Posted by: christinelaennec | April 19, 2014

My getaway: from Glasgow to the Isle of Harris

Dear Readers, this will be the first of a series of posts about my recent trip away.  I was badly in need of a break from my caring duties, and it had been far too long since I’d been to a part of Scotland that is very, very dear to my heart.  Between 1996 and 2011 our family spent at least week every year on the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides – usually in the summer, but sometimes at Easter.  The Dafter fell ill just a few weeks after we visited in August 2011, and we haven’t been able to go back since because it would be impossible for her.  Although for this trip I was on my own, it was the best thing I could have done – it was hugely restorative.

I want to tell you all about my getaway – I was only gone for five days but packed a lot in, and have so much to show you.  I’ll try to post more frequently than usual, so if non-stop photos of island scenery isn’t your thing, check back in a couple of weeks!

My journey began in a very unusual way, for me:  I found myself in an airplane.  This is not my preferred mode of travel, but it was the only way I found I could get there in a day.

Glasgow from the air, 11 April 2014

Glasgow from the air, 11 April 2014

The flight was fine, and an hour later, I was in Stornoway, on the Isle of Lewis:

arriving at Stornoway airport

arriving at Stornoway airport

The first thing I did was pick up a wee red hire car – imagine that!  A first for me, that’s for sure.  The car was the reason I had to come via Stornoway – there are no cars for hire in Harris at the current time.  The second thing I did was to go to the supermarket.  This is a familiar stop, as we would often come here to load the car up with groceries for our week in the cottage in Harris.  I stocked up on picnic-y foods for myself, and a few treats to take to my friend Catrìona.  I always enjoy the English/Gaelic signs, and indeed I heard a little bit of Gaelic spoken while I was there.

At the supermarket, Stornoway, Isle of Lewis

At the supermarket, Stornoway, Isle of Lewis

I should say I resisted the temptation to buy briosgaidean or crispichean!  My next stop was to a place I’d never been before, the Woodlands Centre, which is in the castle grounds in Stornoway:

The Woodlands Centre, Stornoway

The Woodlands Centre, Stornoway.  The entrance is flanked by two huge carved Lewis Chessmen.

Do you see the lichen on the trees?  An indicator of how clean the air is there.  I had a delicious soup lunch – the place was packed, with lots of children as it was their Easter break.

I’d always looked longingly at the tree-ful grounds of Lews Castle, which is an unmistakeable landmark in the town, but I’d never had the chance to go there.  As you’ll understand if you follow my travelogue, trees are a rarity on the Outer Hebrides.  From the castle grounds, there’s a good view of the cheerful buildings of the town.  You can also see the bright orange lifeboat in the harbour.

Stornoway, from the castle grounds.

Stornoway, from the castle grounds.

The castle itself looks forbidding to me.  You can read about the history of the castle and its owners here.

Lews Castle, Stornoway

Lews Castle, Stornoway

It was lovely to walk through this wee woods, down a daffodil-lined path:

In the castle grounds:  daffodils lining the path.

In the castle grounds: daffodils lining the path.

I then set out for the Isle of Harris.  You would think that in order to go from the Isle of Lewis in the north to the Isle of Harris in the south, you’d need to cross some kind of body of water.  But no – the two are in fact one “long island” (as it’s sometimes called) and are separated only by a dotted line on the map.  (Scroll to the bottom of this page for a very basic map of the Outer Hebrides.  This map is a bit more detailed.) The two “islands” remain quite distinct despite this – the accent in English as well as Gaelic is quite different between Harris and Lewis, for one thing.  This is no doubt a linguistic indicator of the mountain range that divides the two.

Once out of Stornoway, which takes about two minutes from the supermarket, you find yourself in this landscape:

Heading south to Harris, across the moorland of Lewis.

Heading south to Harris, across the moorland of Lewis.

Ahead, depending on weather conditions, you can see the hills of Harris in the distance.  You cross the dotted line on the map in a certain place, and begin a long ascent up the side of the Clisham, a mountain (in Scottish terms) that is to be respected.

I stopped here, in driving rain, to take a photo of the road going up the mountain ahead of me.  You can barely see a white van near the top of one of the hills:

Headed up over the Clisham - do you see the white van on the road, high up?

Headed up over the Clisham – do you see the white van on the road, high up?

My little car was a great deal buffeted about by the very strong winds.  In fact, I had to be very careful getting out of the car to take photos, as the wind nearly tore the car door off.  As I drove on, I was glad that it was springtime, daylight, and that I know the road very well.  In winter, this road can be quite frightening.  Here you can see the posts that guide the snowplows:

Poles to guide the snowplow on the mountain pass.

Poles to guide the snowplow on the mountain pass.

Mind you, I have seen snow in Harris in April before.

You come down the other side of the mountains and almost immediately are on the narrow strip of land (isthmus – try saying that quickly a few times) where the town of Tarbert lies.

My destination for the next few nights was the lovely Harris Hotel.  I “reached,” as they say, about 4 pm.  Isn’t my room lovely?

My cosy room at the Harris Hotel, Tarbert, Isle of Harris.

My cosy room at the Harris Hotel, Tarbert, Isle of Harris.  No idea what the white spots on the photo are – ghosts?  If so, they were friendly.

And guess what sight greeted me as I put my bags down?  The ferry coming into the pier at Tarbert!  Such a very familiar thing.

