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Lewis and Harris: The Third British Isle

Published
September 16, 2022
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The following blog post is based on a chapter in my new book, The Scottish Isles: Part 2: Skye and the Outer Hebrides. The first volume, The Scottish Isles: Part 1: Shetlands, Orkneys and Hebrides is currently on sale at a reduced price, US $2.99 for the Kindle and US $9.99 for the paperback. The two front covers follow, after which the post begins.

FROM UIG on Skye I sailed to Harris, the southern part of the isle of Lewis and Harris: the biggest island in all the Hebrides.

Lewis and Harris, distinguished by a darker shade of grey for Harris, in relation to the islands nearby and the Scottish mainland

From Leverburgh in Harris to the Butt of Lewis is 58 miles or 93 km as the crow flies, so it is a big island. In fact, Lewis and Harris is the third largest of the British Isles after Ireland.

And the most populated of the Hebrides as well. About 21,000 people live on Lewis and Harris, 12,000 of them in Stornoway, which is also the biggest town in the Hebrides.

As to why the island is referred to as though it were two islands, this is because the part called Lewis, most of it north of a line that runs between Loch Reasort and Loch Seaforth, is fairly flat, while the area to the south of the line, called Harris, is very mountainous. So, it is like two islands stuck together.

At Tarbert, Harris is itself divided into North Harris and South Harris.

Along with the ferry to Tarbert from Skye, you can catch a ferry to Stornoway from Ullapool on the Scottish mainland. There is also an airport at Stornoway. Once on the island, you can catch the bus service that runs on its rather limited road network. The bus service takes you to most of the attractions if you time it right, though the service is not very frequent.

I parked in the overflow car park at Uig and would have had to wait for four days if I had not booked. I used booking dot com and it put me on the Isle of Bute!

The ferry from Uig took two hours, and they served food on the ferry.

Uig on Skye, from where I set sail for Tarbert on Harris

Arriving in Tarbert, it was clear that I was in a much more exposed and less verdant sort of a place than Skye.

Coming into Tarbert

Tarbert

I assumed I would be able to find a place to stay in Tarbert. But Tarbert was full, I rang five places. It wasn’t a big town, and in fact, it only had one café. But I found that Tarbert was served by a very good bus service that led out of town, to Stornoway.

I discovered this lovely family-run place in Stornoway called the Heb Hostel. They provided breakfast with tea and coffee, and even provided tinfoil that you could wrap your lunch in.

That was fortunate. You normally had to pre-book in Stornoway as well, because all the accommodation was sold out.

As soon as I arrived, I went into a women’s dorm room, where I met a couple of interesting women, a woman from Wales called Anne, and a woman called Natasha who was doing a PhD or proposing to do one, on crofting.

Natasha came from Aberdeen but had spent time in Inverness. And apparently, they had even been planning to put a motorway through Culloden and she had been very much opposed to that.

That night we went to a ceilidh, because the father of the woman who owned the hostel, Christina, played in a band. And so, we spent the night ceilidh dancing, which was great. I really enjoyed Stornoway.

What also impressed me was that there was a historical society and that many people spoke Gaelic, even in the town.

The Stornoway Historical Society

We went to the Scottish Free Church. The service lasted for an hour and a half. Natasha was trying to get contacts for her PhD. She said that when she was young, women had to wear a hat and a dress in the church. But she was only 25. So, it wasn’t that long ago.

There were heaps of things that were on in Stornoway. All the same, nearly everything is closed on Sundays because of religion. I walked around town, but I could not get into the museum.

But the hotels were all open on Sunday, and you could eat out at any of the hotels. The average meal is 15 or 16 pounds. There were only little food shops in Tarbert, but in Stornoway there is a Tesco and a lot more choices. There is also a Malaysian Chinese restaurant, a pizza restaurant, and so on. And there was the ceilidh.

I should add that when I went to the ceilidh, I was in my hiking boots. So, I didn’t really dance!

All the women were wearing skirts apart from me, in my hiking pants. I didn’t even have jeans. I had come very light with a tent and the bare minimum of mountaineering clothes in case I had to do wild camping or cook my own food.


Martin’s Memorial Church, Stornoway

Stornoway

The Stornoway Town Hall

Stornoway Social Life

More of the social life!

Stornoway was where all the services are located, such as the information centre.

Stornoway information centre

The museum in Stornoway, the Museum of the Isles, is part of the local castle, Lews Castle: formerly the seat of Lord Leverhulme, who owned most of Lewis and Harris in the early twentieth century.

The Gate Lodge of Lews Castle, Stornoway

Another thing I discovered was that a lot of the land in the Outer Hebrides is held in communal trusts.

The North Harris Trust, one of the communal land trusts on
the Outer Hebrides

About half the inhabitants of the Outer Hebrides speak Gaelic still and are, in a sense, an indigenous people, complete with the usual history of dispossession.

In the 1700s and 1800s many were driven off what they thought was their land but which, in law, belonged to some lord or lady or even to a business corporation. The indigenous subsistence farmers and fishers were evicted in favour of commercial sheep farms, commercial fishing, and other commercial uses of the land.

Later on, some of the lands were regained by the locals and turned into the trusts.

Harris, the southern part of the island, is also famous for Harris Tweed.

