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Harris - white sands of the Hebrides inspiring artists

Beaches like nowhere else in Scotland head the list of Harris features. And lunar landscapes, art galleries galore and great walking. Oh, and that tweed.

 Harris

- an island of dazzling sand and endless rock

So, you are bound for Harris from North Uist (really Berneray) on the ferry, no doubt you leaned on the rail, or sat on the observation deck, depending on the weather, and watched the big hills loom. The port of Leverburgh is strung along the coast, with big bare slopes beyond.

Leverburgh has got fuel and some shops, including An Clachan (worth a browse - we got a great hand-knitted sweater upstairs in their local crafts area!) and also The Anchorage Restaurant, just by the ferry pier. If you’ve come up from the Uists and been unlucky dining-wise (he said darkly), then you’ll be especially glad to find it.  It’s very good, from coffee right through to full evening meals plus there is a bar area too. And everyone seems cheerful as they serve attractive and appetizing food - especially local seafood. Leverburgh has an interesting connection to Unilever too.

Sound of Taransay panorama

Sound of Taransay panorama

If you intend to drive the west side of Harris (the A859), and the sun is shining, then beware of turquoise fatigue. This is a condition brought on by seeing an excess of beaches with that special exotic colour you get when white sand is covered by shallow water and the sun is shining. And it’s the prevailing motif hereabouts.

And don’t think you can escape it by having a coffee. As you drive along the west coast of Harris you could try Talla Na Mara - a new community enterprise centre set high above the road, with great sea views, a gallery, artists' studios, and a restaurant The Machair Kitchen.

Golf course, Scarasta, Harris

Golf course, Scarasta, Harris

Isle of Harris - other outdoor activities

The Hebridean Way - Isle of Harris

The Hebridean Way - Isle of Harris

You can play golf at Scarasta. And fish in lots of lochs. And go looking for eagles, not just in the mountains but just about anywhere in this wild country.

One good but not too strenuous walk is to head inland to the North Harris Eagle Observatory in Glen Meavaig. It is only a 2km walk from the car park.

We didn't see any eagles but we enjoyed the walk. Talking of walking - there is a signed long-distance trail called The Hebridean Way - we came across it as we walked on the beautiful beach at Scarista one evening.  Here are lots of great Harris walking ideas.


Harris Tweed - it's what you see, hereabouts

And there is, of course, Harris tweed, the famous fabric protected by the ‘Orb’ trademark. It’s useful to remember that the tweed weavers in their sheds sitting pedaling madly on their looms are found both in Harris and Lewis.

Any weaver we visited recently made us think that Harris tweed weaving would be an eminently suitable career for, say, a disgraced professional cyclist. It certainly seems to involve a lot of physical effort with the legs. (Of course, much the same applies to peat cutting as well.) This gentleman (called Roddy, I think) was actually giving a weaving demonstration at the Gearrannan Blackhouse Village on Lewis - he told us he first started at the age of 13.

Aside from the weaving sheds, the largest Harris tweed outlet is in Tarbert. That’s where the tour buses call. The shop is called Harris Tweed Isle of Harris, presumably because that’s where it is and that’s what it sells. It claims to be possibly the largest stockist of Harris tweed in the Hebrides. But the distinctive cloth is on sale in a number of other places.

Tarbert, with ferries connecting Uig on Skye, is the centre for Harris, with accommodation and a choice of places to eat. You could try the very friendy First Fruits Tearoom (small, busy, but a table will become free quite quickly - great coffee!), The Mote Bar inside Hotel Hebrides near the ferry terminal ( a modern place, serves great fish and chips!) or the new Isle of Harris Distillery Canteen - plus there is a nice gift shop and distillery tours here too.

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On the Golden Road, Harris

St Clement's Church at Rodel

St Clement's Church at Rodel

One popular circuit from Leverburgh, or from Tarbert, is the so-called ‘Golden Road’ – basically the coastal circuit from Rodel up the east coast. First, you call at St Clement's Church, stumbling into the gloom of a much restored chilly, empty space.

Dedicated to St Clement (first career was as a pope), it houses the grave of the 8th chief of the Clan MacLeod, which is said to be the finest mediaeval wall tomb in Scotland. There is an interesting carving of a birlinn, the oared sailing vessels of the clans. Quite an atmospheric place – at least, more atmospheric than when it was used as a byre in the 19th century.

The outside walls also feature two lewd carvings, male and female, in a category of sculpted figures sometimes known as sheela na gigs. Kinda unexpected in this setting.

