Finally back after the 2018 MacLeod Parliament… for those who are unfamiliar, the 10 National Societies of Clan MacLeod get together under the Associate Clan MacLeod Societies (ACMS) organization every 4 years to have a world gathering in Scotland, with most activities taking place in Dunvegan on the Isle of Skye (with day trip tours to other locations on Skye and nearby, including a Raasay Day since 2010). This year also featured an optional pre-parliament tour of Harris and Lewis.
K and I opted to fly in and out of Stornoway, Isle of Lewis (SYY) based on our itinerary, but most will usually fly into Glasgow (GLA), Edinburgh (EDI), and a few into Inverness (INV). We found last time that renting a car from Glasgow airport and driving 2.5hrs up to Oban, the gateway from the isles was do-able but unpleasant, especially the A82 along Loch Lomond. By flying out to the Western Isles, we never had to drive on the mainland, and rented separate cars on the outer isles from Skye and thus did not have to worry about booking car space on the ferry (much more constrained than foot passengers). We departed Monday mid day from Austin, arriving in London Heathrow Tues morning, connecting through Glasgow, then finally arriving in the afternoon Tuesday at Stornoway Airport.
Stornoway airport is within sight of town just under 2mi away, although the footpath to town is basically a sheep-trail next to the road – thankfully there is also a bus. However, no ATM at the SYY airport, so be sure to have a handful of one and two pound coins on hand. The driver was most displeased with my single £20 note. Rental cars are also available at the airport terminal, the ferry terminal at Stornoway, and the Ferry terminal in Harris at Tarbert. Accommodation is always in short supply in both the Western Isles and Skye, so planning ahead is critical. Most shops are closed on Sunday in the western isles, so planning food and fuel stops for a weekend is also important. Dining out also requires booking ahead of time, though the ever-helpful folks at Bangla Spice in Stornoway have never turned me away (and the less helpful Thai place next door has turned me away 3 out of 3 times without a booking…) and have tasty Bangladeshi and Indian cuisine on offer. McNeill’s is the local’s pub in Stornoway, served up an excellent pint of Guinness and we did not encounter any of the hostility from locals that some Parliament goers have occasionally had on Skye, at the Cellar Bar in Dunvegan.
The Caladh Hotel in Stornoway was serviceable at 2 stars, and notably had virtually all cloth in the room made of Harris Tweed. We had little experience with other local places, but Cabarfeidh Hotel sports 4 stars, and Broad Bay House 5 stars if you are looking for a more upscale experience but not up to swinging a full self-cater yourself, and B&Bs proliferate at all levels of service. K and I had to skip the dinner and speeches at the first night of the pre-Parliament trip on Wednesday, as we had tickets to the first HebCelt festival concert of the season, “Between Islands 3” at An Lanntair, the local cultural center, which also provided an opportunity to grab dinner at “Steak Wednesday”, two steaks and a bottle of wine. The Between Islands series celebrates the wealth of artistic talent which exists between the three island groups of Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles. This years concert featured music centered on the 100th anniversary of the First World War and music representing each island group. The performance featured Gaelic singers Kathleen Macinnes (South Uist), Linda Macleod (North Uist), and musicians Jenny Napier (Shetland) and Saltfishforty (Orkney).
We were about the only ones in the audience who did not get the jokes in Gaelic (most of it was translated by the performers to English afterwards, except for some of the banter). In the Western Isles, Gaelic comes first on all the street signs – sometimes, there is no English at all – half the population are native speakers, and some areas reach 75% fluent in Gaidhlig.
Following we had lunch with a community group trying to preserve a MacLeod connected church, just east of Stornoway right past the airport, the 14th Century (built over an earlier 7th century monk’s cell) Church of St Columba of Ui Aignish
The church also has the gravestone of Roderick (1426-1498), 7th Chief MacLeod of Lewis (perhaps a 2nd Cousin 21 times removed from me via a Craze/Houston line connecting to potential 14th Century 22d Great-Grandfather Eoin Carrach MacDomhnaill)- they are trying to raise 7,000 pounds for parking and a visitor center, consider donating.
We then headed down to Harris on Friday, connected by road to Lewis in the 1900s after several thousand years of existing as separate islands with mountain barriers between. We somehow got the coach down the “Golden Road” on the East side of the island – single track is common on the islands, but the “Golden Road” is especially narrow, windy, and precipitous… ending up at the late 15th Century St Clements Chapel at Rodel.
