Outer Hebrides - Ness and the Butt of Lewis

Ness Harbour Lewis Outer Hebrides Scotland by Laurie Campbell, www.lauriecampbell.comThe harbour at Ness is located near the wild, northernmost tip of Lewis © Laurie Campbell, www.lauriecampbell.com

Europe’s most northwesterly point on the tip of Lewis is a suitably wild and empty place.

Ness is the name given to a large and sprawling collection of communities which amalgamate in the northwest corner of Lewis. Home to 1,100 inhabitants, it’s a surprisingly busy part of the island that runs for 3 miles both north–south and (in a grand arc over an expanse of machair) east– west. The main places of interest are found around the harbour at Port of Ness (Port Nis) in the north and the community of Eoropie (Eòropaidh) to the west. Thrilling coastal walks are a highlight, along with a lonely lighthouse, an even lonelier church and sweeping views to the horizon in all directions. In addition, Ness can offer you a swimming pool, ten-pin bowling and a social club.

Ness is somewhere that draws you in quite quickly. It’s not just the spectacle of dramatic cliffs and the palpable sense you get of the northwest extremity of the British Isles tilting into the sea; it’s also the piercing clarity of the light, which, as it bounces off Ness’s many rocky promontories, seems to absorb and refract the machair of the sandy grasslands and the tapering edges of the Lewis peatlands. The cliffs, rocks, even the pebbles on the beaches, add to the atmosphere: made from Lewisian gneiss, they have all been pummelled and contorted into striking shapes and contours.

Visually, the area can be slightly confusing for the first-time visitor, but essentially a looping ring road knits everything together and runs west from Port of Ness to Eoropie and back to the A857 via Loch Stiapabhat. Ness can be incredibly windy, so much so that you wonder how people have ever made a living here. 

The sturdy harbour in Port of Ness is tucked down a slope and looks as postcard-pretty as anything in Cornwall, except that you will often have it, and the beach beyond, to yourself. The concrete walls of the breakwater, assembled in dog-leg fashion like Herculean blocks of Lego, reflect the matrix of buttresses needed to keep at bay the savage waves that heave up here in the wildest winds. The harbour is the place from where each year the men of the area set sail to conduct the annual Guga (gannet) Hunt on Sula Sgeir, 45 miles northeast of the Butt of Lewis. Archaeological remains are regularly found on the exposed dunes of the west coast of Ness. 

Follow the road from Ness anti-clockwise as it curves around to reach Eoropie, where you’ll find tiny St Moluag’s chapel (Teampull Mholuaidh) tucked away, 300m down a narrow footpath squeezed between field fences. The church was built during the 12th–14th centuries on the site of a much earlier chapel that had associations with pre-Christian rituals that paid homage to the sea god Shony. Some pagan elements are believed to have survived into the 19th century. Inside, a beautiful stained-glass arch of blue and yellow above the altar is hemmed in by thick-set stone walls. In 1999 the church yielded a surprise when the sacristy was forced open to reveal a late 18th-century chalice of French origin. 

If you have children, your luck is in as the Eoropie dunes have one of the most wonderful play parks you could hope to find, with swings, slides, a pirate ship and roundabouts built on the sandy grass that overlooks the wider dunes. Around the dunes, warm days bring out meadow brown and common blue butterflies. Port of Ness beach, just by the harbour, is another vast and empty playground for little people. Meanwhile, wildlife watchers can keep an eye out here for Arctic terns and gannets in summer and, year-round, red-throated, black-throated and (highly unusually for the UK) great northern divers.

A signposted track near to St Moluag’s points to the Butt of Lewis (Rubha Robhanais). You can drive a mile to this, the most northwesterly point of the British Isles and of Europe; alternatively it’s a 30-minute walk or a short cycle ride. The Butt is an exposed and elemental place, just how you might imagine the edge of a map should look, with sheer cliffs, seabirds slicing through punishing headwinds and sea stacks weathered by a broiling sea. Towering above this natural drama is the lighthouse. Standing 36.8m (121ft) high, the lighthouse’s red bricks have resisted the weather despite never having been painted since it was completed in 1862 by the Stevenson family. 

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