The Outer Hebrides
- Ren Deakin
- 1 June 2009
When Ren Deakin felt in need of some peace, he simply packed up his trusty Volkswagen camper and together they went in search of solitude in the idyllic Outer Hebrides.
I’ve lived in cities all my life and I fancied some peace and quiet - basically I wanted to be somewhere remote and isolated. I chose the Outer Hebrides. There’s a clue in the name. In no time at all, Olive, my (al)most trusty 1982 VW camper, was loaded with everything I thought I’d need to survive a month on the edge of the world. We were ready.
The ferry from Uig to Tarbert is one of the lifelines to the islands and this is where our journey begins. In the queue to board are islanders returning from the mainland, tradesmen, and a minibus load of Italian school girls rocking the latest fashion of urban-meets-mountain (with obligatory full-face shades of course). There is also a family emigrating to Stornoway from Bradford. They don’t drive and so are doing the whole journey from Yorkshire to the Western Isles in private hire taxis. All in all, it’s an interesting bunch.
All aboard and the ferry is as good as a ferry should be: dated decor and staffed by a pleasant and competent crew. I, and most of the other passengers, spend the journey on deck watching the mainland and its coat of fog slowly vanish into the horizon. We cross the calm Little Minch in under two hours and land at Tarbert, which is basked in glorious sunshine and clear blue sky.
Tarbert is the main village on Harris and was founded as a fishing settlement in 1779. Brightly painted shops selling Harris Tweed and local crafts are bordered by small terraces of cottages and bunkhouses. The friendly lady in the tourist information office tells me about the Isles tradition of Sunday observance, where much of the population attend church, but do no work of any kind - washing is not hung out, men don’t drive and, in years gone by, even Sunday dinner was made the night before and often eaten cold. I’m not that dedicated, but decide to observe some of the tradition by not travelling on the Sabbath.
For my first night I park up between a pair of lochairns near Plocrapol. These two mirror-like lakes reflect only the sky and a few lone clouds. Not only are they beautiful, but lochairns are also ideal breeding sites for our best friend - the midgie.
Over the next few days I explore Harris. It has a rugged, apparently untouched landscape that is a joy to drive through. The narrow single track roads twist through peat bog, climb through rocky passes and teeter along cliff edges. Small hamlets sit tucked in sheltered pockets. My favourite spot overlooks a Caribbean-quality beach at Huisinis, a remote part of the West Coast, and each evening, as I begin cooking dinner, a seal appears and has a little nosy at me and Olive.
I am enjoying the quiet life, and even with almost every kind of weather being thrown my way, the days pass very easily. When all you have to think about is, ‘Where shall I go for a walk today?’ or ‘Will I move to a different spot?’ life seems quite carefree. It’s a week before I decide to visit what in my mind is the ‘Other Place’.
Lewis is not a separate island, but the larger two thirds of the same landmass. When I finally make the journey, I am greeted by a steep climb along the side of Sgaoth Aird - which in appearance and name would be an ideal location for a Tolkien movie, all mythical looking and barren.
When I arrive in Lewis, I find the landscape is markedly different to that of Harris. The evidence of human intervention is everywhere. The hillsides are almost all corrugated with old lazy beds. These are ditches cut into the hillside, where for generations root crops were grown, and they are a real sign of a living, working community.
Stornoway, on Lewis, is the only real town on the island and it is ideal for stocking up on provisions. It also has the advantage of being the inspiration for a guaranteed conversation starter with any Lewis resident. Simply ask your chosen target of casual chat, ‘What do think of the arts centre?’ Al Lannantir (the arts centre in question) used to be a car park and LOTS of islanders miss their car park.
But, personally, I spend a very enjoyable few hours there, avoiding the rain and looking at a beautiful exhibition of black and white photographs, which evoke the tough life endured by the islanders before World War II.
During my time in the Outer Hebrides I have stayed by lighthouses, near surfing beaches, beside harbours and in pub car parks. I have been invited to a traditional islander-style 50th birthday party, walked along golden sandy beaches, climbed ragged cliffs, watched birds, visited ancient sites and picturesque graveyards. I have met an eider duck called Scooby who recognised the sound of the car of the ex-seaman who brought him food each day. I have got drunk with a couple of ale enthusiasts from Derbyshire. I have fished, I have seen a large, brown eagle sitting on a fence post. I stood and looked at him; he didn’t take much notice of me.
Each and every one of these things was something city life could not have given me. And so the Outer Hebrides did everything I wanted: I found peace and quiet and a way of life utterly different to the one I had lived up until then. In the words of Arnie: I’ll be back.
Fancy planning your own idyllic journey? Then follow our tips for making the most of the peace and quiet
- If you think you could manage it, try turning off your mobile phone - or better still, leave it at home and let life wait.
- Pack a minimal amount of things. This journey is all about finding peace - and oodles of accoutrements will just feel like clutter.
- Take plenty of ‘you’ time. Even if you are travelling in a group, make sure you go for wanders by yourself and get used to enjoying a little solitude.
- Leave any expectations at home and just go with the flow, taking each day as it comes. Can you tell The Midgie was a hippy in another life?
- For your very own personal idyllic experience we have taken a real fancy to ‘Camping Bods’, www.camping-bods.co.uk. These are dainty stone buildings traditionally used to house fisherman and their gear. Set in remote areas of Shetland, they are beautifully basic and many have no electricity. Peace at last.