Monday, 6 March 2017


It was Sunday on Lewis. Alastair Macintosh, a native of Lewis born in Leurbost just south of Stornoway, in his book Soil and Soul, narrates how the Sabbath had been very strictly controlled, indeed, enforced in his youth, with even fishing being banned on this holy day. In spite of this - perhaps because of it? - Macintosh tells how he and his friends, as boys, if they were able to elude the supervision of the minister and managed to catch any fish on a Sunday, used to tie the fish up by the tail and stake them in the shallows so that they could be retrieved and declared as a catch on Monday. Lewis was serious about its Sabbath: the Church of Scotland and the breakaway Free Church preached strict compliance with the rules for the ‘day of rest’ as the bible defined it. So one thought that there might still be something different on Lewis on a Sunday; one did not expect things to be the same.

Unwittingly, we innocently readied for our Sunday excursion, day two of our Lewis sojourn, to explore parts of the island not yet visited, only to slowly discover a silent, still emptiness, a void, with everything except churches closed. Perhaps we might have realised that this was to be the case, as signs telling of opening days and hours never even bothered to mention Sunday. It could not even be contemplated that the Sabbath, the Lord’s day, might be for something other than for rest and church going. It had been noticed how each little village along the coastline of the island had two churches: the Church of Scotland and the Free Church of Scotland. ‘Free’ sounded an odd name for an institution promoting such strict obligations for the Sabbath that allowed no cooking, washing, gardening, fishing – nothing but the church: worship. Signs frequently noted that services were given in Gaelic. Often place names were only identified in Gaelic: the language was alive and well, as were attitudes to Sundays. One could see that the large car parking areas associated with each church were full. All the activity centred on the church in what seemed to be a whole-of-day commitment. This attendance was more than the required one hour for mass, or the protestant service, after which one could do whatever one fancied, a pattern of involvement that we see in Australia where church attendance is falling off steeply.

So our drive through what felt like a no-man’s-land had no stops other than to admire and photograph the landscape and the villages – the astonishing vistas and surprising and quaint details. There was not one place open for a relaxing coffee or a slow browse – nothing at all. The ‘CLOSED’ signs were only sometimes on display: everyone, except visitors, knew the commitment to and the importance of the Sabbath. In fairness, one has to note that a garage, a petrol station with its little convenience store on the fringe of Stornoway, reportedly opened on Sunday, perhaps by way of stubborn protest - the grist in the mill; the mote in the eye; the local irritant? It seemed to be the only place that was prepared to trade on this special day of the week. It was a life-line for visitors who had arrived without any understanding of Sunday inactivity on the island. Stornoway and every village was empty. There was no one to be seen anywhere; and there were very few vehicles on the road. So, after looking around to convince ourselves that the closures were indeed universal – there was no one to ask - our plans for our drive became more straightforward: we would continue without stopping, apart from the occasional pause for the photograph, and travel to the northern extremity of the island, to the very top of Lewis. There would be nothing open to attract or distract us.

The journey took us through many villages along a narrowing road that eventually led us onto open, windswept moorlands, over which we continued until we reached the sign pointing to what was, on the map, the very top of the island: a northwestern-pointing headland named the Butt of Lewis. The surprise was that there was a lighthouse here. The sign was followed, and at the last bend around a hill, it appeared: a large iconic lighthouse. The low white buildings were obviously a Stevenson design. The style and detailing were almost identical to that of the lighthouse at Eshaness in the Shetland Islands, and the many other Stevenson complexes scattered around these rocky shores: see -  Unusually, at the Butt of Lewis, even though positioned on a high headland, just like the Eshaness lighthouse, the difference was the magnificent tower - it was much taller, round, and made of face brickwork. Where did the bricks come from? This was the most remote, northerly region of the Outer Hebrides. One had not noticed many other brick buildings on Lewis. The tower was a grand, beautifully detailed and constructed building having something of a Greenway character. One was reminded of Francis Greenway’s churches: St. James’ in Sydney and St. Matthew’s at Windsor. Was it the soft, handmade texture of the brickwork and its earthy, ruddy, clay colouring that one recalled; or the brick tower form? The site held the character of convict Sydney: brick and white-painted buildings.
St. James' Church, Sydney

St. Matthew's Church, Windsor

Cadnam's Cottage, The Rocks, Sydney

After parking and admiring the location with its distant horizon that concealed America, attention was again given to the lighthouse and its nearby complex. It had been seen before: Stephenson style. One wondered again: why choose brick here? Why face brick? Where were these bricks transported from? Maybe the strength of stone was not needed on this high cliff as it was at Bell Rock; or was stone not available? But why height here on this headland? Eshaness lighthouse was located on high cliffs too, but it has a low, stubby tower, unusually square in plan. A closer look at the brickwork showed its meticulous laying. There was not a defect in any alignment or a variation in any curvature that could be highlighted by the oblique sunlight: yes, it was beautiful, bright, clear but cloudy day. The eye wandered across to the complex of brilliant white buildings nearby. The structures were all very well kept, displaying the identical standard Stevenson colours – white walls with ochre trims.

