire, sank within sight of Stornoway harbour. Many servicemen from Lewis served in the Royal and Merchant Navy during the Second World War and again, many lives were lost. Following the war, many more inhabitants emigrated to the Americas and mainland Great Britain.

In 1917 the Isle of Lewis was bought by the soap magnate Lord Leverhulme who intended to make Stornoway an industrial town and build a fish cannery. One of his projects was to drive a road north from Stornoway along the trackless east of Lewis, but he got only as far as Port Geiraha, where stands his "Bridge to Nowhere", after which there is no road. Leverhulme's plans were initially popular, but his opposition to land re-settlement led to further land raids especially around the farms of Coll, Gress and Tong. These raids, commemorated in monuments in several villages,[6] were ultimately successful, as the government was prepared to take legal action in support of land re-settlement. Faced with this, Leverhulme gave up on his plans for Lewis and concentrated his efforts on Harris, where the town of Leverburgh takes his name.

Sights and sites

Stornoway Harbour

The Isle of Lewis has a variety of locations of historical and archaeological interest including:

  • Callanish Stones;
  • Dun Carloway Broch;
  • Iron Age houses near Bostadh (Great Bernera);
  • The Garenin Blackhouse Village in Carloway and the Black House at Arnol;
  • Bragar whale bone arch;
  • St Columba's church in Aignish;
  • Teampull Mholuaidh in Ness;
  • Clach an Truiseil monolith;
  • Clach Na Thursa, Carloway
  • Bonnie Prince Charlie's Monument, Arnish;
  • Lews Castle;
  • Butt of Lewis cliffs and lighthouse;
  • Dùn Èistean, a small island which is the ancestral home of the Lewis Morrisons.

There are also numerous 'lesser' stone circles and the remains of five further brochs.


There are 15 Sites of Special Scientific Interest on Lewis in the biology category, spread across the island. Additionally, the Lewis Peatlands are recognised by Scottish Natural Heritage as a Special Protection Area, Special Area of Conservation and a Ramsar site, showing their importance as a wetland habitat for migratory and resident bird life.[4]


Many species of seabirds inhabit the coastal areas of Lewis, such as shag, gannets, fulmars, kittiwakes, guillemots, red grouse, woodcock and the ubiquitous gulls.

In the Uig hills, it is possible to spot golden eagles; it has also been claimed that white-tailed eagles have been seen in the area.[7] In the Pairc area, it is possible to see feeding oyster catchers and curlews. A few pairs of peregrine falcons survive on coastal cliffs and merlin and buzzard are not uncommon anywhere on hill and moor. An important feature of the winter bird life is the great diversity of wildfowl. A variety of duck, such as eider and long-tailed are found in the shallow water around Lewis.[8]

Marine life


Salmon frequent several Lewis rivers after crossing the Atlantic. Many of the fresh-water lochs are home to fish such as trout. Other freshwater fish present include arctic char, European eel, 3 and 9 spined sticklebacks, thick-lipped mullet and flounder.

Offshore, it is common to see seals, particularly in Stornoway harbour, and with luck, dolphins, porpoises, sharks and even the occasional whale can be encountered.

Land mammals

There are only two native land mammals in the Western Isles, red deer and otter. The rabbit, blue hare, hedgehog, brown and black rat, feral cat, mink and polecat were introduced. The origin of mice and voles is uncertain.[8]

American mink are another introduced species (they escaped or were released from fur farms) and cause problems for native ground-nesting birds, the local fishing industry and poultry farmers.[9] Due to this impact and following a successful eradication[10] of the species from the Uists and Barra, the second and ongoing phase of the Hebridean Mink Project aims to rid mink from Lewis and Harris in similar manner.[11]

In addition, there are healthy herds of farmed animals, which in Lewis are typically Hebridean sheep and Highland cattle ("kyloe"). Pigs are kep ton a few farmsteads.

Reptiles and amphibians

In common with Ireland, no snakes inhabit Lewis,[12] only the slow-worm which is merely mistaken for a snake. Actually a legless lizard, it is the sole member of its order present. The common frog may be found in the centre of the island[12] though it, along with any newts or toads present are introduced species.


200pxDamselfly on Lewis

The island's most famous insect resident is the Scottish midge which is ever-present near water at certain times of the year.

During the summer months, several species of butterflies and dragon flies can be found, especially outwith Stornoway.

The richness of insect life in Lewis is evident from the abundance of carnivorous plants that thrive in parts of the island.

