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Isle of Harris (Scotland)

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      02.07.2001 23:55
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      Ceud Mile Failte gu Na Hearadh!!! A hundred thousand welcomes to Harris!! Mr Moomin and I have recently returned from our second holiday on the Isle of Harris. We first ventured Westwards for our honeymoon in 1998, and fell in love with the place. Our second visit was even better, and because I’m such a generous and kind moomin, I’m prepared to share our special island with you. ~> Harris?? Where’s that then?? Harris is one of a chain of Scottish Islands collectively known as the Western Isles, or Outer Hebrides. It lies smack in the middle of the 130-mile long chain of Islands, which are found to the West of the Isle of Skye, off the Scottish mainland. Got it? If not – try this. Next time you happen to be watching the weather report, let your eyes wander right to the very top of Scotland, and look left. Those are the Western Isles – if you’re lucky the main town, Stornoway, might be named! Oh and there’s probably a black cloud right over them too, but don’t let that put you off! There’s Harris look, the little one in the middle, with the Isle of Lewis to the North. ~> Hmmm. So now I’ve found it, what’s so great about it?? Harris is one of the most unspoilt, peaceful, and spectacular places on this earth, and I’ve been to quite a few! It’s certainly the best place in the UK, in the opinion of these Moomins. The landscape is simply stunning, and has many different faces, which I will attempt to describe for you. The hills of North Harris tower over the surrounding scenery, often shrouded in cloud looking brooding and melancholy. The highest of these is An Clisham, the summit a full 799 feet above sea level. Okay so it’s not a Munro, but it is a pretty hairy climb in places! And when you get to the top, the views are incredible, but more of that later . . . The South-West coast of Harris is home to many gorgeous beaches. Some names for you to get your teeth into – Seilebost, Horgabost, Borve, Loiscantir and Scarista. Mile after mile of golden sand, beautiful turquoise water, and not an Australian lifeguard in sight. In fact, usually no-one at all in sight! I’m telling you, you wouldn’t believe these beaches are in the UK. When the weather is fine and the sun is shining, you’d think any of them were somewhere in the tropics. I’m not kidding - the only thing that would give the game away would be the lack of any sizable tree-life! A feature of the South-West coast is the land known as Machair – where the sand is blown over the surrounding farmland in winter and creates a fertile soil unlike any other. Here grow wild flowers – clover, orchids, buttercups and many more – and the smell of these flowers at dusk on a Summer’s evening is just wonderful. On the other side of the Island lies the Bays area. In complete contrast to the hills and beaches, this is like a lunar landscape, dotted all over with lochs of every shape and size. Chunks of rock (the Islands are formed from 3000,000 year-old Lewissian gneiss) of all shapes and sizes litter the landscape, seemingly random in their positions, and the land in between is rich in peat. This peat gives a curious red colour to the lochs, which are often covered in white water lilies. It is a surprise here, in this bare landscape, to find tiny fishing villages, with more delicious names – like Stockinis, Geocrab and Flodabay. The many Harris Islands, such as Scalpay, St Kilda, Scarp and Taransay (where the recent BBC documentary ‘Castaway’ was filmed), form the final section in my brief description of the Harris scenery. Though many are now uninhabited, the stories of how they came to be deserted are widely published – for example there was a community on St Kilda up until 1930, when they all asked to be evacuated. St Kilda is now a Bird sanctuary, and was Scotland’s first World Heritage Site. And all the inhabitants of the tiny Island of Pabbay were cleared to make way for sheep. ~> It sounds erm . . .different, anyway. Tell me about the people. The people of the Western Isles are Gaels – bilingual Gaelic and English speakers. The population of the Western Isles is just over 28,000, a mere 2,057 live on Harris. Main industry on Harris includes crofting, salmon-farming, and tourism. Many of the Islanders are actively involved in the production of the world famous Harris Tweed, and there are several places where visitors to the Island can see it being made in the homes of the people. The Islanders are very religious, and observe completely the traditional Scottish Sunday. No public transport runs, and no ferries arrive on or leave the Islands on the Sabbath. And all the shops are shut. To avoid offending the people, you should try not to arrive or leave your accomodation on a Sunday if you can help it, and avoid doing anything loud or annoying! When in Rome . . . The Islands have a rich history – being invaded by Vikings from around the 9th century onwards. Only in 1280 were the Islands handed to the Kingdom of Scotland under the Treaty of Perth. Many of the place-names, especially those in the North of the Island, originate from the Norse. My favourite name is found on the North side, and is almost impossible to say! Here it is: Bun Abhainn Eadarrra. In English it is written Bunavoneader, but it’s actually pronounced like this - Bonafenetterer. I know because a local told me how to say it. ~> Aren’t there any towns? There are towns on Harris, but not large towns. The main ferry port is An Tairbeart (Tarbert), and has, let me see, 7 shops and