Travel Tuesday: A Weekend on the Western Isles
By: Harris LaTeef and Lily Ratcliff
What Scotland’s Western Isles lack in mobile phone signal, they make up for in their surreal natural beauty. From Kyle of Lochalsh and Kyleakin at the bottom of the Isle of Skye to the remote village of Tarbert on the Isle of Harris, Scotland’s Western Isles are truly magnificent.
~~ Day One ~~
After planning our travels three weeks in advance of our trip, we finally boarded the first of the four trains that would take us to Kyle of Lochalsh, some 180 miles away on Scotland’s otherworldly west coast.
Travelling via Dundee, Perth, and Inverness was a tortuously long journey which took over eight hours. However, it allowed us to absorb the spectacular scenery before us. During this time, we saw winding mountain passes and long stretches of land where the only local residents for as far as the eye could see were livestock.
[TRAIN TO KYLE OF LOCHALSH]
When planning a trip to the Isle of Skye or the Outer Hebrides, the first natural stop is Kyle of Lochalsh, the last town on the mainland of Scotland before the Western Isles. From there, once you’ve crossed the Skye Bridge in Kyleakin, you reach the so-called ‘Gateway to Skye.’
[SKYE BRIDGE FROM KYLE OF LOCHALSH]
We arrived at Kyleakin long after dusk before checking into the Skye Backpackers Hostel. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the chance to appreciate the remarkable view that was to greet us when the sun rose the next morning.
~~ Day Two ~~
After waking up early and checking out of our hotel, we emerged from the hostel and were instantly captivated by the sight of the steam rising from Loch Alsh in the early morning light. The natural landscape is interrupted by the ruins of Castle Moil, a former stronghold of the Mackinnon Clan which dates back to the 1500s. For centuries, it watched over the passage between Skye and mainland Scotland, controlling access to all ships except those which navigated the treacherous passage known as ‘The Minch’ off the north coast of Skye.
[MORNING IN KYLEAKIN]
Following our breakfast at Harry’s Cafe on the banks of Kyleakin Harbour, we caught the first bus of the morning to Uig on the northwest coast where we planned to take the ferry to Tarbert on the Isle of Harris. On our way up the A87 toward Portree and Uig, we had planned a stop in a village called Sligachan (we have yet to determine a definitive pronunciation of this!), some 24 miles northwest of Kyleakin. We quickly discovered that Sligachan, in reality, was far smaller than we had imagined it to be. In fact, there’s very little there, with the exception of just one small (but very accommodating) hotel, a bus stop, and an abandoned caravan park. There’s nothing else for about 25 miles.
With buses being few and far between in this part of Scotland, we were stranded in Sligachan for five long hours. But, having heard about the impressive Cuillin Hills, we decided to take off on foot and explore the region. We soon came to understand why this place is considered so special, for the glen, the trickling streams, the abundance of heather and the cold, misty air were like something out of a Caspar David Friedrich painting. Utterly breathtaking is the only way the landscape can be described, from the moisture of the air to the hardy bracken that covered each rock: it has a mystical and brooding atmosphere.
After walking for more than two and half hours, we decided to try and get some lunch from the Sligachan Hotel, only to discover that a massive highland wedding party had hired the hotel, and had arrived while we were hiking on the hills. Nervous as to whether we should enter or not, a kind gentleman, who was a member of the groom’s party, welcomed us into the hotel and guided us to the bar - it was Highland hospitality at its finest!
After our hiking adventures in Sligachan, we continued our journey by bus to Uig, a small village situated on the northwest coast of Skye. We checked into the Uig Lodge and Hotel, which is managed by a couple who moved to Skye from London, and had purchased the establishment a few years earlier. Dinner at the hotel restaurant consisted of Isle of Skye red deer and fresh, locally sourced scampi.
[TRANSPORT AND UIG HOTEL]
Like the famous Fairy Pools near Glen Brittle in the Isle of Skye, Uig has its own picturesque Fairy Glen, which apparently contains the remains of an ancient fairy broch. The journey to the glen was a minor challenge to say the least, as the foot-trodden path was guarded by hundreds of rather intimidating looking rams. Despite the rather long walk, the journey was certainly worth it, as the view from the Fairy Glen was breathtaking, with waterfalls in the distance, and rugged rock formations and hills all around. We took part in the ancient tradition of walking round the circular rock formation, which, according to legend, is the pathway into the ‘fairy world’. In the centre over time, people have left trinkets and rocks to mark their visit. We both left a little Isle of Skye rock in the centre to follow this quaint tradition, and then began our journey back to Uig, facing even more rams along the way.
[HARRIS FAIRY GLEN AND MV HEBRIDES]
Having eaten lunch and checked out of the Uig Lodge, we began the 30 minute walk around the edge of Uig Harbour to the C aledonian MacBrayne ferry terminal. This journey was in order to board the MV Hebrides for the crossing to Tarbert on the Isle of Harris. For six days of the week, the MV Hebrides sails directly from Uig to Tarbert in about an hour and 40 minutes. However, we were unlucky, and had to catch a Sunday ferry which stops in Lochmaddy, instead; this lengthened the journey time to just under four hours. However, the MV Hebrides (which has a passenger capacity of 612 people) had plenty of options when it came to passing the time. From two onboard cafés to a stunning view from the rear deck which allows its passengers to watch the Skye coastline slowly slip away as you depart from Uig, the MV Hebrides is not only one of the only ways to get to the Isle of Harris, but it is also one of the most comfortable.
