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Issue 94 - Regional Focus: The Western Isles

Scotland Magazine Issue 94
September 2017


This article is 14 months 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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Regional Focus: The Western Isles

Charles Douglas travels from the Scottish mainland to explore Barra, the Uists, Harris and Lewis.

Strung out off the far northwest coast of mainland Scotland is the archipelago of the Outer Hebrides, also known as the Western Isles, which acts as a buffer to the storms and other climatic forces that sweep across the Atlantic Ocean from North America. Propelled by the North Atlantic Current, the weather is often so changeable that it is regularly remarked that there can be 'four seasons in a day'.

From the beaches of Barra to the lunar valleys of Harris and the flat hinterland of Lewis, there is a magical beauty to be found in the contrasts of these islands, of which only 15 are inhabited.
The possibilities for travellers are almost countless, but the purpose of this feature is to engage with only the principal destinations of the Long Island, as the area is collectively known, which stretches for 130 miles from Barra Head through Castlebay on Barra, the lyrical Eriskay, Lochboisdale in South Uist, Lochmaddy in North Uist, Leverburgh and Tarbert on Harris, to Stornoway and finally the Butt of Lewis, which points out towards the Faroe Islands and Iceland.

Long ago, in the first millennium, the Western Isles of Scotland belonged to the Norse Kingdom of Norway. This ended when sovereignty was transferred in 1266 at the Treaty of Perth. This followed the indecisive Scottish victory fought three years earlier at the Battle of Largs. Scottish sovereignty over this disputed territory, distant from its centre of power in Dunfermline and the south of Scotland, was recognised in return for 4,000 marks (approximately £1,056,000 today) and an annuity of 100 marks. Control of these scattered communities thereafter fell into the hands of a handful of indigenous Clans: the Clan Donald Lords of the Isles, the MacLeods, the Mackenzies, and the MacNeils, all of whom were historically connected to each other through Celtic and Viking blood.

The turtle-shaped Isle of Barra sits almost at the bottom of the island chain and its coastline is encircled by a principal road, the A888. In 1472, this fiefdom was granted to Gilleonan MacNeil by Alexander MacDonald, Lord of the Isles, and it was to remain with his descendants through the following centuries until the 40th Chief was forced to sell his lands to Lt Colonel John Gordon of Cluny. In the land clearances of the mid-Victorian era, the majority of Barra's inhabitants emigrated to North America. In 1937, Robert MacNeil, 45th Chief of Clan MacNeil, succeeded in buying back the family estate and restored the Clan stronghold of Kisimul Castle (See: p14).

A visit to Dualchas – Barra's Heritage and Culture Centre, which opened in 1996 – is recommended. From the west end of Castlebay, a road runs south to the causeway joining Barra with Vatersay. As with the other islands, the rocky coastline is interspersed with brilliant beaches of unspoiled white sand. At the northern end of the island is the fishing harbour of Northbay and the beach airport of Traigh Mhòr.
The novelist Sir Compton Mackenzie, a lover of island living, made his home overlooking the Traigh Eais beach on Barra in 1928 and, in 1941, the cargo vessel SS Politician, bound for America with a cargo including 28,000 cases of Scotch whisky, ran aground on the adjacent island of Eriskay. Mackenzie's comedic novel, Whisky Galore (1947), is based on what happened next and has since been filmed twice: in 1949 as an Ealing Comedy with a cast that included Basil Radford, Joan Greenwood and Gordon Jackson, and in 2016, starring Eddie Izzard and Gregor Fisher.

The name Eriskay comes from the Old Norse language and means 'Eric's Isle'. Lying between Barra and South Uist, Eriskay is connected to the latter by a causeway and to the former by a ferry crossing of approximately 40 minutes. Community grazing (crofting) is the bedrock of the economy and, in 2006, a community buyout by Stòras Uibhist, which included Benbecula and South Uist, was successfully negotiated. The island is also celebrated through the traditional Scots song The Eriskay Love Lilt.
South Uist, the second to largest of the Western Isles, is one of the remaining centres for the Gaelic language. There was once a thriving Neolithic community here and South Uist retains an abundance of chambered tombs, brochs and cairns of great antiquity. Following the Norse withdrawal of the 13th Century, it was held by the MacDonalds of Clan Ranald, who harvested the abundant supplies of kelp (seaweed). When the kelp industry collapsed, in 1836, Clan Ranald was faced with bankruptcy and the Chief sold the island to Colonel Gordon of Cluny who, as with Barra, cleared the land of its inhabitants for sheep farming.

