Posted by: christinelaennec | April 21, 2014

The village of Tarbert, on the Isle of Harris

There are two villages on the Isle of Harris, Tarbert in the north and Leverburgh in the south.  Tarbert lies on a narrow strip of land (an ithsmus).  In fact, the place name Tarbert means “portage” or “ithsmus”.  That’s why there are a few villages named Tarbert in Scotland.  I’m very fond of Tarbert, Harris, and have many happy memories of coming here with Michael and the children on our annual visits to the island.  Here are a few photos of Tarbert:

View of Tarbert's main square.  The yellow building is the hardware store (Tarbert Stores), to its right is the community centre, to the right of that is First Fruits coffee shop.

View of Tarbert’s main square on a rainy spring day.

Tarbert has most things that a person needs:  an ATM at the Tourist Information Centre, a bank, a post office, a hardware store, two hotels, a coffee shop, two grocery stores, a hairdresser’s, a very good charity shop, a gift shop during tourist season, the Harris Tweed shop, a fish & chips shop, and the amazing treasure trove of Akram’s shop, where you can find just about anything.  Akram is an institution – he’s from Pakistan originally but he and his family have been on the island for decades.  He’s very respected and is a real member of the community.  He and his wife were featured in the recent BBC documentary, Chì Mi’n Tìr / From Harris with Love (photo of them is second in the slideshow here).

Tarbert:  Hotel Hebrides (long white building in the back), Tarbert Stores (yellow building).  The ferry comes in just to the left of the Hotel Hebrides.  April 2014

Tarbert on a sunnier day: Hotel Hebrides (long white building in the back), Tarbert Stores (yellow building with red roof), Tourist Information Centre (beige building).  The white house in the foreground is a private house. The ferry terminal is on the far left.  April 2014.

Tarbert feels like an old friend, but there was one very noticeable difference from my last visit:  the offices of the newly-established North Harris Trust (below).  This organisation came about when the islanders were able to buy the estate of North Harris from the landowner.  Scotland had extremely old and feudal land laws, and its rural areas have a long history of absentee landowners.  When we bought our first flat in Aberdeen in 1994, there was a section of the title deeds to do with the “feu”:  we owned the flat, and could use the land, but the land actually still belonged to some aristocratic landowner.   Things began to change in 2004.  Since the legal reforms, more and more communities have been able to buy the land they work and live on.

A new addition:  North Harris Trust office.

A new addition: North Harris Trust office.

Some of the houses in Tarbert are wonderfully colourful:

Houses in Tarbert, Isle of Harris.  April 2014.

Houses in Tarbert, Isle of Harris. April 2014.

The Harris Hotel, in case you’re wondering, is just a few minutes’ walk beyond these houses.  From the wall, you can watch any activity down at the pier.

Beautiful green-blue water, looking out past Scalpay towards the Minch, with a shower sweeping across the water further out.

Beautiful green-blue water, looking towards the Minch, with a shower sweeping across the water further out.

The ferry is a familiar sight in Tarbert.  It crosses the Minch to and from Skye a few times a day, including now on Sundays, which is a fairly recent phenomenon.  The journey takes about an hour and 40 minutes.  Can you see it approaching Tarbert in the photo below?

The ferry is approaching. It leaves Uig on Skye and reaches Tarbert nearly two hours later.

The ferry is approaching. It leaves Uig on Skye and reaches Tarbert nearly two hours later.

It’s quite a large ferry, and transports lots of cars and lorries.  It’s rightly described as a “life-line service,” as so much that is vital to life on the island depends on the ferry.  Watching it berth, load and unload, is a fun thing to do.  I wasn’t the only person loitering around and taking photos, and that includes locals as well.

The ferry just about to unload, reload, and go back to Skye.

The ferry just about to unload, reload, and go back to Skye.

I was really pleased to have a chance to go for a coffee at First Fruits tearoom during my stay.

First Fruits coffeeshop, Tarbert.  April 2014.

First Fruits coffeeshop, Tarbert. April 2014.

First Fruits is a very popular place to while away time before the ferry leaves, if you can find a seat.  Last time we were in Harris, we had lunch in the sun outside.  I’ve written a lot of postcards at First Fruits!

