Being born and bred in Scotland I had thought I already experienced everything that this beautiful country had to offer. I often heard many people talk about the Scottish Islands and regrettably I always put it off in favour of sunnier climbs, but boy I wish I had visited sooner. Situated in the Outer Hebrides, are the stunning Isles of Harris and Lewis. Although named separately they are actually part of one island, South Harris, North Harris and Lewis. With breathtaking landscapes of mountains, stunning beaches, delicious fresh food and welcoming people, look no further for a destination that has it all. I have put together a three-day itinerary to get the best out of a short stay on this magnificent Isle.
Getting there (From Edinburgh):
Although the Isle of Harris seems out of reach, despite what people may think, it is relatively easy to get too. There are a few different modes of transport that you can use.
Flying: If you want to get there quicker, you can fly from Edinburgh to Stornoway (Lewis) with Loganair in around an hour.
Driving/Ferry: Don’t get me wrong, it is a long journey, however when driving you cannot help but stop off to admire the picturesque west-coast of Scotland. Why not make it fun and interesting by breaking up your trip and visiting different areas along the way. You will of course at some point have to take a ferry and I cannot recommend the service provided by Calmac Ferries enough.
You can either opt to take the ferry from mainland Scotland to the Isle of Lewis or from the Isle of Skye to Harris. I opted for the latter and boarded the ferry with my car from Uig, a village on the west-coast of Skye. The process is easy as you simply turn up at the ferry port, show your ticket and park your car in a designated lane and await boarding to commence. The space for cars is quite tight, however, there are plenty of staff on board to guide you. Once parked, you head up into the cabin and enjoy the stunning sail between the Islands. A return journey for two people and a car was £90, which I thought was quite reasonable, and the journey lasts around 1 hour 40 minutes.
Tips: Due to COVID there are no hospitality services available onboard so if you need to eat/drink constantly (like I do) remember to fill up a bag of goodies and take this to the cabin with you. During this time, it is essential that masks are worn on board. Calmac Ferries do have clear markings for social distancing and sanitiser is available at numerous points around the ferry. Make sure you book online if you are taking a car as spaces can fill up quickly.
My Ferry arrived in the port of Tarbert in Harris; a small village nestled in a valley where North and South Harris meet. This is also where I chose to base my stay but of course, there are many beautiful hotels, self-catering lodges or Airbnb’s across the Isle to choose from. I stayed at The Kirklea Suites by Hebridean Hotels which was literally a two-minute drive from the ferry terminal. (Keep your eyes peeled for a future blog post on this accommodation.)
Day One – Tarbert
This thriving picturesque village has an abundance of small shops, restaurants and places of interest to choose from. Why not wander around and explore the businesses that are the beating heart of this Isle.
The Harris Tweed shop is located nearby the ferry port and you can wander around and peruse the beautiful range that is renowned the world over. Why not head to Drinishader, which is a short drive away, where a dedicated exhibition of Harris Tweed is on show. The exhibition takes you through the history of Harris Tweed, showcases some designer tweed outfits and showcases a demonstration of how this traditional tweed is weaved.
Located only s atone throw away from the ferry port is the delectable Isle of Harris Gin Distillery and Shop. You can book into one of their guided tours where a member of their knowledgable staff take you behind the scenes to see the distilling process of the gin. The adjoining store sells their delicious gin as well as accompanying beverages and glassware. Unfortunately, due to the current pandemic, both of the distillery and shop were closed at the time of my visit, so please check their websites for any up to date information on re-opening. This only gives me an excuse to return, not that I need one. Instead, I ordered a bottle using their click-collect service during my visit and enjoyed my Isle of Harris Gin in a lovely warm bubble bath.
Tarbert is also where you can visit the quaint store belonging to Essence of Harris, a company renowned for their home fragrances and toiletries inspired by the beaches of Harris (keep your eyes peeled for a future blog post). This store entices you in with an array of uplifting scents you cannot help but leave with a bag full of hand poured produce.
