Starting mileage: 22187 km
Day started: 09:00/12:00
Day ended: 19:00/16:00
The ferry linking Uist and Harris is a really slow beast; it takes an hour to leisurely navigate a narrow stretch of sea which, if causewayed, would take maybe 10 minutes drive at most. But by the time we arrive at Leverburgh, we may as well have travelled another thousands of miles: the tiny ferry town before us looks like taken straight from a postcard “Summer in Greenland”. It’s the same pattern of small, Scandinavian-style houses, scattered over an empty plain covered with what looks like tundra, in the shadow of a low mountain ridge. The only thing this picture is lacking are the icebergs in the distance.
Most of the Hebrides are now owned, or at least managed, by the local community, after a series of spectacular buyouts a few years ago. This doesn’t prevent the islands from turning into yet another land of B&Bs and self-catering cottages, but at least here the accommodations are not as much of an eyesore as elsewhere. In fact, a few of the buildings are award-winning pieces of modern architecture, including the highly advanced Borve Lodge, built as a modern interpretation of the ancient brochs dotting the Highlands.
Harris and Lewis, far larger than the Uists, are where the intricate interplay of beaches and mountaines is at its best; the broad, flat, white sands and the jagged, black rocks produce a deep shadow-and-light landscape that would drive an Italian renaissance painter insane. I can only imagine that, but I’m pretty certain that on a nice, sunny, summer day Outer Hebrides may just have the most beautiful bits of coast anywhere in Britain. As if that wasn’t enough, there are rainbows everywhere. As soon as the wind tears the rain clouds apart, a sharp ray of sun – it’s still summer, after all! – paints another sudden rainbow in the half-grey, half-blue sky.
But we can’t appreciate these views for long. The weather turns nasty again, and as if on cue, a sign on the road points to a Knitwear Shop. This is something we really need by now; tweed, for which the Isle of Harris is so famous, is fine if you’re out golfing, but if you struggle to stay warm in an Atlantic storm, a woolly jumper is just the thing.
The shop is tiny and out of the way, but by the time we finish choosing the merino wool jumpers, it’s crammed full of people, tourists of all nationalities who, like we, were drawn here by the awful weather. It must have been the little shop’s best day of business this summer…
We cross the causeway into Lewis, the main island of the Outer Hebrides, but before we can continue to its main tourist attractions, we hear a nasty grinding sound coming from the rear wheels; with the wind and rain, and the bad wheel, there’s little choice – we must seek safe harbour, and the nearest such place is the capital of the Isles, the sprawling harbour town of Stornoway. Passing by the TalkTalk building – the northernmost outpost of our former employee, which we always wanted to see – we drove (barely) into the nearest campsite.
The next morning was a Sunday. A Sunday on Lewis is a special day: the Hebrideans are the last people in Britain to fully celebrate the Holy Sabbath; that means, officially, nothing is open – except the churches. The eerie atmosphere of Lewis on Sunday may have been inspiration behind the Wicker Man movie. But this is 2013, and the observance of Sabbath is slowly eroding. Chinese and Indian takeaways are open as normal; a couple of petrol stations still sell fuel, ferries and planes now allow hapless tourists to get away from the island. And the outdoor tourist attractions of the west coast are always accessible – even if the visitor centres beside them aren’t. So we decide to brave the weather and the car’s increasing troubles and to at least see the Stones – and possibly more, if we manage.
The Callanish Stones are a sight familiar to anyone who’s even remotely interested in British antiquities; the enormous circle of tall, flat stones shown on every postcard on the island is, in fact, only one of the many circles that form the Callanish complex; two others are clearly visible from the top of the ridge where the main one is positioned, and there are at least nine others, less obvious. The main formation is not just a circle – even with the size of the central pillar and the remains of a large burial chamber in the centre, that would not be enough to warrant their great fame – but two avenues of stone pillars, meeting at the central circle to form a great cross. The stones here are of the Lewisian gneiss, striped black and white, and look like fossilized planks of wood, almost alive in the changing light.
We drive on from there, hoping to close a loop around the middle of the island; the next stop is just as spectacular as the Stones: a broch at the village of Carloway, preserved in much better shape than most we’ve seen so far, a true tower rising high above the surrounding hills, with the way out onto the first floor ramparts still remaining; inside the thick, double walls, the ground floor of the broch may well be the only calm and quiet place on the entire island.
A signpost leads us to one more curious location along the way: “Norse mill and kiln“. Somewhat reluctantly, as the wind is getting stronger, we leave the car by the shore of a small loch, and follow the narrow path. The mill and kiln are two tiny thatched huts of a Nordic design. The name “Norse mill” indicates the type of the facility, rather than its origin. The one here has been reconstructed in the 1960’s, but it was in use well into 1930’s, despite it looking like something out of the Stone Age. Normally, they are being used to teach local students history, but on a windy Sunday, with the two of us being the only human beings for miles, the mill and kiln stand alone like some ancient sentinels of a long-abandoned Viking village.
By the time we return to the van, we find its roof raised and bent in a shape which is definitely not normal or safe. This is the last straw; it’s time to go back to Stornoway while we still can. Leaving aside the reconstructed black houses of Arnol, we drive back as fast as the wind allows. There will be no more excursions today – and tomorrow, we hope to leave for the mainland and find a garage to look after camper’s wheel.
We spent two nights at the Laxdale Holiday Park – the only criterion of choice being its proximity to Stornoway; but, despite the name and rather random location, it wasn’t a bad place to stay. There are only a few hardstanding pitches, but all are well sheltered from the wind. The facilities were adequate – industrial grade laundry and tumble drier were just the thing we needed after three days in the rain; the cost, with hook-up, was £20. You can purchase internet access for £3, washer machine costs £3 and drying starts from 50p.