"Can the North of the UK be exotic?" Top 5 Page for this destination Western Isles by kit_mc

Western Isles Travel Guide: 144 reviews and 536 photos

Beautiful, in an edge of the world kinda way!

So, a whistlestop trip to the Hebrides - whizzing through Skye, Harris and Lewis. For some odd reason best known only to my slightly eccentric subconscious, this had always been a far-flung, incredibly isolated part of the UK that I'd wanted to explore, so when the opportunity came to visit Skye with my friend, I managed to convince him that we should REALLY go the extra mile - or at least the extra hour and 45 minute ferry crossing - so that I could say I'd officially been to the Outer Hebrides.

In the end, arriving in Tarbert, Harris off the morning ferry from Uig on Skye, bleary eyed and starving hungry after rising at some God forsaken hour, we made our way straight to the teeny tiny capital of Lewis and the largest town of the Western Isles (Populatation approx. 6,000), Stornaway. Moving up the Isle of Lewis to Stornoway in the car meant that we got an idea straight away of the kind of distances and timings that would be involved over the next couple of days touring Harris and Lewis.

Straight off I realised that this was a better idea than the daytrip offered by the ferry company that so many people at the ticket office seemed to be choosing. We took a few moments in Tarbert to get our bearings before setting off north, a good move because otherwise we'd no doubt have been caught up in the one and only moment of traffic congestion I saw on the island - boy when that ferry arrives, the cars all seem to head straight towards Stornoway... Traffic congestion isn't really something that one encounters often here. In fact traffic per se isn't something you encounter often in the Outer Hebrides. If you're someone who complains about all those dreadful cars on the roads getting in the way of your rally driving, then this is the place to come.

I'm not sure quite how to describe my initial mind-eye view of the Outer Hebrides really. I guess I had a romanticised view of one of the last examples of UK wilderness, an isolated and slightly desolate region. In many ways, this is in fact what it is - isolated and desolate. Blown away as I was by the dramatic scenery, that really had no comparison to anything I'd seen before, the city dweller in me really wouldn't be moving to Lewis anytime soon. It was difficult to have any adequate preconcepotions though - any photos that you see can't really fully explore the, well, bleakness in beauty, beauty in desolation, that epitomises the landscape here. Empty of people for the most part, but full of lochs, mountains, isolated post-offices and startling view after view that will stick with you long after visiting.

While we'd already booked accommodation in Skye and the mainland for the rest of the roadtrip, we were a little less certain about where we'd be staying here. I'd done very little homework before leaving London because this roadtrip had been such a last minute decision. But then often the best vacations are unplanned and unexpected, no?!

So, no accommodation booked, but the names and addresses of a couple of hostels, as this was going to be a budget trip, me being the poor student again these days... While at times it would appear that every private home on these islands doubles as a Bed and Breakfast, the price for two people tended to work out at about 50 pounds, so not exactly a budget destination. The hostels that we could find on Lewis and Harris were all pretty far from Stornoway and 'basic' would probably be the word one would use to describe them... The original plan was to stay in the restored village of 'blackhouses' on the west coast of Lewis at Gearrannan, which sounded kind of cosy, or at least a bit of an adventure. It's not possible to book ahead here though, so you take your chances if you turn up late in the day, as we did... In fairness, we could probably have still found a place to rest our weary bones, but we were feeling slightly less than adventurous that day, and ended up back in Stornoway in an establishment that I suspect had more than a 1 star rating...

The second night was spent down in a private 'Bunkhouse', basically a hostel in all but name, on the southern end of Harris in Leverburgh, a very good bet that I was fairly impressed with as hostel type acommodation goes. Ok, didn't have my own en-suite that night but needs must. This also gave us an excuse to see bits of Harris we might not otherwise have passed through. Harris for me is gorgeous beaches in the twilight.

The photos on this page are all of Harris as there isn't a specific Harris page on VT that I can locate.

Unfortunately, sheer lack of time meant that Lewis and Harris were the only islands that we were able to see after Skye. Having a car enabled us to take our own time around the islands, stopping wherever the desire grabbed us, which was often in order to take another snap of some particularly impressive loch or mountainscape. Suffice to say we stopped a lot.

The pace was still fairly frenetic though - even if the very fact that everything - certainly all museums and almost all restaurants, shops and petrol stations - necessarily meant we slowed down more than had we been in a larger city over a Saturday and Sunday. I think you'd be pushing it trying to see all the sights of traditional tourist-note in a day, my own regret being that we didn't see half as much of Harris as I might have liked before the sun had set on our last day.

Must sees in my opinion were the Callanish standing stones and the museum in Stornoway, both free. On your way round the islands though you'll see the ruins of many homesteads and churches and these surprises make you feel like you're really at the fringes of the UK. I must say that there wasn't a moment where I wasn't thinking to myself, like an excited child, 'Wow, I'm actually in the Outer Hebrides. Isn't that cool!'. What will stay with you though is that sensation of turning another corner on a windy, and being stunned once again by yet another terrific sight of mountain ranges spreading out into the distance, valleys rising out of lochs, a certain beauty in bleakness. If you don't find yourself gasping at some of the views that you encounter, then you've become a jaded traveller indeed.

These are just a few observations for now, tips will be added in the fullness of time no doubt. I've also shoved up a few of my oh so well informed opinions on the use of Gaelic in the Hebrides which I hope will amuse more than they offend.

  • Last visit to Western Isles: Aug 2006
  • Intro Updated May 9, 2016
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