Isle of Harris

Submitted by Owen McCafferty on Wed, 2010-01-13

Harris is a beautiful island of contrasts with spectacular scenery and a unique unspoilt atmosphere. In the west are vast expanses of white sand whilst the north and east are rugged, rocky places which make you think you have reached the moon. There are very few trees so look out for those in Tarbert, Borve, Horgabost and Luskentyre and make the most of them. In the Bays area, the lunar landscape is indented with hundreds of little lochs and on a clear day you can see over to the Isle of Skye.

The mountains of North Harris contrast with the rolling moors and lochans of the north of Lewis, while South Harris boasts some of the best beaches in the country, such as Luskentyre, backed by the shell-sand pasture known as machair where late spring and summer flowers create vivid colours and set the scene for much of the west coast of the island.

Here in the Western Isles (formerly known as the Outer Hebrides) the landscape and history of Harris, together with the hospitality of its people provide a wonderful escape from the pressures of modern life. With luck you may even see otters, seals, eagles or dolphins. Deer tend to keep to the high ground during the summer, but sometimes you can see them near Ardhasaig and Ardvoulie along the main road from Tarbert to Stornoway. In the summer months there are many colourful wild flowers to be seen on the machair. My grandmother was born here in Tarbert, so for me it is a very special place.

The ‘island’ of Harris is divided by a tiny isthmus into the wild, inhospitable mountains of North Harris and the gentler landscape and sandy shores of South Harris. Things to visit on Harris include:

  • Rodel Church built around 1500
  • Seallam! (an exhibition of local history, wildlife and genealogy)
  • standing stones at Scarista and Nisabost
  • the Harris Tapestry
  • You can also see weaving of Harris Tweed at various places on the island.

You can often see what look like patterns on the hillsides of Harris. These are the so-called Lazy Beds (and yet life was hard!) where the crofters used to grow potatoes and a few vegetables. They managed to cut strips of land between the rocks and fertilise what little soil there was with enough seaweed to provide them with a bit of something to put with the fish they caught. Today you will still see them cutting peat for fuel.

The famous Harris tweed is made all over both Harris and Lewis. It can be bought in many of the islands’ shops and also direct from the weavers (at Luskentyre for example or Plocrapool where Alistair Campbell gives weaving demonstrations). Genuine Harris tweed bears the orb symbol, the mark of the Harris Tweed Association. The wool is Scottish in origin (often from the islands, although not always), but for it to be classed as Harris Tweed, it must be spun, dyed, finished and woven in the Hebrides. I believe that an exhibition can be found in the school at Drinnishader on the east coast of Harris during the summer months.

Walking these bare peaks are a major reason why many visitors come to North Harris, as they offer spectacular scenery and superb views. These bulging, pyramidal mountains reach their climax around the dramatic shores of the fjord-like Loch Seaforth. The A859 south from Stornoway takes you over a boulder-strewn saddle between mighty Sgaoth Aird (1829 ft) and An Cliseam or the Clisham (2619 ft), the highest peak in the Western Isles. The only tourist office on Harris is located here.

How to get to Harris

Main vehicle ferry

During the summer, a ferry runs from Uig on the Isle of Skye to Tarbert, the main village on Harris, twice a day except on Sundays. There are fewer sailings in winter. It takes 1 hour 45 minutes to cross the Minch. Vehicle reservation required. Look out for dolphins.

Although treated as two separate islands with distinct characteristics, Harris and Lewis form a single landmass. This means you can drive from one to the other. The main road between Stornoway (Lewis) and Tarbert (Harris) is 37 miles which takes about an hour by car or bus.

Vehicle ferry between Harris and North Uist

A new Caledonian Macbrayne ferry service began. It sails from Otternish on the tip of North Uist via the island of Berneray to the village of Leverburgh on the southern coast of Harris. Three or four return trips are a day are made from North Uist (not Sundays) during the summer, but only one a day I believe over the winter (October to Easter). Journey time: 1 hour 10 minutes. Capacity: 150 passengers, 18 vehicles. Vehicle reservation required.

Tours and excursions

A coach tour of Lewis was operated from Tarbert to coincide with the arrival of the 11.25am ferry from Skye. The bus took you on a circular tour of Lewis (including Callanish, Carloway Broch, Arnol Black House and Stornoway) and brought you back to Tarbert about an hour before the afternoon ferry back to Uig.

Petrol (gasoline) is available Monday to Saturday at Ardhasaig, Horgabost, Borve and Tarbert.

The people of the Western Isles are well known for the warm welcome they give visitors. They will often go out of their way to help visitors. Many of the locals will pick up hitch-hikers.

Please note that the people of Lewis and Harris have strong religious beliefs and visitors should respect this during their stay. This means that Sunday is a day of rest for them. Shops and restaurants are closed so make sure you have enough food for the day. Hotels are only open to guests who are staying there. It is not possible to buy petrol or newspapers on Sundays. There are no planes, buses or ferries. The road signs are in Gaelic here and the language is still spoken by the islanders.

If you are going to self-catering accommodation on the island, it is worth bringing some food with you. The food in two grocery shops in Tarbert comes from the mainland and depends on the ferries. It can be expensive and not always fresh due to the time it takes to get there. Try to find out when the deliveries arrive and you will have a better selection. Or if you are arriving on the ferry from Skye, it might be a good idea to buy some of the basics at the Portree supermarkets. Many of the locals make weekly shopping trips to the supermarkets in Stornoway which is about an hour’s drive from Tarbert. Not much produce is grown on the island due to the rugged nature of the land.

Local events include the Harris Mod (early June), Gala (mid to late July), Children’s Festival (July), plus other festivals too. Check the exact dates with the tourist office.

Seallam! Visitor Centre, at Northton.

An important centre to visit if you would like to find out more quality information about Harris. The centre has a changing series of exhibitions on various facets of local life and history. Geneology service for the Western Isles of Scotland. Retail area. Learning Centre. Natural History section. For the visitor, here is a chance to get to know some of the factors which have had an influence on the development of the various Island communities, while for the more serious student there is a vast resource of detailed source information from different parts of the Hebrides.

Seallam Visitor Centre

Mr Morrison Taobh Tuath Isle of Harris, Northton Western Isles HS3 3JA Scotland Tel: +44 (1859) 520258 Fax: +44 (1859) 520258

Email: i…


The ‘island’ of Harris Tourist Information Centre

Tarbert Tourist Office Hillcrest Hillcrest is 1.5 miles on the A859 Stornoway road 14b West Tarbert Isle of Harris HS3 3AH

Tel: +44 (1859) 502119

Hour: Open Apr-Oct Mon-Fri 9am-5pm. Sat 9am-1pm and 2-5pm.

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