The Beaches and Beauty of the Isle of Harris

Harris Beach

Nothing Prepares You for the Beauty of the Outer Hebrides

When I show people my pictures of the beaches on the Isle of Harris they often think they are of the Maldives or the Caribbean.  You can try to describe the beauty of these stunning islands.  You can try and persuade people how amazing they are with just a few photographs.  I even took some video to show my friends what an amazing unspoilt Scottish island the Isle of Harris really is.  In reality, there’s no substitute for visiting in person.  Follow me a on a journey across this amazing island and learn more about what to see and do.  You’ll also get to learn some of the stories behind the fabulous people who make up the welcoming community on this lovely island in the North West of Scotland.

Where is Harris
So Where is the Isle of Harris? By Andrewrpalmer / Orionist – Own work, based on File:Outerhebrideslewis2.png., CC BY-SA 3.0,

Childhood Memories on the Isle of Harris

My love for the Isle of Harris goes back to my childhood, which unfortunately was quite a long time ago now.  My dad worked for an airline and he spent a lot of his time flying around the world seeing exotic places.  In his spare time, the last thing he wanted to do was to fly anywhere.  This meant that many of our summer holidays were spent with lots of friends and family in a fishing lodge called Horsacleit on the Isle of Harris.  I must admit that as a teenager from Norwich, the idea of spending too much time on a remote Scottish island wasn’t the most exciting prospect.  Once I got there, I experienced a freedom that I could on wish for at home.  The joy of grabbing a fishing rod and wandering around the various lochs was like something out of a dream.

Horsacleit Isle of Harris
Childhood Memories Staying at Horsacleit

Old Ferries and Out of Date Ritz Crackers

Over various summers I had some wonderful experiences that I look back very fondly on.  The first time I went to the Isle of Harris was in the summer of 1985.  We drove all the way from Norwich in a Land Rover, towing our faithful little boat called the “Girl Joan” along behind us.  I spent the journey wedged into my seat by the boat’s outboard motor with various fishing rods spearing my head around every bend.  Back in 1985 the ferry to Harris wasn’t a posh roll-on, roll-off one.  You drove onto the side and were spun around on a turntable, it was an amazing experience.  If you want to find out more about the different routes to get the ferry to the Outer Hebrides, I have another post all about that.

MV Hebrides Isle of Harris
The Ferry that Took me on my First Trip to the Isle of Harris

Harris really was another world for a teenage boy.  I caught my first Salmon that summer and had a wonderful time fishing and wandering the hills.  The local shop in Tarbert was an amazing emporium of everything you could ever need, although I remember the comedy of buying a box of Ritz crackers that turned out to be over a year out of date.  We came back for the next few years, each time joined by different friends and family.  They were some of the best summers of my life.

Coming Back with my Own Children

Having spent so much of my childhood on this amazing island, it seemed a natural place to bring my own family.  Thankfully my own teenage daughters loved this very special place as much as my teenage self did all those years ago.  We’ve made a few visits over the years and we enjoy each trip even more that the last as we learn more about how this exciting and vibrant community has evolved to meet the challenges of the modern, connected world.

Berneray View Isle of Harris
A View from South Harris Across to Berneray

When we visit, our base has usually been in Strond.  It’s a small settlement just beyond Leverburgh where we have stayed at Mile Sgeir.  This lovely cottage has wonderful views across to Berneray and North Uist.  It’s owned by local woman Donalda who grew up a few doors up the road and now lives in Stornoway.  I’ll look forward to telling you more about her story in a separate post about the accommodation options on Harris.  Her holiday home is a great example of the innovative ways that locals are working to keep their community growing as the traditional industries of the island have been harder to sustain.

Visit the Isle of Harris and Help Sustain a Community

Probably the most amazing thing about the Isle of Harris is its wonderful people.  The highland clearances of the 19th Century had a terrible effect on the island communities of the Outer Hebrides.  This was followed through much of the 20th century with a UK government policy of managed decline, which made sustaining the fabric of a fragile island community very difficult.  It wasn’t until the creation of the Highlands and Islands Development Board in 1965 that the Scottish islands began to thrive once more.

The Isle of Harris has been designated economically fragile, so the need for sustainable development opportunities, which combine economic, social, cultural and environmental attributes, is vital to the local community.  Surrounded by such beauty, many people are inspired by the scenary to produce the most wonderful art.  We recently created the Harris Art Trail so that anyone can get the most out of the Art scene on the island.  It features all sorts of galleries and other amazing places that showcase the work of local artists.

Isle of Harris Community
Community Members at the 2013 Isle of Harris Mountain Festival

Local Businesses Everywhere – Get Out and Find Them!

In every corner of the island there are local businesses where people give their heart and soul to provide vital services to their community.  Every single one of them are vital in supporting the economy of the island.  If you need one more reason to take a trip to the Isle of Harris – this is it.  Not only do you get to visit one of the most beautiful places on earth, you also get to play your own part in the lives of this community.  It was my visits to Harris and the wonderful people I met that inspired me to start the From Real People blog in the first place.  So join me on a journey around the Isle of Harris and learn a bit more about the stories behind some of the local businesses at the same time.

