Latha Fèill Brìde (Bride’s Feast Day)

Sornoway, Isle of Lewis
Stornoway, Isle of Lewis

Winter a time of myth, magic and story telling and for those who live on the outer edges of Europe where the power of the old gods is still perceptable, it does no harm to respect the ancient traditions. Afterall winter is the time of the Cailleach Bhéara, the winter goddess who rules between Samhainn (1st November) and Bealltainn (1st May) and in these troubled times Ragnarök¹ may not be far away. There is, of course, a link with weather myths, for in the land of the Gaels the 1st of February is the day when the Cailleach gathers her firewood for the rest of the cold season. If there is to be an early spring, she has no need of a gathering-day and the weather could be unpleasant and stormy. So if the day is fine, the Gaels knew it would be a long winter. The 1st February is also Latha Fèill Brìde, the feast day of Brìde, the goddess of spring and fertility, later adopted by the Church as St Bride (St Brigid). In these northern latitudes February seems a little early to be celebrating spring, but 1st February is a quarter day, half way between Samhainn and Bealltainn, a good time to slip in a feast day. So with the Cailleach Bhéara at large, it seemed timely to honour Brìde and a trip to Stornoway for some tree hugging seemed appropriate.

Stornoway, on the Isle of Lewis, is the administrative capital of the Outer Hebrides and main centre of population, about 6,000 people live in Stornoway (about 25% of the entire populations of the archipelago). A visit to the big city is no minor undertaking: a 45 minute drive to the ferry, about an hour crossing the Sound of Harris and then a drive of about 90 minutes. In the winter, the ferry timetable is truncated (it only operates in daylight hours) and as the winter days are short there is insufficient time to get to Stornoway to do some shopping, nevermind have lunch or hug a tree, and return on the early afternoon ferry. Therefore, as an overnight stay is required, the weather forecast has to be carefully monitored to look for a suitable weather window and once the booking is made fingers are crossed and the shipping forecast is under regular surveillance.

Lews Castle woods
Lews Castle woods

The weather gods were obviously content as the forecast was for calm, dry weather with a northerly air flow, cold but with a chance of some sunshine. On the eve of our departure it started to snow, not the usual icy squalls, but big wet white flakes which slithered down the windows. Surely too wet too settle? The day began with a soft, pink Hebridean dawn and a clear sky; the air was icy and the puddles frozen, but not a trace of snow on the coast of the Hebridean Riviera. As we drove inland the temperature began to fall and the road became progressively slushy and then snow-covered as the wintry landscape of North Uist was revealed in the morning light. Although the islands are 57-58°N, with the presence of the Gulf Stream off the west coast the average night-time temperature in February is 2°C, so significant falls of snow are unusual and transient. As we drove onto Berneray to catch the Sound of Harris ferry, there was not a trace of snow and although the rugged hills of Harris were snow-covered, there was not a dusting elsewhere. Moving north the sky darkened, pewter grey clouds hugged the horizon spitting icy, sleaty rain cross the road and it soon became clear that there had been a heavy fall of snow across Lewis.

Stornoway is a typical west coast Scottish port, and for all the application of bright coats of paint on the buildings around the small harbour and the presence of the bright orange lifeboat, it is as grey as the Lewisian gneiss from which it is hewn. It’s charm is not immediate, and sometimes it is hard to get beyond its dour, dreich exterior; one wonders whether its lighter side disappeared with the herring girls. It is not the bright lights of the city which lures us to Stornoway, it is the woodland of Lews Castle.  The 19th century “castle” was built by Sir James Matheson, the co-founder of the Jardine Matheson company, who made his fortune from the Chinese opium trade. In 1844, he purchased the Island of Lewis from the Mackenzie Trustees, built a new residence and spent  £49,000 creating extensive woodlands and private gardens. This is the only large area of broad-leaf woodland in the islands, and although it now includes a golf course and is used extensively by dog walkers, runners and mountain bikers, the remaining woodland is important both culturally and scientifically. Therefore, every time we go to Stornoway there has to be time for either fungi or lichen hunting, and  to hug a tree.

As the day advanced, eventually the sky cleared and the true glory of woodland garlanded with ice and snow emerged. A warning from the Cailleach or a smile from Brìde?

¹Ragnarök – the end of the world in Norse mythology, the final battle between good and evil, and probably scheduled for 29 March 2019.

