The late Calum Kennedy – a big name in the Outer Hebrides – once wrote a song called ‘Lovely Stornoway’. The satirical Daily Gael had its own take on this.
Kennedy had his own show on Grampian TV and was once affronted by a BBC documentary that followed him on a doom-laden tour in an old bus. As members of the supporting cast dropped out one by one, the documentary team crossed them off the tour posters with a red marker pen, much to his displeasure.
Anyway Stornaway, the main town on the Isle of Lewis with a population of 7,000, isn’t lovely but has its charms nonetheless.
The chain of islands from Lewis in the north to Barra in the south are strongholds of the Gaelic language.
It was a mighty trip for a single tick in the 2022 Good Beer Guide though fellow ticker Alfie picked up plenty more en route and I rectified a couple of omissions from 2020 after covid had brought a premature end to proceedings (as it had to Maltmeister’s plans to join us).
Stornaway is around three hours by ferry from Ullapool, where we spent the previous night. There is plenty of cask beer there with the Ceilidh Place being notably high quality and it was more than acceptable in the Arch; Ferry Boat and the Argyll. The Guide-listed Morefield Motel has closed down.
Bars and hotels are struggling, not to attract visitors, but to attract staff. There are simply not enough locals to go round. This was a story we heard time and again on our three day trip. We had fish and chips ouside but if you hadn’t booked then you had no chance of getting a meal in Ullapool. A group of Americans arrived after nine in one pub and asked for food. “At this hour?” replied the incredulous barman, “away to Inverness with you”.
Leaving the car in Ullapool we made the crossing in the company of the Falkirk over 40’s football team, who somehow had arranged a game in Ness, right up at the Butt of Lewis. We also had a game to go to on the island but more of that later.
The famously rough crossing behaved itself so long as you sat tight. Puffins whirred, gannets plunged and auks zoomed around. Our first job was to secure the tick in the Crown Hotel, which was also where we were staying.
It’s famous for an incident in 1963 when the 14 year old Prince Charles gave his private detective the slip and went to the bar, ordering the only alcoholic drink he’d heard of, a cherry brandy. The absent detective was promptly suspended.
We checked in the room and checked out the bar. Stornaway was full and our (very good) twin room cost three figures for the night. Two beers were on, Ossian from Inveralmond and Taylor’s Landlord “from Lancashire” (or Yorkshire as the English call it). Both were on good form, even if premium priced.
The Guide actually specifies Crown Hotel (Harbour Bar), which is round the corner through a separate entrance in the same building, selling the same two beers.
We had our first experience of waiting for a pool table to become free. In short it doesn’t, as playing a frame takes forever between smoke breaks, checking phones, generally chatting and chasing balls around the table. Exactly the same thing happened in the Sea Angling Club (once a cask outlet) where we were told they were only playing one frame, but still hadn’t finished half an hour later. There were 15 dart boards here and names on a list for a darts match in Retford, Nottinghamshire, at least an eleven hour journey.
The Criterion was a classic old-fashioned local. Surprisingly they had Brewdog Punk IPA on draught here but we were told this was coming out soon due to low sales. An old man with incredibly filthy clothes sat on the same table and growled at us before taking his shoes and socks off. Even the pub dog recoiled.
Alcohol has often been the subject of much debate in the islands. On my first visit in the early 1980’s everything was closed on Sundays. No ferries ran and even the swings in the children’s play park were chained up. The influence of the Free Church is strong but not as strong as it once was. Until 2010 only psalms of the Old Testament were sung at ceremonies without musical accompaniment. The decision to permit music was hotly contested. The sound is hauntingly beautiful.
The quaffing was interrupted by wandering about and the wandering about was interrupted by getting a bus to Garrabost for a Lewis and Harris League match between Point and Ness. The impressive ground is quite isolated but that didn’t stop 160 people turning up, including 55 from the away team. There were no buses back afterwards but it’s always easy to get a lift in Scotland’s rural communities and the first person asked kindly took us back to Stornoway.
It was somewhat on the windy side.
We stayed uncharacteristically disciplined as the ferry back was at 07.00 the next morning and a busy schedule lay in wait, including a match in north west Skye. Of which, more another time.