The Outer Hebrides has been on my bucket list for quite some time. I have long felt the pull of Scotland’s west coast, drawn to its raw and wild beauty. Every trip west would make my feet itch even more and I longed to go island-hopping. Photos of white sand beaches and rugged Hebridean landscapes captivated me. I remember standing at a lighthouse on the west coast years ago, gazing out at the distant silhouette of the Outer Hebrides and wondering when we would visit. That year I had my son, and two years later my daughter; life became busy and the Outer Hebrides remained on my ‘one-day’ list. Until I was asked to go to Stornoway for work in June. I jumped at the chance, keen to extend the work trip into a family holiday on Lewis and Harris. Family in tow, I set off more than a little excited – and very much in need of some adventuring.
We travelled from Ullapool to Stornoway by ferry; a two and a half hour crossing that left the kids and I feeling rather seasick (despite coming from a sailing family, I don’t seem to have inherited sea legs. Seeing dolphins jumping behind the ferry made clutching the railings and the see-saw of the horizon a bit more bearable). I think next year we will take the Skye to Tarbert ferry (we are already planning our next visit) so we can spend more time on Harris.
We spent 24 hours on Harris and three days on Lewis. Here’s how we spent our short family break in the Outer Hebrides.
Isle of Harris
Where we stayed
We have stayed at campsites before with the kids but not in a tent. Not brave enough for actual camping yet, we booked a yurt for our first night on Harris at Lickisto Blackhouse Camping. It was brilliant – giving the kids the experience of camping without actually pitching our own tent (and with all the ‘glamping’ bonuses, in this case: a wood burning stove, a camping stove, a double and single futon, and pots and pans etc). We managed to squeeze the two kids and us on the double and single futon pushed together; four peas in a sleeping bag pod. I’d forgotten what it’s like to sleep under canvas, with just that thin divide between you and the elements. I fell asleep listening to nature’s soundtrack. I woke to the over-zealous call of a cockerel and, later, rain pattering on the canvas ceiling. Admittedly, I felt quite tired by morning but that was also to do with my littlest having a rather unsettled night – I woke bleary eyed but happy.
There are toilets and showers in an old blackhouse buildings beside the yurts, and another old blackhouse building with a shower-room and a communal area for campers. On our evening walk to wash and brush our teeth, the kids experienced midges for the first time. Each walk back and forth to wash dishes or shower resulted in giggles and screeches of, “Run from the midges!”.
The campsite is on the east coast of Harris, a short drive from the renowned Harris beaches, and our yurt looked out over the shoreline with its rocky backdrop. I loved our stay, cocooned in nature. Camping for me is always a reminder to take things slow and enjoy time off-grid: a mug of tea and a view, cooking breakfast on a camping stove, the sound of the rain. The kids couldn’t have been more excited to stay there and loved everything from cooking on the campstove to using the wheelbarrow to transport our belongings from the car to the yurt. We’ll definitely return next year.
I had seen numerous photos of this stunning beach before visiting. This beach was probably the image I most associated with the Outer Hebrides (other than the Callanish Standing Stones), and I longed to walk on its white sands. It didn’t disappoint.
We saw the glint of white from the crest of a hill and I had my nose pressed to the window as we drove along the edge of the estuary and down to the car park. As we drove, I spotted the famous white ponies of Luskenytre (that I had seen often on Instagram) and leapt out to take their photograph. A magical sight with the beautiful sandy backdrop.
As we walked to the beach from the small car park, the sun decided to make an appearance which illuminated the turquoise-edged sea. The beach was two-toned; white and golden sand layered together. The skies ahead were clear and blue; behind us it was dramatically dark. It made the white sand seem whiter and the colours more magnificent. I absolutely loved it; it is no wonder to me that last year it was voted in the UK’s top 10 beaches and in 2012 was named as one of the world’s best beaches. An absolute gem of a beach and a dream to photograph.
Just a hop along from Luskentyre is Seilebost – another spectacular white-sand beach which we loved in equal measure. If you drive past Seilebost, there’s a great viewpoint looking back towards this beach and Luskentyre (a wonderful photo stop).
To get to the beach you need to take the turning towards Seilebost school and walk the short distance over the dunes from there. The kids adored this beach because of its vast number of starfish and set about rescuing them from the retreating tide. Again, it was overcast when we arrived and then the sun burst out from behind the clouds, brightening the sea and sand.
Eventually we had to drag ourselves away from this idyllic spot. Unfortunately we ran out of time to explore more of Harris’ renowned beaches (and visit the Harris Distillery, which we had very much been looking forward to) but they will have to wait till next year.
Isle of Lewis
Where we stayed
We love Wigwam Holidays and have previously enjoyed glamping in Gairloch. When I saw that there were wigwams just outside Stornoway, it seemed perfect for our Lewis stay. Laxdale Holiday Park is close to Stornoway but is located in a peaceful spot surrounded by trees. We love staying in a wigwam; again it provides the kids with all the excitement and experience of camping (using the shared cooking space and showers etc) but in this case also enjoying a comfy bed and electricity!
The table becomes the support for the bed area and, with added slats underneath, the mattresses slide over to make a comfy place to sleep.
