Ever since I worked on a website where I would phone people from the Western Isles to write content about their lives and hobbies, I’ve had this romantic view of Harris and Lewis. I envisioned little croft houses, sandy beaches, twisty roads, and tranquility – when I booked a holiday to visit these islands, I couldn’t wait to discover it for myself.
Getting to the Western Isles
There’s a number of ways you can get to Harris and Lewis, either by boat or plane. I chose the boat because we wanted to take the car so we could get the most out of exploring the islands. I drove to Skye for an overnight and then hopped on the ferry in the morning at Uig. The boat journey took about 3 hours, this went by quickly as there were things to spot from the boat window – every so often I would hear an excited “look!” and people would be crowded over by the windows, pointing and watching the seals and other sea life swim close to the boat.
The ferry brought me into the pretty port of Tarbert with the sun shining – what a welcome to the island! The boat journey over was beautiful and made me even more excited to hop off and explore the Western Isles especially as we’d (my boyfriend and I) had an eight-hour journey to get there.
After driving off the boat, we wanted to spend a few hours just exploring, essentially letting the car take us somewhere. The Isle of Harris Gin Distillery is next to the port (we bought some really lovely glasses there) and there are a few Harris Tweed shops.
In the main centre of Tarbert, there’s a lovely cafe which we went to twice and the second time we befriended other fellow travelers (and the local cat) who were visiting the Western Isles for the first time too (not the cat). It’s called The Waterside Cafe and was always bustling with locals and tourists. After stopping for food at the cafe, we visited a few of Harris’ fine beaches and made our way up to Lewis where our accommodation was.
Where We Stayed
Because we wanted to visit in the summer, I struggled to find accommodation that was within our small budget. I did a search on AirBnb and found The Mangersta Pod – tucked away into the far left of Lewis. The wigwam was next to the owner’s house and was the only wigwam they had. We figured that if we were going to go to an island with not very many people we wanted some space!
The owners of the accommodation were lovely, I honestly feel like I’ve left a bit of family back there. The Mangersta Pod is owned by a lady called Tosh who always made us aware that we could pop into her house if we needed anything. I once went in to get some more towels and had a good natter to her and her husband!
The Pod had everything we needed; a lovely double bed, kitchen area with table and chairs and an en-suite. There was no TV which I was glad about as it meant we took full advantage out of staring at the view. Down the road was Mangersta’s beach and when we went, we had it all to ourselves. In fact the sand on the beach hadn’t been touched and in my pictures, it’s me and my boyfriend who had made all the footprints on it.
Things to see and do in Harris
Although we stayed in Lewis, we still saw a good chunk of Harris as we got the boat to and from there. Harris is beautiful, it doesn’t feel like you’re in Scotland – some of the roads looked like the Italian countryside (we were told by a local that lots of car adverts are shot out there). I kept shouting “WOW!” when we were driving about – I definitely want to stay in Harris next time we visit the Western Isles.
Through Instagram, I found photos of the Golden Road and knew I had to drive along it. In 1897, a road was built along the coast to connect the settlements, and called the Golden Road because it was expensive to build (unfortunately it’s not like something from the Wizard of Oz!).
The road is single track and squiggly but it’s a lot of fun to drive down with gorgeous scenery. On the Golden Road at Grosebay, you can stop off at the Harris Tweed shop there. It’s like you’re going to someone’s house (I think it actually is someone’s home) and they have a big collection of jackets and clothing – we just browsed!
Harris and Lewis both have amazing beaches but I think Harris’ stood out more. As we drove about, we kept going “wow!” and pointing out the window as all the turquoise colours of the sea came into view.
Luskentyre beach is a very popular one when we were researching the beaches, there’s a short walk where all you can see is sand and then the beach hits you – it’s quite long and when we went, there was hardly anyone around!
Seilebost beach is my favourite on Harris – I think it was the first beach we stopped at and we were blown away. It was as if we were away in the Maldives, and it was a roasting hot day. We did not feel like we were in Scotland!
- Isle of Harris Distillery – we picked up some lovely gin glasses, they also do food.
- Isle of Scalpay – you can see the Eilean Glas Lighthouse – it’s a wee bit of a walk away!
Things to see and do in Lewis
Although the Western Isles looks like a small island, it can take hours to get around it. From where we stayed in Mangersta, it took us two hours to reach Stornoway. Journeys didn’t feel long though as there were lots of new things to see, villages to pass and wildlife to spot.
The only alpacas in the Western Isles
I love alpacas and when I discovered that Lewis does actually have alpacas, I had to go and visit them!