I remember holding the baby Dafter on my knee there.  She was just learning to speak, and pronounced that the steam from the coffee maker was “bubbles” (pronounced Bubba).  The shop was originally owned by a Christian woman (the name is a reference to Proverbs 3:9) and there was a little lending library of Christian books.  It has changed hands a few times in the intervening 15 years.  The current owner is a Glaswegian, who served up lots of “my darlings” along with my very good coffee, and made me feel right at home.

Inside First Fruits.

Inside First Fruits.

I like the couthy décor!

Below is a photo of the Harris Tweed shop, which I will write about in my next post.  But do you know what they’re building next to it?  Can you guess?

The Harris Tweed shop on the right; on the left, the site of the distillery that's being built.  April 2014.

The Harris Tweed shop on the right; on the left, the building site for the production of “the Hearach”. April 2014.

A distillery!  Apparently the whisky produced there will be called “The Hearach” which simply means a person from Harris.

I like the presence of Gaelic in Tarbert.  Here is the Bank of Scotland:

The Bank of Scotland, Tarbert.

The Bank of Scotland, Tarbert.

Sadly, you hear less Gaelic spoken in the islands now than 20 years ago.  However, you’re almost certain to hear it spoken in the grocery shops in Tarbert.  Harris Gaelic has a pleasing lilt to it – to my ears, it almost sounds like Gaelic spoken with an Italian accent.

Very often a walk around Tarbert is accompanied by the sound of rushing water.  If it’s been raining, water will be coming off the hills behind the village, down through the several streams that lead to the sea.

One of the many streams coursing down from the hills, through the village, to the sea.

One of the many streams coursing down from the hills, through the village, to the sea.

In the summertime, wild mimulus grows next to this wee waterfall.

I hope you can see now why I’m so fond of Tarbert.  Like most places in the Outer Hebrides, its character changes a great deal in different weathers.  But I like Tarbert in the pouring rain almost as much as I like having an ice cream in the sun and watching the ferry come in. It was a really nice base for my wee trip, and I hope it’s not too long before I go back.



  1. This village is how I imagine heaven to be in my dreams! 🙂

  2. Thank you for sharing this wonderful get away! How I wish to visit Scotland again!

  3. What a lovely post, it was like taking a familiar walk. If I remember rightly the bases of the tables in the café were singer sewing machine treadles.

  4. It’s not often I find myself disagreeing with you Christine, but I’m not so sure about one thing you said. You wrote: Some of the houses in Tarbert are wonderfully colourful, referring to the picture “Houses in Tarbert, Isle of Harris. April 2014.“. Now, in relation to those houses, I think, yeah, ok, the pale yellow is quite cheerful in what must be a dull background at times. Not so sure about the blue-green colour next door….

    But then I look at the view of the town in the picture “Tarbert on a sunnier day…” which shows the Tarbert Stores building – a bright yellow building with bold red roof, and I wonder whether you also regard this as wonderfully colourful. Although I’ve never met you, I think I know you well enough to say that if you hated that building’s colours, you would say nothing about it. And I note that there is no comment on the way it stands out against the grey roof & muted wall tones of every other building in the picture.

    Without pushing you where you might be uncomfortable, could you comment on whether there is some debate within that community about whether building colours should conform with the historical precedent? I ask this from the perspective of someone who lives in an ordinary suburban street in a big city, but who, because the street is deemed to have some (limited) heritage value, must ask the local council for approval of any change in his house colour.

    That issue aside, I can indeed see why you like Tarbert so much. I especially found it interesting that you appreciated the sound of rushing water. It occurred to me only yesterday as I was working in the garden under the conversation of a very noisy bird, that the ‘ordinary’ soundscape is something that is often not mentioned but can have a powerful influence on our experience.

    As usual, I find your taste in tearooms to be remarkably similar to my own. It seems that we’re destined to share a table one day.

    • Thanks for that very thoughtful reaction to the “wonderfully colourful” buildings in Tarbert. I didn’t really explain in the post (not wanting to make it too long) that colourful buildings are often found in Scottish coastal towns, as indeed in other parts of the British Isles. Examples that spring to mind are Tobermory in Mull, Portree in Skye, and villages on the West Coast of Ireland. So the brightly coloured houses and shops of Tarbert aren’t unusual, rather, they are traditional! Perhaps the people who want white houses have to ask permission? Having said that, white houses with black trim is another traditional West Coast “look”. I see I should try to do a post on the colourful seaside villages at some point!

