Last month, we finally embarked on a trip to the Outer Hebrides – a very unintentionally overlooked area of Scotland for us.
I was particularly excited to see the legendary beaches of Harris, along with iconic historical sites such as the Callanish Stones and the Gearrannan blackhouse village on Lewis. It’s also one of the few islands in Scotland that needs more than a couple of days, which meant scheduling more than a standard weekend trip. In a year where travelling abroad is difficult, risky and expensive, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally stick our toes firmly into the sand of Lewis & Harris.
Despite packing a lot into our few days there, I wanted to have a more relaxed trip than we usually find ourselves on, which led to me booking a B&B just about the furthest out into the middle of nowhere as we could possibly be. In fact, our host joked that we were beyond the middle of nowhere – we were at the end of nowhere!
For our first night, however, we stationed ourselves in the main town of Stornoway, providing a great base to get down to Harris before we plonked ourselves hours away from anywhere.
Yes – hours. Lewis & Harris is the largest island in Scotland, and in fact the largest island in the British Isles, outside of Great Britain and Ireland. It’s no surprise, then, that it requires more than just a weekend jaunt.
I think we mostly timed everything perfectly and did everything we wanted to do, though we could have happily had another day or two on Harris. Here’s our full itinerary for the five days.
Day 1 – North Lewis
From the second we stepped on the ferry, I knew it was going to be a great trip. The couple closest to us sat chatting in Gaelic, and within ten minutes, we saw a pod of dolphins following the boat!
One of the most fascinating things about Lewis & Harris is that over half of the population speak Gaelic. Less than 2% of people in Scotland speak it, and almost all of them are here. Because we didn’t go out to many public places, we didn’t actually hear it all that much, but it’s widely spoken and I was glad we got to hear it even before we set foot on the island.
We also grabbed an early lunch on the boat so that we could hit the ground running when we arrived in Stornoway.
We arrived in Stornoway and immediately liked it. Unfortunately we weren’t going to have much time in the town itself, but before hitting the road, we popped into a great (albeit quite hipster!) coffee shop, No.9 Coffee, for tea and cake, where we were served by a bubbly gay guy covered in tattoos and some of the chairs had bike chains and pedals. I know it sounds strange to say, but in a place so steeped in tradition where I think a lot of people expect to take a step back in time, an island where almost everyone still goes to church in their Sunday best clothes, it was great to see a modern vibe alongside it – to me, a sign that the island will continue to thrive and hopefully hold on to those traditions at the same time.
Like everywhere else on the island, it’s closed on Sundays, so it does hold some traditional values! It felt like we were the only tourists there, too, which is always a good sign.
Stornoway as a whole though is a lovely, unique town with some great independent shops, a charming harbour with a castle overlooking it, and one thing I instantly loved was that all the road signs are in Gaelic.
After a quick wander around the quaint harbour, we were off up to the north end of Lewis.
The Butt Of Lewis
Hehe. The Butt. The Butt of Lewis is the northernmost point of the island, which meant plenty of interesting places to stop on the way.
I was quite surprised that most of the journey was across barren moorland, a special landscape in its own way, but not quite the scenery I had been expecting.
The Butt Of Lewis, though? I have to admit it was a slight tick-box exercise for me, with people recommending seeing the lighthouse and the beach. A lighthouse and a beach? Plenty of those elsewhere. What makes this one unique is that it’s made entirely of brick, and to its credit it’s pretty impressive.
Also a fun fact: it was built by Robert Louis Stevenson’s father!
What I LOVED, though, was the coastline surrounding it.
It wasn’t the greatest weather for our first day, but that only added to the atmosphere here, the waves reminding me a lot of Birsay in Orkney and turning the sea that turquoise blue.
We made a couple of stops on the way back to Stornoway, this time taking the coast road back south. The first was at the Port Of Ness, which we’d passed on the way. The cutest post office on earth, or what?!
We then stopped at a quirky antique store, Sea In Design. Unfortunately it’s currently open by appointment only, and although I could tell someone was inside, I couldn’t tell if a customer was there too, and as it was getting on a bit, I decided not to knock. There was plenty to look at outside anyway!