Lots of Wonderful Things to Do on the Isle of Harris

Hopefully I have already got you excited about the idea of visiting the Isle of Harris.  Its a place of stunning beauty, wonderful scenery and amazing people.  The more I have visited, the more I have discovered about all the fantastic things there are to do on the island.  Thankfully, you get to benefit from my many trips and hopefully this post will help you have an awesome trip to the Isle of Harris yourself.  It will also help you learn a bit more about some of the fantastic local businesses on the island.  If you are looking for anything I didn’t cover enough for you, the websites We love Harris and the Isle of Harris are great places to start.

Sheep Isle of Harris
There Are Lots of Things to See and Do in the Isle of Harris

I am sure that it won’t surprise you to learn that the weather on the Isle of Harris can be a little unpredictable.  I’ve experienced beautiful warm sunshine, howling wind and driving rain – sometimes all 3 in the space of 30 minutes.  Come to the Isle of Harris prepared for anything and you’ll be fine.  If you plan ahead you’ll be find and as you can see, even the sheep need somewhere to shelter sometimes.

Starting in the South – Rodel and It’s 16th Century Church

I’ll start our tour of the Isle of Harris on it’s Southern tip in the village of Rodel.  It’s a beautiful spot that was originally the main port of the island until that crown was taken over by Tarbert.

St Clement’s Church – History by the Bucketload

The most important thing to see in Rodel is St Clement’s Church.  Exact details of when the church was built is unclear but it is generally understood to date back to the late 15th or early 16th century.  It was built for the Chiefs of the MacLeods of Harris, who lived in Dunvegan Castle in Skye.  It was originally a Catholic church before falling into disuse shortly after its completion around 1560 as a consequence of the reformation.  In the 19th century it was used as a cow byre before being restored by Catherine Herbert Countess of Dunmore in 1873.  The church is in the shape of a cross and has some lovely nooks and crannies despite its small size.  If you are really lucky (like we were once) you might even stumble across a wedding taking place.

Rodel Church Isle of Harris
St Clement’s Church in Rodel

If you like a walk, there is a lovely one along the coast towards Leverburgh not far from the church.  Take the main road towards Tarbert turning left out of the church gate.  Take the second road left a few hundred metres along the road after the 2 houses next to each other.  There should be a small loch on your right and a little bay on the left.  Walk to the end and take the path over the hill.  The path then connects with Strond Road that heads into Leverburgh.

The Rodel Hotel – Keep an Eye Out for the Renovation

When I first went back to Harris a few years ago, the Rodel Hotel was still open and nice place to stop by for a pint of beer and a rest after a wander around the harbour.  The Hotel building was built in 1781 and was originally the home of Captain Alexander MacLeod of Berneray who had bought the Isle of Harris in 1779.  It served as a hotel since 1925 Rodel and in 1956 it even received the Royal Yacht Britannia in the sea loch with the royal family disembarking in Rodel harbour.  It was subsequently sold to Anderson “Burr” Bakewell who founded the Harris Distillery and is currently being prepared for renovation.  The site is proposed as a residential and commercial development called Rodel House and Sail-loft.  Keep an eye out for what happens next to this tranquil and amazing building.

Rodel Hotel Isle of Harris
The (hopefully) soon to be Renovated Rodel Hotel (Credit: Alison Dunlop)

The Wonderful Village of Leverburgh

As you head North from Rodel the next place you come across is the wonderful village of Leverburgh.  I have very fond memories of staying in Strond Road along the coast. One year we even went along to a Ceilidh in the Community Hall and had a great time.   Although the band from Stornoway were most displeased when no one (locals included) were able to do the Highland Skittish to their satisfaction.  The band leader even offered to play the Hokey Cokey in disgust.  There are all sorts of local events taking place through the year.  Keep an eye out both on the internet and also on noticeboards in local shops.  Don’t be afraid to just jump in and get involved – the islanders are a wonderfully friendly bunch of people.

Leverburgh Isle of Harris
The Wonderful Village of Leverburgh

Leverburgh’s Harris Community Co-Op

One place you really must visit when in Leverburgh is the Harris Community Co-op, or Co-Chommun Na Hearadh in Gaelic.  If you are staying in the area, don’t buy all your groceries at Tesco in Stornoway stop by this wonderful place instead.  It was set up In 1979, when the existing village shop in Leverburgh looked likely to close down. A community co-operative was set up and, by selling local shares at £25 each, sufficient funds were raised to allow the community to run its own enterprise.

Tourism plays a massive part in the survival of the shop and they rely heavily on the summer trade to stay open in the quieter winter months.  The money that the extra summer visitors bring in allows them to invest in the business and to keep the shop trading and employing staff.  In turn this supports families in the community and helps to keep Leverburgh going. Just in case you didn’t get it – Don’t buy your supplies in Tesco up in Stornoway – support the co-op instead and the community it supports.

Kenny from the Coop’s Top Harris Tip!

