“It’s just a squall passing through,” called Sean Ziehm-Stephen across the water. His kayak leading the way, we paddled hard, fighting the waves and a wall of rain that had replaced glorious sunshine from just a few minutes before. “It’s a lot ‘livelier’ than this morning,” Sean laughed. “But that kind of change in weather is pretty normal here.”
We’d paddled out of Scalpay South Harbour and across open water to explore islands filled with Arctic terns, oystercatchers and a seal colony. One moment, we were basking in warm sun; the next, pounded by rain. “On a place like Harris, you have to grab the spectacular moments when they’re there,” Sean told me. “But when the light hits it right, there’s no place like it on Earth.”
Kayaking guide Sean Ziehm-Stephen off Scalpay (Graeme Green)
Scalpay’s a small island connected via a bridge to the Isle of Harris, which, in turn, shares an island landmass with the much larger, more populated Isle of Lewis. The weather’s far from the only thing that’s wild on this Outer Hebridean island, off Scotland’s West Coast. Reachable with ferries from Eig on Skye or from Ullapool on the west coast of the Scottish Highlands, the island has glassy lochs, mighty mountains and strange rock landscapes, some of which doubled for Jupiter in scenes from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Beaches, like Luskentyre and Kneep, are among the most beautiful in the world; tourist boards from Asia are reported to have come to the Hebrides to photograph the beaches, complete with imported palm trees, to use in their own promotion campaigns. The protected island landscapes are also home to a remarkable array of wildlife, from golden eagles, red deer and otters to whales, basking sharks and dolphins.
We’d started our journey into the Outer Hebrides from Glasgow, driving up the west banks of Loch Lomond and through Glencoe to catch a ferry from Mallaig across to Skye, the largest, most popular island in the Inner Hebrides.
Sconsor scallop at The Three Chimneys (Angus Bremner)
Staying overnight in Portree, we drove down empty roads in the evening through the sparsely populated west of the island to The Three Chimneys restaurant, recommended to us as one of the best places to eat in Scotland. Cosy inside, we worked our way through chef Scott Davies’ tasting menu. “90 per cent of the food on the menu comes from Skye,” the waiter told us, from langoustines and Dunvegan crab to, for meat-eaters, venison and lamb.
My favourite dish was the roasted Sconsor scallop, not least for the accompanying smoked sea dashi, a salty warming soup. It’s also hard to beat other tasty Scottish touches, like beer-crusted bread with heather-smoked butter. A hearty board of local cheeses and a box of handmade chocolates, and we’re more than done.
Next morning, we watched tiny boats out on the silvery water from the clifftops at Tobhta Uachdrach. But the weather worked against us as we explored Skye, grey mist entirely covering the iconic Old Man of Storr and the striking landscapes of the Quiraing (which appeared in the recent Macbeth film and Prometheus), sideways rain pelting us as we looked at Kilt Rock and Leilt waterfall.
Boat off the coast of Skye (Graeme Green)
Despite the weather, Skye’s hotspots were over-run, car parks brimming over with coaches and cars. We caught an afternoon ferry from Uig to Tarbert on Harris, things feeling instantly quieter and wilder as we drove a loop around South Harris, heading down the east coast on The Golden Road.
Famous around the world for it’s Tweed, Harris is a timeless-feeling place, with natural beauty around each corner: peaty moorland, yellow heather, sunlight bouncing off inland lochs. Sheep had free reign, mothers parading over hills and roads with nervous lambs pinned to their sides. A heron flew over a rocky cove. Old red phone boxes stand by the roadside, while crumbled remains of abandoned crofts are visible on hills overlooking the coast.
At the southern end of the island, we visited 15th century St Clement’s Church at Rodel and photographed shaggy Highland Cows, before making our way up the Atlantic-facing west coast, which is very different from the east, with great expanses of white sandy beaches at Scarista, Seilebost and beyond. Detouring to Luskentyre, we took a walk on the beautiful, almost-deserted beach, colours glowing in the sunshine, before settling in at the Sound Of Harris, our base in Harris, a new self-catering house down in Borrisdale in the south of the island.
Sound of Harris (Rob English)
Inside, the house is decked out with Borrisdale Tweed in modern designs, with a cosy wood-burning stove heater in the living room. Big maps of the Hebrides are framed on the walls, while shelves are filled with colourful ceramics and books on photography, design and walking. In terms of indoor creature comforts, classy design and wild relaxing location, it’s one of the coolest, most memorable places I’ve stayed in years.
