My wild wedding in the Hebrides

by SIMON HEPTINSTALL, Mail on Sunday

Last updated at 14:35 25 June 2001

From the comfort of my home 700 miles away, a stone chapel in the middle of a field in the Outer Hebrides seemed a memorably romantic place to get married.

But finding myself with a flower in my buttonhole, shivering at the end of the long muddy track to what looked like a tiny stone hut, I wondered what on earth I was doing.

The wind was howling down from snow-capped mountains. There wasn't a tree or even a bush in sight.

Thankfully as my bride Joanna and I walked into Britian's most north westerly church, St Moluag's, on the tip of the Isle of Lewis, my spirits began to lift.

The undecorated stone interior was lit by candles and oil lamps, sun shone through one tiny window on to the altar - and half a dozen strangers were smiling at me.

I wasn't at the wrong wedding - St Moluag's has only hosted three in living memory. Locals had heard about the rare event and decided to join the service. Some even brought presents.

'We just wanted to wish you well and see the church being used like this,' whispered one chap in a broad Hebridean accent as he shook my hand.

Of course, nipping off to Scotland to marry is not new. Madonna was only following a trend by marrying Guy Ritchie at Skibo Castle last year.

Scotland has been deemed romantic since Robbie Burns wrote love poetry. More practically, a couple could be married in Scotland before 1940 simply by making a declaration before witnesses. This encouraged a stream of couples to cross the border.

Nowadays, Scottish wedding tourism is a little more sophisticated, although Gretna Green still rubber stamps 4,000 espousals a year.

Scotland is dotted with hotels offering kilt-wearing, bagpipe-blowing nuptials. We were after something less artificially colourful - a real adventure tinged with romance and escapism.

I'd heard about the Episcopalean church of St Moluag's when I inter-viewed vicar Barbara Morrison, a 71-year-old grandmother, about the best locations to celebrate Midnight Mass at Christmas.

We stayed in touch, and three months later she agreed to marry Joanna and me at the church I had researched but never visited.

St Moluag's was founded in the Sixth Century when the Hebrides were Norse-owned. It still stands alone among crofters' fields, has no heat or lighting and is too cold and exposed to be used in winter, apart from special occasions, like candlelit carols or the wedding of a mad couple from a long way south. It sounded ideal.

Barbara was very encouraging. 'It's a beautiful spot for a wed-ding, where the romance of the Hebrides combines with meaningful spirituality,' she said.

This windswept spot in the shadow of the Butt of Lewis lighthouse is 30 miles from the nearest town, Stornoway, where Barbara and most of the congregation live. It's even further from the rest of civilisation.

The Isle of Lewis is the most northerly of the Outer Hebrides, the string of islands lying off Scot-land's north west coast now called the Western Isles.

After a day's drive through the Highlands, crossing to the Isle of Skye, there's still a two-hour ferry to the Isle of Harris, followed by an hour's drive through mountains, lochs and desolate moorland to Lewis.

The landscape is a mix of barren rock, windswept peat bog and forbidding mountains. The coast relents into rocky lochs or long, sandy beaches. It's often spectacular but rarely pretty.

Ancient 'blackhouses' of stone and thatch are built low as if cowering from the wind. Road signs are Gaelic and on Sunday the strict Presbyterian Free Church insists the island virtually shuts down. Yet Lewis and Harris are strangely compelling.

We enjoyed relaxed, homely comfort rather than five-star facilities. At the elegant Scarista House a plumbing leak trickled down the dining room wall and we ate our wedding-night dinner watching the sun set over the sea while the owner chased sheep that were nibbling his daffodils.

At the warm and friendly Galson Farm, which is also a post office, Joanna prepared for her big day in the bathroom next to the counter and emerged in her wedding outfit to bump into an old chap buying stamps.

The wedding was a wonderful, fairytale event. Although I could see my breath as I repeated 'I will' in the church, the sun shone throughout our stay.

The Butt of Lewis records, on average, gale force conditions once every six days. We were very fortunate to get away with a mild but chilly skirt-ruffling breeze.

One local told me of a 154mph wind last year. 'As I was driving home I knew it was going to be a bad one,' he said 'because I saw sheep flying across the road.'

Now, that would have been a wedding day to remember.

Getting there:St Moluag's church is open from Easter Day until the end of October. Isle of Lewis tourist board: 01851 703088. Scarista House (01859 550238) offers B&B from £61 per person per night and Galson Farm (01851 850492) from £30.

Sorry we are not currently accepting comments on this article.