On South Uist is the Askernish Golf Course, which reopened in 2008. It is the oldest in the Outer Hebrides and was designed by Old Tom Morris in 1891, having been commissioned by Lady Gordon of Cathcart, the then owner or the estate. Ceòlas, a leading Gaelic culture, heritage, and arts organisation, holds an annual summer music school of traditional music and dance that has a global reputation.
A missile testing range was built in 1957 and 1958 to launch the first British and American guided nuclear weapons – to some degree the subject of yet another of Sir Compton Mackenzie's comic novel Rockets Galore (1957) – and the range is still owned by the UK Ministry of Defense. At Cladh Hallan in South Uist is the only site in the UK where prehistoric mummified remains have been discovered, making it a site of special interest.

Flora MacDonald, the heroine of the 1745 Jacobite Rising, was born on South Uist and a monument marks the location, but it was from Benbecula, where she was living at the time, that she escorted the fugitive Prince Charles Edward Stuart, disguised as Betty Burke, an Irish spinning maid, to land on Uig on Skye's Trotternish Peninsula. Their journey inspired the famous Skye Boat Song.

The island of Benbecula, which is approximately 12 kilometres north to south and from east to west, lies between South Uist and North Uist and is connected to both by causeways. The main settlement is Balivanich, where the airport is situated. Freshwater lochs, moorland, bog and slim sea lochs make up the terrain. To the north is Baleshare, from the west of which at low tide it is possible to walk to the Monach Islands. Further east is Flodaigh, connected by another causeway, and beyond Grimsay and Ronay. The Lionacleit Campus on the west-coast road from Baleshare is associated with Lews Castle College, part of the University of the Highlands and Islands.

The Isle of Harris is essentially the southern part of Lewis, and vice versa, in that the two land masses are joined by a natural causeway where the A859 runs past the inland end of Loch Seaforth. Natives of Harris are known as Hearachs. There are rugged mountains in the north and breathtakingly beautiful sandy beaches to be found in the south at Luskentyre, opposite the island of Taransay (See: p76), and the three miles of white sand at Scarista have distant views of the remote island group of St Kilda (See: p30). In the east of Harris are several small fjords known as the Bays, through which there is a single track vehicular access known as the Golden Road.

West Loch Tarbert and East Loch Tarbert are connected by a narrow isthmus, which separates the northern and southern regions of Harris, at the harbour village of Tarbert. The southern part of Harris is less mountainous and the main settlement is at Rodel, where a visit to the medieval Kirk of St Clement, founded by the 8th Chief of MacLeod, is essential. The Rodel Hotel is the restored home of Captain Alexander MacLeod of Berneray who bought the estate in 1779. Tarbert, with its ferry terminal, is now the principal port and town of Harris. Supporting a superb Harris Tweed shop and a recently created distillery, it is a major attraction for visitors.

The Isle of Harris Distillery, which opened in late 2015, is the result of an eight-year drive to introduce a commercially-sized distillery to the Outer Hebrides. Known as 'the social distillery', its aim is not just to produce superb single malt whisky and gin, but to stimulate the local economy by providing jobs and spreading both the spirit and identity of Harris across the globe. It is hoped that over the coming decade this growing brand will encourage more people to visit the island and experience what it has to offer.
Although the distillery's single malt is yet to reach the minimum three years of age required to be sold as Scotch whisky, their Isle of Harris Gin is available to purchase. This distinct liquid is produced using a mix of botanicals inspired by the island and, uniquely, contains locally-foraged sugar kelp as one of its key ingredients. It is available online and in key UK retailers.

Of course, the island already has one internationally-recognised brand. By law, the enduring and beautiful hand-woven cloth known as Harris Tweed can only be manufactured in the Outer Hebrides. Owing to its quality, longevity, and international competition, the Harris Tweed industry, which once involved crofting families throughout the islands, has sadly declined. However, three mills still operate, all of which are on Lewis – Harris Tweed Scotland, The Carloway Mill, and Harris Tweed Hebrides. In North Harris is Clisham, the highest mountain in the Outer Hebrides. A bridge from the east coast connects Harris to the Isle of Scalpay. In 2003, the North Harris Estate was purchased by the North Harris Trust on behalf of the local community.

It is here that travellers will find the magnificent Amhuinnsuidhe Castle, on the northern shore of West Loch Tarbert, which was built by the architect David Bryce for Charles Murray, 7th Earl of Dunmore, in 1865. Today, the castle operates as a luxurious sporting hotel and exclusive-use venue offering the true 'Highland laird' experience.

