Four days. Four days of discovery, laughter, remarkable people, delicious food, and memories. In quite possibly the best trip I have taken thus far, my eyes and my mind have been opened up to a completely different way of life. A way of life that isn’t always sunny (although we were spoilt with blue skies while we were there), but if you’re willing to work your hardest, fulfills you.
The people we spoke with during our stay on the island were some of the most interesting, open, intelligent, socially (and politically) aware individuals I have ever met. The passion, the respect, the kindness that was on display was a breath of fresh air (the actual fresh air on Lewis was pretty great too).
Day 1 (Saturday)
The first day of our trip was jam-packed. We paid a visit to the Highland Folk Museum, as well as Knockfarrel Produce, and Black Isle Brewery, before taking the ferry to Stornoway and arriving at The Decca, a B&B in Ness.
For those who have never been, the Highland Folk Museum is an open air (and on that day, very cold) museum where you can see how Scots of previous generations lived. We viewed a 1700s township where the six small to tiny and dark peat-smoked filled homes would have had a dozen (or more) people living in them at one time.
Our next stop was to Black Isle Brewery, an organic brewery in the Highlands, where we took a tour of their facility as well as tasted some of the beverages they produce. As someone who isn’t a big beer drinker (G&Ts are more my speed), I really enjoyed their Blonde and Yellowhammer brews.
After the brewery, we paid a visit to Jo Hunt at Knockfarrel just outside of Strathpeffer. There, Jo, a former agricultural economist (if I remember correctly), told us about their organic growing and livestock raising practices, even taking us to meet the pigs he’s raising at the moment.
Jo also discussed the hardships and difficulties of selling to major grocery chains… he told us of about a dramatic cut in price of kale he was growing due to the Russian blockade of produce from Eastern Europe. This caused a flooding of the market, creating a massive decrease in need/demand for produce from Western European producers like himself. Things like this can be quite damaging to small growers and crofters like Jo who have to lay off part of or their entire workforce when a major source of income suddenly dries up.
After the visit, we continued on to Ullapool, where we boarded the CalMac ferry to Stornoway. After a 2 1/2 hour sea journey, we piled back into our rented mini-buses for a 40-minute drive before arriving at our destination, The Decca. After a 12+ hour day of travel, sleep was at the top of everyone’s agenda, so we all retired to our rooms for the night.
Day 2 (Sunday)
We started our first full day in Lewis with a full Scottish breakfast where I had my first taste of Stornoway black pudding… followed by my 2nd, 3rd, 4th… we all ate a lot of black pudding while we were in Ness (#blackpuddingsweats).
Since Sundays in Lewis are observed as a day of rest, we did some sight seeing. We saw a blackhouse village as well as the Callinish Stones, a structure of stones similar to the more famous Stonehenge.
We also paid a visit to croft in Tolsta Chaolais, where the mutton we would be eating Monday evening was being raised. We chatted with crofters, Sandy and Ali, over treats they kindly prepared for us including cured goose, cake and glasses of sherry. The former barristers moved from England to the Isle of Lewis over a decade ago.
That night, we had a wine tasting with our resident wine expert, Catherine (she works for WSET, a British organization that arranges courses and exams for those interested in gaining expertise in wine and spirits) and learned about food pairings that improve the taste of cheaper bottles of wine. After the wine tasting, we were invited into the dining room, where a three course feast of local specialties was awaiting us.
The people who made our locally sourced meal possible joined us for dinner. At my table, fellow course mates Sheila, Hannah and I were joined by Alasdair, Ranald and Mimi Fraser. Father and son, Alasdair and Ranald, run Stornoway Smokehouse and provided the smoked and roasted salmon, as well as the smoked cheese we ate that evening.
Our table’s discussion covered everything from food (no surprise there) to the debate on whether Scotland has a food culture or not, to even a bit of U.S. politics and travel (they’ve seen much more of America than I have!)
Day 3 (Monday)
On Monday, our day started with a RSPB warden, who told us about the corncrake, a native bird that is struggling to survive. She took us on a walk of the machair, or the common grazing area found in crofting communities.
After the walk, we met up with Donald MacSween aka Sweeny, a crofter, who chronicles life on the croft on his blog Air An Lot (I highly recommend following him on twitter @sweenyness), as well as presents for BBC Alba, a Scottish Gaelic (pronounced gal-lick) language channel.
He took us on a tour of his croft, as well as the village of Ness, including the peat bogs where peat is harvested and used as fuel in the majority of homes of those that live on Lewis. We also went down to the harbour to see some gorgeous freshly caught fish. Before parting ways, Sweeny kindly gifted us two gugas (young gannet birds) to try once we got back to QMU.
That evening, we enjoyed some Black Isle Brewery beer along with Hebridean mutton courtesy of Sandy & Ali, who along with other local producers joined us for the meal. After dinner, Dods*, lead guga hunter, gave us a presentation on the annual guga hunt. (He’s gone over 40 times!)
*Everyone has a unique nickname that’s listed in the local phone book since so many share the same fore and/or surname.
Day 4 (Tuesday)
We enjoyed our last breakfast at The Decca before departing for Stornoway. Along the way, we stopped at Charles Macleod to learn about the history and its recent PGI (Protected Geographical Indicator; like Serrano ham in Spain or a whole myriad of cheeses and food products in Italy) status awarded from the EU. We were also told that it has also been deemed a ‘superfood‘, although there has yet to be a consensus on it’s health-giving properties.
Our last stop was Stornoway Smokehouse, where my seatmates from Sunday’s dinner, Alasdair and Ranald, gave us a tour of their facility including the inside of their smokers, including an ‘old’ one that’s around 80 (!) years old. Here, they smoke salmon, haddock, herring and even cheese! Before leaving, I made sure to buy some of their cold smoked salmon along with smoked haddock.
~Back in my flat, I made a large pot of Cullen Skink, a traditional Scottish soup akin to New England clam chowder in the U.S.~
We then took the CalMac back to Ullapool (and reality). Interestingly enough, the beautiful clear weather we had been spoilt with had deteriorated and gray, rainy and raw-feeling weather took its place. (I’d like to think the Isle of Lewis was sad to see us go.)
Without a doubt, this was one of the most memorable (if not the most), eye opening trips I have had the fortune of being a part of, and has assured me that I made the right decision in coming to Scotland to study Gastronomy… and I have a feeling Isle be back.
Sorry for the delay in posting this, but as soon as we got back, I had to jump right into revision for an exam we had this week for our science module… any questions concerning soil can be directed to this self-proclaimed soil expert right here. 😉