The Bragar and Arnol area has a long history of settlement, demonstrated by the discovery of Neolithic polished stone axes, as well as Iron Age, Viking age and medieval pottery, around the cemetery area – these artefacts are in the keeping of the National Museum of Scotland. Some interesting historical sites that you can visit are given below.
Taigh Tughaidh Àrnoil
The Arnol Blackhouse Museum is a beautifully preserved traditional thatched house, with a central fire which is never allowed to go out. The site is in the keeping of Historic Environment Scotland, and also includes an example of a 1920s ‘white house’. www.historicenvironment.scot/visit-a-place/places/the-blackhouse-arnol/ You can see the ruins of other ‘blackhouses’ as you walk around Bragar and Arnol.
Teampall Eòin Baistidh/Cill Sgàire
This teampall is a well-preserved pre-reformation chapel dedicated to St John the Baptist, also known by the older name Cill Sgàire, in the Bragar cemetery by the shore. The walls and gables are relatively intact. Early photographs show an arch between the nave and chancel, but this collapsed in the early part of the 20th century. The building is thought to date from the 15th century - it is a Scheduled Monument, and is built on a prehistoric settlement mound canmore.org.uk/site/4191/lewis-teampull-eoin.
Dùn Loch an Dùine
The dùn is a first millennium BC islet broch. The lower courses of the walls and the door are still visible, along with a lot of tumbled stone. Much stone has been removed in the last century and a half: the New Statistical Account of 1834-1845 describes the dùn as being ‘well adapted for defence, built solely of large stones, three storeys high, tapering towards the summit, with a double wall, bound with large flags, which, at the same time, form a winding staircase in the thickness of the wall, by which one may go round the building.” 19th century drawings and plans of the building, showing much higher walls than survive now, guard cells, the internal stairway and a ledge scarcement to support an upper floor, can be seen on the Canmore website: canmore.org.uk/site/4187/lewis-bragar-loch-an-duna.
There is a submerged possible crannog about 60m to the south-west, which you can see when the loch level is low (a cairn on top of the crannog can be seen at all times). There is another crannog with a causeway about 2 ½ km away on Loch a' Bhaile/Loch Àrnol. Although severely robbed of stone, the outline of a circular dùn roughly 25-29m in diameter can still be seen, with the remains of later buildings within it. There are traditions about both these dùn sites dating to the 17th century and earlier.
The present location of the villages dates from the 1840s, when the present-day crofts were laid out by the island’s landlord, Sir James Matheson. The village houses were originally close to the sea, and the land formed a collection of individual joint-farms before the introduction of the crofting system. The villages were first divided into crofts, or ‘lotted’ in the 1820s, with these ‘lots’ running perpendicular to the present crofts (in Bragar they ran east-west rather than north-south).
The remains of both pre-crofting houses and houses from the first lotting of the villages can be seen in locations closer to the shore, for example at Gàsaig, Cràgol, Cnoc Mòr Àrnoil, Cnoc Bhràdhagair and Baile Loch. It is best to visit these sites between October and May – in summer they are hidden by tall vegetation.
Am bail’ a-staigh
Remains of small horizontal ‘Norse’ water mills, which were used for milling oats and barley, are scattered on streams throughout the island. There were at least sixteen of these mills in Bragar and Arnol, and the remains of most of them can still be seen. There were eight mills on Allt na Muilne in South Bragar, one of which was in use until 1945, and was the last of these small mills to be used in Lewis. This mill and the one next to it are Scheduled Monuments. The mill stream is said to have been created by the seventeenth century tacksman of South Bragar, Iain mac Mhurch’ ‘ic Ailean. You can read more about these mills in Finlay Macleod’s books Muilnean Beaga Leòdhais and The Norse Mills of Lewis (Acair, 2009).
A beautifully reconstructed Norse Mill and kiln can be seen in the neighbouring village of Shawbost, and is open all year.
A short walk from Grinneabhat stands the Whalebone Arch, made from the jawbones of an 82 foot Blue Whale which washed up at Geodha na Muc in South Bragar in 1920. The whale had been harpooned but the explosive had failed to detonate so the animal escaped the whalers – it was thought at the time, from the markings on the harpoon, that the whale may have been harpooned in Antarctic whaling grounds.
The village postmaster had the jawbones erected at the gateway to his house in 1921, with the harpoon hanging from the apex. A photograph was taken of all the Bragar schoolchildren under the arch, with the wording ‘100 Little Jonahs’. It is an iconic image, and one of the earliest Bragar school photographs. It is available to buy at Grinneabhat as a postcard.
By the year 2000 the archway was deteriorating – the bone had dried out and was crumbling, and visitors had removed pieces as souvenirs. It was decided to save the arch by encasing it in fibreglass. What you see now is a fibreglass copy of the original shape of the arch, with the remains of the whale’s jawbones within it.