This has some excellent funerary sculpture featuring the tomb of Alasdair Crotach (1450-1547), 8th Chief MacLeod of MacLeod (possibly my 6th Cousin 16 times removed through a Thornhill line to the Frasers, and even more speculatively a 5th cousin 17 times removed from a daughter of 19th GGF Torquil, 1st of Lewis through the MacKay chiefs to an Alexander/White/Alkire line), as well as one for his sons William the 9th Chief. A third one is thought to be John Og of Minginish, 2nd son of Iain a’ Chuil Bhain (John of the Fair Hair – a claimant to the 10th Chiefship supported by MacLeod of Lewis) – though since John Og of Minginish was banished by Norman, 3rd son of Alasdair Crotach and called “Iain Dubh” (John the Black), for murdering Donald, 2nd son of Alasdair Crotach and 10th or 11th Chief — there was a bit of an issue over the succession and lots of stabby-stabby between 1552-1559 — I suspect it could be a different John, the great-grandson of Alasdair Crotach, who died at 15 years old as the 14th Chief and succeeded by his uncle, Sir Ruairidh Mor, 15th Chief.
These were the first MacLeod chiefs not buried on Iona. Coming back, we stopped at Northton for a visit to the Temple Cafe (highly recommend the brownies!) and the genealogy center Sellam!. Following the good, mostly 2 lane road up the West Coast, we saw the spectacular beaches that Harris is becoming well known for: Northton (Traigh an Thaoibh Tuath), Scarista, Huisinis, Seilibost, Luskyntire.
We arrived back at Tarbert, where the group had to split into two hotels, Harris Hotel and Hotel Hebrides. There are only 3 hotels in Harris (lots of B&Bs including the victorian Amhuinnsuidhe Castle though), the third being Ardhasig Hotel, up the road north in Ardhasig. Hotel Hebrides was a very well appointed 4-star immediately adjacent to the ferry terminal, although folks with disabilities will note there are narrow stairs, and no elevator (not uncommon in Scotland).
The next day we split into two groups, one to the Harris Distillery and one to the Harris Tweed weaving demonstration, then we swapped.
Our Saturday ferry over to Uig on Skye was uneventful, except for obtaining the rental car – turns out there is no actual rental car business presence at Uig, you need to ask the ferry terminal folks for your key.
We arrived to our self-cater at The Farmhouse, on the MacLeod estate about 4:30, to find it in a state of construction (it’s a historical 18th century property originally named Totachaire that was/is being renovated as a self-cater cottage). We were told that we should come back at the check-in time of 5… and surprisingly it appeared to be a livable house by then! We then went to the Dunvegan Village hall for Parliament Registration where we met up with our great friends Emma and Jamie (who have a typical British aristocracy impressively-massive-hyphenated surname very well known within the society), who had their son D and lurcher Cuillin along for the first time. Saturday evening finished up with Wine and Cheese reception at the Village Hall hosted by CMS England.
Sunday Morning saw us getting a tour of Dunvegan Castle with Jeroem, the current keeper of the castle (also a Dutch veteran of Afghanistan from a similar period to my in-country time) who highlighted the recent repairs and renovations to the castle funded by 30th Chief Hugh Magnus and his focus on the business of tourism. Hugh is also potentially a 19th cousin 1x removed to me via an Alkire/White line through MacDonalds and MacKays… While I am still working on my 3-4 different lines of ‘MacLeod alternate spelling’ surname ancestors, several separate lines are connected collaterally, and possibly ancestrally in one case, to founder-line MacLeods; Stranger still, this is probably also true for everyone else in the clan, it’s just less common to be able to map it out on a tree.
This was followed by a parade down main street of dunvegan village, and a welcome lunch catered by The Old School, a local favorite restaurant. Parliament opening was a few remarks from the ACMS president, the Lewis and Raasay chiefs, then the opening event, the “Mervyl and Stanley McLeod Trust” Lecture was also about the present renovations to Dunvegan but this time with a slide show from Jeroem. The evening finished up with a reception sponsored by CMS Scotland.
Monday was CMS USA business meetings, and tea by CMS Canada, and more coach excursions. Most people then went on various coach tours, while K and I went to the Fairy Pools. Monday Evening finished up with a Ceilidh and dance.
Tuesday, K and I concocted a region-appropriate feast of biscuits-and-gravy and South Texas Breakfast Tacos (Chorizo and Egg, Egg and Sausage, in hand-rolled corn or flour tortillas) for about 150 folks who attended. Total parliament attendance was just over 300, but not everyone goes to everything. K and I went to the Quiraing after breakfast, the rest of folks went to the Orbost Estate to see the Emigration wall, built with stones brought to Skye from all over the world. The evening finished with a silent auction to raise funds for the next parliament, and a whisky tasting.
