I open the curtains of our small but perfectly formed bothy on the island of Scalpay and I’m greeted by the sight of an otter, scurrying for shelter into the adjacent stream as it spills into the sea.
The silvery shoreline is bathed in sunshine even though the forecast is for rain, but we’re in a microclimate in Scalpay – a tiny island offshoot linked by a causeway to North Harris in the Outer Hebrides.
Along with the otter, our neighbours are mostly sheep, soaring eagles and a few chickens, producing eggs with the yellowest of yolks and left as a welcome in our tiny cottage, along with aromatic home-smoked salmon.
The locals here are resourceful, self-sufficient and welcoming.
My husband and I first came to the Outer Hebrides six years ago, following a frenetic schedule I’d optimistically devised, which had us driving the entire length of this Atlantic archipelago in a long weekend.
Ancient, unspoilt and unpolluted, these Western Isles – close neighbours but each with its own unique character – instantly captivated us, and magnetised by their wild, dramatic beauty we have returned every year.
There is much to lure us back, and with staycations still a first choice for many, this is a destination that feels remote, yet requires no quarantine.
The Outer Hebrides are blessed with some of the most spellbinding, white sand beaches in the world (a well-kept secret), epic landscapes, abundant wildlife, prehistoric monuments, mouthwatering food and the iconic Harris Tweed. Plus a tranquillity like nowhere else on earth.
But they are not for the faint-hearted. Nature is untamed here, there are barren lunar landscapes and austere peat moors. The weather is variable (understatement). In fact, it’s possible to experience every season in a single day.
Midges abound in high summer (but Avon’s Skin-So-Soft unexpectedly proves itself the finest of repellants) and the pace is leisurely; nothing and nobody is hurried.
Blessed with the metabolism of a hyperactive ant, this was alien territory for me, though over time I have come to relish the relaxation.
But should you wish to be a little more adventurous, you can try sea kayaking, fishing, snorkelling with seals, rock pooling, hillwalking, foraging for wild foods, horse riding, wild swimming and cycling the spectacular Hebridean Way.
Or you can emulate our first holiday and drive yourself crazy. In hindsight, our only mistake was trying to do the trip with the clock ticking – if you surrender to the gentler tempo it’s a road trip that’s liberating and illuminating. And the many single-track roads all have frequent passing places, where local drivers are friendly and uniformly considerate.
We began our travels in Lewis and Harris, together forming the largest island in the chain and both packed with must-sees: don’t miss the magnificent, monolithic Callanish Standing Stones on the west coast of Lewis. Pre-dating Stonehenge, free to visit and open all year, you can get up close and personal with the oldest rocks in Britain.
A short drive away another favourite, the Gearrannan Blackhouse Village, features a cluster of traditional, thatched crofters cottages, authentically restored and with some available to rent for an immersive, peaty, old world experience.
The road south leads to Stornoway, the main town in the Hebrides and home to the Harris Tweed Authority – watch weavers work the looms and fall in love with this distinctive cloth.
World-famous black pudding can be bought from Charles Macleod Butchers, and although I’m more a fan of coffee and cakes at Stornoway’s Blue Lobster café (friendly, stylish and selling artisan gifts too) my husband swears by the black stuff.
The moors and lochs of Lewis give way to Harris’s mountains and spectacular beaches; Hushinihs in North Harris is well worth a visit, and don’t miss the Golden Road, winding through otherworldly rocks and micro hamlets on the east coast of South Harris.
Despite thinking you’re on the moon, you’ll suddenly find Sam’s Seafood Shack nestling in a cove near Rodel, at the southernmost tip of South Harris. Prepare to join the queue (having not seen another car for miles) for the finest seafood chowder and sensational seaweed roast potatoes. Trust me, it’s worth the wait.
- Sundays are sacrosanct: most supermarkets, shops and even some garages are closed. Locals treat the Sabbath with respect, so plan accordingly.
- The Hebrides have the highest concentration of Gaelic speakers worldwide, with road signs in both Gaelic and English.
- The easiest way to get around is by car.
- There are lots of sheep in rural areas. Hebridean sheep are partial to sitting in the middle of the road.
- Keep an eye on ferry timings and flights as bad weather often affects schedules.
- Avoid midges by visiting in April, May, June or September.
- Visitouterhebrides.co.uk has valuable info about all the islands.
Two culinary stars are producing Michelin-worthy food in Harris, within a few miles of each other: George Lavery at the North Harbour Bistro on the Isle of Scalpay and Chris Loye in his new restaurant near Tarbert, the main port and settlement intersecting North and South Harris.
George has been delighting diners for several years now, and his superlative, inspirational cuisine is one of the main reasons we return here; while Chris hand-dives himself for succulent scallops and seafood and garnishes his innovative, beautifully presented dishes with home-grown micro herbs and flowers.
Check out the multi award-winning Harris Distillery, also in Tarbert, with its coveted blue gin bottles, and the renowned Harris Tweed shop a stone’s throw away.
Or if you fancy a bed for the night try the lovely Harris Hotel, serving traditional classics in its relaxing restaurant.
A short ferry ride leads you to stunning Berneray, with causeways connecting to North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist, Grimsay and Eriskay: yet more breathtaking beaches, lochs and rolling dunes.
Then it’s another ferry to the idyllic island of Barra, with its unique airstrip on the beach.
But it’s the west coast of South Harris that has captured my heart, in particular the caster sugar shorelines of Luskentyre and Seilebost, fringed with native coastal machair; each square metre of sandy grassland home to a summer carpet of up to forty-five species of miniature flowers.
It’s no surprise that the Thai Tourist Board mistakenly used a Hebridean beach to promote one of their own exotic coastlines, and the Outer Hebrides have been ranked as one of the top 100 Greatest Travel Experiences.
The skies are wider, the seas are bluer, the air is purer and the sheep are happier.
Try it – you might just love it too.
How to get to the Outer Hebrides:
You can fly to the Outer Hebrides from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Inverness and Manchester.
Loganair operate flights (one hour or less) to Stornoway, Benbecula and Barra; the world’s only airport with scheduled flights landing on a beach.
There are lots of companies offering island-wide car hire – I have found Arnold Clark very competitive).
Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac) Ferries are friendly and helpful to deal with. The main routes to the Outer Hebrides are: Uig (on Skye) to Tarbert and Lochmaddy, North Uist; Ullapool to Stornoway, and Oban to Barra.
Check out great value Hebridean Hopscotch ‘island hopping’ tickets with CalMac
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