4-6 October: A jaunt around the Outer Hebrides

Author: Mr A

Location: The Isles of Harris and Lewis, Outer Hebrides, Scotland, UK

The Outer Hebrides…I just like saying the name as it conjures up in my mind images of being really “out there”. Actually the reality is a bit different, but still very appealing.

We watched from the top deck of the ferry as the island of Harris appeared and our tiny debarkation point of Tarbert. Now, firstly lets clear something up. The island of Harris is joined to the island of Lewis. They aren’t seperate islands but are referred to as seperate. Make sense? No, didn’t to us either. There are various explanations given, like different clans distinguishing their own territory, or the geography in that a range of mountains makes access between the two difficult, or at least used to. We quite happily pottered from one to the other. So with that muddy water stirred up let me just add that the Outer Hebrides is sometimes called the Western Isles, and the main reason you might have heard of Harris (Harris Tweed) is mostly made in Lewis. All clear now?

So Harris is split geographically into the quite bumpy North Harris and the flatter South Harris. We were sort of in the middle when we landed at the dinky ferry port of Tarbert. So how do people in Tarbert explain where they live? “Well I’m in the middle of North and South Harris, in the Harris end of Harris and Lewis in the Outer Hebrides come Western Isles”? Perplexing…

Harris in red to the south, and Lewis to the north

I had called ahead to book us dinner at the Harris Hotel, using my usual gambit to secure a free night’s accomodation of “So we’d like to book dinner, but as we are travelling in a motorhome I wonder if you could advise of anywhere to stay within walking distance. We intend to order a decent bottle of red and are not keen to drive”. I know Tarbert doesn’t have a campsite. I got the response I was hoping for. “Well we have a large car park, feel free to use that if you would like”. Sorted…and £25 saved towards that bottle of red.

But our first stop was metres from the ferry point, the Harris Distillery. This imposing looking building was made possible through the combination of EU grants and the backing of a Scots born ex CEO of Monsanto. His US$77 million payout might have helped. You would assume a distillery in Scotland produces whiskey…nope..its gin. Gin has made them profitable in these gin fuelled times. They are distilling whiskey, but its not available for sale yet. We loved the gin. Apparently its differentiator is the sugar kelp (yup, seaweed) infused in their copper gin still, and gathered by a virgin diver (poetic license) from the pristine waters around the island. Great to see a business like this doing well in such a geographically remote corner of the UK.

One bottle of Harris Gin thank you very much…in fact we ended up buying two!
A modern tasting room inside a building that used to be a church
One of the distillers – clearly a cat lover so he deserves to be included here!

Well our dinner at the Harris Hotel was absolutely gorgeous, everything that had been missing on Skye. A friendly barmaid welcomed us, the atmosphere was cosy, and the food….scrumptious. After a quick perusal of the menu, with no conferring, we both as usual made exactly the same choices. Too much time together harmonising our tastes? Locally caught herring for entree, followed by the plumpest scallops I’ve ever seen, with locally grown veg that tasted like it had been dug up that afternoon. What a feast. Our first meal out since Edinburgh. We tried hard to eat out in Skye but nothing tempted.

Look at the size of those scallops! Delicious!

The one time we went out in Skye intending to eat, the barmaid (we later learned also licensee) was so rude we had one beer and left. Disappointing…but Harris delivered in spades. I wonder why Skye was so poor? Other friends who visited had said the same. Too many visitors and not enough incentive to try hard? Who knows…

The next morning we headed off to explore South Harris, known for its spectacular sandy beaches. Apparently an advert for a Thailand holiday destination was caught using a shot of one of them. They were beautiful, but we only had to step out from behind the glass of our windscreen into the biting wind to be very clear we were not anywhere that either of us was going to be going for a paddle.

Incredible colours, you can see the inspiration for the Harris Tweed
There are more wooly residents on these islands than people
One of the many magical views
Just birds on these untouched beaches, perfection

We stopped to buy some home made mustard from a roadside stall, then paused in amazement when we saw the price. £6.50 (AU$12)for 200ml jar! I’m all for supporting local businesses but hard to feel that was value for money, so sorry mustard maker, we will make do with the beautiful small batch seeded mustard we brought in France for a quarter of that price.

Down at the most southerly point of Harris – we wondered what life is like for the residents of this little house with a fine view
Peat bogs are plentiful and there is much evidence of it being dug for fuel…here on an estuary it looks like little islands
As the rain and wind sets in for the afternoon and we head north, the scenery changes
More atmospheric scenery as we head in to Lewis

The edge of the bad weather that has been drenching the UK caught us, the rain came down and so we spent longer than usual in the car driving up through the island (islands?) to Lewis. I was keen to visit the standing stones at Calanais, or is it Callanish Standing Stones? They are variously named and spelled differently just to keep us visitors on our toes, even after we have worked out the whole Harris and Lewis thing. Anyway, another one of those mysteries I love, with archeologists mystified about the significance of the location and function of these other circles in the area. In fact this one isn’t even really a circle, but flat on one side. So for 5,000 years the people who have lived here have been trying to mislead and confuse…I like it.

Trying to read the messages of the stones
There is certainly a particular atmosphere here
Are they meant to be seen as giants from the sea, here to scare off the Vikings? Or are they a ceremonial meeting place?
We marvel ant the centuries of stories these stones could tell, if they could only speak

We dutifully watched the video in information centre and left no wiser understanding what the people who once put so much effort into dragging around these stones were trying to do. Its a bleak old place today, and we weren’t outside that long before hot chocolates back at the visitor centre seemed the wise choice.

The site we had been trying to call to confirm a place for the night had not been answering the phone, so we just rocked up to see a closed sign on the signpost! We had checked their web site and Google page – nothing left to warn people. OK we were pissed. How long does it take to record a message on your phone saying “we are closed for the season”, or change your Google Maps entry? Clearly too much effort for these folk. However, there was a free spot marked on one of our apps just down the road, and check out this view!

Our own private car park and beach
The view from our window

We had it all to ourselves while the rain lashed down and the wind howled. Our LPG run heating system got a workout, and a Thai jungle curry from Mrs A warmed us from the inside out and a Harris gin went down a treat.

Our local beach on a morning stroll, Truffy in the background

So another £20 in camp fees saved. We are warm, dry and have enough power from our 12v system to run all we need and can have a lovely hot shower in the morning without venturing across a campground in the cold and wet. I just have the job of emptying our toilet somewhere tomorrow. Not a bad trade for a lovely view and a few extra pounds to spend. In places that don’t have “No overnight camping” signs on every piece of flat land, it is quite lovely.

Our final day in the island of….well lets call it Lewis, although when we arrived in Stornaway this morning, the castle was called Lews Castle. the mystery continues. We have a mooch around the harbour in the drizzle, all rugged up and wondering where all the people are going as there’s not a single place open in town…except the church. Well its been a long time since I’ve witnessed this, people are dressed up in their Sunday best, three piece suits, ties – the lot, and going to a service of some kind. Ah well, each to their own. We make our way down to the ferry wharf and trundle Truffy on. He’s getting to be quite an experienced ferry traveller now!

Stornaway harbour looking colourful on this gloomy Sunday morning
Wrapped up warm against the drizzle but still smiling
We stood and watched a seal fishing in the bay in front of us

Goodbye Outer Hebrides, welcome Western Isles, its been an experience we will always remember, even if they like to keep you guessing out here 🙂

Lewis Castle front and centre as we pull away from the island of Lewis
Our first sight of the mainland of Scotland
We are first vehicle off into port – welcome to Ullapool, Scotland….

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