St Clement’s Church

South Harris, Outer Hebrides

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 Centre. 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 Leverburgh is named after Lord Leverhulme (the creator of Sunlight soap, and the founder of Unilever), who bought Lewis and Harris in 1918. He had 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.

South Harris is a hidden gem and is worth a visit on your Scotland tours.