If you are a beer drinker then you must head to Loom Shed Brewery on the outskirts of Tarbert. This small wooden-clad building is perched overlooking beautiful views towards the Minch and the Scottish mainland. They have created a delicious range of local beer that is brewed on-site and reflects the heritage of Scottish and British brewing, including ingredients such as Scottish barley and Hebridean water. Even if you aren’t a beer drinker their Deli Blasta serves a range of both sweet and savoury treats for you to enjoy whilst taking in those gorgeous views.
For dinner head to the nearby Harris Hotel which has been family-owned and run for 100 years. They serve an extensive menu which includes an array of fresh local ingredients. Dinner is served between 5 pm and 9 pm and during this current climate, it is advisable to book in advance.
Day Two – Beach Day
If there is one thing that Harris is famed for then it is their stunning beaches which are often referred to as the Scottish version of the Maldives. We visited two beaches in the area, Luskyntyre which has been voted one of the finest beaches in the UK and Hushinish which is a smaller but more sheltered beach. Of course, there are so many more hidden coves and beaches to discover.
Luskyntyre beach (19 minutes drive from Tarbert)
The drive to Luskyntyre Beach, like most of the journeys on Harris, is simply breathtaking. Follow the main A859 road which rises up and over the hills above Harris. You will drive through a rocky landscape with an abundance of small lochs which makes you feel as if you are on another planet. The road changes between double lane to single track and can often be shrouded in mist nearer the summit. It is therefore important to keep your eyes peeled to the road, especially when sheep decide they want to cross. You will turn right at Loch Fincastle where you will arrive at the coast. You will eventually see a cemetery in the distance and this is where a small carpark is located.
Walkthrough the gate and head over the sand dunes where you will see many people camping, their tents nestled in sheltered dips of sand between the seagrass. As soon as you walk over to the edge of the sand and the beach comes into view, it completely takes your breath away. The expanse of white sands (3 miles) against the rolling blue waves of the sea is simply awe-inspiring
The hills in the distance on the Isle of Taransay and mountains of North Harris with atmospheric clouds circling their peaks makes this such a unique and special place. You can walk for miles along this beach and not see anyone, it is definitely not until the sand of this beach gets between your toes that you truly experience the true essence of Harris.
Hushinish Beach (35 minutes drive from Tarbert)
Found on the west side of Harris is the beautiful beach at Hushinish. Follow the B887 Road that rises high above the water’s edge, it’s a tad hair raising but spectacular at the same time. As the road bends around Loch Mhiabhaig beware of some local hairy inhabitants, a group of cows that graze by the water.
If you wish, you can stop and walk up to the North Harris Eagle Observatory and get your chance to see some Golden Eagles. Harris has apparently one of the highest densities of breeding of Golden Eagles in all of Europe. It is a 2-mile walk up there so make sure you bring some layered clothing and supplies of food and water.
Whilst driving into each location you will want to stop everywhere as there is so much to see, just be aware not to park in passing places which can prevent other cars from getting past. One of these sights is the enchanting Amhuinnsuidhe Castle which is set within a designated special protection area.
It was once rumoured that madonna wanted to buy this castle but refused due to the public road passing right by it. It is now a twelve bedroomed hotel which will set you back around £380 per night. The Waterfalls of Abhainn Mhor which run by the castle is a great place to stop to enjoy the view out towards South Harris as the waterfall tumbles into the loch.
You will continue driving along a 12-mile long single track road which can get a little rocky the closer you get to the beach. As you drive over the last hill you will see the gorgeous beach come into view. Parking is located near a small wooden-clad building called Huisinis Gateway, there is ample space which makes it easier to unpack your swimsuits and picnic.
The beach is set on a bay and sheltered by a peninsula with many rocky outlets to explore. We are lucky enough to enjoy some sunshine and enjoy a picnic on the beach, but even in rainy weather, this beach would have its charm. The sand is pure white and scattered along its shore were numerous different coloured jellyfish which were fascinating to look at.
The water is cold but refreshing and if even if you don’t want to brave a full swim its an exhilarating experience just to dip your feet in. The surrounding landscape was beautiful and was peppered with the most colourful display of purple orchids.
