Adventuring (and Reading) in the Outer Hebrides

Islands are irresistible for the unique identities they develop through isolation, and the extra effort that it often takes to reach them. Over the years, my husband and I have developed a special fondness for Britain’s islands – the smaller and more remote the better. After exploring the Inner Hebrides in 2005 and Orkney and Shetland in 2006, we always intended to see more of Scotland’s islands; why ever did we leave it this long?

From Wikimedia Commons. By Kelisi.

Rail strikes and cancelled trains threatened our itinerary more than once, so it was a relief that we were able to go, even at extra cost. Our back-up plan left us with a spare day in Inverness, which we filled with coffee and pastries outside the cathedral, browsing at Leakey’s bookshop, walking along the River Ness and in the botanical gardens, and a meal overlooking the 19th-century castle.

Then it was on to the Outer Hebrides at last, via a bus ride and then a ferry to Stornoway in Lewis, the largest settlement in the Western Isles. Here we rented a car for a week to allow us to explore the islands at will. We were surprised at how major a town Stornoway is, with a big supermarket and slight suburban sprawl – yet it was dead on the Saturday morning we went in to walk around; not until 11:30 was there anything like the bustle we expected.

We’d booked three nights in a tiny Airbnb house 15 minutes from the capital. First up on our tourist agenda was Callanish stone circle, which we had to ourselves (once the German coach party left). Unlike at Stonehenge, you can walk in among the standing stones. The rest of our time on Lewis went to futile whale watching, the castle grounds, and beach walks.

This post threatens to become a boring rundown, so I’ll organize the rest thematically, introduced by songs by Scottish artists.

 

“I’ll Always Leave the Light On” by Kris Drever

Long days: The daylight lasts longer so far north, so each day we could plan activities not just for the morning and afternoon but late into the evening. At our second stop – three nights in another Airbnb on North Uist – we took walks after dinner, often not coming back until 10 p.m., at which point there was still another half-hour until sunset.

 

“Why Does It Always Rain on Me?” by Travis

Weather: We got a mixture of sun and clouds. It rained at least a bit on most days, and we got drenched twice, walking out to an eagle observatory on Harris (where we saw no eagles, as they are too sensible to fly in the rain) and dashing back to the car from a coastal excursion. I was doomed to wearing plastic bags around my feet inside my disintegrating hiking boots for the rest of the trip. There was also a strong wind much of the time, which made it feel colder than the temperature suggested – I often wore my fleece and winter hat.

A witty approach to weather forecasting. (Outside the shop/bistro on Berneray.)

 

“St Kilda Wren” by Julie Fowlis

Music and language: Julie Fowlis is a singer from North Uist who records in English and Gaelic. (This particular song is in Gaelic, but the whole Spell Songs album was perfect listening on our drives because of the several Scottish artists involved and the British plants and animals sung about.) There is a strong Gaelic-speaking tradition in the Western Isles. We heard a handful of people speaking it, all road signs give place names in Gaelic before the English translation, and there were several Gaelic pages in the free newspaper we picked up.

Wildlife: The Outer Hebrides is a bastion for some rare birds: the corncrake, the red-necked phalarope, and both golden and white-tailed eagles. Thanks to intel gleaned from Twitter, my husband easily found a phalarope swimming in a small roadside loch. Corncrakes hide so well they are virtually impossible to see, but you will surely hear their rasping calls from the long grass. Balranald is the westernmost RSPB reserve and a wonderful place to hear corncrakes and see seabirds flying above the machair (wildflower-rich coastal grassland). No golden eagles, but we did see a white-tailed eagle flying over our accommodation on our last day, and short-eared owls were seemingly a dime a dozen. We were worried we might see lots of dead birds on our trip due to the avian flu raging, but there were only five – four gannets and an eider – and a couple looked long dead. Still, it’s a distressing situation.

We also attended an RSPB guided walk to look for otters and did indeed spot one on a sea loch. It happened to be the Outer Hebrides Wildlife Festival week. Our guide was knowledgeable about the geography and history of the islands as well.

Badges make great, cheap souvenirs!

