Outer Hebrides, Scotland, June 2014:
Strolling along Luskentyre Beach on the Isle of Harris in a biting wind, we recalled the story of a Thai holiday resort that put a picture of an Outer Hebrides beach in its brochure.
It may have been a huge cheek but it was also a tribute to Scotland’s island coastline. And it made us wonder what would change if Harris – which actually looks a bit like Hawaii with its remarkable mix of mountains and golden sands – were 10 or 15 degrees hotter.
Well… the line of dunes to our left would be wiped out by high-rise hotels. The single-track lane we’d driven down would be a four-lane highway lined with shops and restaurants. And the local population of terns, herons, corncrakes, otters and seals would vanish as passenger jets ferried the world’s sun-worshippers to and fro.
It’s the very lack of reliable sunshine that preserves the Outer Hebrides as a paradise on earth, though blue skies are more common than you might think.
Gazing across the jade-green sea to Taransay island with the wind whipping ghostly snakes of sand around our feet, we could see why Luskentyre is regularly voted the No 1 beach in Britain. Even if our swimsuits had to stay in the car.
We spent four days on the islands last month, driving from Barra in the south to Lewis in the north via causeways and small car ferries.
I’d been to Scotland many times but never to these islands. For my French girlfriend Florence it was her first visit to “La Belle Ecosse”.
This is an action-packed year with next month’s Commonwealth Games, golf’s Ryder Cup in September and the vote on independence.
And there’s the “Homecoming” too. There’s one every five years and the world (especially anyone with Scots ancestry) is encouraged to see the Auld Country.
Our trip began with an easyJet flight to Inverness, where we picked up a Holiday Autos hire car and drove through the lochs and glens to catch our first Caledonian MacBrayne ferry.
You can arrive on Barra island by boat. Or fly from Glasgow to the world’s only airport where scheduled flights land on a beach. Barra, just eight miles by six, has beautiful beaches, one circular road and one town, Castlebay, with a medieval castle on an island in the harbour. tinyurl.com/barracastle
Tiny Vatersay, linked by causeway to the south, has its own quietly lovely beaches.
Next morning a 40-minute ferry ride took us north to Eriskay, which inspired the Ealing comedy film Whisky Galore. When a freighter sank here in 1941 the locals “liberated” 24,000 bottles of malt whisky, inspiring the much-loved story. One of the bottles is on display at The Politician, a pub named after the ship.
A causeway leads on to South Uist, whose west coast is all white sand and “machair” (flower-filled grassland). One beach is 25 miles long. The east is all lochs and hills – there are few roads but planned walks will lead you to impressive panoramas. walkhighlands.co.uk
We stopped at the Hebridean life museum in Kildonan, which gives a flavour of former times and fills up an hour or two if it rains.
One amazing story tells of a young islander who fled to France with Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1746. His son Alexandre Macdonald then became a heroic general and French duke under Napoleon I.
We drove up to the huge Our Lady of the Isles statue for a panoramic view of the next two islands, which are linked by causeway. Benbecula has a good place to buy gifts and souvenirs at MacGillivray’s shop in Balivanich.
This whole island is heaven for birdwatchers and there’s a RSPB reserve at Balranald. We also stopped to admire the Scolpaig Tower, an elegant folly in a loch.
From the linked island of Berneray it’s a 60-minute crossing to Harris. And the drive to the capital, Tarbert, takes you through the most epic scenery in Britain. Around every bend, the mountains, lochs, rivers, estuaries, beaches and sea rearrange themselves into new and thrilling combinations. We only stopped getting out to take pictures when the sun began to sink and hunger set in.
After admiring a set of paintings in a Tarbert restaurant we visited the artist’s studio the next day. Willie Fulton, a cheerful Glaswegian, lives and works in an impossibly scenic setting at Drinshader on the narrow “Golden Road” east of Tarbert (so called because of the huge cost of completing it).
We opted for a bargain £25 print rather than a £1,750 original (“they go for £4,000 in the London galleries, you know”) but he happily showed us round his studio. williefulton.com
After our stroll along Luskentyre beach we visited the world’s most celebrated Harris tweed weaver, Donald John Mackay, MBE. He works in a tin shack not far from the sands, but there’s no sign outside and we had to ask around to find him. He rewarded our perseverance with a personal demo, sitting at his pedal-driven loom and creating a swathe of intricately-patterned tweed before our eyes.
“Don John” is the man Nike called when they wanted 10,000 yards of Harris tweed for a new line of trainers. His normal daily output is 27 yards but he mobilised every weaver on the islands and the shoes became a limited edition which today fetch large amounts on eBay.
I gave myself a tweed makeover with a flat cap (I wish my Geordie dad had lived to see the day) and a scarf tailor-made on the spot from a larger piece of material at Lewis Looms in Stornoway, our final stop. This grand old port is on the east coast of Lewis.
Confusingly, this is part of the same land mass as Harris. Each year it stages HebCelt, a Celtic music festival which draws up to 16,000 people to its castle gardens, increasing the town’s population by a factor of almost three. The music ranges from traditional to rock, world and indie-folk.
Fiddle player Jane Hepburn of local group Face The West, a festival veteran and member of its Hall of Fame, told me: “It’s a great atmosphere and lots of people make a holiday of it with an activity like kayaking or biking. Segway tours are popular too.”
This year’s festival (July 16-19) features The Levellers, Big Country and Donnie Munro. hebceltfest.com
We had time to see the standing stones of Callanish, a mysterious monument older than Stonehenge. callanishvisitorcentre.co.uk
And on our final day we visited the Black Houses of Gearranan, a stone-and-thatch settlement reconstructing island hardships a century ago but leaving the pleasant aroma of a peat fire on your clothes. gearrannan.com
Then it was time to catch a ferry back to the mainland. A lovely old Jacobite song came into my head as we left the harbour. It’s name is Will Ye No Come Back Again.
Yes… I think we will.
When: The weather is always changeable but April-June tends to be sunniest. The islands are so far north it barely goes dark in June.
Getting there: EasyJet fly to Inverness from Bristol, Luton and Gatwick from £28 one-way. easyjet.com. Holiday Autos car rental from Inverness Airport from £95 per week. holidayautos.co.uk. Calmac ferry options include a 31-day Hopscotch 8 ticket to and between the Outer Hebrides for £153 per car plus £35.50pp. calmac.co.uk
Top Tips: There’s very little mobile signal on the islands. If you have a choice of provider, Vodafone has the best coverage. Or just enjoy the isolation! And fill up your car on the mainland – it’s a lot cheaper.
Where to eat: We liked the Pierhouse Restaurant at the Hotel Hebrides in Tarbert and Digby Chick in Stornoway. hotel-hebrides.com, digbychick.co.uk
Where to stay: Our favourite was the Ceol Na Mara (Music of the Sea) guest house on a lochside close to Tarbert, double rooms from £90. Breakfast porridge with whisky-soaked sultanas was a life-changing discovery. ceolnamara.com
Find out more: Tourist info plus hotel, B&B and self-catering options. visitscotland.com
This article first appeared in the Sunday Mirror’s Holidays and Getaways section on June 14, 2014.