This year, Kristi and I enjoyed a great summer break in the Outer Hebredies. The Isle of Lewis and Harris is the main island in the group, and the third largest island in Great Britain and Ireland (behind the mainland and Ireland respectively). It is home to majestic mountains, impressive bogs, and great standing stones and stone circles. Because of its distance away from the majority of the UK’s population, it doesn’t have the hordes of tourists flocking to it in the same way that the wonderful Isle of Arran does. If you’re looking for somewhere to be to really get away from it all for a short time, I can’t recommend the Isle of Lewis and Harris enough.
Life As A Tourist
As we always do when we travel, we rented a holiday cottage. Having the one base of operations is a key part of relaxing and unwinding for us. We don’t have to be packing and unpacking all the time, we can both cook – something we really love doing – and we can really get settled in.
We chose an excellent cottage just outside Stornoway, and when we go back to the island at some point in the future, it’ll be the first place we look at staying in once more. We wanted to be very close to the day to day amenities; we prefer to buy and cook fresh wherever possible. Stornoway is the largest community on the island, with two supermarkets (an excellent Co-Op ten minutes walk from the cottage, and a Somerfields down by the harbour) and a real High Street for other types of shopping.
Food on the island is really fresh; far better quality than our local Tesco’s back home. I’m not just talking about fruit and veg; even brand bread like Hovis seemed much fresher. Be aware that folks on the island observe the Sabbath, and if the ferry cannot cross on Monday due to bad weather, the shelves can be empty of fresh stuff from late Saturday until supplies can make it to the island. It’s not something folks from the mainland are used to, because we live in a 24 hour society these days, but as long as you always buy for three or four days in advance, it’s not an issue at all.
When it came to other types of shopping, we found Stornoway an odd puzzle. If you wanted Sony’s latest Playstation 3, not a problem. But if you wanted a knife sharpener, you were out of luck. If you wanted high-speed Internet access, all you had to do was drop in to see the friendly folks at Point One Ltd opposite the castle. But if you wanted a fishing umbrella and a folding chair to sit in, not a chance. (We ended up ordering the umbrellas and chairs from the mainland, and we did without the knife sharpener in the end.)
Our advice to anyone travelling for a holiday on Lewis and Harris is: get what you need on the mainland, and take it across with you. Don’t assume (like we did) that you’ll be able to get anything that you’re missing on the island.
Racking Up The Mileage
If you don’t like driving a hundred miles plus a day, go to a smaller island like Arran. The Isle of Lewis and Harris is a big place, with far more to see and do than can be fitted into a fortnight’s summer vacation, and that means driving to and fro. As alternatives, there are good bus services all around the island, and cycling is popular too.
The roads on Lewis and Harris are great. The main roads on Lewis are all single carriageway. They are very well maintained – I’d love them to come down here and show my local council how to do the job. The roads aren’t busy, but you do have to watch out for other tourists, who can be distracted by the spectacular views or struggle during lashing rain.
There are plenty of places on the island to get fuel, all of which seem to be branded by the same operator. The most expensive place I stopped for fuel was the large National garage opposite Lewis Castle. I’d recommend heading two minutes or so down the road to the smaller National garage near the ferry terminal. I’m guessing that the larger garage is a bit of a tourist trap, and that the savvy locals all buy their fuel elsewhere. Diesel was cheaper than petrol, sometimes substantially so. We noticed a drop in power and performance in my Ford Focus whilst on the island, compared to using petrol from the mainland, but at no time was the car struggling on any of the roads on the island.
We took packed lunches with us whenever we could. We didn’t know the island too well, and we couldn’t be certain of finding anywhere to stop for food during a day’s travelling. When passing through Tarbert, we’d stop for a cup of tea at the Tearooms there (their caramel shortbread is excellent, btw), and you can also get drinks from the Visitors’ Centre at Calanais (they might do food as well; we didn’t stop there to investigate). It would be a great move for the local tourist information service to publish a map of the island just labelled with places to eat and drink; I think it would really help the local economy extract more money from the pockets of tourists!
During our time on Arran a few summers ago, we’d learned the Goldern Rule of Scottish Weather: you’re best off looking out the front door if you want to know what the weather is like.
When it came to Scotland, we found that the UK national weather forecasts broadcast from London were seldom accurate. Heavy rain never arrived when or where it was forecast (which we were grateful for), and we lost count of the number of times the forecast had Stornoway hidden under rain when we were looking out at blue skies.
Don’t get me wrong – it does rain, and the rain can be very heavy. But we’d had a stroke of luck on the journey up. We caught the ferry from Ullapool, and the day before we’d visited the shops in Ullapool and each managed to pick up an excellent water-proof coat on special offer. The coats are also very windproof, which turned out to be much more important!
If grey makes you depressed, don’t go to the Isle of Lewis and Harris, because on overcast days it is a very grey place indeed. It’s not a dull grey – even when overcast you’ll need either an ND grad filter or to resort to HDR to avoid burning out the sky – but it does dominate, and it took us a couple of days to get used to it.
