Harris and Lewis are islands in the stunning Outer Hebrides – although, confusingly, they are not separated by sea, but on the same land mass.
The Outer Hebrides, also known as the Western Isles, are a chain of islands off the west coast of Scotland and perched quite literally at the edge of the world. West of the archipelago of St Kilda, the western-most islands of the group, there is nothing but the North Sea, then Greenland and Canada.
Known mostly for wild, windy weather, stormy seas and a history of herring fishing, my own introduction to the Outer Hebrides was via the Lewis Trilogy, a series of murder mysteries written by Peter May and set on Lewis, and some scanty knowledge I had of the stoic herring girls of Stornoway (more on them later). Being able to combine the excitement of a trip to such a remote region with my love of Celtic folk music was a bit of a dream come true for me.
Heeding the meteorological warnings, I was prepared for whatever the infamous weather of the islands was going to throw at me and arrived in their mid-summer kitted out with light seasonal clothing, woollies, a rain jacket, a heavy down jacket and a budget that included an amount set aside for the purchase of wellies.
As it turned out, I didn’t need any of the wet weather gear as we enjoyed a rare, solid week of glorious sunny days and long (really long – not dark until about 11pm) balmy evenings. The only hint of the potential of the weather was the constant wind which left me sporting what I christened my Hebridean hair-do – where I basically gave up on my curly, unruly locks.
What I wasn’t prepared for was just how incredibly beautiful the Outer Hebrides are.It is a place of huge, wide, ridiculously blue skies, endless vistas and ancient monuments – after just a few days I had completely lost my heart to this fabulous place.
The island of Harris is treeless and rocky with barren, naked hills and vast peat bogs. It is devoid of most life except for the scattered crofts and farmhouses, sparse grassland and Hebridean sheep scrambling over the stony slopes. Driving north to Lewis, this scenery gives way to sweeping vistas of grassland, more bogs, endless lochs and more sheep.
The coastline is breathtaking. I had never for a minute connected these islands with stunning beaches, but they’ve got it all – from dramatic, rocky cliffs, to the widest, whitest sandy beaches I’ve ever seen. There are tiny little fishing villages, charming isolated cottages and fantastic guest houses that are only accessible by boat.
And, while Skye was quite busy with a thriving tourist trade, it seems that many of the punters draw the line at the extra two hour ferry ride out west, so there is plenty of room to move, breathe and enjoy this stunningly special part of the world.