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21 thoughts on “Latha Fèill Brìde (Bride’s Feast Day)

  1. D > Well, as you know, we live in the islands not so far from you, but I found myself reading this as if it was all new to me : very well written. The photos are really good too. It’s unfortunate the only time of year in which we have the freedom to leave the home all day, is in the season when it is impossible to get to Stornoway and back the same day. Thus the only trips to Stornoway, for a few years now, have been to the hospital.

  2. It is always interesting to see a place you know well through another’s eyes. I must admit, if it weren’t for the attraction of the woodland, we would make fewer trips to Stornoway. It is a chore having to travel to Stornoway for hospital appointments, but it is easier than a trip to the mainland and here in the islands we are better served by the NHS than some other remote/rural parts of Scotland.

  3. You are welcome, there is nothing like a trip with a fellow blogger to widen the horizons. I note the desire for more photos and will try to oblige in future.

  4. Where in your blog are photos of the new home you built? Curious to see. I watched many YT videos of Uist last night and realize the stark beauty of the place…I would miss trees. What do you do if you have a medical emergency? Do they fly out with a helicopter?

  5. I’ve not included any photographs of the new house so far, but I will be writing about the gardens aroundthe new house this year, so I’ll include the house too.
    We have very good local medical services, but if it is something that the island medics can’t manage they call in the air ambulance/helicopter and you can be in a major hospital on the Scottish mainland in less than an hour. We are very well looked after!

  6. Tree hugging is absolutely essental if you live in a virtually treeless landscape. Fortunately you can always pretend to be looking at lichens on the tree bark!

  7. I so enjoyed reading this, Christine, but your writing is always such a pleasure to read anyway, regardless of the content! I do not recall reading anything about Lews Castle and its woodland on our flying visit, which is a shame – although as the Golfer was collecting golf scorecards at the time we visited I am guessing we must have called in at the golf course that you mention. From our frequent visits to the north western parts of Scotland I certainly know the value of trees and can see why you relish an expedition like this despite the downsides of the preparation and travelling.

    And ‘Home, Garden, Life’ refers to a ‘new house’… is this what your big project was all about then…? Have I missed a reference to it? I am really looking forward to seeing and hearing more…

  8. I saw few utility lines along the one lane roads and around homes. How is power achieved on Uist? Solar, wind? And how about TV and broadband? There seems to be plenty of wind on the Outer Hebrides. Loved seeing the standing stones other places like Lewis, Barra, Skye. Amazing country there. Visitors create wonderful drone footage of the Hebrides on YouTube.

  9. Hi Cathy, it is a pity you missed Lews Castle. Scottish castles often have a dark history, but there are not many built by 19th century drug barons! From the golf course you would not have seen the castle or had any idea of the extensive woodland beyond. We always enjoy our trips to Stornoway, probably because Lewis and Harris are so different from the Uists. I still get quite excited about using the ferries, it is alittle more challenging than catching the bus, although in rural Scotland that can be an adventure too!
    The “new house” is now 7 years old, and still known locally as the the “new house”. It has never featured in the blogs, mainly because I’ve always concentrated on the cottage garden. This year I will be writing more about the gardens around the “new house”, although I’m sure the orchard and vegertable garden will still get a mention.

  10. Our electricity comes from the mainland by undersea cable to a small power station. Unfortunately the distribution system is not great, but it works most of the time. A good proportion of the houses have solar panels and there are some wind turbines of varying sizes. TV is via satellite and broadband is either via, satellite, mobile phone signal or telephone landline depending on where you live.
    Island life is very different, you just have to be patient, plan carefully and be prepared to cope with the effects of bad weather. In many ways it is not very different from life in many rural areas of Scotland. There is obviously a price to pay for living in such a wonderful environment, but I’m happy without the big city faciilities.

  11. Oh well, i do hope to return to these parts one day so that will be something else to look forward to. Had to giggle at the ‘new house’, which of course we saw when we visited – I did think building a house now might be a little ambitious. Much as I enjoyed building our (large) extension, I am conscious that it would be physically much harder if we were to consider it again. So the new project is still a mystery…!

  12. Our small islands are full of hidden landscapes. I’m still exploring and being surprised as we meander around our own island.
    Even with our enthusiasm for projects I’m not sure I have the energy and stamina to build another new house, but I could be tempted>

  13. We have certainly no desire (nor valid passports!) to venture beyond the UK as there is so much we would like to see here. I suspect we are very similar in both our project enthusiasm and reduced stamina – but we will never be couch potatoes!!

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