Incidentally, it should not be forgotten that it was the 7th Earl's wife, the Countess of Dunmore, who recognized the sales potential of Harris Tweed during the Highland potato famine of 1846. It was she who personally financed the training of Harris weavers, sending them to Alloa to learn their craft and establishing a London market for the cloth.

Traveling up the A859, the scenery becomes ever more dramatic as the road rises into a landscape of bare moorland and lochans. Writing in 1873, the Reverend George Hely- Hutchinson, a fanatic sportsman, compared the boggy, lochan-dotted terrain to that of a giant sponge. 'The sea loch,' he wrote of Loch Seaforth, 'without a ripple at your feet; Glen Scaladale's dark side, falling down upon its shores; and the Clisham lowering into the evening mist, with the peaks of Glen Langadale and the other Harris hills clustering around, form a scene that often and often have I passed hour after hour looking on, and thanking God for such a sight and the power of enjoying it.'

It was from Loch Seaforth that the mighty Clan Mackenzie took its earldom, created for Colin, 2nd Lord Mackenzie of Kintail, in 1623. As a member of the council through which James VI conducted his dealings with the Highlands, Mackenzie led the Fife Adventurers who were sent to develop the fisheries and other resources on Lewis after the island was confiscated from the Aiol Torcuil branch of Clan MacLeod in 1597. Thereafter it was claimed that for 200 years the earls of Seaforth could journey from the east coast of Scotland to the west coast and onto the Isle of Lewis without ever leaving their own land.

Ironically, it was a Lewis man who predicted their downfall. It is not known when Coinneach Odhar, better known in the Highlands as the Brahan Seer, was born, but it is certain he originated from Baile-na-Cille, on the northern arm of Uig Bay. Taken up by the 3rd Earl of Seaforth, he foretold many of the significant events of the Highlands – from the Clearances of the 18th and 19th Centuries to the discovery of North Sea Oil in the 1960s. However, his most poignant prophecy, pronounced shortly before his death, was the demise of the Mackenzies of Seaforth, which did indeed occur on the death of the last of the line in 1815.

In 1844, James Matheson, from Shiness in Sutherland, returned from Hong Kong flushed with the fortune he had accumulated through his partnership in the trading company Jardine Matheson. The Mathesons were benign landowners and built Lews Castle at Stornoway. The Stornoway Nicolson Institute, founded in 1873 under the will of Alexander Nicolson, a native of Stornoway, was further endowed by Sir James and he spent large sums of money on Stornoway Harbour to encourage the fishing industry. After his death, the island was sold in 1917 to the 1st Viscount Leverhulme, the British soap manufacturer and philanthropist who was determined to create a better way of life for the crofting communities of the island.

Alas, his timing could not have been worse. Conscripted islanders returning from the horrors of WWI were in search of the good life and content with subsistence living. None of Leverhulme's enterprises took off.
All of Leverhulme's schemes were eventually abandoned although, altruistically, he gifted much of the island, including Lews Castle, to the islanders. He died in 1925 but by then the island's estates had been broken up and sold. Among the beneficiaries was Sir Compton Mackenzie who, with the royalties from one of his early books, purchased the romantic, uninhabited Shiant Islands that can be found four miles off the east coast of Harris in the Sound of Shiant.

Furthermore, there was the terrible tragedy of HMY
Iolaire which, bringing islanders home from war on New Year's Eve 1918, crashed into the infamous 'Beasts of Holm' rocks. An estimated 205 people, 181 of which were islanders, drowned as their families awaited their arrival on shore. It is thought that a navigational error, accompanied by poor visibility and deteriorating weather, was the cause. What is certain is that the impact on the close-knit island community of the Outer Hebrides was catastrophic.
From the A859 from Harris to the island capital of Stornoway, past the village of Ballalan and Leurbost, the A858 swings west past Garrynahine to Callanish and to the magnificent standing stones with their welcoming visitor centre. Consisting of a stone circle of 13 stones with a monolith near the middle, five rows of standing pillars connect to the circle. Two long rows run parallel to each other, forming an avenue. Dating from the late Neolithic period, these remarkable edifices of Lewisian gneiss stand above Loch Roag, with the hills of Great Bernera off-shore. Although much research has been undertaken over the past century, nobody really knows why there are there. Legends of ritual, sacrifice and worship abound – not least because, if you turn to the south, the distant tops of Eishken and the hills of Harris take the form of a sleeping maiden.

Take the B8011, before Callanish, and it leads to Uig, the ancestral seat of Clan MacAulay that today consists of a series of scattered settlements around the Bhaltos peninsula. The Uig Museum and Heritage Centre is a worthwhile diversion. At Carnish can be found the Abhainn Dearg Distillery, which began small-scale production of Lewis single malt using locally-built stills in 2008.

