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Sunday, 30 June 2013

Outer Hebrides, Scotland

Written by Eleanor Bowen-Jones
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I was sitting by the wing of the small plane from Inverness to Stornoway.  A slightly nervous  flyer, I was buoyed by my excitement at finally visiting the Outer Hebrides, also known as the Western Isles.  As we flew over the Isle of Lewis I was struck by how little the signs of human habitation dented the green rocks, even as we approached Stornoway itself. The plane was initially unable to land and so circled the island, at which my point my anxiety levels began to rise, but the air hostess remained smilingly reassuring. Finally we were landing and yet all I could see beneath us was sea and beach, so close is the runway to the shoreline. Had we been flying from Glasgow to Barra, the southernmost of the islands, we would actually have been landing on the beach. For those who prefer a less dramatic arrival, it’s also possible to get to the islands from the mainland by ferry.


In the airport, a friendly man at the information desk informed us that there wasn’t another bus into town for about an hour but showed us where we could find taxis. The ride cost roughly £8 and we were dropped at the bus station. On enquiring where we could get lunch we were directed to the Ann Lantair Arts Centre. As we made our way upstairs to the cafe we passed an exhibition room where a chess tournament seemed to be taking place. The Isle of Lewis is famous for the Lewis Chessmen, chess pieces dating from AD 1150-1200 which were found in the area around Uig but are thought to be Scandinavian in origin.

I was traveling with my partner and we had decided to base ourselves in the hamlet of Drinishader, near Tarbert on the Isle of Harris. Neither of us having a car, we were reliant on public transport to get there. I had printed out the various bus timetables before we left home, and having those to hand proved invaluable as the buses do run on schedule but are few and far between, with none running on Sundays. It takes about an hour to get from Stornoway to Tarbert by bus, and cost just over £7 for both of us. Before we left Stornoway we stopped at a local supermarket to get supplies, which is well worth doing if you’re staying in self-catering accommodation, as outside the bigger towns you can go for quite a while without coming across a shop. Having left home before 6:30am, on reaching Tarbert mid-afternoon we opted for a £10 taxi to our hostel in Drinishader, rather than waiting two hours for the next connecting bus service.

We were staying at the No.5 hostel in Drinishader. The hostel is currently comprised of two buildings, a newer house with bigger rooms and the old croft house. Other guests when we arrived included hill-walkers and cyclists. The hostel offers equipment hire for a number of activities including mountain biking, kayaking and canoeing. There is a small store and post office next door, and after closing time the friendly shop-keeper will re-open on request until 9pm.


Walking Along Road

We were situated on the Golden Road, so called because it was so expensive to make, cutting through the rocks of what has been described as a lunar landscape. When the weather is overcast the area seems barren, but as soon as the sun comes out an eerie magic suffuses the land, as the strange rocks are bathed in golden light and reflected in lochs as still and silent as glass. The only sounds are the plaintive calls of lambs and the constant chattering of birds. A particularly persistent cuckoo proclaimed itself from sunrise to sunset, which in June in the Outer Hebrides is a long time, darkness falling after 11pm. 


The eastern part of the Western Isles is generally very rocky, whereas the west side boasts the mohair moor and some stunning white sand beaches. Many islanders were evicted from the more fertile areas during the Highland Clearances of the 1800s, when landlords took the land for sheep farming. The expanse of sand at Luskentyre is immense and has often been compared to the Caribbean, but I personally preferred the pristine strip of sand that is Reef beach, near Uig in Lewis, where locals go to camp in the summer months. The islanders were very friendly and I enjoyed hearing how they switched seamlessly between Gaelic and English.


Food in the Outer Hebrides is very influenced by the sheep farming and fishing industries. Although very tasty, I did find myself craving vegetables by the time we got home. Stand out dishes of the trip included the black pudding breakfast roll at the First Fruits Tea Room, which also does great coffee, and haggis with neeps and tatties in the Mote Lounge Bar at the Hotel Hebrides, which has free wifi.  In Tarbert, the other main places to eat are the Isle of Harris Inn and the pricier Harris Hotel. J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan, stayed at the latter, and they still have a piece of window which he etched his initials into. Barrie’s darker play, Mary Rose, is set in the Outer Hebrides. Alfred Hitchcock, who is also reputed to have spent a lot of time in the islands, wanted to make a film adaptation of the play, but was forbidden from doing so by Universal Pictures, who deemed the subject matter too controversial.

I was surprised how many childhood memories were stirred up for me. Although my mother’s family are Scottish, I’ve never lived in Scotland myself.  “Oor Wullie” books, which I will forever associate with my uncle, perched on the shelves of the Tarbert Tourist Information Centre shop, and the sound of my mother’s voice came back to me, singing me to sleep with The Skye Boat Song, about Bonnie Prince Charlie’s escape across the Minch. ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie,’ Prince Charles Edward Stuart, led an uprising against the English but was defeated at the Battle of Culloden, and took refuge in the Isle of Benbecula in 1746. Flora Macdonald, daughter of a tenant farmer from South Uist, was persuaded to help him escape from Benbecula to Skye, disguised as her maid. I was also incredibly excited to discover that a poem which had captured my imagination at school, Flannan Isle, was based on a true event in the Outer Hebrides; the disappearance of three lighthouse keepers from the Flannan Isles in December 1900 is still an unsolved mystery.



One of our main reasons for coming to the Outer Hebrides had been to see some of the wildlife. At £190 per person, an excursion to St Kilda was a bit expensive for us, so we opted for a 3 hour RIB cruise with Sea Trek, which cost £45 each. Setting off from Miavaig on the west coast of Lewis, the cruise took us through Loch Roag, past the islands of Pabbay and Little Bernera, to Gannan Head. We caught sight of a minke whale, some curious seals, two puffins and a host of other sea birds, but the main excitement was caused by a large shoal of basking sharks, who were thoroughly unperturbed by our presence.


Returning to Stornoway the day before our filght home, we had more time to look around than when we arrived. The town is much quieter and smaller than I had expected, with an almost industrial feel.  For dinner, there are a couple of hotel restaurants and a place called Digby Chick which had been recommended to us but, given the frequent taxi trips, was a little outside our depleted holiday budget.  Instead, we found a very decent Indian restaurant called Bangla Spice on Church Street, which seems to be the world cuisine area of Stornoway, where Turkish, Thai and Chinese restaurants can also be found.

Five days was only enough for a taste of what the islands have to offer. If I go back, top of my to do list will be a trip a to St Kilda or the Shiants to see the puffins, and just maybe a killer whale; a visit to the prehistoric Callanish stones in Lewis;  windsurfing in the Uists; Golden Eagle-spotting at the North Harris Eagle Observatory; and ceilidh dancing in Barra.

A place of light in the summer, I suspect the islands would be pretty bleak in the winter with the sun rising late and setting early and wind speeds averaging 18 mph. Despite this, I’m sure there would be a certain dramatic beauty, and if you’re lucky the darkness offers a great opportunity to see the Northern Lights. Cultural life in the Western Isles is very different from places that thrive on the energy and vibrancy of many people brought together, but if you’re looking for solitude, space and wilderness, the Outer Hebrides are intriguing, beautiful islands to explore.


©Eleanor Bowen-Jones




Last modified on Monday, 01 July 2013