Nine reasons why the Isles of Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland deserve a place on your travel wishlist, including stunning beaches, unspoilt countryside, great food and unique culture.
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Scotland’s islands are one of Britain’s best-kept secrets. I’d heard tales of the beautiful beaches, breathtaking landscapes and unique culture you can find in the far north of Scotland, and couldn’t wait to see them for myself. And in glorious August sunshine, the Hebridean Isles of Lewis and Harris couldn’t have put on a better show for me.
Technically one landmass but split into two islands, Lewis and Harris lie at the top of the Outer Hebrides off Scotland’s west coast. Each has different landscapes, and their proximity makes it easy to visit both islands on one trip. But why should you visit Lewis and Harris? Here are nine great reasons to add these islands to your travel wishlist.
Why visit the Isles of Lewis and Harris?
1. The beaches
It’s not hard to see why the beaches on the west coast of the Isle of Harris top so many ‘best beaches in the world’ lists. With their white sands gently sloping into clear turquoise waters they could easily give islands in the Caribbean or South Pacific a run for their money (until you dip your toes in – the water temperatures are decidedly Scottish!).
Stunning Luskentyre Beach is the star, but our other favourites included Scarista, Seilebost and Horgabost beaches on the Isle of Harris as well as Ness beach on the Isle of Lewis. The coast of both Lewis and Harris is dotted with a diverse mix of sheltered coves, sandy dunes and rocky bays, so you’ll have no problem finding your perfect beach.
2. The history
If you’re interested in history and archaeology, you’ll be fascinated by the Outer Hebrides. The islands were one of the first places to be settled in the British Isles around 8500 BC and plenty of remnants of their dramatic past still remain. And a drive along the west coast of the Isle of Lewis is a tour through the last few thousand years of island history.
Oldest are the Neolithic standing stones at Callanish. Older and more impressive than Stonehenge, they date back to 3000 BC. Going forward in time to the Iron Age there’s Dun Carloway Broch, a stone tower that’s one of the best-preserved in the country.
There’s also the remains of a Norse Mill and Kiln at Shawbost and traditional 19th-century blackhouse villages at Arnol and Gearrannan, one of which you can even stay in.
3. The diverse landscapes
At around 840 square miles in size, Lewis and Harris pack a lot of different landscapes into a small area. Lewis is mostly flat, with miles of peaty moorlands stretching across the centre of the island which reminded me of Iceland. Then around the coast you’ve got sandy beaches and rocky headlands in the east and the deep waters of Loch Suaineabhal.
Or follow the road down to Harris and the landscape changes again, winding its way up and down hills with panoramic views down to lochs and coastal inlets. And the changing weather and light mean the landscapes never stay the same. So be prepared that every journey will take longer than you think as you’ll want to make a lot of photo stops.
4. The food and drink
Seasonal, local produce are foodie buzzwords, but Lewis and Harris are old hands at this. They have an impressive selection of places to eat and drink, as well as lots of small-scale local producers. We followed the Eat Drink Hebrides Trail around the islands, a self-guided foodie tour listing some of their best food producers, shops and restaurants.
Among their – and our – local favourites are Stornoway Black Pudding from Charles MacLeod, salmon smoked over Scotch whisky cask chippings from the Lewis & Harris Smokehouse, Neapolitan-style pizza from a converted shipping container at Crust, handmade chocolates from Flavour Chocolate and lobster from The Anchorage.
Being Scotland of course a whisky distillery there too – Abhainn Dearg whisky from Uig on the Isle of Lewis – as well as the delicious sea kelp-infused Harris Gin from Tarbert on the Isle of Harris. Both run tours and tastings from their distilleries.
5. The traditions
The Isles of Lewis and Harris hold their traditions close, like the Gaelic language which is still spoken by around half of islanders and used on signs around the Outer Hebrides.
It’s not a place that’s just looking to the past though, and traditions are always evolving. You’ll find traditional fiddle, accordion and pipe musicians at the Hebridean Celtic Festival in July and An Lanntair arts centre in Stornoway. But you’ll also find modern art, film, photography, theatre and music from the Hebrides and beyond at An Lanntair.
And as for those ‘everything’s closed on Sundays for church’ stereotypes – although you won’t find as many places open on the islands as on the mainland, we had no trouble filling up the car with petrol, going out for lunch and flying home on a Sunday.
6. The wild coastline
Much as I love a sandy beach, there’s something entrancing about watching waves crashing against the rocks. And the Butt of Lewis at the north-east tip of the Isle of Lewis sees winds reaching 100 miles per hour. At one point was named Britain’s windiest spot by the Guinness Book of Records – so you can imagine the size of the waves.
