On Lewis and Harris, in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, an eternity of sky meets an ocean of heathers and waters prowled by orcas. For the solitary soul, says Jeremy Lazell, it’s love at first sight
My first experience of Lewis and Harris — part of my great hitchhiking adventure in the Outer Hebrides in 1995 — lasted all of one hour. I really needed at least a week to do justice to this place (it may have two names, but Lewis and Harris is one island). Having been waylaid by storms halfway up the island chain, though, I had to race the last 80km north to make my ferry from the main town, Stornoway, to the Scottish mainland. Blinking back from the deck towards the dwindling settlements and soaring summits, I promised myself one thing: I’d be back.
What I’d witnessed in that too-short hour on Lewis and Harris had fired something deep within. Below the road I’d seen a beckoning foreverness of blinding white sand and turquoise sea. Above the hills a fiery rainbow had blazed incandescent against jagged, inky peaks. On the outskirts of Stornoway a woman in skirt and heels had climbed out of her car and lifted a sheep off the road. I was sold. Why were there no tourists?
The short answer is that the island is a hell of a long way from almost everywhere. Marooned at the top of the Outer Hebrides chain, Lewis and Harris — Lewis occupies the top two thirds, Harris makes up the rest — is two and a half hours by ferry from Ullapool (which is itself a four-hour drive north of Edinburgh or Glasgow). It’s about an hour by air to Stornoway, but you can fly there only from Glasgow, Edinburgh or Inverness. Throw in midges in summer that will sap your very will to live and it’s no surprise that the island gets only about 200,000 visitors a year.
The perfect place to escape the staycation hordes, then? Late last September I got a chance to see what autumn there is like, seeing through that promise I’d made on the ferry 24 years ago. On arrival in Stornoway, the omens were mixed. The town was founded by Vikings in the early 9th century (the name was originally Stjórnavágr) and it still has a windblown, salty seadog kind of charm. You brush up against it here and there: in the supermarket I queue behind a Latvian trawler worker buying vodka and cigarettes, his oilskins covered in fish scales and blood. But somehow I’d hoped for more than the slightly dispiriting gauntlet of charity shops and Chinese restaurants I am forced to run between blustery squalls off the Atlantic. ‘Is there another bit?’ I ask the bartender at McNeill’s that night. ‘Have you been to the castle?’ he mumbles. ‘Yes,’ I say. Then ‘No.’
He’s not being entirely fair. I’ve had a sea-view stroll in the grounds of Lews Castle, and later stumbled into the Criterion Bar just as some whiskered old-timer started some impromptu reeling on his fiddle. At Museum nan Eilean I was genuinely moved to see six of the famous 800-year-old Viking walrus-ivory chessmen, discovered in a sand dune just across the island near Uig and on long-term loan from the British Museum. But it’s the crags and coves glimpsed years ago that I’m after. I buy supplies, sort out my camping gear and get the hell out of there.
The road north from Stornoway crosses a treeless ‘flow’ (peat moor) pockmarked here and there by the shovel scars of generations of peat cutters. It’s a wild, daunting eternity of sky, an endless ocean of heather, burnished with autumn’s rust. I pass hamlets with names such as Barvas and Borve, Melbost and Sgiogarstaigh, their hunkered crofts like flotsam scattered on the briny wind, and park at Eoropaidh village. Almost 1.5km as the puffin flies from the Butt of Lewis lighthouse, this is right at the very top of the Outer Hebrides.
Guidebooks claim it’s a 40-minute walk across the flow from Eoropaidh to the lighthouse, one hour if you go via the coastal path. It takes me six. For one thing, the coastline is dotted with sandy coves, each more ludicrously lovely than the next. I have to stop for a swim — twice. Warmed by months of sun, the sea is at its warmest in September, and for 20 minutes at a time I paddle between fingers of rock in search of otters (a common sight here) or simply float in the cobalt shallows, Iceland just 800km away, across the orca-filled Atlantic.
Then there are the cliffs just south of the lighthouse: a raucous riot of mewling kittiwakes and circling fulmars that pin me to the clifftop machair in exhilarated wonder. The longer I stay, the closer the fulmars pass by me, wheeling up on air currents and staring me in the eye. I lie on my back, harebells nodding beside me in the still-warm September sun, dizzy at the thrilling here-be-dragons-ness of it all. It is as if I am teetering all alone at the very edge of the world.
After the serenity of the walk, the lighthouse is too crowded for my Robinson Crusoe mood — I have to share it with three cyclists celebrating their journey’s end. I walk back the way I’ve come, pitch my tent above a sandy cove (leave-no-trace wild camping is legal across the island) and nod off as the stars appear over the purpling horizon.
