Isle of Harris: Harris in the summer

After getting married on the Isle of Skye in June, we caught the ferry from Uig and crossed the Minch to the Isle of Harris for a week-long honeymoon. The islands had been a distant backdrop to parts of our wedding day in the knowledge that we would be spending a special time out there.

We went to Harris for the solitude, landscapes and wildlife and we weren’t disappointed but there are other sides to the island that are very worth exploring, and I’ll start with those first…

Harris is foodie heaven with all sorts of local produce to sample. One of the island’s most recent and increasingly famous exports is its gin. The distillery is nestled in Tarbert, the largest village on the island, and stands proud as a welcoming sight as passengers disembark the ferry. The gin’s bottle is as well-known as the very good gin itself, the glass designed to reflect the scenery of the island and the colour of the seas washing over the spectacular beaches. We had a tour around the distillery which primarily focused on the main reason for the place’s existence; to produce whisky. However, the first releases have yet to become available as the distillers are waiting for perfect moment when the maturing process had brought the flavours they have been waiting for. In the meantime, the much quicker to produce gin has been doing a roaring trade. The tour was excellent, with an opportunity to try the unaged whisky spirit and an existing whisky produced elsewhere which is similar in flavours to the one the distillers expect to release. I can’t wait for the first bottles of the Harris whisky to become available to the public but there’s no sign of it yet – I suspect it will sell out very quickly.

There’s more to Harris food and drink than just gin (and eventually whisky), however. There is a great range of small producers selling directly to the public and new and novel ways to buy it. Croft 36 is a particular favourite, selling a range of homemade, and very high quality, ready meals and baked goods out of a shed at the southern end of the island at Northton. We had quite a few meals from honesty box-style shed and were very grateful to them for setting some meals aside for us so that we could pick them up on the day we arrived – they often sell out very quickly each day, so if you leave it late, you may miss out! 

We also visited Lorna’s larder for lunch. What looks to be a typical road-side food van actually serves outstanding seafood to its very plentiful customers who pop-in as they pass or travel some distance especially. When we called by, one of us had monkfish, chorizo and scallop skewers and the other had a seafood tasting box of monkfish, haddock and calamari, both served with great and plentiful chips.

The other gastronomic highlight of our stay was an evening at Flavour; it is an usual restaurant out on a business park on the road between Tarbert and Scalpay. We managed to book the only taxi on the island (it would serve anyone well to book early!) to take us from our cottage to the restaurant meaning we could have a drink with the food that thoroughly deserves to be accompanied by a good glass or two. The restaurant is unusual in that diners all sit down together, in one sitting, all at shared tables in the kitchen. The five tables of four get to watch the chef (Chris Loye) and his team prepare an eight-course tasting menu in front of their eyes and Chris takes his time to both explain each of the dishes to the guests and then wander between the tables for a chat. I have to say, the food was spectacularly good and worthy of top restaurants in major cities, so to find such greatness in a business unit on the outskirts of a village in the Outer Hebrides was a very pleasant and thoroughly enjoyable surprise to the say the least. 

Since I was last on Harris some of the local shops have improved and the community shop down at the southern end of the island, at Leverburgh, was great. It sold a mixture Co-op branded products and great local produce meaning that my expectation that we should take a lot of food with us from Skye, was totally misplaced. Through a combination of the community shops, small pop-up shops and a variety of eateries, you can eat very well on Harris and there’s much that you will want to cram into your luggage to take home with you too!

Moving on from the food, most people must surely go to Harris for the scenery. Having been to all of the larger Outer Hebridean islands, and quite a few of the Inner Hebrides and Orkney, I think it’s true to say that Harris has a landscape all of its own (although with hints of elsewhere). There are two distinct parts of Harris; the North and the South. North Harris appears to be part of the much larger Isle of Lewis but the landscapes of the two islands are vastly different. Lewis is largely flat, or, at least, very lightly rolling but North Harris is the most mountainous part of the Outer Hebrides with a high, winding mountain pass connecting South Harris to Lewis. Whilst South Harris has hills, they are generally not as high as in the North and the landscape is much more varied. A large proportion of the South is moorland which appears to be mostly more rock than vegetation, and this is particularly marked on the east coast as you drive up the Bays Road and Golden Road. This deeply indented eastern coastline, dotted with small villages and hamlets, is where many families wear cleared to from the much more green and lush west coast. The west is where you find the fabulous beaches of Scarista, Mhor, Borve, Lar, Niosaboist, Seilebost and, most famous of all, Luskentyre. This last beach is simply spectacular and, perhaps, by my experience, the best beach in Scotland. Its shallow gradually sloping sands are vast when exposed as the tide goes out but when the sea comes back in, the blue, greens and turquoises of the water lapping over the light-coloured sand are something anyone who loves beaches should go to see. At the western end of the beach, the views are provided with a backdrop of the North Harris mountains, which together with the beach, has to be one of my favourite views.

