Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Lewis and Harris - the A to U for first time visitors

A couple of friends are heading to Lewis for the first time and have asked for some travel tips. Rather than write a list of do’s and don’ts I’ve compiled an A to U of Lewis and Harris (there are only 18 letters in the Gaelic alphabet). It isn’t comprehensive, it is selective and it is exclusive. It’s not too late for you to go.

A s for Atlantic - 40 miles out into it is where you're going to be, so find a mid-Atlantic holiday mindset.
Bring a Mediterranean wardrobe in hope, bring layers of wool in expectation. Waterproofs and walking boots for wild days when the weather is so dreadful it's funny.
Sunglasses for every day though, because at some point a blast of sunshine will illuminate the moor and turn the sea into a glittering crown. As a HebMed rule, evenings are better than the mornings, with pale blue layers of hills against a rose sea.
As for swimming in it, the coast is brushed by the Gulf Stream, the warm water Atlantic current. In truth it’s bloody freezing but must be done. More on swimming under B for the brave.

B is for beaches. Truly world-beating beaches on the west coast in Uig and on Harris with some perfectly acceptable ones within striking distance of Stornoway at the Braighe, Coll and particularly Tolsta. Walk one every day to feel alive.
Behind a windbreak it is possible to sunbathe and with a degree of mental preparation to go swimming in that turquoise water.
The secret trick is to breath out as you plunge in and trash until you reach Nova Scotia. That warm feeling you get after a while is your core body heat on the way out, so don’t stay in too long. A wetsuit makes life more tolerable, but ask yourself: are you a seal or a mermaid?  
If you are alone on a beach and other people impinge on your mile-long stretch of sand the form is to approach and ask in proprietorial tones if they have permission to be there. Then smile broadly.

B for booking - tourism is on the up so book ferries, hire car, accommodation and evening meals in plenty time.
If you book just one place make it the Scalpay Bistro, in the community shop on the small island linked to Harris by a bridge. Modest surroundings, incredible seafood - 01859 540218. Bring your own bottle. Car hire from Sy airport at Car Hire Hebrides - 01851 706500 

C is for Calvinism. The Reformation arrived late in the Hebrides and still clings to the edge of Europe. Presbyterianism no longer dominates society but bonds communities, suffuses everyday life and is part of the Hebridean experience. As a visitor what you’ll notice most is how on Sundays the supermarkets don’t open. But the swings are not chained. You can get a coffee, petrol, buy a Sunday paper, just like anywhere else. Last generation you couldn’t look behind you while walking to Sunday school lest, like Lot’s wife, you be turned into a pillar of salt. This generation you can walk at ease on the Sabbath, but don’t offend neighbours by hanging out your washing.
C is also for The Criterion bar, the most powerful known antidote to Calvinism. “The Crit” on Point Street is rough at the edges (shoot me if they upholster the vinyl seats with trendy Harris Tweed) and an authentic Stornoway bar experience. Night outs in the Bermuda Triangle - The Crit, Star Inn, the Lewis - used to be legendary but things kick off later now and all start and end in MacNeil’s bar, a late licence lifeboat when all else seems lost.     

D - Dalmore and Dalbeg, the Big and Little Sur of Lewis beaches. There’s a surf scene, watch out for the undertow and the stray oilrig having broken its tow. 

E - is for economy. “What do people do here in the winter?” is a common question. I suspect you know the answer, but for work public sector jobs account for a third of the working population. Offshore oil work, well paid but dangerous, keeps men away from home for long periods, as the merchant navy did a generation ago. Underpinning the place are fishing and crofting, though like rural France small-scale crofter farming is as much part of the economic heritage as the actual economy. Fish farming, tweed weaving and now the tourism boom play their part too.    

F is for Fraoch, heather in other words. Eilean An Fhraoich is the other name for Lewis. Now going purple and knee deep. Don’t wear shorts on Falklands-style yomps through the moor, check for tics when you come back. F is also for Fir Chlis, the Dancing Men, or Northern Lights, common enough in winter.  

G is for Gin. The Harris Gin distillery in Tarbert has become a symbol of regeneration and island sophistication. Visit to buy a stylish bottle, but drink and eat in the walled garden at the nearby Harris Hotel where JM Barrie, of Peter Pan fame, etched his name into the window glass.    