It’s not the last time I get the island to myself. Even the big-hitting attractions are weirdly quiet. At Gearrannan, I wander among the restored stone-and-thatch black houses in silence, the ghosts of the unbreakable generations who crofted here still whispering on the sea breeze. At Dun Carloway, it’s just me and a pair of pigeons cooing in the Iron Age broch (fort). Tow it to the mainland and it would be coach-party central.
Then there are the Callanish Standing Stones, a 5,000-year-old Stonehenge-on-sea (only without tickets and fencing). I visit just as the last of the sun has turned the sea lochs below a burning patchwork of russets and reds. Staggeringly, I’m completely alone, hugging the sun-baked neolithic stones and grinning.
It’s hardly surprising that the island is riddled with ‘blow-ins’ — people who came here for adventure or work and never left. In Upper Barvas, coastguard Paul Tunstall has turned his front rooms into a brilliantly bonkers antiques shop, selling a hoarder’s heaven of whale bones and gramophones, antique barometers and Harris Tweed jackets. And in the lonely, sea-loch-side hamlet of Miavaig, Mancunian Dave Smith (aka Dave the Diver) sells same-day harvested treats at the Scallop Shack by the pier. I scoff a plate of the sweetest seared scallops with black pudding, then join a three-hour boat trip from the pier with Seatrek, stopping for sea caves, a sea eagle nest and a magical hour of solitary wandering around the uninhabited island of Pabbay.
Rounding a bend while driving west across the headland, I have to pull over immediately to take in what I’m seeing: sand, sea and yet more sand. It’s Uig Sands, a deep, 1.5km-long tidal bay lapped by an aquamarine lagoon. I’d still be there today but for the distant memory of even better beaches — plus mountains — on Harris. Instead, I have a bowl of mussels at the striking new hilltop Uig Sands restaurant, staring speechless through the wall-to-wall glass over the very beach where the mussels were landed earlier this morning. Reluctantly, I drag myself back to the car.
There is no sign to tell you when you’ve crossed into Harris. You just know. Here on the southern part of the island, the heather suddenly rears up on both sides of the road in ominous rusty waves; walls of glowering granite thunder above. These are some of the oldest mountains on the planet. Formed three billion years ago, they are two thirds as old as time itself.
In a disconcertingly empty lay-by, I put on my walking boots and follow the footpath up Clisham, at 799m the tallest peak in the Outer Hebrides. It is sunny when I start, a white-out when I reach the summit. Not for me the ‘superb views over mountain and sea’ promised by the Walk Highlands website. I shelter inside the circular cairn and look up to see a raven circling in the mist. Suddenly, a deep visceral moan echoes through the grey. Somewhere on this sea of hidden summits, a stag is bellowing to his mates.
The road south from the mountains to the bottom of Harris hugs the west coast in an almost painful procession of spectacular white-sand beaches. Some — Luskentyre and Scarista — make me sad because they’ll never be mine; others are just annoying because I can’t drive past without stopping for one more Insta selfie. I leave the car in the hamlet of Northton and walk for an hour past Highland cows and skylarks to Tràigh na Teampaill, a perfect sliver of bone-white sand that’s empty save for a family of startled sheep munching kelp at the water’s edge.
My heart is still fluttering when I get to the very south of the island at Rodel, where I stop for chowder from chef Sam Barnes’s Seafood Shack below the forbidding 15th-century hilltop church. I blab about the sheep on the beach, the walk to get there, the almost unfathomable beauty of it all. He chuckles. ‘Have you been to Tràigh Mheilein?’
So on my last night, Tràigh Mheilein is where I go, driving on a single-track rollercoaster of a road running west from Harris’s main town, Tarbert, stopping time and again to toot at the sunbathing sheep blocking the road. Car sick, I park at the end of the road at Huisinish and trudge across a boggy headland path towards Sam’s beach. ‘Better be worth it,’ I think, grumpily.
It’s worth it, all right. Effectively a spit at one end, the beach merges with the shallows in a mosaic of stained-glass greens and blues, then stretches north for 1.5km fringed by emerald grass. There are sandpipers playing grandmother’s footsteps with the surf; a pair of oyster catchers poking about for clams; a seal staring from the blue. But otherwise it’s just me. Half of me is unnerved; the other half pitches his tent on the grass, fires up a brew, and calls out to the seal. I’ll be coming back again, that’s for sure, and next time I won’t wait 25 years.
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