When writing the From Real People blog, it’s great to interact with people from the different businesses that I feature.  I love to get their tips for the best things to do where they live.  Kenny from the Leverburgh Community Coop told that while Harris is well know for it beaches, wildlife, friendly people and gin his recommendation was to climb a hill like Cepaval or the Clisham.  Sit at the top in silence listening to nature all around you and take in the amazing views to really appreciate Harris at its finest.  The last time I climbed Cepaval was the day of the Northton Festival a few years ago.  My brother-in-law and I got to enjoy a beer at the inflatable pub at the end.

Great Food at the Anchorage by the Ferry

The first of many wonderful places to eat on the Isle of Harris is also one of the easiest to find.  Just follow the signs for the Leverburgh to Berneray Ferry and you will find the Anchorage right next to the slipway on the left hand side.  The Anchorage is run by Sally and her amazing team.  It’s a popular place so it’s definitely worth booking in advance to make sure that you can grab a table.  We’ve eaten here quite a few times and the food has always been amazing.  The stand out dish has to be the scallops, which are local, fresh and hand-dived.  Whatever you have, you won’t be disappointed.  They even have a new website were you can check out the menu.

Anchorage Leverburgh Isle of Harris
The Anchorage Restaurant in Leverburgh

The Butty Bus – Looks can be Deceiving

When you come across a restaurant in a bus you probably have a picture of a greasy spoon cafe somewhere on a bypass.  The Butty Bus however, is something a million miles from that.  If you are in Leverburgh you really cannot miss the opportunity to eat at this amazing little place.  The owner, Chris, works some real magic in the kitchen of the bus.  He is especially famous for his soup of the day.  You can even follow the Butty Bus Facebook page to see what today’s speciality soup is.  The page is also a great way to keep up with the Harris weather thanks to MacKenzie’s musings.  The Bus is also a great place for bacon and black pudding sandwiches and also fish and chips.  Indeed, it’s a great place to eat anything that is on Chris’ menu.

Find the Hebridean Mustard Hut Between Leverburgh and Northton

Another exciting local business to look out for is the fabulous Hebridean Mustard Company.  Owner Heike Winter sells her wonderful mustards from a wee hut in the glen between Leverburgh and Northton.  Originally from Dusseldorf in Germany, she grew up with a love of food from the warmth and comfort of her Grannie’s kitchen.  Her favourite recipes of today have been handed down through generations.  She learned to make jams and pickles in her kitchen and she tells me that her Grannie’s rhubarb-ketchup was more a poem than a condiment.

The Wee Hut of the Hebridean Mustard Company betweeen Leverburgh and Northton
The Wee Hut of the Hebridean Mustard Company betweeen Leverburgh and Northton

Heike loves the mouth-watering blends of aromatic spices and fragrant herbs that make your taste buds tingle.  With the Mustheb brand she turns plain condiments into a burst of mustardy joy.  When someone puts so much love into the creative process to achieve the perfect balance of acidity, sweet- and spiciness that can blow your mind, it would be rude not to stop by and try some.  Heike’s mustard is good, honest food and she uses certified organic ingredients – from every single mustard seed over the high-quality organic cider from Aspall and all of her wonderful spices.

Isle of Harris Mustard
Some of Heike’s Wonderful Mustard

Northton – Start of Beach Heaven

If you take the road out of Leverburgh and turn right onto the main road, you start heading North back towards Tarbert. About 3 miles along the road is a turn into the wonderful little village of Northton.  This is one of my favourite places on the island with some lovely beaches, as you can see from the picture below.  We have a painting of First Beach (the one in the photo) hanging on our bedroom wall.  Not only is the village home to some wonderful beaches but there is an old chapel and some amazing views.  It’s the perfect place for exploring.

Northon Village Isle of Harris
The Wonderful Village of Northton (credit IHA)

Along the main street there is a gorgeous row of houses that is home to the interesting Seallam Visitor Centre and also the Temple Cafe and Croft 36.  You have to visit Northton at least 3 times on a visit to Harris.  Once for cake at the Temple Cafe, once to come back for an evening meal (definitely book in advance) and then again to get take away from Croft 36.  Read on and I’ll tell you a bit more about the wonders of Northton.

Wonderful Beaches – Just Follow the Path at the End of the Road

There are some amazing beaches in Northton, follow the path at the end of the road and just keep walking and you will find them all.  You should also visit Teampall – a ruined chapel that sits on a headland beside the remains of an older dun, which probably provided much of the materials.  The chapel dates from 1528 when it was built by Alasdair Crotach, Chief of the MacLeods in the same year that he built the church at Rodel.  Being accessible for those living on the rich western coastal machair and the then populous islands of Pabbay and Berneray to the south, it served as the parish church for the whole of Harris before falling into disuse in the early 16th century.