Harris Tweed Shop

Harris Tweed Bags

Harris Tweed

In Stornoway, Anne, Natasha and I had decided that the next day we were going to Callanish, on the west side of the island, to see the famous prehistoric standing stones outside that village.

We went to the standing stones at Callanish by bus. You take one bus, they all leave late in the morning, at ten o clock, and another bus will pick you up later.

The rain was torrential, and I was wearing my ski jacket, which I hadn’t worn skiing in New Zealand, either. Luckily, though, I managed to get a few photos in better light, as the sun peeped between the clouds.

There are two sets of standing stones, on opposite sides of the village of Callanish.

And there was an amazing visitor centre built next to an old homestead, with a luxurious restaurant and café.

Sign pointing to the visitor centre at Callanish

Callanish information panel

The Visitor Centre at Callanish

This photo, and the next six that follow, are of the standing stones at Callanish

A selfie at Callanish: as you can see, the stones are otherworldly!

I made a video of Stornoway, including the ceilidh, and our visit to Callanish.

Here are a few more photos of the countryside, which is fairly rugged in many places indeed.

Unfortunately, I missed out on Carloway Broch, the blackhouses at Arnol and Garenin (which you can actually stay in), and the museums and Iron Age houses at Bernera and Uig, the same name as the town from which I left Skye. These are all quite close together on the northwest coast of Lewis and are marked on the map above.

On the other side, Garry Beach is said to be the best beach on Lewis. A ‘bridge to nowhere’ just north of Garry Beach was built at the command of Lord Leverhulme, the last great landowner on Lewis. The bridge is called the bridge to nowhere because the road it serves peters out at that point. The road was intended to run all the way to the Butt of Lewis, but it was never completed.

Heading down into North Harris, you find yourself in golden eagle country. The North Harris Eagle Observatory, northwest of Tarbert, is worth a visit to try and spot some of these magnificent birds.

The North Harris town of Rhenigidale is also supposed to be at the end of the best hike in Britain, very high up in the mountains of Harris and then down to the sea.

I will have to visit those places next time as well. But in the meantime, just the ordinary terrain of North Harris is very attractive. Scenic routes include the Golden Road, a narrow and winding road along the northeast coast of Harris.

North Harris

A North Harris lake
The Golden Road

I returned to South Harris, on my way to the islands to the south.

In South Harris, I visited a string of really beautiful beaches on the west coast. Beaches which, as in many other places on the Outer Hebrides, had white coralline sand.

A typical Hebridean beach scene, which I photographed either on Lewis or Harris

These white coralline sands make the beaches look tropical, though of course they are not!

Northton Beach, South Harris

Scarista Beach

A selfie on a Harris beach

Another beach scene

I made a video of the beaches as well.

Here is a satellite view of the South Harris beaches that I visited. Don’t they look amazing?

Beach localities on the west coast of South Harris. Detail from a Copernicus Sentinel-2 image with names added for this post. European Space Agency, 28 June 2018, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO via Wikimedia Commons.

From Luskentyre Beach to the beach at Scarista, past the beaches of Seilebost, Horgabost, Nisabost, and Borve, you would travel about ten kilometres if you were moving in a straight line.

So, as you can see, some of the sandy areas are quite big, especially at the northern and southern ends of this stretch of coast.

You can see lots of attractive aerial photos of these beaches online, especially the one at Seilebost just south of Luskentyre, which is often inundated by shallow, turquoise waters. The combination of turquoise waters and white coralline sands make the beaches look tropical on a sunny day, though of course they are not!

On the peninsula between Horgabost and Nisabost there stands the solitary McLeod’s Stone, and there is another standing stone at Scarista.

And I got some photos of the distinctive machair landscape of the coastal areas, in which the soil is made up of carbonate (lime) sands from ground-up seashells and the strange pseudo-coral that grows around the Scottish coast as well.

Machair landscape

Machair landscape

The Machair, which is farmed, and which was traditionally fertilised with seaweed, gradually gives way to consolidated sandhills and hill-farms.

Sandhills

A boat on a slope

Two little donkeys

At Northton, just south of Scarista, there is also a cluster of offbeat cafes and local produce shops, along with an old, ruined chapel just along the coast called the Temple. It was one of my favourite places on the islands.

The Temple Cafe and MacGillivaray Centre

Croft 36: sustainable local shop and cafe

The Entrance to Croft 36

I also came across signs announcing the fact that I was on the Hebridean Way, the great, twin, walking and cycling route that runs the length of the Outer Hebrides for 156 miles on the walking route, and 186 miles (nearly300 km) on the cycle touring route.

The Hebridean Way

And then I arrived in Leverburgh, to get the ferry to South Uist. Leverburgh is a significant ferry port from which coastal island cruises and trips to the extra-remote islands of St Kilda also depart.

The Leverburgh Ferry Terminal

St Kilda Flyer

Leverburgh

Leverburgh has a great coop shop as well, the Harris Community Shop.

The Leverburgh Coop Shop

The only drawback is that it is a bit of a walk from town to the ferry terminal, about one and a half kilometres or one mile to be precise.

Signs pointing to the ferry terminal at Leverburgh
As you can see, the ferry takes cars

Departing from the ferry terminal

My next stop was to be the small island of Berneray, linked by causeway to North Uist.

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