Plant life


The machair is noted for different species of orchid and associated vegetation such as various grasses. Three heathers; ling, bell heather and cross-leaved heather are predominant in the large areas of moorland vegetation which also holds large numbers of insectivorous plants such as sundews. The expanse of heather-covered moorland explains the name Eilean an Fhraoich, Gaelic for "The Heather Isle".[13]

Lewis was once covered by woodland, but the only natural woods remaining are in small pockets on inland cliffs and on islands within lochs, away from fire and sheep. In recent years, Forestry Commission plantations of spruce and pine were planted, although most of the pines were destroyed by moth infestation. The most important mixed woods are those planted around Lews Castle in Stornoway, dating from the mid 19th century.[14]


While Lewis has only one town, Stornoway, with a population of approx 8,000, there are also several large villages and groupings of villages on Lewis, such as North Tolsta, Carloway and Leurbost with significant populations. Near Stornoway, Laxdale, Sandwick and Holm, although still de-facto villages, have now become quasi-suburbs of Stornoway. The population of the greater-Stornoway area including these (and other) villages would be nearer 12,000. The island of Great Bernera contains the first planned crofting township created in the Outer Hebrides, Kirkibost created in 1805. This village was subsequently 'cleared' in 1823 and re-settled in 1878 using the exact land lotting divisions from 1805.



Arnish Industrial Estate

Traditional industries on Lewis are crofting, fishing and weaving. Though historically important, they are currently in decline and crofting in particular is little more than a subsistence venture today. Over 40% of the working population is employed by the public sector. Tourism is the only growing commercial industry, bringing in over £45 million a year in revenue to the islands.

Despite the name the Harris tweed industry is today focused in Lewis with the major finishing mills in Shawbost and Stornoway. Every length of cloth produced is stamped with the official Orb symbol, trademarked by the Harris Tweed Association in 1909, when Harris Tweed was defined as "hand-spun, hand-woven and dyed by the crofters and cottars in the Outer Hebrides"; Machine-spinning and vat dyeing have since replaced hand methods, and only weaving is now conducted in the home, under the governance of the Harris Tweed Authority, established by an Act of Parliament in 1993. Harris Tweed is now defined as "hand woven by the islanders at their homes in the Outer Hebrides, finished in the islands of Harris, Lewis, North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist and Barra and their several purtenances (The Outer Hebrides) and made from pure virgin wool dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides."[15]

Aside from the concentration of industry and services in the Stornoway area many of the historical sites have associated visitor centres, shops or cafes.[16] There is a pharmaceutical plant near Breasclete which specialises in fatty acid research.[17]

The main fishing fleet (and associated shoreside services) in Stornoway is somewhat reduced from its heyday, but many smaller boats perform inshore creel fishing and operate from smaller, local harbours right around Lewis. Fish farms are present in many of the sea lochs and along with the onshore processing and transportation required the industry as a whole is a major employer.


Stornoway is the commercial centre of Lewis, there are several national chains with shops in the town, two national supermarket chains as well as numerous local businesses. Outwith Stornoway, many villages have an all-purpose shop (often combined with a post-office). Some villages have more than one, with these usually being specialist stores such as pharmacies or petrol stations. There are almost no rural public houses (for the sale of alcohol); instead, local hotels or inns function as meeting, eating and drinking places, often with accommodation provided. Recently, Abhainn Dearg Distillery at Carnish, Uig, on the Isle of Lewis is producing Scotch Whisky, the first legal whisky in over 200 years.

Itinerant, travelling shops also tour the island visiting some of the more remote locations. The ease of transport to Stornoway and the advent of the internet have led to many of the village shops closing in recent times. Mobile banking services are provided to remote villages by the Royal Bank of Scotland's travelling bank.


A peat stack in Ness

Peat is still cut as a fuel in many areas of Lewis. Peat is usually cut in late spring with a tool called a peat knife or tosg (sometimes toirsgian, or tairsgeir) which has a long wooden handle with an angled blade on one end. The peat bank is first cleared of heather turfs. The peat, now exposed, is cut using the peat knife and the peats thrown out on the bank to dry. A good peat cutter can cut 1000 peats in a day.[18]

Once dried, the peats are carted to the croft and built into a large stack. These often resembled the shape of the croft house - broad, curved at each end and tapered to a point about 2 metres high. They varied in length from about 4 to 14 metres. Peat stacking also follows local customs and a well built peat stack can be a work of art. Peat stacks provide additional shelter to houses. A croft can burn as many as 15,000 - 18,000 peats in a year.[18]

The odour of the peat-smoke, especially in winter time, can add to the general atmosphere of the island. While peat burning still goes on, there has been a significant decline in recent years as people move to other, less labour-intensive forms of heating; however, it remains an important symbol of island life. In 2008, with the large increase in the price (and theft) of LPG and heating oil, there are signs that there may be a return to peat cutting.

The Church

St Columba's Church, Aignish

Worship is important in Lewis. Much of the population belongs to the Free Church and Church of Scotland (both Presbyterian in tradition). The Sabbath is generally observed with most shops and licensed premises closed on that day, although there is a scheduled air service to mainland Scotland as well as a scheduled ferry service from 19 July 2009.[19]

Stornoway alone has churches of three different Presbyterian denominations, with seven churches between them.

While strict Presbyterianism dominates Lewis, other denominations and other branches of Christianity have a presence: a Baptist church, a Scottish Episcopal church, a Salvation Army corps, a Pentecostal church (New Wine Church), a Plymouth Brethren church and a Roman Catholic Church, all in Stornoway.