      I’m glad you took the point about the “soundscape” as you call it, and I’d love it if we could share a table one day.

    • Further to my earlier reply, I’m now working on a post about Scalpay, where I see all the houses are white. Why is this? I have no idea! You have opened my eyes to a conundrum.

  5. Been having a bit of a catch-up. just read 3 or 4 posts in one sitting. sorry I didn’t comment on all of them but I thought I would save my thoughts until the last one I read which happens to be this one. 🙂 Having wanted to visit Lewis and Harris for a couple of years, this is a treat to have a personal travelogue. I think I very much need a night or two in the Harris Hotel; it looks like a wonderful place to have a rest. So happy for you that you had a lovely time.

  6. It reminds me very much of the small seaside town of Stanley on the northwest coast of Tasmania where I live for 2 years.

    I still miss the sea 😦

  7. What a delightful looking tearoom, inside and out. I’m not surprised it gets filled up when the ferry’s due. Your mention of watching the ferry come and go brought back happy memories of watching CalMac ferries loading and offloading vehicles. It was always very exciting being driven onto one when I was wee. I enjoyed watching the men guiding the cars in and waving their arms as if to say ‘come on, you’ve got loads of room’ while my dad nervously inched forwards. Then a hand would suddenly go up to say ‘stop!’ when the bumper was almost nudging the car in front. They fairly packed them in. I feel refreshed after wandering around Tarbert with you, thank you for the tour. I’m looking forward to the next instalment. 🙂

  8. Looks utterly charming!

    For some unbeknownst reason the pictures of colourful seafront houses have made me all nostalgic for my own family holidays in Crail and Anstruther. Strange.


  9. What a fascinating post! And awww, sweet Dafter as a baby…I could just imagine her saying “bubba”. 🙂 xxx

  10. Thanks for all the photos and descriptions of your trip–a vicarious vacation for me.

  11. Thanks for sharing your lovely vacation with all of us. It was so interesting for me to read about your visit and view the photos. I felt like I was there too.

  12. This is all simply fascinating. I’m interested to hear about the whisky that’s going to be called The Hearach. Long ago when I visited Carloway, one of the local girls there referred to Harris people as hearrachs, and I haven’t heard the word since then.
    On the High Street in Oxford there is a college building painted a rather lurid pink with a touch of violet in it. I have always thought it was inappropriate. But this spring, I noticed for the first time that the colour of that building is a slightly stronger version of the pink you see in the blossom on an almond tree outside the University Church, directly opposite. So it must have been carefully planned after all.

  13. Harris sounds just charming, and your posts really convey a sense of peacefulness. Glad you had such a pleasant holiday!

  14. Christine! I have just had a nice long visit with you through your posts since I left on my trip to CA at the end of March 🙂

    Your photos of Dafter out and about with her beautiful smile were a joy to see! I am so glad she is well enough that you were able to go out and about by yourself for a bit. From what you typed I know that it is difficult not to worry, but I am encouraged to know that you have found a new church home, new friends, new songs to sing, and that you are still able to connect with longtime friends as well. The hat you knit and the tea cozy are beautiful. [please don’t try to convince me you made errors in the hat 🙂 ] I am enjoying the photos and narrative about your trip and look forward to more posts!

    I thought it was great fun to discover that you ate artichokes the night before I posted about them 🙂 I brought home a dozen for our household for less than half the price they were advertising here in the Portland area. Of course the price of my trip was a rather astronomical shipping cost 🙂 I would think your climate in Scotland is ideal to grow artichokes. Is it?

    While there are many trees blossoming here in the Boring area the mountains, including our Mt. Hood are supposed to be getting snow this week, but Spring is making good progress. Please remind me I want to plant tulips this Fall !

    Blessing to you and yours xx

  15. I really miss those tiny European towns. We just don’t have anything like them in the States. Thanks for sharing your travels, Christine. xo

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  18. i am trying to find a song which was sung by the Tarbert (Harris) Gaelic Choir at a mod called “A Train Journey North” arranged by George Clavey. Can anyone tell me where I can find it on CD or sheet music or whatever please?

  19. no Harris inn shut permanently no first fruits tearoom shut for2017.

    • Thank you James. I knew the Harris Inn had such a few years ago, but I didn’t know that First Fruits had also closed. Brònach! Sad!

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