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Issue 35 - It has to be Harris

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 35
November 2007


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It has to be Harris

In the last of our series on Scottish islands, John Hannavy turns to the Hebridean Isle of Harris

I know Lewis and Harris are really two parts of the same island, and now know that the isthmus [a narrow strip of land connecting two larger land masses, bordered on two sides by water] at Tarbert is not the dividing line between the two that I always assumed it was. But they are so different in character and appearance that I am treating them as two separate destinations in my island odyssey.

The ferry from Uig on Skye had deposited us at Tarbert, Harris – a little later than scheduled – and we were booked into a small hotel a couple of miles from the village. Not our first choice but in the height of the summer season rooms tend to get booked up well in advance, so it’s best to get in there early.

According to the road signs, Harris stops and Lewis begins some way north of Tarbert – a seemingly arbitrary line drawn across the countryside. From Tarbert to that ‘line’, the road meanders, climbs and falls, following the contours of the landscape except where modernised stretches run straight and featureless for a few hundred yards.

Harris is a strangely alluring place. The landscape is like nothing you will have ever seen before – a bit like a lunar landscape punctuated with hundreds of small stretches of water.

The drive down to Rodel at the south of the island is a slow business – single-track roads with passing places for most of the way. On the way there, though, there is much to see.

Katie Campbell still works an ancient Yorkshire-built loom to weave her beautiful Harris Tweeds in Drinnishadder, and her remote little shop sells a mixture of locally made tweeds and knitwear. If the welcome we got is anything to go by, then this is a detour well worth making – especially as, along the way, we encountered a local shepherd shearing his sheep the old fashioned way, using hand shears in a small temporary enclosure on the hillside.

I never knew that when sheep get old they go grey just like the rest of us but, beneath the lovely fleece as it was snipped away, the poor old ewe’s age was laid bare for all to see.

Rodel is a tiny village, with a harbour that has seen busier days, and at the edge of the harbour, the Rodel Hotel. The hotel gives a real island welcome, and we can confirm that it does excellent lunchtime food. But it was the church rather than the harbour and hotel which we had driven down to see.

St Clement’s Church at Rodel is a gem. By a long way it is the finest medieval church in the Western Isles – but just why such a magnificent building would be erected in this remote corner of the Outer Hebrides remains a mystery. It has been restored on several occasions since the Reformation – the most recent major one being in the 1870s, but once inside, its medieval pedigree is unmistakable.

Built in the early 16th century it was, for a time, the burial place of the Macleods – whose influence ran from Skye out across the Hebrides, and Harris was one of their strongholds. So it is hardly surprising that a magnificent 16th century tomb – built in 1528 by and for Alexander MacLeod (who was also known as Alasdair Crotach of Dunvegan) is the finest relic of medieval sculpture anywhere in the Hebrides.

Macleod was determined to be buried in style and wanted to enjoy looking at his future resting place, for he had it built two decades before he died.

From Rodel we continued our journey anti-clockwise round the island, stopping first at Leverburgh where the small car ferry connects with North Uist. Leverbrugh slipway can be unusable at very low tides, due to the shallowness of the approach, and the noticeboard at the terminal listed several cancellations over the following couple of days.

Next stop was Scarista on the island’s west coast, as the rain stopped and the sun made every effort to break out over the golf course and, below it, the beach.

Afew miles further on, and the beach and bay at Na Buirgh has to be one of the most beautiful coastal views in Britain. And here the sun excelled itself, the clouds breaking up and bathing the beach and the distant hills in a clear warm summer light.

By the time our circumnavigation was complete, and Tarbert was once more in view, the sun, sadly, had abandoned us once more.