On Harris, you very much feel at the edge of the world; facing west, only St Kilda sits between Harris and North America. Travelling around the island, there are constant glimpses of the other Outer Hebrides, Skye, other Inner Hebrides and the mainland behind. These are places of big skies and big seas. Being on Harris in June, the daylight hours were long and the full darkness never descended across the land. The days could be warm with the strong sun beating down and any shelter making the sun’s rays felt. However, rough weather is never far away and it changes almost by the minute. My two stays on Harris have coincided with lovely hot weather at home in central England but that never quite reached where I was staying. This time on Harris, we sat out on the cottage decking with evening G&T’s and had sunny walks along the beaches but we also had to pack and wear our full wet-weather gear; packing for all four seasons is a must for a trip to Harris.

An island on the edge means that it has the wildlife of the edge. Our times spent watching that wildlife started with that ferry crossing and it continued each day afterwards until our crossing back. There were more seabirds around that I’ve seen before on a crossing of The Minch with razorbills, guillemots, black guillemots, cormorants, shags, kittiwakes and other gulls, gannets, max shearwaters and puffins aplenty. There were also several pods of porpoise breaking the surface of the water but most memorable of all were the three separate minkie whales, including one that leapt almost clear of the water before landing with a large splash not far off the port side of the ferry’s bow.

Once on land, we saw a good range of birdlife counting nearly 60 species combined with those seen at sea. On top of the seabirds, we saw golden eagle several times including watching one being mobbed by two (possible) merlins as we walked the Coffin Road. On the same walk we also had great views of a greenshank mobbing us as we crossed the moorland. On the beach at 

Scarista we came across both arctic and little terns nesting on the sand above the high tide line. They were very much out in the open and we had to be careful to choose a path around them to avoid the nests; unfortunately other walkers seemed completely oblivious, even when being angrily attacked from above as they strolled through the nesting sites. Finally, sitting on the decking at the front of our cottage the common gulls would swoop across the sheep pastures, the snipe would occasionally drum above our heads and a concrake would often calls from the roadside marshland 100 metres or so away.

We hoped to see more wildlife on a boat trip around Harris but the one disappointment of our trip was its cancellation. It was meant to do the almost complete circumnavigation of Harris, starting in East Tarbert and finishing in West Tarbert, each side of the narrow piece of land separating North Harris from South Harris. However, the state of the sea was too rough and didn’t improve for the rest of the stay, so we will have to try again on our next trip to the Outer Hebrides. This was the second holiday on Harris where the boat trip has been cancelled, so boat trips are booked more in hope than expectation.

One place that will stick in my mind that we visited is Rhenigidale – the last village in the whole of Scotland to be joined to the road network. Prior to 1990, the village was only accessible by boat or by hill track from Tarbert. However, the memory isn’t actually of Rhenigidale; instead, it is of another village slightly back from end of the road, Gearraidh Lotaigear. Now long abandoned, the village reignited by slight obsession with dereliction. I find landscapes of former settlements and industrial places, particularly of more recent centuries, very drawing, both fascinating and melancholic; cleared and abandoned settlements on the Scottish islands feed this interest like few other places I’ve been to.

A short walk from the road, down that narrow rocky hill track, the village is laid out below, set on the south-east steep slopes of Todun, as the mountain’s streams fall down into Loch Trolamaraig. The stone buildings and walls are very clear to be seen, with the landscape slowly reclaiming them, its progress only kept in check by the grazing sheep. While most of the buildings look many centuries old, there is one which looks much newer and actually looks similar to other buildings on Harris and Scalpay that are still used or in a much earlier state of dilapidation. There are even remains of household furniture on the surrounding grass, evidence that the previous inhabitants lefts no so many decades ago. Each time I have visited an abandoned village in the Hedbrides I have been flown over by an eagle (and sometimes by up to four!) but it was not to be this time. Instead, we had a cuckoo flyby, which was quite fitting given one had called constantly during our wedding on Skye the previous week.

