GRAEME GREEN takes a relaxing break on Harris & Lewis – the Scottish island which actually sounds like two…
Harris and Lewis form the main island of the Outer Hebrides (also known as the Western Isles), far off the west coast of Scotland. Although they’re often referred to as two islands, the Isle of Harris and the Isle of Lewis occupy just one land mass or island, the two separated by mighty mountains and divided for historic and cultural reasons, with Lewis occupying roughly the northern two-thirds of the island, Harris taking the southern third.
Not just the largest island in the Outer Hebrides archipelago, and not just the largest island in Scotland, Harris and Lewis is the largest island in the UK outside of the main island of Great Britain itself.
Two for the price of one for travellers, then. Stornoway is the main town of Lewis and the island’s ‘capital’, the main port for ferry arrivals and departures, while Tarbert, the largest town on Harris, is home to Harris Tweed shops, a beer brewery, and a whisky distillery. Elsewhere, you can find ancient standing stones, medieval churches and the crumbled remains of crofter’s cottages.
It’s the island’s remarkable natural beauty that is the real draw, though, a wonderland for hikers, cyclists, dog-walkers, road-trippers, and photographers, not least the immense beaches of white and golden sand and clear blue-green water, such as Luskentyre, Nisabost and Kneep, which, on sunny days, could double for the Caribbean or south east Asia.
There’s fantastic diversity in the scenery, including surreal, lunar, grey rock landscapes (Stanley Kubrick used parts of Harris to double for Jupiter in his film 2001: A Space Odyssey), towering mountains, gleaming lochs, and dramatic coastlines.
The island is home to Highland cows and hardy sheep (the latter contributing wool to the world-famous Harris Tweed), with other local creatures including dolphins, porpoises, seals, red deer, white-tailed sea eagles, puffins, and guillemots.
Starting out in Stornoway, we take an early morning walk around the quiet town and harbour, popping in to check out galleries filled with Hebridean art, from collages to ceramics, at An Lanntair arts centre on the waterfront, before heading to Museum nan Eilean in a wing of the restored Lews Castle.
Among the museum’s many Hebridean artefacts, there are several Lewis Chessman pieces in glass cabinets. Carved from walrus tusk, the detailed figurines are just a selection from the 93 pieces discovered in sand dunes off Lewis’ Uig Bay back in 1831, all created by craftsmen in Trondheim, Norway, more than 800 years ago. I’d love a full chess set of pieces like this, though I have a feeling the historic treasures would be out of my price range.
We drive north west through moorland and remote communities to the lighthouse at the Butt of Lewis, the most northerly point on the island and the Outer Hebrides. Built by Scottish engineer David Stevenson in 1862 to help keep ships safe in often stormy waters, the lighthouse stands 36.8m high in a spot that was several decades ago listed in The Guinness Book of Records as the windiest location in the UK. It’s blustery, to say the least, when we take a walk along the coast, spotting shags and gannets in flight and perching on rocks out at sea, as massive waves smash against the cliffs.
With a hit of sea air in our lungs, we drive south along Lewis’ west coast and take a walk around the mysterious Callanish (or Calanais, using the Gaelic) Standing Stones. The Neolithic monument’s stones, measuring up to 3.5m tall, were arranged here 5,000 years ago, predating England’s famous Stonehenge. They’re thought to have been an important place for rituals or ceremonies across the ages.
A QUICK SCARP-ER
Driving east, we pick up the central road that crosses the island’s high mountains, with views of expansive lochs below, and move from Lewis into Harris. We make our way out past Highland cows ambling along the narrow road on the way, their long golden hair waving with the wind, to Hushinish beach, on the west coast of North Harris – a fine picnic stop, including smoked salmon picked up at the Stornoway Smokehouse (stornowaysmokehouse.co.uk/) before leaving this morning.
Parking up, we hike across the machair grassland, where rabbits are grazing, and climb a steep trail up the cliffs. The colour of the sand and the vivid blue ocean from high above makes an incredible sight. Far off, we see deer grazing in the folds between the hills. Clouds roll by, throwing dramatic shadows onto Scarp, a small island with old crofts and a few houses.
Feeling a little weathered, we arrive at Hebrides Hotel in the North Harris town of Tarbert, warming ourselves with fish and chips (mains from £14.50 to £32.50), and a few pints of dark Poacher ale from the local Loomshed craft brewery.
RAISE A GLASS
Next morning, we head south along the east coast of Harris, the narrow road curving close to the ocean through a landscape of waterfalls, streams, lochs, and rain-shrouded mountains. There are houses close to small harbours and on isolated hillsides, surely some of the most peaceful residences in the UK. Sheep wander freely around and on the road.