H is for Harris Tweed. Buy it, wear it, love it, repeat. Get the full story from any weaver, mill or tweed shop. 

I - is for incomer. Touchy subject. Many of the accents you hear are from further south than Harris. An increasing number come as retirees but many arrivals are the dynamos of local communities. Harris would hardly creak along were it not for the enterprising incomers and on the rocky east coast, a colony of some brilliant artists. 

I is also for internet. It does exist. High speed wifi in most places, mobile phone signal patchy though. But why did you come here? Switch it off 

L - Lews Castle, across the bay from Stornoway is a shooting lodge turned into a Baronial pile by James Matheson, 19th century Hong Kong merchant and opium trader, “one McDrug fresh from Canton”. Derelict for years, now looking every inch of its £14 million restoration. Luxury bar and apartments, a Starbucks (fer gawd’s sake) and the northern branch of the British Museum housing some of the ivory Lewis chessmen. The wooded acres of Castle grounds are good for a run or a plod on a wet day.   

L is for language - Gaelic (like the ga in garlic, not the gay of Gaylic, that’s Irish) is spoken by about two-thirds of the 23,000-odd population of Lewis and Harris. Fragile, but still in everyday use and robust enough to have survived every assault from Culloden to the world wide web. You’ll find it, and the mid-sentence switch between Gaelic and English that pepper conversations, bewildering and mystifying. Hopefully you’ll like it.     

The Three Ms -midges, MacLeods and Moor.
Like childbirth, nobody warns you of the pain of midges. The near constant breeze helps but the best answer comes from the Avon Lady and their “Skin so Soft” moisturiser which the SAS swear by. Stock up at any petrol station.
The MacLeod clan ran the show under the Lordship of the Isles until they were usurped by the MacKenzies in about 1610. It’s all been downhill since, but plenty MacLeods still around and patronymic naming too, so many Donalds, Donald Johns, John Donalds etc. Roll with it.
Moor, there’s a lot of it. The Big Empty used to be busy with sheep and peatcutting, traditional crofting activities which have fallen victim to 21st century lifestyles. Now the preserve of windfarms and a huge variety of wildlife. Golden eagles - check, sea eagles - check, didn’t realise you were a twitcher - check. Barvas Moor is the big bit in the middle. Get lost on the single track roads of sparsely populated South Lochs to feel what it’s like to live on the edge. 

N is Northton -  the new Ibiza. Well, maybe not but this dead-end village on the south west tip of Harris is a model micro-economy that might see places like it across the Hebrides survive and flourish.
Four great businesses, all set up by women, provide a brilliant variety of services. At the entrance is Seallam, the genealogical exhibition centre and real life version of the BBC’s “Who do you think you are?” Good selection of books. 
Next is Croft 36, an honesty shop bakery and food shed, with great take-away dishes.
The Temple Cafe is the best and last coffee before Canada, smashing food too, and there’s Rebecca Hutton’s Harris Tweed hut at the very end before you turn onto a beach you swear you will never tell anyone else about. Beyond there’s a walk to another great beach, and another one after that and finally a mediaeval temple on the headland and, extra bonus, neolithic cup and ring marks close by.
The downside is many holiday homes but Northton has it all including, unfortunately, an amadan who has issues with people parking at “his” end of the beach. Best ignored, or spoken to in Gaelic as he doesn’t understand any.   

O is for old - Lewisian Gneiss, the rock you’re standing on is amongst the oldest in the world, try three billion years. Also old are the Callanish Stones, the neolithic stone circle near Carloway is dated around 3,000 BC, old as the pyramids. Lots of people visit at midsummer, but best to visit early or late to avoid the bus tours from cruise ships.
There are lots of other ignored archaeological sites littering the moor and coast. Grab a Cicerone walking guide and an OS map to find places people rarely visit.

O is also for Other. This is the most different place you can be and still be in Britain. Wide open landscape, big skies, rolling weather, ancient language and an incredible culture. Stop to consider how familiar yet slightly disorientating everything is. It’s an amazing place. 

