Scottish Island Holidays
A Deeper Look at the Outer Hebrides
Scottish Island Holidays – Much More Than They Seem
I’m going to attempt to venture down a road I’ve not been seen on for a while. The writer’s road. Necessity has seen me focus on ‘blogging’ in recent years – an increasingly difficult thing to define, hence the inverteds. It’s been fun, I enjoy it for the most part, but it’s unquestionably different from proper writing. The focus is on being useful. Producing text that gives people what they want to know in a digestible and, ideally, fun fashion. But, in so doing, I’ve realised that I’m missing a lot of the beneath-the-surface emotions that come when you’re doing something you love, travelling Scotland in my case. It’s time to go on a Scottish island holiday, with a difference.
I’ve chosen the ideal subject matter to assist, the Outer Hebrides. Scotland’s first line of defence against the Atlantic, I love these islands. I have done all my days. I’m on my first trip to see them this year and am unrestricted by the need to hit any marketing targets or factor in partnerships. It’s travel for the love of it and it’s time to let the real emotions come to the fore.
A Difficult Transition
There’s no disguising it, it’s a miserable day. I spend so much time talking up Scotland that I sometimes forget to relay the sentiment that it can be crap at times too. It’s hammering down and has been for pretty much the duration of the 5-hour drive to the north of Skye. It’s June, and my crest has been rapidly falling since Loch Lomond. The repetitive swishing of the window wipers at full speed has left me numbed to what would usually be a stunner of a drive. I sit there hunched over the wheel glowering at the increasingly irritating driving incompetence of the motorhome-armed halfwit ahead of me.
There has to be some sort of quota on how many of these things are allowed into the Highlands per month? I’ll sign that petition.
A pleading, hope-seeking glance at the forecast tells me that tomorrow looks surprisingly glorious – presumably because, after today, there is simply no rain left.
Somewhere between forever and an eternity I arrive at Uig for the ferry crossing to Tarbert. I’m never quite sure how I feel about the big Calmac ferries, the temperature of my sentiment varies with my mood. Oftentimes I come bouncing onto the things, excited at the prospect of the absolute magic of imminent Scottish island holidays. Today, the barometer has lodged itself firmly at sullen. The irritating, overpowering whiff of spilled diesel, car fumes and grumpy jostling of sodden passengers is far from welcome as we head indoors. The wind howls outside, it’s going to be a choppy crossing.
Car smells are soon replaced by an odd mixture of fish and pasty emanating from the kitchen. Those beef olives look good. But weren’t they the chaps that made me violently ill a while back? Play it safe, today’s not one of those days. Exercise some of that famous Scottish dourness, lad, it’s in your blood. My stomach stays empty.
Time for a look around. The cargo demographic varies dramatically. Lots of pensioners already munching away (how did they beat me up the stairs?), a few downtrodden-looking parents presumably questioning the logic of that brilliant staycation plan for 2019. A societally oblivious hipster influencer (I’m not really one of these people, am I?) is making a nonsense of himself taking pictures of everything that moves, as well as everything that isn’t. Not a smile to be seen anywhere.
But then, something happens. One of the friendly Calmac staff has recruited the assistance of a wee boy, clearly taking the trip with his mum. He’s bouncing around merrily assisting with the collection of empty trays. Aware of the suddenly instrumental cog he has become in the running of this vessel, the wee guy is grinning ear to ear. Aside from the influencer, who I fear is beyond help, everyone else’s face has undergone a total transformation as all eyes follow him around the room encouragingly. We’re in the middle of The Minch on a vile day where reasons to be cheerful are not in abundance and the wee man has flicked the switch. That’s all it took.
You’re a miserable pain in the arse sometimes Scotland, but I’m never mad at you for long.
The Other Side
I don’t just want to gush about how wonderful the Outer Hebrides are, listing all the things you’ve GOT TO DO in order not to have wasted your trip. I’ve done that plenty over the years and that’s not what this piece is all about. This trip sees me staying with a friend, a born and bred local crofter of the Isle of Harris, who’s knowledge and character are completely invaluable.
This is how to get to know a place. Speak to a genuine local. In cities you can pretty much get away with defining a local as anyone who currently lives there but, with the Isles, long experience is everything. His input over the duration of this trip keep the blogger firmly back in Glasgow.
