5 Reasons “Outlander” Fans Will Love Scotland’s Isle of Lewis

Outlander-coverCan’t get enough of the stunning scenery from Outlander? The Isle of Lewis, in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, has loads of history and spectacular vistas that will satisfy those who love this romance/ adventure TV series.

1. Magical Stone Circle

The ancient stone circle called Craigh na Dun that transports Claire into the past is fictional, but the real circle that it was built to resemble is Callanish stone circle on the Isle of Lewis.

Built from multi-ton stones that were dragged for several miles across the land, the Callanish circle is situated on a hilltop with a view of Loch Roag and the mountains to the south. It’s not hard to imagine this beautiful and scenic circle as being a magical portal through time. These standing stones have been part of this windswept landscape for more than 4,000 years, and during all those millennia, they’ve remained the constants as people farm the land and wage wars and fall in love. To read more about Callanish, click here.

Callanish with woman visitor ©Laurel Kallenbach

A woman inspects one of the Callanish stones on Scotland’s Isle of Lewis. ©Laurel Kallenbach

2. Scottish Heather

One of Scotland’s national flowers, the pink-purple flower of hardy heather is well suited to Scotland’s rugged, rocky hills. One legend surrounding heather is that it grows over the places where fairies live. And some Highlanders attached a spray of heather to their weapons for luck. Scottish heather has had plenty of medicinal uses through the ages, including as a remedy for digestive problems, coughs, and arthritis. In Outlander, heather is just one of the botanicals that Claire Beauchamp uses in her healing practice. The Scots’ love of heather is exemplified in a season 1 episode in which a man is fatally gored by a wild boar. As he lies dying, Claire asks him to describe his home. He tells her that the heather is so thick he could walk on it.

Scottish heather on the Isle of Lewis ©Laurel Kallenbach

Scottish heather on the Isle of Lewis ©Laurel Kallenbach

3. Old Broch Tower

In Outlander, Lallybroch (also known as Broch Tuarach) is Jamie Fraser’s estate, which includes several crofts (see #4) on the ancestral land. A “broch” is an Iron Age fortress-like round-tower unique to Scotland. Not far from Callanish, on the Isle of Lewis is Dun Carloway Broch. Few brochs as well preserved as this one, and you can feel some of the Fraser clan’s heritage in its mossy stone walls. This one overlooks the nearby coast.

Dun Carloway Broch ©Laurel Kallenbach

Dun Carloway Broch ©Laurel Kallenbach

4. Crofts (small farms)

A delightful scene in season 1 of Outlander involves Jamie collecting rent from the tenant crofters soon upon his and Claire’s arrival at Lallybroch estate. Jamie proves to be a bit too indulgent with a few of his less reputable farmers. A croft is essentially a small agricultural unit, usually a part of a landlord’s larger estate.  On Lewis, you can see crofts and visit a historic “blackhouse”—one of the old farmhouses with no chimney that was always so smoky that the ceilings and walls turned black.

A farm on the Isle of Lewis ©Laurel Kallenbach

A farm on the Isle of Lewis ©Laurel Kallenbach

5. Hills, Lochs, and Beaches 

Outlander features gorgeous cinematograpy of the Highlands, with craggy hills, lush forests, and placid lakes. Lewis has no shortage of scenery with rocky outcrops, hills and mountains, plus overlooks of the wild Atlantic coastline. In fact, aside from small villages and the town of Stornoway (where there’s an airport if you prefer to fly rather than take the ferry from the mainland), most of Lewis is peat moorland, freshwater lochs, silver-sand beaches, and flowering meadows. These beautiful, wild places are perfect for hiking, bird- or whale-watching, fishing, boat trips, cycling, or scenic driving.

Cliff Beach, Isle of Lewis. Photo courtesy Visit Scotland

Cliff Beach, Isle of Lewis. Photo courtesy Visit Scotland

For more information, see Visit Scotland’s Outlander map of film locations. Or visit the Isle of Lewis information site.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor 

Read more about my travels in Scotland:

Oregon’s Sylvia Beach Hotel Is for Book Lovers

If you’re a literature lover, allow me to introduce you to the Sylvia Beach Hotel in Newport, Oregon (a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Portland). A quiet place on the coast, this 20-room inn sits atop a bluff right above the surf and offers a literary pillow to readers and writers.

