Posted by: christinelaennec | August 6, 2010

Isle of Harris Part I: Crossing the Minch / Luskentyre

We’ve recently returned from a week in Harris, where our family has gone almost every year since 1996.  This was the rainiest week we’ve ever had there, and for the first time it was a bit of a challenge to live up to my principled stance that I can be happy no matter what the weather!  The conditions were ideal for knitting, though, and we had three sets of visitors – so we came home feeling refreshed and relaxed.  Even in bad weather, the Outer Hebrides is such a magical place that I am planning four blog posts about our week there.  (Perhaps you’re now thinking – just as well it wasn’t sunnier!)

Foggy Minch: view from MV Hebrides, sailing from Skye to Harris

As you can see, there wasn’t much of a view from the ferry, but it was mercifully calm.  The crossing takes about an hour and 45 minutes, from Uig in Skye to Tarbert in Harris.  Michael always enjoys having a fish & chips supper on the ferry, and we met friends from Aberdeen going across as well, so it was fun.  In the observation lounge is the ship’s bell from a former Hebrides, an 1898 steamer:

Ship's bell from a former "Hebrides"

I remember seeing MV Hebrides being built in 2001, at Port Glasgow on the Clyde. When we first travelled on it, it seemed enormous compared to the familiar MV The Hebridean Isles!  Next to the bell is a picture of Her Majesty:

Queen Elizabeth aboard MV Hebrides

I’m not entirely sure why there are photos of royalty on Caledonian MacBrayne ferries.  Are they Her Majesty’s Motor Vessels?  The week we were in the Outer Hebrides the royals were also taking their holiday there, aboard the Hebridean Princess.  (The Hebridean Princess is a former Cal-Mac ferry that’s available for hire, and is no doubt similarly bedecked with photos of the royal family – so they’ll feel at home on it.)  As a friend of mine said, “Oh yes, I hear wee queenie will be out that way.”  We did think of them from time to time, and wonder how they were doing in the relentless rain.

One of the things I like about the ferry is hearing – and seeing – Gaelic:

Bilingual sign on MV Hebrides

I have to say, though, I hear a lot less Gaelic on the ferry now than when I first went to the islands.  For example, there was a family sitting across from us who had three funny and affectionate children.  I noticed that their parents only spoke Gaelic to them when scolding them!  At first I thought “Well no wonder the language is dying…” but then I thought I was probably just being a judgemental outsider.  Perhaps they speak in Gaelic when not in public:  Gaelic was once described to me as a “kitchen-table language”.

On Sunday the rain lifted for a few hours in the afternoon and we went to Luskentyre beach (Losgaintir in Gaelic).  My friend T has a theory that the name commemorates the times of the Viking raids, around the 9th century:  “Losg an Tìr,” means “the land burned”.  Today it is one of the most peaceful places on earth.

Luskentyre beach, Isle of Harris (slightly tilted - obviously hadn't yet got my land legs)

Even on a very driech day, the colours are incredible.

The Dafter, summer 2010, Luskentyre

The Dafter consented to have her photo appear on my blog!  She is now of an age where a trip to the beach requires an iPod more than a bucket and spade (though we did have those as well).  (Yes I know I am a terrible mother to allow such things, blah blah!  However she walked all around with us and chatted, so she didn’t allow her portable soundtrack to isolate her.)

One of my greatest joys when visiting the islands is shell-hunting.  The white sand itself is made up of pulverised shells.  Despite the raging Atlantic ocean, some of the shells survive intact, and I marvel at their delicacy.  In this photo, you can see right through the shell to the sand below:

Transparent shell, Luskentyre beach

(To give you a sense of scale, that shell was about as big as my index fingernail.) There are many small, delicate things in a landscape that can otherwise seem quite unforgiving.  Here is a photo of the wild thyme that grows in the sand, along the path to the beach:

Wild thyme growing in the sand, Luskentyre beach

In my next Harrisian (rhymes with “Parisian”) post:  the weaver, and the South Harris Agricultural Show!



  1. Fab post! Looking forward to chapter 2.

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