Lewis is, in general, the lower-lying part of the island: the other part, Harris, is more mountainous. Due to its flatter, more fertile land, Lewis contains three-quarters of the population of the Western Isles, and the largest settlement, Stornoway. The island's diverse habitats are home to an assortment of flora and fauna, such as the golden eagle, red deer and seal, and are recognised in a number of conservation areas.
Lewis has a Presbyterian tradition and a rich history. It was once part of the Norse Kingdom of Mann and the Isles. Today, life is very different from elsewhere in Scotland, with Sabbath observance, the Gaelic language and peat cutting retaining more importance than elsewhere. Lewis has a rich cultural heritage as can be seen from its myths and legends as well as the local literary and musical traditions.
The Gaelic name Leòdhas may be derived from Norse Ljoðahús ("song house"), although other origins have been suggested – most notably the Gaelic leogach ("marshy"). It is probably the place referred to as Limnu by Ptolemy, which also means "marshy". It is also known as the "Isle of Lewis" (Gaelic: Eilean Leòdhais). Another name usually used in a cultural or poetic context is Eilean an Fhraoich, ("Heather Isle"). although this refers to the whole of the island of Lewis and Harris.
The earliest evidence of human habitation on Lewis is found in peat samples which indicate that about 8,000 years ago much of the native woodland was torched to make way for grassland to allow deer to graze. The earliest archaeological remains date from about 5,000 years ago. At that time, people began to settle in permanent farms rather than following their herds. The small houses of these people have been found throughout the Western Isles; in particular, at Dail Mhor, Carloway. The more striking great monuments of this period are the temples and communal burial cairns at places like Calanais.
About 500 BC, island society moved into the Iron Age. The buildings became larger and more prominent, culminating in the brochs – circular, dry-stone towers belonging to the local chieftains – testifying to the uncertain nature of life then. The best remaining example of a broch in Lewis is at Dùn Chàrlabhaigh. The Scots arrived during the first centuries AD, bringing the Gaelic language with them. As Christianity began to spread through the islands in the 6th and later centuries, following Columban missionaries, Lewis was inhabited by the Picts.
In the 9th century AD, the Vikings began to settle on Lewis, after years of raiding from the sea. The Norse invaders intermarried with local people and abandoned their pagan beliefs. At that time, rectangular buildings began to supersede round ones, following the Scandinavian style. Lewis became part of the Kingdom of Mann and the Isles, an offshoot of Norway. The Lewis chessmen, found on the island in 1831, date from the time of Viking rule. The people were called the Norse Gaels or Gall-Ghàidheil (lit. "Foreigner Gaels"), reflecting their mixed Scandinavian/Gaelic background, and probably their bilingual speech. The Norse language persists in many island placenames and some personal names to this day, although the latter are fairly evenly spread across the Gàidhealtachd.
Lewis (and the rest of the Western Isles) became part of Scotland once more in 1266: under the Treaty of Perth it was ceded by the Kingdom of Norway. Under Scottish rule, the Lordship of the Isles emerged as the most important power in north-western Scotland by the 14th century. The Lords of the Isles were based on Islay, but controlled all of the Hebrides. They were descended from Somerled (Somhairle) Mac Gillibride, a Gall-Ghàidheil lord who had held the Hebrides and West Coast two hundred years earlier. Control of Lewis itself was initially exercised by the Macleod clan, but after years of feuding and open warfare between and even within local clans, the lands of Clan MacLeod were forfeited to the Scottish Crown in 1597 and were awarded by King James VI to a group of Lowland colonists known as the Fife adventurers in an attempt to anglicise the islands. However the adventurers were unsuccessful, and possession eventually passed to the Mackenzies of Kintail in 1609, when Coinneach, Lord MacKenzie, bought out the lowlanders.
Following the 1745 rebellion, and Prince Charles Edward Stewart's flight to France, the use of Gaelic was discouraged, rents were demanded in cash rather than kind, and the wearing of folk dress was made illegal. Emigration to the New World increasingly became an escape for those who could afford it during the latter half of the century. In 1844 Lewis was bought by Sir James Matheson, co-founder of Jardine Matheson, but subsequent famine and changing land use forced vast numbers off their lands, and increased again the flood of emigrants. Paradoxically, those who remained became ever more congested and impoverished, as large tracts of arable land were set aside for sheep, deer-stalking or grouse shooting. Agitation for land resettlement became acute on Lewis during the economic slump of the 1880s, with several land raids (in common with Skye, Uist and Tiree); this quietened down as the island economy recovered.
