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.
- dazzling sand and endless rock
So, 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 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 - I got a great hand-knitted sweater!) 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 competent, from coffee right through to full evening meals. And everyone seems cheerful as they serve attractive and appetizing food.
If you intend to drive the west side of Harris, 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. Most of the cafes are also art galleries, or perhaps it is the other way about. So you’ll still have the turquoise beamed at you from the walls. I think there may be whole factories employing production lines of artists somewhere on Harris all churning out composite paintings: someone doing the little boat on its side; then there’s the sand specialist; next the breaking wave troweller, then the turquoise applier, the ultramarine sprayer and the distant moody mountain splodger. Voila! Another Harris view rolls off the assembly line.
OK, so there are art galleries. And you can golf at Scarasta (pictured here). And fish in lots of lochs. And go looking for eagles, not just in the mountains but just about anywhere in this wild country.
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 me 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.)
(Pictured here) Harris tweed photographed in the main Harris tweed shop in Tarbert. Otherwise, this picture is so self-evident that my captioning skills have completely failed me.
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.
On the Golden Road, Harris
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 Rodel 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.
(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 my 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. I love artist-speak.
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.
(Pictured here) 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.
(Pictured here) 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.)
(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'.)
I 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.
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.