Northon Beach Isle of Harris
One of the Beautiful Beaches at Northton

The Fabulous Temple Cafe (Closed at the Moment – For Sale)

Northton’s Temple Cafe has to go down as one of my favourite cafes in all the world. The owners of the cafe are Gail and her husband Reuben, who originally comes from the nearby village of Scarista.  His parents have lived in Scarista for over 50 years where they run the village art gallery.  Gail moved up to Harris from Edinburgh in 2003, giving up life as a Pilates Teacher in the big city for island life.  The original plan had been to turn their house across the road into a cafe but when the chance came up to lease the Magillivary Centre building they jumped at it.  As a carpenter, it’s no surprise that Reuben has done an amazing job on turning the cafe into a very special space.  As well as all the interior work he also made all the cafe’s beautiful tables with giant slabs of trees from the castle grounds in Stornoway.

Temple Cafe Isle of Harris
The Temple Cafe – Great Food and Amazing Views

Life in the Temple Cafe

The Temple Cafe first opened it’s doors in 2011.  Gail loved to cook but had never done it on such a grand scale before so the cafe was a totally new and exciting challenge for her.  The cafe relies hugely on the island’s tourist industry so if you are visiting Harris make sure you stop by to check out their yummy cakes and amazing savoury food.  Their pies are the stuff of legend.  As well as being open during the day as a cafe, the do Pizza takeaway on a Friday and evening meals on a Thursday and Sunday (you have to book ahead for the evenings though).  If you factor in cake, savoury lunch, pizza and dinner, this means that you would have to visit the cafe 4 times if you are on holiday for a week.  Check out the Temple Cafe’s Facebook Page for more information about opening times. menus etc.

Temple Pie
One of the Temple Cafe’s Amazing Pies

Gail From the Temple Cafe’s Harris Tips

I tested Gail a little by asking for her favourite parts of the islands and where she would recommend that tourists must visit.  Unsurprisingly for such a wonderful place, she found it hard to choose one so she gave me a whole list, even better.  At the top her list was Rodel church, you really can’t miss it because it is something pretty special.  She also recommended the walk around the coastline to the old temple in Northton (which I mentioned earlier).  She also loves Huishnish, which is on the north west part of Harris and is often missed by tourist.  Gail also loves the neighbouring Isle of Lewis with amazing places to visit like the Callanish stones, Carloway broch.  Finally, she couldn’t finish her recommendations with mentioning the beautiful beaches and the fantastic Isle of St Kilda.

Temple Cafe Harris
Ready for Dinner in the Temple Cafe

Learn More About Harris and It’s Amazing People at The Seallam Centre

The Seallam Centre is the perfect place to learn more about the island and it’s wonderful people.  It’s a great idea to visit early on during a trip to the island because it will give you an understanding of Harris that will help make the rest of your trip more interesting.  It has loads of great information and exhibits, including lots about the fascinating history of St Kilda.  In the summer, the museum is open from 10 am to 5 pm, Monday to Friday.  The cost of entry is only £2.50, which is barely the cost of a cup of coffee – don’t miss it.

Temple Cafe Harris
The View from the Temple Cafe Window

Croft 36 – Steve and Julie’s Foodie Heaven

The village of Northton is an unexpected hotbed of culinary perfection.  As well as the Temple Cafe, the village is also home to the totally awesome Croft 36.  Owners Steve and Julie Olley have lived on the Isle of Harris since the late 1990s.  They originally came with their eldest son and since arriving they have had 3 more children, all of whom are fluent in the local Gaelic language.  They started their Croft 36 food business in 2011 having identified the need for seafood meals on the island.

Having tasted their food, this is another place you have to visit while you are on the island.  Again, this is a proper family business who rely heavily on the support of tourists to keep their venture alive and a roof over their heads.  This is exactly what From Real People is all about.

Croft 32 Owners
Croft 36’s Owners Steve and Julie with their lovely family

Easy to Find and a Great Concept

The little white shack/ shed of Croft 36 is easy to find on the main street through Northton.  Just turn off the main Tarbert to Rodel road into the village and you can’t miss it.  They open at 10:30 in the morning (Monday to Saturday) and continue putting their lovely baked goods, pies and other lovely things out until mid afternoon.  The Croft is especially famous for it’s Fish Curry, but from what I have had myself and what I have read in reviews it doesn’t matter what you choose – everything is amazing.  The food is all for take away so it’s a great option for a picnic or to take back to a holiday home.

Croft 36 Isle of Harris
Wonderful Food at Croft 36

From Scarista to Luskentyre – One Beach After Another

As you head out of the Northton village and turn left on the main road towards Tarbert a truly magical journey awaits you.  The A859 between Scarista and Luskentyre is just one stunning beach after another.  If you are driving the road yourself, be aware that parts of it are single track and some of the locals (especially the Harris minibus) go pretty fast.  This means that if you want to look at something don’t let yourself get distracted while driving, pull over first.  There are plenty of places to stop safely.

Scarista Beach and Amazing Golf

The first beach you come across after the bay at Northton is the fabulous Scarista Beach.  It’s a long sweeping beach that is great for walking and enjoying the views of the hills of south Harris.  There’s enough parking on the coast side of the road so make sure to stop and enjoy this great place.  If you play golf, the Harris golf club is also found in Scarista and it has often been described as one of the most perfect locations for sport in the world.  Check out their website and bring your clubs to play it’s 9-hole course with gorgeous views to the Isle of Taransay.