During the First World War, thousands of islanders served in the forces, many losing their lives, including 208 naval reservists from the island who were returning home after the war when the Admiralty yacht HMY Iolaire sank within sight of Stornoway harbour. Many servicemen from Lewis served in the Royal Navy and the Merchant Navy during the Second World War, and again many lives were lost. Afterwards, many more inhabitants emigrated to the Americas and mainland Scotland.
In May 1918 the Isle of Lewis was bought by the soap magnate Lord Leverhulme, who intended to make Stornoway an industrial town and build a fish cannery. His plans were initially popular, but his opposition to land resettlement led to further land raids,especially around the farms of Coll, Gress and Tong. These raids, commemorated in monuments in several villages, were ultimately successful, as the government was prepared to take legal action in support of land resettlement. Faced with this, Leverhulme gave up on his plans for Lewis and concentrated his efforts on Harris, where the town of Leverburgh takes his name.
The Isle of Lewis has a variety of locations of historical and archaeological interest, including:
There are also numerous lesser stone circles and the remains of five further brochs.
A cross-section of Lewis would see mostly sandy beaches backed by dunes and machair on the Atlantic west coast, giving way to an expansive peat covered plateau in the centre of the island. The eastern coastline is markedly more rugged and is mostly rocky cliffs broken by small coves and beaches. The more fertile nature of the eastern side led to the majority of the population settling there, including the largest (and only) town, Stornoway. Aside from the village of Achmore in the centre of the island, all settlements are on the coast.
Compared with Harris, Lewis is relatively flat, except in the south-west, where Mealisval, 574 m (1,883 ft), is the highest point, and in the south-east, where Beinn Mhor reaches 572 m (1,877 ft); but there are 16 high points exceeding 300 m (980 ft) in height. Southern Lewis also has a large number of freshwater lochs compared to the north of the island.
South Lewis, Harris and North Uist together comprise a National Scenic Area. There are four geographical Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) on Lewis – Glen Valtos, Cnoc a' Chapuill, Port of Ness and Tolsta Head.
The coastline is severely indented, creating a number of large sea lochs, such as Lochs Resort and Seaforth, which form part of the border with Harris, Loch Roag, which surrounds the island of Great Bernera, and Loch Erisort. The principal capes are the Butt of Lewis, in the extreme north, with hundred foot (30 m) cliffs (the high point is 142 ft (43 m) high) and crowned with a lighthouse, the light of which is visible for 19 miles (31 km); Tolsta Head, Tiumpan Head and Cabag Head, on the east; Renish Point, in the extreme south; and, on the west, Toe Head and Gallon Head. The largest island associated with Lewis is Bernera or Great Bernera in the district of Uig and is linked to the mainland of Lewis by a bridge opened in 1953.
The geology of Lewis is dominated by the metamorphic gneisses of the eponymous Lewisian complex. Exceptions are a patch of granite near Carloway, small bands of intrusive basalt at Gress and in Eye Peninsula and some sandstone at Stornoway, Tong, Vatisker and Carloway, which was originally thought to be Torridonian, but is now considered more likely to be Permo-Triassic in age.
Exposure to the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf Stream lead to a cool, moist climate on Lewis. There is little temperature difference between summer and winter, both of which are moderately cloudy (although cloud and wet weather often blows over quickly in summer). Both seasons also have significant rainfall and frequent high winds, particularly during the autumn equinox. These winds have led to Lewis being designated a potential site for a significant wind-farm which has caused much controversy amongst the population.
There are 15 Sites of Special Scientific Interest on Lewis in the biology category, spread across the island. Additionally, the Lewis Peatlands are recognised by Scottish Natural Heritage as a Special Protection Area, Special Area of Conservation and a Ramsar site, showing their importance as a wetland habitat for migratory and resident bird life.
Many species of seabirds inhabit the coastal areas of Lewis, including shag, gannets, fulmars, kittiwakes, guillemots, and the ubiquitous gulls. Red grouse and woodcock are found in the interior.
In the Uig hills, it is possible to spot golden eagles; it has also been claimed that white-tailed eagles have been seen in the area. In the Pairc area, one can see feeding oyster catchers and curlews. A few pairs of peregrine falcons inhabit the coastal cliffs and merlin and buzzard are common everywhere on hill and moor. An important feature of the winter bird life is the great diversity of wildfowl. Several varieties of duck, including eider and long-tailed, are found in the shallow water around Lewis.