St. Kilda: This uninhabited island really takes hold of the imagination. It can still be visited, but only via a small boat through famously rough seas. We didn’t chance it this time. I might never get there, but I enjoy reading about it. There’s a viewing point on North Uist where one can see out to St. Kilda, but it was only the vaguest of outlines on the hazy day we stopped.

 

“Traiveller’s Joy” by Emily Smith

Additional highlights:

  • An extended late afternoon tea at Mollans rainbow takeaway shed on Lewis. Many of the other eateries we’d eyed up in the guidebook were closed, either temporarily or for good – perhaps an effect of Covid, which hit just after the latest edition was published.
  • A long reading session with a view by the Butt of Lewis, which has a Stevenson lighthouse.

  • Watching mum and baby seals playing by the spit outside our B&B window on Berneray.
  • Peat smoked salmon. As much of it as I could get.
  • A G&T with Harris gin (made with kelp).

 

“Dear Prudence” (Beatles cover) by Lau

Surprises:

  • Gorgeous, deserted beaches. This is Luskentyre on Harris.

  • No midges to speak of. The Highlands are notorious for these biting insects, but the wind kept them away most of the time we were on the islands. We only noticed them in the air on one still evening, but they weren’t even bad enough to deploy the Avon Skin So Soft we borrowed from a neighbour.
  • People still cut and burn peats for fuel. Indeed, when we stepped into the Harris gin distillery for a look around, I was so cold and wet that I warmed my hands by a peat fire! Even into the 1960s, people lived in primitive blackhouses, some of which have now been restored as holiday rentals. The one below is run as a museum.

  • Not far outside Stornoway is the tiny town of Tong. We passed through it each day. Here Mary Anne MacLeod was born in 1912. If only she’d stayed on Lewis instead of emigrating to New York City, where she met Fred Trump and had, among other children, a son named Donald…
  • Lord Leverhulme, founder of Unilever, bought Lewis in 1918 and part of Harris the next year. He tried to get crofters to work in his businesses, but all his plans met with resistance and his time there was a failure, as symbolized by this “bridge to nowhere” (Garry Bridge). His legacy is portrayed very differently here compared to in Port Sunlight, the factory workers’ town he set up in Merseyside.

  • The most far-flung Little Free Library I’ve ever visited (on Lewis).

  • Visits from Lulu the cat at our North Uist Airbnb.

 

“Wrapped Up in Books” by Belle and Sebastian

What I read: I aimed for lots of relevant on-location reads. I can’t claim Book Serendipity: reading multiple novels set on Scottish islands, it’s no surprise if isolation, the history of the Clearances, boat rides, selkies and seabirds recur. However, the coincidences were notable for one pair, Secrets of the Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford and Night Waking by Sarah Moss, a reread for me. I’ll review these two together, as well as The Summer of the Bear by Bella Pollen (inspired by a real incident that occurred on North Uist in 1980), in full later this week.

I also read about half of Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie, a reread for me; its essays on gannets and St. Kilda chimed with the rest of my reading. Marram, Leonie Charlton’s memoir of pony trekking through the Outer Hebrides, will form part of a later 20 Books of Summer post thanks to the flora connection, as will Jon Dunn’s Orchid Summer, one chapter of which involves a jaunt to North Uist to find a rare species.

Stormy Petrel by Mary Stewart: My selection for the train journey up. I got Daphne du Maurier vibes from this short novel about a holiday Dr Rose Fenemore, an English tutor at Cambridge, takes to Moila, a (fictional) small island off of Mull in the Inner Hebrides. It’s a writing retreat for her: she’s working on a book of poetry, but also on the science fiction she publishes under a pseudonym. Waiting for her brother to join her, she gets caught up in mild intrigue when two mysterious men enter her holiday cottage late one stormy night. Each has a good excuse cooked up, but who can she trust? I enjoyed the details of the setting but found the plot thin, predictable and slightly silly (“I may be a dish, but I am also a don”). This feels like it’s from the 1950s, but was actually published in 1991. I might try another of Stewart’s.

I also acquired four books on the trip: one from the Little Free Library and three from Inverness charity shops.