After our journey via Lochmaddy, we arrived at the Port of Tarbert long after dusk. Following a short walk through the town, we made our way to the Harris Hotel (a place that Harris was more than excited to visit, for obvious reasons). The Victorian lodge-style establishment is situated in the hills just outside town, and has been visited by many notable figures, including Peter Pan author J.M.Barrie, who even scratched his name onto one of the windows of the dining room. Dinner at the well-known and favourably reviewed hotel restaurant included Cullen skink, and what we both agreed was the best salmon fillet either of us had ever had.
Our trip to the Isle of Harris was rather short-lived, for the MV Hebrides adopted its winter sailing schedule the week before we arrived. This forced us to catch the afternoon ferry the day after we arrived in Tarbert. However, this gave us more than enough time to visit much of the town’s main establishments and attractions, and even allowed us to take a quick hike into the hills surrounding Tarbert Harbour.
After a hearty Scottish breakfast courtesy of the Harris Hotel, our next day in Tarbert started with a trip to the Harris Tweed shop in the centre of the village. We had the chance to try on various outfits in tweed. From jackets to gloves, to hats, purses, bags, pencil cases, phone covers, hip flasks, and even dog jackets - if you can dream it, this shop probably sells it in tweed. We made off with some gloves, a few gifts for the folks back home, and a beret that Lily is tremendously proud of.
After acquiring more tweed than most people need in a lifetime, we walked over to the Isle of Harris Distillery, which opened its doors last October. Built by a group of 17 investors all with a common love of gin, whiskey, and the Isle of Harris, the distillery is situated at the edge of Tarbert Harbour, and its pointed roofs and large windows give the distillery building a church-like appearance. But this church’s altar is its bottling room, and the deity it venerates must be the famous Isle of Harris gin made with sugar kelp, which is now well known thanks to the ‘Gin Renaissance’ movement that seems to be sweeping across the United Kingdom, Europe, and elsewhere.
Similar to the business model of the Eden Mill in Guardbridge, which produces the tremendously popular ‘Love Gin’, the Isle of Harris Distillery has been producing gin to sell while they wait the legally required three years before the spirit they are ageing can be bottled and sold as Scottish whiskey. To set their Isle of Harris gin apart, the distillery infuses it with sugar kelp which is collected by hand from the sea off Tarbert and the Isle of Harris. This gives the gin a distinct hint of its origins by the sea before it is bottled in a glass vessel.
[ISLE OF HARRIS DISTILLERY]
After a quick lunch of coriander soup at the distillery's canteen, we decided to spend our last two hours in Tarbert hiking in the hills that stretch around the southern side of Tarbert Harbour.
As we climbed up the path leading out of town, we were met by the sight of a horse in the distance atop a hill, backlit by the early setting October sun.
Realising we were quickly running out of time before we had to return to the Tarbert ferry port to catch the last ferry of the day, we started to make our way back down the path into town, passing Tarbert’s only emergency medical facility, a paved helipad for air ambulances to land and ferry patients back to a hospital on the mainland.
Our time on the Isle of Harris drew to a close and we boarded the MV Hebrides once more to sail back to Uig, the first step on our long journey back to St Andrews. The sun finally set over the hills that we had been hiking across just a few minutes before the Hebrides steamed out of the harbour.
[TARBERT HARBOUR FROM THE SHIP]
Arriving back to Uig just after sunset, we were met by wet weather and high winds, making the evening all the more atmospheric. Our next step on the journey back home to St Andrews involved travelling to a small town called Skeabost, west of Portree, where we stayed at the positively reviewed Skeabost Hotel. To our surprise, the late journey was far more pleasant than we expected, and we met some lovely locals along the way. Starting with the CityLink bus from Uig to Portree, we were the only passengers onboard during the journey, with the exception of the bus driver and his young son. After arriving into Portree, a short taxi ride to Skeabost was all that stood between us and the end of a very long day.
When we finally arrived to the hotel that evening, we were overwhelmed by the beauty of the building. Originally built as the summer hunting lodge for the MacDonald family, the Victorian building is situated next to River Snizort, a picturesque river surrounded by green banks and rockery. Outside the front of the hotel is woodlands, which also line the driveway. The grand design of the lodge consists of high wooden beams, ornate carvings and white brickwork: an excellent example of the Scottish baronial style that was popular from the 1850s onwards.
Dinner was superb, and possibly the best meal that we were served all weekend long. Fresh cod, chicken pie and a selection of local Scottish cheeses were all amazing, and were topped off with a speedy service and a cozy drawing room to retire to after the meal.
Our last day of travel consisted of the long journey back home to St Andrews. The Skeabost Hotel boasted a complimentary fully cooked breakfast, which we wolfed down so that we had some time to explore the banks of the River Snizort which runs behind the hotel.
After a quick taxi ride to Portree, we boarded a bus for Kyle of Lochalsh where we would start the eight hour train journey home to St Andrews.
Overall, our expedition to Scotland’s Western Isles opened our eyes to the vast and seemingly unlimited natural beauties that this part of the world has to offer. Although remote and quite difficult to access, the Isles of Skye and Harris are worth the journey and, if you’re studying at St Andrews, your university experience is far from complete without having trekked to the magnificent highlands and the Western Isles. From the wonderful hospitality and generosity exhibited by its residents to the nearly perpetually breathtaking natural beauty, the Western Isles captivated us and have left us working hard to come up with reasons to plan a return visit.