The Outer Hebrides offer some of Scotland’s most beautiful, rugged and wild scenery with none of the crowds that frequent the mainland hotspots or Skye’s more popular photo stops. To me, Harris is the most immediately stunning of the Western Isles (another name for this archipelago) , with a raw northern beauty softened by creamy shell sand beaches which wouldn’t be out of place on a South Sea atoll.We have visited Harris now for 25 years and the same vistas as we drive around have us stopping and staring as if we had never seen them before, they are SO arresting. Summer, spring, autumn or winter – it’s a year round destination with colour and light that changes dramatically with the seasons.
Harris and Lewis (like the Uists) are also very Gaelic islands, with this lyrical ancient language, older than English, still heard frequently.That’s something I also love about the Outer Isles – the lilting accents of local people.
Lewis has some fantastic landscapes and historical sites too – certainly the finest Standing Stones in Scotland at Callanish, the superb Carloway Broch, beautifully restored Blackhouse villages and Iron Age dwellings. While much of Lewis is flattish moorland, there are also large areas of wonderful mountain and loch scenery as well as fabulous sands and cliffs at Uig and Reef and Mangersta which match anywhere else for raw beauty. In many of Lewis’s churches can be heard the haunting, unaccompanied singing of Gaelic Psalms, one of the world’s most unique musical forms.If ever song reflected the landscape, then this is it – melancholy, beautiful, ancient and almost primeval.
SOUTH /WEST HARRIS
With only a short time on Harris/Lewis, this is where to aim for.It is incredibly beautiful.If coming from Skye, the difference in how it all looks, is almost unbelievable given how relatively close the islands are.Where Skye is lush and green, Harris is dominated by rock dotted moorland, pinkish Lewisian Gneiss, some of the oldest in the world.
Just a 20 min drive from the little ferry terminal at Tarbert on Harris, are the superlative creamy sands of South West Harris.
Voted one of the world’s Top 10 beaches. No facilities thank goodness. (apart from a small car park and toilets.) For those who love just ‘being’ on a mostly deserted shell sand strand amidst great scenery, this is the place.No beach umbrellas or jet skis or sunbathers – just the surf crashing and over the huge dunes, a skylark singing perhaps.
The drive to Luskentyre is a gorgeous one too, along a little single track road , past croft land and always on the edge of the turquoise and emerald green shallows of the ocean here.
Many people simply stop and take photos and leave but it’s a shame not to enjoy it for longer and do a walking loop of the beach.Once away from the car park end of the sands, you will probably not meet another soul (not that the beach is ever super busy.) It’s possible to walk over the dunes to pick up the single track road again for the walk back to the car.
There are two beautiful ponies that usually graze on the machair grasslands, much photographed. In early spring and summer the wildflowers on the machair (shell sand dusted grassland) scent the air with clover, tormentil, marsh marigold, harebells and a host of others. Larks sing their hearts out high in the sky; their song is, to me, one of the most evocative sounds of the Hebrides.
Golden eagles often sweep the skyline of Beinn Dubh , the rock dotted hill overlooking the beach.
The hill itself is an amazing viewpoint; it takes about an hour or so to reach the top.A slog, in places boggy and not often any real track as such, but as ever with a hill, so worth it.For more on this walk:ben dubh harris
We have wild camped a few times above Luskentyre and the sunsets have been out of this world.Not another soul around.
Continuing round the coast road, there are more wonderful stretches of creamy white sand. The view over Seilebost itself is one of the iconic vistas of Harris.The beach in the distance is part of Luskentyre.
Traigh Iar (West beach pron Try Eer)
A smaller beach but one of my favourite spots to get out for a walk. Parking is easy above the beach on the main road. At the end of the beach, it’s an easy stroll up the dunes and to the ancient Standing Stone, Macleod’s Stone which offers superb views over Harris.Even on a dull day, this beach has some great light and is the haunt of serious photographers.
Another superlative stretch of sand, rivalling Luskentyre and with the shapely outline of Ceaphabhal, the small hill framing the beach’s southern end.Even in peak season there are rarely more than a few people on this big stretch of sand.Look out again for eagles which often circle the skyline of the low hills behind the beach. Parking is near a gate beside the main road.
A walk up Ceaphabhal too (about an hour’s steep slog to the top) is well worth it for incredible coastal views over the countless islands – habited and uninhabited – in the Sound of Harris, including Berneray and North Uist.
There is a superb easy, not too long coastal/beach walk here , out to a ruined chapel. Keep it for a sunny day.
