What to do in Eight Hours ashore… Stornaway, Scotland, a Cruise Port Guide…
Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland
was originally a Viking settlement, the name deriving from ‘steering bay’. It is the capital of Lewis and Harris, two conjoined Hebridean islands. Stornoway is on the northern, flatter island of Lewis whereas the island of Harris – south of Tarbert – is more mountainous. Lewis is separated from the north west coast of Scotland by the Minch channel.
Stornoway, on the east coast of Lewis, is a busy port and a popular stop on Round Britain cruise itineraries. A new cruise terminal with deep water berth is under construction but at present only smaller vessels can moor alongside, larger ships tender passengers ashore to the CalMac pier. Cruisers are met by a team of Cruise Ambassadors, local volunteers, who are on hand to offer information and assistance. The currency here is the Scottish £ and, whilst Gaelic is a frequently used language on the islands, locals also speak English. The Sabbath is strictly observed here so most shops are closed on a Sunday.
Stornaway is on the same latitude as Stavanger in Norway and Nunivak Island in Alaska so it is at the altitude where you might be lucky enough to see the Aurora Borealis – or the Mirrie Dancers as islanders call the Northern Lights – although it will be a late night, as during cruise season the sky stays light for a long time!
The island of Lewis and Harris is well known for its wildlife which is largely protected – on your travels lookout for white tailed eagles, corncrake, red deer and otters as well as the shaggy highland cattle and Hebridean sheep that are farmed here. At the coast you may see puffins, eider ducks, seal, dolphins, porpoise, basking sharks, orca and minke whales.
What is within walking distance of Stornoway cruise dock?
- Stornoway Harbour itself is a nice place to wander and watch the ferries, fishing boats and harbour seals. There is an exhibition about Harris Tweed in the Stornoway Town Hall. The towns prosperity was built on tweed, smoked fish and fishing – look out for ‘The Herring Girls’ statue and visit one of the many shops, cafes and restaurants in the area. When shopping in the town or elsewhere on the island look out for Harris Tweed, local pottery, handmade soaps from the Hebridean Soap Company, whisky from Abhainn Dearg – the islands ‘only distillery’ (although there is one on the Isle of Harris), replica sets of the Lewis Chessmen – of which more in a moment – and smoked fish….
- The Stornoway Fish Smoker is probably the best place to see fish being peat-smoked and to buy some packaged to take home although there are lots of alternatives in town! It is off the the right go the harbour as you come ashore on the corner of Shell Street – look for Smoked Kippers, Salmon, haddock and cheese. The Hebridean Brewing Company is next door!
- Stornoway Black Pudding is an EU Protected Geographic title and very popular but probably better eaten in a cafe or restaurant that taken back on board! You will find many places to eat in town at all budgets – seafood is good here, especially local hand dived scallops.
- Lews Castle (not Lewis!) is about twenty minutes walk from the harbour, cross the Bayhead bridge opposite the Salka Gift shop rather than walk right round the road. A Victorian castle, it was built in 1850 – on the site of the original island whisky distillery – by James Matheson founder of the Jardine Matheson shipping company in China. The castle was bought in 1918 by Lord Leverhulme for £143,000, then donated to the people of Lewis in 1923. The grounds are a beautiful public park and you can hire a Segway to explore. The Castle now houses shops, a nice cafe and a hotel, the Reading Room archive with a display of Roman silver that was found nearby and the Museum nan Eilean. Here you can see five of the 12th Century Lewis Chessmen discovered in 1831 on the west coast of Lewis. They were all individually carved from walrus tusk, others from the hoard are on view in the British Museum and the National Museum of Scotland.
What can I do on a hike or bus from Stornoway cruise dock?
- The Iolare Memorial is about 50 minutes walk out onto the headland overlooking the infamous rocks, The Beasts of Holm. There are two memorials here to the 201 men who perished in the Iolare tragedy. The Iolare was just a mile outside the harbour on the 1st January 1919, bringing troops and sailors home from theFirst World War, when she sank in sight of the harbour entrance.
- The Ruined Church of St Columba is an hour on from the memorial (or about 80 minutes walk direct from the harbour) on the Aignish isthmus . Otherwise you can take bus W5 from Stornoway. There are some intricate stone grave stone carvings from the 1400’s including one of a Clan Macleod chief. The graveyard is interesting with both a Knights Templar and a Bishop’s grave.
- Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Memorial by Loch Arnish, is almost opposite the Iolare memorial on the opposite side of the Bay. An hour an a quarters walk from the port or by taxi. It is a steep climb up from the road to a cairn of rocks that mark Bonnie Prince Charlie’s arrival back in Lewis after the Battle of Culloden in 1746. Stunning views across the Minch to Skye and of Stornoway harbour and the Beasts of Holm. This is a good spot to see ferries coming and going and to spot local wildlife but it is quite a climb.
What should I do by private tour or cruise excursion from Stornoway cruise terminal?
The east coast of The Isle of Lewis is rugged and rocky but the west coast is ‘softer’ and covered in heather and peat. The majority of the ‘tourist destinations’ on the island are on the West Coast and, although you might manage by bus or with a hire car, I think time constraints probably mean that some sort of tour is better. Of the sights on the west coast the most dramatic and ‘must see’ is
- The Callanish Standing Stones
this ancient monument is a circle of standing stones, surrounding a burial mound, overlooking the sea. There are actually 4 different sites in the area but the largest has a visitors centre, exhibition and cafe. The stones date from about of 2500BC so are older than Stonehenge – but unlike Stonehenge you can walk between them and touch them.
You can reach Callanish on bus W2 if you really want to – check the bus timetables here.
- Broch at Dun Carloway
is further north on the west coast is another ancient monument dating back to the Iron Ages and still still in use in the 1500s. It is a three story circular tower, thirty feet high, located on the hilltop and commanding a panoramic view of Loch Rag. It was a home and lookout – basically an early castle. Built with dry stone walls with two circular, concentric walls – fastened together at varying heights make galleries connected by stairs. There were no openings in the wall, except a low door at the entrance to a passage to the inner court which was open to the sky.
- The Gearrannan Village ‘Black Houses’ are made of the same basic double walled construction, with a roof that was either thatch or peat turfs laid on a frame. This village is a reconstruction of the small settlement which was abandoned in the 1970s. Although the had no chimney they aren’t called Black Houses because of the smoke but because newer houses – built in the late 1800’s – were called ‘white houses’ and designed to give people a separate living space from their livestock and animals. The village has been restored as holiday lets with a souvenir shop, cafe and one restored black house showing how people lived with demonstrations of weaving Harris Tweed. You will spot other ‘Black Houses along this coast, some are ruined, some are open to the public.
- The Norse Mill at Loch Roinavat are more restored iron age buildings of traditional construction, this time with a thatched roof. The kiln was used for drying the grain before grinding it. The horizontal water mill dates from the 19th century and was in use until the 1930s, it replaced an earlier mill on the site. There are no amenities here but information boards help you understand what you are seeing.
- Whalebone Arch on your drive around the area you might spot this in Bragar it dates from 1921. It is the jawbone of an 80 foot (24m) blue whale which beached on the shore nearby. There was a Whaling Station at Bunavoneader, near Talbert until the 1950s.
- The Presbyterian Free Church is very important and influential in Harris – you will see many churches on the island. The 16th Century St Clements Church at Rodel and the newly restored 12th Century Church at St Moluags are worth a visit if you have time. Interestingly the Old Gaelic word for church was Teampaill and you will still sometimes see churches on the island referred to as a team pull or temple.
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