On the windswept Outer Hebrides, one of the remotest parts of the United Kingdom, silvery mists swirl over white sand beaches lapped by azure seas that could pass for somewhere off Thailand – on a rare clear day, that is.
In a couple of days, a close friend and I will set off for a five-day, nearly 200-mile cycle across Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. On these windswept islands, some of the United Kingdom’s most remote, silvery mists swirl over white sand beaches lapped by azure seas that could pass for somewhere off Thailand – on a rare clear day, that is.
Despite their beauty, the islands receive only 218,000 visitors per year. That’s less than ten percent of the number of Instagrammers, extended layover-ers, and other tourists who flock to Iceland, 600 miles to the northwest, each year. (To be fair, the Outer Hebrides’ population is also less than a tenth of Iceland’s). Whereas Iceland is extremely well-connected to North America and Europe thanks to a proliferation of transatlantic flights in recent years (the bankruptcy of the country’s Wow Air notwithstanding), the Outer Hebrides remains hard to reach.
From Cambridge, I will take two trains to reach Glasgow and then catch another train the next morning to Oban, on Scotland’s west coast, before boarding a five-hour ferry to Barra, a small port town in the southern Hebrides.
My friend and I will then spend five days hopskotching by bicycle and boat across the archipelago, where regular ferries connect the islands scattered like rocks thrown in an arc into the sea. The soft and undulating machair (a soft and grassy plain endemic to northwest Scotland) boasting plants like orchids, heathers, and insectivorous sundews is formed out of igneous bedrock – mostly “Lewisian Gneiss” named after the Hebrides’ largest island, Lewis. Its own moniker comes from the old Norse word “Ljóðhús,” meaning “poet’s house.”
The name “Lewis” might also ring a bell if you’ve ever glimpsed the famous Lewis Chessmen in the British Museum, one of the collection’s highlights, or perhaps in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. Just last month, the chess set made the news again after a piece purchased for £5 in the Scottish capital in the 1960s was consigned to Sotheby’s after being rediscovered in a dusty drawer. The art broker estimates it will fetch £600,000-£1 million at an upcoming auction in London on July 2.
Largely carved out of walrus ivory (with three pieces made from sperm whale teeth), the near-complete 12th-century chess set is likely originally from Trondheim, Norway, though some scholars argue for Iceland origins. Regardless, the fortuitous unearthing of the chess set under Scottish sands in 1831 – hundreds of years after, perhaps, a shipwrecked medieval trader buried it – points to the Hebrides’ northern and potentially even Arctic roots. (At the same time, 4th-century Roman coins dug up on another Hebridean beach indicate early influences from the south, too.)
From the late ninth through thirteen centuries, Viking and Norse rulers controlled the Hebrides, then known as the Southern Isles (and today called the Western Isles given the shift in power from Stornoway to London). Together with Orkney and Shetland (then the Northern Isles, and today the United Kingdom’s northernmost point), Britain’s rocky, surf-soaked edges made up the Kingdom of the Isles. Trade routes linking the Norwegian, North, and Irish Seas were what shepherded the likes of not only the Lewis Chessmen, but also ivory from Greenland and domesticated pigs and sheep from Scandinavia.
After our cycle sojourn, I’ll be splitting off to take another series of ferries and buses to Kirkwall, Orkney’s main town, where I’ll be running in the St. Magnus Marathon. It’s the United Kingdom’s northernmost such event where the driven and the deranged run 26.2 miles buffered by gusts and gales from every direction. While there, I’m hoping to also catch a few glimpses of Viking and Norse relics strewn across the landscape while visiting a friend who I originally met at the Arctic Circle Forum in the Faroe Islands last year.
While some might scoff at British Parliamentary assertions that the United Kingdom is the “Arctic’s nearest neighbour,” the country’s history and archaeology suggest that the claim rests on more than geographical proximity. For the past several centuries, the English state has focused on connecting to (or disconnecting from, more recently) the European continent. Yet
he waxed under the clouds, throve in honours,Beowulf (originally written between the 8th and 11th centuries), ll. 9-11
until to him each of the bordering tribes
beyond the whale-road had to submit,
and yield tribute: that was a good king!
As I cycle and run along Scotland’s whale-road, stay tuned for more to follow (both here and on Instagram) in the days and weeks to come.