The Isle of Lewis forms the northern expanse of Lewis and Harris, covering approximately 1,790 square kilometres (683 square miles) and holds around 75% of the population of the Outer Hebrides.
In modern Gaelic the island is called Leodhas, which is likely to derive from the Old Norse Ljodhus, meaning “sounding house”. The “sounding houses” were large halls where the Norse spent much time in winter telling stories, reciting poetry and drinking. It is also thought that the Isle of Lewis is the island referred to as Limnu by Ptolomey around 150AD. Limnu means “marshy” in Ancient Greek and this may be the origin of the name.
Most of the island is low lying and the interior is a vast peat-bog, dotted with sparkling freshwater lochans. The coastline is a combination of steep cliffs and spellbinding beaches. Traditional practices such as crofting, peat cutting and fishing continue throughout the island and a diverse range of archeological and historical sites can be found.
The island’s capital, Stornoway, is one of the best natural harbours in the Outer Hebrides. It was home to a medieval castle, once the stronghold of the MacLeods who were said to be descended from the 12th century Norseman, Olav the Black, King of Man and the Isles. The Clan MacLeod dominated the island for about 400 years, throughout which time the castle was the scene of many dramatic events. The castle was finally destroyed in 1654 and the remains lie under the old roro pier.
In 1844 James Mathieson purchased the island of Lewis and considerable development began. Lews Castle was built, financed by the selling of opium smuggled into China. Within the castle today is the Museum nan Eilean, which opened in 2015 and hosts an exhibit explaining the unique culture of the island.
Within the castle grounds is the Woodland Centre, an old sawmill that was renovated and now contains a cafeteria, shop and interpretive display. At the entrance to the Woodland Centre stands two large, wooden sculptures of the Lewis Chessmen, probably the most iconic artefacts associated with the island.
The Lewis Chessmen are said to have been found in the sand dunes on the east side of Uig Bay on Lewis in 1831. The British Museum purchased 82 of the pieces in early 1832 and the Scottish Antiquaries acquired the remaining 11 in 1851. The pieces are carved from walrus ivory and are thought to date from the second half of the 12th century. It is believed that they belonged to a prosperous person, who hid them for safekeeping from marauders; at the time the islands belonged to the Kingdom of Norway and the pieces may have been intended to be traded in Ireland. There are suggestions that the objects originated from Iceland and they are the earliest pieces to resemble today’s modern set.
1 week camper van road-trip with Hebridean Campervan Holidays
- The Outer Hebrides Guide Book
- Explore: The Outer Hebrides
- Peter May Hebrides