Visiting the Museum nan Eilean in Stornoway, Scotland

Museum nan Eilean is located in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. It is dedicated to preserving and promoting the cultural heritage of the Outer Hebrides.

Given its location, it is natural that many of the exhibits are focussed on the strong maritime history.

However, there are also many archaeological artifacts such as one of the highlights, the fascinating Uig Chessmen from the Viking area.

History of the Museum

Museum nan Eilean has been housed in a purpose-built building next to Lews Castle since July 2016. However, the museum has a much longer history.

As early as the mid-20th Century passionate locals and historians worked together to collect artifacts, photographs, and documents detailing the life of the islanders. Most of the exhibits were donated by locals keen to preserve their traditions and culture.

To honor that, all exhibits and information are provided both in English and Gaelic, the local language.

Next to the museum is Lews Castle. It was built in the 1850s by Sir James Matheson who owned the island of Lewis. Although the castle is not part of the museum, it is free to visit the castle.

In fact it doubles as one of the many hotels in Stornoway. You can look at the ballrooms, and the starry ceilings in the corridors and pop into the café, called The Storehouse Café.

Surrounding the museum and the castle are manicured lawns and woodlands with beautiful views back towards Stornoway and the harbor.

What to see in the Museum nan Eilean

There are 3 permanent exhibitions as well as a special exhibition. Special exhibitions focus on specific themes or aspects of the island’s history. Look at the museum website to see what is on for when you are planning your visit.

One of the permanent exhibits is a film called “Sense of Place” which is about the changing landscape and weather in the Outer Hebrides. It showcases beautiful landscapes such as the beaches, the machair, and moorland.

The other two permanent galleries focus on the islands and the people who live there. The exhibits cover:

  • Seafaring Heritage: A key focus for the museum is showcasing the maritime history of the Outer Hebrides since the sea has played a significant role in shaping the lives of the islanders. Visitors can explore displays of fishing tools, and models of historic ships and learn about the island’s traditions.
  • Archaeological Artefacts: The Outer Hebrides has a rich history going back thousands of years. The museum houses a collection of archaeological finds, the most famous being the Uig Chessmen from the time when the Vikings occupied the Hebrides.
  • Cultural and Social History: Exhibits such as traditional crafts, folklore, the Gaelic language, and music highlight the culture of the local communities.
  • Interactive Displays: To keep the museum interesting and to appeal to children there are interactive displays such as touchscreens, videos, and virtual tours.

Uig Chessmen

The Uig Chessmen is the most famous exhibit and they deserve their own section. In 1831 a nearly full set of chess pieces was found in the sand in a bay called Uig which is on the other side of Isle of Lewis. The story says they were “found” by a cow but there is some doubt around whether that is true.

The chess pieces are from the Viking area and are believed to come from Norway. The pawns are 3.5 – 5.8 cm high whilst the kings and queens are up to 10 cm. The larger pieces have detailed carvings. More fascinating is the material that was used to make these chess pieces. Most are carved from walrus tusks, with a few even made from walrus teeth.

Originally 93 chess pieces were found. Today 82 are owned by the British Museum in London and the remaining 11 by the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. 6 Uig Chessmen are currently at Museum nan Eilean on loan from the British Museum.

Opening hours

Most sites in the Outer Hebrides have separate summer and winter opening hours since there are few tourists visiting in winter.

Summer opening hours are in effect from April to September when the museum is open from 10 am to 5 pm Tuesday to Saturday. It is closed on Sunday and Monday.

Winter opening hours are in effect from October to March. At this time the museum is open from 1 pm to 4 pm Tuesday to Saturday. It is closed on Sunday and Monday

How much does it cost to get into the museum and how can you get tickets?

The museum is free but there is a suggested donation of £5 per person. Donations are spent on maintaining the museum as well as special exhibitions and adding to the collection.

There is no need to book tickets in advance.

Cafes and restaurants at the museum

There is no café or restaurant in the museum. However, in Lews Castle next door, there is a café called Storehouse Café.

The Storehouse Café also has opening hours split between summer and winter. Summer opening hours are from April to September when the café is open from 10 am to 4 pm every day. Winter opening hours are from October to March when the café is open from 10 am to 3 pm Thursday to Sunday. From Monday to Wednesday, it is closed.

How to get to Museum nan Eilean

The museum is located in Stornoway, the largest town in the Outer Hebrides. Stornoway has both an airport and a ferry terminal. Most of the flights are domestic, coming from Inverness, Glasgow or Edinburgh. The ferry departs from Ullapool on the mainland.

Being on the outskirts of Stornoway the museum is a 15-minute walk from the town centre. Cross the river by the Bridge Centre and walk up the steps into the castle grounds. This path leads to the castle. The museum is the modern building at the back of the castle.

It is also possible to cycle or drive to the museum. There is a bicycle rack outside and it is a 5-minute drive from the town center. Right outside the museum and castle is a large car park where it is free to park.

The address to put into your satnav is Museum nan Eilean, Lews Castle Grounds, Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, HS2 0XS. 


How much time to allow for a visit?

1 to 2 hours will allow you to see the main exhibits and watch some of the video displays.

Is photography allowed inside the museum?

Yes, you can take photos for private use inside the museum. However, you are not allowed to use a flash. There are certain areas, such as where there is a video, where you can’t take photos, but these are clearly marked.

Are food and drinks allowed inside the museum?

To protect the collection you cannot bring food and drinks inside the museum.

What is wheelchair accessibility like at the museum?

The building is wheelchair accessible with everything being on one level. There is also an accessible toilet. Next to the entrance are 3 parking spaces for people with disabilities.

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