Called Callanish Alpacas, the visitor centre is someone’s home! When we first arrived, we felt very awkward about going around someone’s garden but the people there were very friendly and although the alpaca feeding sessions were booked out, we were still able to watch the alpacas and have a look around at the many other animals they have.
Callanish Alpacas also have 35 chickens, 2 peacocks, 4 Hebridean sheep, 3 goats, lots of ducks – they have over 90 animals! There wasn’t a charge to look around but they do have a donation box – well worth donating some money too so they can continue to look after the animals.
Stornoway feels like a little town on mainland Scotland, there’s lots of shops and people! Going around the Western Isles, you don’t bump into many people so it felt like Stornoway was the big smoke. We wandered around Lews Castle in Stornoway for free. The castle was originally bought for £190,000 in 1844!
Next to the castle is the museum and archive which I found fascinating. I love reading and hearing people’s stories and they have a whole section dedicated to the people of the island – I remember watching a video of one Lewis resident who said that he once had to leave the island to go to a wedding on the mainland and he was counting the days he would be back on Lewis!
An Lanntair on Stornoway is a performance space, cinema, gallery, restaurant and gift shop – it’s worth checking this place out to see what’s going on.
We went to The Harris Tweed Story Room to learn more about Harris Tweed. Although it’s small, we learnt a lot about the process of making Harris Tweed and we left really appreciating the effort that goes into it. We then went into another shop and bought a Harris Tweed lampshade to take a wee piece of the island home with us!
Butt of Lewis
We pretty much drove around the whole of Lewis as I wanted to explore it all on our holiday. We drove to the very top of Lewis, to a place called Ness.
It was very cool to go here and just see nothing for miles in front of you and to see the sea lapping at the land you are standing on. There is a lighthouse here too – when we went it was very windy so we didn’t stay long but did appreciate the view!
The Calanais Standing Stones
The Calanais Standing Stones is a popular tourist attraction and maybe more so now that they were featured in the Christmas special of Call the Midwife. The stones are older than Stonehenge and nobody knows why they are there.
Gearrannan Blackhouse Village
The Blackhouse Village is something I had seen pictures of online and was on my list to see when we got to Lewis. It really is like stepping back in time when you are in the village. There are nine houses with thatched roofs and many of them are now guest houses and one is a hostel. Unfortunately when we went the blackhouse was closed which would have let us see what they originally would have been like on the inside.
The Bridge to Nowhere
Cue Talking Head’s Road to Nowhere getting stuck in my head.
The Bridge to Nowhere is near Garry Beach and is so called because it didn’t lead anywhere. Lord Leverhulme owned the Isle of Lewis from 1918 to 1923 and he wanted to build a road to Ness – 140 men were employed for the job however the plan was never finished. It is possible to walk past the Bridge to Nowhere however the route is described as ‘boggy…and approximately 11 miles’.
Things that surprised me about Harris and Lewis
How easy it is to get to
As I mentioned earlier, I used to work somewhere where I’d be in regular contact with people from the Western Isles and I would listen to their amazing stories. I had this really romantic view of the place, I often felt like it was really far away and shrouded in mystery – I probably viewed it as a bit of a fairytale. In reality, it’s not that difficult to get to.
Coming from Glasgow, yes it’s a bit of a drive to get to the ferry port but as we are used to driving long distances to Wales, the journey felt like a breath of fresh air as it was completely new scenery to us and we could watch the landscape change before our eyes. The ferry journey didn’t feel like ages and it’s a nice break from the driving.
However, you can also get a plane to Stornoway which isn’t a long journey at all. Whatever the journey to Harris and Lewis, it is so worth it for this destination!
All the little roadside shops and honesty boxes
I loved driving down little roads and seeing signs saying that you could buy fresh eggs or handmade products and leaving your money in a honesty box. There are so many of these dotted around. I actually brought back eggs from Great Bernera on Isle of Lewis as a holiday gift for my parents!
I didn’t feel far away
Before we went, I think I was a little worried I’d feel it was too rural and I’d miss being near lots of towns with lots of shops. However, I loved the peacefulness and quiet roads. When we visited Tarbert and Stornoway, they were much busier (by busier I mean there were maybe twenty people!) and so it didn’t feel like you were completely cut off.
Since coming back to mainland Scotland, I keep recommending Harris and Lewis to people who have never been. No image or video can capture the magic of the place, you really do have to have been there.
I left a piece of my heart in Harris and Lewis and I hope to return many times.