That night we went for dinner in Portree, where we had reservations for dinner at Scorrybreac. This new Michelin star restaurant occupies a beautiful view of the harbor, though parking is a bit of a nightmare (as it is everywhere on Skye). The restaurant is owned by an actual Hebridean, Calum Munro, son of the legendary band Runrig’s front-man Donny Munro – unlike the famous The Three Chimneys, which also lost it’s Michelin star when Micheal Smith left. The MacDonald Kinloch Lodge in Sleat (where Calum Montgomery of Scorrybreac got his start, and former owner Claire is married to the 34th Chief MacDonald of MacDonald), and Loch Bay (by Micheal Smith, formerly of Three Chimneys) on MacLeod’s terrace in Stein round out the other island Michelin restaurants. There is also Caroy House which will be a gastropub and guesthouse opening in Portree soon, also by Calum Munro and likely to score highly for good food.
Finally, the evening capped off with the CMS Germany’s famous Beer and Bratwurst and a bonfire out at the Castle Pier, which had been the work project for the North Room Group of Young MacLeods (age 18-30) the week prior to parliament.
Friday tea was hosted by “Europe”, the Swiss/Swedish/Polish/French catch all. The traditional MacLeod’s Tables climb was sparsely attended, due to the marginal weather. That night was the final event of Parliament, the Clan Ball. Parliament has begun to outgrow the Village Hall, so will be interesting to see how future events cope.
Saturday, we returned to Uig, returned the rental, and caught the ferry back to Tarbert in Harris, where we picked up a different rental for another pass at the west coast beaches before finally ending back up in Stornoway.
Sunday had bad weather, so our trip out to the west, east, and north coasts of Lewis did not get us much spectacular photography.
We did the Gearrannon Blackhouse village, last occupied in the 1970s by a MacLeod family,
the Butt of Lewis past Ness
With the storm, we had already got the cancellation of our St Kilda trip scheduled for Monday and had gone out to find food in Stornoway when we got a call from Angus of Kilda Cruises about 8pm, that there had been a change in the weather, and we were to show up at the Leverburgh pier at 7am Monday to see if we could go.
We did, and we went, on the impressive 53′ 1500hp catamaran Orca III. I got massively seasick in the 2-4m seas, along with all other passengers but K, who had Dramamine’d a sleep resistant to retching. St Kilda is the remotest part of the British Isles, and the only dual-designation World Heritage site in the UK (US only has 1 as well). Hirta was impressive, and Boreray and the Stacs even more so. The weather was not too bad considering they register 160mph winds out here sometimes.
Highly recommend as a once-in-a-lifetime trip though. St Kilda was occupied for about 5000 years until 1930, when the last tenants asked to be evacuated and resettled elsewhere. During the 1745/1746 Jacobite rebellion, it was suspected BPC was hiding there, so the government sent a warship – the natives did not know who King George was, who Prince Charles was, only that the laird was the Chief of MacLeod, and his agent came every year for the rent, paid in seabird products and weaving. The walk up to the “gap” on Hirta was surprisingly difficult, and only became obvious once we looked up that Conachair (1401ft) and Oiseval (950ft) (the two north peaks of Hirta) are the highest sea-cliffs in Britain, at approximately the height of the Empire State Building – Boreray is 1260ft, Stac an Armin 643ft, and Stac Lee 564ft are the highest sea stacs in Britain.
The island Soay is also part of St Kilda, and the source of the bronze age isolate Soay sheep. Boreray is now home to the Hebridean Blackface/Boreray – Iron age sheep descended from the extinct Scottish Dunface (a short-tailed norther European breed ancestral to the Shetland, North Ronaldsay, Hebridean/St Kilda, Castlemilk Moorit, and Boreray sheep), with some limited genetic introgression from Scottish Blackface in the 19th century. Most sheep in Scotland today are the long-tailed Cheviot, with some Scottish Blackface.
The trip back was substantially easier, and we arrived back at our B&B at 8pm, with our flight from Stornoway to Edinburgh Tuesday.
We had a 24hr layover in Edinburgh from Tues mid-day till Weds mid-day, so we dropped our luggage at the Bridge Inn, and found our way via bus and tram to Princes Street, where we could walk over to the Royal Mile between the Scottish Parliament/Holyrood Palace and Edinburgh Castle.
The Tattoo was on, so the castle was closed by the time we got there – although we did run into the Royal Omani Cavalry mounted bagpipers in the street. An uneventful evening hit a few snags while trying to figure out the correct combination of bus and tram to get back to the airport in the morning, but we sorted it out eventually. Note, it is much easier if you only do accommodation on the tram route, as buses can be 1hr in between at certain times, but trams are every 5-10min…
Our flight from Edinburgh unfortunately had a miserable (British Airways and American can both improve their customer experience) 5 hour layover at JFK in NY on Wednesday, but then we flew from there back to Austin, returning to the great state of Texas very late Wednesday. If you plan on going to Parliament for the first time, we would be glad to share our lessons learned with you from our last 5 trips.