Harris (Na Hearadh), Outer Hebrides
Harris, to the south of Lewis, is the scenic jewel in the necklace of islands that comprise the Outer Hebrides, a spectacular blend of rugged mountains, pristine beaches, flower-speckled machair and barren rocky landscapes. The isthmus at Tarbert splits Harris neatly in two – North Harris is dominated by mountains that rise forbiddingly above the peat moors to the south of Stornoway – Clisham (799m) is the highest point; South Harris is lower-lying, fringed by beautiful white-sand beaches on the west, and a convoluted rocky coastline to the east.
Harris is famous for Harris Tweed, a high- quality woollen cloth still hand-woven in islanders’ homes. The industry employs around 400 weavers; staff at Tarbert tourist office can tell you about Weavers and workshops that you can visit.
For Peats Sake
In the Outer Hebrides, where trees are few and far between and coal is absent, peat has been the main source of domestic fuel for many centuries. Although oil-fired central heating is now the norm, many houses have held on to their peat fires for nostalgia’s sake. Peat in its raw state is extremely wet and can take a couple of months to dry out. lt is cut from roadside bogs, where the cuttings are at least a metre deep. Rectangular blocks of peat are cut using a long-handled tool called a tairsgeir (peat-iron); this is extremely hard work and can cause blisters even on hands that are used to manual labour. The peat blocks are carefully assembled into a cruach-mhonach (peat stack), each balanced on top of the other in a grid pattern thus creating maximum air space. Once the peat has dried out it is stored in a shed. Peat burns much more slowly than wood or coal and produces a not unpleasant smell, but in the old blackhouses (which had no chimney) it permeated every corner of the dwelling, not to mention the inhabitants’ clothes and hair, hence the expression ‘peat-reek’ – the ever-present smell of peat smoke that was long associated with island life.
Tarbert (An Tairbeart)
Tarbert is a harbour village with a spectacular location, tucked into the narrow neck of land that links North and South Harris. It has ferry connections to Uig on Skye.
Magnificent North Harris is the most mountainous region of the Outer Hebrides. There are few roads, but many opportunities for climbing, walking and bird-watching. The B887 leads west to Hushinish, where there’s a lovely silver-sand beach, passing the impressive shooting lodge of Amhuinnsuidhe Castle, now an exclusive hotel. Just northwest of Hushinish is the uninhabited island of Scarp, the scene of bizarre attempts to send mail by rocket in 1934, a story recounted in the movie The Rocket Post (2001), which was shot in Harris.
The remote hamlet of Rhenigidale can also be reached by road
If you think Scotland has no decent beaches, wait till you see the west coast of South Harris. The blinding white sands and turquoise waters of Luskentyre and Scarasta would be major holiday resorts if they were transported to somewhere with a warm climate; as it is, they’re usually deserted.
The culture and landscape of the Hebrides are celebrated in the fascinating exhibition at Seallam! Visitor. Seallam is Gaelic for ‘Let me show you’. The centre, which is in Northton, just south of Scarasta, also has a genealogical research centre for people who want to trace their Hebridean ancestry.
The east coast is a complete contrast to the west – a strange, rocky moonscape of naked gneiss pocked with tiny lochans, the bleakness lightened by the occasional splash of green around the few crofting communities. Film buffs will know that the psychedelic sequences depicting the surface of Jupiter in 2001: A Space Odyssey were shot from an aircraft flying low over the east coast of Harris.
The narrow, twisting road that winds its way along this coast is known locally as the Golden Road, because of the vast amount of money it cost per mile. It was built in the 1930s to link all the tiny communities known as ‘The Bays’. The MV lady Catherine, based at Flodabay harbour halfway down the east coast, offers three- hour wildlife cruises from May to September.
At the southernmost tip of this coastline stands the impressive 16th-century St Clement’s Church, which was abandoned in 1560 after the Reformation. Inside the echoing nave is the impressive tomb of Alexander MacLeod, the man responsible for the church’s construction. Crude carvings show hunting scenes, a castle, a galleon, and various saints, including St Clement clutching a skull.
The village of Leverhurgh is named after Lord Leverhulme (the creator of Sunlight soap, and the founder of Unilever), who bought Lewis and Harris in 1918. He had grand plans for the islands, and for Obbe, as Leverburgh was then known. It was to be a major fishing port with a population of 10,000, but the plans died with Lord Leverhulme in 1925 and the village reverted to a sleepy backwater.
Harris is a hidden gem with spectacular scenery that is worth a visit on your Scotland tours.