The J.K. Rowling room at the Sylvia Beach Hotel in Newport, Oregon, shows off a Harry Potter theme. Photo courtesy Sylvia Beach Hotel

The J.K. Rowling room at the Sylvia Beach Hotel in Newport, Oregon, shows off a Harry Potter theme. Photo courtesy Sylvia Beach Hotel

If you can set aside your book or the manuscript of your magnum opus while staying at the Sylvia Beach, you can enjoy strolling on the beach or taking a (chilly!) dip in the ocean. You can also explore the artsy, historic Nye Beach neighborhood with its lovely mix of bookstores, cafés, bistros, galleries and the Yaquina Art Center.

Ken and I stayed in the Sylvia Beach Hotel 20 years ago, and on this year’s trip to Oregon’s central coast, we stopped by to see how the place is faring. Its literary theme is as whimsical as ever: each guest room is decorated in a style and with mementos of a famous author.

Literary Magic

The door to the Tennessee Williams room where we slept two decades ago still says, “Stella!” (a famous line from A Streetcar Named Desire), and the double bed is still draped with mosquito netting (ala Night of the Iguana). The Edgar Allan Poe room still has a stuffed raven to commemorate “The Raven,” and a metal pendulum hangs over the blood-red bedspread, an eerie reference to Poe’s story, “The Pit and the Pendulum.”

The Dr. Seuss room is popular for the young, or young at heart.

The Dr. Seuss room is popular for the young, or the young at heart.

You can also indulge your inner child in the Dr. Seuss room, decorated in homage to One Fish, Two Fish, The Cat in the Hat and other works of juvenile genius.

There are no TVs, radios, telephones or Wi-Fi at the Sylvia Beach, yet it’s still an English major’s delight. The rooms aren’t grand, but what they lack in luxury they make up for in literary spirit.

Tables of Content

Miso Pumpkin Soup, one of many delicious things served in Tables of Content restaurant.

Miso Pumpkin Soup, one of many delicious dishes served in Tables of Content restaurant.

Meals are a time to be social at the Sylvia Beach—even if you keep your nose in a good book during the rest of your stay. Breakfast is included in the room rate, and guests sit at tables of eight in the “Tables of Content” dining room. (I think group tables are a great, no-stress way to get to know other literature lovers!)

Dinner, served at 7:00 p.m. each night, is another chance to enjoy pleasant conversation with a bookish bent. The food is served family style (with a choice of four entrees) and the evening’s icebreaker is game of Two Truths and a Lie. Essentially, you introduce yourself to those at your table with two biographical facts and one whopper of a fib! Then your fellow gourmands guess what part of your tale is a lie. Coming up with a lie gets your creative juices flowing, and when I played, it was fun recalling unlikely trivia from my past.

The Mark Twain room has a fireplace and private ocean-view deck.

The Mark Twain room has a fireplace and private ocean-view deck.

Rooms at the Sylvia Beach

All the hotel’s rooms are themed according to an author. Here’s a sampling:

Classics: Rooms directly over the surf with fireplaces and decks. They include Agatha Christie, Colette, and Mark Twain.

Best Sellers: These rooms have an ocean view with panoramas of the coast and the Yaquina Head Lighthouse. In this category are rooms devoted to Alice Walker, E.B. White, Dr. Seuss, Edgar Allan Poe, Ernest Hemingway, J.K. Rowling, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, Jane Austen, Lincoln Steffins, Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, and Virginia Woolf.

Novels: These rooms have no ocean view, but they’re still cozy and fun. Here you’ll find Gertrude Stein, J.R.R. Tolkien, Oscar Wilde, and Robert Louis Stevenson.

Who Was Sylvia Beach?

A mural of Sylvia Beach and author James Joyce decorates the lobby of the Sylvia Beach Hotel.

A mural of Sylvia Beach and author James Joyce decorates the lobby of the Sylvia Beach Hotel.

In case you were wondering if this ocean-overlook hotel was named for a beach called “Sylvia,” let me put your questions to rest. Sylvia Beach was an expatriate American who dominated the literary scene in Paris between WWI and WWII with her English-language bookstore and lending library, Shakespeare and Company. James Joyce fans will recognize Sylvia Beach as the publisher of the Irish author’s famous book, Ulysses (1922).

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Out yourself as a bookworm and let readers know of other literary getaways they shouldn’t miss. Just leave a poetic or prosaic comment below!