Northton is a small settlement with the Temple Cafe at the end of the road – not quite as good as it used to be (or as I found it in 2022) but a decent coffee stop with some baking! I’d be 12 lbs lighter at least if I didn’t have such a sweet tooth. The excellent Croft 36 nearby is well worth stopping off at, to see what goodies she has for taking away; we got superb cooked langoustines (so cheap too!) for a picnic and still-warm pies. Honesty box for all goods.
This is also where to park the car (not a lot of space) for the Ceaphabhal walk. Or if a hill doesn’t appeal, simply walk out along the grassy track to discover a couple of lovely white sand beaches , usually deserted and where porpoises may be seen. There is an ancient medieval chapel ruin at the far end of the bay which makes a wonderful spot to aim for. Excavations here have also revealed Bronze Age and earlier settlements.
One of several lovely beaches on the route out to the chapel.
The machair here is Harris’s finest in mid summer.
Not the prettiest settlement but this is where the ferry leaves for Berneray and North Uist, taking an hour to zig zag its way through the shallows of the Sound of Harris (one of my husband’s favourite stretches of water). Decent supermarket here, the best on Harris.
Unfortunately, the The Anchorage is now closed. The much cheaper and famous ‘Butty Bus’ is right next door at the little ferry terminal and does good carryout fish’n’chips/rolls and sausage or bacon etc.Just what you want sometimes!
Day Trip to St Kilda
A must do for adventurers but it does mean a time commitment on Harris of 3 days.A 10 hour day, 5 hours of that on a small boat traversing the North Atlantic.Fabulous but tough.
The exciting and highly adventurous boat trips to world famous St Kilda leave from Leverburgh. For our experience of this amazing all day expedition to ‘Ultima Thule’ and a double World Heritage Site:st kilda
Rodel Church (St Clement’s)
Just beyond Leverburgh is this beautiful medieval church built in 1520 and with fine stone carvings.Well worth an explore.Look out for the ‘sheela na gig’ carving on an exterior wall (sexually explicit) the purpose of which is not fully agreed upon; thought to be a pagan symbol,possibly representing fertility and found on many ancient churches in Britain but more so, Ireland.
East Coast Harris and the Golden Road
Named because it cost so much money to build but gave paid work to islanders at the time, the landscape now changes so dramatically, you could be on a different island. I love this rocky, lily- lochan studded coast, indented with numerous little bays.It’s Scotland at its most severely beautiful, classic Outer Hebrides in many ways and very reminiscent of Assynt on the mainland.
This is where one of the world’s oldest rocks – Lewisian Gneiss – breaks through the boggy moorland grasses and peat, in some lights looking pink, in others a silvery blue/grey.It’s my favourite rock and oozes great age; somehow you feel it deep in your bones.It has been described as a moonscape because of the amount of rock but I’ve never seen it remotely like that! There’s too much moorland, too much blue sea, little cobalt lochans, pretty white Bog Cotton waving in the breeze- it’s incredibly beautiful.
Finsbay, Grosebaigh, Geocrab, Stockinish – Old Norse names, very common throughout the Western Isles (or Outer Hebrides) and a reflection of the Viking influence in this part of Scotland.
It’s a winding, up and down dale drive, in and around tiny inlets, dotted with croft houses and cottages and in summer, water-lily lochans. Not to see this part of Harris is a real miss! One of my favourite tea and cake stops anywhere is near Geocrab – the Skoon Art Gallery – with its excellent home made cakes in a converted whitewashed cottage. I’m happy just being here, knowing Harris in all its wild glory, lies just outside.
I like Tarbert. Many west coast towns and village are workaday and Tarbert certainly is that but there’s an attractiveness about it too especially looking down on the little settlement from the deck of the ferry. The rock and moorland -dotted hills form a backdrop which, as the ferry pulls away from the island, reveals the higher mountains behind, including The Clisham, the highest of all on the Outer Hebrides at 2,000 feet. It makes for a fantastic hill walk albeit a very boggy one lower down.The sail into or away from Tarbert is very beautiful.
There’s a butchers’ and small supermarket where Gaelic is often heard; a very nice cafe First Fruits; a couple of hotels – we had a great dinner one evening in the Harris Hotel.Hotel Hebrides is quite modern but we had a great evening here too with decent pub food, listening to Fergie Macdonald – known as the Ceilidh King – playing a host of Gaelic/Scottish tunes on the accordion; plenty foot tapping going on that night! The place was jumpin’!
The newish Harris Distillery is in a lovely building near the ferry terminal, though it will be a few years yet before their own whisky is ready.Nice shop.
As we drive out of Tarbert past the car queue for the ferry, I always think how lucky we are that we still have time on Harris and are not leaving yet! But when it’s our turn to leave…well, I find it hard not hide my tears.There is not a summer or winter goes by now when we are not on Harris or North Uist – islands of my heart.