The Golden Road, Harris

The Golden Road, Harris

(Pictured here) A grey day on the Golden Road, Harris. Rocky, isn’t it?

Then it’s on to the Golden Road.  The main road, historically, through Harris always lay to the west where the terrain was easier. Not until the 1940s was a tarred road finally completed that joined the tiny communities scattered along this indented coastline. Sometimes the area is called ‘The Bays’.  The road’s name is obscure, with various explanations proposed but all seem to suggest it was a comment on the cost (in reality, quite reasonable for difficult terrain, apparently).

If parts of the Uist are more water than land, then the east side hereabouts is more rock than soil – high mountain terrain at sea level perhaps. It can seem endless, rolling and pitching round the rocky outcrops with endless combinations of mountain and sea-loch views.

Of the inevitable galleries en route, the Mission House Studio at Finsbay had many of our travelling companions’ vote as the most tasteful. They said it had the most interesting art, or, as the brochure said, it portrays the ‘emotive vastness, depth and simplicity of the Harris landscape…. A dynamic place where elements collide, interact and influence one another.’ Well, crikey, it sounds like a particle accelerator lab or something. Don't you just love artist-speak?

While you are driving on the Golden Road - you should visit Clo-Mor Harris Tweed Exhibition at Drinishader, it is well designed and a story well told plus it is attached to the old primary school which is now a shop with a great selection of Harris tweed products!

The beaches of the Isle of Harris, Scarasta

The beaches of the Isle of Harris, Scarasta

In fact, inspired by the ‘emotive vastness’ of it all, I am going to return to the west side and wallow in the beaches a bit more. As the main road is so near the coast, access to all of these magnificent sands is usually straightforward. Going north from Leverburgh, Traigh Scarasta beyond Northton seems vast, then there are some little gems before the stretch at Traigh Sheileboiste, with its views across to the Isle of Taransay. Then comes Traigh Losgaintir, sometimes fancified to Luskentyre Beach and featuring in many a visitor brochure.

Isle of Harris Beaches

Isle of Harris Beaches

A beach on...wait a minute, dear. There's someone else on that beach. See that tiny dot? Well, really. Drive on to the next one. This place is starting to get positively crowded.

Looking towards Toe Head, Harris

Looking towards Toe Head, Harris

You don’t mind if I just do one more beach, do you? Mid afternoon light, looking south-west towards Toe Head.

If you have any family connections to the area, or are a part of the diaspora, then, before you get too inveigled on the white sands into paddling barefoot over the horizon, make sure you take in the Seallam Visitor Centre at Northton. Incorporating Co Leis Thu it is the island’s premier ancestry research facility, as well as having lots of information about the island, past and present. (And check out the hillslopes opposite the carpark. That’s where my eagle was soaring – though I had seen it earlier fly in from Scarasta beach.)

Tarbert, Isle of Harris

Tarbert, Isle of Harris

(Pictured here) Tarbert, Harris, ferry port for Uig, on Skye, straggles along the rocky shore. Note the ferry pier – no ferry in though.

Anyway, beyond Luskentyre, the road takes to the hills, for Tarbert and beyond. There are island visiting or viewing options – prosperous-looking Scalpay, joined by a handsome bridge, is easily accessible from Tarbert. Scarp, no longer permanently inhabited,  is a longer journey with the adventurous road terminating at Hushinish, a place that it’s particularly nice to say out loud, several times. (Though the unwary may reply 'Bless you'.) 

Where to Stay on Harris

There are quite a few guest houses and B&Bs on Harris plus some nice campsites - but you should book in advance as this is a very popular island. If you really want to treat yourself to some 5 star luxury, do try the most excellent Scarista House or Amhuinnsuidhe Castle

Rocket Post

I (Gilbert!) was once vigorously pursued by a fearless and very large cockerel at the road end here, but I expect it’s gone now. (He was hoping for my sandwich crust, I hasten to add.) Hushinish was the setting for the wonderfully mad experiment by a German rocket engineer called Gerhard Zucker. In 1934, he tried to set up a rocket post delivery service for the somewhat inaccessible island of Scarp nearby. Charred letters from his somewhat explosive efforts are still exhibited in museums to this day. The film The Rocket Post is loosely based on this pre-war initiative.

Here is a Google map with many of the places mentioned on this page.

So, keeping an eye open for eagles, back on the main route, it’s time to journey through the hills of Harris – a great drive on easy roads – to reach the rolling peatlands of Lewis. Or return to the Outer Hebrides overview. Lots more island to discover here: Eriskay or Barra or the Uists and Benbecula.