Isle of Harris
We’ll always have Harris
Alexander Kennedy finds peace and solitude with a winter visit to the windswept Outer Hebrides
To someone who, as a child, often prayed for the kind of harsh weather that kept the rest of the world at bay and provided an excellent excuse for ‘coorieing in’ and contemplation, the idea of staying on an island on the Outer Hebrides during the winter is blissful. 2008 ushered in the launch of Winter Harris, an initiative by a loose group of local businesses backed by VisitScotland, to make the idea of an off-peak holiday on the island appealing, not only to city-based central-belters in Scotland, but the rest of the globe. An almost island-wide refurbishment of hotels, B&Bs, pubs and restaurants which is due to be completed later this year, has transformed what has been called ‘the poorer but more beautiful cousin of Lewis’ into an attractive destination for those seeking solitude and luxury.
Our base was Kirklea Cottages in Tarbert, the largest village on Harris, with the ferry port and the harbour right on our doorstep. The four-star self-catering cottages feature spotlessly clean interiors, which are soon to be completely redecorated to cater for the cosmopolitan new breed of visitors.
While there is an excellent bus service that ferries locals and visitors around most of Harris and Lewis at half hour intervals during the day, the best way to get about and see the sights is by hiring a car. The ‘coffin pass’ between Lewis and Harris stretches out like an almost impenetrable and unwelcoming moonscape between north and south, a primordial landscape that has been kneaded by volcanic activity. But it’s the beaches lying to the very south of Harris, Scarista and Luskentyre, that most people come to the island to see. From high above the empty wind-battered beaches, the turquoise and azure swells hurl themselves at the pure white sand; even in the greyest winter light you have to squint at the evanescent effect of light on water.
It’s not only the landscape that draws tourists here and keeps them returning. The people create pockets of generosity and warmth among the many bays and small glens. The fare up in Digby Chicks in Stornoway is easily worth the 75-mile round trip from Tarbert, where the freshest local fish and meat can be found. And it’s not hard to find a fresh scone on the island: I found the best I’d ever tasted on offer at the Skoon Art Café. We stumbled, almost accidentally, across culturally significant ruins and monuments and breath-taking sights, most notably the standing stones at Calanais and St Clements Church at Rodel. Later, local artist Willie Fulton’s gallery at Ardbuidhe demonstrated how the light and dark rocks of the landscape continue to inspire a deep artistic reaction in the island’s residents. The people still feel that they have a responsibility and an overwhelming urge to respond to this sacred landscape. If hell is other people, winter on an almost deserted Harris is heavenly.
See www.winterharris.com for full information on the Winter Harris project and accommodation info. Self-catering cottages typically start at around £150–£200 per week. Loganair and Highland Air fly directly, but infrequently, from Edinburgh and Glasgow. Caledonian MacBrayne run regular ferries from Ullapool and Skye. (www.calmac.co.uk)