Monday, 30 July 2012


St Kilda is an archipelago of superlatives. Not only is it the remotest part of the British Isles, but it is the only World Heritage Site in Britain having a dual status, being of natural and cultural significance. Natural significance for its huge cliffs and sea stacks - the highest in Britain - which are home to the most important sea-bird breeding ground in north-west Europe, including the world's largest gannet colony and Britain's largest colony of fulmars. For its superb diving opportunities, with submerged caves, arches and tunnels. For the sheep of Soay island, a primitive breed dating back to the Bronze Age. Cultural significance for the ancient remains left behind by the island's earliest inhabitants. For the archaeological finds from the period of Norse occupation. For the remains of the village dating back to the time when the main island, Hirta, was inhabited, the occupants living in traditional Hebridean black houses and thatched stone houses.

Life must have been incredibly challenging for the people living in this remote outpost. The seabirds for which the archipelago is so prized once formed a major part of their diet. The population was once nearly wiped out by smallpox brought back by someone who had visited Harris in 1726. Only 1 adult and 18 children survived on Hirta. Over the years, famine, emigration to Australia and other factors contributed to a serious decline in the population. The 36 remaining inhabitants were finally evacuated in 1930 and nowadays the only people to spend any length of time there are conservation workers, scientists and so forth. St Kilda, which is run by the National Trust for Scotland, is not the easiest place to get to, but people do visit, some of them arriving by cruise ship, some by charters or yachts.

Map of the area.

© 1969 Ian Mitchell, via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, 29 July 2012


The Isle of Harris, or South Harris, is not actually an island, being joined to Lewis by a narrow isthmus separating Loch Tarbert from West Loch Tarbert. In fact, the geography of Harris is confusing, because the northern part of it lies on the other side of the isthmus, forming part of the "Isle of Lewis". The main community on the 'Isle' is Tarbert, which has a ferry terminal offering sailings to Uig on Skye. On the southern tip of Harris is the small port of Rodel which is noted for its medieval kirk, the Church of St Clement, built by the MacLeods of Dunvegan and housing three monuments to the family, including one carved from the local black stone known as "gneiss". The other main village on the island is Leverburgh, which has a number of ferries including one to the small island of Berneray. The road which wends its way from Tarbert to Rodel was nicknamed the "golden road" because of the cost of building it. There are some spectacular beaches in South Harris, most notably Seilebost and Scarista. Film director Stanley Kubrick considered the terrain of South Harris other-worldly enough to use it as a double for the surface of Jupiter in his film "2001: A Space Odyssey", although the shots were tinted, so it may not be readily recognisable as Harris.

Map of the area.

Seilebost © 2006 David Crocker, via Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, 26 July 2012


Hushinish, which is in the North Harris part of Lewis and Harris, is a delightful place to visit in early summer when the machair, or coastal grassy plain, is covered with flowers such as harebells, or Scottish bluebells. Delightful also for its gleaming beaches, which boast the highest percentage of shell fragments in Scotland. It is possible to walk from here via a mountain path to Cravadale on the shores of Loch Cleabhaig, a rewarding walk for the views to the uninhabited island of Scarp. The water between this coast and Scarp is notorious for its strong currents, even though it is often very shallow. Scarp was inhabited until 1970, and the difficulty of making the crossing between Hushinish and Scarp due to the treacherous waters meant that the people of Scarp were often cut off. Enter German inventor Gerhard Zucker, who in 1934 came up with a cunning plan to deliver the island's post by "rocket mail". Sadly, the inventor's attempts at delivering the mail in this way were unsuccessful, and led to the mail items being singed. Anyone who finds it hard to believe this story should head for the Museum nan Eilean in Stornoway, where examples of the damaged envelopes are on display. The episode provided inspiration for a 2004 film called The Rocket Post.

Map of the area.

© 2004 Peter Amsden, via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, 24 July 2012


Anyone who loves visiting historic sites should head for the Atlantic coast of the Isle of Lewis. If you have paid a visit to the blackhouses at Arnol and wonder what it would be like to stay in one of them, there is an entire 'village' of blackhouses at Garenin (or Gearrannan) a bit further down the coast serving as holiday accommodation for a truly unique stay on the island with wonderful views out to sea. A short distance away from here is Carloway Broch, an Iron Age fortified tower which, although built 2,000 years ago, still stands proud, the dry-stone walls reaching up to 9 metres in places. Inside the walls are stairs, chambers and galleries.

