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A journey through history on the Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides

Callanish Standing Stones, Isle of Lewis

History is all around you on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, and no where more so than on the island’s west coast. The road that runs along the coast takes you though some stunning scenery. But it’s also a journey through the different eras of the island’s 5000-year history. Within 16 miles you can travel through 4000 years, from modern island life way back to Neolithic times – but what’s along the way?

Read more: 9 reasons to love the Isles of Lewis and Harris

The Arnol Blackhouse

Our first stop at the Arnol Blackhouse took us back just over a century. Blackhouses are traditional stone houses where crofting families lived with their animals. They were built to withstand the harsh Hebridean winters. So they’re low to the ground with thick walls insulated with peat and earth, and a heather and straw thatched roof. At first sight the blackhouse could be centuries old, but in fact the last people living here only moved out in 1966. No 42 is the last blackhouse left in Arnol and it’s preserved just as it was when the family moved out. It’s a snapshot of a unique way of life that’s now passed into history.

Arnol Blackhouse, Isle of Lewis

Blackhouse no 42

The first thing you notice when you duck through the low door into the blackhouse is the smoke. Thick peaty smoke fills the air, and pretty soon your lungs too. The kitchen was the centre of the house and the fire was the centre of the kitchen. The Gaelic word for the room ‘aig en teine’ means ‘at the fire’. The fire was never allowed to go out and was where the family would eat and socialise. There’s no chimney so smoke quickly fills the house, but it kills any bugs in the roof and old sooty thatch makes good fertiliser.

Arnol Blackhouse, Isle of Lewis

Inside the blackhouse

The second thing you notice is the darkness. The doors and small windows are the only sources of natural light. But as your eyes become accustomed to the dark (and stop watering from the smoke) a cosy home emerges, with wallpapered walls, wooden box beds and dressers full of crockery. The family lived here for 80 years until new regulations meant crofters had to separate their homes from their animals. So they started building more modern ‘whitehouses’ instead. Wandering around the museum’s 1920s whitehouse you can’t imagine what a change it would’ve been – a whole new way of life not just a new place to live.

Arnol Blackhouse, Isle of Lewis

The last of an old way of life

The Dun Carloway Broch

A few more miles along the coast took us a lot further back in time to the first century AD at the Dun Carloway Broch. Brochs are a type of drystone-walled Iron Age tower that’s are only found in Scotland. Historians think they were built as defensive fortifications. Or maybe they were the stately homes of their day, built to show off the owner’s wealth and power? The truth about their origin is still a bit of a mystery, but either way Dun Carloway is one of the best-preserved brochs in the country.

Dun Carloway Broch, Isle of Lewis

The pathway to the Broch

To reach the broch you climb up a pathway up through the heather. Its hilltop location makes it an imposing sight, and it must have been even more so when it was at its full 13-metre height. The original conical roof and the wooden floors are long gone, but the skillfully built walls have lasted the distance. There were multiple floors with the animals living down below and the people above them. One side has fallen away so it’s almost like a cross-section cutaway where you can see what lies underneath.

Dun Carloway Broch, Isle of Lewis

Inside the broch

If you duck down you can climb inside and scramble through the old doorways and the narrow gap between the two layers of wall (though watch your head – I speak from experience!). There was originally just the one tiny doorway where a guard would sit to make sure there were no surprise attacks. Years later the broch was used as a watchtower for defence against a Viking invasion, and people living in it as recently as the 1870s. But now Historic Scotland have taken over ownership and are preserving it for the future.

Dun Carloway Broch, Isle of Lewis

The ruins of the broch

The Callanish Standing Stones

The Iron Age might seem like a very long time ago, but the Callanish Standing Stones are over twice as old. If you’ve been to Stonehenge and peered across the rope barrier, then these stones are older, more impressive and you can go right up to them run your hands across their rough surface. Each stone is a different shape and size, cut and moved here by hand 4000 years ago. Why they were put here is another mystery though – was the site an astronomical observatory or maybe a place of worship?

Callanish Standing Stones, Isle of Lewis

The Callanish stones

There are actually 20 different monuments around Callanish, and an extension to the stones known as Callanish VII on the neighbouring island of Great Bernera, located off the west coast of the Isle of Lewis.

The biggest is the group of 50 stones near the visitors centre. It looks like a circle with lines of stones radiating out, but from the air you can see they form the shape of a Celtic cross. Some stones are big thick slabs of rock over 15 feet tall and others are thin, delicate pieces that look like you could just push them over. But they’ve all stood here for thousands of years and made it through invasions, wars and winter storms. Now that’s serious staying power.

Callanish Standing Stones, Isle of Lewis

The main stone circle

The details

The Arnol Blackhouse is open from Monday to Saturday, 9.30am–5.30pm (10am–4pm and closed Wednesday and Sunday from October–April). Entry costs £5 for adults, £4 for over 60s and £3 for children aged 5–15. The Dun Carloway Broch and Callanish Standing Stones are both free to enter. Dun Carloway Visitor Centre is open 10am–5pm from April to September. Calanais Visitor Centre and café is open Monday to Saturday from 9.30am–8pm from June–August (10am–6pm in spring/autumn and closed Mondays in winter).

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A road trip through 5000 years of history on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland's Outer Hebrides – from the Arnol Blackhouse to the Neolithic Callanish Standing Stones #OuterHebrides #IsleofLewis #Scotland

Karen

Tuesday 11th of January 2022

I am visiting Harris in July with my dog. Would you say the island + the visitor attractions are dog friendly?

Richard de Grasse

Thursday 18th of October 2018

Thank you for including my comments about the Minoans erecting the Bronze Age stone circles at Lewis. The Minoans needed to create latitude and longitude sailing tables so they could observe celestial bodies aboard their boats at sea in order to find their way home from America. Lewis was close to America on the Gulf Stream route and acted somewhat like a bronze age light house. I should ad that the Minoans learned much about the sun, moon and stars from tables created by the extraordinary Babylonian mathematicians and astronomers who existed in the Mediterranean during the same bronze age period as the Minoans.

RICHARD DEGRASSE

Sunday 7th of October 2018

I plan to visit Isle Lewis. Around 2000 BC (or before) the Minoans built the stone circles as a means to help them develop latitude tables by reading the position of the sun, moon and stars on Lewis at various times of day and night. They developed latitude tables so Minoans could sail down the latitude and find Lewis on their way back from America after a copper run. in Lake Superior. They had had a village on Lewis to support the Minoan sailors and the boats on their way home to Create. Minoans also had works on St. Kilda.

Lucy

Wednesday 10th of October 2018

Such a fascinating history! Hope you enjoy Lewis, it's a very special place.

Martin

Wednesday 12th of April 2017

Hi Lucy I have just come back from my second visit and am curious what the old crofters thought and believed as handed down knowledge about the Gneiss rock standing stones and circles versus our careful academic limited views. I tried to find answers but not found any yet. Hope you may know a book or source that explores that question, many thanks, lovely work you have done, Martin

Amanda

Tuesday 4th of October 2016

I just visited the Isle of Lewis last week and was absolutely blown away - I think it might be one of Scotland's best-kept secrets! (Also, jealous that you were there when the heather was blooming! Looks beautiful!)

Lucy

Tuesday 4th of October 2016

It was so pretty – and definitely somewhere that deserves to be better known (though it's nice not to have any crowds!).