P - is for politics. Far from being peripheral Lewis is at the nexus of global politics. 
When the Rev Ian Paisley was looking for a model for Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster it was to Lewis churches he travelled for inspiration and instruction.
His party, the DUP, which props up Theresa May’s government, is the political wing of the Paislyite church which imported it’s biblical politics from Lewis. 
And when you recall, as we do daily, that the village of Tong is the birthplace of US President Donald Trump’s mother you begin to see how the Isle of Lewis has fomented the Guardian-reading intelligentsia’s worst nightmares. You have been warned, do not mess with the politics here. 
The smallest constituency in the UK, Na h-Eileanan an Iar, is SNP-held since 2005, after two decades of Labour. That said, there was a big No vote in the Scottish referendum and a big Remain in the European referendum.

P is also for Peter May, author of Lewis detective fictions bolting penny dreadful plots to pound shop travel writing. But hey, people seem to like it and the books fuel a whole sub-genre of tourism.  

R - is for Rubha, the peninsula. Cross the narrow isthmus from Stornoway airport into Point. Densely populated, wealthy and highly intelligent, Point is the Hong Kong of Lewis looking down on a peasant mainland. It has a cafe and shop, hidden beaches and temples and high cliffs. Every other district, Back, Ness, the West Side share the same attributes but claim to be even more superior. Sample the fierce pride of each distinct area. 

R is also for Rosie as in “By Rosie”, the best of several tweed shops in town. Rosie knows colours. She’s not cheap, but neither are you.   

S - is for the sea, the bounteous and sometimes cruel sea. The sea and tragedy go hand in hand in song and history here. Check out the Iolaire story at the museum if you don’t already know it. Shellfish - cockles for vongole, mussels for moules mariniere - can be gathered on the tide (be careful in a month without an R in it). 

You don’t have to forage as S is also for Stornoway and supermarkets, the main reason to visit the town. A Tesco and a Co-op, both well-stocked, guard either entrance. Not open Sundays. Digby Chick, the best eats. Coffee is the new beer in Stornoway, try An Lanntair art gallery, Artizan cafe and the new Blue Lobster. Two good delis for fine and hard to find ingredients.
The big consumer choice is which of three quality butcher shops to buy famous Stornoway Black Pudding from. Scott’s fish shop in the inner harbour for good, reasonably priced fish. 

T - Transport. Believe it or not the Western Isles has the best bus services west of Helsinki, but no one uses it. You can travel from Ness to Barra in a day on buses and ferries. Most people are addicted to cars, cycling is hard work but low traffic, hitch-hiking still works. Taxis will take you home drunk from Stornoway, don’t think about drink-driving, the cops are hard on it.  

U is for Uig. Saved the best for last. The most westerly and wonderful part of Lewis. The magical combination of seascape and mountain backdrop mean you might not come back from these beaches. The weather’s always better too. Food options limited at present, Loch Croistean tearoom on the way, but this is one place where you can eat the scenery.

Finally U is for underwhelmed. I dare you to be. Enjoy the island, it’s all yours.  

These pesky extra letters:
J - is for chumper, preferably one your auntie knitted. Joke is choke, and just is chust. There, you’re half-way to having a Stornoway accent, quite distinct from that spoken by Maws, people from the countryside.   
K - is for St Kilda. Another 60 miles out, double World Heritage Status island on the edge of the world. If you can, go, just go, from Sea Trek in Uig or St Kilda Cruises in Leverburgh.
Q - Queen, she landed at Rodel once, make sure you do, to see St Clement's church and the closed down hotel.
V - is for Vikings. They ruled for over three centuries and you can really see their legacy here, in the people and the Norse place names. 
W gets wetsuit. Everything waterproof you’ve forgotten to bring is at the Stornoway Fisherman’s Co-op, an Alladin’s cave hidden at the bad end of the harbour. Didrickson is the brand of choice, great value.
W is for walking and...X marks the spot. Study a map, see what is immediately around. You don’t have to go far for an adventure.
Y - Youth, we don’t have enough but those we do have are pretty cool, as captured by Laetitia Vancon's portraits. The islands face a demographic timebomb, male and elderly, as do many less beautiful places. So, do consider moving here.
Z - Zonked, once the sea air hits you. Your first night’s sleep will be bliss and then the holiday begins all over again.

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