Outwith the Inner

Part two of a trip that started in Skye.

The ferry crossing takes an hour and a half by the shortest route possible, from Uig on Skye to Tarbert in Harris. Looking out over the bow, the Minch fills all and then none of the window, as the horizon swings up and down like the edge of a trampoline.

We bounce off at Tarbert, a small town straddling the narrow neck where southern Harris joins north. Walls of rock rise up on either side of the join, and for a moment it’s hard to see where the road could go. Doubly hard, because the rain is now sheeting down.

We salmon-leap up to the crossing through North Harris, a solid march of grey-flecked brown mountains. I pull over in a passing place to let the one-lane traffic past, and wind down the window to photograph a loch, its surface rippling fast. The rain soaks the edge of my seat in the space of ten seconds.

The first surprise about the Isle of Harris is that it isn’t. This “island” is joined to its twin of Lewis, and not at the obvious point of the neck at Tarbert, but here in the forbidding natural barrier of the North Harris mountains. The boundary makes sense even today, when it takes only minutes to cross it by car; it would have made even more when the crossings were by foot, or skirting around the coast. But it would be a couple more days before we’d get a better sense of Harris; on this first day we continued up the coast to Stornoway. Or, as the signs had it, Steornobhagh.

Half the fun of travelling in the Hebrides is being confronted with and confused by that most mysterious of European languages (along with Icelandic and Basque), Gaelic. You might not hear it spoken much, except on the radio and from behind the kitchen door of your B&B, but you’ll see it everywhere. In Skye the roadsigns sport dual place-names, the English ones in black and the Gaelic in green. In the Outer Hebrides it’s one flavour only, black on white, all Gaelic. And even though the names usually sound the same when spoken aloud, in written form they’re worlds apaght.

The quirks of written Gaelic turn every second place-name into a Charlie Brown scream: Port Righ. Steornabhagh. Scalpaigh. Bearnaraigh. And ghghghs aren’t the only mystery: Harris is “Na Hearadh”, which I kept reading as “The Hearing Aid”, and Lewis is “Leodhas”, which makes sense given that the place is full of Macleods. But why is “dh” pronounced “w” when that’s how you say “bh”? Which is also, sometimes, pronounced “v”? (I could at least handle that one, as a struggling student of Español—it’s also full of “b”s pronounced “v”, and bice-bersa.)

No matter how much the “h” is supposed to modify the preceding consonant, I kept sounding out the “b”s and “g”s in my head, like every other hapless tourist. Why isn’t the Steornobhagh tourist industry making the most of this opportunity, I wondered. There’s an obvious market for souvenir Storn-o-bags, made from the finest blackface sheepskin.

Instead, Stornoway makes do with the finest black puddings. The local version, two foot long, two inches across, and fried in slices half an inch thick, is better than any I’ve had in the British Isles; firm, but crumbly, and flavorsome. I ate full Scottish breakfasts at every B&B just so I could keep savouring it.

Even in English, Stornoway’s name sounds windswept and romantic. The town itself feels suitably remote; it’s about the same size as Kirkwall in Orkney, which is to say a town of several thousand. It doesn’t have Kirkwall’s Norse street-plan, but the older area juts attractively into the harbour on a finger of land with a street along either edge. The streets themselves, and the big Co-op supermarket on the outskirts (with aisle signs also in Gaelic), were surprisingly busy for such a small place, at least at the beginning and end of the day; because, as we were to find, compared with everywhere else in the Outer Hebrides this was the big place.

From Stornoway we drove west the next morning across the flat peat plain of inland Lewis, to the northern region of Ness (no relation). The towns dotted up the west coast were loose confederations of two-storey stone houses, rather than the tight terraces of mainland Scotland. Unlike Skye, where the houses are all whitewashed in traditional fashion, Lewis has been swept by a craze for grey rock-coat, which is more practical, I suppose, but stare at them for too long and they all camouflage themselves against the sky.

We drove all the way north, through a town touting itself as “The Linux Centre” (should have been Lianachs, surely), to Port Ness and its nearby landmark: the end of the island, the Butt of Lewis. Or, in Gaelic, Rubha Robhanais.

Appropriately for a place that conjures images of rubbing rubber on your butt, the craggy cliffs were mounted by a magnificently erect lighthouse. Sheep-cropped grass surrounded it up to the edge of the cliffs, and as we walked around we were visited by some friendly blackfaces, their wool blown sideways by the wind off the Atlantic. Like most of the sheep we met here, they saw every human as a farmer, and flocked to us for free food. “Sorry, we don’t have any,” we said. “Baagghghgh,” they replied.