On the way home, we bumped into a local who surveys the nature around the island. He recommended another beach to the North West of Hushinish Beach which unfortunately we didn’t get too. It involves a small forty-minute hike across the moor and is sheltered by the nearby island of Scarp. It is here where you can get a glimpse of the famous highland cows, there are apparently around 40 of them wandering the fields. Yet another excuse to go back!
Day Three – North Harris and Lewis
After exploring most of the South it’s time to head upwards and enjoy North Harris and Lewis.
Following the A859 and A858 roads, you will drive through yet more spectacular scenery, if you have a driving buddy make sure to swap places on the way back so you can really sit back and take in all the natural beauty. The road will eventually teeter off and a carpark is located on the right-hand side with ample space.
Gearranannan Blackhouse Village (1-hour drive from Tarbert)
Gearrananna Blackhouse Village is a range of croft houses that were built in the 1800s. They are beautifully quaint with their low thatched roofs and thick drystone walls. The last residents left in the 1970s and they now provide traditional accommodation for tourists who want to experience these historic buildings.
It is set on an elevated position looking out towards the Atlantic and you can only imagine how beautiful, yet difficult it was to stay here all those years ago.
Unfortunately due to COVID-19 pandemic, most of this was closed, however you could still wander through the village and down to the rocky shore for a breezy and exhilarating walk. During ‘normal’ times you would be able to witness some traditional activities such as weaving and enjoy some homemade delights from the cafe.
An 18-minute drive south from the village is the stunning Calanais Standing Stones. There is a visitor centre on the grounds which may not be open at the moment, however you can still wander up the pathway towards this mysterious site. These historic stones were erected almost 5000 years ago which makes them older than Stonehenge and their purpose remains unknown. The rocks that were used to construct this mystical structure date back to an astounding 3000 million years and is one of the oldest rocks in Britain.
What makes the Calanais Standing Stones a must-see attraction is that not only are they set amongst the most beautiful landscape, but they are also one of the best preserved set of standing stones in Europe. When I arrived there were only a small number of people there and it was fantastic just to wander around them, touching the stones to soak in their mystical energy.
I could have sat here for ages to I enjoy the tranquillity! I can only imagine that on a quiet morning during sunrise or in the winter months when the northern lights appear, these stones will truly be a sight to behold.
Aline Community Woodland
Following the road back to Tarbert and around a 31 minutes drive from Calanais Stones is the beautiful Aline Community Woodland. There aren’t many trees on Harris and Lewis so it was great to see an area of dense forest to enjoy.
Here there are many trails of different lengths and difficulties through the forest, one of which leads down the shores of Loch Shiphoirt where you can take in the gorgeous views and nature. There are also a number of wooden platforms that line the banks of Loch an h-Aibhne Ruaidhe and are the perfect place to sit back and relax.
I stopped off for a coffee here and laid back in the sun, it was so peaceful and serene. If you wanted a wee bit more activity, then there were a selection of kayaks available. If you have kids there is a nearby play park to enjoy. From here it is only a 19 minutes drive back to Tarbert
As you can expect, even in August the weather can be very unpredictable, therefore I do advise that you bring plenty of layers and waterproof clothing. One minute it was warm and sunny the next it was cool and rainy, so you never know what to expect. Whatever the weather, the scenery is so stunning that the Isles cast their spell on you, and their natural beauty soon takes over. So come rain or shine you will enjoy it no matter what.
Due to the current climate, most shops and restaurants were closed or just re-opening. I do recommend that you take some food items with you and book restaurants in advance, as they are all running less occupancy due to adopting social distancing rules. Please also note that due to religious reasons, most places are closed on a Sunday.
My visit to Harris and Lewis completely blew me away and that was something I didn’t expect. It is a true escape from the hustle and bustle of life and without sounding all spiritual, it really did help to cleanse the soul. From the expansive rocky landscape, the scenic roads and sprawling beaches, Isle of Harris is something that needs to be seen to be believed.
This itinerary only scratched the surface and I can’t wait to head back again to experience not only its beauty but all the fantastic restaurants and businesses that I couldn’t get to. All I can say is, pack your bags, book your ferry and experience that gorgeous Scottish white sand beneath your feet, trust me, you won’t regret it!