For us – the pagan souls, lovers of history, nature, and people, who would rather shied from commercialism, crowds and McDonalds – it was certainly the best holiday in years. These islands have been on our list since the seven years, when we visited one island of archipelago in the Inner Hebrides – Isle of Skye. It seemed to us that Skye is a wild, untamed and beautiful. We still think it is beautiful (this year we passed it through twice), but after what we saw what is happening on Harris, Lewis and Great Berner, we believe that Skye is an idyll in the picture, and the true wildness is located on the north west of it. The same can be said about the Orkney, who we drove through (sailed them) a few years ago – beautiful, but not as wild as it seemed to us. Besides, the Outer Hebrides, mainly Harris and Lewis, are amazing islands of contrasts, the landscape is changing even here every few miles.
If anyone had any doubts, the archipelago belongs to Scotland, but it was not always like so, and was under the custody or the Scandinavian countries, but it was a long time ago and have not. From the ancient times survived Gaelic dialect, and if in other parts of Scotland we have seen it on signs, information boards, newspapers and TV, on the Outer Hebrides we could also hear it on the streets. Names of some of the places I'm not able to repeat till today. In those names English is not the leading language although it is the official language and everyone uses it.
The main islands of Lewis and Harris archipelago (in fact this is one piece of land, but divided administratively) we got by the ferry from the Isle of Skye, on which you can luckily cross the bridge from the mainland Scotland (but the ferry floats there too), and then from the village of Uig( beautifully located!) we sailed to Tarbert. The first impression of the islands viewed from the ferry? That they are bare. Meaning they are rocky and treeless. The second impression as we drove over the Bay of Seaforth (on the border of the northern part, which is the island of Lewis, and southern – Harris), over which we had booked a bungalow – was the same: Harris is bare. Rocky, treeless, cut by bays and lakes and pieces of land overgrown with rather poor grass. Our first thought – lunar. Then we found out that it is the same kind of rock that occurs on the Moon. The road to the bungalow went on bends, bleeds and hills, under which we had to “climb” with our car, and often inhibit (that is why our 4x4 smoked like a dragon!), because the sheep feel instantly like at home and if they consider that the roadside grass grows better, they will be on the road or pass it through, and they would do it rather slowly.
The main road connecting the north and the south are narrow and winding, but there are two lanes, one for each direction. However, the greater part of other roads leading to interesting places is very narrow in places and there are spots where cars can pass each other, so-called passing places. Hence the distance to travel may not be long, but you can’t drive fast. Anyway, the views are so beautiful that it would be a shame to miss something during a fast drive. So we didn’t notice any presence of the police at all, and when one day at total shithole my beloved need to change a wheel in the rain (the only rainy day in over a week), we were passed by four or five cars in twenty minutes time and all drivers stopped and offered help.
There are some parts of Harris that look as if a giant has passed through them, throwing rocks, and they stopped on the slopes, and they lie such way for thousands of years. Hence, an irregular thickening of the islands. As for the houses, the area does not allow for a dense, regular buildings. On the other hand, there are other parts of that look like Caribbean beaches with white, powdery sand. On the beach on a hot Sunday Luskentyre was quite crowdy, as stated by one local lady (most of the local are happy to talk with tourists), meaning a dozen of people. On weekdays on a cloudy day we met two people on it. And so it was everywhere, even though we were there in June, in which there has been already a lot of movement on the islands and we barely managed to reserve an interesting accommodation and ferries eight weeks before departure. Slightly more traffic could be noticed nearby the archaeological curiosities. But I've never noticed crowd or noises.
Mountains in the Western Isles are not high, but they look pretty monumental, and on a cloudy day they evoke the associations with Tolkien's Mordor. The higher the north towards end of Lewis you will go, the more green and flat the area is. But do not let fool yourself – the Butt of Lewis, the northern end of it, is a powerful cliffs beautifully carved by water over many, many years. We were very lucky – while we were strolling along the cliff, at the bottom of the rocks a seal was floating. On the same day we saw dolphins close to the beach a few kilometers on the south (the neighborhood of the Bridge to Nowhere).
South-western part of Lewis, called Uig, looks, in turn, like a land of fertility – the most green, slightly woody and the least rocky part of the island. There also is the most fertile pastures and therefore over the years most of the people (crofters – it is a topic for a separate text) were deported from there to the more rocky parts of the island. The reason for this was the intention to increase the amount of grazing land, which, in turn, often forced people to emigration (mostly to Canada and the United States), because life on the east coast between the rocks was more difficult. The lack of tree and a very high cost of importing coal caused that people have found other ways to heat their homes – in fireplaces and stoves is burning peat, in which the islands is rich. Pieces of cut turf and left on the fields to dry, and then collected and stacked in front of houses are a common view.
