I open the curtains of our small but perfectly formed bothy on the island of Scalpay and I’m greeted by the sight of an otter, scurrying for shelter into the adjacent stream as it spills into the sea.
The silvery shoreline is bathed in sunshine even though the forecast is for rain, but we’re in a microclimate in Scalpay – a tiny island offshoot linked by a causeway to North Harris in the Outer Hebrides.
Along with the otter, our neighbours are mostly sheep, soaring eagles and a few chickens, producing eggs with the yellowest of yolks and left as a welcome in our tiny cottage, along with aromatic home-smoked salmon.
The locals here are resourceful, self-sufficient and welcoming.
My husband and I first came to the Outer Hebrides six years ago, following a frenetic schedule I’d optimistically devised, which had us driving the entire length of this Atlantic archipelago in a long weekend.
Ancient, unspoilt and unpolluted, these Western Isles – close neighbours but each with its own unique character – instantly captivated us, and magnetised by their wild, dramatic beauty we have returned every year.
There is much to lure us back, and with staycations still a first choice for many, this is a destination that feels remote, yet requires no quarantine.
The Outer Hebrides are blessed with some of the most spellbinding, white sand beaches in the world (a well-kept secret), epic landscapes, abundant wildlife, prehistoric monuments, mouthwatering food and the iconic Harris Tweed. Plus a tranquillity like nowhere else on earth.
But they are not for the faint-hearted. Nature is untamed here, there are barren lunar landscapes and austere peat moors. The weather is variable (understatement). In fact, it’s possible to experience every season in a single day.
Midges abound in high summer (but Avon’s Skin-So-Soft unexpectedly proves itself the finest of repellants) and the pace is leisurely; nothing and nobody is hurried.
Blessed with the metabolism of a hyperactive ant, this was alien territory for me, though over time I have come to relish the relaxation.
But should you wish to be a little more adventurous, you can try sea kayaking, fishing, snorkelling with seals, rock pooling, hillwalking, foraging for wild foods, horse riding, wild swimming and cycling the spectacular Hebridean Way.
Or you can emulate our first holiday and drive yourself crazy. In hindsight, our only mistake was trying to do the trip with the clock ticking – if you surrender to the gentler tempo it’s a road trip that’s liberating and illuminating. And the many single-track roads all have frequent passing places, where local drivers are friendly and uniformly considerate.
We began our travels in Lewis and Harris, together forming the largest island in the chain and both packed with must-sees: don’t miss the magnificent, monolithic Callanish Standing Stones on the west coast of Lewis. Pre-dating Stonehenge, free to visit and open all year, you can get up close and personal with the oldest rocks in Britain.
A short drive away another favourite, the Gearrannan Blackhouse Village, features a cluster of traditional, thatched crofters cottages, authentically restored and with some available to rent for an immersive, peaty, old world experience.
The road south leads to Stornoway, the main town in the Hebrides and home to the Harris Tweed Authority – watch weavers work the looms and fall in love with this distinctive cloth.
World-famous black pudding can be bought from Charles Macleod Butchers, and although I’m more a fan of coffee and cakes at Stornoway’s Blue Lobster café (friendly, stylish and selling artisan gifts too) my husband swears by the black stuff.
The moors and lochs of Lewis give way to Harris’s mountains and spectacular beaches; Hushinihs in North Harris is well worth a visit, and don’t miss the Golden Road, winding through otherworldly rocks and micro hamlets on the east coast of South Harris.
Despite thinking you’re on the moon, you’ll suddenly find Sam’s Seafood Shack nestling in a cove near Rodel, at the southernmost tip of South Harris. Prepare to join the queue (having not seen another car for miles) for the finest seafood chowder and sensational seaweed roast potatoes. Trust me, it’s worth the wait.
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