Scotland’s islands have to be one of Britain’s best-kept secrets. I’d heard tales of the stunning beaches, breathtaking landscapes and unique culture you can find in the far north, all without even having to leave the country. I just needed some sunshine to make it perfect – and the Hebridean islands of Lewis and Harris couldn’t have put on a better show for my first Scottish island trip. Technically one landmass but split into two islands, Lewis and Harris lie at the top of the Outer Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland. So as a preview of posts to come, and while I work on editing my huge pile of photos (damn you two for being so photogenic!), here are nine reasons I fell in love with the Isles of Lewis and Harris.
1. The beaches
It’s not hard to see why the beaches on Harris’ west coast top so many ‘best beach in the world’ lists. Their white sands and clear turquoise waters could easily give places I’ve visited in Australia or the Caribbean a run for their money. Luskentyre’s the star of the show but both islands are dotted with a 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 at all interested in history or archaeology then you’ll be fascinated by the Hebrides. You can take a tour through the last few thousand years without leaving the west coast of Lewis. There are the Neolithic standing stones at Callanish – older and more impressive than Stonehenge – the Iron Age Dun Carloway Broch, a Norse mill and even a traditional 19th-century blackhouse that you can stay in.
3. The diverse landscapes
The islands pack a lot of different landscapes into a small area. The centre of Lewis has miles of flat peaty moorlands that reminded me of Iceland. Around the coast you’ve got sandy beaches and rocky headlands. Then the road down to Harris is different again, winding its way up and down hills with panoramic views down to lochs and coastal inlets. Be prepared to make a lot of photo stops everywhere you go.
4. The food and drink
Seasonal, local produce are foodie buzzwords right now, but Lewis and Harris are old hands at this. There’s 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 which lists black pudding, smoked fish, scallops, cheese and tea among their island favourites – not to mention a drop of Harris Gin and Abhainn Dearg whisky.
5. The traditions
The islands hold their traditions close, like the Gaelic which is still spoken and used on signs around the Hebrides. But it’s not a place that’s just looking to the past, and traditions are always evolving. Alongside traditional music you can see modern art and photography on show in the An Lanntair arts centre in Stornoway. And as for those ‘everything’s closed on Sundays for church’ stereotypes – we had no trouble filling up the car, going out for lunch and catching a flight on our last day despite it being Sunday.
6. The wild coastline
Much as I love a good sandy beach there’s something entrancing about watching waves crashing against the rocks. And the Butt of Lewis has some serious cliffs up to 80 feet high. You can get right to the edge so it’s not one for vertigo sufferers, but the views are stunning. The area gets winds of 100 mph and at one point the Guinness Book of Records named it Britain’s windiest spot – imagine the size of those waves!
7. The locals
You can’t have a Scottish island post without a Highland coo – our house came with a few of these photogenic guys as neighbours. As well as cows, you can see wildlife like red deer and otters, plus seals, dolphins and whales off the coast. Our human neighbours were just as friendly too. Islanders are justifiably proud of their home and everyone we met wanted to share tips of their favourite places to visit.
8. The artistic side
Something about the scenery of Lewis and Harris makes you want to pick up a paintbrush (even if you’re as hopeless as me!), so it’s no surprise many talented artists and craftspeople have made their home on the islands. Best known is Harris Tweed – which has to be woven by hand at home in the Hebrides to earn the name. But you’ll also find painters, photographers, jewellers, potters, knitters and candle-makers.
9. The feeling of space
For us city dwellers, space, peace and quiet are scarce resources. But the islands have plenty to spare. Even on Luskentyre Beach on a sunny Saturday in the middle of August we counted at most 25 other people. Imagine it transported to Cornwall and you wouldn’t find a spare patch of sand. Outside Stornoway the roads are quiet and there’s so much space to explore – deserted coves, lochs and acres of countryside.
Have I convinced you to add the islands of Lewis and Harris on your travel wishlist?