Caution! On Sundays, you will buy nothing, not refuel and probably you will not be able to eat anything out (only two bars are open across Lewis and Harris!). For centuries, mainly belonging to the Church of Scotland, the islanders were so religious that celebrated the holy day. Full stop. The tradition is celebrated till today. This has its charm, but on Sunday we were close to starve to death, I will write about it in a text devoted to cuisine.
Gearrannan Village – located on the Atlantic Coast, traditional stone houses (one is open to tourists and kept in the old style), a small museum, cafe, rent houses. Admission fee (penny matters!).
Doune Broch – one of the best preserved buildings from the Iron Age in Scotland. Additionally a small building for guests with mini market, information about the building, a small exhibition, an amiable mister (migrant, living in the Western Isles for six years), who speaks perfectly Eton English, and he does not understand his own children who are learning in school in Gaelic. Free admission.
Bostah – Iron Age house beautifully situated near the beach and the old cemetery. Admission for adults (above 16 years of age) is voluntarily paid, the suggested price is £3. In the middle of the house you will meet a lovely lady guarding the fire and telling the story of the place. She answers the questions very happy and thoroughly and is open to discussion.
Harris Tweed – the flagship product of the Harris Island, one of the best tweeds manufactured by small producers using the traditional method. Through the process of tweed creation, its history, the opportunity to buy many products from tweed will carry you most of the shops with those articles on the islands, but an interesting place for tourists is probably the best stocked shop (next to the marina in Tarbert Ferry) combined with a small exhibition (admission free, but donations are down on) in the south of Harris (village Drinishader; signs “Harris Tweed and Knitwear” on the road south of Tarbert, left turn). Products made of tweed can be purchased at many stores, and the most elegant one in the capital, which is Stornoway, but they are also the most tedious and expensive. However, if you want to go into the studio and feel like it was 100 years ago, talk to a man, who is very talkative and hyperactive physically (and an extremely likable in the same time), in Stornoway is also such address (the store is located as if it was hidden in the back yard of one of the main streets of Cromwell Street/Bayhead, you can recognize it by s small table with packs of tweed attached to it).
St. Clement’s Church – beautifully situated, medieval architecture plus a unique collection of some tombstones that are examples of medieval art of the highest caliber. Inside there are the bulletin boards, outside the old cemetery, close the gate, because the sheep are getting themselves into. If the church was closed, the keys can be collected from a nearby hotel The admission is free.
The islands are a paradise for those who are interested in birds. There is a bunch of interesting species here (puffins and oysters are the most flagship), most of which can be seen in and around the cliffs and water, and in the north Harris there is an eagles’ observatory, to which leads an interesting route for walkers. Boat trips to sea are organized by several companies and they also guarantee an opportunity to observe seals, dolphins and basking sharks.
Beaches worth to visit are Luskentyre, Garry Beach, Traigh Mhor – Tolsta, Uig Sands, Scarista, Hushinish. All the beaches are very clean, the tides are large and regular, it is worth to remembering. Water is crystal clear, although it is quite cold in summer (13°C), but in the winter its temperature does not drop below 9°C, which is conducive for surfing in the foam throughout the year.
We were at the Outer Hebrides in the second week of June and then the complete darkness lasted only about 2.5 a day. On the night of the summer solstice, when the weather is nice, and the sky is cloudless, it isn’t getting dark at all. In winter, there are only five hours of daylight, but when heavy clouds will appear, for the most of the day there is a twilight. But you can watch the northern lights. Winter time is a time of huge storms – it is said that waves breaking on the cliffs are spectacular. The islands have a unique climate – wet, but it is quite mild. Sunlight is quite distinctive – it highlights nicely landscape, mountains, lakes, bays look beautifully in the play of lights and shadows. Horizons are long and undisturbed with unnecessary objects. Sunsets and sunrises are extremely picturesque. When you come on the archipelago, you need to remember that the weather may change three times a day and you should be prepared for that. One thing is certain – in all circumstances, whether it is a sunny day, or in the drizzle, the islands do not lose their charm.
We'll come back for sure, because there is one thing I do not get to see, and about which I will write, when I will finish reading a book about the history of the Hirt Island. This island is part of the archipelago of St. Kild – the extreme outer edge and populated by people area of the UK, from where the last residents were evacuated in 1930 (now a small group of scientists and people involved with the Ministry of Defense live there). You can get there from the South Harris. The history is quite exciting, unusual and worthy of a separate text. The expedition, organized by the two companies, is rather expensive (£ 190 per person), and he stays on Hirt takes a few hours (the journey is long, it's about 60 miles one way, and as well the sea as the are fickle here), but apparently it is an unforgettable experience. This is the only place in the UK and one of the few in the world which has a double status of UNESCO - because of its unique natural and cultural character. I think that a journey to this place is the absolute icing on the cake, and for us an excuse to go back to the Outer Hebrides. Although to be honest, I'm telling you – we do not need an excuse. We're both in love with this place and we are still under its charm.