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Published: October 8th 2012
Motorhome News from Scotland 2
September 17th – 21st 2012 The Outer Hebrides. Harris & Lewis 'The Land of 1000 Rainbows'
A letter to my sister, Audrey.
My dear Audrey,
We only get to see you so briefly once a year when you join us for the family ‘garden party’ in July, but we think of you often as we travel, knowing that for you this is another world now beyond your reach. This letter is for you in the hope that within its many images there will be the opportunity for you to join us on our journey. We would love that.
News finally reached us of improved weather on the Western Isles, a brief enough window for us to make the dash across Scotland, fingers crossed for sunshine, from our campsite at Nairn on the Moray Firth way to the east and over the toll-free bridge on to the Isle of Skye in the west, a flashing roadside sign heralding the next ferry, sailing for Harris at 2pm. We might just catch it!
So, just for a moment Audrey, close your eyes; come aboard and listen to the
wind rising off the Minch and the lap, lap, lapping of its waves against the hull of our ferry as we cross from Uig, at the northern tip of Skye, to Tarbert on Harris. Feel the cool salty breeze on your face as you watch the wake on a balmy sea from the bow deck and the rhythmic throb of the mighty engines way below, driving us westwards to ‘The Land of a Thousand Rainbows’ and another island adventure.
Caledonian MacBrayne have a bit of a monopoly over the ferries in these parts, but they provide a good efficient service for both visitors and the inhabitants of the Western Isles. Our ‘Hop Scotch’ ferry ticket will get us from Skye to Harris and Lewis, Harris to North Uist, and back to Skye when we’re ready to leave. So dream with us, Audrey. Help us to find the Golden Eagle, the Hen Harrier, the Long-eared Owl, the red deer and the elusive otter whilst the weather holds. Harris is there on the skyline, full of promise, a treeless landscape of robust hills rising from the sea, a handful of white cottages along the shoreline sparkling in the pale afternoon light.
The ferry docks with a practiced hand at Tarbert where a narrow waistline of land divides North and South Harris; to the north magnificent bronze hills sweep down to shallow shores, and south the inland lochs on boggy peat and heather moor. The islands of Harris and Lewis are indeed one, combined some 50 miles from top to bottom, the seam perhaps an ill-defined range of mountains, bleak, uninhabited, and at the same time breathtakingly beautiful. Our kind of place and one you would surely love with passion.
There are few roads on the islands and many, if not most, off the main circuit, are single track with passing places making progress slow but satisfying for the casual traveler with time on her hands and a love of wild places in her heart. Off the main artery, minor tracks wend their way aimlessly across the treeless landscape, with little purpose other than to join up the tiny dots of cottages draped haphazardly between the sheep on windswept meadows and shallow shores around the sea lochs. Our plan allowed us to circumnavigate both Lewis and Harris, wandering in-and-out of remote peninsulas branching like fragile veins
A celebration of the Olympic Torch.. and the 30p toilets!
from the main road – to see what’s there if nothing else, in true Grey-haired Nomad style!
We’ll be back on Harris later in the week, but first to Stornoway, the sea port on Lewis on every weather map when they finally get around to Scotland, the only town of any consequence on the islands where a handful of shops stock all the things it takes to survive in a place where possessions take on little importance. Let’s put that on the list of reasons one might just want to live at the extremities of this Great land we call Britain. It’s a grey stone town, Stornoway, friendly enough, a good Public library and helpful Tourist Information but with little to hold our interest for more than an hour or two on a grey day. To our horror, we discovered that access to the Public toilets in the town-centre costs 30p! The impact on the local population was quite clear, with many, of true Scots origin no doubt, threading their way, heads down, along the high street through the wind with their knees seemingly locked together. You get the picture.
and heather on shallow hills on the east of Lewis appeared less dramatic at first glance, than Harris, with its formidable mountains, but the magic of immense golden beaches and sparkling lochs started to take a hold on our minds from the moment we set foot on Traigh Mhor. Two miles of glorious firm sand were shared there with – just two other people, en route to ‘The Bridge to Nowhere’. The bridge is a legacy of Lord Leverhulm who once owned the Isles here, and his plan for a road link from Stornoway north to Ness, which was never completed. There are dozens of gorgeous beaches on these islands, great strands of gold and silver left as the tide departs, to enter with an empty mind and a fresh breeze to set the brain in motion with the pendulum of lapping waves.
There’s a rainbow somewhere over the islands at any time of day, planting its pot of gold in the bay, on the moor or at the top of a mountain. The sun will shine in a blanket of blue to the east one moment but to the west another nasty black cloud is lurking,
waiting to pounce the minute you step out of the house or take off your jacket. That’s another island delight; the unpredictability, the suspense, the surprise when the wind gusts around the corner. You might recall the guy we met in Nebraska, back in 2006 I think it was. “If you don’t like the weather in Nebraska, wait an hour or walk a mile,” he said. It’s a bit like that hereabouts, but more appropriately perhaps, we’ll coin a new one for the Outer Hebrides. “If the sun is shining here, never fear, it will surely shower within the hour!” The showers have always been brief between the welcome sun, and the wind a little draughty to say the least!
A satisfying hike took us along the beach across the machair, swathes of wispy grasses and seed-heads swaying in the breeze, bursting with wild flowers from May to July, rising gently to the cliffs of the Butt of Lewis Lighthouse at the very top of Lewis (not the ‘bottom’ as one might suppose), where stiff-winged Fulmars danced on the rising wind, a lonely Snow Bunting came to join us and yet another rainbow graced the skyline over
the water. There is such magic in the light along the seashore here, a light so crystal to inspire the artist in us all, crisp and clear. Can you picture, Audrey, these truly enormous patchwork skies, the shallow island skyline nestling there on the horizon, the isolation, the peace, perfect peace – all so alien to the City dweller?