a Tourist Information Office. It also has 2 hotels, and a chip shop. And a bank (Banca Na H-Alba). Oh and a Hairdresser. And that is literally it!! There's also the other ferry port of An T- ob (Leverburgh), which is even smaller than Tarbert. The biggest town in the Outer Hebrides is Steornabhaegh (Stornaway) on Lewis, a throbbing metropolis of around 8,000 people. Here, if you are desperate, you can find a curry-house! But as this opinion is on Harris, not Lewis, I’ll leave Stornaway to someone else . . . . suffice it to say that Lewis is easily accessibly by car or bus from Harris, and has many attractions for visitors to the Islands. ~> But what about nightlife?? Why do you need nightlife? You’ve come to the Islands to get away from it all, haven’t you? Okay okay – well both hotels in Tarbert serve alcohol, and details of any ceilidhs, music/arts festivals, or craft fairs are posted on community notice boards and Tourist Information Offices. But if it’s a noisy, sweaty, drunken rave you’re after, then I’d hotfoot it over to the opinions on Aiya Nappa or Ibiza instead – on Harris the lifestyle is much more simple. ~> So what do you get up to during the day?? We walk. There are several walk leaflets available at 50p each which cover much of the Island. Old paths across the moors and heathland used by crofters, farm tracks, and often no track at all lead to stunning views and fantastic wildlife-viewing opportunities. For the more adventurous there are many hills to climb – one of our favourites being Toddun, situated behind the tiny coastal village of Rhenigidale. At 528 metres its hardly a giant, but remember you literally start from sea-level! After scrambling your way up its steep slopes, and braving the perilous ridge to the top, you are rewarded by breathtaking views across the whole of Harris and Lewis. On a clear day you can even see the Islands that make up St Kilda – about 40 miles West! Or you can try An Clisham, the highest mountain in the Hebrides. This is 799 metres, but the starting point is a good way above sea level, and even with me and my a sthma we managed to get up its scree-ridden slopes in around two hours! However, we were disappointed, once we reached the Trigpoint, to see other people following us. Good grief. There must have been at least 5 people on Clisham the day we went. Tcha! However, it was well worth the climb – we began the walk in thick swirling cloud, and couldn’t see the top. However, when we got there the clouds parted briefly, and we had spectacular views over the whole of Skye and the mountains of the mainland. At one point we were taking a breather about 2 thirds of the way up, munching on our Kendal Mint Cake, when a Golden Eagle flew across the hill in front of us, the sunlight reflecting on his outstretched wings. Awesome! Speaking of eagles, you’d be unlucky if you went to Harris armed with binoculars and didn’t see at least one. Our tally for the week was 3 definites and a host of probables – pretty good huh? Other birds to look out for include Golden Plover (you’ll hear it before you see it), Wheatear, Snipe, Grouse, Cuckoo, Buzzard, Merlin and Perigrine Falcon. While none of the above are guaranteed, and it obviously depends on which time of year you go, you will definitely see hooded crows, ravens, sparrows and wrens. No doubt about it! Seabirds abound in great number – we added puffins, gannets, guillemots, terns, great skuas and a host of waders like oyster catchers and curlew to our ‘spotted’ list. We even saw a grey partridge on our Scalpay walk! On the machair lapwings can be seen at close quarters, and this is also the home of the rare and elusive corncrake. You'll probably hear it, but will be very lucky to see it - it is a master of disguise! As for other wildlife – well there are red deer, arctic hares, and ordinary bunnies to be seen on the moors and mountains of Harris. And of course the omnipresent Harris sheep, who can be found along the roads and atop all but the highest pea ks. Oh - I should mention that a lot of the roads are single track with passing places. These can be quite daunting for inexperienced drivers, so do take care. You'll also find that you spend a lot of time in 1st or 2nd gear as the car struggles up the hills - so don't be alarmed! And watch out for the sheep - they have right of way you know and will sometimes walk in front of a vehicle for ages before suddenly skittering off to the moors. If you spot a lamb on one side of the road and a ewe on the other - watch out. One or the other of them will most probably run in front of you baa-ing furiously. It's usually the lamb! And shouting 'Mint Sauce' at them won't help . . . Sorry - back to the wildlife . . . in the sea and the larger sea-lochs seals can often be seen, while dolphins and whales are sometimes spotted. We saw dolphins from the ferry on our first trip, but sadly not this time. However, the lack of dolphins was made up for by the sightings of not one but two otters – one from the shores of Scalpay, and one from the window of our cottage as it swam across the bay! If the weather is hot, the golden sands and clear water of the Atlantic make perfect beaches for sunbathing, swimming, or kite-flying. If it’s raining, there are a few things to do inside – the new visitor centre ‘Seallam’ at An Tuabh Tuath (Northton) will keep you occupied for a couple of hours, and the standing stones dotted around the Island are interesting in any weather. ~> Hold on – I forgot to ask about the weather. What can I say? The weather is unpredictable, to say the least. We first went in July – it was the wettest July they’d ever had according to the locals, and we walked