The Isle of Harris: Much More Than Just Beaches
Scotland’s beaches have an almost comical shock-factor. Caribbean-style scenes aren’t exactly what visitors expect, particularly in a country where the concept of summer is similar to that of unicorns. Forecast for sunshine? This crazy notion should always be taken with a generous pinch of salt and scepticism.
Like a child presenting their finest crayon-masterpiece to Mum, I take immeasurable pleasure in sharing photos of our pristine beaches with those who were blissfully unaware of their existence.
As far as beaches go, those on West Harris are arguably the fairest of them all, and always provoke reactions of the greatest awe and disbelief. Dreamy images of translucent turquoise and powdery white are splashed across social media, more so than any other Harris landscape.
As a result, the Isle of Harris is most commonly associated with its beaches, and my pre-Harris daydreams were of Seilebost and well… Seilebost (ahem, directly below). I was so transfixed on this paradisiacal picture that my anticipation of the island’s parallel coast was virtually non-existent. Shame on me!
Let me tell you, Seilebost did not disappoint. Nor did Luskentyre or Horgabost. In fact, they were so bloody bonnie, my social media updates were regularly peppered with ‘Harris beach spam’. Even still, I don’t believe Harris should be solely defined by its sandy western shores; as heartbreakingly stunning as they are.
Fancy going east? I suggest you do. This ‘underdog’ coast has one of the most unique landscapes I ever did see. And, what about the north? Those mountains! I mean, hello Middle Earth.
As a self-confessed glutton, I should also mention that the quality of food served across Harris topped that of any other Scottish Island I’ve visited (separate post coming soon). I was dining like a real lady of leisure, even if I didn’t look like one; picture my wind-knotted hair, red nose and muddy walking boots.
The insane geology, friendly residents, and infectiously relaxed pace have all left a far greater imprint on my memory than any beach could.
Harris is so much more than pretty shores, as I quickly discovered.
Follow the Golden Road.
“Oh aye, I know where you are. It’s some road to get there, I tell ye” said the cheery barmaid on our first night in Stornoway. This was swiftly followed by echoes of “Oh you’re staying there, aye?” and “Good luck driving that road – it’s a nightmare” from the Lewis locals nearby.
Uh oh. Had I made a mistake in choosing a hostel on this infamous road? I had visions of a dusty dirt track with so many bumps you’d experience less motion riding a horse. According to Google Maps though, this wasn’t just any old road – it was the Golden Road.
Built in the 1940s to supplement Harris’ one and only road in the west, laying the tar on this new road was perceived to be so costly, it was said they should’ve used gold instead. Aaaah, that’s where the name came from!
The Golden Road begins just ten minutes south of Harris’ main town Tarbert, winding round the east, before joining ‘The Bays’ in a final stretch to the very south. The stories are true, it is a squiggly, undulating, radical road with some serious scenic stimulation.
I thought my pal (our designated driver) would be cursing the concentration-heavy challenge, but he was in his element, and I was one very happy passenger. Harris is the perfect island for a Scottish road trip.
When we sporadically encountered another car on the single-track road, we pulled into Passing Places; otherwise known as ‘Photo Stops’. It’s a miracle we even managed to cover so much ground with me frantically willing my camera to do the surrounding scenes some justice.
Further fuelling the temptation to pull-over every ten seconds is the scattering of wee galleries, exhibitions, random red phone boxes, and abandoned crofts. The latter possess an eerie kind of beauty, which is perfectly photogenic against the rural backdrop. That said, I couldn’t help but wonder who the former residents were, and why they left. These hollow ruins were once family homes, and I find state the of disrepair and emptiness quite sad.
Wouldn’t it be nice to restore one? I would love to call the Golden Road home.
The road was built by man, but its base and surroundings were carved by Mother Nature herself. The objective? To maximise our viewing pleasure, of course!
Speaking about oor Mother Nature, let’s talk about a subject I never imagined would capture my curiosity. Inspired purely by my visit to Harris, I have taken an interest in… GEOLOGY.
The Outer Hebrides are like Disneyland for geologists thanks to their ancient rocks, some of which date back three billion years. Three billion! It doesn’t take a geologist to figure out there’s something special about the rocks on Harris.
The Golden Road is commonly described as lunar-like, and this isn’t just an aesthetic reference, it is a geological fact. The rock is so rare, its composition bears a close resemblance to that of the moon. Wowee.
The eastern landscape looks like the aftermath of a meteor crash, with boulders of rock blasted like super-sized shrapnel. In the latter part of the year, the rock and rubble is broken up by a carpet of heather, holding onto the last of its purple. The countless lochs and lochans which flood the landscape, would make perfect puddles for giants in wellies.
