The road to the isles

There is something really enchanting about the Isle of Harris, in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. This really is a place to get away from it all.

Let’s be quite clear. This is not a destination for someone who enjoys basking by the poolside, or smoozing around sophisticated hotels, restaurants and bars. Shopaholics will find only traditional grocery stores, plus the occasional arts and crafts studio and, of course the essential knitwear or Harris Tweed shop and workshop. Harris Tweed of course was recently brought to the fashion forefront again with the Nike trainers, or sneakers, that famously featured the cloth that can only be woven on Harris or Lewis.

Sunset over Pabbay

The sun sets behind Pabbay in the Sound of Harris

So this is not a very commercialised society. Extremely welcoming, friendly and with a strong belief in providing hospitality.

Before heading to the Isle of Harris also recognise that most facilities only operate six days a week. Sunday observance is still strong in the islands (where Sunday is more normally called the “Sabbath”).

Not that you will be thrown out of your guest house, or hotel. The islanders’ hospitality would not allow that. But the ferries don’t run, virtually all shops are shut and restaurants that are not part of hotels or guest houses are likely to be shut.

Oh, and one more thing. During the summer months – in calm reasonably mild conditions – you may fall prey to the dreaded Scottish midge. These little blighters seldom cause any real harm, but their tiny itching bites can cause grown men to take cover in sheer frustration.

Having been to the Isle of Harris last as a teenager I was fearing the worst. I thought that the latter part of the 20th Century and the first few years of the 21st might have changed the island. It hasn’t. At least not substantially.

There are a few more guest houses, a few more tourist shops, visitor centres, restaurants and cafes. But, other than that, it is still the same.

The Toe of Harris from Northton

The islanders still treat door locks as optional. I dread the day that level of trust is abused.

So what are the attractions?

Well the weather is always a talking point. Apart from St Kilda and Rockall, and the west coast of Ireland, this is the last outpost of Europe before America. With most weather patterns for Britain coming in over the Atlantic, the weather changes quickly here and there are precious few trees to shelter from the ocean wind. So the air is sweet and unpolluted, but it can equally well be salt-laden and biting – even in the summer.

So, you just have to accept that the weather is a lottery. You may strike it lucky with a warm sunny spell the summer. The good thing is that the weather patterns can change quickly. As some seasoned visitors will say, ‘if you don’t like the weather, now, just wait 20 minutes’.

Scarista beach

One of the many glorious beaches, this one at Scarista

Those who come to the Isle of Harris, then, are people who appreciate the beauty, the unspoiled nature of the place and the traditional island values.

There are a high proportion of islanders who will use Scottish Gaelic (pronounced gah-lick as opposed to Irish gay-lick) in everyday speech. It is also used on road signs. But the good news for most visitors is that English is spoken everywhere – often with a captivating, soft-spoken Hebridean accent.

The mountain and seascapes are superb. The beaches – even when chilly and windswept – look absolutely stunning. And the sunsets can be breathtaking.

Blackhouse Arnol

Inside the blackhouse at Arnol

You should plan to visit one of the blackhouse museums. We would recommend a trip north to Arnol in Lewis to see the Historic Scotland blackhouse. You get a real sense of how the islanders lived up until the early part of last century in these dry-stone thatched cottages, with a peat fire in the middle of the floor. The smoke simply rose to the rafters and seeped out through the thatch. The resulting soot, giving the blackhouses their name.

You can do Arnol as part of a loop, taking in Stornoway, the main town on Lewis, crossing to the west coast for Arnol and returning by Dun Carloway broch and the highly-impressive standing stones of Callanish.

Callanish standing stones

The impressive standing stones at Callanish

To get to the Isle of Harris, you can fly to Stornoway on the Island of Lewis and hire a car to drive to Harris. Although described as two separate islands, Lewis and Harris are joined together. Amazingly, together they constitute the third largest island in the British Isles – behind only the mainland and Ireland.

Alternatively you can take the ferry. Our favourite is the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry from Uig in the Isle of Skye, taking one hour 40 minutes to cross the Minch to Tarbert in Harris. The good news is that road-equivalent tariff introduction has recently slashed the cost of taking a car to the islands.

Either way, be aware that the roads on the Isle of Harris are not for the foolhardy or the fainthearted. Some sections of road are single track, that is the are the width of only one car. So you are quite likely to meet on-coming traffic head-on at a blind bend!

We recommend a four, or five-day, trip. We based ourselves at An t’Ob (or Leverburgh as it was named by soap baron Lord Leverhulme when he sought to build his industrial miracle on the island in the early part of last century). We stayed at the Grimisdale guest house and found it an ideal, comfortable and most welcoming location. It is for sale at the moment, but hopefully the new owners will maintain the very high standards set by the current owner.

For evening meals we frequented the Anchorage bar and restaurant which is right down at the terminal for the ferry to the Uists. After a meal washed down by Hebridean beer it was breathtaking to watch the sun set behind the Isle of Pabbay in the Sound of Harris.

It’s things like that which make the Isle of Harris a great destination!
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