As it was our honeymoon we decided to pay a little more for our holiday cottage than we normally would and the Sheep Station 2 was an amazing small home of luxury. From our research, Harris has a great array of accommodation for a range of budgets, from high end holiday homes to hostels, and campsites that must have some of the most spectacular views in the UK. Combined with the food, however, Harris has a very high quality tourism offer and this is supported by other products we took away with us. We brought home some of Harris’ most famous export, its tweed, having also worn it for the wedding. Our cottage had smart notes of tweed in the wall art and furnishings and we couldn’t resist buying a throw and cushion to give our bedroom a few signs of our week on the island. We did resist bringing more art home with us, but we did buy a copy of the amazing photography book we found in our cottage. ‘Saorsa’ by Ian Lawson is a very high quality book depicting the landscapes, people and wildlife of Harris and it will keep our memories of our honeymoon alive for many years to come.

Overall, then, Harris is a place of wild landscapes and nature, of fine dining and drinking, of excellent and famous local produce, and provides a very high quality holiday experience. Harris also provides a choice of how and where to stay, whether on a budget or wanting to spend a bit more for an even more special time away. It’s not just for honeymooners but for anyone who loves wild, remote and beautiful places but also wants to eat well and take something of Harris home with them.

Isles of Harris and Lewis: A walk on Luskentyre Beach

Pulling the door firmly closed behind me, I leave the cottage and am buffeted by the keen wind as I move away from the shelter of the building. It was warm inside but now out in the open there is a chill and the breeze cools me as I make my way down the gravel drive to the narrow single-track road. I cross to the gate, lifting the latch and pushing through, closing it behind me again. Down the grassy slope alongside rows of headstones spaced across the short-clipped lawn of the graveyard. All around the gulls are crying their screeching calls, chasing each other and playing in the turbulent air. I approach the second gate, going through, but struggling to close it properly, the two parts not lining up until finally the metal clank of the latch slots into place. 

I’m now out onto the dunes, pale, almost white sand held in place by tall stands of beach grass. In amongst the rolling hills are two grazing ponies, one grey, one white, their long pale manes and tails being gathered up by the wind. One looks up as I pass but it soon returns its head to the grass, pulling another mouthful and slowly chewing away. The going is soft but down a slope I’m soon onto firmer ground of the beach. There is crunching beneath my feet as I step on a shell-covered surface and I have to shade my eyes as the sand blows across the flat open expanse. I turn away and make for the headland with my back to the onrushing wind. Out here, the sands are of differing shades, yes, there is the pale cream and white but there is also steel grey and black mingled in amongst. The wind has created swirling patterns from the different shades, a myriad of shapes set only for a few hours before they are covered by water and eventually renewed with different patterns.

The tide is on its way in but it is slow running and there is still an hour or more until it is at its height.  Depending on the day its waves can break all the way up to the base of the dunes or it can fail to take away the footsteps of the day. As the water spreads across the low flat sands, piping oystercatchers stand as its edge, gradually moving closer inland as the waves slowly make their way towards the land. Sanderling and ringed plover also forage at the water’s edge, scuttling to and fro with the movement of the waves. They take to the air as I approach and drop down a little way further along the beach. They lift several times as I make my way along the water until eventually tiring of my presence and arching around me to move back to where I first met them.

The footing is firm down by the water, the sand made solid, some of it rippled, some of it smooth. I turn past the headland and the wind drops, the waves take over as the dominant sound; this part of the beach is met with strong forces of the sea with great breakers rolling into the sands. A large log is being rolled up and down as each band of rushing water meets the land. The bark has been stripped away and the revealed wood has been worn smooth by this same action over uncounted days.

Behind the beach, the land rises steeply to a peak and as the air rushes up the face of the mountain it condenses, creating great billowing clouds that trail inland. With the light from the dipping sun shining orange on the slopes, the land looks to be alight with flame and plumes of smoke.

Looking out to sea, Taransay looms large but further behind are the great hills and mountains of North Harris, a line of splendid peaks spreading off into the cloud-filled distance, their summits obscured. The sea between me and the far off coast is simmering with the wind, white water breaking away from the beach. As the waves peak, momentary glimpses are seen of rafts of duck, scoters and long tails floating out the winter in relative shelter of the great bay, their calls occasionally being brought inshore on the wind. I listen out for the wildest sound, the divers, but there are none to be seen or heard.