We’re so insignificant. These islands revel in showing us that. From the times of the Vikings and Iron Age Celts humans have been coming here, doubtless wowed by the coastlines and the twinkling captivation of immaculate beaches and turquoise waters. Countless generations of resident crofters have tended sheep, chasing them around ever-more challenging corners of the landscape in search of the best conditions. If you listen hard enough, you can still hear Gaelic echoing around the glens.
Even the name Outer Hebrides suggests something way out there, remote and adrift. And, in Harris particularly, I find that our planet’s makers have decided to have quite a bit of fun.
The islands take an absolute battering from the weather, particularly in winter when days can be brutal, but offer an utterly idyllic, overpoweringly generous invite on a warm sunny day. I’ve explored South Harris in depth many times in recent years and it’s where everyone heads for their Scottish island holidays in these parts, for obvious reasons. I say everyone, you’ll probably still be able to find space for your beach towel. North Harris, contrastingly, is strewn in lunar-like rock that makes for land lacking in fertility and, on the face of it, quite uninviting in comparison to the vibrant, sweeping beaches of its neighbour. Only a philistine would call this landscape bland though.
This is where to go for the best walking on the islands and the hills of North Harris can very quickly consume you. I was joined on my wanders this visit by Archie, my friends’ wonderful Collie, who bops along wolfishly as I explore deeper into the wilderness. The heather is thick just now. These are not walking trails with paths and signs – only crofters and particularly determined fellow hikers will ever have traversed this terrain. Soggy mud hides within the thick roughness of the heather and you’ll maybe glimpse the odd rodent scurry away from your unexpected and unwelcome visit. Don’t be surprised to see eagles hovering above, vulture-like and increasingly ominous. Deer too, majestically roaming these geology-loaded landscapes. And sheep, it wouldn’t be the islands without sheep.
It is entirely other-worldly here. When you spend a whole day switched off from mankind and free of interference, you may as well be exploring a new planet. A planet with the taste of salt in the air and opportunity in every direction. The colours change as day turns to night. Come the end of the day, I’ve got that childlike, tantrummy frustration at having to come away from it. It’s still light (at 10pm), can’t I have half an hour longer….
The Hearach (folk from Harris) rely on their surroundings in a very holistic way. This is the land of Harris Tweed and Harris Gin, with whisky on the way. The drink calls on a local workforce, local ingredients and an island passion that stands it separate from a busy pack. Harris Tweed is a product filled with love, deep focus and the reflections of the weaver. History plays its part in it all too as these are the islands of standing stones, imposing brochs and even relic Viking chess pieces. Mystery, survival and ingenuity at play, then and now.
A confusing mix of emotions are to be expected – stern yet sensational, forbidding yet alluring. I, and others, have said it plenty. These islands are unique. Nowhere else in the world comes to mind when searching for a comparison, and that’s a rare thing.
What Travel Gives
With this trip, I wanted to remind myself of some things. I’m not to hurry travel. This was the reason I stopped travel writing internationally some years ago, I wasn’t delving deeply enough. How can you, when you’re bouncing about from A to B, barely skimming the surface of a place and doing it a great injustice? No, I wanted to get under the skin of Scotland. Being extremely Scottish and having spent almost my whole life here, that’s perhaps an odd thing to say. I’ve done it I think, but perhaps recently I’ve been more aware of the need to burrow even deeper.
I operate day-to-day in a world of box ticking, marketing targets and the need for constant content creation. There is much soullessness. It’s a space saturated to a dangerous level, burdened further by the negative side of social media and the ever-more demoralising search for ‘Instagrammabilty’. I’ve always been fairly good at keeping a wall between myself and much of the nonsense, but it’s impossible to ignore completely. The frustrations, the anger even sometimes….and the relentlessness of its constant dynamism can leave my head in a frenetic spin.
But shhh, you mustn’t hurry in the Outer Hebrides. It’s rude.
Even just a few days in Harris, returning to an area that I know well, but will never know well enough, gives me that much needed reflection space. As for these islands, I hope to have convinced some to view them not as a destination, not even as somewhere to relax and unwind, but as a place to immerse yourself in. Take a lonely wander in the North Harris hills, get a little lost and feel that slight panic that you don’t know exactly where you are. Stand under the shadow of a 5000-year-old standing stone, closing off your perimeter senses. Walk on an empty beach, stop, and drop down to put your palm fully on the sand. Close your eyes.
When you’ve done all that, come back to this little corner of the interweb and tell me all about it.
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