Weekend in the Western Isles

By Linzi Buckmaster

outer hebrides scotland beach

A trip to the Isle of Harris and Lewis, Outer Hebrides, Scotland, in February. You may ask, “Are you mad? In February?” But visiting these islands on Europe’s Atlantic edge in winter lets you enjoy the wild side of the Western Isles.

Just a two– to three-hour ferry journey from the Highlands mainland, my husband, Jools, 13-year-old daughter, Rhi, our two collies, Holly and Millie, and I were lucky enough to revisit these isolated Scottish islands in February this year. We did experience some extreme weather—80 mph winds that cancelled some sailing—but you totally expect wild weather and that’s great, because it means enormous waves. For a photographer like me, that involves a lot of standing in horizontal rain, taking “just one more shot” while my husband develops hyperthermia.

wild scottish coast harris lewis

What we like most about Harris is the wild and beautiful scenery, the turquoise water, shell-adorned white sands, and the isolation. We are keen beachcombers: since childhood, I have always picked up treasures, shells, and pebbles. My husband, since we married, has caught the bug, too, and is now a dedicated searcher. I love sea glass, shells, and driftwood, and I use all three to make jewelry. The Outer Hebrides is so achingly beautiful you can’t help but collect memories (and photographs, a lot of photographs).

sea glass and shells on harris and lewis

My day job as a shop manager for a small local hospice keeps me busy, but we go to our nearest beach as often as possible and to Scotland for our special holidays. Harris and Lewis are joined together as one island but have very differing landscapes. Harris has spectacular beaches but also rocky, mountainous moonscapes, with tiny inlets and lochs, almost lunar-like terrain with a thin ribbon of road stretching away as far as the eye can see.

textile artist in harris lewis

A mecca for artists and creatives, as there are many studios and galleries to visit on the islands. The area is also popular with walkers, nature lovers (you can see many species of birds, whales, seals, dolphins and porpoises), and those wanting to escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

While there, we visited Caroline Chaffer, a textile artist who lives on the island. Drawn by the big skies, she works using Harris Tweed in her tiny quirky studio at Northton, set near the sand dunes of more pristine beaches. An avid beachcomber herself, she showed me the vast skull of a Minke whale found on a local beach, as well as a seal skull and dolphin beak. Her finds have included buoys and sea beans.

luskentyre harris tweed weaving

We were also lucky enough to call on Donald John Mackay, MBE, of the famous Luskentyre Harris Tweed company. In 2011, Donald was honored as a Member of the Order of the British Empire, which recognizes contributions to the arts and sciences, for his services to the weaving industry. He is well known for weaving tweed for couture design houses all over the world—a tradition that islanders have done by hand for generations, from shearing to stamping the finished material.

Luskentyre has been voted the world’s best beach, and from an unassuming shed overlooking the beautiful bay, Donald creates fabric to the clackety rhythm of his loom. The tweed is now both fashionable and highly desirable for clothes and interior design.

prehistoric standing stones and sea glass

On Isle of Lewis, the prehistoric standing stones at Callanish are a must see, and unlike most ancient sites, you are allowed access right amongst the stones. Of course, I built my own little sea glass stack monument in honor.

blackhouse b&b in lewis harris sea glass

We stayed in “the most beautiful house in the Hebrides” Oran Na Mara, and it didn’t disappoint. An “S” shaped thatched blackhouse style cottage that overlooks dramatic Scarista beach, every detail inside has been exquisitely designed. There are shell and sea glass chandeliers, and a huge round table from a slab of aqua glass resting on a trunk of 1000 year old bog wood. It was like staying in an beautiful art gallery, complete with local artists’ paintings and textiles, and, of course, Harris Tweed furnishings.

For foodies, there are artisan shops selling local produce and small shops for everything you may need. We didn’t get to see the Aurora (due to rain, and, well, more rain) but it gives us a great excuse to return again. That turquoise water tugs at your heart. Be prepared to fall in love.

map of scotland

The Outer Hebrides, also known as the Western Isles, Innse Gall, the Long Isle, or the Long Island, form a chain of inter-connected islands off the west coast of mainland Scotland. Known locally as the Western Isles, the 130-mile long island chain includes Lewis and Harris, North and South Uist, Benbecula and Barra, and dozens of smaller islands.

The islands offer a chance to experience the living Gaelic language, superb wildlife, mountains, and prehistoric sites. The air is filled with scents of the ocean, the heather, and smoky peat, which is cut from the local slopes, dried, and burned to provide heat.

Stornoway, the capital of Lewis, is the largest city on the islands, with hotels, restaurants, shops, and a harbor for fisherman and the ferry from the mainland. Be sure to visit the many standing stones, the Gearrannan Blackhouse Village, and Dun Carloway ruins in Lewis. Drive through Harris to experience the bare, rocky coast with tiny villages around every bend, the harbor town of Tarbert, St. Clement’s Church in Rodel, and curious selkies perched on rocks in the waters just beyond the twisty road.

Don’t miss the countless beaches, lighthouses, and rocky cliffs along the shores of these wild Atlantic islands.

Find Linzi online at www.magpieinthesky.co.uk and on Facebook at @magpieinthesky

This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine July/August 2019 issue

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