Dive into icy waters and explore the wild landscapes of Scotland’s best-kept secret, the island of Harris and Lewis in the Outer Hebrides.
“You were looking right at it. It had a winkle on top,” North Harris Trust ranger Daryll Brown calls out to me. I take a deep breath and dive again into the murky, cold water. On my first attempt I’d missed it, but now I see the shape in the sand, six or seven metres below the surface. I take the creamy shell up to the surface to inspect it. It’s heavy, with a scallop inside that would do any restaurant proud.
Minutes later, Daryll returns from a dive clutching a massive red crab. He holds it out to show me, careful to keep his gloved digits away from angry claws. “They could have your finger off,” he grimaces, before releasing the crab back to the deep.
You could eat well off what you can find around the coast of Harris. In fact, local and travelling seafood lovers do. But we’re not here to find dinner. Instead, we’re exploring sites on the North Harris Snorkel Trail.
The trail, created by Daryll, has six sites for locals and tourists to get to know the coast’s unique creatures and underwater landscapes. “We have sea grasses like you’d find in the Caribbean, as well as starfish, urchins and tons of fish,” Daryll had explained before we entered the bracing water. “A lot of people don’t understand why we’d want to snorkel in this water. They think it’s going to be too cold and there’ll be nothing to see. But once they get in, they realise it’s incredible.”
Together the Isle of Harris and the connected larger Isle of Lewis make up one island in the remote Outer Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland. It’s a paradise for hikers, nature lovers, road-trippers and photographers, with glassy lochs, rugged mountains and some of the world’s most beautiful beaches. There are also strange, lunar-like landscapes, some of them used as locations during the filming of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Some of Scotland’s most remarkable wildlife lives here, too, including red deer and, with 13 pairs, the UK’s largest population of golden eagles. The surrounding waters are home to basking sharks, all manner of whales (pilot whales and orcas are here year round, while others – minkes and humpbacks – are seasonal), dolphins, seals and more.
Our Outer Hebrides adventure starts in Glasgow. “Welcome to the Highlands” is written across a blue Scotland flag that greets us as we drive beyond the shores of Loch Lomond and through Glencoe to catch the ferry from Mallaig, on the mainland, to Skye, the largest island in the Inner Hebrides.
We stay overnight in Portree, setting out next morning to explore the rocky pinnacles of the Old Man of Storr and the eerie landscapes of the Quiraing (as seen in Prometheus and the latest version of Macbeth), although mist and rain obscure the view.
While Skye is famous and popular – even during the rain its hot spots are overrun – the Island of Harris and Lewis is sometimes referred to as Scotland’s best-kept secret. We take an afternoon ferry across from Uig to Tarbert, Harris’s tiny capital. As we drive down the east coast of South Harris on the Golden Road, there are noticeably fewer cars and people; the landscape is wilder and more peaceful. There’s natural beauty around every turn, with yellow heather on peaty moorland, inland lochs and small fishing boats resting along the coast. Greylag geese and sheep roam freely along the single-lane road. The remains of abandoned crofts crumble slowly on the hills.
We circle the island’s south tip, stopping at Rodel to climb the spooky tower of fifteenth-century St Clement’s Church then make our way up the west coast, which looks like a different island altogether. Here, the rocky landscapes are replaced by vast white beaches. On famously beautiful Luskentyre we take a walk along the sand as waves crash in off the Atlantic, before driving down the west coast to the Sound of Harris, a luxurious, self-catering house overlooking the wild channel.
At Tarbert the following day, we call in at Harris Distillery, one of the most remote distilleries in Scotland. Having opened in 2015, its first batch of whisky is still a few years off, but its distillers produce a tasty, if pricey, gin using an interesting ingredient: sugar kelp is a kind of seaweed harvested in the local waters. We splash out on a bottle to take with us around the island.
Next morning, we drive to Hushinish Beach on the west coast of North Harris, passing shaggy highland cows, their long golden hair blowing in the wind, along the way. Lambs bleat nervously, clinging to their mothers for protection, as we hike across the grassland, known here as machair, and climb a steep trail up the cliffs. The colour of the sand and the vivid blue ocean from high above makes an incredible picture. Clouds roll by, throwing dramatic shadows onto Scarp, a small island with just a few houses and dilapidated old crofts. The ocean is so clear I can see the rocks deep below the surface.
It’s here we meet Daryll to explore the first site on the snorkel trail. It’s cold, so we pull on six-millimetre wetsuits and hoods to guard against water that’s around 12ºC. In the summer months, Daryll assures me, the ocean around Harris can be bathwater warm, but it’s far from that today – the cold knocks the air from my lungs when I first sink into it. A few minutes later, my body begins to adjust and I enjoy the refreshing swim around the bay. Golden kelp forests and what look like giant ponytails, but are in fact bootlace seaweed, dance below us in the ocean. Huge crabs sidestep along the sand. “It’s a magical landscape,” says Daryll when we surface.
At Seilamol Bay, a short drive away, the water is cooler still, but filled with life. “We’ve got everything here,” says Daryll as he brings a bright purple starfish to the surface to study. “There’s so much to see.” There are more scallops below us, as well as pollock and schools of tiny silver sand eels.
On the drive back to Tarbert, Daryll takes out his binoculars to track a bird gliding along the coast. “That’s a goldie,” he says, pointing out the golden eagle. “Two-point-two-metre wingspan. An adult. A beauty.”
Slightly drier and warmer next morning, we drive from Harris to Scalpay, a tiny island connected by a bridge, for a kayak trip with the Scaladale Centre’s Sean Ziehm-Stephen. “I love living on a little Hebridean island,” Sean tells us, as we paddle out across the open ocean. “The access to the great outdoors is unsurpassed.”