Culture and sport


Garenin Black House Village

Lewis has a linguistic heritage rooted in Gaelic and Old Norse, which both continue to influence life in Lewis. Today, both Gaelic and English are spoken in Lewis, but in day to day life, a hybrid of English and Gaelic is very common.[20] As a result of the Gaelic influence, the Lewis accent is frequently considered to sound more Irish or Welsh than stereotypically Scottish in some quarters. The Gaelic culture in the Western Isles is more prominent than elsewhere.

Gaelic is still the language of choice amongst many islanders and around 60% of islanders speak Gaelic, whilst 70% of the resident population have some knowledge of Gaelic (including reading, writing, speaking or a combination of the three). Most signposts on the islands are written in both English and Gaelic, though direction signs typically give names in Gaelic alone. Much day-to-day business is carried out in the Gaelic language.[21] Almost all of the Gaelic speakers are bilingual.

Most of the place names in Lewis and Harris come from Old Norse. The name "Lewis" is the English spelling of the Gaelic Leòdhas which comes from the Old Norse Ljóðhús, as Lewis is named in mediæval]Norwegian maps of the island. Various suggestions have been made as to a Norse meaning such as "song house". The name is not of Gaelic origin, the Norse credentials are questionable and it may have a pre-Celtic root.[22][23]

Media and the arts

As well as regularly playing host to the Royal National Mod, there are annual local mods. Stornoway Castle Green hosts the annual 3 day Hebridean Celtic Festival in July, attracting over 10,000 visitors. The festival includes events such as ceilidhs, dances and special concerts featuring storytelling, song and music with performers from all round the Isles and beyond.

The radio station Isles FM is based in Stornoway and broadcasts on 103FM, featuring a mixture of Gaelic and English programming. The town is also home to a studio operated by BBC Radio nan Gàidheal, and Studio Alba, an independent television studio from where the Gaelic TV channel TeleG was broadcast.

The Stornoway Gazette is the main local paper, covering Lewis and beyond and is published weekly. The Hebridean is a sister paper of the Gazette and also provides local coverage.[24] Some community organisations in the rural districts have their own publications with news and features for these particular areas, such as the Rudhach for the Point district.[25][26]

Lewis has been home to, or inspired, many writers, including best-selling contemporary author Kevin MacNeil, whose cult novel The Stornoway Way was set in the island's capital.


  • Football: the most popular amateur sport in Lewis
  • Shinty: a traditional Highland sport, died out by the mid-20th Century but was revived in the 1990s and there is now a strong local club known as Lewis Camanachd which competes in national competition.
  • the village of Tong about 2 miles from Stornoway plays host to the Highland Games and the Western Isles Strongest man competition each summer.
  • Golf: Stornoway Golf Club with a course in Lews Castle Grounds (the only 18-hole golf course in the Outer Hebrides).
  • Angling: there are several good lochs and rivers for fishing.
  • Water sports
  • Hill walking: popular in particular in Uig and near the border with Harris.

Myths and legends

The Isle of Lewis has a rich folklore, including Seonaidh - a water-spirit who had to be offered ale in the area of Teampull Mholuaidh in Ness - and The Blue Men who inhabited the Minch, between Lewis and the Shiant Isles.[27]

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Lewis)


  1. Murray, WH (1966) The Hebrides. London. Heinemann. p. 173.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Pankhurst R.J. & Mullin, J.M. (1991) Flora of the Outer Hebrides, London: HMSO
  3. "National Scenic Areas". SNH. Retrieved 30 Mar 2011.
  4. Steel, R.J. & Wilson, A.C. 1975. Sedimentation and tectonism (?Permo-Triassic) on the margin of the North Minch Basin, Lewis. Journal of the Geological Society, 131, 181-200.
  5. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Macdonald, D. (1978). Lewis: A History of the Island. Edinburgh: Gordon Wright
  6. Isle-of-Lewis.com
  7. 8.0 8.1 Local Authority Web Site
  8. SNH - Hebridean Mink Project
  9. BBC News
  10. Hebridean Mink Project
  11. 12.0 12.1 Morris, Dr P. (1984). Animals of Britain, Field Guide to the. London: Reader's Digest Association
  12. Scotsman piece with 'Eilean an Fhraoich' translation
  13. Local Authority Web Site
  14. Harris Tweed Authority, "Fabric History", retrieved 21 May 2007.
  15. Calanais Stones Visitor Centre
  16. Scottish Enterprise - Life Sciences Directory
  17. 18.0 18.1 Am Baile Education - Crofting
  18. "BBC Scotland News". BBC News. 14 July 2009. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/highlands_and_islands/8149363.stm. Retrieved 5 January 2010. 
  19. Linguae-Celticae.Org
  20. Local Authority Web Site
  21. Gammeltoft, Peder "Scandinavian Naming-Systems in the Hebrides—A Way of Understanding how the Scandinavians were in Contact with Gaels and Picts?" in Ballin Smith et al (2007) p. 487
  22. Mac an Tàilleir (2003)
  23. Johnston Press - Publishers
  24. Rudhach - Community Newspaper
  25. - Breasclete Community Newspaper
  26. Wonder Tales From Scottish Myth and Legend (1917)