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Issue 61 - The Hebrides

Scotland Magazine Issue 61
February 2012

 

This article is 5 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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The Hebrides

Scattered into the oncoming winds of the Atlantic Ocean off the North West Coast of Scotland, with the sentinel rocks of far flung St Kilda the nearest outpost before North America, are the Inner and Outer Hebrides. For lovers of islands, these diverse and individual land masses, forming a bracelet of magical, gemlike anchorages, hold their own incomparable enchantment.

With a restless climate that embraces wind and rain, intermittent and sometimes almost tropical sun interspersed with a thousand shades of grey, there is an old saying that you can expect to encounter all of the seasons of the year in one day. Yet when the day is calm and the sky is clear, there is nowhere that is closer to Heaven. There is no formula to explain the appeal of the Scottish Hebrides with their sea bird circled harbours, gneiss mountains, dark interior landscapes and beaches of pure white sand.

Individually beautiful, these islands have, through time, furnished a harsh living for their sons and daughters. Yet the Gael remains stoical in the face of adversity; the Hebrides infusing a spiritual state of mind into those who come to know and love them.

Skye is the main island of the Inner Hebrides. To the south lie the Small Isles – Canna, Sanday, Rhum, Eigg and Muck; the most westerly isles are Tiree and the Treshnish Islands; further south, off the coast of Argyll, are Lismore, Coll, Tiree, Mull, Iona and Staffa, Kerrera, Seil, Eisdale, Luing, Shuna, Torsay, Colonsay, Oronsay, Jura, Islay and Gigha.

The Outer Hebrides, known by some as The Long Island, is comprised of a 130-mile chain from Lewis in the far north, to Barra in the south. In between, Harris, North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist and Eriskay are linked in this chain by the threads of a series of ferry crossings and causeways. The Hebrides in total numbers five hundred islands, of which one fifth are inhabited.

Mentioned by the Roman astronomer, geographer and writer Claudius Ptolemy in the fifth century AD, the existence of the Hebrides had been referred to marginally earlier by his fellow countryman, Gaius Pliny. Although he had certainly never visited them, he had heard reports from seafarers and it was from this that he gave them the name of The Hebudes, from which the modern name originates.

For visitors to these islands, there has been, since 1995, a bridge from Kyle of Lochalsh to Kyleakin on Skye, but the majority of mainland to island crossings are dominated by Caledonian MacBrayne, Hebridean and Clyde Ferries (CalMac), which operates services to and from a total of forty five mainland and island ports. The company also operates Island Hopscotch tickets, providing twenty five options for those in search of multiple destinations and allowing a commendable sense of freedom to explore.

The airline Flybe, operated by Loganair, currently has flights four times daily, Monday to Saturday, to Stornoway from Glasgow, Edinburgh and Inverness. There are also Sunday flights from Glasgow, and daily flights from Glasgow to Barra and Benbecula, from Monday to Saturday, with additional Sunday flights to Barra in the summer months. Eastern Airways have one return flight Monday - Friday from Aberdeen to Stornoway.

In exploring these islands, the visitor steps back in time to a landscape dominated by God not mankind. In the sixth century came the Scandinavian invaders bringing northern idolatry and a taste for plunder. More Vikings arrived in the centuries that followed. About the year 1095, Godfrad Crovan, King of Dublin, Man and the Hebrides, died on Islay. Eight years later his son Olaf the Red of Norway succeeded him, and Olaf’s daughter Raghildis married Somerled, an Ulster-Scots princling, who founded the mighty dynasty of the Macdonald Lords of the Isles.

Repeated efforts were made over the centuries by the mainland-based Scottish kings to displace the Norsemen. In 1263, Haakon IV of Norway sailed with a great fleet to enforce his territorial rule by invading Scotland but was driven back at Largs on the Ayrshire coast.

Three years later a peace between Norway and Scotland was concluded with the Norwegian king renouncing his claim to the Hebrides and other islands with the exception of Norway and Shetland. Part of the bargain was that the Scottish king’s daughter Margaret should marry the heir to the Norwegian throne.

Remoteness and the rigours of survival meant that from the earliest days the Gaelic speaking inhabitants of this spectacular seascape formed an independence of mind which has changed little over the millennium.

Dominating the governance of their territories was the great Clan Donald, controlling their kingdom from the island if Islay.

