Posted by: christinelaennec | April 28, 2014

The West Side of Harris

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.

A view that tugs at my heartstrings:  Isle of Taransay beyond the strand between Seilebost and Luskentyre.  Isle of Harris, April 2014.

A view that tugs at my heartstrings: the strand between Seilebost and Luskentyre. The isle of Taransay lies beyond.  Isle of Harris, April 2014.

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.

Looking from Seilebost to Luskentyre, with the hills of North Harris in the mist.  April 2014.

Looking from Luskentyre towards Seilebost. Can you see the crofter out tending his plot?  The wind was very fierce indeed but that didn’t put him off.  April 2014.

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]

Looking from Luskentyre towards Seilebost.  Isle of Harris, April 2014.

Looking from Luskentyre towards Seilebost. Isle of Harris, April 2014.

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).

Highland Cattle near the gate leading to Luskentyre beach.  Isle of Harris, April 2014.

Highland Cattle near the gate leading to Luskentyre beach. Isle of Harris, April 2014.

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.

Stream running down towards the beach at Luskentyre.  Isle of Harris, April 2014.

Stream running down towards the beach at Luskentyre. Isle of Harris, April 2014.

Also in the summertime, the sandy soil (called machair) will be covered with wildflowers: clover, birdsfood trefoil, wee orchids, harebells…

Luskentyre beach, with the hills of North Harris in the background.  April 2014.

Luskentyre beach, with the hills of North Harris in the mist in the background. April 2014.

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.

From Horgabost, looking towards Chaipaval.  Isle of Harris, April 2014.

From Horgabost, looking south towards the hill called Chaipaval / Toe Head. Isle of Harris, April 2014.

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.

Strong surf.  MacLeod's stone in the background on the right; Taransay in the background on the left.  Isle of Harris, April 2014.

Crashing waves in evening light.  Taransay in the background on the left. Isle of Harris, April 2014.

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:

Seilebost beach, looking across the strand to Taransay, at low tide.  Isle of Harris, April 2014.

Looking across the strand to Taransay, at low tide. Isle of Harris, April 2014.

A bit further south you will pass the golf course.  Would you like to see?

Golf course at Scarasta, Isle of Harris, April 2014.

Golf course at Scarasta, Isle of Harris, April 2014.

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!”

View from the golf course:  Chaipaval in the distance.

View from the golf course: Scarasta beach, with Chaipaval in the distance.

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!

The village of Northton, at the foot of Chaipaval.  April 2014.

The village of Northton, at the foot of Chaipaval. April 2014.

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:

Cows gu leòr on the road at Scarasta.  Isle of Harris, April 2014.

Cows gu leòr on the road at Scarasta. Isle of Harris, April 2014.  Linguistic tidbit:  “galore” comes from the Gaelic “gu leòr” [enough].  It follows the noun in English just as almost all adjectives follow the noun in Gaelic.

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:

On Traigh Iar, Horgabost. Isle of Harris, April 2014.

On Traigh Iar / Nisabost beach.  Isle of Harris, April 2014.  Taransay is in the background.  Beyond Taransay, the Atlantic Ocean.

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.

One of my favourite past-times.

One of my favourite past-times.

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!

Gille-bhrìdean / Oystercatchers!  Horgabost, Isle of Harris, April 2014.

Gille-bhrìdean / Oystercatchers! Horgabost, Isle of Harris, April 2014.  Note the unusual sight of trees!  They obviously have a sheltered spot.

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:

Sunset over Taransay, Isle of Harris, April 2014.

Sunset over Taransay, Isle of Harris, April 2014.

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.

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Responses

  1. I have just shouted my husband through to the study to look at the beautiful photos, such a wonderful mix of landscapes, colours and memories of wonderful times. A emotive time and decisions to be made, shall we live the dream?

    • I’m so glad that my trip to Harris is bringing back your own happy memories. Personally, I’ve often thought that, while I love holidaying there, I would find living on the islands year-round very difficult. But plenty of “incomers” are making a good go of it, and loving their new home. Good luck with your decision!

  2. Christine, I have so enjoyed your postings on the Isle of Harris. Now I want to visit that island too. The only Scottish island I have been to is the Isle of Skye.

  3. Are we sure you don’t work for their tourism department? Lovely pictures. I need to add the Isle of Harris to my travel wish list.

  4. It did look cold, but it’s hard to tell from the scenery, and then when I saw your hands I was completely convinced that it wouldn’t be a place for me! – nice gloves though 🙂

  5. Agree, with the other reader, you should be getting a donation from the Tourist Board. Lovely pictures.

  6. A lovely tour, thank you, and I liked the cows. I remember ‘Castaway’, I was addicted to it at the time. I don’t know if I’d ever want to live in such a remote spot but I admired those who tried. Those beaches on Harris are stunning, but you have to be very hardy to brave that water temperature. It looks as if you had some cracking weather for photography, all those blue skies (although I imagine your fingers were just about freezing off some of the time). I’m looking forward to the sheeps! 🙂

  7. Lovely to have a mental place to offset city life. You have almost persuaded me to visit – but we keep being seduced by Shetland!

  8. Wow! These photos make me want to visit immediately.

  9. These stunning images make me wish I could paint, especially the one looking south from Horgabost. I enjoyed your descriptions and etymological tips very much: a good introduction for someone who has not yet been to Harris. Oh – and I love your mittens!

  10. I have truly enjoyed all your photos…I feel the same way about my holiday in Scotland…all I need to do is re-visit my photos. The memories start flowing.

  11. The beaches are amazing! Wow. Can’t get over the light and the dark and the white spray and the many shades of gray and blue. Just so beautiful.

  12. What gorgeous photos, Christine! I’ve never been to these islands — only Skye. I pinned many of your photos to my Pinterest board, Makes My Heart Sing. And they do!

  13. All of this is extremely beautiful! Thanks for sharing.

  14. Thanks everyone, I’m glad you’ve been enjoying Harris with me. My mitts were a gift from the talented Roobeedoo and they are very lovely.

    Stuart – you made me laugh! No, I’m not receiving commission. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been so honest about the midges and the temperatures!

    occasionalscotland – I’ve never made it to Shetland, or Orkney, and they’re on my list. I hear it has very similar qualities to the Outer Hebrides.

    dancingbeastie – I have always longed to be able to paint. And I think Harris must be a fantastic place to be a painter.

    Ellen – thanks for “pinning” me. I’m glad your heart is singing.

  15. Spectacular scenery and photographs. And I enjoy your descriptions and explanations too. I just found your site recently and find it interesting and like the friendliness of your posts and the comments. I read your comments about becoming an elder in your church and it described almost exactly my feelings on being asked to become an elder in my church about twenty years ago. (I like sheep too) 🙂 All the best to you and your family, Doreen.

  16. […] believe that Chaipaval, which you might have seen in my post about the West side of Harris, is the hill on the left of the above […]

  17. Lovely photos and memories, Christine. Thanks for sharing them 🙂

  18. What a wonderful post, Christine, and a great gift to all of us. The last picture is stunning. Thank you for, once again, taking us on a lovely journey.


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