One of the most haunting sights on the Isle of Lewis is the stone circle known as the Callanish Stones, the island's answer to Stonehenge, where there is a Visitor Centre. The stones, which are located on a hill above East Loch Roag, are around 6 metres high. Made from stone quarried locally, they were put up around 4,000 years ago roughly in the shape of a Celtic cross, with a cairn in the centre. Like Stonehenge, the Callanish Stones were probably erected for astronomical purposes, since they appear to be in alignment with other standing stones and circles in the area. Further down the coast still is the sandy beach of Uig where in 1831 the famous "Lewis Chessmen" were discovered. The set of 78 pieces, carved from walrus ivory and whale teeth, dates from the 12th century. Unfortunately, it is not possible to view all the pieces together, as they were split up between the British Museum in London, which has 67 of them, and the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, which has the remaining 11.

Map of the area.

© 1994 Alan McKenzie, via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, 22 July 2012


One half expects Ian Holm to emerge from one of the "blackhouses" at Arnol in full hobbit regalia, as they have that hobbity look about them. The blackhouses are a traditional form of dwelling with thatched roofs which the inhabitants used to share with their livestock. There was a peat fire permanently on the go in the main living area, but no chimney, so one can only imagine the aroma permeating the living space. Contrary to their name, the structures are not actually black, but more grey, having thick stone walls. The Blackhouse Museum at Arnol offers visitors the chance to wander round inside one of the blackhouses, as well as one of the more recent "white houses", in which life in the 1950s is represented. The move from the blackhouses to the white ones came about largely as a result of "elf and safety" dictating that animals should be kept in a separate space. For once I agree with them.

There are further interesting traditional buildings to visit in the nearby village of Shawbost, location of the Norse Mill and Kiln. The mill once housed around 200 horizontal wheel mills, and was operational until the 1930s. The kiln was probably used to heat and dry the grain that was processed in the mill. Visitors can find out more about local life in the Old School Centre, which as well as serving as a community centre, houses a museum. One of the products Scotland is noted for is Harris tweed, which is handwoven by the islanders of the Outer Hebrides using local wool. A few years ago the industry was given a much-needed boost with the opening of a new mill at Shawbost.

Map of the area.

© 2005 Catherine Morgan, via Wikimedia Commons

Friday, 20 July 2012


I have been in some spectacularly windy places on the British coast - Start Point in Devon is one place that springs to mind - but the Butt of Lewis, the most northerly spot in the Western isles, must be the daddy of them all, having made the Guinness Book of Records for being the windiest place in the UK. Needless to say, the seas around here are correspondingly treacherous, hence the presence of the Butt of Lewis Lighthouse, built by David and Thomas Stevenson and completed in 1862. The first thing about the lighthouse that strikes the visitor is its appearance: it is largely made up of red bricks, a contrast from the usual whitewash. The Butt of Lewis is popular with birdwatchers, being home to many seabirds.

The nearby village of Eoropaidh is the most northerly village on the island. The village is the location of the centuries-old St Moluag's Church, named after a 6th century Irish Saint. The church fell into ruin during the 19th century, but was restored in 1912. Nearby is the Port of Ness, from where the menfolk sail to the island of Sula Sgeir, 30 miles to the north, each September to harvest the "gugas", or gannets, a local delicacy which helps the inhabitants through the winter.

Map of the area.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012


The Eye Peninsula, otherwise known as Point, lies about 4 miles east of Stornoway, and is separated from the rest of Lewis by a narrow isthmus called the Braigh. There is a mythical story told locally about how, back long ago when Point was a separate island, a ferocious storm caused Lewis to drift away, but the people of Point hauled it back again with the aid of a rope. The debris and sand which gathered around the rope over time was said to be the origin of the isthmus.

As soon as you enter the peninsula, you are greeted by the evocative ruins of St Columba's Church, or Eaglais Chaluim Chille in Gaelic, dating originally from the 14th century. The land around the church was used as the burial ground for the MacLeods of Lewis. It is one of several early Christian sites on the peninsula. Near St Columba's Church is a memorial to the Aignish rioters who took part in the Lewis Land Struggle in the 1800s. At the eastern extreme of the peninsula is Tiumpan Head with its lighthouse, built in 1900. It is worth taking binoculars if you decide to visit the lighthouse, as it is sometimes possible to see basking sharks or whales out at sea from here.

Map of the area.

© 2009 Stephen Branley, via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, 16 July 2012


It takes 1 hour 45 minutes to make the journey by ferry from Ullapool to Stornoway, capital of the Isle of Lewis and the largest town in the Western Isles. The name of the town comes from the Viking for "Steering Bay". Much of the town's architecture harks back to more prosperous times, when the harbour housed a significant herring fleet: most notably the Town Hall, which is is a grand Edwardian affair, while Lews Castle on the bank of a river feeding into the harbour mouth is in the mock-Tudor style, although it was built in the 1840s by a business magnate. Many improvements were made to the castle by another magnate, Lord Leverhulme, of Unilever, who bought the Isle of Lewis in 1918 for £143,000. The Museum Nan Eilean puts on exhibitions about the history of the Western Isles. More active pursuits on offer include golfing, go-karting and paintball, while in summer there are boat trips which leave from behind the Lifeboat Station.