Hillsides along this rugged north-west coast are strewn with rocky outcrops, miles of bronze peat bog, grazing sheep, angry ‘white horses’ rushing to catch the silver-sand bays by surprise and tempting the bravest of surfers to venture deeper. That is indeed what makes these islands so special.
They still dig peat for fuel here; a little subsidy perhaps for the shocking price of petrol and gas. It’s neatly stacked to air around the back of most homesteads. We asked an elderly local gent for his views on the green issues of this practice. “The small amount we take will make no difference,” he told us. But that’s what they all say, isn’t it? The September edition of The Island News reports that ‘Uist and Harris is the third most expensive place in the World to
buy petrol’. If you want to pay more, you will have to find your way to Norway or Turkey. Those who venture here by car are advised to arrive with a full tank. Sadly, most things in the shops here are also more expensive, as much as 20%, than on the mainland, including food; a small sacrifice perhaps for a way of life and an environment many might envy.
It’s said that most of the Harris Tweed is actually produced here on Lewis these days, hand woven in crofts on simple machines now more mechanized than in days gone by. The sheep seem contented enough with their lot out there in all weathers and Crofter's narrow strip-fields are still in evidence, edged in post-and-wire fences and dry-stone walls, now grazed by young lambs, no longer tilled for corn or potatoes on this rocky, boggy peat and heather side of the island. Indeed, there is now little sign of crops on this shallow ground anywhere on Lewis and Harris other than narrow troughs in the fields still evident on some of the grassy slopes where ‘lazy beds’ were dug and filled with sea-weed to improve the soil.
Tourist attractions as such are tough to find, but there are three of much historic interest in close proximity on the northwest coast of Lewis – and another very special one we’ll keep for later. First a 'Norse' millhouse and drying kiln just a ten-minute walk across the stunning peat bog landscape from the car park. Beautifully reconstructed, such mills were operating on the islands from the mid eighteenth century until the 1950's. Whilst the name 'Norse' suggests its origins lie with the times of Norse rule here around the 12th Century, it is now suggested they might lay nearer to home – in Ireland. A short way off, the Gearrannan village of Blackhouses has been delightfully restored. Built of stone and thatch like the mill, the cottages originally had no chimneys, the peat smoke allowed to filter through the thatch. The village now houses a fascinating museum - and cottages for holiday let, a common sight now with the island’s slowly declining resident population. To the south the atmospheric Callanish Standing Stones, a prehistoric circle of banded gneiss fit to conjure up a million nightmares, and beyond, the Dun Carloway Broch, a double-walled iron-age fortified home so
reminiscent of the Broch of Mousa on Shetland and the Ring of Brodgar on Orkney, so dear to our hearts.
Saved until last on Lewis, like the cherry on the cake, we ended our day at the great Uig Bay, a truly vast expanse of glorious sand revealed at low tide, a shallow opal sea ribbed with white surf, overlooked by drama-filled hills and blustery cloud, giving a chance for me to dream a little for the sake of one of my many favoured pastimes. For this is the site of the discovery of The Lewis Chessmen, carved from walrus ivory and whales’ teeth - a scene sufficient to evoke romantic notions of seafaring Norsemen of the 12th
Century, as a curlew called from a distant sandbank and a pair of ravens tumbled playfully overhead. I already have two fine 'reproduction' sets of Lewis Chess pieces in my collection so we won’t go searching for more just now! Out there across the water it’s just possible to make out the dusty-grey conical outline of St Kilda on the skyline some 50 miles offshore. Another time, perhaps.
There are few campsites
suitable for motorhomes on the islands but it is sometimes possible to park discretely overnight in quite remote spots. Back on Harris we found such a place, overlooking the golden strands at Traigh Losgaintir, Janice’s favourite, as the sun melted into the horizon at low tide and the thin outline of Taransay Island, of the TV series, ‘Castaway’, across the bay.
The sea lochs along the eastern edge of South Harris tempted us to take one last look for otters before catching the ferry out to Berneray and North Uist. We set off from Leverburgh in the west on the big-dipper single-track road winding like a writhing snake across a desolate moor scattered with inland lochs, way out to Fionnsbhagh on the opposite coast, stopping now-and-then to scan for golden eagles. The east coast’s wonderful lunar landscape took us by surprise; an uninhabited wilderness of silver-grey rock and dark sea-lochs edged with a deep-blue sea and gently rolling waves; an ideal spot for otters! But that was not to be; too late it seems for the ideal incoming tide for otter spotting on that particular day.
If we were not always somewhere else we
should be here on Harris and Lewis in June or July for a feast of wildlife and wild flowers almost beyond compare. Corncrakes and Arctic terns nest on the islands, there are boat trips out to St Kilda for the awesome spectacle of 60,000 pairs of Gannets, Puffins, Guillemots and Razorbills and a grand chorus of wildflowers on the machair ….. and then, there are the midges. Ah, the midges, those pesky little blighters that get in your hair, in your ears and up your nose. And if it’s not them, it’s the mosquitoes! This is September though and we have missed the midges, the mosquitoes and regrettably, we’re far too late for the puffins. We also missed the otters and the golden eagles, but perhaps we’ll be luckier on North and South Uist next week.
For now, keep smiling, Audrey. We wish you were here.
Love and kisses,
David and Janice
The Grey-haired Nomads
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P.S. If you would like to read next week’s adventures on North and South Uist, simply click on ‘Subscribe’ in the Blog
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