Big windows looked out across the Sound to the hills of North Uist, Berneray and Groay. “You can hear the songlike call of the seals on Groay sometimes,” Rob English, co-owner of the Sound Of Harris, told us in the evening. “Harris is fantastic for wildlife. I see otters regularly. Harbour porpoises swing in on flat calm days.”
At Tarbert next day, we called in at the newly opened Harris Distillery, one of the most remote and westerly distilleries in Scotland. The distillery opened late 2015, so their first batch of whisky is still a few years off, but they’re already producing high end gin.
“What can you smell?”, Harris Distillery’s shop manager Peter Kwasniewski asked, opening a potent jar of dried green weedy material during a distillery tour. “Some say ‘wet dog,’ some say ‘wet goat’…” The mystery ingredient is sugar kelp, a seaweed harvested in the waters off the island, which adds a subtle flavour to their gin. We took a bottle with us to enjoy back by the Sound’s fireside.
Colourful ocean between coast of North Harris and island of Scarp (Graeme Green)
Next morning, rabbits bounded away as we hiked from the machair (fertile grassland) beside Hushinish beach, on North Harris’ west coast, on a steep trail up cliffs, waves battering dark rocks below. Clouds rolled by, throwing dramatic shadows onto Scarp, a small island with just a few houses and dilapidated old crofts. The colours were incredible, white stretches of sand framed by bright blue water, like something out of the Caribbean.
Coming over a high ridge, we saw a gathering of 11 red deer gathered on a rocky hilltop, a stag and his harem. They watched us for a few moments before bolting.
We were back at Hushinish next day for a different perspective. A new North Harris Snorkel Trail launched this summer, with six sites, including Hushinish, to show off the Isle’sunderwater worlds. “People might think it’s a crazy idea,” said Daryll Brown, a Ranger with the North Harris Trust, as we pulled on 6mm wetsuits. “But once they get in, they can’t believe how beautiful and how colourful it is under the water.”
Average water temperatures around the coast range from eight degrees centigrade in February to 15 degrees in the summer months. Swimming in that day’s 12 degree water was a shock to the system at first, but I quickly got used to it. Golden kelp forests swayed beneath us, as we swam around the bay. Crabs scuttled along the sand. Daryll pointed out sugar kelp and picked seaweeds to taste.
North Harris Trust ranger Daryll Brown on the new snorkel trail (Graeme Green)
At the second site, Seilamol Bay, the water was cooler still, green and murky, but filled with life. “There’s so much to see,” said Daryll, bringing a massive edible crab to the surface to study. There were bright starfish below and scallops, their shells just visible on the sandy floor, as well as pollock and tiny silver sand eels.
Heading back to Tarbert, Daryll stopped and took out his binoculars to track an eagle crossing the hills. Harris has the largest population of breeding golden eagles in the UK (13 pairs). “That’s a goldie,” Darryl said, confidently. “2.2 metre wingspan, an adult. That’s a beauty.”
Next morning, we kayaked out from Scalpay with the Scaladale Centre’s Sean Ziehm-Stephen. Paddling between rocky islands, Sean pointed out gulls, orange-beaked oystercatchers and Arctic terns. “Arctic terns are amazing,” he said. “They have the longest migration of any creature on the planet, from the Arctic to Antarctica and back every year. They stop here to rest.”
As we turned a corner, around 20 chubby Common Seals flopped from the rocks into the safety of the water. We came to a stop, the heads of the dog-like animals bobbing above the surface behind us, watching from a distance.
Later, paddling our way into an inlet, we noticed the head of a seal pop up nearby. Coming back into the harbour, we spotted another two. Curious creatures, some of the seals had been following us for half an hour.
Common seals on the rocks (Graeme Green)
In the afternoon, we drove north through Harris and into Lewis, sunlight bringing out the colours of the hills, grasslands and lochs. We detoured to the famous Callanish Stones, Neolithic standing stones, thought to be around 5000 years old, older than Stonehenge. Their purpose is a mystery. Some speculate that the design corresponds to an astrological phenomenon, others that they’re an ancient pagan burial site.
We stayed in Stornoway, the capital of Lewis, in one of the new self-catering apartments at Lews Castle. The A-listed castle, dating from the 1840s, had been lying unused for 20 years, but a £19.5 million restoration project has returned it to it’s Gothic Revival glory, the five year project shortlisted for Great British Buildings Restoration of the Year.