The shared spaces were clean and the owners were very friendly and helpful. It was a handy spot for exploring Lewis and would be our first choice should we decide to visit Lewis again.
Callanish Standing Stones
It has been a dream of mine to visit this incredible site. I was completely in awe of the Callanish Standing Stones; it is so atmospheric. It is hard to take it in that you are touching and looking at 5,000 year ago stones. The central stone is 4.8 metres tall and Isaac enjoyed searching for one that was just his height. My youngest looked around at the stones and then said in confusion: “But where are the stones we stand on?”.
As both a history geek and an Outlander fan I was in my element. It felt like such a special place (thankfully, I didn’t hear any buzzing and avoided falling through time).
As it was Sunday, the Visitor Centre was closed (note that if you visit on a Sunday, there are only a few hotels open and most attractions are closed) – I would have loved to read more whilst we were there. But I really enjoyed our visit, it was definitely one of the highlights for me.
Air an Lot
I first read about Air an Lot on the Stories My Suitcase Could Tell blog and it was one of our favourite things of the holiday. Air an Lot (Gaelic for ‘on the croft’) is a traditional croft run by Donald Macsween who gives visitors a unique insight into life on a Lewis croft (for a minimum fee of £25). We had a wonderful morning with Donald, who was friendly, informative and enthusiastic – and great with the kids. He went out of his way to give us the best experience, taking us in hot pursuit of a sea eagle that he spotted when we were with his sheep.
He met us in Ness and we went first of all to feed his lovely Highland cows. Upon seeing the cows, both children promptly took a step back when he asked if they wanted to feed them and James stepped up instead.
We then went to take a look at his sheep. It was a particularly windy day but it didn’t dampen anyone’s spirits. The kids were initially a bit shy but soon were asking Donald questions and hanging on his every word, particularly when he spoke to them in Gaelic. (We learnt two things – how to say ‘thank you’ and ‘come’ in Gaelic). James and I just enjoyed chatting with him, and getting a real insight into life on Lewis.
Gearrannan Blackhouse Village
What an absolutely fascinating place. Gearrannan Blackhouse Village is a visitor attraction with nine restored thatched blackhouses (and it also offers holiday accommodation). We loved walking around the village, feeling as if we had stepped back in time. It was fantastic for the kids, particularly my eldest who is at school, to learn so much about the history of the island. How better to teach children about the past than have it brought to life? He loved seeing the museum section, particularly the Harris Tweed weaving demonstration and watching the video on peat cutting.
The Blackhouse at Arnol is in the care of Historic Scotland and is another great attraction on Lewis. It was incredible to learn that it was lived in until 1966. The kids were given a quiz to fill in which was a great way for us all to learn about the blackhouse and its history. What I loved about the blackhouse at Arnol was that when you walked inside, you really got a sense of what it was like to live there. A peat fire filled the air with its pungent smell and it was so dark walking inside. The kids were fascinated to learn that this space housed a family plus its cows and chickens. You can also go inside the 1920’s ‘white house’ that replaced the blackhouse.
Butt of Lewis
I was blown away by the beauty of Lewis and Harris, but almost completely blown away at the Butt of Lewis! It was unbelievably windy that day (gusts of up to 106 mph have been recorded there – I cannot imagine that as it was around 50 mph when we visited and I was clinging to Flora for fear she may be swept off the cliff!). The lighthouse (standing at 121 ft) was designed by David and Thomas Stevenson and built in 1862.
I could hardly breathe walking up the hill beside the lighthouse with the wind battering against us. Although windy, it is beautiful in its wildness and there is something quite fascinating about standing on the very edge of a land…
So many people recommended visiting Lews Castle in Stornoway and we understood why once we had been. We walked in the grounds (which seem to go on for miles) and really enjoyed the castle museum. It had great exhibitions and the kids were given activities to do. It is a good size and we spent a great deal of time in the main room, learning Gaelic words on an interactive screen, learning about island life, looking at the Lewis Chessman on display and generally having a great time. The cafe is lovely and we also liked having a peek inside the castle itself (now a hotel). The corridor with the starry ceiling is beautiful.
We spent a lot of time in the Outer Hebrides on beaches and liked that Garry Beach, near Tolsta (or Traigh Ghearadha), wasn’t that far from Stornoway so it was an easy afternoon trip. There is another beach right beside it (Traigh Mhor). It was a particularly windy day when we visited but the colours again were beautiful and we had fun exploring somewhere new.
On our last morning, we drove over the Bernera Bridge (built in 1953) to Great Bernera, winding through rugged scenery to Bosta Beach. The beach is lovely and we had it mostly to ourselves. The kids played on the white sand and we enjoyed the warmth of the sun, before walking up to take a look at the Iron Age house that is tucked back from the beach, close to the car park.
It was the perfect end to our short break – a beautiful drive through wild landscape and a gorgeous little beach to explore. And that’s probably what stood out the most for me about our family holiday on Lewis and Harris – the wildness of the island landscape, the rawness of a land battered by the Atlantic wind and the breathtaking colours of its beaches. I can’t wait to go back.