I started reading all three in the bottom pile, and read a few more books on my Kindle, two of them for upcoming paid reviews. The third was:

Tracy Flick Can’t Win by Tom Perrotta: A sequel to Election, which you might remember as a late-1990s Reese Witherspoon film even if you don’t know Perrotta’s fiction. Tracy Flick was the goody two-shoes student who ran for school president and had her campaign tampered with. Now in her forties, she’s an assistant principal at a high school and a single mother. Missing her late mother and wishing she’d completed law school, she fears she’ll be passed over for the top job when the principal retires. This is something of an attempt to update the author’s laddish style for the #MeToo era. Interspersed with the third-person narration are snappy first-person testimonials from Tracy, the principal, a couple of students, and the washed-up football star the school chooses to launch its new Hall of Fame. I can’t think of any specific objections, but nor can I think of any reason why you should read this.

On my recommendation, my husband read Love of Country by Madeleine Bunting and The Frayed Atlantic Edge by David Gange, two excellent nonfiction books about Britain’s islands and coastline.

 

“Other Side of the World” by KT Tunstall

General impressions: We weren’t so taken with Lewis on the whole, but absolutely loved what we saw of Harris on our drive to the ferry to Berneray and wished we’d allotted it more time. While we only had one night on Berneray and mostly saw it in the rain, we thought it a lovely little place. It only has the one shop, which doubles as the bistro in the evenings – warned by the guidebook that this is the only place to eat on the island, we made our dinner reservation many weeks in advance. The following morning, as we ate our full Scottish cooked breakfast, I asked the B&B owner what led him to move from England to “the ends of the earth.” He took mild objection to my tossed-off remark and replied that the islands are more like “the heart of it all.” Thanks to fast Internet service, remote working is no issue.

We are more than half serious when we talk about moving to Scotland one day. We love Edinburgh, though the tourists might drive us mad, and enjoyed our time in Wigtown four years ago. I’d like to think we could even cope with island life in Orkney or the Hebrides. We imagine them having warm, tight-knit communities, but would newcomers feel welcome? With only one major supermarket in the whole Western Isles, would we find enough fresh fruit and veg? And however would one survive the bleakness of the winters?

North Uist captivated us right away, though. Within 15 minutes of driving onto the island via a causeway, we’d seen three short-eared owls and three red deer stags, and we got great views of hen harriers and other raptors. One evening we found ourselves under what seemed to be a raven highway. It felt unlike anywhere else we’d been: pleasingly empty of humans, and thus a wildlife haven.

 

The long journey home: The public transport nightmares of our return trip put something of a damper on the end of the holiday. We left the islands via a ferry to Skye, where we caught a bus. So far, so good. Our second bus, however, broke down in the middle of nowhere in the Highlands and the driver plus we five passengers were stuck for 3.5 hours awaiting a taxi we thought would never come. When it did, it drove the winding road at terrifying speed through the pitch black.

Grateful to be alive, we spent the following half-day in Edinburgh, bravely finding brunch, the botanic gardens and ice cream with our heavy luggage in tow. The final leg home, alas, was also disrupted when our overcrowded train to Reading was delayed and we missed the final connection to Newbury, necessitating another taxi – luckily, both were covered by the transport operators, and we’ll also reclaim for our tickets. Much as we believe in public transport and want to support it, this experience gave us pause. Getting to and around Spain by car was so much easier, and that trip ended up a lot cheaper, too. Ironic!

Guarding the bags in Edinburgh

 

“Take Me Back to the Islands” by Idlewild

Next time: On this occasion we only got as far south as Benbecula (which, pleasingly, is pronounced Ben-BECK-you-luh). In the future we’d think about starting at the southern tip and seeing Barra, Eriskay and South Uist before travelling up to Harris. We’ve heard that these all have their own personalities. Now, will we get back before many more years pass?

24 responses

  1. So glad you got there (and back) despite the challenges thrown at you, and had such a good time. Lulu is a cutie and I love that Mollans teapot! As for living in a tourist town, I’ve had decades of experience with that. As long as you live away from the centre, you can avoid the worst of it while enjoying the pleasures.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The first time was an accident: we’d opened the door for a fresh breeze and she suddenly appeared. The next time, I admit, we let her in deliberately. It was cold and wet and she enjoyed a nap on the couch.