From there, we took a quick detour to the Arnol Blackhouse. Typically, it was closed on Wednesdays! So we didn’t get to go inside, but we did take a quick walk around it. Blackhouses are traditional crofting houses which are so named because of the smoke from the peat fires turning everything inside black. They were set up as a communal area for both people and animals, which I imagine made for quite a stinky lifestyle!
Once regulations changed, including ventilation requirements and for a wall to be built between the living area and the animal area, blackhouses became whitehouses and eventually what we see today. The site at Arnol actually has a blackhouse and a whitehouse, the latter dating from 1920. Watching the evolution in front of your eyes is really fascinating.
Anyway, we did get to visit a blackhouse – read on to day 3 for that!
We also saw a huge whalebone arch, and I said we should stop, but it is literally in someone’s garden and the owners seemed to be doing something to it, so we felt a bit awkward stopping! So no photos unfortunately, but there’s a sign for it and it wouldn’t be a problem to stop to see it.
That evening, we had our first taste of the difficulty of eating out at night on the island. We hadn’t booked anything and tried to get into The Boatshed, one of the most highly rated restaurants in Stornoway, and of course they were fully booked (on a Wednesday night), as was their sister restaurant.
Just as we were resigning ourselves to a Chinese takeaway, we managed to book a table at the Crown Inn for 9pm. Our food was delicious and we watched with amusement as a lorry parked up at the harbour three or four times during our meal and we were convinced he was lost.
Anyway, our take away (excuse the pun) from this is make sure you book somewhere. You’d think we would have learned this from our experience on Skye, though in fairness that was on a Saturday night. This was mid-week. As I had learned in my research, there are barely any restaurants at all on the rest of the island – there were only two within an hour of our accommodation for the remainder of our visit, so make sure to plan ahead. (We ended up keeping a supply of snacks and simple meals at our B&B just in case.)
Day 2 – Isle Of Harris
Our first full day had a relatively early start, as to get to the bottom of Harris from Stornoway, it’s an hour and a half drive. It would then be a two and a half hour drive back to our accommodation for the next few days, by way of various spectacular beaches and a couple of towns.
A four hour drive on a Scottish island? I wasn’t kidding when I said it needed more than a couple of days to enjoy it. Don’t underestimate the size of it!
We didn’t have breakfast included in our stay, so armed with a pack of croissants, we headed down to Leverburgh where I had a plan for lunch.
In case you’re wondering, Lewis & Harris is one landmass, but is split into two regions by way of mountains. The clue should have been in there somewhere, but I did not expect such incredible scenery on the drive down!
Naturally, one of the highlights of the day was the infamous view of Outer Hebridean beaches, Seilebost over to Luskentyre. It doesn’t really get much better than this, to be honest.
Once we tore ourselves away from the sensational view, it was a short drive down to the southernmost town on the island, where my plan for lunch was… *drum roll* The Butty Bus. Because of course it was.
I wasn’t expecting it to be amazing, but, no joke, these were some of the best chips I’ve ever tasted! Crisped to perfection. The scampi was phenomenal too, and Ash devoured his burger with as much gusto as I’ve ever seen him devour a burger before. So good! And we even met a tiny, tiny puppy called Layla. Good food + puppies? Winner winner, scampi dinner.
Leverburgh isn’t really a town – it’s barely even a village. We filled up the car at the local shop, which was an experience in itself. Rather than the modern petrol pumps, they have a standalone pump where you pay at a separate machine.
We’d also passed a couple of honesty box huts nearby, which is a really common feature of Lewis & Harris and we loved it. We saw loads of egg boxes (you’d never run short of eggs, that’s for sure!), along with fudge, cakes and all sorts of things in all corners of the island. Ash couldn’t resist picking up some gourmet mustard from this one just outside Leverburgh.
We stopped at Croft 36 too, a popular honesty box stop for passers by. Unfortunately there wasn’t much left so we didn’t pick anything up – plenty of crab soup though, and even a microwave to heat it up in!
Beaches, beaches & more beaches
And then it was a day of spectacular beaches. I’ve covered them all here, but let me talk about them some more!
Our first beach of the day, other than the phenomenal Seilebost, was one I hadn’t even heard of, but we decided to stop anyway as it looked nice on the map.