My Hunt for Irish Sheela-na-Gigs

This sheela-na-gig from Seir Kieran in County Offaly was on display at the National Museum of Ireland when I visited in 2004.

Think Indiana Jones. Think of a quest for an archaeological treasure. Picture me, wide-eyed and somewhat crazed, tearing around Ireland’s rural backroads seeking a treasure. See me wading through thigh-high weeds still wet from the morning dew. Hear me cursing out loud to myself about driving on the left-hand side of the road.

Unlike Indiana Jones, no one was chasing me with a gun or a sword. I was not searching for the Holy Grail or the Crystal Skull or the Lost Ark. I was searching Ireland for sheela-na-gigs—peculiar, medieval-era stone carvings of haglike, naked women displaying their private parts.

If you read my last post, you know that during my 2004 Ireland trip, I had a bit of an obsession with searching out sheela-na-gigs, which are found on the walls of churches and castles in England, Wales, and Scotland, and Ireland. There are more known sheelas in Ireland than anywhere else, and on my journey through Éire, I stalked the gargoyle-like carvings literally over hill and dale.

Searching for Sheelas at the National Museum of Ireland

I started in the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, which houses fabulous archeological treasures, such as the Indiana Jones–worthy Ardagh Chalice made by 12th-century monks of gold, silver, bronze, brass, and copper. And the golden, delicate Tara Brooch made in 700 AD is priceless.

A book with the sheela-na-gig from County Cavan, Ireland.

A book with the sheela-na-gig from County Cavan, Ireland.

Displayed alongside these magnificent works of Celtic art were two crudely carved sheela-na-gigs—much less flashy than the aforementioned treasures, but also much more intriguing. No one really knows why these “hags of the castle” were located like gargoyles on Anglo-Norman-era churches and medieval castles. But one thing we know for sure: they had meaning for people ten centuries ago.

“The name comes from the Irish language, although its meaning is uncertain,” says Dr. Eamonn Kelly of the National Museum, and author of Sheela-na-Gigs: Origins and Functions. “The most likely interpretations are Sighe na gCíoch, meaning “the old hag of the breasts,” or Síla-na Giob, meaning ‘sheela (a name for an old woman) on her hunkers.’”

I emailed the National Museum in advance and got permission on my visit to be escorted into the museum’s vaults to see a dozen more sheelas that weren’t on display but that have been in the museum’s care for decades—some for an entire century.

It’s an amazing thing to be face to face with works of sacred (or profane) art that I’ve only read about in books. (One of my favorites is The Sheela-na-gigs of Ireland and Britain by Joanne McMahon and Jack Roberts because it includes a catalogue with drawings of sheelas.) So, after I got my fill of sheelas in the museum, I set off to search for others, in situ.

The Sheela-Na-Gig of Esker Castle

Locating the sheela-na-gig—reportedly located on the walls of a ruined castle near the tiny village of Doon, in County Offaly—was quite an adventure. I felt completely lost while trying to find the village, and once there, I had no way of knowing where Esker Castle was. (If there was a sign to it, I never saw it because I was too busy driving on unmarked roads.)

This sheela-na-gig was a cornerstone on Esker Castle, near Doon, Ireland. The sheela-na-gig's right hand passes underneath her right thigh, and her left hand reaches over her left thigh to expose the vulva. Esker Castle, Doon: The sheela-na-gig her right hand passes underneath her right thigh, and her left hand reaches over her left thigh to expose the vulva. ©Laurel Kallenbach

This sheela-na-gig was a cornerstone on Esker Castle, near Doon, Ireland. The sheela-na-gig’s right hand passes underneath her right thigh, and her left hand reaches over her left thigh to expose the vulva. Esker Castle, Doon: The sheela-na-gig her right hand passes underneath her right thigh, and her left hand reaches over her left thigh to expose the vulva. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Luckily, from the road, I could see a hilltop ruin of what might be a medieval castle—though I wasn’t positive. I pulled onto a gravel road and drove to what I hoped would be the ruin, but soon the road disappeared into grass and there wasn’t enough space to turn around. My car had pretty bad sightlines for backing up (or maybe I should have looked backwards over my left shoulder instead of my right!) but I managed to drive in reverse back to the “safe,” graveled road. At the foot of the hill with the castle, I parked on a gravelly pullover spot, pulled on my rain pants and rain jacket, laced up my sturdy hiking boots, and then set off as it began to drizzle.

