Travel review: Isles of Lewis and Harris
John was great. The elderly Dutchman has spent the last 25 years hitch-hiking around the islands and taking in the breath-taking scenery. And he proved to be just the tonic for young whipper snappers Ruaridh (8) and Flora (6) who reckon they know a thing or two about travelling.
Their eyes grew as John told them stories of remote washing powder white beaches, with sparkling blue seas, crammed with wild and bird life, houses heated using the wonderfully aromatic smelling peat, play areas where the zip wire whizzes along at 100 miles an hour and lands you in a pile of sand and stone circles said to be as old as the Egyptian pyramids.
Yes, Ruaridh and Flora decided it was going to be fun! And fun it was. It’s a long, long way up from Lancashire, but once you have left the big cities behind, the scenery starts to relax you and by the time you reach the ferry port of Ullapool, you are ready to explore.
It’s a two and a half hour crossing from Ullapool to Stornoway, the capital of the Isle of Lewis. So it’s a good job that there is a new ferry in town. The much talked about £42 million MV Loch Seaforth is operated by Caledonian MacBrayne and it’s a beauty. With lots of room for freight and cars and foot passengers too, it’s a smooth crossing. The ferry is top notch and you are swiftly guided aboard with remote control floors putting the car in its place. Once aboard, the time soon passes as you relax in the leather-clad seats of the observation lounge, dine in the upper crust canteen or snack in the small coffee shop or just sit quietly outside and take in the view. There is an area set aside for the children with hands on toys to keep them happy and a quiet area for those who want to get away from it all.
Bang on time we reached Stornoway and we headed off to the South Lochs area of Lewis and to our home for three nights at the community owned Ravenspoint Hostel in Kershader. It was pitch black when we arrived and with no mobile phone signal to be found, we had the first new experience for the children, using an old fashioned red telephone box! It took their old mum several minutes to fathom out what coins were needed to phone home and then it was straight into the warmth of the hostel, which has a five bedroom dormitory, a two bed one and a four bed one. With clean and modern bathing and catering facilities and a cosy sitting room, where we discovered John, we were soon settled.
The hostel, with the most fabulous views over Loch Erisort, is sited next to the hamlet’s post office, café and shop and is run with aplomb by Catriona Nicholson, a lovely Glasgwegian lady who soon gave us pointers to make sure we saw as much as possible during our relatively short stay. Catriona is also curator to a small museum packed with interesting island artefacts and much to Flora’s delight an expert on where the children’s television programme Katie Morag was filmed on the island.
First stop was the must see Callanish Standing Stones, one of the most complete stone circles in Britain. Said to be as old as the Egyptian pyramids, the 13 large stones stand proudly overlooking Loch Roag. The stones stand as though they are worshipping and by them are 40 smaller ones which run off the circle to form a cross. As Ruaridh said: “Scotland’s Stonehenge!.’’
Not far from the stones we stopped off to take in the views of the Dun Carloway, a 2000 year old dry stone broch just perched above a beautiful loch, which also allowed a sneek preview of the mountains of North Harris. It was here we also saw a traditional Harris Tweed weaver in action as he lovingly spun his loom to make some tartan tweed.
Lewis is famous for peat being the fuel used by householders to heat their homes and the Arnol Blackhouses run by Historic Scotland is a typical example, featuring a combined byre, barn and home where the staff daily rekindle the peat fires. But be beware, as there are no chimneys, you feel a bit like a kipper when you come out! There is also the Gearrannan Blackhouse Village nearby, which is a cluster of nine restored thatch-roofed blackhouses which are perched neatly on the edge of the Atlantic coast. It’s wonderful to see how simple traditional skills like using stones tied to rope to hold the thatch down are still used in this village, which is home to a museum, café , holiday cottages and a hostel.
After all that culture, we were due a spot of relaxation. So off we went in search of one of the magic beaches John had told us about. We headed for Ardroil in Uig in the west of Lewis. Not only do you need your sunglasses to deflect the whiteness of the sand dunes, but at the entrance to the track down, there proudly stands a statue paying tribute to the famous chessmen. In 2006, an artist was commissioned to make wooden statues of the 12 century Norwegian carved chessmen which were found in the area in 1831 and are said to have been made from walrus ivory and whale teeth by the Vikings and its fun spotting them as you make your way around Uig.
The beach had us hooked and so we took our bucket and spades and took advantage of the mild October weather and ventured into the neighbouring Harris, which is famous for its sands at Seilebost and Scarista. Harris is dubbed the scenic jewel in the islands necklace and it really lives up to its name. It is also where most sheep decide to plonk themselves in the middle of the road and refuse to budge, much to Ruaridh and Flora’s amusement!
Harris is also well-known for the Golden Road , given its name by the locals because of the cost involved of building this route around the coastline. From beaches to bustle, an hour later we were in Lewis’s capital, Stornonway, a lovely town home to probably the best black pudding outside Bury and also a majestic castle and grounds which are currently undergoing renovation.
As out trip drew to a close, it was the sea and beaches which drew us back and we headed to The Butt of Lewis, the farthest point of the Hebrides, home to an imposing lighthouse and stunning views of the Atlantic – making us realise that no wonder John keeps going back!
Accommodation: You would struggle for a better view than the one we had outside our bedroom window at The Ravenspoint Hostel in the heart of the South Lochs, Isle of Lewis. It’s a community run hostel and has clean and comfortable facilities catering from individuals and couples to families. The centre manager Catriona Nicholson makes you feel instantly at home and has a wealth of knowledge on the islands. Check out www.ravenspoint.net
Transport: It is a long way to the Isle of Lewis from Lancashire, but the view at Ullapool, where you catch the ferry across, is worth the drive. We hopped aboard Caledonian MacBrayne’s new £42 million MV Loch Seaforth to Stornonway, the capital of The Isle of Lewis. Boy this was a wonderful ship, with a fantastic observation lounge, where you could relax and take in the crossing’s magnificent views, a top notch restaurant and coffee shop and facilities for the children and adults who just wanted a quiet crossing. For up to date fare and timetable information, log onto www.calmac.co.uk
Tourist Information: The Lonely Planet Scotland guide (£13.99) was updated in February 2015 and is a traveller’s bible, with the section on The Isle of Lewis and neighbouring Harris full of good tips. Check out www.lonelyplanet.com
For walkers and outdoor enthusiasts, the Cicerone Walking on Harris and Lewis guide by Richard Barrett (£12.95) maps out 30 walks exploring Harris and Lewis from two to 14 miles. It also helps with birdlife, geology and wildlife and has a Gaelic language glossary. And if you love that guide, then The Book of the Bothy by Phoebe Smith (£12.95) will grab your interest too. Travel expert Phoebe takes you to some of the wildest and remote spots in the UK where you can stay in old, empty houses , for nothing! Her book highlights 26 of the very best bothies in the country which are looked after by the Mountain Bothies Association. For more information, log onto www.cicerone.co.uk