Scarista Beach Isle of Harris
Scarista Beach

Borve to Horgabost

As you continue towards Tarbert there are then a number of lovely little coves and beaches.  On our visits to Harris, this has been where we have seen Dolphins on a number of occasions.  Horgabost beach looks especially golden and is famous for being the site of a camp site where many a backpacker has enjoyed the amazing views across to the Taransay.  Back home in Cologne we have a great friend who holidayed on Harris as a German student in the 1970s .  She stayed at Horgabost back then and it’s one of the few places in the world where the view hasn’t changed in all these years.

Borve Isle of Harris
One of the many Stunning Beaches Between Borve and Horgabost

Seilebost and Luskentyre

The biggest and perhaps most famous beaches in Harris are the final ones before the road to Tarbert heads inland and towards the east coast of the island.  Seilebost and Luskentyre are truly amazing beaches with enormous golden sandy beaches and sea so blue you would think you were in the Caribbean.  Horizontal rain and wind might quickly bring you back to reality but regardless of the weather these beaches are somewhere everyone should visit at least once in their lives.  Thankfully, the weather is sunny quite a lot on Harris, especially in the summer.  So come and visit these special places and experience the unspoilt beauty for yourself.  Just remember to leave things as you found them.

Luskentyre Isle of Harris
Looking Across to Luskentyre Beach

Talla Na Mara Community Enterprise Centre at Niseaboist Beach

Continiing along the coast towards Tarbert is Talla na Mara,  a Community Enterprise Centre that overlooks the golden sands of Niseaboist Beach. The words Talla na Mara is Gaelic for the “Centre by the sea” and it is owned and managed by the West Harris Trust on behalf of the local community.  In January 2010 the West Harris Trust purchased 7225 hectares of land on the West side of Harris on behalf of the 120 residents of Luskentyre, Seilebost, Horgabost, Borve and Scaristavore.

One of the key aims of the Trust is revitalising the community by attracting new residents and creating new housing and employment opportunities.  The centre is home some wonderful local businesses including the Studios at Talla Na Mara (with the Heb Design Company, Joceline Hildrey Illustrations and Isle of Harris Fine Art), the Machair Kitchen and camping facilities.  Check out their website or Facebook page for more information about activities when you are visiting the island.

Isle of Harris Art Galleries Talla Na Mara
The Wonderful Community Space at Talla Na Mara

The Golden Road along the East Coast of Harris

For many years when I visited the Isle of Harris, I heard references to the Golden Road and assumed that this was the main road between Tarbert and Rodel.  I thought that the “Golden” part referred to the amazing golden sandy beaches along the route.  Turns out I was totally wrong.  The Golden Road is in fact the much smaller and less used road that runs through the beautiful bays of the east coast.  Indeed the name originally referred to the road from Ceann Dibig to Greosabhagh and on to Leac a Li (Lacklee) that was completed in the 1940s.  The golden part refers more to the cost of building such a road.  Either way, the views from one village to the next are truly amazing and show you a new side to the island.

Golden Road Isle of Harris
The Golden Road on the East Coast of Harris

The Skoon Art Cafe at Geocrab

In the pretty village of Geocrab is the lovely Skoon Art Cafe.  It a fantastic and cosy little place located in an old croft.  This is another great local business that is owned by Andrew and his wife Emma.  Originally there was just a house on the site and they converted it to a cafe 15 years ago and ran it ever since.   Emma’s family are from nearby Lewis and her Mum still lives there, so that was what drew they up to Harris 20 years ago.  Andrew told me that they have tried to create a place that they would love to visit themselves, whether as tourists or locals.  In terms of the island, his main request was that visitors to the island accept it as it is, enjoy it, and leave it the way they found it. Sounds like a plan to me – life on any island requires a respect for others that might not be so obvious to everyone.

Skoon Art Cafe Isle of Harris
The Skoon Art Cafe in Geocrab

Tarbert – The Capital of the Isle of Harris

Tarbert is a lovely little village that is at the heart of this vibrant island community.  It’s here in Tarbert that the CalMac ferry arrives from Uig on the Isle of Skye.  The village is also home to the local tourist office, the Tarbert Stores (sellers of lots of amazing things), the Harris Distillery, the largest Harris Tweed Shop on the island and lots more exciting things besides.  It’s a great place to experience the hubbub of island life.  Just a quick word about food shopping (again).  If you are coming to rent a holiday home on the Isle of Harris, please don’t drive all the way to Stornoway to buy your food from the big supermarket. Use the small, local independent shops who rely on the tourist trade to sustain their businesses during the quiet winter months.

