Visit Distilleries, Castles, and Dramatic Cliffs on Scotland’s Hebrides Islands
On an empty road behind the sweep of Scarista Beach, where ocean winds were flattening the dune grasses, stood a lone white house. It could have been a drawing from a storybook: steep-roofed, a little wonky, smoke curling from the chimney. I followed a path to a rusty gate, then let myself into an entrance hall lined with rubber boots, walking sticks, and fishing rods.
A fire crackled in the drawing room. In front of it, I found my host serving tea. A soft-spoken woman in her fifties, Patricia Martin runs Scarista House, an intimate six-bedroom hotel, with her husband, Tim. Patricia moved here, to the Isle of Lewis and Harris in Scotland's Outer Hebrides, 20 years ago. She arrived feeling anxious about trading her busy life in London for one of Britain's most remote places.
As we sipped our tea, Patricia and I gazed out the window to the Sound of Taransay, running with whitecaps, and to the mountains of North Harris bumping their heads against pewter-bellied clouds. The long, empty lines of the landscape looked as if they had been carved by the winds. Far out on the ocean, beyond a tumult of dark thunderheads, pools of silver sun sailed northward.
"Within two weeks of arriving," Patricia said, "I knew I would never want to leave."
Last autumn, still reeling after the first six months of the pandemic, I had the idea that I should go somewhere truly remote. The year had been full of noise, of argument, of claim and counterclaim. I wanted to travel to what Georgia O'Keeffe used to call "the faraway"—somewhere distant and elemental, a place with endless skies.
Scattered off the western coast of Scotland, almost 40 miles from the mainland, the Outer Hebrides promised to be a place apart. This archipelago forms the northwestern extremity of Great Britain. Just 14 of its 119 islands are inhabited. Their combined population is less than 27,000—barely enough to constitute a single town.
I took the Caledonian Sleeper north from London. Sleeper trains are not what they once were, and there is always a little disappointment when you don't encounter a Russian countess or a mustachioed spy in the dining car. I did, however, meet a lawyer from Edinburgh with the softest Scottish brogue who told me she goes to the Hebrides every year. As the train hurtled northward through the darkness, we ordered a dram of whisky. "They may be small islands, but it is a world that feels bigger than any I know," she told me. "I go because I want to lose myself."
The next morning on the 30-minute ferry crossing from the mainland to the Isle of Skye, the stepping-stone to the Outer Hebrides, I watched weather racing down the Sound of Sleat. Bursts of sun splashed across Skye's green hills as cloud shadows chased one another down the channel. From the deep valleys of the island's Cuillin mountain range, mists rose like smoke, and the scarred basalt faces of the summits came and went like apparitions. This is a world in flux, one that can shift from one mood to another in moments, a fluid, windswept, cloud-scudding place.
Some people say that Skye is all of the Scottish Highlands distilled into a single island. The scenery is ravishingly romantic in that extravagant Sir Walter Scott kind of way—mountains and glens, sheep and handsome chaps in kilts. Written after a rapturous visit in 1814, Scott's narrative poem, Lord of the Isles, inspired eager waves of Victorian readers to visit Skye's bracing landscapes, where they could walk the mountains and valleys by day and dine by peat fires in the evening.
But Skye has outgrown its Victorian aesthetic. In the past 10 years, the island has undergone a renaissance. Gone are the tired old hotels and the dreary cafés where fish-and-chips dominated the menus. A new generation of islanders has returned from other parts of the U.K. and beyond, brimming with ideas, while newcomers in search of a simpler, better life have delivered a fresh energy to the region.
Enterprises are blossoming—from artisanal bakeries to beekeepers, from design studios to brands creating skin-care products from seaweed. In the largest town, Portree, Birch is a deli that champions traditional ingredients such as oats and Highland cheeses. Over on Skye's neighboring island, the Isle of Raasay Distillery is creating a new whisky in a striking complex that includes a six-room boutique hotel. Up twisting island roads, beneath sharp-toothed cliffs, all sorts of people are making dreams come true.
I had lunch at Edinbane Lodge, on Skye, which first opened in 1543 as a staging inn on the old road to Dunvegan Castle, and which two local families relaunched as a small hotel in 2018. The rooms are delightful, but it is the restaurant that really impresses—the menu wouldn't look out of place in a high-end London hotel. Ingredients and their sources are carefully listed, and provisions rarely travel more than a few miles: monkfish from Portree Bay; Isle of Skye sea salt; chanterelle, trompette, and hedgehog mushrooms foraged by the kitchen staff in the woods nearby.
That afternoon, I drove to the harbor at Portree, where pastel-colored cottages overlook a row of small fishing trawlers. There I met Ewen Grant and Janice Cooney, a couple who welcomed me aboard their catamaran, the Seaflower. Having spent a few years traveling in Asia and Australia, they have now settled on Skye to make a new life operating charter boat trips with gourmet lunches. Off the neighboring island of Rona—population two—we lunched on lobster and langoustine, caught the previous night.
