Tarbert, Harris To Butt Of Lewis, By Gallan Head And Callanish

Western Edge

ROUTE LENGTH: 71 MILES

By Road

From Tarbert, drive along the A859 north. At the junction with A858, turn left onto it. Turn at the next left onto B8011, to Gallan Head, follow.

Return along B8011, and turn left onto B8059 to Bernera.

Return to A858, and turn left onto it to Callanish. From there, follow A858 onwards to A857 brochs and churches such as Bragar and Galson. Follow onto Ness and the Butt of Lewis Lighthouse.

By Cycle

Again, it is recommended you seek accommodation to break up this journey, which includes arduous ascents.

By Public Transport

There is no real public transport to Ness and the Butt of Lewis. Instead, you can take the Hebridean Transport service W10 (Leverburgh – Stornoway) to Stornoway.

To check times go to Traveline Scotland and click on Plan your Journey on left side of page.

From Tarbert we journey north through the lochs and highlands of North Harris. Together Lewis and Harris form the largest island in Britain- collectively known as the Long Island. The sweep of the landscape is on a grand scale moving from open moorland, to mountains in the south, and rocky promontories to the west. There is a St Columba’s Island to the east at the mouth of Loch Erisort, but in due course we turn west to Achmore, and then divert before reaching Callanish onto the long road to Gallan Head. This is remote seaboard country with its own distinctive appeal to the early Christian communities. About a mile short of Gallan Head on the western shore is Taigh a’ Bheannaich, the House of Blessing. Further down the coast on the minor road, we reach the site of Taigh nan Caileachan Dubha, the House of the Black Women. This was a Benedictine nunnery in medieval times. Retuning by the same road, we pass the turn north to Bernera and Little Benera, where on Eilean Fir Chrothair a number of beehive cells survive- the dwellings of remote anchorites in the Celtic period which are still called locally Am Beannachadh, the Blessing Place. Access to the island is only by special arrangement.

Back on the main road, Callanish is the hinge of western Lewis. It is not one stone henge but a multiple series of ancient monuments creating a sacred landscape on the large scale. Callanish is best viewed as a theatre of land and sky, since it may be the relationship between the distant mountains and the movements of the moon that gives the overall complex its original purpose. Callanish leads on to a series of interesting locations. The Dun Carloway Broch and the Blachhouse township at Na Gearranan provide essential local context. Many of the early chapels have disappeared below the sand but Teampull Eoin, St John’s at Bragar, gives a good sense of the surviving remnants. Further north at Galson, Teampull nan Crò Naomh is sited on the machair beyond the farmhouse, open to sea and sky.

Pride of place however has to go to the complex of buildings at the north end in the area of Ness. Here Teampull Moluidh, St Moluag’s Church at Eoligarry, was re-roofed in modern times, so preserving an important early church almost complete. The building shows some Norse influence, being at one time dedicated to St Olaf, and is later in date than the original foundation of Moluag. The stone font is from an earlier chapel on the Flannan Isles far to the west. St Moluag’s was an important site of pilgrimage and of healing, closely associated with the former St Ronan’s Chapel and Well a few hundred yards to the northeast, now a mound of stone. Nonetheless this site points a further sixty miles out to sea where Ronan fled in search of peace. A remarkably whole chapel and cell survive on Rona, while nearby Sulasgeir, and beyond the Flannans and St Kilda, were also ‘landfalls of the saints’. The ecologist Frank Fraser Darling stayed on Rona for a time with his family to study the seal colony, leaving a vivid account of life on the edge of the world. Nearer at hand is the Chapel of St Peter on the lovely shoreline of Swainbost.

The Butt of Lewis Lighthouse is as far as we can go by land. One can see why in early times this area was the cultic centre of the sea god Shony. Offerings were made to the god on his festival of 1st November, long after the arrival of Christianity, when someone would wade out into the sea to throw specially brewed ale into the waves in the hope that the fertility of the sea would reciprocate with abundant fish and seaweed. Ronan reputedly fled form Ness on a whale in search of some peace, while his sister went to Sulasgeir. Scoured by wind, rain and spray they chose ‘prisons of hard stone to bring all to heaven’. As mentioned, the place of resurrection might be at the ends of the earth- and sea.

You are before me and behind,
You search me and know me,
In my sitting down and standing up,
You understand my thoughts,
You keep my rest and my rising,
Upholding me in your hand.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
Too high, too hard to understand.
Where can I go from your spirit?
If I climb into the heavens you are there,
If I descend below the earth I find you.
If I take the wings of the morning,
Or reach the furthest bounds of the sea,
Even there you meet me.
(from Psalm 139)

Pilgrim Journeys

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