The west coast of Lewis was scattered with the rocky ruins of blackhouses among the newer two-storey homes. At Arnol, Historic Scotland maintains the only continuously intact specimen on the island. They’re essentially Viking longhouses, built to the same design for a thousand years or more: low walls, thatched roofs which drain into a mud-filled cavity between inner and outer walls to seal the interior from the wind, and a continuous peat fire inside them to dry out and preserve the thatch. Some were still in use right up to the 1970s.

Before we could fill with longing for a time when Lewis was a land of near-prehistoric villages, though, our lungs filled with the dense smoke of the blackhouse. We gamely stayed to chat with the custodian as he threw bricks of dried peat on the fire, but after ten minutes we had to get out, our eyes reddened and our life expectancy shortened. I had the taste of smoke in my throat for the rest of the day. It might preserve the thatch but it sure wouldn’t preserve your health.

There were other advantages, though. Inside the streamlined blackhouse you could hardly hear the wind; apparently it took people a long time to get used to its howling when they moved. And having the extended family and all of the livestock under the same roof kept it warm, even if it also brought a regular stream of interesting diseases.

Further south from Arnol (Arnol) is Carloway (Charlabhaigh), home to an even older form of habitation, the Iron Age broch. The ruins of these 2000-year-old round stone forts dot the Scottish mainland and islands, but this is one of the best-preserved, with walls up to twenty feet high at one point. We cannily used its interior as a picnic ground—the only place on the island sheltered from the wind. I couldn’t really enjoy the subtleties of our hunk of smoked cheese, though, thanks to my smoked throat.

Not far from Carloway is the crown of Lewis’s prehistoric jewels, the standing stones of Callanish. We’d seen a fair few around the UK by now, in Kilmartin, the Lake District, and Orkney. But these were possibly the finest. Partly it was the blue skies that day (and that day only); partly it was the location; partly it was because they’d been cleaned of lichen back to their original gleaming state. And partly it was the shapes: huge clubs, giant mittens, and tapering points. But then I don’t think I’ve seen a standing stone I didn’t like. They sure knew how to work a slab five thousand years ago.

The second and third “small” circles were almost as impressive as the first, too, and totally devoid of visitors.

From Callanish it’s not far back across the island to Stornoway, but we finished the day by driving on the one-lane road out to the remote region of Uig, home to some of the few beaches on Lewis. We chased the fickle late-afternoon sun around the villages of Reef (Riof), Cliff (Cliobh) and—my favourite in either tongue—Kneep (Cnip). Sheep outnumbered people everywhere, and it’s not like there were that many sheep. They were an endless source of entertainment, though. We drove around one bend only to see one of them, end-on, rubbing its robhanais on a handy metal rail; a sight that filled the car with wordless laughter, and one that I’ll cherish always. (“So what was the best thing you saw in the Hebrides?” “Um... a sheep scratching its arse.” Hundreds of pounds well-spent.)

I lie; that wasn’t the best thing I saw in the Hebrides. That had to be the view as we came over the hill into Timsgarry (Tims... it’s looking so good, but then it all goes pear-shaped... gearraidh). In front of us, the sky had cleared, the tide was out, and the Uig sands stretched for two kilometres to fill up the bay, with the sun arcing down past the hills behind it.

We called in at the place we were staying, the spectacularly situated Baile-na-Cille hotel, but quickly headed out to explore the wave-rippled expanse of sand. The only tracks were from stalks of kelp, dragged hundreds of feet by the retreating tide. I studied the dunes on the far side with a hopeful eye, because they were reputedly where a stone box was found nearly two hundred years ago containing the Lewis chessmen. Alas, no walrus ivory treasures for me.

We made it back to Baile-na-Cille just in time, because the tide was coming in fast. Just in time for dinner, too, which was excellent. Even without the location, I would recommend it: the proprietor has decorated the dining room with dummy aeroplanes used for military testing in remote parts of the Hebrides, to which he has attached Stornoway black pudding bombs; and there’s table football, table billiards, and other amusements suitable for a cosy retreat at the end of the earth.

The next morning, we followed the road past the now-turquoise bay to its dead-end at Mealista, home to a single unattended caravan, a rocky point, and the sea. The weather was already turning; by the time we detoured to Great Bernera on the way back to Callanish, the outdoor sightseeing options were falling away fast. We headed back to Stornoway and hid from the rain in the local museum, which was well-displayed and very interesting, especially seeing it after the rest of Lewis; and especially after our naff Experience in Skye.

And then it was back down to Harris, as rain-soaked and bleak as it had been 48 hours before—where part three of this Hebridean saga begins.

→ Pretend that Lewis is always sunny by basking in The Western Isles, part two. Timsgarry also features in the new panoramas section of Detail; and there’s an even more stunning panorama of the view from Baile-na-Cille in mid-winter by local photographer John MacLean.