miles in perpetual bog for two weeks! This time – mid-June – we had two perfect days of sunny but not-too-hot-for-walking weather during which I climbed mountains in my shorts; followed by two days o f almost torrential rain during which the mountain streams quadrupled in size and visibility was reduced to a few metres; followed by two more days of hot-but-windy which led to Mr Moomin burning the tops of his ears! The local crofter was our weather guide. Listen to the locals – they can really help you plan a day. We were going to forget about climbing Clisham, having waited 'til the last day and woken up to some ‘Scotch Mist’ (Hah – I call it rain!) which was obscuring it from view, however lovely Mr Mackay told us it would clear up, and it did. I learned a local saying, which is absolutely true: ‘If you don’t like the weather on Harris, go half a mile up the road.’ Basically – it’s changeable. Be prepared! ~> Hmm – you’ve put me off a bit. Well you won’t know until you try it, will you? Of course the Western Isles will not be everyone’s cup of tea – I fully appreciate that. In fact, I’d sort of rather no-one went there. But for me, the overriding feeling that I get when I’m there, whatever the weather, is one of peace, solitude, and silence. You can sit on a beach, at the top of a hill, or on the side of a loch, and literally hear nothing but the sound of the water lapping at the shore and the faint baa-ing of the sheep. You can walk for miles and not see another living soul all day. It is a totally relaxing experience, and one that I heartily recommend. The Moomins returned feeling refreshed, rejuvenated, and ready to face whatever the world throws at them. ~> So where do I stay? There are many places to stay throughout the Island – ranging from 5* hotels (Ardvourlie Castle) to Youth Hostels run by the Gatliff Trust (at Rhenigidale and Tarbert). There are lots of B&B’s and self catering cottages to choose from - often adjacent to a croft and run by the crofter. We have stayed at the sa me cottage both times, in Rhenigidale, and would definitely recommend self-catering. But be prepared – remember what I told you about the shops in Tarbert, and pack everything you think you will eat and more besides!! Of course there are places to buy milk and meat, but the choice is often a bit limited. I was surprised when I bought eggs in Tarbert that were produced in Aberdeen! ~> Hang on a minute – how on earth do I get there?? You can fly to Stornaway, Barra or Benbecula direct from Glasgow and Edinburgh. You can get a ferry from Oban or Ullapool on the mainland, or from Uig on Skye. The ferries are fun, and offer great birdwatching opportunities. The service is impeccable, and of course there is the bonus of taking your own car/motorbike/cycle. We find the ferries not too expensive, and savings can be made if you buy an Island Hopscotch ticket, which allows you to use one of several routes within a month. Contact: Caledonian MacBrayne The Ferry Terminal Gourock PA 19 1QP for details of sailings, prices and routes, or visit their website at www.calmac.co.uk We’ve never flown to the Islands, but I guess you’d need to get in touch with Glasgow airport for more information. Remember if you fly you’ll have to hire a car/bike once you touchdown to get around, or rely on the local buses!! I’ll try to give you a rough idea of how long it takes to get there, based on our recent trip. Are you ready for this?? Birmingham>Oban = 400 miles = 9 hours drive if the traffic is okay! Oban >Lochboisdale (South Uist) = 5 ½ hours on the ferry! Lochboisdale>Lochmaddy (North Uist) = 1 ½ hour drive! Bernaray>Leverburgh (Harris) = 1 hour on the ferry! Leverburgh> Tarbert = ½ hour drive We left on a Thursday at 7am, and got to our cottage at 1pm on Saturday, 2 B&B's later. You’re right – it would have been quicker to g o to Australia – but not half as much fun!! * * * Conclusion (phew, I hear you say!) Harris is the place for me. If you are a keen walker, birdwatcher or wildlife lover you will appreciate this magical Island. If you are not a big fan of crowds, hate nightclubs and detest the incessant ringing of mobile phones, then why not give the Western Isles a try? But if you can’t imagine a holiday without cocktails on the terrace overlooking the pool, in soaring temperatures, then stay away. You’d probably hate it! ~> Be prepared You MUST take all of the following to get the most from your holiday on Harris: Binoculars. I mean GOOD binoculars, a pair for each of you. Kagoules (or windcheaters) – trendy fashion item – a neccessity for on the hills. Walking Boots -proper walking boots- and thick socks. Insect repellant (we were lucky with the midges, this time, but they can be nasty!) Sunscreen (you never know . . . ) Wildlife/Bird Identification Guide! Camera and film. So there you go. If I’ve managed to pique your interest, contact the Western Isles Tourist Board at 26 Cromwell Street, Stornaway, Lewis, HS1 2DD and ask them to send you the 2001 brochure. This has general information on all the Islands, as well as detailed accomodation listings. It gives more information on Visitor Attractions and local events, as well as some lovely photos to whet your appetite further. PS Mr Moomin and I are going to live on Harris one day. There’s a croft in a tiny village overlooking a bay, with a view right across to Skye and the mainland. The mountain rises stepply behind it, and the sparkling loch stretches for 18 miles. As soon as we win the lottery, we’re off. PPS Sorry this opinion is so short. I was rushing a bit wasn't I?? I'll come back and finish it off tomorrow . . . .

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