Monday, 19 June 2006


Just west of Lewis lies the island of Great Bernera, not to be confused with the island of Berneray off North Uist. On its northern end lies the beach of Bostadh [Bosta]. This area is uninhabited, but in years gone by people did live there. Nowadays, there is only a cemetery.

Bosta Beach, looking north towards Old Hill
In 1992, a violent storm shifted the sands on the beach and the adjacent hillside to reveal the remains of an iron-age house. Little is known about it or the people that lived there some 2,000 years ago, but a valiant effort has been made to recreate the Iron Age House.

The Iron Age House, as seen from the approach path

Below is copied the information from the plaque at the house:

This house is a reconstruction based upon the late Iron Age "jelly baby" houses excavated nearby. It was built using the techniques that were available at that time. No physical evidence of roofing survived on the archeological site; the design of this roof was dictated by the shape and strength of the walls; the dividing walls between the two cells are too weak to support a superstructure. The ridged roof is a major departure from the circular roofs of the wheelhouses and brochs of the earlier Iron Age, and a precursor of the traditional blackhouse roof.

The entrance passage was curved to break the strength of any high winds and sloped from ground level to the interior floor level. The purpose of the small chamber in this passage is unknown. The main room may have been subdivided into living and sleeping areas. The use of the space in the roof is conjectural, we have indicated a sleeping area. The small chamber was possibly used by the women for their work. The artefacts represent those discovered on the original site. The central hearth is aligned north to south. This may have been for practical of ritual reason. We do not know if there was any artificial or indeed natural lighting. Perhaps a piece of the thatch was removed when practicable.

Many questions that arose from the excavations were answered by a practical exercise such as this, and much has been learnt that aids interpretation of future excavations at similar sites. It is hoped that the reconstruction will also help visitors to the site to have a more complex and realistic experience of the reality of living in this type of dwelling.

Saturday, 17 June 2006

Kinloch Castle and Lews Castle

Kinloch Castle from the ferry. Picture courtesy KCFA
The Duke of Rothesay, Prince Charles. has visited the Isle of Rum, south of Skye, to see what needs to be done to preserve Kinloch Castle. This red sandstone edifice, erected in 1897, was put up with no expenses spared by an industrialist from Accrington, Lancashire. George Bullough had accumulated great wealth through the Globe textile works. These have since closed.

Kinloch Castle in its heyday, before the First World War, was built and fitted out to make your jaw drop. It had heated conservatories and heated pools, in which tropical creatures swam. When guests were shown into the place, the first room, the ballroom, was an image of opulence. A grand piano stands on a tigerskin. Vases from Japan, up to 8 feet tall, stand in the gallery upstairs. A monkey eagle, capable of taking apes, rears up in a frightening pose. A huge orchestrian can blast out any tune that is available on the requisite roll, much like a piano roll. A bathroom with (I think) 14 different types of showers and douches.

Kinloch Castle, picture courtesy KCFA
After the First World War, the Castle fell into decline. The heating was switched off, and the tropical creatures died or were released into the chilly Hebridean waters. The castle was a private residence until 1957, when the last surviving Bullough, Lady Monica, died. She, and other members of her family, are interred in the family mausoleum at Harris, 8 miles away on the southwestern face of the island. It takes 3 hours to walk there, and it takes almost as long to drive there. Doing up the road is virtually impossible, as the vehicles needed for the job cannot negotiate the "road".

Kinloch Castle was handed over, with the rest of the island, to (what is now) Scottish Natural Heritage. In 1996, Kinloch Castle Friends Association was formed to help preserve the castle in its former glory. Dampness and the harsh Hebridean climate are doing their worst. In 2003, the BBC's Restoration programme featured Kinloch, and it nearly won the £3m top prize. Fortunately, the Phoenix Trust (patronized by the Duke of Rothesay, Prince Charles) has taken an interest, and the Prince's visit is to underline his interest and see for himself the magnitude of the work required. A sum of £5 million has been mooted.

Lews Castle
In Lewis, we have a castle too. Lews Castle. Please note there is NO letter i in the name of the place. This was built by Sir James Matheson in the 19th century, allegedly on the riches of the opium trade. After the Stornoway Trust took over management of this section of the island, the castle was in use as a college (among other things), until its deterioration made it no longer possible to be used for anything. I have seen the original plans, as drawn up by the Glasgow architect Wilson, and they show an equally magnificent building. Lews Castle too needs a lot of money investing in it. Although the background may be resented by some, it is an integral part of Lewis history. Plans are continually drawn up - and continually put in the drawer.

Perhaps the Duke of Rothesay could wind his way to the heart of the Hebrides and take a look round Lews Castle. It would be a huge shame if the building just fell down.

Note: I am NOT begrudging Kinloch Castle the attentions of its royal visitor, on the contrary. It is a magnificent place and a folly if ever I saw one. It deserves all the attention it can get; as does Lews Castle.