As the sun drops slowly behind the off-shore island, the shadow creeps up the beach, turning the steel shaded sands to a deepening blue and the gold into caramel. Finally, even the top of the peak it unlit and the darkness creeps in, brought on more quickly by the gathering rain clouds. There is one last pattern in the sand amongst the prints of man and dog; unseen a wilder animal walked along the beach, an otter searching along the water’s edge, gone now but its feet and tail gave it away.

I turn for home, up the narrow stream-bottomed valley and up and out into the open, past the small lambing fields. There are the first drops of moisture on the ever strengthening wind and I have to walk more purposefully to counteract the gusts. Eventually, I come back to the view from the cottage, overlooking the cemetery and vast sands beyond.


Isles of Harris and Lewis: The Abandoned Village

It’s not a long walk but if you lose the path, it becomes a cross-country bash across the heath and bog. Rising up and around the first hill, the modern day village soon disappears behind and won’t reappear for another couple of hours. Up and down through the wet grass tufts and squelching mass of moss and peat, the going is tough and the strong chilling wind is taking edge off the day; what sunshine appears is soon choked by grey cloud once more. 

A second hill follows and then, once rounded, a boggy plateau. At the end of this small, flat plain the sea begins to come into sight and as the edge appears so do the sheep-clipped smooth grasslands on the slope down to the water. At first there are just two of them, rectangular stands of stone walls with doorways and window openings but as further down the slope I go, others appear along the coast up to the shallowing bay and rocky beach. I pass from one to another, walking into former homes and walled fields, only the stone left, no signs of roofs, doors or window frames. This was a place of people, of farmers and fishermen, of community and family life. Now it is an empty, desolate place, the last signs of people slowly disappearing back to the ground from which they came.

Each time I go to one of these places, I’m visited by an eagle. A white-tail appears from behind the headland to a chorus of alarmed gulls mobbing from above and below. The usually majestic soar is replaced by a buffeted glide low down between the cliffs of the indented coastline. It dives suddenly but pulls up short of the water and then disappears from view around the next rounded promontory. The eagles seem to watch over the abandoned villages, the guardians of their souls and signifying the wild reclaiming these places. The grass is growing over the tumbled down walls of the houses, physically drawing them back into nature but it is the eagles who have taken back the wild spirit of the once populated valleys. 

Ever since my trip to the Isle of Skye two and a half years ago, I have been drawn to the old abandoned villages of the Scottish Islands – largely the result of the Highland Clearances. The Clearances occurred across vast swathes of the Scottish Highlands and Islands and Harris was not immune from the terrible actions of the landowners and their henchmen towards the local inhabitants. In Harris, people were ‘cleared’ from the fertile Machair grasslands of the west coast and given the choice of being shipped to the New World or struggling to survive on Harris’ rocky and almost barren east coast. Many chose the latter and survive they did, living off the sea and what they could grow on the small amounts of good land they had. However, some of the villages, townships, were also cleared on the east coast including the one I visited. Steimreway was cleared of its 80 inhabitants in 1857 but was repopulated in the early 1920s by five families. The last of these families left only 20 years later and the houses have remained empty since. It’s hard to tell which of the houses were from which period of occupation although some are in slightly better condition than others; some walls are almost completely overgrown by grass while the gable ends of some houses remain. 

Throughout Harris and Lewis, there are abandoned buildings, some much older, as a result of the clearances but others must only recently have been left to their own. Walking through one present-day village, there was one house right in its heart that appeared unoccupied, the chimney breast had collapsed but the rest of the house, from the outside, looked reasonably well maintained but empty and unwanted. There are great contrasts across the islands from the neolithic stone circles and roundhouses, the crumbling homes vacated during the Clearances, the lighthouses and their ancillary buildings decaying on the very edges of the land to the currently occupied houses and farmsteads in the villages or standing alone and the modern Nordic-style holiday homes of the west coast, all wood and big picture windows. The populations of the islands may be small but there can’t be many places in the UK where the full breath of human existence in the British Isles is so easy to see.

The blog posts for two walks to such ‘Highland Clearance’ villages on the Isle of Skye can be found by these links:

Isle of Skye – Lorgill: Left only to the Eagles

Isle of Skye – More Highland Clearance Villages

Despite my interest, I still now very little about the Clearances but I have book waiting for me at home that I hope will fill in gaps in my knowledge.