One thing visitors to the Isle of Lewis may find hard to get used to is the fact that almost everything closes on a Sunday. However, many people would probably find this aspect of life on Lewis a refreshing change from the 7-days-a-week open-all-hours mentality on the mainland. Things liven up considerably each year in July, with the Sail Stornoway Maritime Festival, which offers sailing events open to all. This year's festival has just ended, as has the Hebridean Celtic Festival, which took place at Lews Castle.  Other attractions in the town include the Lewis Loom Centre for fans of Harris Tweed.

Map of the area.

© 2007 Wmck, via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, 15 July 2012


Ullapool is a picturesque little fishing town on the shores of Loch Broom comprising mainly whitewashed buildings, giving it a strikingly brilliant appearance from afar. The town was designed by Thomas Telford, in collaboration with the British Fisheries Society. Fishing remains an important economic mainstay of the town, although it has had its ups and downs over the years. At one time the loch was used as a base for Russian and East European factory trawlers known as "klondykers", whose crew members used to arrive in the town in August each year for a stay lasting several months.

Ullapool makes a good base for touring the area, with a range of shops, pubs and accommodation options. The Ullapool Museum and Visitor Centre has displays on the history of the town and surrounding area, known as Wester Ross, as well as research facilities. For those wanting to venture away from the mainland, Ullapool is the main departure point for the ferry to Stornoway, capital of the Isle of Lewis. For shorter boat trips, the Summer Queen offers cruises to Loch Broom and the Summer Isles.

Map of the area.

Photo by Paul Hart,via Wikimedia Commons

Friday, 13 July 2012


Heading south from Lochinver the Inverpolly National Nature Reserve makes a spectacular diversion, with mountain walks and trails through the reserve's diverse habitats. Knockan Crag National Nature Reserve also has a Visitor Centre. The road leading down towards Ullapool is regarded as one of the most beautiful in the country, and was a favourite of Wainwright, who dubbed it the "wee mad road of Sutherland". The village of Achiltibuie overlooks the uninhabited Summer Isles, and boat trips around the islands can be arranged, with the opportunity to view wildlife including grey seals and gannets. There is a range of accommodation in the village from the Summer Isles Hotel with its fine dining down to the Youth Hostel for those watching their wallets. Achiltibuie's most unusual visitor attraction must be its Hydroponicum, where plants are grown using the "hydroponics" technique, that is to say they are grown without the use of soil, instead using nutrient solutions. Visitors who want to try the technique for themselves can buy a variety of kits and accessories. On the shore of the nearby Badentarbat Bay there is a water-powered corn mill dating from the 19th century, and nearby is the Coigach Free Church.

Map of the area.

© 1972 Anne Burgess, via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, 10 July 2012


Last year, a report in the Guardian hailed Lochinver as "Scotland's new foodie hotspot". The report described a revolution which had taken place in the area which had seen the arrival of several high class restaurants including one at a hotel, Inver Lodge, which had contracted its kitchen out to Albert Roux, best known for Le Gavroche. On a more down-to-earth level, the Lochinver Larder is famed for its pies, which are available to order online from its website.

Lochinver is the capital of the region in north-west Scotland known as Assynt, and the Assynt Visitor Centre, a free museum and tourist information centre, is located here. The town is overlooked by a striking mountain called Suilven, and Lochinver is the starting point for one of several routes to the mountain. The helmet-shaped mountain looks impossible to climb from a distance, but in fact it is allegedly not that difficult. Lochinver's harbour is the busiest in the Highland region, being visited by fishing boats from as far away as France. The boats land their catches for sale at the evening fish market. For more leisurely pursuits, visitors can arrange boat trips from the harbour.

Map of the area.

Photo by Gordon Brown, via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, 9 July 2012


The main point of interest for visitors to Stoer actually lies about a mile north of the village. The Old Man of Stoer, like the similarly named Old Man of Hoy in the Orkneys, is an impressive sea stack 60 metres high, just off the coast. The walk along the coast to the sea stack is rough in places and care is needed, but the walker is rewarded with fine views of the coast. Back in the village, the church, which was built in 1828, now lies in ruins. When it was in use, it proved too small for the size of the congregation so services were held outside when weather permitted. The manse which went with the church was built a year later, and survives today under the name of Stoer House. The lovely Stoer Bay has remnants of Iron Age habitation in the form of the fort known as Clachtoll Broch, situated just to the south of the bay.

Map of the area.