Nowadays, a visit to Islay, with its eight Scotch whisky distilleries, is an adventure in itself, but a brief diversion should be made to the ruins of Finlaggan, close to Ballygrant, where the Lordship of the Isles held sway until it was dismantled by the Scottish crown in 1493.

Above Islay is Jura, celebrated for its association with George Orwell, who wrote his masterpiece Animal Farm while living in a farmhouse cottage at Barnhill.

Between its most northerly point and the little island of Scarba, lies Corryvreckan, a mighty whirlpool, whose roaring sound can be heard on the wind 20 miles away.

Tradition has it that it takes its name from the unfortunate Prince Breachan, son of a Scandinavian king, who fell in love with a princess of the isles. The lady’s father would only consent to the match if Breachan successfully anchored his boat for three days and nights in the whirlpool.

Accepting the challenge, the young prince consulted a sage who told him to equip himself with three ropes, one of hemp, one of wool, and the third to be twined with hair from the maiden’s head. In the event, all three ropes snapped and the prince was drowned. Such is love.

North across the Firth of Lorne, offshore from Oban and beyond Kerrera, is Mull where the ferry from Oban enters the Sound of Mull under the formidable fortress of Duart Castle. This formidable sentinel dates from the thirteenth century and is today the home of Sir Lachlan Maclean of Duart, 28th Chief of Clan Maclean. A short distance from here is Craignure, first port-of-call on the ferry’s tour of the island, and close by is a memorial to Major General Lachlan Macquarrie, the last Governor of New South Wales who is acclaimed by many as the founder of modern Australia. He was born on the offshore island of Ulva in 1762.

Off the western toe of Mull lies Iona, the holy island where the Christian missionary St Columba founded his abbey in AD 563. Early Scottish kings were laid to rest here including Macbeth and his adversary Duncan I. In 1936, a Church of Scotland minister founded the Iona Community for which he was later honoured as the Very Reverend Lord Macleod of Fuinary. The sanctuary he created, with the restored abbey at its heart, remains a renowned retreat for prayer and worship to this day.

The picturesque, multi-coloured town of Tobermory on the north of Mull was the site of the sinking of a Spanish galleon in 1588.

Following the fiasco of the Spanish Armada, it had escaped up the west coast of Britain and is said to have carried a great cargo of treasure which divers have been seeking for generations since. Tobermory has since won acclaim as the home of the popular children’s BBC television serial Balamory.

Skye is sometimes known as the “Island of Mists”. Of its mountains, the Cuillins in the south west are the most renowned and inhospitable.

Two powerful clans have dominated the territory for centuries: Clan Donald, whose visitor centre can be found at Armadale in the south, and Clan Macleod on the west. Close to Armadale is Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the world’s leading Gaelic College founded by the late entrepreneur Sir Iain Noble.

It was to the island’s Capital, Portree, that the fugitive Prince Charles Edward Stuart escaped in 1746 from South Uist disguised as “Betty Burke” the servant of Flora Macdonald. Although he was more than six foot tall, the Bonnie Prince managed to evade the English soldiers who were searching for him, but Flora’s fate was afterwards to be afterwards and sent to the Tower of London.

Following her imprisonment, she married her cousin Allan Macdonald of Kingsburgh, and they emigrated to the Carolinas, only to become embroiled in another war with the English yet again.

Clan Macleod, whose elegant stronghold Dunvegan Castle, today home of Hugh MacLeod of MacLeod, the 30th Chief of Clan Macleod, sits in the north west. It annually hosts the Silver Chanter MacCrimmon Memorial Piobaireachd Competition, and is the home of the Fairy Flag, which is believed to have magical powers.

From the small town of Uig on the Trotternish Peninsula, CalMac ferries come and go between Lochmaddy on North Uist and Tarbert on Harris. Tarbert is the gateway to the diverging landscapes of two very distinct islands linked by a causeway – Harris, with its wooded hills and spectacular white sand beaches, and Lewis, an unrelenting terrain of peat bogs, mountain slopes and treeless moors, swept by Atlantic hurricane force winds.

A visit to the standing stones of Callanish which date to before 2000BC, is to be highly recommended. Sundays remain a religious day on both islands, and the majority of the population observes strict compliance to the “Free Church” traditional values.

The population of Stornoway, the island Capital, represents around a third of that of the entire Western Isles, and is the headquarters of the Western Isles Council ( Comhairle nan Eilean Siar). Gaelic is widely spoken here, and there is a variety of educational, sporting and media establishments, notably Lews Castle College and the Nicolson Institute.