Salmon frequent several Lewis rivers after crossing the Atlantic. Many of the fresh-water lochs are home to fish such as trout. Other freshwater fish present include Arctic char, European eel, 3 and 9 spined sticklebacks, thick-lipped mullet and flounder.
Offshore, it is common to see seals, particularly in Stornoway harbour, and with luck, dolphins, porpoises, sharks and even the occasional whale can be encountered.
There are only two native land mammals in the Western Isles: red deer and otter. The rabbit, blue hare, hedgehog, brown and black rat, feral cat, mink and polecat were introduced. The origin of mice and voles is uncertain.
American mink, another introduced species (escapees from fur farms), cause problems for native ground-nesting birds, the local fishing industry and poultry farmers. Mink have been successfully eradicated from the Uists and Barra. The second and ongoing phase of the Hebridean Mink Project aims to rid Lewis and Harris of mink in similar fashion.
There are claims that the Stornoway castle grounds are home to bats. In addition, some residents keep farm animals such as Hebridean sheep, Highland cattle or kyloe and a few pigs.
In common with Ireland, no snakes inhabit Lewis, only the slowworm which is merely mistaken for a snake. Actually a legless lizard, it is the sole member of its order present. The common frog may be found in the centre of the island though it, along with any newts or toads present are introduced species.
The island's most famous insect resident is the Scottish midge which is ever-present near water at certain times of the year.
During the summer months, several species of butterflies and dragonflies can be found, especially around Stornoway.
The richness of insect life in Lewis is evident from the abundance of carnivorous plants that thrive in parts of the island.
The machair is noted for different species of orchid and associated vegetation such as various grasses. Three heathers; ling, bell heather and cross-leaved heather are predominant in the large areas of moorland vegetation which also holds large numbers of insectivorous plants such as sundews. The expanse of heather-covered moorland explains the name Eilean an Fhraoich, Gaelic for "The Heather Isle".
Lewis was once covered by woodland, but the only natural woods remaining are in small pockets on inland cliffs and on islands within lochs, away from fire and sheep. In recent years, Forestry Commission plantations of spruce and pine were planted, although most of the pines were destroyed by moth infestation. The most important mixed woods are those planted around Lews Castle in Stornoway, dating from the mid-19th century.
Historically, while Harris was part of Inverness-shire, Lewis was part of Ross-shire or Ross and Cromarty. The Western Isles Islands Council was established in 1975. Now called Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, its remit covers the whole of the Outer Hebrides and its headquarters are in Stornoway.
Lewis is home to the majority of the Western Isles' electorate and six of the nine multi-member council wards are within Lewis and one is shared with Harris. 22 councillors are effectively elected by Lewis residents using the Single Transferable Vote system, and following the 2007 elections 19 are independents, one has Labour and two SNP party affiliation.
The Isle of Lewis is in the Highlands electoral region and is part of the identical Na h-Eileanan an Iar Scottish Parliamentiary and Na h-Eileanan an Iar Westminster constituencies, both currently represented by members of the Scottish National Party (SNP) and previously held by members of the Labour Party before the respective elections.
Lewis' main settlement, the only burgh on the Outer Hebrides, is Stornoway (Steòrnabhagh), from which ferries sail to Ullapool on the Scottish mainland. In the 2001 census Lewis had a usually resident population of 18,489.
The island's settlements are on or near the coasts or sea lochs, being particularly concentrated on the north east coast. The interior of the island is a large area of moorland from which peat was traditionally cut as fuel, although this practice has become less common. The southern part of the island, adjoining Harris, is more mountainous with inland lochs.
It is claimed that the site of the Stornoway War Memorial was chosen as it would be visible from at least one location in each of the four parishes; therefore, it may be possible to see all four parishes of Lewis from the top of the monument.
While Lewis has only one town, Stornoway, with a population of approx 8,000, there are also several large villages and groupings of villages on Lewis, such as North Tolsta, Carloway and Leurbost with significant populations. Near Stornoway, Laxdale, Sandwick and Holm, although still de facto villages, have now become quasi-suburbs of Stornoway. The population of the greater-Stornoway area including these (and other) villages would be nearer 12,000. The island of Great Bernera contains the first planned crofting township created in the Outer Hebrides, Kirkibost created in 1805. This village was subsequently 'cleared' in 1823 and re-settled in 1878 using the exact land lotting divisions from 1805.
