The East side of Harris (“the Bays”) is extremely rocky, whereas the west side has more arable land, and beautiful beaches. I am very familiar with the west side, as it was in this part of Harris where we stayed on our family holidays. Let me take you on a wee tour.
About 20 minutes’ drive south of Tarbert, after you’ve driven through windswept hills, a moonscape of rock, and past high lochans [small lakes], at a certain bend in the road you come to one of my most favourite views in the world: the tidal strand between the township of Seilebost on the left, and the township of Luskentyre on the right.
At low tide the strand is yellow sand, but when the tide is fully in, as above, you see the amazing colours of the sea in Harris. Sometimes the strand is a mix of both golden sand and azure water as the tide comes in or recedes. In the distance lies the small island of Taransay. Taransay is now uninhabited, but my British readers may remember watching the television reality show Castaway 2000. The BBC selected a group of strangers to live together on Taransay during the year 2000, and the show was a big hit.
One very windy evening I took the right-hand fork in the road, and drove to Luskentyre.
The Gaelic name is Losgaintir, which is like the Gaelic “The land burned” (losg an tìr). I have a friend who wonders whether this is a reference to the Viking invasions of the 9th century onwards. As you may know, the Outer Hebrides were ruled by the Vikings for several centuries (9th to 13th), and many place names are Norse in origin. For example, the township across the strand from Luskentyre is called “Seilebost” (pron. SHELL-a-bost). The suffix “-bost” means “farmstead”. [Iseabail MacLeod, Scottish Place Names and their Sources]
When the tide is out, the golden expanse of the strand looks very inviting, but if you don’t know exactly where you’re going, you could well encounter quicksand there.
If you follow the road through the township of Luskentyre to the very end, you can park next to the new cemetery, and walk down to the beach. Why are there cemeteries near the beach? you may be wondering. The answer is geological: it’s only on the West side of Harris that there is enough earth to bury the dead. During the Clearances, the landlords gave the West side of the island over to sheep-grazing, and forced the islanders onto the rocky East side of Harris (or to emigration). The “coffin roads” that they took to bring their dead across to the cemeteries on the West side are still there.
To access Luskentyre beach, you go through a “fairy gate”. That’s a gate that swings within near-circular railings (possibly also called a “kissing gate”). You swing the gate to one side, enter the circle, then push the gate past yourself to the other side, to go through. One Scottish superstition is that if you can get through a fairy gate without actually touching the gate itself, you can make a wish. Unless it’s a poorly made gate, this is of little use to most grown-ups! But it’s a good game for children.
I was surprised to find, as I went through the fairy gate to walk to the beach, a pair of very placid Highland cows. You can see the shadow of the gate in the photo below (and a big Highland cow pat – sorry).
Due to storms and erosion, the familiar sandy path down to the beach had changed a lot in the nearly three years since my last visit. But it was just as lovely. There is a stream that runs down the path to join the sea. You can see it coming off the hills in the photo above. Near the gate it is deep and placid, and I loved the reflection of the stone bank on the water. Do you see the flag iris just coming up? In the summertime their yellow blooms will be in all the ditches in the islands.
Also in the summertime, the sandy soil (called machair) will be covered with wildflowers: clover, birdsfood trefoil, wee orchids, harebells…
I was sorry to miss the wildflowers on this visit, but not sorry to come too early for the midges. Although I think the fierce winds that day would have done away with any meanbh-cuileagan.
Let me show you some of the beauty to be seen if you take the left-hand fork in the road when you reach the strand. The road past Seilebost takes you right by some of the loveliest beaches in the world.
I have fond memories of the time that we climbed to the top of Chaipaval one summer. The views were magnificent.
On this visit, the stormy weather made for very dramatic breakers.
Some of you have seen the painting we have by Willie Fulton of the view across to Luskentyre. Here is a photo of that view:
A bit further south you will pass the golf course. Would you like to see?
I’m not a golfer, but I would think trying to play golf with the ocean crashing below, and gale-force winds half the time, must be an exhilarating challenge. Michael, my brother-in-law, my nephew and the 3-year-old Dafter came to play golf here once, and it was apparently a rather comical outing. The Dafter was very keen to help, but after watching the others play, declared: “That’s not golf – that’s just sweeping!”
At the end of the road down the West side of Harris is the village of Leverburgh. As the road curves around, you pass An Taobh Tuath / Northton on your right. We stayed in Northton on our very first visit to Harris. I remember that the week we were there, the sunsets were out of this world!
We’ll head back north towards Tarbert now. There have always been plenty of sheep on the roads in Harris, but there never used to be quite this many cattle:In case anyone is feeling cheated of photos of sheep, I will be doing a post devoted to them soon.
I didn’t manage many long beach walks on this trip, but one evening I was able to have a picnic tea on one of our favourite beaches:
I have spent many happy hours here – knitting, hunting for shells, keeping a watchful eye on the children (and their father, it must be admitted). The Dafter calls this place “Giant Jellyfish Beach” because one year there were huge jellyfish and no-one was allowed to paddle in the freezing water. Several times we’ve had friends or family come to stay with us on Harris, and there have been some pretty silly antics here.
I found a few shells, to add to the several jars of them that I already have at home. I didn’t stay too long on the beach as the wind was absolutely freezing. I had to warm my hands up in the car before I could drive back to the hotel. But then – do you remember that I wrote about missing the oystercatcher here in Glasgow? There were loads of them!
I drove past the caravan we stayed in when I was pregnant with the Dafter (it felt like being on the ferry the entire week, due to morning sickness), past the house we stayed in every year for 12 years, past so many places with happy memories. I didn’t feel sad – quite the opposite. I had a curious sensation of everything having evolved over the years, at the same time as feeling that the fundamental things in life don’t change.
When I’d begun the climb back up over the hills to Tarbert, I stopped to look back from the viewpoint and was rewarded with a magnificent sunset:
I am very fortunate to have made so many happy memories in this beautiful place. Even when I can’t actually be there, I can dream of it.