As soon as we crossed the border into Scotland the motorway information signs told of the impending arrival of Hurricane Bertha “Severe Weather” warned one; “Heavy Rain Forecast” said another; “We’re All Doomed” foretold the next one.
Okay, I may have made the last one up. Sure enough on the Sunday morning the rains and wind of Bertha made themselves known in the Outer Hebrides but thankfully our ten hour journey on the Saturday was only accompanied by impressive weather of the right sort.
The ferry journey from Ullapool to Stornoway saw the water of the Minch crowned by the tiara of a perfect rainbow, the colours of which were so brilliant that only a pot of gold could have resided at the end. Then, as we neared the shores of the Isle of Lewis the sunset stretched a golden finger over the waves as the sky turned the exact shade of a Sicilian Lemon Tart.
Welcome to the Outer Hebrides – the home of Harris Tweed, the definition of outstanding beauty and possessor of lots and lots of weather.
Our home for the week was one of two fabulous cottages at Eagle Bay, Keose. When you stay in self-catering cottages it can often be the little arrival treat that can kick things off in fine style – the chilled bottle of champagne or the trio of home cooked cakes on a tea tray or the basket of local delicacies such as smoked salmon. Well, at Eagle Bay you get all three!
The advantage of arriving after dark was that the real luxury was saved for the following day and the first experience of the view from the window that captured the slate grey water of Loch Erisort and the landscape of stone, grass and heather.
It was a view that you could stare at all day, which we did as Hurricane Bertha kept us confined to barracks.
Being from Manchester and also being well versed in holidaying accompanied by typhoons and cyclones, once Bertha had calmed herself to just persistent, heavy rain we ventured out to the Stones at Callanish.
There are standing stones all over the landscape but the ones at Callanish are the most elaborate, a pattern of stones erected over many years by the endeavour of great manual labour and to some obvious plan, the purpose of which is now lost on us.
From there we drove through a gorgeous landscape of hills and lochs to the Blackhouses, a collection of renovated crofters’ dwellings that were inhabited until relatively recent times. The houses overlooked a stony cove and were shielded by a hill, the summit of which allowed you a panorama of the Atlantic coastline.
The main land mass of the Outer Hebrides is in fact the two separate Isles of Lewis and Harris. They are not different Islands but two halves to the same island, however they are distinct from each other. The moment you pass the sign that announces the transition from Lewis to Harris, the landscape changes.
Suddenly boulders border the road and dot the landscape. The outlook becomes more bleak. You have gone from the pretty boy good looks of Brad Pitt on Lewis to the rugged, careworn features of John Malkovich on Harris.
The main road on Harris soon narrows to a single track that follows the coast and dodges the hills and the lochs. Now there are some pretty spectacular coastal drives around the world; the Big Sur in California or the Great Ocean Road in Australia. The circuit around Harris absolutely holds it own alongside its famous cousins. If you have a bucket list, add this to it.
One common feature shared by Lewis and Harris is their beaches. The most gorgeous arcs of white sandy beaches cupping a green sea. I have never seen such splendid beaches in the UK. And you have them almost to yourself.
Scalpay is a separate island, joined to Harris by a bridge (single track, of course). We had made the journey there for one reason – good food in unexpected circumstances can become great food. So, as you enter the Community Shop and turn into the North Harbour Team Room you are quite far removed from the Savoy Grill and its delicacies.
This, however, is not a tea room of just scones. The Chef came out to apologise that the diver had yet to return with the scallops to go with the lobster salad. Fresh mussels are the starter of choice. Ribeye steak comes with a fiery peppery sauce. Salmon is served with gnocchi and a delicately flavoured curry sauce. This was not good food made great by an unexpected setting. This was just great food.
So with the obligatory purchases of a Harris Tweed jacket (for my dog) and a bottle of Scotch (for my dad) we spent our final day in the grounds of Lews Castle where we expected to pass a tranquil hour or two walking through the rarity of a wooded landscape. It was only as we parked next to the ambulance, the fire engine and the police car that we heard the roar of an engine and the spinning of wheels. We had managed to drive, inadvertently, into the midst of Rally Hebrides.
Half an hour was spent watching cars spin through mud before we headed North of Stornoway to Bac and another amazing stretch of beach, where we enjoyed everything that the Outer Hebrides has to offer. Natural beauty enjoyed in sun, rain, wind and iridescent rainbow. All in the space of about twenty minutes.
The twin Isles of Lewis and Harris are amazing in the sun and magnificent in the rain. Whether we were watching Whiskey Galore with the log burner lit on a rainy afternoon or cycling alongside a fast flowing river in the blazing sun, the Outer Hebrides were the perfect escape.
And speaking of escape, given the preponderance of “Yes” signs, I have a fair guess which way the Hebrideans will be voting when it comes to whether Scotland remains bound in the Union. Next time we visit, we may need our passports.