The following is a non-exhaustive list of villages in Lewis according to their location:
Traditional industries on Lewis are crofting, fishing and weaving. Though historically important, they are currently in decline and crofting in particular is little more than a subsistence venture today. Over 40% of the working population is employed by the public sector (chiefly Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, the local authority; or NHS Western Isles). Tourism is the only growing commercial industry, bringing in over £45 million a year in revenue to the islands.
Despite the name the Harris tweed industry is today focused in Lewis with the major finishing mills in Shawbost and Stornoway. Every length of cloth produced is stamped with the official Orb symbol, trademarked by the Harris Tweed Association in 1909, when Harris Tweed was defined as "hand-spun, hand-woven and dyed by the crofters and cottars in the Outer Hebrides"; Machine-spinning and vat dyeing have since replaced hand methods, and only weaving is now conducted in the home, under the governance of the Harris Tweed Authority, established by an Act of Parliament in 1993. Harris Tweed is now defined as "hand woven by the islanders at their homes in the Outer Hebrides, finished in the islands of Harris, Lewis, North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist and Barra and their several purtenances (The Outer Hebrides) and made from pure virgin wool dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides."
Aside from the concentration of industry and services in the Stornoway area many of the historical sites have associated visitor centres, shops or cafes. There is a pharmaceutical plant near Breasclete which specialises in fatty acid research.
The main fishing fleet (and associated shoreside services) in Stornoway is somewhat reduced from its heyday, but many smaller boats perform inshore creel fishing and operate from smaller, local harbours right around Lewis. Fish farms are present in many of the sea lochs and along with the onshore processing and transportation required the industry as a whole is a major employer.
Stornoway is the commercial centre of Lewis, there are several national chains with shops in the town, two national supermarket chains as well as numerous local businesses. Outwith Stornoway, many villages have an all-purpose shop (often combined with a post-office). Some villages have more than one, with these usually being specialist stores such as pharmacies or petrol stations. There are almost no rural public houses (for the sale of alcohol); instead, local hotels or inns function as meeting, eating and drinking places, often with accommodation provided. Recently, Abhainn Dearg distillery at Carnish, UIg, on the Isle of Lewis is producing Scotch Whisky, the first legal whisky in over 200 years.
Itinerant, travelling shops also tour the island visiting some of the more remote locations. The ease of transport to Stornoway and the advent of the internet have led to many of the village shops closing in recent times. Mobile banking services are provided to remote villages by the Royal Bank of Scotland's travelling bank.
A daily Caledonian MacBrayne ferry (MV Loch Seaforth) sails from Stornoway to Ullapool on the Scottish mainland, taking 2 hours 30 minutes connecting Lewis with the mainland. There are an average of two return crossings a day, with an increase in frequency during summer months and a reduction during winter months. Other ferries sailing from Harris are easily accessible by road enabling transport to Skye and Uist.
Suggestions for the possibility of an undersea tunnel linking Lewis to the Scottish mainland were raised in early 2007. One of the possible routes, between Stornoway and Ullapool, would be over 50 miles (80 km) long and hence become the longest road tunnel in the world; however, shorter routes would be possible.
Stornoway is the public transport hub of Lewis with bus service links to Point, Ness, Back and Tolsta, Uig, the West Side, Lochs and Tarbert, Harris. These services are provided by the local authority and several private operators as well as some community-run organisations.
Stornoway Airport is 2 miles (3 km) away from the town itself, and is located next to the village of Melbost. From here services operate to Aberdeen, Benbecula, Edinburgh, Inverness and Glasgow, with flights from Flybe franchisee Loganair and Eastern Airways. The airport is also the base of a HM Coastguard Search & Rescue Sikorsky S-92 helicopter, and was previously home to RAF Stornoway.
Peat is still cut as a fuel in many areas of Lewis. Peat is usually cut in late spring with a tool called a tairsgeir (that is, a peat iron, peat spade, peat knife or tosg; sometimes toirsgian) which has a long wooden handle with an angled blade on one end. The peat bank is first cleared of heather turfs. The peat, now exposed, is cut using the tairsgeir and the peats thrown out on the bank to dry. A good peat cutter can cut 1000 peats in a day.
Once dried, the peats are carted to the croft and built into a large stack. These often resembled the shape of the croft house – broad, curved at each end and tapered to a point about 2 metres high. They varied in length from about 4 to 14 metres. Peat stacking also follows local customs and a well built peat stack can be a work of art. Peat stacks provide additional shelter to houses. A croft can burn as many as 15,000–18,000 peats in a year.