Foolishly, I chose a steep trail that led up toward the castle—ancient fortresses were designed to be difficult to reach—but halfway up it became apparent that no pedestrian had used it in ages—perhaps since the Middle Ages. I picked my way through brambles and briars; thorns clawed at my hair and rain jacket. I lost my traction in the mud. At last, though, I emerged at the foot of the ancient stone walls, sweating and hoping that my grit and determination would be rewarded by an easy-to-find sheela-na-gig.

The luck of the Irish was with me, because I turned the corner, and there she was, halfway up on the wall of the castle amid twisty ivy vines to the left of the castle entrance. She was carved horizontally on a cornerstone, even though she’s depicted in a standing position, with both toes pointing to the right. A shiver of excitement passed through me. I’d done it: located a sheela-na-gig in a non-museum location!

Esker Castle, near Doon, Ireland ©Laurel Kallenbach

The ruins of Esker Castle, near the village of Doon, County Offaly, Ireland ©Laurel Kallenbach

The first thing I noticed was the sheela’s large, bald head, part of which was covered in white. (Maybe someone whitewashed her for ease of seeing her?) Her mouth was open as if she were grimacing or saying something. She was a bit eerie, this sheela-na-gig: otherworldly and ancient and none too inviting despite her naked breasts (just two little mounds) and spread legs.

I took some photos, but it was difficult to relax and reflect because a nasty wind had come up. Besides that, the castle ruins were gloomy, the weather threatening. I was already a bit traumatized from the ordeal of the disappearing road and the brambly path. All I could think was, What if my car gets stuck here or I fall down the hill and sprain an ankle? There was a farmhouse just 100 meters away, but I was spooked just the same.

I walked around a bit, shielding my camera inside my raincoat from the wind-driven rain. I wanted to see the sheela from several angles. And then, Irish luck struck again, and I discovered another path—a real one this time—that I might have discovered if I hadn’t been in such a frantic hurry at the beginning. Compared to the path up, this one was fairly tame. Soon I was inside my rental car and peeling off my wet jacket. As I drove off, I took one last look at the towering walls—the home of the Esker Castle sheela-na-gig—and bid a hasty farewell.

The Sheela-Na-Gig of St. Munna’s Church

Although Indiana Jones got lost a number of times on his adventures, I seemed to have more than the usual mishaps on the sheela route. Two days after I almost missed the Esker Castle sheela, I again got confused while searching for one of the stone carvings on a church in County Westmeath. First, I got lost in the nearby town of Mullingar. Shortly later, I took two more wrong turns around Crookedwood before I eventually happened upon St. Munna Church, which ironically looks more like a castle than a church because of its crenellated tower.

I parked and walked up to the 15th-century church with its old cemetery. The four-eyed sheela-na-gig was in plain sight over a broken-out trefoil window, and just a moment after I saw her, I was greeted enthusiastically by a wag-tailed black dog from a farm across the street.

This sheela, above a window of St. Munna church, appears to have four eyes. ©Laurel Kallenbach

This sheela, above a window of St. Munna church appears to have four eyes. ©Laurel Kallenbach

This sheela was fairly eroded, but she either has four eyes or two holes drilled into her head above the eyes. Again part of her head was blotched with white—I think it must have been some sort of lichen. This sheela also had an open mouth, as if she were speaking, and this one looked like she had a beard. Though her hands were on her abdomen, there was little view of her genitals other than a deep hole. It was easy for me to imagine this sheela acting the role of a gargoyle—perhaps because her features we so indistinct. It’s possible she was defaced by people in more recent centuries who would have considered this stone carving obscene.

Perhaps it was because I was very tired, but I didn’t spend too much time with this sheela. And I felt a little out of place somehow, despite the adorable dog. This was the case a number of rural sites in Ireland. I disliked being among lots of tourists, but I also sometimes wished I wasn’t the only human around. So, I paid my respects to the naked, stone woman who has gazed fiercely down upon centuries of church-goers with her four eyes. Then I moved on to my next destination: the Loughcrew archaeological site, also called Slieve na Calliagh (“Mountain of the Hag”).

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Read more about my travels in Ireland:

 

 

Archways into the Irish Past

Nothing beckons me more than the archways of antiquity, so I was charmed by these ruined, but graceful portals that once led into a medieval abbey in Ireland. This one is located at Clonmacnoise, an early Christian site founded by St. Ciarán in the mid-6th century on the eastern bank of the River Shannon.