I’m not sure if there’s a better path to Scarista beach, but we followed a path which took us through a field of cows (when we spotted the bull walking along, it felt like the scene in Lord Of The Rings where the Uruk-hai appears). Then the path ends in a huge sand dune, which we had to traverse to find the gate through to the beach.
I’m sure you’ll agree that it was worth it!
We stopped for a cuppa by another beach, Nisabost, at Talla Na Mara, before heading on to Tarbert for one of the biggest Harris Tweed shops on the island.
If there’s one souvenir you need to pick up on Lewis & Harris, it’s something made from Harris Tweed – a tweed particular to the island and only verifiable by the iconic Harris Tweed label which proves its authenticity. Between the Harris Tweed shop, the Harris Gin distillery and the Essence Of Harris candle shop, Tarbert is the perfect place to find a gift (even better than Stornoway, in my opinion).
After buying my Dad a birthday present of a Harris Tweed wash bag which he’s thrilled to bits with, we double backed on ourselves to spend the rest of our day on the gem of Harris: Luskentyre.
With so many places to see on Harris, we only ended up with about an hour to relax – I could have spent all day on Luskentyre to be honest, even though it wasn’t a sunny day.
It was a long drive to our accommodation, but the good news is we’d chosen somewhere not too far from anywhere we were planning to visit over the next few days, and it was somewhere we could actually relax.
Day 3 – Historic Lewis
…and with that, we had a very busy day ahead of us!
Day 3 was all about history, and believe me when I say there is a lot of it on Lewis. Neolithic stones? Iron age houses? Blackhouse crofting villages? Viking artefacts? It’s got it all.
We arrived at the Callanish Stones raring to go, only to find that the car park was completely full with several cars ahead of us waiting to get in, and no sign of any movement. Uhh, fantastic.
After ten minutes, we gave up and decided to start from the furthest away attraction instead and work our way back down in the hopes that Callanish would be slightly less busy on the way back.
So we started with the Norse Mill & Kiln, up beyond Carloway.
Norse Mill & Kiln
It’s a short walk to the buildings, both of which you can explore for free. There’s lots of information in a booklet about how everything worked.
Fascinatingly, these were used right up until the 1930s, which in the grand scheme of things doesn’t feel so long ago at all.
Dun Carloway broch
Next up was Dun Carloway broch, which typically was in scaffolding and closed inside. However it’s still in a really pretty area so was worth the short walk from the car park to have a look at the outside. It’s a really impressive broch dating from around 200BC.
Gearrannan Blackhouse Village
Just down the road from here is one of my favourite places to visit on the Isle Of Lewis – the Gearrannan blackhouse village. Once again, the car park was full, but this time we persisted and managed to get a parking space soon after we arrived. Luckily a lot of people were suddenly leaving, and a coach tour was coming to an end, so while we wandered around the outside, the place emptied out.
I’d already been in to see Ali working on the tweed loom, but left through the crowd and came back later to see him. Nobody else was there and we chatted for a while – turned out he has a friend from Orkney and he had always wanted to visit her but now she’s moved south!
Watching Ali working the loom was fascinating and a highlight of my Lewis trip. I can still hear the loom in my head!
While the loom is in the barn side of the blackhouse, the other part of the building is a house set up as it would have been back in the days that it was inhabited, and next door is a museum about the lives of the villagers. Another blackhouse has a café so we decided to grab some lunch in a unique setting.
However, I would LOVE to come back – because the rest of the blackhouses are now set up as accommodation! How cool would that be, to spend a night in one of these? One of them is even a hostel, but you have to book out the entire thing which works out rather more expensive than can be justified (though good for large groups and school trips, I guess!).
Callanish Stones / Calanais Stones
Finally, we made it to the Callanish stones, and this time there were plenty of spaces. Just as we walked in to the visitor centre, we noticed a coach pull in, and after a quick look around the exhibition (which is well worth the small entrance fee), we legged it up to the stones to beat the crowd.
The Callanish stones themselves are free to visit and as it’s outdoors you can visit any time of day (or night).
Like other standing stone circles in the UK, like Stonehenge in England and the Ring Of Brodgar in Orkney, nobody really knows why they’re there. Was it ceremonial? Presumably religious, as it’s in the shape of a Celtic cross? We’ll likely never know.
What I do know is they are really impressive! It pains me to say it, but probably better than the Ring Of Brodgar. Probably. Though nowhere near as massive as the Stones Of Stenness.