The economy of Harris and Lewis, as with the majority of Hebridean islands, mostly relies on a mix of fishing and farming, with more recent influences such as tourism, the oil industry, wind farms and of course commerce brought about by the digital revolution and communications.

Although the industry has consistently suffered from local politics and worldwide competition, the staple craft of Harris Tweed is making a steady comeback to the island economy with three mills remaining in full production. This extraordinarily enduring fabric with its subtle colours has won worldwide renown. As a brand name, Harris Tweed can only originate from Harris and Lewis, the Uists and Barra, and only genuine Harris Tweed that has been inspected and approved by the Harris Tweed Authority can carry the Harris Tweed “Orb” trademark.

At The Butt of Lewis, with its lighthouse built in 1860 by David and Thomas Stevenson of the famous Victorian lighthouse building family, the headland faces straight onto the North Atlantic.

From here onwards, the ocean swells into the distance, the next port of call being Iceland.

WHERE TO STAY

Ardnastruban House
Grimsay, Uist
Four star bed and breakfast accommodation in a most beautiful location on Uist.
Tel: +44 (0)1870 602 452 www.ardnastrubanhouse.co.uk

Airds
Northbay, Barra
Remote, charming and friendly bed and breakfast accommodation, with good disabled access.
Tel: +44 (0)1871 890 720 www.airdsbarra.co.uk

Broad Bay House
Back, Lewis
A purpose-built luxury guesthouse, just a few miles north of Stornoway, with direct access to a sweeping sandy beach. Four spacious en-suite bedrooms available
Tel: +44 (0)1851 820 990 www.broadbayhouse.co.uk

Ceol Na Mara
Direcleit, Harris
Comfy, informal and highly-rated guesthouse, with all the mod-cons as well as fantastic views.
Tel: +44 (0)1859 502 464 www.ceolnamara.com

Hotel Hebrides
Tarbert, Harris
Contemporary and friendly boutique hotel with a range of room options to suit everyone. The Pierhouse Restaurant and Mote Bar offer excellent food.
Tel: +44 (0)1859 502 364 www.hotel-hebrides.com

Ravenstar
Back, Lewis
Comfy bed and excellent breakfasts, this cosy B&B also offers a range of holistic treatments.
Tel: +44 (0)1851 820 517 www.ravenstar.co.uk

Redburn House
Lochmaddy, Uist
A choice of four en-suite bed and breakfast rooms, as well as a few self catering options. The Boat House is a sweet, private little hideaway; the apartment would suit larger groups.
Tel: +44 (0)1876 500 301 www.redburnhouse.com

Rona View
Grimsay
Three bedroom self-catering cottage on an island just off North Uist. Weekly rental starting at £250 out-of-season, it’s a perfect place to get away from it all.
Tel: + 44 (0)160 644 422 www.rona-view.com

Royal Hotel
Stornoway, Lewis
Built in 1850, this 26-bedroom hotel has great views across the harbour as well as friendly staff and good food at the Boatshed Restaurant.
Tel: +44 (0)1851 702 109 www.royalstornoway.co.uk

Tigh Dearg
Loch Maddy, North Uist
Four star hotel on North Uist, offering mainland modernity and fine dining in a remote location.
Tel: +44 (0)1876 500 700 www.tighdearghotel.co.uk


WHERE TO VISIT

Arnol Black House
Arnol, Lewis
A traditional thatched island house, complete with peat fire burning in the hearth. New visitor centre with interpretative displays.
Tel: +44 (0)1851 710 395 www.historic-scotland.gov.uk

Calanais Visitor Centre
Calanais, Lewis
Award-winning visitor centre exploring the story of the magnificent standing stones.
Tel: +44 (0)1851 621 422 www.calanaisvisitorcentre.co.uk

Dave’s Archaeological Tours
Callanish, Lewis
Private tours of Lewis and Harris, conducted by your personal archaeologist and island resident.
Tours for groups of between one and six people; half day, full day or two day options available.
Tel: +44 (0)1851 830 777 www.hebrideanarchaeologicaltours.com

Gearrannan Blackhouse Village
Carloway, Lewis
This lovely old croft has been painstakingly restored, offering visitors modern facilities within the surroundings of times gone by.
Tel: +44 (0)1851 643 488 www.gearrannan.com