Just outside Ireland's Clonmacnoise are the arches of a ruined Nun's Chapel, where I discovered a sheela-na-gig. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Just outside Ireland’s Clonmacnoise are the arches of a ruined Nun’s Chapel, where I discovered a sheela-na-gig. ©Laurel Kallenbach

For an hour or more, I wandered through misting rain among the ruins of a cathedral, two round towers, several Celtic crosses, and ancient grave stones at Clonmacnoise. In the Dark Ages, this religious center was filled with scholarly monks during Ireland’s Golden Age of Learning.

Even today, this home of the 6th-century saint Ciarán is revered. In Temple Ciarán, where the saint is believed to be buried, farmers still take clay from the ruins of the church and place it at the four corners of their fields as a blessing.

A high cross and round tower at Clonmacnoise.

A high cross and round tower at Clonmacnoise.

In Search of a Sheela-Na-Gig

The historic architecture there was more than enough to make Clonmacnoise a part of my itinerary, but I was also on a quest to find an odd detail carved into the arch. The carving is known as a sheela-na-gig, a stone figure of a naked, old woman squatting and displaying her vulva. These somewhat grotesque female figures are usually found on Norman or Romanesque churches, usually over a door or window. A strange thing to put on a church fairly strange thing to find on a church, yet there are many in Ireland, and while I was visiting, I wanted to see as many as I could.

No one else was at the Nun’s Church while I was there, so I wandered around trying to locate the sheela-na-gig, which my guidebook said was located in the arch. Frustrated, and with a crick in my neck, I started calling out “sheela!” as I circled around the whole ruin. At last I spotted her amid the carvings on the outer ring of the lintel.

An Irish sheela-na-gig, carved into the front arch of the Nun's Chapel in Clonmacnoise. This is a closeup; the actual size of the sheela was probably only five inches in the diamond. You can see her face, and just make out her feet behind her head, with a display of her crotch below. ©Laurel Kallenbach

An Irish sheela-na-gig, carved into the front arch of the Nun’s Chapel in Clonmacnoise. This is a closeup; the actual size of the sheela was probably only five inches in the diamond. You can see her face, and just make out her feet behind her head, with a display of her crotch below. ©Laurel Kallenbach

If I hadn’t seen pictures of this sheela-na-gig in books, I wouldn’t have recognized her, because she has a very stylized, smiling face surrounded by what I guess are her legs wrapped yoga-style behind her head. At last I was beholding a sheela in situ. Although I’d seen a number of them at the National Museum of Ireland  in Dublin, there’s just nothing like locating a piece of art in its natural habitat!

There were actually two other faces lower down that frankly looked more like a sheela-na-gig than the real one—round head, pronounced ears, and deep eyes—except the rock carving stopped at the neck; there was no lower body.

So what’s the significance of a sheela-na-gig, and why is she clutching her genitalia? No one really knows, but there are many theories:

  • Sheelas are like gargoyles, designed to ward off evil spirits or to warn people of the perils of lust.
  • They are fertility symbols. This one seems unlikely, because sheelas rarely have breasts and their boney ribs, bald heads, and almost skeletal features are often depicted. There’s nothing sexy about a sheela-na-gig.
  • Sheelas are a depiction of an ancient Irish crone goddess, Cailleach, who was very powerful and could sometimes appear as a comely maiden, a mother, or a grandmother.

This last theory is the one that interests me most. In medieval Ireland, people often embraced both Christian and pagan beliefs, and the two merged. I’m fascinated by the Divine Feminine, and I like the thought of there being a fierce hag warrior on castles and churches.

In case you think me batty, I can tell you that I’m not alone in my fascination with sheelas. There are sheela-na-gig T-shirts, hoodies, and necklaces. And singer PJ Harvey wrote and performed a song called “Sheela-na-Gig” back in 1992. (You can read more about that at my post, My Hunt for Sheela-Na-Gigs).

I’ll always remember Clonmacnoise fondly, especially because it was the first time I’d ever seen a sheela-na-gig “live,” outside of a museum.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Clonmacnoise is located 21km from Athlone, in Co. Offaly. The Nun’s Chapel is just outside the main gates of the Clonmacnoise complex. For more information about travel in Ireland, visit Tourism Ireland.

Read more about my travels in Ireland:

A view of Clonmacnoise. Photo courtesy Tourism Ireland

A view of Clonmacnoise. Photo courtesy Tourism Ireland