View from my window:  the ferry!

View from my window: the ferry!

And, just to prove it really was me who was here – to my astonished self as much as anything else – I took a selfie:

Very, very happy to be back in Harris!

Very, very happy to be back in Harris!

It was wonderful to be back in Harris after a long absence.  But my circumstances were decidedly strange!  No unpacking the family car with a week’s worth of groceries and rainy-day supplies.  None of the usual settling-in tasks to do, no fire to build, no meal to make.  I was free to do exactly as I pleased, without having to think about anyone else at all!  As I texted to Michael, I felt as if I was my own Sim.  (For those of you familiar with the computer game.)  I made myself a cup of tea and put my feet up.  And then, drawn irrestistably, I went out for a rainy walk around Tarbert.  Before I’d gone far, I met the son of the people who rented us “our” holiday house for 12 years in a row.  It was really good to have a catch-up.  And upon my return, I was very glad I had brought two raincoats with me.

In my next post, I will tell you about the Harris Hotel, where I stayed.

Til soon!  Chì mi a rithist sibh!



  1. oh, oh, oh!!!!!!! this is just wonderful!!!!!! I can’t believe you did this!!!!! I am so happy that it worked out for you!!! I can actually imagine something of how wonderful and restorative this must have been for you!!! Wow! I can’t wait to read all the other posts!!!!

    Happy Easter again! hot cross buns are baked, but wishing they were of a nicer quality. 😦 I’m losing my touch….

  2. Lewis/Harris is a familiar place that we would love to live the dream and maybe live there.

  3. How wonderful!! I can’t wait for the next instalment!

    It’s almost as good as being there :))

  4. I am so excited to read about your trip…you may give me the courage to rent a car for my next trip. You have given me an idea to post about the Bed and Breakfast where my daughter and I stayed while in Skye. Looking for your next post….

  5. I’ve just returned from holiday and enjoyed catching up with your recent posts. I’m glad Dafter is doing better and getting out and about a bit, your holiday sounds wonderful and looks beautiful – I’ve never been to any of the islands, but I used to work with a girl from Harris and I could listen to her accent all day, it was gorgeous! I look forward to seeing more photos of your trip and well done you for doing it! I wish you and your family a happy easter and I hope you continue to settle in Glasgow. x

  6. I like the mistiness on the mountain pass. You make me feel that it’s high time I went back to the outer isles, it’s years since I was there. I’m looking forward to the Harris travel tales and more evocative pics to whet my appetite.

  7. Wow – I can see why you would choose this location for such a retreat!

    Peace and love to you and yours this Easter Sunday xo

  8. So glad to see you enjoying the islands, love the pictures, and looking forward to the next piece. x

  9. How wonderful:) we love Harris too and feel the pull to go there at least every second year. We usually rent a cottage too, but have also stayed in The Harris Hotel a couple of times. Am I right in thinking you ‘have’ some Gaelic? Have a truly great time and I’m looking forward to reading your other posts.

  10. So glad that you had a get away to such a beautiful place. We all need to be restored ever so often and have time away from our ordinary life. Hope you feel very much refreshed and I am so looking forward to all the posts.

  11. I’m so pleased that your getaway was so good. The photos remind me of visiting Carloway, on the west side of Lewis, long ago with my aunt who came from there originally. She was a Gaelic speaker, and it all seemed very exotic to me.

  12. Lovely, just lovely. To escape and regain your equilibrium. x

  13. Is it possible that the Dafter was bitten by a tick in Harris?
    Glad to hear that you had a wonderful break.Such lovely pictures.

  14. Dear All,
    Thank you so much for your enthusiastic response! I shall be posting very regularly for the next wee while about my trip.

    mudarissa – yes, I do “have” the Gaelic, to a large extent, as they say. I studied it intensively between 1992 and 1996 and then kept it up via my children’s education in Gaelic. I don’t use it so much these days, but hope to have more opportunities as the Dafter’s health improves.

    marmotte1971 – I had that same thought, but she has tested negative for Lyme Disease. (Thankfully.)

    Thanks everyone for sharing my delight at having a break in a place I love. Happy Easter to you!

    • So glad it’s not Lyme Disease. I hope she had a lovely Easter. We are off to Boston tomorrow and my wee five year old is beside himself with excitement about flying for the first time. (Me less so – I don’t like flying!)

    • I’m so in awe of you speaking Gaelic. Now that I’m back in Scotland permanently I have put it on my list of things I want to do! At least now with Alba channel there’s the opportunity to listen regularly to the spoken word. Was interested to see in your 2nd post that Tarbet Stores has been painted!! Shock horror- I’m sure it was the same for at least 30 years when I first visited Tarbet! Loved reading that post – u write in such an interesting way 🙂

      • The Alba channel is a great asset, I think. I have always enjoyed the language.
        Yes, Tarbert Stores has a new lick of paint. The former owner retired after many years – as you may know, he was a fixture of the place, a real local character, and a mine of information! The new owners have painted the shop, and after a period of a few weeks’ handover, they are running it on their own. I wish them the very best with it – it’s such an important part of Harris life.

  15. Your room looks like such a peaceful haven 🙂

  16. How lovely. I’d love to visit Harris and Lewis (and Shetland and Orkney) someday. I’m looking forward to reading about the rest of your trip 🙂

  17. I’ve been reading your Harris posts in reverse order, and loving every single one! 🙂 xx

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