Stornoway, founded in the Viking era, is a bustling town and is now an important
port and headquarters of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, the Western Isles Council. Lews Castle has been extensively transformed and now houses the Museum nan Eilean which, among other treasures, features the Lewis Chessmen, a set of 82 pieces made from walrus ivory that were discovered in a sand bank at Uig in 1831 and date from the 12th Century.

The village of Tong, three miles northeast of Stornoway, has recently gained a certain celebrity from being the birthplace of Mary Anne MacLeod, USA President Donald Trump's mother. The Lewis Highland Games have been held here since 1977. Finally, we journey north on the A857 through Barvas and the Port of Ness to the Butt of Lewis. A diversion south on the A858 takes you to the Blackhouse at Arnol, where there is a traditional Lewis thatched cottage that is fully furnished with barn, byre, stackyard and visitor centre. It offers a great opportunity to learn of historic crofting life.

The Butt of Lewis is the most northerly point of the Outer Hebrides. The headland, with its 121-foot-high lighthouse that was built by Thomas and Robert Stevenson, is continually battered by storms. Turn to the west and there is nothing other than the great expanse of the Atlantic Ocean between you and North America.

Where to Visit

1. Lews Castle
Stornoway, HS2 0XR
Former home of Lord Leverhulme. Beautiful gardens, luxurious accommodation and now featuring the Museum nan Eilean.
+44 (0) 1851 822 746

2. Calanais Visitor Centre
Callanish, HS2 9DY
Visit the magnificent Callanish (Calanais in Gaelic) standing stones, which date back 5,000 years. Adjoining visitor centre is very informative.
+44 (0) 1851 621 422

3. Abhainn
Dearg Distillery
Carnish, HS2 9EX
Established in 2008, Abhainn Dearg was the first legal whisky distillery in the Outer Hebrides in almost 200 years.
+44 (0) 1851 672 429

4. The Arnol Blackhouse
Bragar, HS2 9DB
A traditional thatched blackhouse that provides an insight into historic island life. Also open is the 'white house' that replaced it, in the 1920s.
+44 (0) 1851 710 395

5. An Lanntair
Stornoway, HS1 2DS
A multi arts venue and cultural hub for the island with café bar, exhibitions, concerts, film screenings and workshops.
+44 (0) 1851 703 307

6. Gearrannan Blackhouse Village
Carloway, HS2 9AL
Experience the history and heritage of crofting life. Holiday accommodation also available.
+44 (0) 1851 643 416

7. St Clement's Church (Tur Chliamainn)
Rodel, HS5 3TW
A 15th-Century church built by the MacLeods. Praised as the 'grandest medieval building the Western Isles'.
+44 (0) 1316 688 600

8. Bosta Iron Age House
Bostadh, HS2 9LT
Exposed by a storm in 1933, the remains of this 6th-Century village on the remote isle of Great Bernera have been reconstructed.
+44 (0) 1851 612 314

9. Harris Distillery
Tarbert, HS3 3DJ
Opened in October 2015, this contemporary gin and single malt distillery offers tours and the warmth of a peat fire upon arrival.
+44 (0) 1859 502 212

10. Harris Tweed Hebrides
Stornoway, HS1 2XQ
The mill's flagship retail store in the centre of Stornoway. Come here to pick up a piece of the Western Isles to treasure for years to come.
+44 (0) 1851 700 046

11. The Carloway Mill
Carloway, HS2 9AG
Traditional Harris Tweed Mill on the west coast of Lewis. It is the only mill on the island that provides public tours. Book in advance!
+44 (0) 1851 643 300

12. Kisimul Castle
Castlebay, HS9 5UZ
The ancestral home of the Clan MacNeils of Barra. Although it is surrounded by seawater, it is still acessible by the public – by boat!
+44 (0) 1871 810 313

Where to Stay

13. The Crown Inn
Stornoway, HS1 2BD
A recently refurbished, cosy hotel with superb gin bar, restaurant, and lively public bar. SHA Inn and Bar of the Year (Islands) 2017.
+44 (0) 1851 703 734

14. Hotel Hebrides
Tarbert, HS3 3DG
Contemporary rooms, relaxing lounge bar and great restaurant serving up Hebridean produce. Luxury serviced apartments available.
+44 (0) 1859 502 364

15. Borve Country House Hotel
Borve, HS2 0RX
Great location on the west coast of Lewis. Luxurious rooms and cosy chalets. Perfect for romantic escapes.
+44 (0) 1851 850 223