No matter how grey the day was, on most evenings it cleared up around 7pm, just in time to enjoy great sunsets. There are many places on the coast that are made truly magical by the setting sun. We didn’t chance our luck as often as we should have; don’t make our mistake!
Photography On The Island
The Isle of Lewis and Harris is a photographer’s paradise. It particularly suits wildlife, landscape and mouldy old stone photographers, with its rich coastlines and historic sites, but there is much more to the island than that.
The southern part of the island, in the administrative district of Harris, is undeniably home to the most breathtaking scenery on the island. North Harris is home to majestic mountains nestled in beside Loch Seaforth, whilst the beautiful white sandy deserted beaches of South Harris have to be seen to be believed.
The larger, northern part of the island forms the administrative district of Lewis, and this is home to the majority of ancient monuments and larger settlements. Much of Lewis is a huge peat bog (at threat of disappearing underneath several immense windfarm applications), but around the coast there are standing stones, old fort houses (called broch in Gaelic I believe), charming little ports hidden away, more beautiful sandy beaches (just as deserted as the ones down on Harris), and stunning coastal walks.
Life on the island, in common with mainland Scotland, has never been easy. Excellent places like the Seallam! visitor’s centre and the Gearrannan Blackhouse Village preserve and provide an insight into the struggle that ordinary folks went through in their daily lives.
On sunny days, with any sort of modern camera, you’d be hard pressed to take poor pictures. The air and the water is just so clear compared to conditions in much of the UK, and you’ll be spoiled for choice for subjects to shoot. A circular polariser is very useful to really bring the most out of the skies and the seas, but it’s not essential.
The grey days cause an interesting challenge. On those days we noticed that the midtones completely disappeared, creating a metering nightmare even for a camera like my Nikon D200. An ND-grad filter would probably be sufficient to get around the conditions, as it would dial down the brightness of the sky and bring a more even level to things. I didn’t have one with me, so instead I resorted to bracketing five shots and combining them into a single HDR image.
When the rain came down, we hid under the large umbrellas we’d ordered from the mainland, and I switched exclusively to taking shots for HDR images 🙂
The best advice I can give any photographer visiting the Isle of Lewis and Harris is to be decisive. If you see a possible shot, pull the car over and take it. We must have driven between Stornoway and Tarbert eight or ten times during our stay on the island, and every single time the landscape looked different.
There is a local photography shop in Stornoway, but both times I went in there, they were unable to help me. (The first time was for a lens cleaning kit; they didn’t have any, but kindly sent me across the street to Boots who sold cleaning kits for spectacles. The second was to print some photos from my USB key. They were unable to transfer photos from a USB key, but kindly sent me to another shop in town which did have one of those kiosks for printing photos. Unfortunately, that kiosk didn’t recognise my USB key, so we had to do without making any prints on this visit. Next time, we’re taking our own printer with us!) There are two Jessops stores in Inverness on the mainland (if you travel by ferry from Ullapool, Inverness is likely en-route to Ullapool), and I recommend stocking up on anything you need in one of those.
Favourite Photos From The Holiday
The single best image from the holiday is this shot of a Viking mill on the west coast of Lewis. It’s a HDR shot, combined from five separate exposures, all taken handheld. I’m particularly happy with both the rich detail and the rich colour that has come out of the process, and I wish that (with or without HDR) every shot I take would come out looking like this one does. It’s just so life-like, and I don’t get many photos that I can really say that about.
Both times that we visited the huge standing stone complex at Calanais, we were lucky enough to have the place to ourselves. Imagine having Stonehenge or Avebury to yourself; it’s an experience in that league. Our second visit was for a sunset shoot, which was just magical. At the very end of the shoot, as we were starting to lose the light, I took a chance and shot five frames into the setting sun. This is the HDR image that came out of it, and I think it’s my best shot of Calanais from the holiday.
The Isle of Lewis and Harris are the ancestral home of the clan MacLeod. Whilst we didn’t see anyone running around in a kilt shouting “There can be only one!”, we did come across this monolith known as the MacLeod Stone on South Harris. It stands above the northern shore of one of Harris’ stunning bays. It’s well worth the walk up above the dunes for the view alone, never mind the standing stone! Behind the stone in the far distance is one of the beautiful deserted white sandy beaches that Harris is famous for.
Port Nis, at the north-west tip of Lewis, is a tiny little jewel hidden away from the majority of tourist traffic. The centrepiece of the village is this beautiful little harbour, with a lush golden sandy beach immediately to the south. As the tide came in, I was drawn to the contrast of the rich colours of the sand and incoming tide contrasted against the red and white of this little boat.
From Port Nis, we drove up to the sand dunes of Eoropie, and enjoyed a lovely coastal walk around the Butt of Lewis. It was probably the best weather of the whole holiday, and it really brought out the lighthouse and stunning coastal cliffs and caves around the northern end of the island. The one memory that will stay with me is just how blue the sea was. I can’t remember ever seeing blue water like that.
We thoroughly enjoyed our time on the Isle of Lewis and Harris, and we definitely want to go back there again another year. Next time, I hope we’re lucky enough to be able to spend a month or two on the island, so that we’re able to explore much more of this beautiful place.