Hebridean Smokehouse
Locheport, Uist
This traditional smokery is also a three-star visitor attraction. From the viewing gallery you can watch peatsmoked salmon, seatrout and scallops being prepared.
Tel: +44 (0)1876 580 209 www.hebrideansmokehouse.com

Isle of Harris Knitwear
Grosebay, Harris
Comprehensive gift shop for stocking up on those essential Harris knits and tweeds.
Tel: +44 (0)1859 511 240 www.isleofharrisknitwear.co.uk

Kisimul Castle
Castlebay, Barra
Take the short boat journey out to the ‘castle in the sea’ and follow in the wake of the chiefs of the Clan Macneil. Explore the interior and enjoy the spectacular views from the battlements.
Tel: +44 (0)1871 810 313 www.historic-scotland.gov.uk

Seallam
Northton, Harris
Award winning visitor centre and home of the genealogy service for the Western Isles, if you’re interested in doing a bit of family history research as well.
Tel: +44 (0)1859 520 258 www.seallam.com

St Kilda National Nature Reserve
St Kilda
Lying 41 miles west of Benbecula, only the hardiest visitors make the trip to this tiny island. Those that do will be rewarded with spectacular scenery, history and unique wildlife.
Tel: +44 (0)131 243 9300 www.nts.org.uk

Surf the Hebrides
Stornoway, Lewis
Try your hand at this popular island activity. Tuition, equipment hire and low-cost accommodation from this reputable tour provider.
Tel: +44 (0)1851 840 343 www.hebrideansurf.co.uk

Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum & Arts Centre
Lochmaddy, Uist
Award winning museum and gallery; photographic collection, art and craft workshops, sculpture trail, plus a café and shop.
Tel: +44 (0)1876 500 293 www.taigh-chearsabhagh.org

Western Isles Wildlife
Tarbert, South Uist
Wildlife tours, excursions and cruises throughout the Hebrides from a fully qualified and experienced guide.
Tel: +44 (0)1870 620 241 www.western-isles-wildlife.com

WHERE TO EAT

An Lanntair
Stornoway, Lewis
Busy arts centre with a varied selection of daytime snacks and evening meals.
Tel: +44 (0)1851 703 307 www.lanntair.com

Anchorage Restaurant
Leverburgh, Harris
Fresh local seafood, home baking and Italian coffees, set against breath-taking seaviews.
Tel: +44 (0)1859 520 225

Ardhasaig House
Ardhasaig, Harris
Four star restaurant with rooms, offering a 4 course set menu every evening, which can be tailored to suit dietary requirements.
Tel: +44 (0)1859 502 500 www.ardhasaig.co.uk

Borve Country House Hotel
Borve, Lewis
Luxury small hotel offering a range of dining options, from wine and fine dining in the restaurant, to a snack in the bar.
Tel: +44 (0)1851 850 223 www.borvehousehotel.co.uk

The Deck
Castlebay, Barra
Fair-weather restaurant offering spectacular views of Castlebay and some of the best and biggest sandwiches you’ll ever find.
Tel: +44 (0)1878 810 898 www.hebrideantoffeecompany.com

Digby Chick
Stornoway, Lewis
Contemporary restaurant serving the finest local fish, shellfish and game, cooked with flair and originality.
Tel: +44 (0)1851 700 026 www.digbychick.co.uk Gallan

Head Hotel
Aird Uig, Lewis
One of Scotland’s quirkiest eateries. A former radar base set high on a rocky outcrop, this remote restaurant with rooms is quickly gaining an excellent reputation for food.
Tel: +44 (0)1851 672 474 www.gallanheadhotel.co.uk

Park Guest House and Restaurant
Stornoway, Lewis
Flavoursome dishes cooked with lamb, game and local seafood. Rooms from £43.
Tel: +44 (0)1851 702 485 www.theparkguesthouse.co.uk

Polochar Inn
Lochboisdale, South Uist
A beautiful 18th century inn aimed entirely toward good food, comfort and island hospitality.
Tel: +44 (0)1878 700 215 www.polocharinn.com Skoon

Art Café
Harris
Small café promoting original art and traditional Scottish music. Home made cakes and puddings, a wide selection of tea and freshly ground coffee.
Tel: +44 (0)1859 530 268 www.skoon.com

Tigh Mealros
Garynahine, Lewis
A la carte menu served in the sculpture garden of a private family home. Booking essential.
Tel: +44 (0)1851 621 333