Scotland for Beginners: Visiting a Hebridean Paradise

We packed wetsuits and waterproof trousers. Never before have I worn so many layers or swum in such cold water with so few. Yet even when the water is a chilly 14 degrees, a quick dip in a bikini at an alluring white sand cove holds more appeal than donning a soggy wetsuit.

Scotland’s Outer Hebrides are…. a place to prepare for and embrace the weather.  A place to trust your instincts and head down that narrow road without a brown tourist sign; more often than not a gem will lie at the end that the locals want to keep quiet. It’s a place of incredible history and incredibly accessible history. The Callinesh Stones on Lewis are as old and remarkable as Stonehenge, yet they sit unfenced on a peaty mound where visitors can walk around them, right through them, and even touch them if they dare intrude on this history.

Did I mention the beaches? The sand is either golden and yellow with crunching waves, or creamy Carribean white on blue. If they were 20 degrees warmer they’d feature in travel magazines, telling readers what it’s like to visit paradise. But there’s an advantage in being the only ones on the sand. In beautiful Tiree a selection of enthusiasts come in the summer months to experience the wind and waves. And yet it’s a stark contrast to the Isle of Lewis, which we had all to ourselves. We spent an afternoon experiencing waves that the most novice of surfers could catch. There’s something quite magical about looking back at and empty shore, knowing you’re alone in the bay.

Ever seen a weaver in action? Harris Tweed has a royal certification. Only men and women working away in their backyard sheds (or in one of the three factories on the Isle of Harris) are allowed to call their creation a Harris Tweed. Apparently it’s coming back into vogue. Nike have shown an interest. Even the footballers are wearing shoes from this isle.

Look around the Outer Hebrides and in every direction you’ll find the crumbling ruins of Blackhouses; the traditional thatched roof cottages built from stone, where peat fires burnt continually on a mud floor until the rooves were blackened with soot. Blackhouses were occupied by the local people up until the 1960’s. They were replaced with Whitehouses next door; modern bungalows of pebbledash and stone, generally coated in a paint of white or austere grey. These ruins are a metaphor for the islands themselves. Built to last, occupied for long enough to firmly hold onto tradition, and set in remote and beautiful locations.

We found a chilly paradise where the people are not just Scottish but islanders like us. Home and familiarity, far, far from home.


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