From the spacious, warm, modern apartment, we had a view from the window of colourful Stornoway Harbour, while, from the other window, we could study gargoyles on the ramparts. Below, an old cannon pointed out to sea.
Lews Castle (Graeme Green)
“A wee bit of a breeze, but that’s about it,” suggested Gordy Maclean, skipper with Stornoway Seafaris, down by the harbour in the morning, as we climbed into flotation suits and boarded his rib boat for a trip to the Shiant Islands. It turned out to be an understatement.
We chugged past Arnish Point lighthouse, then Gordy opened the boat up, speeding across the waves at 25 knots. Cormorants flew alongside, like darts.
We slowed to watch Harbour porpoises moving through the water. “They’re quite shy,” said onboard wildlife guide Sheena Anderson. “Not as playful as dolphins.”
Further along, we saw a white-tailed sea eagle, the largest bird of prey in the UK, come in to join its mate in their high cliff-face nest. “We see sea eagles often around here,” Sheena said. “They mate for life with the same bird and use the same nest for generations. They’re incredible birds.”
Birding guide Sheena Anderson at the Shiants (Graeme Green)
Arriving at a bird-filled scene, we rested at a cave mouth at Rough Island, one of three islands that make up the Shiants. “Rough Island is the highest, at 150 metres, and it’s all volcanic rock. The formations are very cool,” Sheena said, as we motored slowly beneath vast dark volcanic columns, coloured white with guano.
Here, there were puffins, guillemots, kittiwakes, razorbills and more. “It’s a very important place for nesting seabirds,” Sheena informed us. “10 per cent of the UK’s Atlantic puffin population are here, around 65,000 nesting pairs. It gets very noisy in the summer.”
The nearby rocks were covered with seals. We came across a stubby pup, peacefully sleeping in a sheltered nook. It woke, blinked a few times and flopped into the ocean.
Figure from the Lewis Chessmen (Graeme Green)
Rain lashed us throughout the return journey and continued through the afternoon, so we put aside plans for a hike on Lewis’ north coast, the UK’s windiest point, and instead dropped by Museum nan Eilean museum at Lews Castle, where, among other Hebridean artefacts, there are several ‘Lewis Chessman’ in glass cabinets. The detailed figurines, carved from walrus tusk, are some of the 93 pieces found in 1831 in sand dunes off Uig Bay. They were made by craftsmen in Trondheim, Norway, more than 800 years ago.
There are large-scale versions of the Chessmen around the west of the island, part of the recent ‘Bealach’ art project. We drove out to find them, a scenic loop taking us around Valtos and Kneep, beaches that prove that, even in bad weather, Lewis can rival the best Harris has to offer.
Soon, we were ticking off art pieces, including The Berserker at Uig Community Centre, The Knight at Abhain Deary Distillery and Spring Well, by the roadside in Mangersta, an arm jutting out from the grass bank pouring spring water from a bottle.
It took us a while to find The King, a tall statue on the machair near Ardroil beach. As the rain continued to fall, his ‘kingdom’ - the wildlife-filled hills, beaches, lochs and mountains of Harris and Lewis - looked a little ‘dreich’ (a Scottish word, meaning dreary and grey). But what we’d been told is certainly true: when the light hits it right, there really is no place like it on Earth.
For more on the new North Harris Snorkelling Trail, see scottishwildlifetrust.org.uk. For kayaking trips with the Scaladale Centre, see scaladale-centre.co.uk. For Shiant Isles boat trips with Stornoway Seafari, see stornowayseafari.com.
The author stayed at: the Sound Of Harris (soundofharris.co.uk), a self-catering house in South Harris; Lews Castle’s self-catering apartments (naturalretreats.com) in Stornoway, Lewis, and the Portree Hotel in Portree, Skye (theportreehotel.com).
CalMac ferries operate ferries between the Hebridean islands and to/from the Scottish mainland. See calmac.co.uk for timetables and tickets.
For more on Scotland, visit visitscotland.com.
Graeme Green is a travel writer and photographer. For more, see www.graeme-green.com.
Follow Graeme on Instagram (instagram.com/graeme.green) and Twitter (twitter.com/greengraeme).
Main image: Traveller and dog looking out over Luskentyre beach (Graeme Green)