Published in the September 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
Lewis and Harris — those conjoined Hebridean twins — are home to an unfathomable number of shades of blue, from the sea to the sky. Perhaps that’s what calls so many natives back to these Scottish islands. And why the world wants to get its hands on their famous tweed
Azure. Turquoise. Cerulean. Aquamarine. I’m struggling to find enough words to describe the different shades of blue that I encounter on my travels across the length and breadth of Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides. I pass down a mountain road and there, sweeping before me, is a crystalline sea with a palette that changes hue as it washes over ripples of sand and my lexicon simply lets me down. I see teal. I see sapphire. And that one over there? Royal? Navy? It’s true that we Scots have just as many words for snow as the eskimos do, and more words for rain, but we haven’t extended our vocabulary far enough to cover the blues.
On these islands on the edge of the North Atlantic, the colours are utterly absorbing — at once muted and vibrant; there’s thunderous grey, heathery purple, woolly cream and myriad greens. These tones tell not just the story of the seasons but of the wildlife and the people who live here in the extreme northwestern fringe of Europe. It’s not just before you on the hills and on the bogs, but woven into the very fabric of Harris Tweed, a cloth now famous the world over but synonymous with the Outer Hebrides, because this is the only place that it can be made. The real stuff is certified and stamped with an orb and Maltese cross.
Sitting on the marram grass above the dunes on the beach at Dail Mòr (Dalmore) on Lewis’s west coast, I watch the Atlantic rollers crash in. It’s after 7.30pm and a heat haze is still hanging in the air around the sea stacks. In the two cemeteries that back on to sand dunes, a striking Celtic cross stands proud and headstones mark the names — Mackay, Maciver, Macarthur, Macdonald and more — that tell a story of the generations of people who once lived or were born in the nearby village of Carloway and have come to be interred in this most stunning of resting places.
For many, it was a harsh life on an island that can be brutal and ravaged by the elements, and not just in winter. Some stones give account of those who died at an early age, or to those lost in the First and Second World Wars, while others tell stories of people who left for America but returned here to lie.
There’s a seeming echo of the cemetery at the Standing Stones of Calanais(Callanish), where 13 different flat rocks ranging in height from 3ft to 15ft are arranged in a cross, along with a circle surrounding a monolith at its centre. But this is not some ancient burial ground. Instead, it’s thought that the assembly marks the rising and setting of the moon, which represented birth, death and rebirth. These hulking pieces of Lewisian gneiss were erected some time between 2900 and 2600 BC. As the sun sets, the shimmering Neolithic stones give the impression of human silhouettes and for just a second or two, seem to briefly embrace. Beyond them, low hills resemble a reclining woman, known as the Old Woman of the Moors, or more affectionately as Sleeping Beauty, and the sun descends around her like a duvet.
Near Callanish, in the village of Breasclete, you’ll find Whitefalls Spa Lodges, with their floor-to-ceiling windows that afford a view across fields and hills, and vast bathrooms complete with whirlpool bath, sauna and steam. But at this time of year, in this part of the world, the nights are long and light and the landscape seems to sing to us, so we venture outside amidst the lilac gloaming.
The weather is glorious — the locals keep telling us how lucky we are — and so we play John Martyn (a Scot) singing Bless the Weather as we drive along single-track roads to Great Bernera — once an island (the largest island in Loch Roag), but a bridge linked it to Lewis in 1953. At Bostadh Sands, an Iron Age village was discovered after the ‘great storm’ of 1993, when the dunes were pushed back, revealing an ancient figure-of-eight house hunkering in the sand.
We head to Uig bay, with its sweeping golden beach where the Lewis Chessmen — 12th-century Viking chess pieces — were found. By the roadside, just beside the cattle grid in the village of Carishader, sit a pair of tattybogles (scarecrows) — a kilt-wearing woman playing the bagpipes and a man sitting squeezing at his accordion with a can of beer on a table by his side. Inquiries reveal that this is the work of a local man who works at the civic dump and retrieves bits and bobs to keep his tattybogles kitted out nicely.
