To the south-west of the Isle of Lewis lie the townships of Brenish (Breanais), Islivig and Mealista (Mealastadh), as well as the highest hill on the island, Mealsival, which stands 574 metres high. Golden eagles nest in the hills and along the coast are the island’s most remote villages.
At Brenish, the remains of a Norse type mill are can be seen in the burn and ruins of a fishing station still lie at Camas a’Mhoil.
Past Brenish, the road meanders on through the moorland and past Mealista beach, with its beautiful rock pools, backed with machair and often totally deserted. From here, on a good day, the Flannan Islands, St. Kilda and the Isle of Scarp can be seen.
Many years ago the rocky hills and the shore at Mealista were a part of a mountain range as high as the Himalayas. Over time the mountains eroded and were ground smooth by vast sheets of ice. As the ice melted, it left thin soil, humps, hollows and lochs. As the sea level rose, islands, beaches and sea inlets were created.
Over three and a half thousand years ago people arrived at Mealista, tilled the land and began to fish in the sea. The wind blew sand from the sea and produced the lime rich machair – low lying arable or grazing land formed near the coast by the deposit of sand and shell fragments by the wind. The machair was good for the crops and wildflowers and the cooler weather encouraged peat to grow, which provided fuel for fires. The people built houses out of stone and cut the meagre supply of timber for roofs and tools.
The Vikings came to Mealista when land resources were dwindling, taking slaves and later returning to settle. The name Mealista comes from the norse melr-stadhr, meaning lyme-grass steading.
Timber became so precious to the islanders that some may have been tempted to murder for a good supply. In about 1785 it was said that a boat set off from Mealista heading to Wester Ross for timber. On the way back the boat was caught in a storm and the crew were forced to seek shelter in Bagh Ciarach. Nothing more was heard from the boat or its crew and the people of Mealista gave it up as lost at sea. The following summer a number of blankets with unusual identification marks were being sold at the annual market in Stornoway and were recognised as coming from the boat. A confession followed and it was discovered that the crew were murdered for their cargo of timber when their boat struck a reef. Local legend has it that the spirit of one of the murdered men visited the bedside of his sweetheart and sang a song to her, trying to explain what cruel fate had overtaken him.
A number of traceable townships remain at Mealista. One is found at the Village Bay, where the clustered ruins of houses from the 17th century or earlier lie. These houses belonged to the last inhabitants who left involuntarily in 1838. The ‘feannagan’ or lazybeds, which cover the slopes, are testimony to their struggle to survive. They were dug by hand and planted with oats, barley and potatoes. In the early 19th century the local landlord wanted the lands for farming and so the residents were cruelly evicted.
The most recent ruins are the remnants of military operations that took place from 1941 to 1946. Two or three hundred men were stationed at Mealista and Brenish, to operate wireless and radar installations. A Chain Home radio station was installed in 1942 and the power station, hut bases and concrete anchors for support cables remain. There was also a cinema, a bar and regular dances. When the war ended the place was deserted.
The area of Mealista is also said to have been the site of a nunnery, Taih nan Cailleachen Dubha (House of the Black Women or Nuns), however records of its existence have never been found. There is a small early church and graveyard close to the sea and local legend tells of mysterious lights that appear on the sea. One of the lights is said to have disappeared forever when four fishermen tragically drowned in 1932.
Eileen Mhealasta, also known as Mealista Island, is just south-west of the township. Another tale states that any infant born on the island would not be of sound mind. Today the ruins of the old buildings of a precious community can be seen. In 1832 the island was turned in to a sheep farm and it still used for sheep grazing today.
1 week camper van road-trip with Hebridean Campervan Holidays
- Information sign at Mealista
- The Outer Hebrides Guide Book Third Edition
- Explore Outer Hebrides 2015/2016