Tarbert Stores Isle of Harris
Tarbert Stores – The Island Store

The Pierhouse Restaurant and the Machair Kitchen

If you are looking for a more substantial meal while you are in Tarbert then a good place to visit is the Pierhouse Restaurant.  The restaurant is part of the lovely Hotel Hebrides, which is located near the car ferry at the port.  Like everywhere on this lovely island, the owners place a great emphasis on used local produce.  From hand dived scallops of East loch Tarbert to the local lamb from the windswept machairs in Lewis, their mantra is to use quality local and ethically sourced produce.  The owners also host special events at their Machair Kitchen at the stunning Talla Na Mara Community centre near Horgabost.  Check out the Talla Na Mara centre’s Facebook page for more info about the different events they have throughout the year.

Pierhouse Isle of Harris
The Pierhouse Restaurant at the Hotel Hebrides

Candle Heaven at the Essence of Harris Candle Company

While you are in Tarbert another place you really must visit is the shop of the Essence of Harris Candle Company.  It’s easy to find on the Main Street and is the perfect place to lose yourself exploring their range of locally poured candles and other goodies.  Another example of a great local business, the Essence of Harris was set up in 2015 by partners Jamie and Deenie.  They started things at their kitchen table,  hand-pouring around 12 candles a day on their kitchen table for a small following of island locals.  Since then things have grown beyond their wildest dreams.  They now have two shops (the one in Tarbert and also one in Inverness Airport).  They have 15 staff now and continue to grow, which is great news for this island community.  Not only can you buy their candles at their shops, you can also buy online on their website.

Essence Harris
Jamie and Deenie with Some of The Essence of Harris Team

The Harris Distillery – An Island Community at Work

Throughout this post about the Isle of Harris I’ve been highlighting the importance of community and you have seen quite a few examples of of this, such as the Leverburgh Community Co-op.  One of the greatest challenges for island communities like those on Harris is de-population.  In 1951 the population of the island was around 4,000 but by the time of the 2011 census this had more than halved to 1,916.  In an effort to raise awareness of the island, create new employment opportunities and raise the number of islanders in the long term the Harris Community Distillery was founded in 2015 by Anderson “Burr” Bakewell and a group of 10 islanders called the Tarbert Ten.

The Hereach “1,916” Single Malt Whisky

The Isle of Harris Distillery is known as ‘The Social Distillery’, an ethos which embraces the generous character of our island and the people who live here.  A peat fire burns at the heart of their building in Tarbert that symbolises the warmth of an Outer Hebridean welcome and the life we that their work brings to the wider island community.  When they first opened the distillery on 24th September 2015 they threw the biggest ceilidh that the island had ever seen.  The main purpose of the distillery is to make whisky, which they call the Hearach.  This is the Gaelic word for a person from Harris and the first filling of the distillery’s single malt will be limited to 1,916 bottles in our of every inhabitant of the island.

Harris Whisky
Distillery workers Domhnall Macleod, Billy Fraser and Donnie Macleod with the first three casks of The Hearach single malt whisky.

Isle of Harris Gin

Scotland is becoming more and more famous as a hotbed of craft gin making.  The Harris Distillery have been winning awards left, right and centre for their wonderful Isle of Harris gin.  We are huge fans of Harris gin in our house.  It really evokes memories of the island and the sea (which we really miss living in Germany).  One of the key ingredients if Harris Gin is local Sugar kelp. This is hand harvested by local diver Lewis Mackenzie from the deep underwater forests of the Outer Hebrides. It is combined with eight other carefully chosen botanicals ensuring a perfect balance between the bitter juniper and pine with sweet fruit flavours of mango, grapefruit and orange. This gives the Isle of Harris Gin a wonderful fruity flavour coupled with a dry, flinty taste.

Isle of Harris Gin
Isle of Harris Gin – Just Beautiful

Visit the Distillery

You can also now visit the Harris Distillery which is located by the shore of East Loch Tarbert.  You can take a tour of the distillery and find out more about the process of making gin and whisky.  Also make sure to grab some hearty island fayre at their fantastic canteen – it’s the perfect place to grab lunch if you are in Tarbert.  Then finish off with a wander around the distillery shop so that you can some of their lovely gin home with you.  The shop has all sorts of wonderful things to buy, not just something fabulous to drink.

We love their fantastic glasses that has the same wonderful design as the bottle.  The best part about a visit to the Harris Distillery is that not only is it educational and a great place to grab a bite to eat but it is another way to help support this amazing island community.  Thanks to the support of tourists and visitors spreading the word the distillery will go from strength to strength and help create more jobs for the community.

Isle of Harris Distillery
You Can Even Visit the Harris Distillery

Learn About Harris Tweed

One of the things that the island is most famous for is Harris Tweed cloth.  For centuries the inhabitants of the Outer Hebrides have woven cloth by hand in their homes.  The original gaelic name was Clò-mòr which means big cloth.  It is generally accepted that the first references to this cloth being called Harris Tweed dates back to around 1840 when the Countess of Dunmore, whose family owned the North Harris Estate first took an interest in it.  The Harris Tweed Authority was formed in 1909 and the orb trademark followed in 1910.  The establishment of the Harris Tweed Act in 1993 created a legal definition for Harris Tweed.  It also formally protected the name and establish specific quality standards.  Where better to learn more about this global icon that in the very community in which it was created.