Lewis is a mostly flat place with peat bogs dictating the lie of the land, but down at Uig Sands (Traigh Uige) there are rugged and remote hills fringing the beaches. And truly glorious machair, a Gaelic word meaning fertile, low-lying grassy plain. This is one of the rarest habitats in Europe and only occurs in the western coasts of Scotland and Ireland, where sand has been thrown ashore by Atlantic gales. Over time it has become home to a vast diversity of flowers and plants, the colours of which change with the season. It’s also a refuge for threatened birds like corncrake, chough and corn bunting.
At nearby Miavaig harbour, RIB (Rigid Inflatable Boat) excursions are operated by Seatrek. “The amount of sand on the beaches and the dunes depends on the winds and gales — they move with the weather,” says our guide, Dolina. “The year before last we counted 38 beaches around the coast here.”
She points out the ruins of the traditional black houses — low structures made with dry-stone, their cavities filled with peat dust and earth and their roofs covered with oat thatch. “People slept in one end and the animals slept in the other. It was certainly cosy,” she jokes. “They kept willow trees in a walled garden. Willow was so precious for basket weaving, so to keep the cattle from eating it, they put a wall around it.” Later, at Arnol, we see a reconstruction of an old black house where life was centred around a peat fire that was never allowed to go out.
In spite of their two names, Lewis and Harris are in fact one island, separated by mountains. In a sense, the boundary line runs from Loch Resort in the west to Loch Seaforth in the east. The road between the two dips down past the shoulder of Clisham, the highest mountain in the Western Isles, and skirts past Tarbert, the ‘capital’ of Harris, until the A859 hits the coast. “Wow,” says photographer Alecsandra Raluca Dragoi. “I don’t think I have said ‘wow’ so much in my life as I have on this trip, but this is an even bigger ‘wow’.”
And she’s right. In Harris, there’s a ‘wow’ at almost every turn. The endless shell sand beaches are so white they’re dazzling. One of the largest, Luskentyre, has regularly been voted one of the best in the world and is, by far, the most spectacular I have ever come across. It curves around the bay for almost two miles. But there are other, smaller shimmering sands such as Seilebost, Horgabost and Borve — these old Norse names are vestiges of the Vikings that settled on the islands in the eighth century.
In the tiny settlement of Borrisdale sits Sound of Harris, two newly built self-catering properties, with extremely chic, modern interiors, hugging the cliffs. Rob English, who fell in love with Harris with his partner Carol and made a new life here, suggests a hike over to the Rodel Hotel, one of the few pubs on the island, for a pint with genial hosts Donnie and Dena MacDonald. With a small harbour outside the front door and St Clement’s, a 15th-century church built for the chiefs of the MacLeods of Harris, just a stone’s throw away, this is a truly stunning spot. So charming that Princess Anne once pulled up in her yacht and toddled in to the restaurant.
Donnie, a chef, gives us tips on how to cook scallops bought by Rob and, served with crisp slices of Stornoway black pudding, they’re exquisitely fresh and juicy. There’s a local fish merchant in the area and so the following day Rob orders a box of langoustines — 104 of them are delivered live to our door for just £70.
In the village of Northton, independent weaver Rebecca Hutton is in her garden shed working at her pedal-powered Hattersley loom, crafting Harris Tweed. She’s a cheery wee soul who relishes this work, something she only learned four years ago. “I love that I have created my own designs,” she says. “I have absorbed the landscape around me and created my own tweed and it’s part of me.”
Hutton does not work for one of Lewis’s big three mills, which employ weavers to make tweed to order, so the design of her patterns is entirely of her own choosing. “I might pick a colour that I have seen out and about. Sometimes it is just a subconscious absorbing of the landscape. You realise that lots of the colours you have used are all around you. You might be looking at the sea and the machair coming together and realise that is the tweed that you’ve made,” she says.
Pointing to a tweed that mixes purple, cream and grey, she explains: “That’s the purple of the heather, the cream of the sheep and the grey of those rocks just over there out of that window. This one was from the sea — it’s a mix of blue and grey and the dark part is a storm coming.”
