If you look at a map of the United Kingdom, you'll find Scotland at the top and, to the west, a cluster of islands which are known as the Hebrides (pronounced heb-ree-dees). The islands are split into two groups - the Inner Hebrides and the Outer Hebrides. The islands in the Inner Hebrides lie close to the Scottish mainland, so close that a number of them are indistinguishable from the mainland in the map to the left. The Outer Hebrides are the chain of islands that lie further to the west, about 40 miles from the mainland; they stretch about 130 miles from top to bottom. Of the approximate 65 islands in the group, 15 are inhabited with a population of about 26,000, most of whom live on the Island of Lewis and Harris, which is the large island at the north of the chain. The northern, and most populated part of this island, is known as the Isle of Lewis; the southern part as the Isle of Harris. The Isle of Lewis is the setting for Peter May's novel, The Blackhouse.
Archaeological ruins found on the island suggest that it has been inhabited for at least 5,000 years. It is believed that the Monks of St. Columba brought Christianity to the Hebrides from Ireland in the 6th century. Ruins of a church named after the saint are still present on the Isle of Iona, a small island in the Inner Hebrides.
Beginning around 800 A.D., the islands were invaded by Vikings from Scandinavia. Over the following generations, the invaders settled and intermarried with the locals, and a heavy reliance on wood for building and fuel led to large-scale deforestation. Towards the end of the 11th century, Scotland ceded the islands to Norway. They were returned to Scotland as part of the Treaty of Perth in 1266. The result of this intermingling is that some of the place names in the islands have their roots in Scottish Gaelic (a form of Celtic) , while others are of Nordic origin.
The Isle of Lewis is famous for its archaeological sites including Iron Age forts known as "Brochs," the best preserved of which dates back 2,000 years. These stone forts were built in concentric circles, a stairway leading to the higher floors. Another fascinating site is the group of standing stones known as the Callanish (or the Gaelic Callanais) Stones (dated to between 2900 and 2600 B.C.E.) located near the village of Callanish on the western coast of Lewis. Thirteen of the stones form a circle, with avenues of stones to the north, south, east and west. Theories as to the original construction and purpose of the stones are as varied as those surrounding Stonehenge.
The "blackhouse" described in the novel will be one of the many blackhouses on the island, some of which date back to the time of the Viking invasions. These houses provided shelter for both humans and animals and were built around a central hearth. Construction consisted of two stone walls with a filled space in between (presumably for insulation). A thatched roof, hanging snugly over the outer walls, is a striking characteristic of these houses - the roofs were held down by wire and weighted stones (see the review for an image of a blackhouse). After legislation was passed to house man and animals in separate residences, the newer "whitehouses" were built.
Today the Isle of Lewis has a strong tourism industry that takes advantage of the island's temperate climate and sandy beaches. Visitors can even stay in a renovated blackhouse - the new ones have chimneys for ventilation. The Island of Lewis and Harris is the ancestral home of the Clans MacLeod and Morrison. Along with other parts of the Outer Hebrides, it is the last stronghold of the Scottish Gaelic language - spoken, apparently, with a uniquely Nordic accent. It is also famous for the production of Harris tweed which, by law, must come from the island to be so named.
For more information about the Isle of Harris, read the 'Beyond the Book' for Coffin Road.
This article was originally published in October 2012, and has been updated for the
August 2014 paperback release.
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