The sands of Luskentyre on the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides
As we pulled off the single-track country lane, it was quite a sight that greeted us. A deserted mile-wide, white-sand beach was spread out below, split by a blue stream meandering down to a clear emerald-green sea and small islands dotted on the horizon. Thailand, or the Caribbean maybe? No, this was Luskentyre Beach on the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides. On a weekend break in North West Scotland, my wife Ildi and I were certainly blessed with Caribbean weather – a rarity in these parts as the locals never hesitated to tell us.
We’d flown with easyJet from Luton to Inverness, then driven alongside Loch Ness before taking the breathtaking A87 up through the Highlands to Skye.
After stopping off to marvel at the huge columns of basalt rising out of the Sound of Raasay at Kilt Rock, we met up with Angus Murray, programme manager for the Skye Ecomuseum project which aims to boost the local economy and promote the area’s heritage and landscape. He recommended a walk out to the peninsula of Brothers’ Point, where 170 million-year-old dinosaur footprints have recently been discovered.
We spent our first night at the welcoming Uig Hotel, Uig, where a plate of haddock and chips, plus a pint of local ale hit the spot while watching the sun set over the harbour.
Next morning we boarded the Caledonian MacBrayne car ferry and set off for Harris – 1hr 40min away.Whereas Skye is green and leafy, Harris is like another planet. In fact, its bleak, almost treeless, rock-strewn interior was used to portray the surface of Jupiter in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Just 1,916 people live here and most youngsters leave to find work but one innovative company is reversing that trend.
The Isle of Harris Distillery was founded in 2015 with a community ethos and a determination to rewrite the distilling rule book. They hired locals who’d previously left the island, trained them in the subtle arts of distilling and started their boutique operation in Tarbert.
Ian and Ildi take the plunge on a boat voyage to the isles of Lunga and Scarba
Their Hearach single malt whisky is currently being cask-matured with an on-sale date still several years away while the company runs on sales of its Isle of Harris gin – an award-winning spirit infused with nine botanicals including, uniquely, sugar kelp, which is harvested locally by the distillery’s own diver, Lewis McKenzie.
After a fascinating tour, we headed out along the Atlantic coast road, stopping at Seilebost to capture that jaw-dropping view across Luskentyre to the island of Taransay – home of the TV series Castaway, which Ben Fogle first appeared on back in 2000.
The blind crests of the single-track roads require concentration – not easy when every bend reveals a picture postcard scene.The only occupants of the beach at Borve were cows munching on seaweed.
Turning inland after visiting the tiny church of St Clement in Rodel, built by the MacLeod clan in 1512, you enter the surreal moonscape of Harris’s interior – a vista of ancient uninhabited outcrops of Lewisian gneiss, the palette of brown and grey broken only by wildflowers, small mountain lakes and sheep.
The west of Scotland is rich with wildlife and the following day, while walking above the beach at Huisinis, we saw two whales breaking the surface.This was apt as the main reason for our visit was to discover more about the Hebridean Whale Trail which opened in June. This is a network of whale-watching and heritage sites set up by the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust to monitor marine wildlife while working with the community to preserve the aquatic environment.
Huisinish beach on the Isle of Harris is washed by turquoise waves from the Atlantic
A quarter of the world’s species of dolphins and whales are found here, and this part of Scotland is one of the best whale-watching spots in Europe.There’s a resident population of eight orcas with more migrating here in summer, along with porpoises, basking sharks, the odd sperm whale, otters, seals and more.The initiative will have 33 sites from CapeWrath in the north to Arran and out to St Kilda.
Rangers also give talks and a whale-watching app allows you to feed back sightings to the Trust.
Having travelled from the islands to the Oban, we took a RIB boat ride from Easdale with Seafari Adventures, who run trips to the Firth of Lorne, a European Special Area of Conservation.
We whipped across the sea to the islands of Lunga and Scarba. At the first sighting of anything furry or finned, skipper Steve cut the engines and he and our guide James gave us an expert lowdown.We saw seals basking on the rocks, red deer and feral goats on the hillsides and a white-tailed sea eagle, the biggest bird in Britain, with a 9ft wingspan.
En route we crossed through the Gulf of Corryvreckan, a narrow strait.As a large volume of tidal water rushes through this compressed space, it’s forced up against a massive underwater basalt pyramid, causing huge whirlpools and standing waves to form. It’s a site of much mythology and stories abound involving shipwrecks, Norse kings, witches and hag goddesses. Sadly we went through at slack tide and all was deceptively calm.
Fishing boats in the harbour at Oban in Argyll
From the spirits of the deep to the Oban distillery, around which the town grew up after it opened in 1794. Its methods have hardly changed in 200 years and just seven men run the distilling process famed for its 14-year-old single malt.
We’d crammed a lot into our trip but as we headed back to Inverness airport one aspect stood out the most – the sun was still shining.
Rooms at Uig Lodge, Skye, start at £140 a night based on two sharing (uig-lodge-skye.com). Rooms at Oban Bay Hotel, Oban, start at £128 a night (two sharing). crerarhotels.com. Rooms at Kirklea Island Suites from Hotel Hebrides, Tarbert, start at £170 (per family). hotel-hebrides.com. Inverness airport is served by flights from Heathrow, Bristol, Gatwick, Luton, Belfast, Birmingham and Manchester. Car hire available from Avis and Europcar.
Corryvreckan Wildlife Tour £45 adult/£35 child. seafari.co.uk. Isle of Harris Distillery tours £10pp. harrisdistillery.com. Hebridean Whale Trail – whaletrail.org. Ferries: calmac.co.uk Tourism: visitscotland.com.