The cliffs stretch up to 80 feet high and you can get right to the edge so it’s not one for vertigo sufferers, but the views are stunning. It feels like you’re on the edge of the world – carry on north and your next stop is the Arctic, go west and it’s Newfoundland in Canada. But it has a wild beauty, with wildflowers, craggy rocks and deep blue waters.
7. The locals
You can’t have a Scotland post without at least one hairy Highland coo, and our house came with a few of these photogenic guys as neighbours. As well as cows, you can see wildlife like red deer, eagles and otters around the islands, plus seals, dolphins, porpoises and whales off the coast – with wildlife-watching boat trips available for a closer look.
Our human neighbours were just as friendly too. There’s a real sense of community around the islands. The Islanders we met were all justifiably proud of their home and wanted to share tips of their favourite places to visit to help make our trip special.
8. The artistic side
Something about the scenery when you visit Lewis and Harris makes you want to pick up a paintbrush, so it’s no surprise many talented artists and craftspeople have made their home on the islands. Harris Tweed is best known, and I couldn’t resist buying one of the beautiful jackets, which have to be woven by hand at home in the Hebrides to earn the name.
You’ll also find painters, photographers, jewellers, potters, knitters and writers around the islands. And author Peter May set a whole trilogy of books on Lewis. Fans of the series can check out some of the locations featured in them around Lewis and Harris.
9. The feeling of space and peace
For city-dwellers like me, space, peace and quiet are all scarce resources. But the Isles of Lewis and Harris have plenty of them to spare. Even on Luskentyre Beach on a sunny Saturday in the middle of August, we counted at most 25 other people.
Imagine a beach like that transported to Cornwall and you wouldn’t find a spare patch of sand. Outside of Stornoway the islands’ roads are quiet and there’s so much space to explore – deserted coves, coastline, moorland, lochs and acres of countryside. It’s the perfect place to stop, leave your stresses behind, relax and unwind for a few days.
When to visit the Isles of Lewis and Harris
The climate in the Outer Hebrides is milder than you might think, thanks to the Gulf Stream. But it can be wet and windy year-round, so pack warm layers and waterproofs and prepare for changeable conditions. The tourist season runs from April to October.
Summer is the most popular times to visit the Outer Hebrides, with long days (it never gets completely dark in the height of summer) and warmest temperatures, with average highs of 17°C/63°F in July. But pack midge spray as these irritating little biters often make an appearance at dusk. And prepare for high prices in school holidays.
Spring is good for wildflowers and autumn for spotting whales and dophins. Winter can be stormy, with average daytime highs of 7°C/45°F and lows of 3°C/37°F and the highest rainfall in November/December – but there is a chance of seeing the Northern Lights.
How to get to the Isles of Lewis and Harris
There’s an airport in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis with flights with Loganair from Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Inverness and Benbecula. There are also a couple of CalMac ferries connecting the Isles of Lewis and Harris with the rest of Scotland.
The ferry from Ullapool on the mainland to Stornoway takes around 2.5 hours. Or the ferry from Uig on the Isle of Skye to Tarbert on the Isle of Harris takes 1 hour 40 minutes. If you want to explore more of the Outer Herbrides you can also take the ferry from Leverburgh on Harris to Berneray on North Uist. Ferries carry both cars and foot passengers.
Getting around the Isles of Lewis and Harris
There is a bus service on the islands, but it’s not very frequent and routes are limited. So if you want to explore and stop off where you like, it’s best to hire a car. There’s a car rental desk at Stornoway Airport or you can pick up a car at from the ferry terminals in Stornoway or Tarbert, but book in advance as there’s limited availability.
We used Car Hire Hebrides and paid £190 for four days in August. Driving in the Outer Hebrides means lots of single lane and winding roads, but there are plenty of passing places. Traffic’s normally pretty light but you might have to share the road with sheep.
Where to stay on the Isles of Lewis and Harris
There are only a few hotels on the islands, but there are plenty of guesthouses and self-catering rentals. We stayed in a four-bedroom, three-bathroom house* in the hamlet of Brue on the west coast of Lewis, with stunning views of the sea and moorland. The house sleeps eight and has a cosy lounge with wood-burning stove, dining room and gardens.
Or you can stay in the grand, Gothic-style Lews Castle* in Stornoway, with a range of en-suite bedrooms and one-, two- and three-bed apartments located on the upper floors of this Victorian castle. They’ve been beautifully renovated and come with locally sourced furnishings, and some rooms have views of Stornoway harbour.