Harris Tweed Isle of Harris
Harris Tweed – Famous All Over the World

Woven in Houses Across the Island

Despite being a global brand producing Harris Tweed is still very much a community activity.  The formal definition of Harris Tweed is that it has been hand woven by the islanders at their homes in the Outer Hebrides, finished in the islands of Harris, Lewis, North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist and Barra and made from pure virgin wool dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides.  From the gathering of the sheep for shearing right through to the waulking of the fabric towards the end of the process, the making of Harris Tweed is still a very community based activity.  There are loads of places around the island where you can see it being made.  One of my favourite places to visit is the Harris Tweed company in Grosebay.

Tweed Woven Isle of Harris
Woven all over the Island

Harris Tweed Shop

While you are in Tarbert you will definitely need to take a visit to the famous Harris Tweed Shop.  It’s located just at the start of the main street as soon as you turn into Tarbert from the main road.  The selection of clothes and other wonderful things made from Harris Tweed is bewildering.  As you can see from my lovely wife’s modelling skills below.  There’s nowhere better to buy clothes and when you buy Harris Tweed you are helping to support a whole community and preserve a whole way of life.

Isle of Harris Tweed Shop
The Harris Tweed Shop

The Isle of Scalpay and Eilean Glas Lighthouse

Beyond Tarbert the lovely Isle of Scalpay, which is just as beautiful as the rest of Harris.  When I first came here in the mid-80s the island was connected by ot the main island by a ferry.  Thankfully a permanent bridge was completed in 1997.  This makes it much easier to visit – so you really have no excuse for not going.

Some Basic Info About Scalpay

Scalpay, spelt Sgalpaigh in Gaelic, is around 4 km long.  The island rises to a height of 104 metres at the summit of Beinn Scorabhaig.  There are houses all over the island but the main settlement is clustered around the bridge around the North Harbour.  Around 30 years ago, the island was a hub for fishing and back then there were over 30 shops.  The last one closed on 2007 but thankfully there is the fantastic North Harbour Bistro and Tearoom run by a man called George.  I’m looking forward to being able to update this post soon with more information about George and his business.  Again, as with all the other local businesses in this post, stop by and give George your patronage and support.  It’s a vital lifeline for Scalpay’s population of 261 people.

Scalpay Isle of Harris
Isle of Scalpay

Eilean Glas Lighthouse

One of the most interesting things to do on Scalpay is to take the walk to the Eilean Glas lighthouse.  It’s well worth the effort to be rewarded with an amazing lighthouse and stunning views across to the Isle of Skye.  It used to be quite a tough walk but thankfully there is now a proper gravelled path all the way there.  To find the start of the path drive to the settlement of Kennavay and walk up the hill from the small car park.  You’ll see an abandoned military site in front of you and then take the left fork just before it.

Eilean Glas Isle of Harris
The End of a Lovely Walk to Eilean Glas LIghthouse

The North Harbour Bistro and Tearoom – Scalpay

The North Harbour Bistro is the latest place to get some amazing food.  It’s location is given away by it’s name, you can find it in the North Harbour of Scalpay.  The Bistro is the brainchild of Glasgow-born George and his partner Lorna.  In cookery school George won student of the year and then went on become an award winning chef in Jersey under the training of David Cameron (another one).  He moved to Harris in 2008 and then took over running the bistro in 2013.  More recently, the closure of the community shop has left Scalpay missing a community hub.  George and Morna felt that somewhere was needed for the locals to be able to meet up, chat and just grab a coffee.  This lead to the expansion to the Tearoom where they now offer teas, coffees, soup, snacks as well as the amazing food in the bistro for lunch or an evening meal.

Harris Self Catering North Harbour
George and Scalpay’s North Harbour Bistro and Tearoom

The Other Islands Around Harris

As well as the Isle of Harris itself there are some other islands nearby that are important to visit if you get the chance.  The first of these is the mystical and remote St Kilda that lies 40 miles (65 km) out into the Atlantic from the Outer Hebrides.  The second is the Taransay that most people will know as the home of the Castaway TV Series that made the dame of adventurer Ben Fogle in the year 2000.

The Fascinating History of St Kilda

St Kilda is the westernmost point of the United Kingdom lying out in the Atlantic Ocean.  It consists of 4 islands, Hirta, Dùn, Soay and Boreray.  The islands’ human heritage has various architectural features that date back to the prehistoric period.  There are written records of island life as far back as the Late Middle Ages, which is truly amazing given the remotenesss of the island. The medieval village on Hirta was rebuilt in the 19th century and the population for this period was just below 100.  By the end of the First World War the majority of the men had left the island.  A series of crop failures and illnesses led to the eventual evacuation of the last 36 inhabitants on 29th August 1930.