© 2007 Dontpanic, via Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, 7 July 2012


The tiny village of Drumbeg is in the part of Sutherland known as Assynt, renowned for its landscape, and in particular its mountains. There is a wonderful view over this landscape from a specially designated viewpoint to the west of the village, looking out across Eddrachillis Bay to the north towards Handa Island. Across the way from the viewpoint is a mound from where there are magnificent views eastwards to the peaks of Quinag. Near the viewpoint is the village store, which as well as groceries stocks arts and crafts and books. The village lies on the road from Lochinver to Kylesku; the road was built in the late 1800s and forms part of  the North Coast 500 scenic drive, on one of the many stretches consisting of a single carriageway with passing places. Fishing is available on Loch Drumbeg, which also forms part of a walk taking in two of the traditional "peat roads" formerly used by residents heading into the interior to collect peat.

Map of the area.

Photo by Jude Dobson, via Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, 5 July 2012


The main purpose for visiting Tarbet is that it is the departure point for the nature reserve of Handa Island which is just offshore and is reachable by a small ferry boat from Tarbet. However, Tarbet has some interesting wildlife of its own. Wild rock pigeons live on the cliffs, while birds to be seen flying overhead include buzzards. Tarbet is a tiny hamlet with a scattering of buildings which include a seafood restaurant once visited by Rick Stein.

Those making the crossing to Handa Island, which is run by the Scottish Wildlife Trust, are met by staff who give an introductory talk then point out the path which encircles the island, 6 Km in all. Care is needed as the terrain is rough, and it is best to allow at least 3 hours for the walk round. Although only a small island, Handa has impressive cliffs formed from Torridian Sandstone, rising to 400 feet at the northern edge of the island. The impressive geology of the island's coast includes a sea stack known as the Great Stack, which hosts enormous numbers of seabirds. The seabird colonies include the largest colony of breeding guillemots in Britain, and they share the island with many other seabird varieties including puffin, fulmar, razorbill, arctic and great skuas. In addition to the amazing bird life, parts of the island are carpeted with pretty pink flowers during the summer months. The island is uninhabited today, but there are the remains of a village which was inhabited until 1847.

Map of the area.

© 2010 Saskia van de Nieuwenhof, via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, 3 July 2012


Heading south from Cape Wrath down the west coast of Scotland we enter a sparsely populated stretch of coast, the jewel in the crown being the glorious Sandwood Bay, featured as Beach of the Week in the Telegraph in 2007. The beach here is believed to be the most remote beach on mainland Britain but is well worth the trek to get to it, with its lovely pink sands, dramatic cliffs, sparkling clean water and a small loch separated from the beach by sand dunes.

The first settlement of any note on this northernmost part of the west coast is Kinlochbervie. The main economic activity here is fish handling, with vessels from far and wide landing their catch at Kinlochbervie, from where the fish are loaded onto refrigerated trucks for distribution throughout Europe. In 2008 the village featured in the Time Team series when a wreck off the coast was investigated. Artefacts from the ship, which included pottery, anchors and cannons suggested a vessel which may have formed part of the Spanish Armada. Every year in early July the village holds a Gala Day, with traditional Scottish entertainment such as the pipe band, and the crowning of the Gala Queen. Images from past Gala Days and other delights can be found on the village website, which also features webcams based in the village.

Map of the area.

© 2008 Anne Burgess, via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, 1 July 2012


There are certain geographical features whose very name strikes terror into the hearts of those who come into close contact with them. Few such names can be more intimidating than Cape Wrath, a name which conjures up images of an angry, boiling sea and ships being tossed around like playground toys. However, appropriate though the name undoubtedly is, the actual origin of it is the Old Norse 'hvarf' meaning 'turning point'.  The Cape, which is in the extreme north-west of the British mainland, is one of only two in Britain, the other being Cape Cornwall at the opposite end of the country. Not surprisingly, there have been a number of ships wrecked off the cape over the years. For example, HMS Caribbean, which had been requisitioned for service in the First World War, sank off the Cape during bad weather in 1915, with 15 dead. However, not all shipwrecks have been the result of stormy weather. HMS Bullen was torpedoed by a submarine in 1944, and the SS Manipur met a similar fate in 1940. It was in response to the shipwrecks occurring off this coast that a lighthouse was built in 1828 by Robert Stevenson.

The Cape is accessible to visitors only by means of a ferry across the Kyle of Durness followed by an 11-mile journey by minibus. Visitors can find refreshment at the most remote cafe in Britain, the Ozone Cafe. One thing to bear in mind is that the area around the Cape includes a military firing range, using a small island visible from the Cape as target practice, and these areas are closed to the public at certain times. Besides its geographical position, another claim to fame for the Cape is that the cliffs above the Bay of Kearvaig to the east of the lighthouse are the highest sea cliffs in mainland Britain. For the nature enthusiasts, a rich variety of birdlife and flora are present on the Cape, the former including the iconic Golden Eagle, while the plants to be found include Mountain Avens and Purple Saxifrage.

Map of the area.