Up in Carloway in Lewis, Norman Mackenzie (T: 01851 643413) also works a Hattersley loom. A retired dentist, he returned from Glasgow to the place of his birth and took up weaving as a hobby — a hobby that was to become a satisfying and very successful business. Pedalling for one hour will, if the loom is behaving well, result in three to four metres of tweed. “The wool comes from the mainland because there is not enough here to keep the industry going,” he explains. “The mills dye the wool. They used to make dyes from lichens in the rocks and from plants and flowers. Nowadays it is all chemical dyes but they are still using natural colours, the blues of the sky, perhaps, or the heathers. Once they have dyed the wool they will spin it into yarns. And then I will make my own tweeds. I make my own warp and weft.
“I didn’t intend to be weaving,” he goes on. “When I came back the family loom was gone and a neighbour had a Hattersley rusting away. I asked him if I could have it. I love it because you are making a nice product and these looms are very rare, there are now only 20-odd of these left. But once there was 400 to 500. There was probably about 60 in Carloway alone. There is creativity and technical skill and I like that I’m keeping the old tradition alive. And you get a wee bit of exercise as well — I don’t have to go to the gym with all this pedalling.”
Hutton’s tweeds take her Harris heritage and add a flash of modernity, with turquoise or lime, say. Mackenzie’s are solid, stoical expressions of Lewis and its landscape. In both their sheds, beautiful bolts are stacked, some in herringbone, tartan, dogtooth, Russian twill, all of it for sale to people who drop in for a demonstration and are drawn to buy exquisite craft directly from the place in which it’s made.
North of Carloway, in Ness, crofter Donald Macsween is bottle-feeding some orphan lambs. His family has been crofting here for almost 200 years — he was given the tenancy of a croft for his 21st birthday. Previously a journalist with the BBC in Stornoway, Macsween missed Ness, the land and the life that it offers. “Sheep are my true love. I was brought up with sheep. All my earliest memories are sheep related,” he explains.
Like almost all families on Lewis, the Macsweens cut peat in the summer for fuel in the winter. Out in the bog, the freshly carved peat is soft, with a wet richness that changes texture altogether when it’s laid out to dry. “We used to cut it by hand but now we hire a contractor in a digger and he is doing in 10 seconds something that would take two minutes by hand. It’s backbreaking work which many still do.”
Air An Lot, Macsween’s croft, comprises various skinny pieces of land that sweep down to the sea. His dog Bud jumps over the fence to round up the sheep. “Trobadh,” he says, meaning “come”. Bud comes, too, and so is told to “laigh sios,” or “lie down”. I ask if Bud and the sheep speak English. “They’ve certainly never replied to me in English,” laughs Macsween.
The crofter takes us to the Butt of Lewis, with its dramatic lighthouse designed by David and Thomas Stevenson, the celebrated ‘Lighthouse Stevensons’. This is the most northerly point on the Outer Hebrides and is said to be the windiest place in the whole of the UK. Macsween looks out to sea: “That’s the Minch [strait] there and the Atlantic on the other side, and quite often there’s a line where the two currents meet. You can see the mainland on a clear day, the mountains of Sutherland, and if you climb the lighthouse you might catch sight of St Kilda.
“They call us the islands on the edge but that’s nonsense. This place is not at the end of the world — it’s the centre of the earth.”
Flybe franchise partner Loganair operates up to four daily services between Glasgow and Stornoway.
It’s also possible to drive to either Lewis (via Mallaig) or Harris (via Skye), crossing the water on Caledonian MacBrayne ferries.
There’s a bus service on the islands, while cycling is also popular — the Hebridean Way is a cycle route that covers the Outer Hebrides from top to toe.
Another option is to hire a car at Stornoway Airport, especially as it means you can drive two of the UK’s spectacular single-track roads — the road to Huisinis in North Harris and the Golden Road in the south.
How to do it
Loganair flights between Glasgow and Stornoway start from £57.99 per person. Prices at Whitefalls Spa Lodges start from £149 per night based on a minimum three-night stay, off peak; Sound of Harris prices start from £108 per night, on a minimum three-night stay; while The Cabarfeidh Hotel in Stornoway offers double rooms from £99 per night.