Exploring the rugged landscapes of Scotland's Western Isles will take you from desolate moors to deserted white sandy beaches
Lewis and Harris are spoken of as two separate islands but they are actually joined by a tiny strip of land. Lewis is the largest and a two-and-a-half-hour ferry trip from Ullapool. They used to be known as the Outer Hebrides; today they are called the Western Isles, and to the locals they are the Long Islands. But whatever you call them, they are one of the most remote and beautiful areas of Scotland, over which hangs the long and sometimes bloody history of a place that has been inhabited for more than 6,000 years.
The easiest way to get around these Western Isles is by car. The roads are few but they are in good condition and will take you to most of the things you'll want to see and do.
Once you leave the green oasis of Stornoway there’s barely a tree to be seen. Don’t expect picture-postcard prettiness in these islands; there’s a wild bleakness here, which can either disconcert or entrance. Scrubby moors stretch for miles, scarred and criss-crossed by peat diggings, gardens are empty of flowers or vegetables and neat piles of peat are stacked to dry against walls in preparation for winter, when a boxful will sit beside every fireplace.
The peat bogs - layers of preserved plant material dating back to the last Ice Age - cover great tracts of the land. It’s a rocky, empty landscape. Once, long ago, it was covered with dense forests but all this was destroyed by the Vikings, who invaded from the ninth century onwards. On a punitive expedition to Lewis in 1098 a Norse raider named Barelegs burned most of the trees, leaving the land as bare as his own naked legs.
You can look straight out across the North Sea towards Scandinavia, the place where Barelegs and his warriors came from so long ago. They ruled over the whole of the Western Isles until the middle ages when they were annexed by Scotland.
Despite their remoteness and the harshness of the landscape, the islands have been inhabited since pre-history. The amazing standing stones at Callanish go back to 2000 BC; they are set in a circle like Stonehenge and nobody seems to know why they are there, although experts say there are astronomical connections, especially with the rising and setting of the moon. It’s a mysterious, enchanting place.
Take the B8011 road which branches west to the Uig district, travelling through some of the finest scenery in Lewis. It’s a land strewn with rocks and sheep, necklaced by a circle of gently rounded hills, ranging in colour from soft grey and pale green to black, depending on the drifting clouds and the weather, which can change in a matter of seconds. Ask any Hebridian about the weather and you will be told: 'If you wait five minutes another season will come along'.
Uig has some fabulous beaches. At Bernie Sands the shining white beach is created from powdered shells, wave-crushed over the centuries. Razor clam shells are everywhere, delicately patterned in stripes of pink and beige. Uig Sands is where the world-famous Lewis Chessmen were discovered in 1831 by a local crofter. Inside a small chamber that had been exposed by the eroding sand he found a sack containing 78 carved ivory chessmen - probably some of the finest early chess pieces in the world. They were sold to the British Museum for £84 - today they are priceless. They are of Viking origin and date from around 1150, when the Hebrides were an important part of the Viking world.
The real character of Harris is to be found on the coast. En route from Plockropool to Luskentyre Beach a triangle of deep turquoise appears at the end of the road. The triangle turns into a scene right out of a Caribbean holiday poster - shining white sandy beaches fringed by an ocean of the most brilliant blue. This part of of the island has dozens of beautiful beaches, from tiny coves to great long stretches of sand.
Gaelic (pronounced 'Gallic') is spoken in the Western Isles, but most people are bi-lingual. Legend says Gaelic was the language spoken in the Garden of Eden. With its gentle cadence, it is sweet to the ear. 'Failte' - the world for 'welcome' is as soft as a butterfly’s wing, and they mean it.