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(Isle of Lewis, Leodhas, Eilean Leodhais)

A historical perspective, drawn from the Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland: A Survey of Scottish Topography, Statistical, Biographical and Historical, edited by Francis H. Groome and originally published in parts by Thomas C. Jack, Grange Publishing Works, Edinburgh between 1882 and 1885.

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Lewis or Lews, the northern part of the Long Island or Outer Hebrides, comprising one largo island and a great number of isles or islets. The Long Island consists of two parts, Lewis proper on the N and Harris on the S, which are united to each other by an isthmus 6 ½ miles broad. Harris and the isles connected with it belong to Inverness-shire, and have been fully described in our article Harris. Lewis proper and the islets connected with it belong to Ross-shire. The islets, excepting only the small group called the Shiant Isles, lie quite close to the coast, and are all very small, and for the most part uninhabited, so that they do not need to be separately noticed. The main body of Lewis proper, in all its statistics, and in many of its principal features, as well as in most of its minor ones, will be found described in our articles on its four parishes of Barras, Lochs, Stornoway, and Uig. We require in the present article, therefore, to make only a few general statements.

Lewis proper has somewhat the outline of an equilateral triangle, its base 28 miles broad, each of its sides nearly 50 miles long, and its apex pointing to the NE. But the angles at the base are rounded off, and the apex makes a twist to the N, terminating there in a promontory called the butt of Lewis. The general surface of Lewis proper is not so mountainous and rugged as that of Harris, and has been aptly described as 'an immense peat, with notches of the moss cut away here and there, to afford a sure foundation for the inhabitants, and produce food for their bodily wants.' The total area is 437,221 acres, of which 417,416 are land; and of this only 14,362 acres are under cultivation, viz., 2842¾ under bere or barley, 2639½ under oats, 3652½ under potatoes, 4676 in permanent pasture, etc. The rest is hill, moor, and moss, with here and there an undulating tract of blue clay upon a rocky bottom. On some parts of the coast the soil is of a sandy nature, tolerably fertile. The rocky cliffs which form the Butt rise to the height of 142 feet, and are broken into very rugged and picturesque forms. The loftiest summits are Mealasbhal and Beinn Mhor, both which rise to a height of 1750 feet above sea-level. Gneiss is the predominant rock. Numerous sea-lochs or elongated bays project far into the interior on both sides of the southern district, and in some instances are so ramified that they and the freshwater lakes produce, in many parts, a watery labyrinth with the land. But these sea-lochs afford great quantities of shell-fish; and the whole coast is very favourable for the white fish and herring fisheries. The streams also abound with trout and salmon. Large roots of trees have been abundantly dug up in the bogs, indicating the ancient existence of an extensive forest; but in later times, excepting a small patch in the neighbourhood of Stornoway, the whole country became utterly destitute of wood, exhibiting as bleak and almost as hyperborean an appearance as the most desolate inhabited tract in the Arctic seas. Its agriculture and its arts also, till 1844, were in a very rude state. It belonged then to the Mackenzies of Seaforth, but it was purchased for £190,000 by the late Sir James Matheson, Bart. (17961878); and by him no less a sum than £329,409 was expended in a series of sweeping improvements, which have greatly changed its character. No instance of improvement, in recent times, within the United Kingdom, has been more striking to the eye of an observer, more compensating to the proprietor, or more beneficial to the population. Its details have comprised draining, planting, road-making, the reforming of husbandry, the improving of live stock, the introduction of manufactures, and the encouraging of fisheries, all on a great scale and with good results. The focus of the improvements has been Stornoway and its neighbourhood; so that a fuller account of them will fall to be given in our article on Stornoway. There are only 36 farms in the Lewis, and most of these are small, their total rental being only £4828; but, on the other hand, there are 2750 fishermen crofters, who together pay £7972, or, on an average, £2, 18s. a-piece. Valuation (1860) £16,944, (1881) £25,561. Pop. (1801) 9168, (1831) 14,541, (1861) 20,570, (1871) 23,483, (1881) 25,487, of whom 13,471 were females, and 23,747 Gaelic-speaking.—Ord. Sur., shs. 98, 99, 104, 105, 106, 111, 112, 1858.

The Established presbytery of Lewis, in the synod of Glenelg, meets at Stornoway on the last Wednesday of March and November, and comprises the quoad civilia parishes of Barvas, Lochs, Stornoway, and Uig, with the quoad sacra parishes of Cross and Knock. Pop. (1881) 25,487, of whom 115 were communicants of the Church of Scotland in 1882.-The Free Church presbytery of Lewis has 2 churches at Stornoway, and 9 at Back, Barvas, Carloway, Cross, Kinloch, Knock, Lochs, Park, and Uig, which 11 together had 8900 members and adherents in 1883. See W. A. Smith's Lewsiana; or, Life in the Outer Hebrides (Edinb. 1875), and an article by James Macdonald on 'The Agriculture of Ross and Cromarty' in Trans. Highl. and Ag. Soc. (Edinb. 1877).

An accompanying 19th C. Ordnance Survey map is available, or use the map tab to the right of this page.

Note: This text has been made available using a process of scanning and optical character recognition. Despite manual checking, some typographical errors may remain. Please remember this description dates from the 1880s; names may have changed, administrative divisions will certainly be different and there are known to be occasional errors of fact in the original text, which we have not corrected because we wish to maintain its integrity. This information is provided subject to our standard disclaimer

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