The history of Harris’ rocks and mountains is almost beyond comprehension; it makes my wee mind spin. I said I was interested in geology, I didn’t say I fully understood it! The heritage of the island and its people is far more fathomable, thankfully. It helps that it doesn’t date back to a gazillion zeros ago, and that jargon is minimal.
I bet you can guess which of the island’s industries is the most famous…
Tweed, the Fabric of Harris.
If you haven’t heard of Harris Tweed, I think you’ve been living under one of the aforementioned rocks! Now, it wasn’t always a celebrity of the cloth world, so where did it all begin?
Living in an age of advanced technology, machinery, automation, and even artificial intelligence, I have an immense appreciation of the manual skills of our talented predecessors; from the Mayans, Romans and Egyptians, to the hardy residents of the Outer Hebrides.
(I mean, I can’t even drive or poach an egg!)
In the 19th century, the locals of Lewis, Harris, Uist and Barra, became masters in the meticulous art of hand-weaving cloth, all from their own wool. Little did they know, their craft would one day be famous.
Back then the fabric was used for practical and domestic purposes; a necessity for the harsh winter months. It wasn’t until 1846, when the Earl of Dunmore’s widowed wife became curious about the cloth being produced on the very land she owned. Lady Dunmore commissioned the weavers to reproduce her clan tartan in tweed, and it was this endorsement that soon had people around the country taking notice.
In the decades which followed, the spike in demand called for the introduction of new equipment to speed up the weaving process, therefore new carding and spinning mills were set up in Lewis; you can see one in action at the Gearrannan Blackhouse Village – it’s SO cool! On the back of this success, imitations were soon appearing in the marketplace (cheeky), and something had to be done to protect the authenticity of Harris Tweed.
From 1911, all genuine Harris Tweed yarns were officially stamped, under the newly formed The Harris Tweed Association Limited. The trademark was later amended, and is now legally protected under the Harris Tweed Act of 1993. The highly recognisable Orb logo guarantees that the product is “hand-woven by the islanders at their home in the Outer Hebrides and made from pure virgin wool dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides”.
The colours of wool reflect the stunning and seasonally-changing landscape of Harris, paying homage to the crofters who once worked both the land and the wool. Never could they have imagined the tweed’s popularity being propelled onto a global stage, shining a spotlight on Scotland’s remote Hebrides.
Harris Tweed is woven tightly into the heritage of the island, and there’s nothing like going straight to the source to truly appreciate and experience it.
The Loveliest Lilt.
When visiting Harris, it’s super-important that you take a moment to stop and really listen to the locals as they speak. Scotland is blessed with a vast array of accents, ranging from wonderful to indecipherable, and the people of Harris are right up there at the extreme end of the former. The lilt in their accent is lullaby-like, and a real treat for the ears.
Much like the Welsh accent, I’m not sure the islanders would deliver a convincing telling off; I just can’t imagine the accent allowing them to sound angry! Luckily, I have no experience putting this to the test, as the people on Harris are as lovely as their accents.
Alison from No.5 Drinishader was the most hospitable of hosts, offering us both local knowledge and fresh produce from her garden. Then there was the lovely couple at the Blas Bhon Iar food van, trying to teach me how to pronounce Horgabost. At the Isle of Harris Distillery, our guide Sandy had my favourite accent of all. She was like a burst of sunshine on an otherwise cloudy day, and is a fantastic ambassador for both the distillery and the island.
To really learn about the land and its people, the Seallam! Visitor Centre in Northton is a must-visit. This is thanks to Bill Lawson, who patiently and passionately provided my best friend with details of her Harris heritage; he even knew the nickname that her Grandfather and his brothers were given before they were sent to a home on the mainland as children. Though he’s not originally from the island, he is an honorary islander in every sense. After dedicating decades of his life to research, his knowledge of the Hebrides and the local genealogy seems infinite. Bill is a truly fascinating man.
These people – along with waiters, bar staff, shopkeepers and the friendly folk on the ferries – really make Harris the island that it is.
Do we have to leave?
Harris felt homely from the moment I arrived, though I’d never been before. Each morning I woke up feeling calm and content, clearly influenced by the island culture and serene beauty outside. I spent five days there, and feel like I only just touched the surface.
Plenty excuse to go back then, eh?
Wondering why I’ve not mentioned food & drink or the distillery, and whether it’s because I’ve lost my marbles? I was just so impressed by the island’s culinary offering and alcohol production that I’m going to written a separate post full of suggestions for eating your way around Lewis & Harris.
Have you visited the Isle of Harris?
What did you love the most?
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