Isles of Harris and Lewis: The Coffin Road

The land is bare, like in one great sweep a giant hand has wiped away the trees. Bare, cracked rock dominates; the meagre soil that clings on in between the great slabs of stone supports only tough grasses and spindly heather. Spring has yet to reach these parts, out in the extreme far north-west, the islands on the edge, the lands with nothing between them and the new world. In the early summer, the machair is resplendent with flowers and in the autumn the heather blooms across the hillsides, but now, it is a scene of dull browns, made darker by the low, dense cloud hanging heavy over the hills and glens.

On the east of Harris, a small collection of houses intermittently lines the narrow bay. Out on the edge of the water, one of the boulders, tumbled down from the slopes above, has a common seal dozing atop, almost unnaturally straight when a sprawl would seem more comfortable. The wind is light and there are only the merest of ripples on the loch’s surface, a few paddling birds dot around, too far away to distinguish. 

There seems to be a little living to be had here, fishing but not much else; they were sent here from the more fertile west, banished in favour of sheep. The ground is so thin and poor that little grows here but at least there is shelter, protection from the worst of the winter storms surging in from the Atlantic west. But survive here they did, for decades, they lived off the plenty of the sea and what they could meagrely derive from the land.

However, when survival came to an end, as for each one, in turn, it did, they had to return west to be sunk into the deeper ground, so shallow was the soil in the east. Their last journey was across the narrow pass, a rise between the two sides of the island, from the barren to the rich, a reversal from life to death.

The final journey was by hand and by shoulder, starting in the village and ascending up the slopes and through the high valley. There was no well worn path, just rock, stream and mire. The struggle in life became a struggle through death for the bearers, but bear it they did. The solemn procession stumbled, sank, tripped and drenched their way up through the sodden pass. With death coming more in winter than in summer, the task of taking the Coffin Road in the darker, colder, windier months, must have been harder still and some of the dead, so it is said, didn’t make it to the other side, planted on the way, where the depth of the soil allowed.

On cresting the last rise, the view opens up and down below, further still, lie the vast, effervescent sands of Losgaintir. Now, the westerly wind would hit them with full force, pushing their heads lower as they struggled to keep their feet on the uneven ground. Downward they would trudge, still no path and still only treaterous footing beneath. The miles were few but long and energy sapped as the hill began to flatten out and the ground became firmer. Alongside the bay, the procession continued around numerous small headlands until, at last, the cemetery came into sight. Only now for the empty shouldered trudge to return over the hills, with the gulls incessant calls at their backs to hound their departure from their former lands.

The first walk I did in Harris was one I had planned to do when I stayed in North Uist a couple of years ago; there’s a ferry linking the two islands but I didn’t get round to going across for the day. I used the excellent Cicerone book ‘Walking on Harris and Lewis’ as my guide – this is one of a vast series of great books covering many locations with detailed directions and an Ordnance Survey extract for each walk. As I was staying at Luskentyre, a good two and a bit miles from the route, I decided to start from my cottage and extend the walk from almost nine miles to nearly 14. The day started off bright but as I walked along the undulating and twisting road, the cloud closed in with a slight hint of moisture in the air. Joining the route at the far end from the suggested starting point actually made sense to me as it saves the best bit to last and it also gets what is a bit of a unpromising traipse along the route of the former main road between Tarbert and Leverbrough.

Once off the road, you drop down a side road into the old township of Aird Mhighe, the starting point for the Coffin Road. From here there is now a good path all the way across, laid with gravel in places and stone channels for the frequent streams; there are also marker posts at useful intervals. It’s not a particularly hard walk now, relative low-lying compared to many of the mountain walks further north but it’s easy to see how those coffin-bearers would have struggled all the way across without the modern path. There is certainly a sense of desolation as you get to the top of the pass, nothing in sight apart from rocky and marshy hillsides. However, without a solemn duty myself, cresting the last rise through the pass was a delight as the Luskentyre sands were laid out below. The sun had come out as I walked up the track and it dazzled as the tide had gone out to reveal the sands of differing shades of gold, cream, steel. The water, as it laps across the beach is of the most incredible colours, ranging from dark blues and greens to an almost electric turquoise. Heading down the hill as the Coffin Road comes to an end is on a better made track and eventually meets the main north-south road again. I crossed it and walked back along the lane to Luskentyre – views of the beach and its bays all the way home.