I particularly loved the patterns and textures on the rock, which we learned about in the exhibition. The stones are made of Lewisian gneiss, and the grey swirls really added something.
And what I didn’t know before I started researching the Outer Hebrides, is that there are several other stone circles in the nearby area. None of them are anywhere near as big as the main circle, but we enjoyed visiting one of them where you could also see the large circle up on the hill behind them.
Can you spot the main circle up on the hilltop?
On our way back to our B&B, we stopped at Uig Bay to see the Lewis chessman statue and check out our first Lewis beach at Ardroil.
The Lewis chessmen, made of walrus ivory, were discovered in 1831 and are believed to have been left (or washed up) by the Vikings in the 12th century. 92 pieces have been found and are now on display at the British Museum and the National Museum Of Scotland.
It was a nice introduction to Lewis beaches, which provided a good segue into our final full day.
Day 4 – A Beach Bonanza On Lewis
Here I was thinking that all the beautiful beaches were on Harris. Well, the more I researched, the more I realised that actually, Lewis has a hell of a lot going for it too, supplemented by the growing list of beaches on my agenda for the trip. And so I made day 4 a quest to find some of the best beaches on Lewis.
Read more: The Incredible Beaches Of Lewis & Harris
It also included a side trip to Great Bernera, a small-ish island reachable by a bridge “over the Atlantic” and my fifth island of the year, meaning I’ve hit my target. The main thing I’d heard about Great Bernera is that you have to go to Bosta Beach, and so naturally it went straight on my list. Even better, there’s an Iron Age house there (unfortunately closed while we were there).
And even better than that – Highland coos!
Bosta is beautiful, yet it was only going to get better.
First off, Uig Bay is not to be missed. We’d already been to Ardroil the day before, but this sprawling landscape of endless sand is seriously impressive and there are so many angles to see it from that it’s hard to tell if it’s really all the same beach. You drive miles down the road and it’s still there!
We also popped into the nearby Uig museum which, like many places on Lewis & Harris, is inside a community centre with a café. I’ve already talked about how difficult it is to find somewhere to eat in the evening, so we of course made the most of eating lunch at a café.
Uig museum is small but well worth a visit and only costs £2 (be aware it’s cash only).
Uig community shop, too, provides a lifeline to the residents on this side of the island, and also gets plenty of tourist traffic. We were really impressed with how brilliant a wee shop it is and popped in there a few times during our stay.
Our host Ivor had recommended taking a detour around a peninsula just past Uig which incorporated a whole bunch of beaches and stunning scenery. The highlights were Cliff beach and the posing sheep, and Reef beach where we’ve decided we want to camp.
All things considered, Uig actually became my favourite area on the entire island, which was a very happy coincidence that we were staying near there and had so much time to explore it.
A way past Uig, around half way between the shop and our accommodation, is Mangersta beach, which would be our final stop of the day and I’d brought a book. As luck would have it, it started raining for the first time on our trip, and the book never left the car. But we walked down to the beach anyway and even in the rain, it was incredible.
A little further down the road are the Mangersta sea stacks, which we did visit in drier weather the day before. I’d only found out about the sea stacks a couple of weeks before our visit, which was fortuitous as it was one of my favourite views in the whole of Lewis & Harris. Plus I absolutely love sea stacks!
Day 5 – back to Stornoway via the bridge to nowhere
As if day 4 hadn’t provided us with enough beaches, there was one more I wanted to visit before we left – the incongruously named Garry Beach.
Garry Beach & the Bridge To Nowhere
This required a drive through Stornoway and straight up the east coast of the island. Originally, the road was intended to be carried on all the way up to the Port Of Ness when Lord Leverhulme owned the islands and planned to implement a lot more infrastructure, but work stopped in 1923 just after the building of Garry Bridge, which is now where the road ends and has been dubbed the Bridge To Nowhere.
The history of Lord Leverhulme’s involvement with the islands is interesting and controversial – he bought the islands for a princely sum of £150,000 in 1919, but his plans to industrialise and set the islands up for the future weren’t popular with the crofting residents. Eventually, partly due to lack of funding with the failure of other business ventures, he gave the islands to the residents in 1923. He died two years later, and most of his plans never came to fruition.