The odour of the peat-smoke, especially in winter time, can add to the general atmosphere of the island. While peat burning still goes on, there has been a significant decline in recent years as people move to other, less labour-intensive forms of heating; however, it remains an important symbol of island life. In 2008, with the large increase in the price (and theft) of LPG and heating oil, there are signs that there may be a return to peat cutting.
Religion is important in Lewis, with much of the population belonging to the Free Church and Church of Scotland (both Presbyterian in tradition). The Sabbath is generally observed with most shops and licensed premises closed on that day, although there is a scheduled air service to mainland Scotland as well as a scheduled ferry service from 19 July 2009. While Presbyterianism dominates Lewis, other denominations and other religions have a presence with a Catholic church, a Salvation ArmyBrethren church, a Baptist church, a meetinghouse of the LDS Church and a Jehovah's Witness Kingdom Hall all present in Stornoway.
Some churches in Lewis practice precenting the line, a distinctive, heterophonic style of congregational psalm singing in Gaelic.
School education in Lewis is under the remit of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, there are a total of 23 schools covering the 5–18 age range. Unusual features are the prevalence of Gaelic medium education (offered in 15 of 22 primary schools) and the five 2-year secondary schools in communities outside Stornoway. Pupils who attend the rural 2-year secondaries then move to the Nicolson Institute, the only six-year secondary school on the island. The large number of village schools lead to necessarily small rolls, and further recent falls in pupil numbers have led to plans being drawn up for closures including all of the rural secondary departments. The closure plans have been deferred pending a full review, but upcoming changes to the curriculum (a change to a 3-year junior secondary structure) would seem to place the rural secondaries under threat of change if nothing else.
Stornoway is home to a small campus of the University of Stirling, teaching nursing, which is based in Ospadal nan Eilean (Western Isles Hospital). There is also a further education college, Lews Castle College, which is part of the UHI Millennium Institute. The college is the umbrella organisation for other vocational and community education, offered in several rural learning centres as well as on the main campus and covering subjects such as basic computer skills, Gaelic language classes and maritime qualifications.
Lewis has a linguistic heritage rooted in Scottish Gaelic and Old Norse, which both continue to influence life in Lewis. Today, both Gaelic and English are spoken in Lewis, but in day-to-day life, a hybrid of English and Gaelic is very common. As a result of the Gaelic influence, the Lewis accent of Highland English is frequently considered to sound more Irish or Welsh than stereotypically Scottish in some quarters. The Gaelic culture in the Western Isles is more prominent than in any other part of Scotland. Gaelic is the language of choice amongst many islanders and around 60% of islanders speak Gaelic as a daily language, whilst 70% of the resident population have some knowledge of Gaelic (including reading, writing, speaking or a combination of the three). Most signposts on the islands are written in both English and Gaelic and much day-to-day business is carried out in the Gaelic language. Almost all of the Gaelic speakers are bilingual.
Most of the place names in Lewis and Harris come from Old Norse. The name "Lewis" is the English spelling of the Gaelic Leòdhas which comes from the Old Norse Ljóðhús, as Lewis is named in medieval Norwegian maps of the island. Various suggestions have been made as to a Norse meaning such as "song house". The name is not of Gaelic origin, the Norse credentials are questionable and it may have a pre-Celtic root.
As well as regularly playing host to the Royal National Mòd, there are annual local mods. Stornoway Castle Green hosts the annual 3 day Hebridean Celtic Festival in July, attracting over 10,000 visitors. The festival includes events such as ceilidhs, dances and special concerts featuring storytelling, song and music with performers from all round the Isles and beyond.
The radio station Isles FM is based in Stornoway and broadcasts on 103FM, featuring a mixture of Gaelic and English programming. The town is also home to a studio operated by BBC Radio nan Gàidheal, and Studio Alba, an independent television studio from where the Gaelic TV channel TeleG was broadcast.
The Stornoway Gazette is the main local paper, covering Lewis and beyond and is published weekly. The Hebridean is a sister paper of the Gazette and also provides local coverage. Some community organisations in the rural districts have their own publications with news and features for these particular areas, such as the Rudhach for the Point district.
Lewis has been home to, or inspired, many writers, including bestselling contemporary author Kevin MacNeil, whose cult novel The Stornoway Way was set in the island's capital.
There is a good provision of sporting grounds and sports centres in Lewis. Sports such as Football, Rugby union and Golf are popular.
The Isle of Lewis has a rich folklore, including Seonaidh – a water-spirit who had to be offered ale in the area of Teampull Mholuaidh in Ness – and The Blue Men who inhabited the Minch, between Lewis and the Shiants.