Flemish bond

Strolling around the gleaming, walled enclosure, trying to avoid the beautiful wild flowers in the damp fields of the bleak and blustery moorlands - the pink ragged robins, the yellow and white irises, the pretty lemon primroses, and the fresh buttercups - one saw how all of the associated buildings were typical ‘Eshaness’ in style, complete with the window trim, chimney pots, and downpipe accessories. The Stevensons clearly had a handbook of standard details that they used over and over again. They built many lighthouses in Scotland and its outer isles; but there was an interesting difference here in all of this sameness. Not only did this complex have a grand stair that appeared to be out of character with the otherwise raw, rigorous functional detailing demanded by engineering necessity alone, but it also had a variation in the parapet treatment. The stair seemed to be something that the Stevensons did not encounter on any regular basis, so it lacked any reference in the pattern books. It looked out of place, like an approach to a grand country house that was something else more private and utilitarian. One was reminded of the chunky stair at the Whalsay kirk: see - The access was different to the stairs with 365 risers leading up the high rock to the lighthouse on Muckle Flugga that were made for climbing alone. There was nothing to ‘style’ on this rugged outcrop at the very tip of Shetland other than purpose and safety.

Eshaness lighthouse showing stepped gutter detail at corner with the black membrane roof above,
and the square, squat tower.

Had the Stevensons learned something from the roof detail at Eshaness? The guise only became evident when looking at the Northmavine photographs, trying to understand how the roof edge detailing had resolved the starkly expressive horizontal massing while accommodating the falls in the roof. How did the Eshaness roof drain when there was no apparent upstand or fall on this horizontal plane? What a close study of the images revealed was a clever, almost tricky detail that placed an unnecessary gutter higher on the western side where it was a mere trim concealing the depth of the fall. The step down to the alignment of the horizontal gutter on the east, the true catchment channel, occurred at the north and south corners. Above these decorative horizontal gutter lines on the north and south elevations, the thin black wedge of the roof was revealed to the inquisitive eye. The eye ‘never saw’ this subtle variation in horizontal expression on site, confirming the very best tradition of builder’s expectations: “You’ll never see it” - the off-quoted statement by builders justifying their messy mistakes or more ‘inventive’ work that seeks to dismiss all critiques of concern and demands for change. The reputation of builders was once scripted in The Bill as: “He’s a builder. He has a degree in excuses.” The script writer must have had some experience with builders!

At the Butt of Lewis, the membrane of the flat roof was wrapped around the parapet instead of, as at Eshaness, rolling it into a gutter-edge wall trim fitted, and carefully juggled in height, to provide the strong horizontal alignments disguising the flat falls in the membrane roof with a considered charade. The Lewis detail, while not as prim or shrewd, seemed to be a better, a more practical and functional solution to managing waterproofing in high winds and the exposure to the raging waters that could reach the top of the headland in serious weather events. One can see the rocks thrown up by the waters in both locations. The rust marks on the walls of Eshaness display one problem with the gutter trim that the Butt of Lewis lighthouse buildings do not have.

At Lewis, the stark heights became physically evident as one completed the circumnavigation of the secured complex and arrived at the slab of the previous lighthouse on the site, a small concrete platform that led one precariously close to the rocky, vertical drop into the raging waters splashing below. This was the Atlantic meeting land. If one was to get back to where one had started beside the beautiful brick tower, one had to bravely transverse this pad that exposed body and soul to eternity without the protection of any ‘Workplace Health & Safety’ barrier – handrail or otherwise. There was just a small sign warning of the obvious danger. The irony was that one had to hesitate, pause to read the message rather than move across as quickly as possible.

While the lighthouse and its outbuildings were substantially the same as those seen in Shetland, making one feel happily acquainted with everything, the landscape was only superficially similar. The Lewis landscape was bare, rolling hills, peat-land brown in colour with a light coverage of grass, sometimes heather: but it felt differently. Has land something of its history embodied in its substance and form - its feel; its experience? This land has heard the Gaelic voice and felt its power, while providing place for its being and burials. Many things were identical, but the difference with Shetland place was significant, yet difficult to articulate: was it the light? This was Lewis. Only later during our stay were we to understand the difference with Harris, even though the puzzle of the twin-named island remained with us. It was a complication embodied in its tweed too, the craft of home weaving that takes place predominantly on Lewis, but carries the name ‘Harris’ tweed because it was originally exported south through Tarbert in the southern part of the island named Harris. Like Guinness in Ireland, Harris Tweed is everywhere across Lewis/Harris. The cynic might ask if it is indeed possible for such quantities to come from local wool, let alone local weavers. What seems to be the excessive, over-use of the Harris label does not add confidence to how one is supposed to understand tweed provenance.

