Storming the Stornoway Castle Part 1 of 2 – Ullapool and the Isle of Lewis, Scotland

Storming the Stornoway Castle
Ullapool & the Isle of Lewis, Scotland

The entire collection of stories from my summer 2000 trip to Scotland would make this a very long story (though a fun one to write). I sometimes keep a travel journal on trips that I expect will be more adventurous than not, but for some reason had decided not to on this trip. Whimsical fate noted this decision and set odd people and occurrences in my path from the word go. I ended up scribbling notes in my memo pad, and finally buying a small essay book in the Hebrides; I brought it up to the counter and explained that I wasn’t going to steal it, but wanted to make certain it fit in my raincoat pocket before buying it. The 6.25″ x 7.75″ book barely made it in, and I smiled and said, “I’ll take it!” The girl behind the counter was amused.

In this Installment:
Shopkeepers of Ullapool – Ferry to the Isles – Some Castle History – I’m In! – Souvenirs – “You Don’t Say”

In the mid-19th century, the Matheson family built a castle in the town of Stornoway on the Hebridean Isle of Lewis. It’s not the imposing mott-and-bailey design of the Middle Ages, but more of a huge stone manor house with crenellations, gargoyles, small peaks and towers, and other homage to castledom. It stands on top of a rise at the west end of the harbor and bay, with a good view of the surrounding areas, both land and ocean, and makes quite a sight for the traveler not expecting to see a castle as he slowly pulls into the harbor.

My decision to visit Lewis was based on symmetry more than on a knowledge of what was there; I had planned a week of mountains, and I wanted to balance it with a week of water. Lewis jumped out at me from the map, and that was that. Most people hearing my plans said that I would be bored, that there is nothing on Lewis. No one mentioned the castle, focusing instead on how slow and uninspiring the pace of life there is and on how far away it was from my mountains. Fortunately, I ignored them and set out on the long trip north.

I traveled by bus to Ullapool (the U pronounced like the u in “sea gull”), arriving with enough time to buy my ferry ticket for Stornoway, and have half an hour to wander before the boat came in. I stashed my pack in the transport office and went out to see the town.

Despite being on the West Coast of the Scottish highlands, Ullapool’s harbor is protected from the severest waves and wind by the hills flanking Loch Broom. Any waves that want to come into town must travel this narrow channel, which happily is deep enough to permit ships of any draft. The result is a safe harbor for fishing boats and large cruise ships alike. But Ullapool hasn’t let this go to its head; it remains a quiet port town with a small residential area on the north side (away from the harbor) and a small commercial area by the docks. This latter section consists of 2 streets running parallel to each other and to the shoreline that gently slopes up to perhaps 50 feet above sea level, and a few short roads running the short distance between these 2 streets. Once you ignore the tourist knick-knack shops, Boots Pharmacy, and Edinburgh Woolens Factory store that never differ significantly from their counterparts in the rest of the country, you find a pleasant town that can be largely seen while waiting for the evening ferry to arrive.

After checking out the local bookstore, I headed down an alley with a sign marked “Antiques” where I found a yard and garage filled with partially restored furniture, old bottles and barometers, and some books, photographs, and miscellaneous other items native to antique shops. I was looking through a shoebox of old postcards when one of the owners asked me if I was a collector. I replied no, that I was simply an enthusiast. The difference is largely in the price the two types are willing to pay for an interesting example, and when I defined it this way she agreed, and noted that she didn’t have any collector-priced postcards. Of course, she added, she would find some if I wanted, with a smile that meant she could re-price anything I wanted, to make it fit for a collector.

Another person there (with a good Scottish accent) heard the joke and remarked that this was the Highlander in her talking. We all had a good laugh over this bit of cultural fun, which could just as naturally have taken place in New England, with “Yankee Trader” substituted for “Highlander”.

Up the hill from the antique shop was a store with some very nice Celtic and historic artwork, some of which I bought when I returned from Lewis a few days later. The store sign said “Leather Goods” (the principal material of its merchandise) and had a sandwich board just outside its front door that said, “Meet the Animals”. When the visions this conjured slowed enough for me to stop laughing and read the smaller print below, I found that it was advertising a local zoo of highland animals, and was not connected to the store it stood in front of. When I pointed out this joke, the store owner also thought it was a funny juxtaposition, and said it made him think of Douglas Adams’ banquet scene at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, where the roast introduces itself and offers a slice from its haunch to diners. We talked for a while, and then I returned to the docks and boarded the evening ferry.

The Caledonian MacBrae (or “CalMac”) ferry line is the main ferry service in the Scottish Highlands, and to some islands has a complete monopoly. This allows them to charge rates that, while fine for the visitor, are overly expensive for the regular customer, particularly if you want to take your car with you. I was surprised to find out that locals do not receive any discount, and was sympathetic when I later read in the local paper how the owner of a large trucking company was so angry at Caledonian MacBrae for not giving him a price break that he was making a bid to buy the company. We’ll see what happens; the £59 cost of taking a car one way to Lewis is exorbitant, even before you add on fees for its passengers, and is more likely to go down than up with new management. But I didn’t know about any of this as I boarded.

I immediately set to exploring the boat, as I had always done as a kid on ferry trips to Martha’s Vineyard. The Isle of Lewis ferry is smaller than the Islander ferry that runs out of Woods Hole, Massachusetts, but not by much. Above the level holding cars were three decks with a small newsstand, a play space for kids (with large padded blocks to climb on, some of which went halfway up to the ceiling), a cafeteria, and a bar. The sternmost sections of the upper two decks were open and, not surprisingly, were cold and wet.

Most of my fellow passengers were locals who had made the trip many times before, so they wisely and calmly stayed below and left the smaller, uppermost deck and its weather to me. All alone in the wind and cold mist I had a beautiful view of the crossing, with no one to tell me I wasn’t king of all I surveyed. The water turned gray-blue, and layers of mist and rain made the small jagged islands and far off peaks that lined the horizons to each side of our path into long horizontal rows of shadowy shapes that were rocky silhouettes at close range, and became progressively grayer and more veiled with distance.

The entire passage took two and three-quarter hours, and in all that time there were only three small fishing boats in the offing to tell me that this stretch of water was not the entrance to Brigadoon, but a well-traveled stretch of ocean. The wind was strong but not too harsh, and came from east-northeast; the waves were never more than about 3 feet tall. I stood in the shelter of a metal structure that was topped with the CalMac flag and a flood light; jotting a few notes, I laughed at myself for being the only person on board foolish enough to stay out in the rain.

With the exception of the ferry terminal, Stornoway’s harbor has a 19th-century skyline. Nothing is more than 3 or 4 stories tall, and the overall effect could make a convincing backdrop for a Charles Dickens movie. The castle sits slightly above and beyond this scene, but just close enough to appear part of the cluster of buildings when seen from the ferry’s approach. Its large-scale design, uniform stone color, and thin, crenellated towers make it jump out at you from among the short, smaller buildings all painted different colors. I had no idea there was a castle on Lewis, and knew I had to explore it before leaving. A miscommunication with the fellow who took me surfing one afternoon provided the free time to explore both the castle and its grounds on my last full day on the Island.