16. Cabarfeidh Hotel
Stornoway, HS1 2EU
Modern hotel with bright rooms and Scottish-French fusion restaurant. Just a five-minute walk from the grounds of Lews Castle.
+44 (0) 1851 702 604

17. Ardhasaig House
Isle of Harris, HS3 3AJ
Traditional, small hotel with spectacular views across West Loch Tarbert to Ben Luskentyre. Great fine dining that utilises the best local produce.
+44 (0) 1859 502 500

18. Harris Hotel
Tarbert, HS3 3DL
Family owned for over 100 years, the Harris Hotel is a true
institution that offers
the best of traditional
island hospitality.
+44 (0) 1859 502 154

19. Dark Island Hotel
Liniclate, HS7 5PJ
Well appointed, contemporary
rooms; excellent
food and spectacular scenery on the peaceful Isle of Benbecula.
+44 (0) 1870 603 030

20. Isle of Benbecula House Hotel
Creagorry, HS7 5PG
Great location for island exploration, relaxation and, particularly, bird watching. Comfortable lounge bar.
+44 (0) 1870 603 046

21. Orasay Inn
Lochcarnan, HS8 5PD
Family run small hotel on South Uist with warm, friendly, relaxed atmosphere. Set in an area of outstanding natural beauty.
+44 (0) 1870 610 298

22. Langass Lodge
Locheport, HS6 5HA
A delightful family-run hotel in North Uist with restaurant, bar, and children's playground. Great base from which to explore the Uists.
+44 (0) 1876 580 258

23. Isle of Barra
Beach Hotel
Tangasdale, HS9 5XW
The most westerly hotel in Britain! This waterside hotel overlooks the beautiful Tangasdale Beach. Great restaurant!
+44 (0) 1871 810 383

24. Heathbank
A888, Northbay, Isle of Harris HS9 5YQ
Contemporary and well appointed rooms. Owned by an islander and ideally placed for Sound of Barra ferry.
+44 (0) 1871 890 2661

Where to Eat

25. Loch Erisort Inn
Sheildinish, HS2 9RA
Between Stornoway and Tarbert. Surrounded by croft land with great views of Loch Erisort. Home cooked meals with local produce.
+44 (0) 1851 830 473

26. Digby Chick
Stornoway, HS1 2XG
Finest quality local produce served in Stornoway's old Chandlers premises. Very popular with the locals. Great steak menu!
+44 (0) 1851 700 026

27. Woodlands Centre
Stornoway, HS2 0XR
Excellent café for soup, sandwiches, and home baking. Situated in the delightful grounds of the historic Lews Castle.
+44 (0) 1851 706 916

28. Comunn Eachdraidh Nis
Ness, HS2 OSN
A bilingual Gaelic/English community hub designed to bring communities together. Great for lunch or coffee.
+44 (0) 1851 810 377

29. The Boatshed Restaurant
Stornoway, HS1 2DG
Quality traditional recipes and world cuisine. Popular with locals. Just a few steps away from the marina.
+44 (0) 1851 702 109

30. The Anchorage
Leverburgh, HS5 3UB
Known for superb seafood and amazing views of Leverburgh harbour. It has a great reputation with locals and visitors alike.
+44 (0) 1859 520 225
/The Anchorage

31. Skoon Art Café
Geocrab, HS3 3HB
A lovely small café on the east coast of Harris. Enjoy superb views of the dramatic landscape outside and appreciate the oil paintings inside.
+44 (0) 1859 530 268

32. The Machair Kitchen
Niseaboist, HS3 3AE
New restaurant for West Harris. Find it at the Talla na Mara Community Enterprise Centre.
+44 (0) 1859 550 333

33. Scarista House
Sgarasta Bheag,
Superb dining in a historic, Georgian building that is a former manse. Open to non-residents for dinner.
+44 (0) 1859 550 238

34. The Temple Café
Northton, HS3 3JA
Small and beautiful cafe is spectacular location. Mouthwatering home baking, superb salads and great local produce.
+44 (0) 7876 340 416

35. The Stepping Stone Restaurant
Balivanich, HS7 5LA
Family-owned restaurant using superb produce on the Isle of Benbecula.
+44 (0) 1870 603 377
/TheSteppingStone Restaurant

36. Kisimul Café
Castlebay, HS9 5XD
Specialising in both Indian and Italian cuisine, great breakfasts, plus the very best local seafood. Lovely spot in the Isle of Barra's main village.
+44(0)1871 810 645