We make our way past rocks and islands filled with nesting gulls and chicks, orange-beaked oystercatchers and Arctic terns. “They’re amazing,” he says of terns. “They have the longest migration of any creature on the planet – from the Arctic to Antarctica and back every year. They stop here to rest.”
On the return leg, we ‘surf’ waves, allowing them to drive us forward, before coming around a corner to find a group of chubby seals on the rocks. Seeing us approach, they roll off their perches and flop one by one into the safety of the ocean. As we quietly float by in the kayaks, their heads start to bob above the surface of the water behind us and to our sides, keeping watch from a safe distance. Curious creatures, they swim with us for half an hour, popping up in inlets and harbours, as we return to shore. It’s good to have their company.
In the afternoon, we drive north through Harris and into Lewis, bright sunlight bringing out the vivid colours of the hills, grasslands and lochs of the epic island.
We head west to the famous Callanish Stones, Neolithic standing stones that are thought to be around 5,000 years old. Their purpose is unknown, but some archaeologists speculate they could be part of an ancient pagan burial site; others believe the design corresponds to an astrological phenomenon.
At Stornoway, the capital of Lewis and far larger than Tarbert, we head to the harbour in the morning to meet Gordy Maclean, skipper with Stornoway Seafari. Snug inside thick flotation suits, we climb on board his RIB and motor gently out of the harbour. Destination? The Shiant Islands.
“The Shiants are a very important place for nesting seabirds,” wildlife guide Sheena Anderson informs us. “Ten per cent, or around 135 nesting pairs, of the UK’s Atlantic puffin population are here. It gets very noisy in the summer. It’s insane.”
Cormorants fly straight as arrows alongside the boat as we skip over the waves at 25 knots. Gordy slows and circles around to watch a pair of harbour porpoises moving through the water. “They’re quite shy and not as playful as dolphins,” Sheena informs us.
Further along, we stop to watch a white-tailed sea eagle, the largest bird of prey in the UK. It lands at its cliff-face nest to rejoin its mate. “We see sea eagles quite often around here,” says Sheena. “They mate for life and use the same nest for generations. They’re incredible birds.”
Reaching the Shiants, we rest at the mouth of a cave at Rough Island. “The Shiant islands are three islands: Rough Island (the largest), House Island and the Island of the Virgin Mary,” Sheena continues. “Rough Island is the highest at 150 metres and it’s all volcanic rock. The formations are very cool.”
Moving slowly, we travel beneath vast dark columns of rock, stained white with guano. The walls are alive and crowded with birds; guillemots, fulmars, kittiwakes, razorbills and cormorants are among them. It’s quite a spectacle.
Further along, seals cover black rocks pounded by waves. We disturb a seal pup sleeping in a sheltered nook. It wakes, blinks a few times and rolls off the rocks into the ocean.
“Now, let’s surf,” Gordy says, as he throttles the engine and speeds around a second island. The sky above us is filled with birds.
A heavy rainstorm batters us as we return to Stornoway Harbour and continues through the afternoon, so we drop plans for a hike on Lewis’ north coast, the UK’s windiest point. Instead, we visit Museum nan Eilean at Lews Castle. Among other relics from Hebridean history, there are several ancient Lewis chessman – detailed little figures carved from walrus tusk by craftsmen in Norway more than 800 years ago – displayed in glass cabinets. The chessmen were found in 1831 in the sand dunes of Uig Bay.
There are large-scale versions of the chessmen around the west of the island, part of the island’s Bealach art project. On a grey afternoon, we drive out to track them down, taking a scenic loop around Valtos, Kneep and Ardroil, beaches that rival Harris’ finest.
It takes us a while to find the King, a tall chess statue on the machair near Ardroil. But once we’ve got our eye in, we tick off art pieces
thick and fast, locating the Berserker outside Uig Community Centre, and the Knight at Abhainn Dearg Distillery in Carnish.
We almost drive past Spring Well, another art piece, by the roadside in Mangersta. It depicts an arm jutting out from the grass bank and pouring spring water from a glass bottle. Across the road, there’s a philosophical road sign pointing in various directions: This Way, That Way, Other Way, Might Have Been, Dead End. The signpost seems a little downbeat and pessimistic to be standing here, because, actually, here on Harris and Lewis, whether it’s an eagle, a highland cow, a mountain, beach or a strange hand reaching out of the ground, you never know what will be around the next corner.
Qatar Airlines fly from major Australian cities to Edinburgh and Glasgow in Scotland. Loganair will get you to Stornoway from Edinburgh, but it’s more fun to rent a car and to get around the Hebridean islands by ferry. CalMac operates regular ferries between the Hebridean islands and mainland Scotland. qatarairways.com loganair.co.uk calmac.co.uk
There are a number of self-catering houses and apartments. The Sound Of Harris in South Harris has two modern, self-catering homes sitting atop a windswept cliff. Lews Castle’s gothic-style apartments in Stornoway overlook the town’s harbour. Rooms at the Portree Hotel in Skye are upstairs at a popular pub. soundofharris.co.uk togethertravel.co.uk theportreehotel.com
Scotland’s Year of Coasts and Waters is taking place throughout 2020, and there will be a number of events throughout 2020, including the Scottish Traditional Boat Festival in June and River of Light in October. More information can be found on the Visit Scotland website. visitscotland.com
The North Harris Snorkel Trail is run by the North Harris Trust. Group snorkel tours can be arranged. The Scaladale Centre organises a variety of group activities, including guided kayaking trips. Shiant Isles boat trips with Stornoway Seafari are a great way to see the dramatic coastline. north-harris.org scaladale-centre.co.uk stornowayseafari.com