Fun fact: Lord Leverhulme owned a soap company which eventually became part of… Unilever.
Garry Beach is also INCREDIBLE. Easily one of my favourite beaches on the island.
It has the most amazing cave that you can walk through – and end up in the sea on the other side if you’re not careful. And the stacks are just awesome. (Did I mention I love sea stacks?)
HMY Iolaire memorial
From there, we headed back to Stornoway, but I still had one more stop on my list: the Iolaire memorial. We’d actually seen a really lovely memorial in town where stones had been collected from every victim’s home town to represent them, but I wanted to go out to the site to pay tribute.
The tragedy of the Iolaire is probably one of the most heartbreaking stories I’ve ever heard, and yet it’s rarely acknowledged. I’d never heard of it before I researched Lewis & Harris. In fact, the horror of it was so much that it took almost forty years to even build a memorial.
On New Years Day, 1919, 283 men were on their way back from the First World War, having survived the war and ready to finally celebrate with their families. Just a few yards off the coast, the boat struck some rocks, and over 200 men died trying to get to shore. Almost half of the survivors were saved by a single man who managed to make it ashore with a rope.
It is just unbelievable. It was the biggest peacetime maritime disaster in the UK, and not one person on the island was unaffected by it.
We left Lewis & Harris feeling humbled, and grateful that we are lucky to be able to take safe crossings on reliable ferries. The sun was shining (because we were leaving, obviously), and we even saw more dolphins on the way back to Ullapool.
As an aside, I do feel the need to point out how weird the set up of vehicles on the ferry is though! We were on the upper level both times, but when you get on, there’s a ramp to drive up and park on, which then gets lifted up with the cars on so that more can park underneath. Then at the other end, once those cars have disembarked, the ramp lowers while you’re in the car!!
Where we stayed – Bridge House Bed & Breakfast
I cannot actually rave about this place enough. The moment we walked in, we knew we’d chosen the perfect place. Ash reckons it’s the nicest place we’ve ever stayed.
Rather than a B&B in someone’s house, Ivor and his wife Anna have built a standalone building with two huge rooms which are basically set up as self-catering. Their set-up is fantastic, and due to Covid they weren’t doing breakfast in their house, opting instead to deliver our chosen food to our room at a designated time each morning. It was almost like breakfast in bed!
They couldn’t have been more accommodating, and each morning Ivor would chat about what we had planned, and he’d send us off with a little challenge! For example, when we went to Bosta Beach, we had to report back on whether the iron age house is the original or a replica. When we went to the local beach, we had to tell him which direction New Zealand was in. I can’t remember now what our challenge for Gearrannan was, but when I came back and mentioned that the man weaving the tweed is called Ali, he said he’ll add that to his list!
Beyond that, the area was amazing. The view from our window was of a mountain, the view in the other direction was of the sea (and on a very clear day, St Kilda – though we never saw it), and directly next to the house was a gorgeous waterfall.
Deer would appear at night (yep – I didn’t know Lewis & Harris had deer either!), and one evening we were sat reading our books, and Ash looked out the window. “Look at that view,” he said. “The only thing that would make it better is if a stag walked across it right now.”
Well, wouldn’t you know, ten minutes later…
We might have been at the end of nowhere, but if this is the end of nowhere then it’s not bad at all!
Oh, and did I mention that there’s a resident spaniel, Pip, who might just be the cutest dog in the world?
In case it isn’t obvious, we absolutely LOVED Lewis & Harris! There really is so much to see and do, and it felt like stepping back in time and just stepping back from our busy lives as a whole. Which, of course, is the magic of visiting a remote island – island time is very different to a lot of the world.
I also think we really made the most of our trip, and somehow never felt rushed. We kept busy every day, but we had such relaxed evenings at the B&B that it didn’t matter. It was pretty much the perfect holiday, and even though the sun didn’t really want to make an appearance, it barely rained during the entire trip, so that was a bonus.
I’m really glad we finally made it there too. For me, it was one of the very few places left in Scotland that I was almost embarrassed that I hadn’t visited yet. Well, no longer.
Lewis & Harris, you have won our hearts, and I have no doubt that we’ll be back one day, if just to lay on a Caribbean-esque beach and hope that the sun comes out.