      That’s a good point. We did idly look up Edinburgh house prices and were aghast to see it’s more expensive than Newbury there!

      Like

      1. We were visited on holiday years ago by a gorgeous cat I called Mr Big as he actually stretched across both our laps. He turned out, mystifyingly, to be called Oxford.

        Bath prices are crazy, too. I’m not sure we could afford to buy our house if we didn’t live in it already.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. It’s ironic to be dreaming about moving so soon after buying our first home! Having bought when prices are at a peak, we now have to hope our house retains enough value that we can think about buying elsewhere in the future.

        Like

  2. What a great trip you had! I’d love to go there.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Have you traveled in the UK/Ireland at all?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I have traveled in mostly Southern England and in Western Ireland, but not in Scotland.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’d like to see more of Ireland; I’ve only been to Belfast and Dublin.

        We noted lots of American tourists in Scotland. I think many come for heritage reasons.

        Like

  3. What a lovely trip, thank you for taking us with you! And some great books read, too. I lived in the middle of London for a bit and it was a bit hideous, but I think Glasgow would be a nice place to live and less frenetic than Edinburgh. I have a friend who’s considering moving to the Highlands and another Scottish friend who moved back up to the Hebrides, so it’s definitely doable.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m a bit snooty about Glasgow based on its reputation, but to be fair to it I’ve only ever spent a day there. Every so often we talk about giving it all up and moving to Wigtown, where the house prices are so cheap we could buy outright. Glasgow would be within easy enough reach for flights to America.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Looks beautiful, so jealous – thank you for sharing your trip with us!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I feel indulgent writing such posts, but really they are as much an aide-memoire for me as anything. The details fade so fast otherwise. I’m glad others enjoy them, too!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Lovely trip – although I agree, public transport’s failings can make even the staunchest defender of it feel a bit exasperated. I’d try a different Stewart before giving her up; Stormy Petrel’s not her best. I love This Rough Magic, and The Ivy Tree has a very Du Maurier vibe to it. (I’ll be bringing The Moon-Spinners, by her, with me to Crete; she’s extremely good for on-location reading!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Stormy Petrel was atmospheric for sure. I’ll try another!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. […] of my reading selections for our recent trip to the Outer Hebrides was The Summer of the Bear by Bella Pollen, which is set on a lightly fictionalized version of […]

    Like

  7. A good friend has just come back from the Orkneys, so what with her account and yours of this remote part of the world, you’ve renewed my wish to go and discover these islands too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’ve done a lot of adventurous travelling! UK holidays may be tamer, but places like these can feel just as much of a challenge to get to. We loved the Orkney mainland and got great views of puffins on Westray, a smaller island we spent a few days on.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Orkney & Co sound a whole lot more exotic than France and Germany these days!

        Like

      2. And much less prone to heatwaves!

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Loved reading this! Armchair traveler here for now. But my family is talking about possibly going to the UK and Ireland next year. I have an aunt in the Donegal area of Ireland and I’ve always wanted to go to England and Scotland. Here’s hoping!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s exciting! I hope you get to go. My nephew has a school trip to the UK coming up next year and my sister is going as a chaperone, so we’re going to see if we can meet up with them and crash the tour at a couple of points 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  9. […] like Night Waking by Sarah Moss (another Sarah M.!), which I was already planning on rereading on our trip to the Outer Hebrides. Kay then suggested a readalike that ended up being even more similar, Elisabeth Gifford’s The […]

    Like

  10. […] I think I’d already downloaded this to my Kindle when I saw Charlton interviewed by the Bookshop Band on their breakfast-time variety show during the 2020 online Wigtown Book Festival. In 2017, Charlton and her friend Shuna undertook a three-week pony trek through the Outer Hebrides. Like many, they worked their way south to north, starting at Barra and finishing on Lewis (we travelled in the opposite direction on our recent trip). […]

    Like

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: