We sailed from Uig (in Skye) to Tarbert on the Isle of Harris. Lewis and Harris are, in fact, the same island (technically), though it’s probably more accurate to say that they share a land mass with Lewis occupying the northern part and Harris the southern. Historically, the two are treated as separate islands and even fell under different authorities until relatively recently. Geographically, there are also distinct differences between the two isles—but we’ll mention some of these shortly.
It felt as though we had left the mainland far, far behind
The ferry journey took around an hour and a half, as we crossed the body of water known as the Little Minch. We were lucky to have a good sailing, as the weather turned a bit rougher shortly after we arrived on the island. The stretch of water is around 15 miles wide, but the crossing makes it feel like you have travelled so much further. By the time we arrived in Tarbert, it felt as though we had left the mainland far, far behind.
Our accommodation on Harris was at Borrisdale House in Leverburgh. Leverburgh is around 40 minutes’ drive from Tarbert, and the winding journey on the A859 was our first taste of driving in Harris. There were two characteristic features of the Harris roads to get used to: the fact that most of the roads are single track (with passing places), and the fact that the sheep on Harris are ridiculously brazen. They will stand in the road and stare down oncoming vehicles without a hint of anxiety. Our drive took us past many sheep, but also along the coast and past some of the glorious beaches for which the island is known. We’d been told that photographs don’t do justice to the Harris beaches—and that only the Caribbean can rival the white sands and blue waters—but we were still blown away. The coast is made all the more dramatic by the mountains (in the north) and the rock formations (throughout Harris). There is an otherworldly quality to the scenery in Harris—but this shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. One of the most dominant rock types is anorthosite, a type of igneous rock formed as lava slowly cools; anorthosite is also found in the lunar highlands—much of the Harris landscape is similar in composition to moon rock.
We arrived in Leverburgh in the late afternoon, and then made our way a little further on from Harris’s second largest village, to Borrisdale. We were greeted by Jackie and Norman, the wonderful hosts at Borrisdale House B and B, and shown in to our comfortable room. Borrisdale House has hill-view and sea-view rooms; we were lucky enough to get the latter, which gave us a fantastic vista to wake up to in the morning. (We were also provided with a nice bottle of champagne—as it was our honeymoon—plenty of biscuits and chocolates, and homemade shortbread each day.) Borrisdale House is one of the nicest B and Bs we’ve ever stayed in, and it gets a glowing recommendation from us.
Harris, like Skye, pretty much closes down for the winter season. Although there is a hotel and a restaurant in Leverburgh, they weren’t open during our visit in March. Fortunately, our travel agents had warned us about this, and so we headed back out to Tarbert for dinner on our first night. (The landscape looked quite different in the twilight… very evocative.) We ate at the Harris Hotel, which offers friendly service and good food and is another of our recommendations.
On the way back from the hotel, our Hebridean adventure took a slightly scary turn. As we headed up the hill towards Leverburgh, we realized our car had a puncture! It was quite late by this point, the wind had got up, and the rain had started to fall quite heavily. We just past the last of the lights of Tarbert, and the sheep began to circle the car in a rather menacing way. Fortunately, we managed to get the spare wheel on the car (and, surprisingly for us city folks, the only cars that went by slowed down to ask if we needed any help) and head back to our accommodation. After two long drives on single track roads (one in darkness), navigating the strong winds and rain, and a tyre change, Rob was happy to get back to our cosy room and the little bottle of Talisker whisky we’d brought from Skye!
Breakfast included fresh eggs from the chickens pecking around the garden outside
The next morning gave us our first taste of the characteristic Harris weather. By the time we’d had breakfast—which included lovely fresh eggs from the chickens pecking around the garden outside the dining room window—we’d seen snow, sleet, rain, wind and glorious sunshine. During our stay in the Western Isles, we got quite used to seeing all four seasons in one day. Obviously, our next task was to sort out the punctured tyre from the night before. We had a funny conversation with the hire car company, who tried to insist that we took the car to the nearest branch of Kwik Fit. Turns out that’s in Inverness—around 160 miles (and a ferry ride) away. Instead, we persuaded them to let us use the Harris Garage, the only garage on the island, who were happy to get us back on the road as soon as possible.
Once the wheel was sorted, we finally had chance to explore Harris a bit more. Our first stop was the Harris Tweed shop and warehouse in Tarbert. Harris Tweed has been woven in the Outer Hebrides for centuries, and is still a significant export for the islands (though it is now mostly produced on Lewis, rather than Harris). The cloth is called Clò-Mòr in Gaelic, and was originally produced entirely by hand. Island crofters would card fleece from their sheep (by hand), spin it (by hand) and weave it (by hand) into a distinctive twilled pattern. Colours were created through the use of local plant dyes, and the use of lichens gave the original Harris Tweed a characteristic scent. In the nineteenth century, the Countess of Dunmore—whose husband had recently taken ownership of the North Harris Estate—took an interest in the cloth and began to promote it on the mainland as a fashionable fabric for aristocratic hunting garb. Since then, the cloth has remained popular with high-end clothing designers, and it has been under a protective trade mark since the early twentieth century. Manufacturing methods have changed somewhat during that time, but, legally, any cloth calling itself Harris Tweed and carrying the Orb Mark (Britain’s oldest certification mark) must be ‘hand-woven by the islanders at their home in the Outer Hebrides and made from pure virgin wool dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides’. Despite this illustrious history, once you wrap yourself in a Harris Tweed shawl you feel much more in touch with its origins than with its status as a designer fabric known around the world. When you’re being buffeted by the wild winds coming in from the Atlantic or the Minch, you realize that there’s nothing better than Harris Tweed for keeping you warm. No wonder the crofters produced so much of it!
There is a gradual change in geography as you cross the border
We spent the rest of the day touring the northern part of the island, heading up and over the border into Lewis. South Lewis is less mountainous than Harris, and has more freshwater lochs than the northern part of the island, so there is a gradual change in geography as you cross the border. We wandered around, enjoying the scenery, until we ended up stopping for a drink at the Loch Erisort Inn at Balallan. Nestled in what feels like the middle of nowhere, this is a cosy little establishment offering a bar, restaurant and accommodation. Although we didn’t sample any of the food, it is apparently very good. While we were there, we got chatting to some of the other clientele, including Chris and Graham, the couple behind the Virtual Hebrides website, a great collection of landscape and wildlife photography that will give you a flavour of the beauty of the Western Isles.
Our last evening on Harris was a real treat. We headed back to Borrisdale House in time for a delivery of freshly prepared food from Croft 36, a local business that delivers ready-to-eat meals to holiday-makers on the island. They also have a croft shop selling local fish and seafood, vegetables and organic bread. Our hosts, Jackie and Norman, very kindly gave up their living room for the evening, set the table for us, and left us with our delicious dinner and a bottle of wine. Croft 36 provided a tasty vegetarian meal for Hannah, but the star of the show was the fish curry ordered by Rob—he would probably eat that every night if he could! We followed this with whisky and orange pancakes and homemade ice cream. One of the reviews on Croft 36’s website describes it as ‘the best takeaway in Scotland’, and we think this pretty much sums it up.
Sadly, the next morning saw our departure from Borrisdale House. We were pretty reluctant to leave, and we probably drove Jackie and Norman mad with our long goodbye! But we’d had a really memorable (though short) stay, and fully intend to go back to Harris as soon as we can.
After leaving the B and B, we travelled down the A859 to Rodel, the historic capital of Harris (before Tarbert took the title). Here we visited St Clement’s Church, a sixteenth-century church now managed by Historic Scotland. The church was built for the chiefs of the Clan MacLeod—whose ancestral home is at Dunvegan Castle, Skye—and is constructed from local Lewisian gneiss, giving it a rather imposing appearance as you approach the main entrance. There’s no visitor centre—or even staff—at the church (donations to help with upkeep can be made via an honesty box), and there were no other visitors when we went, giving us a chance to appreciate the splendid building in our own time and with no interruptions or distractions.
One of the most impressive features in the church is the wall tomb of Alasdair MacLeod, set into the south side of the choir. The eighth clan chief’s effigy and various memento mori and hagiographical carvings survive, making this one of the most richly carved surviving Scottish tombs of the sixteenth century. There are other tombs and stone carvings around the church, including the graves of the ninth and tenth MacLeod chiefs. External stonework on the church tower (which is accessible from inside the church via wooden steps and ladders) includes a sheela na gig and an image of a boar (presumably for protection). These protective symbols, and the carvings of saints and holy figures, may well have proved themselves of the years, as the church has survived the Reformation, years of disuse and decay, a fire, being repurposed as a cow byre, and a bolt of lightning. The nineteenth-century restoration of the church following its use as a byre was the work of the Countess of Dunmore, the woman who brought Harris Tweed to the attention of the mainland. Given its age and history, and its location on the windswept Harris coast, the church and its graveyard are remarkably well-preserved and we thoroughly enjoyed our visit.
Leaving Rodel, we took the C79—known as the ‘Golden Road’, due to the cost of its construction in 1897 (or, possibly, due to the importance of this road to the communities on the east coast of the island). This narrow, single track road winds through hills and around lochans, passing through a couple of small settlements. Rob maintains that this is one of the toughest drives he’s ever done (especially when an oncoming car overshot a passing place and we had to reverse around a bend to allow it to get round us!)—but it is also one of the most beautiful, if not the most beautiful, drives you can take in the UK.
We travelled along the Golden Road until we reached Geocrab. Here, we turned off the road and followed a track up a hill to reach the Skoon Art Café. A number of people had recommended the café for its homemade food and fresh brewed coffee, so we thought it was worth checking out. Opened in 2005, the café is located in a renovated croft house and serves homemade soups and cakes (with a menu that changes daily). Despite its rather isolated location, the café is warm and welcoming, and the cakes are delicious. In the winter months, the café only opens two days a week, but it was clear from our visit that it has a regular clientele outside of the tourist trade. It was easy to see why it had been recommended to us.
Paintings that capture the beauty and drama of the Hebridean landscape
The café’s artist-in-residence is Andrew John Craig—he also runs the café with his wife, Emma—who paints landscapes and seascapes in oil in his studio, a renovated byre next to the café. Craig’s work hangs in the café, and we were really impressed with his work. His paintings really capture the beauty and drama of the Hebridean landscape. Sadly, finances (and space in our luggage) prevented us from buying one of his canvases, but we did buy some small, suitcase-friendly prints of ‘Scarista Sunset’ and ‘Borve Sand Dunes’, which were perfect souvenirs of the island.
It was then time to continue on our journey. We continued on the C79 for a little further, before leaving the Golden Road for the A859, and returned to Tarbert. From there, we headed north to the Isle of Lewis and Stornoway, the next port of call on our Hebridean honeymoon.
But we’ll save that trip for the next blog post…