Excerpt from the book Travels through History : Northern Ireland and ScotlandBelfast and the Causeway Coast has been rated best region in the world to visit in 2018 by Lonely Planet. In September 2017, Scotland was voted the most beautiful country in the world by a respected travel company, Rough Guides
The small village of Arnol lies on the north-western coast side of the main A858 on the island of Lewis and Harris. At the far end of the village is the Blackhouse Museum, an unmissable visit for anyone interested in how some people used to live in this part of world up until 50 years ago and, as such, it’s more a time capsule than a museum.
Built in 1885, this traditional blackhouse – a combined byre, barn and home – was inhabited until 1964 and has not been changed since the last inhabitant moved out. The museum staff rekindle the central peat fire every morning so visitors can experience the distinctive peat smell in the interior, which I first became aware of about three steps before entering the building. There’s no chimney, and the smoke finds its own way out through the turf roof, windows, door and attached to the outer garments of any visitors.
All homes built in Arnol up to 1900 were blackhouses. These double-walled dwellings were simply called taighean (‘houses’). But new health regulations introduced around this time, required the complete separation of byre and dwelling by a wall, with no internal communication, which was not the case with the blackhouses such as those at Arnol. Therefore, a new type of house appeared, built with single-thickness walls cemented with lime mortar. It presented such a contrast that people coined the term taigh-geal ‘white house’. The term taigh-dubh ‘black house’ was then applied to the old houses retrospectively.
A path leads up the hillside, giving views of the broch and the surrounding countryside. The side facing you is built above steep rock, and most of it remains as originally designed. As you round the broch to the entrance, on the north side, you are presented with a different picture. From here you can see that the most easily accessible parts of the wall have been removed. What you are left with is a life-size cutaway model, exposing sections through the walls and showing clearly much of their structure.
Inside the broch a number of chambers are accessible at ground floor level, an area which would probably have been used to house farm animals. The human residents would have lived 2m higher, above wooden flooring supported on a ridge that can still be seen running around the inside walls. As in other brochs, stairs are fitted within the thickness of the walls, and there would probably have been several floors of accommodation beneath a conical roof.
The broch is next mentioned in a report by the local Minister in 1797. By this time, brochs were believed to be watchtowers used as defense against, or by, Vikings. Dun Carloway featured prominently in reports on Western Isles brochs in the latter part of the 1800s, and as a result it was one of the very first ancient monuments in Scotland to be taken into state care. By this time a large a part of the wall had been removed, probably for recycling into the blackhouses built nearby: including the one whose walls still stand nearly complete below the access path.
Today Dun Carloway is approached from the car park past the Doune Broch Centre, built largely underground, and containing an exhibition giving a sense of what life in the broch might well have been like. This is run by Urras nan Tursachan, The Standing Stones Trust (as is the nearby Calanais Visitor Centre), and the broch itself is in the care of Historic Environment Scotland..
The 6.4 metre long chambered tomb, in the central part of the circle, was almost certainly added after the circle was set up and was used for many centuries, as not only local pottery was found, but also Beaker vessels dating from 2000BC.
The central monolith stands 0.8 metres west of the true centre of the stone circle. The monolith is 4.8 metres high and 1.5 metres wide. This stone is on an almost perfect north to south axis, making me wonder how people 5,000 years ago could align a 7-tonne stone so accurately.
The avenue connects to the stone circle from the north-northeast and is just over 83 metres long. There are 19 stones remaining in the avenue: nine stones on the eastern side, ten on the western side. It’s tempting to think that some of the original stones might have been taken for building projects on the island as there seems to be no real consistency in the layout of the stones on the two sides of the avenue. The largest stone in the avenue is 3.5 metres high and stands on the western end of the row. The two rows are not parallel, but fan out the further away they get from the circle – at the north end the rows are 6.7 metres apart, but only 6 metres apart at the south end, nearer the stone circle. From the circle the height of the stones decreases towards the middle of the avenue; from there the height increases again.
Dun Carloway, or Dun Charlabhaigh, is a remarkably well preserved broch in a stunning location overlooking Loch Roag on the west coast of Lewis.
Dun Carloway was probably built some time in the last century BC. It would have served as an occasionally defensible residence for an extended family complete with accommodation for animals at ground floor level. It would also have served as a visible statement of power and status in the local area.
The broch at Dun Carloway is extremely well preserved. It was built at a time when brochs were already starting to be replaced by other forms of housing less demanding on scarce resources (and wood in particular), and it is not known how long it remained in use. It seems to have been still largely complete in the 1500s when some of the Morrison clan sought refuge inside the broch after being discovered stealing the local MacAulays’ cattle. Donald Cam MacAulay climbed the outside of the wall and threw in burning heather, smoking the Morrisons out.
After I visit places such as Callanish I am always bewildered, as I am sure that I can’t satisfactorily answer any of the obvious questions – why was it built, how was it built, who built it, what was the reason for building it here rather than on any other hillock in the area? Even the question as to when the site was constructed is open to discussion.
Callanish comprises a number of different elements – a stone circle containing a central monolith and a chambered tomb, three rows of stones intersecting with the circle, and an avenue of stones heading roughly northwards away from the circle. All the stones are Lewisian gneiss and were quarried locally.
The stone circle consists of thirteen stones, with an average height of 3 metres. The circle is not quite perfect as the east side is slightly squashed. The circle covers an area of 124 square metres with a diameter of 11.4 metres. The circle was built between 2,900 BC and 2,600 BC making it slightly older than Stonehenge.
Photographer Murdo MacLeod makes one of the world’s most spectacular and remote road trips, taking in wild landscapes, ancient ruins and enduring traditions on his way to west Lewis in the Outer Hebrides