"It took me leaving Skye to realize how beautiful it is," Grant said as we watched a pod of dolphins shadowing the boat. It took me meeting this couple to discover that Skye was the kind of place I had assumed did not exist outside of black-and-white movies. "No one locks their doors here," he shrugged. "My father always leaves the keys inside his car, in case someone might need to move it."
The last time I was on Skye, some 15 years ago, I visited the roofless ruin of a former clan chieftain's home named Monkstadt House, on the Trotternish Peninsula, about a half-hour's drive north of Portree. Returning to the place that evening, I found it transformed. In an elegant drawing room, I sat by a fireplace as James MacQueen, the owner of Monkstadt 1745—now a five-room hotel—fetched a bottle of whisky from a secret cupboard behind the bookshelf. "It is one of the finest houses on the island," MacQueen said. "It was my late father's dream to restore it. I think he would be proud of what we have done here."
Flora MacDonald warmed her toes by the fire at Monkstadt in 1745, back when she was helping the fugitive Bonnie Prince Charlie flee from the British Redcoats after the defeat of his rebel armies at Culloden. I found a monument to Flora at Kilmuir Cemetery, on the Trotternish Peninsula's wild northern coast. A legend on these islands for her part in Charlie's escape, she was given a funeral that is said to have been attended by 3,000 people, who between them drank 300 gallons of whisky.
A few yards away, among crooked gravestones that marked generations of MacDonalds and MacArthurs and MacLeans, I came upon an austere memorial for the fashion designer Alexander McQueen, who came home to rest among his clansmen after his death in 2010.
From Kilmuir, the narrow coastal road pitched and turned like a roller coaster as it wound north toward Duntulm. Birds flew up from the hawthorn scrub and tumbled away in the wind. Sheep were scattered across stone-walled fields like pieces of windblown paper. Across the sea below, whitecaps marched toward the headland of Rubha Hunish.
On this coast, with the light changing from moment to moment, it felt like the whole landscape was in motion—this wilderness of pasture and moorland, dark lochs and heather-glazed hills, wind and unraveling clouds, all of it as restless as the ocean.
At the ruins of Duntulm Castle, once a prize fought over by the MacLeod and MacDonald clans, sheer cliffs fell away on all sides to rocks still marked by the keels of Viking longships. There are ghosts here—though no one seems to agree on how many. Some say two, others four. But then I guess that is the thing with ghosts: they don't do roll call. Apparently on windy nights you can hear them keening around the castle ramparts, quarreling with one another. You might see the northern lights here, their fluorescent trails filling half the sky.
Somehow the idea of the ghosts at Duntulm helped me locate myself. There was something hauntingly familiar about these islands. And then I realized: these are the landscapes of escapist fantasy, from Robert Louis Stevenson to Harry Potter, from Game of Thrones to Outlander, a kind of Middle Earth of cloud-shredding mountains and vast, tempestuous skies. It helps that the history fits. Here, the stories are of chieftains and clans, of castles and princes and dungeons. It is a place of childhood imagination, where anything can happen—and much of it will.
From the small village of Uig on the peninsula's western coast, I took the ferry across the Minch. These are the straits that separate Skye from the island of Lewis and Harris, and the Hebrides from the Outer Hebrides. Joined at the hip, Lewis and Harris are technically two separate entities that share a single island roughly 60 miles long (the southernmost third is Harris; the top two-thirds is Lewis).
These are the most remote and most traditional of the Scottish islands. Gaelic is still the first language, and life still revolves around fishing, weaving, and crofting—the system of small tenant farms that has existed here since the 18th century. The Outer Hebrides is not the back of beyond, wrote the Hebridean novelist Kevin MacNeil, but the very heart of beyond.
The population of Lewis and Harris is just under 22,000. Sheep outnumber people by almost eight to one. The U.K.'s Office of National Statistics has identified the people of Lewis and Harris as the happiest in Britain, outperforming all other regions in surveys that recorded high levels of "life satisfaction" and low levels of anxiety.
I drove across Lewis to Callanish, a prehistoric site where 49 vertical stone slabs are arranged in a circle on top of a wind-blasted hill. Older than Stonehenge, older even than the Great Pyramids, the Callanish Stones were probably erected sometime around 3000 B.C. A central monolith, over 11 feet high, is surrounded by an enclosing ring of standing stones, or menhirs, while avenues framed by other stones lead away to all points of the compass. Further off, scattered across the landscape, are up to 20 smaller satellite sites. No one really understands their meaning, or their purpose.
I looked across the moorlands toward the sea, and was struck by how little must have changed here. These are the same landscapes the people who erected these monoliths saw—peat bogs pockmarked by small lochs, an inlet of the sea to the south rippled with whitecaps. To the west the ridges of the hills, known locally as Cailleach na Mointeach, or the Old Woman of the Moors, stood scarved in mists. I rested my hand on the surface of the stones, patterned with mineral color and glistening with mica, and felt a sense of contact with an ancient world.