After reviewing the prospect, we returned to the car and drove off slowly. One could admire this place for hours, but there was more to see. This is the classic dilemma of the serious tourist: the juggling of time and commitment, trying to ensure that the world is not trivialised into things for entertainment, perceived as a bucket list of enjoyable ‘interesting’ distractions to be ticked off, discarded, and forgotten in the excitement of the anticipation of the next scheduled item. We had the whole day to ourselves, this quiet Sabbath. We meandered through little villages, detouring whenever and however, discovering hidden streets and lanes lined with homes, schools and surprising sports halls. Each community was named; each had its special character; each had its churches; few had any shops or other facilities. Tesco in Stornoway delivered across the island! The internet had transformed local shopping.

The pattern of settlement made one think of the clearances, how crofters had been forced to the sea, to the poor lands at the fringes on the island, to fish and burn kelp for the Laird who ran sheep on the emptied homelands until Australia flooded the market with its cheaper product. This was a true ‘fringe,' a strip development that was the result of these clearances. It seemed as though folk had worked hard to maintain a social identity in all of this chaos. The pattern was simple, always linear. It was a layout with origins that could still be seen in the blackhouse settelements: see - Where there was a road, there were homes along each side at nodal points, with runrig subdivisions stretching from the houses looking like the legs of a caterpillar slowly moving over a vast landscape. Each community, either on hill or in valley, was dominated by the churches. One could envisage the necessity in the rudimentary planning of the crofters who hastily lined up shelters, one beside the other, around the lane that gave access to the sea, providing a simple diagram for uncharted growth and expansion.

'Caterpillar' development

The Sunday drive took us along vacant streets. There was no one around to be seen or heard. All of the cars appeared to be parked at the churches, like vehicles around regional shopping centres, such were the numbers: but Tesco was only in Stornoway. The activities reminded one of the 1950s in Australia when the Sabbath was also kept as the day of worship and rest. There was something rigorous here on Lewis that one could admire. One was prompted to wonder what we had lost: a day of quiet; ‘of rest.’ What did the ‘everything open’ approach to the Sabbath today do to us? Could/should Sunday not be a reminder of something otherwise, like the Muslim call to prayer that brings mystery to mind again and again, and relates it to solar time and place: to beginnings; origins: “Oh, ye of little faith.”

We drove home to rest and eat, and to watch tennis on the television: Wimbledon – hummm; heathens? We passed remnants of blackhouse walls covered in shrubs and bushes, scattered reminders of other times. One could live gently here on Lewis, with an easy satisfaction mediated by hills: I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. Psalm 121 (KJV). There was a spirit of care; of consideration here. Maybe it was that this rigour was so complete that one felt happy about it: gratified. Chaos and tension would develop if many acted otherwise, contrary to the believers, to indulge their own variety of interests willy-nilly. Indeed, we experience this conflict on every Sabbath at home, in Australia, where everyone concentrates on personal involvements irrespective of the other: sport; shopping; swimming; worship; racing; etc. - creating a diversity of tensions and emotional collisions. Might the peace of the Sabbath ever be regained: contentment? - see: May serenity remain to be experienced at Lewis – a place of Gaelic wonder echoing with a past of glory and struggle, enriched with voices of protest and poetry, and song, creating the land for the Stevenson lighthouse to define and declare.

One wonders, did the Stevensons enjoy their work that took them to the very remotest corners of Britain? Were they sensitive to the locals; the place; the lives? Their work shows no regional identity, just standard Stevenson stubbornness and rigour. They were professional lighthouse builders, not anthropologists. They built for the safety of mariners, providing buildings around the Scottish coastline, machines that could withstand the elements and the tests of time. Theirs is a remarkable story: the building of remarkable lighthouses that can still astonish.

Bell Rock lighthouse

One has to note that Stevenson, when building the Bell Rock lighthouse, had to get the agreement of his men to work on Sundays so as to make progress when foundation work could only take place at low tide. There was a protest, but Stevenson eventually gained the respect of his men on this testing project.
Muckle Flugga lighthouse

On gaining the commission for the construction of the Muckle Flugga lighthouse, Stevenson (one should read ‘the company’ as it was a family affair covering generations, see below) wrote a report saying that the task was impossible on this remote, isolated, steep, rocky outcrop. He was told to go and do it: he did.

See: Bella Bathurst The Lighthouse Stevensons Harper Collins 2005 - the story of this family of engineers.

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