At the southern end of the island, we take a look around medieval St Clement’s Church in Rodel. Inside the eerily silent old church, built around 1520, we check out carvings of human figures, deer and old boats.
The road circles around to the west coast, which is markedly different from the east, with grassy dunes and broad sandy beaches, including Scaristaveg, Horgabost, and Seilebost, and remarkable roadside views of the ocean shimmering through shades of green and blue.
Talla na Mara (Gaelic for ‘Hall by the Sea’) arts centre and restaurant makes a perfect lunch stop, halfway up the west coast, with soups, sandwiches and burgers mains from £15.50 and cakes (tallanamara.co.uk/). Best of all, the restaurant looks out over striking Nisabost beach and the Sound of Taransay – try to get a table by a window. Afterwards, we take a look around the small galleries and studios, where artists are at work on creations from landscape paintings to seabird illustrations.
Back in Tarbert, we take an afternoon tour of the Isle of Harris Distillery (harrisdistillery.com), one of the most remote and westerly distilleries in Scotland. The distillery opened in late 2015 and sells popular, elegantly bottled gin.
But, eight years on, they recently launched their first whisky, named The Hearach (Gaelic for ‘a native of Harris’). The tour introduces some of ingredients in the gin and whisky, the flavours and smells, as well as the history of the ‘social distillery’, which has been a boost for local jobs on the islands.
“The world didn’t need another whisky but Harris did,” says Shona Macleod, distillery blender and one of the original ‘Tarbert Ten’ who’s been at the distillery from the start. “We started with ten people and a vision of creating 20 jobs, but now there are around 50. That’s a lot of families – people earning money, staying here, buying or building houses.”
Most importantly, there are tastings – The Hearach whisky smooth, warming, with subtle creaminess, tropical fruits, and peaty smokiness. “It’s not meant to be like an Islay whisky or a Highland whisky,” Shon says. “The flavour unfolds as you smell and taste it – each layer gives you something different. It’s full of character – like the people who make it.”
Next door to the distillery, there’s a Harris Tweed shop, selling everything from scarves to jackets to postcards, though whisky is more my thing.
In the evening, we head west to Luskentyre. Around a decade ago, when I first visited Harris and Lewis, I had this magical beach to myself. The word is out now, with photographers, dog-walkers and other travellers enjoying the peaceful hours before sunset.
But it’s still not crowded. We hike across the machair grassy dunes and take our time walking along with a soundtrack of waves collapsing on the shore. There’s something special about the light and colours here: a gorgeous stretch of golden sand and bottle green-blue ocean, with views over the water to the island of Taransay. Across the island of Harris and Lewis, there’s so much to explore, but Luskentyre alone is worth the trip.
WHERE TO STAY
The Hotel Hebrides is a boutique hotel in Tarbert with modern, spacious bedrooms and bathrooms. Local staff are welcoming and helpful. The restaurant is one of the best places to eat across the island, with two distinct pub and restaurant areas, serving seafood and other hearty dishes, as well as local beers, perfect after brisk days outdoors. The hotel is well-located for exploring Harris. Double rooms from £170 (01859 502364, hotel-hebrides.com).
Loch Roag Guest House is a warm, friendly B&B just down the road from the Callanish Stones, with clean, comfortable rooms. Home-cooked meals are served in the restaurant, which looks out towards the loch. Double rooms from £145 (lochroag.com/).
Lews Castle in Stornoway is a characterful 19th century castle overlooking the town of Stornoway, with towers, turrets, and gargoyles. Built in the 1840s as a country house, it had been left unused for decades before a major restoration project brought it back to life. It now has self-catering apartments and room-only hotel rooms, with breakfast available from 10am at the castle’s Storehouse Cafe (reduced opening hours during winter). Double rooms cost from £149 (togethertravel.com).
Accommodation on the island gets booked up early, so make reservations and plan in advance.
There are many different ways to explore Harris and Lewis, including these adventures:
Stornoway Seafaris (stornowayseafri.com) provide rib boat tours around the sea lochs and along the coast of Lewis, with a chance to see abundant bird life (eagles, puffins, white-tailed sea eagle, red deer, guillemots, kittiwakes, and razorbills), as well as dolphins, porpoises, seals, and orcas – all dependent on the season and on luck. All trips leave from Stornoway harbour and are dependent on weather. Guests are kitted out with toasty floatation suits. 1½-hour trips (£39), a 2½-hour whales and dolphin trips (£69), and four-hour trips (£99), the latter going right to the bird-rich Shiant Isles, are available.
Roads around Harris and Lewis are fantastic to drive. They’re even more exciting on two wheels. Bespoke Bicycles (bespokebicycles.co.uk) can arrange bike hire for £35 per day. Be aware that weather conditions around the Hebrides can be very wet and windy – bring appropriate clothing.