St Kilda Boat Trips from the Isle of Harris
The Remote Island of St Kilda

Take a Trip to the Village on St Kilda’s Hirta Island

In 1957, St Kilda was bequeathed to The National Trust for Scotland by the 5th Marquess of Bute.  They now jointly maintain the island in partnership with Scottish National Heritage and the Ministry of Defence.  The island has a unique ecosystem and a lot of work goes into protecting it from the influence of outside sources.  There are various ways to visit St Kilda.  If you are sailing in the area then you can come ashore yourself (provided you read the various rules on the island web page).  The majority of people visit through cruises from Leverburgh based Sea Harris and Kilda Cruises.  The boat trips takes around 3 hours.  You can also visit on a cruise ship from the National Trust for Scotland. If you are feeling adventurous, you can even camp on the island.

Hirta Kilda from Isle of Harris
Hirta Village on St Kilda

Taransay

The island of Taransay lies to the west of Harris directly across from the beaches of Luskentyre and Seilebost.  It was inhabited at least as early as 300 AD and continued to be lived on right up to 1974.  Taransay is the largest uninhabited island in Scotland measuring just over 6 km long and 5 km wide.  Most people will know it as the location for the Castaway TV show in the year 2000 that saw 36 people live on the island for a whole year.  Taransay is now owned by the New Zealander Adam Kelliher who also owns Borve Lodge and Estate on Harris.  Information on visiting the island is hard to come by, although it currently looks like Sea Harris do charters to check the place out.

Taransay Isle of Harris
Taransay – Famous for the Castaway TV Show

Finally – Don’t Forget to Go North to Hushinish

The final place I want to tell you about on Harris is the gorgeous village of Hushinish.  It was one of the places recommended by Gail from the Temple Cafe so it must be a great spot to visit.  It’s a tiny little place that sits at the end of a single track road to the North West of Tarbert.  Many people think Harris stops at Tarbert but it goes quite a bit further North than there.  At the end of the road you will be rewarded with yet another amazing beach, which I think is the perfect way to finish our tour of this amazing island.  Come, visit, enjoy and help support a whole community who just can’t wait to welcome you into their lives.

Hushinish
Hushinish Beach and the Road to the Village

 

 

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20 Thoughts to “The Beaches and Beauty of the Isle of Harris”

  1. Not only do I want to visit, I also now want a pie, a butty and a woven throw! Can’t imagine anywhere more idyllic to leave the phone at home and just ‘be’.

    Thank you for sharing your wonderful experience x

    1. They really are nice pies and there are some pretty awesome cakes as well.

  2. Roxanna

    Wow John, what a ton of information! It reminds me so very much of Northern Ireland, as I have not yet been to Scotland. You made me wanna go, and I feel like I would know everything I needed to know to enjoy the stay.

  3. That looks utterly beautiful – those beaches!! It’s somewhere I have often thought about visiting, but not ever gotten around too. Now we are back in the UK, it’s slightly closer, and I must look into it further. This post will be super helpful, thank you! 🙂

  4. Nicola

    Holy cow that looks so beautiful. You definitely sell the place well, I want to pack up and move there now.

  5. I’m really keen to head further north in Scotland as I’ve only ever really done Glasgow and Edinburgh and I know it would be worth it x

  6. Thank you so much for a such a comprehensive and incredibly interesting post about the Isle of Harris. It’s clearly an awesome place to visit and to know that by spending a holiday there, visitors are are helping the local community to thrive and prosper. The scenery looks stunning and I’m absolutely positive that my family and I would love this place whatever the weather might hold in in store!

  7. Jem

    Thanks for sharing your experiences I really enjoyed reading about it. It looks like you had a wonderful time and the photos look amazing!

  8. Who knew such a tiny island could have so much to see. I would love something like this for a no tech getaway, lots of walking and just having that sense of calm.

  9. Kristina Maggiora

    Oh wow I have never even heard of this island before but the images and your detailed post make me want to go and visit 🙂

  10. This is such a fantastic post about the Isle. You’ve really captured a sense of magic and I had no idea there were beautiful sands like that north of Pembrokeshire! My husband and I plan to do a big tour of Scotland at some point so we’ll definitely loop Isle of Harris into our plans.
    C x

  11. What a fantastic guide! And gosh it looks stunning, the beaches especially! x

  12. Isle of Harris? I never heard that before but it looks pretty interesting!

  13. I love places like the Isle of Harris as it looks like it has so many local business and there is something so nostalgic about the place.

  14. WOW this looks absolutely stunning! I would love to head over that way, it looks like a real hidden treasure!

  15. Oh wow! It looks amazing and I love the idea of the butty bus!

  16. I fell in love with Scotland last year and would love to explore more, especially the far north. This looks like a fun trip with plenty of great things to see

  17. Oh gosh this looks so beautiful. I would love to get to the Isle of Harris, I think my kids would love it too.

  18. Astrid Weitz

    I have just come back from a tour around the Western Isles and absolutely loved all of them. Harris is very special and I definitely will go back because there is still so much to see, discover and enjoy. This first time we “covered” almost all the main sights you mention and they ARE exactly as beautiful as they look in the images or more. And the people! So friendly and welcoming! I wish I had come across your guide before going so I would have been able to get to know a few more local businesses. Well, one more reason to return as soon as possible! Thanks.

    1. Great to hear that you enjoyed your trip, it’s hard not too with such beautiful scenary.

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