Of course, Harris is famous for Harris tweed. Weaving remains a cottage industry of artisans working in their own homes. I met Donald John Mackay in his house overlooking Luskentyre Beach. A mischievous fellow in his sixties, Mackay works in a tin shed in his garden, crowded with loom parts, sacks of yarn, and rolls of finished cloth. Weaving is a family tradition. Mackay's earliest memories are of his father at the loom; he still remembers the pride he felt as a boy when he was allowed to help work the foot pedals and arrange the bobbins.
"There have been a few little ups and downs with the weaving," Mackay told me, grinning at this understatement. At the beginning of the 20th century there were 1,000 weavers working on Harris. A century later, Harris tweed had fallen so far out of fashion that there were barely 80 weavers still working. And then, in 2004, Nike came to call.
Mackay had never heard of Nike. His wife received an e-mail asking for samples. They sent them off and, for some time, heard nothing. Then suddenly a second message arrived. Nike wanted 22,000 yards of tweed to make inlays for their Terminator sneakers, which became one of their most popular styles after celebrities like Madonna were photographed wearing them. Old weavers came out of retirement, young men took up the trade, and people all over the island worked frantically to fill the order. Nike's shoes revived the tradition of weaving on this island: Harris tweed was fashionable again.
Converse and Clarks shoes have both since put in large orders. Designers began using Harris tweed for upholstery and cushions. Ralph Lauren used the cloth, as did Patrick Grant of Savile Row tailor Norton & Sons. Even Harris tweed jackets came back in vogue. Today there are 200 weavers on Harris, and the cottage industry that made this island famous is flourishing.
Out on Harris's fractured coastline, I followed twisting roads that dipped up and down over deep, indented bays. The bones of this place—Lewisian gneiss rock, the oldest in Europe—protruded like ribs through a thin skin of heather and gorse. On these islands they say if you don't like the weather, just wait five minutes. Storms ride in from the ocean. But when the winds turn and the clouds loosen, there is nothing as moving as the delicate evening light on Harris's Loch Ghreosabhagh, or the morning sun draped around Renish Point.
Landscape may be the delight of these islands, but their history has often been painful. For centuries the domain of clan chiefs, the large estates on these islands began, in the 19th century, to be passed between wealthy landowners. Many were keen to clear the estates of their tenants, and there are tragic tales of crofters being shipped off to America and Australia by ruthless landlords. They wanted to give the land over to sheep—more lucrative in those days than people.
Local communities now own the land collectively, but there is a sense that the sheep are not entirely with the program. On back roads, where these creatures are often the only traffic, they moved reluctantly aside as I slowed the car, casting sidelong looks. It was clear they felt I didn't really belong there.
At Rodell, on the southern tip of Harris, I found St. Clement's, a 16th-century church that manages to feel far older. In the gloom of its nave, where shafts of light reflected off the sea onto the ancient brick floor, the effigies of forgotten knights lay on their backs, hands folded over their chests, staring up at a ceiling that looked like the upturned hull of a boat. In the reliefs above the tombs, an angel casts incense to the Hebridean winds and a bìrlinn, or Highland galley, sets sail, hauntingly similar to a Viking longship.
Day's end brought me to Scarista House, the white hotel overlooking the beach in Harris. After tea in the drawing room with Patricia Martin, I went out into the weather and the winds to walk the beach, following a path across the hummocky machair—the common, uncultivated land lining the coast. Spectacular white-sand beaches are one of the many revelations of these islands. They would astonish surfers in Hawaii. Luskentyre, a couple of miles to the north, regularly makes it onto lists of the world's best beaches.
The tide was out and the wet sands shone with the reflections of clouds and distant hills. As twilight gathered, I watched curlews dance away from the incoming waves. Far off, a couple of solitary figures walked the beach. Dwarfed by the scale of this place, and by its vast skies, they seemed tiny and insubstantial.
They are connoisseurs of the winds, these islanders. They will tell you the character and import of each one. Through them, the Hebridean people read the mood of each day. From ocean gales to subtle breezes rippling the dune grasses, the air here is lung-cleansing, head-clearing, consciousness-altering. These are winds from the heart of beyond, winds to blow away the inconsequential, to reorder priorities, to render petty concerns insignificant. This is what I was looking for.
How to See the Hebrides
Isle of Skye
Ferry Inn: A family-run inn with an excellent restaurant. The adjoining pub has cozy log fires and views of Uig Bay. (Doubles from $525.)
Monkstadt 1745: This beautifully restored laird's house has five elegant guest rooms. (Doubles from $590.)
Edinbane Lodge: Chef Calum Montgomery presides over one of the best kitchens on the island. (Tasting menu $110.)
Dunvegan Castle: The seat of Clan MacLeod since the 13th century is a must-visit.
Isle of Lewis and Harris
Lews Castle: This grand castle, now a hotel, is set among gardens overlooking Stornoway, the largest town on Lewis and Harris. (Doubles from $385.)
Scarista House: On Harris's gorgeous western shore, this former rectory has an old-world atmosphere and dramatic beach views. (Doubles from $275.)
How to Book
A 10-night trip similar to this one that include sa tour and lunch on the catamaran Seaflower can be booked through Scotland specialist Away from the Ordinary. (From $10,500 per person.)
A version of this story first appeared in the March 2021 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline Come Wind, Come Weather.