A DAY TRIP TO HARRIS & LEWIS (From Skye)
A visit on Motorbike in 1975
While having a week on Skye I decided to try having a trip over to Harris and Lewis and take in as much as may been possible on a day trip. Staying in B&B at Portree it meant an early rise and breakfast to motorbike the 15 miles to Uig for the 9.15 Ferry (Hebridies) across to Tarbert on Harris.
Everything worked out perfectly and the ferry set off right on time. Loch Snizort and the hills above Uig at Idrigil point is an impressive scene. To the west is the Vatternish, peninsula with the Ascrib Islands in the foreground. As you head out past the Trotternish Peninsula you can follow the coastline to Totescore and Kilvaxter and on a very clear day, make out Flora Macdonald's Monument far in the distance.
There is the feeling of being in a Norwegan Fiorj, and with the mixture of Gaelic and Norse names that abound, this may not be so far removed as thought.
Once out in the Little Minch, the landmasses become almost equal in distance, there is little to see. But on a fine day just sitting on the top deck watching the scene cruise past is very relaxing. Seagulls follow close to the boat watching for tit bits and watching Gannets swoop and dive into the sea is quite exiting. They climb quite high and suddenly `fold` up their wings and dive into the water like a large dart. On occasions, I am told, you may even get to see some Porpoises at play.
After a while it is prudent to go to the Restaurant and enjoy a coffee and light snack. The Hebridies had one of the best services of any of the MacBraynes ferries I used over the years.
As the hills of Harris get closer it is time to go back on top deck and enjoy the first experience of the Outer Hebridies and entering the harbour.
The ferry heads between to strips of land, South Harris on your left and the Island of Scalpy to the right. As you head into the loch you then pass between Loch Ceann Dibig and, the small island of Scotasay which lies just ahead of Scalpy. You can now make out the A859 along South Harris and the `C` road that runs along the shore from Tarbert to Carnach village, where there is a ferry too and from Scalpy.
Tarbert village and pier lies at the end of East Loch Tarbert. Over the narrow strip, which includes the A859 road, is West Loch Tarbert. The name comes from the Gaelic for Tir (land) and Bat (Boat) i.e. Landboat and refers to when the Norsemen used to haul their boats and ships over the strip of land to save having to go all around the headlands.
On leaving the ferry the A859 climbs quite hard up to the village. There is a nice view looking back down on the pier and ferry. Behind are the hills of South Harris. The A859 winds its way to the southern tip at Rodel via the western coastline and Leverburgh, but a 'C' road goes down the eastern shoreline, also to Rodel, where a small ferry plies to Newton on the northernmost tip of North Uist. I have not covered South Harris but hope to do so one day.
Heading north from Tarbert, the A859 heads westwards along the shores of West Loch Tarbert and around the headland past Ardhasaig and just beyond meets the junction with the B887 which goes west for some miles to Husinish (Point).
The A859 now starts to climb hard into the mountains of North Harris and a long and winding route without passing any populated hamlets. It twists between Sgaoth Ard (1829') to the south and Clisham (2632') to the north. At one point you pass a huge wooden structure, painted white, like a massive cinema screen. It reflects radio and TV signals from the main transmitter, to people around Tarbert. (It probably doesn't exist today).
You then come out of the climb and enclosed feeling of the mountains and soon look down on Loch Seaforth. A side road drops down to Marruig. The loch lies deep in the valley between two ranges of mountain and runs inland for some miles. You twist around Clett Ard (1065') and drop down on a sweeping curve and over the river Scaladale and pass Ardvurlie Castle.
Off shore is Seaforth Island. Another twist around a small bay, ahead of Seaforth Island and you pass Aline Lodge. You are now in Lewis (Gaelig: Loadhas.
After a mile or so you start to leave the mountains behind and turn slightly in land as you follow the western shore of loch Seaforth and onto the first village of any size since Tarbert. Kintaraway lies on an arm of the narrows of loch Seaforth. The village runs along each side of the road following the loch shore as it runs east to west and past the hamlet of Airbruich. The air is filled with the small of burning peat.
The A859 starts heading north again. The land is now flattish and made up of hundreds of small lochs and peat bogs. It is only three miles to Balallan but it feels longer and very lonely. Balallan stands at the head of Loch Erisort and as with Kintaraway runs along both sides of the road for a good length, and the air smells of burning peat. This is a larger population and most dwellings appear to be farms and crofts. The B8080 goes off east on a long and winding route ending at Lemreway, overlooking Loch Sealag and out to the Shiant Islands and Skye, far in the distance.
Onwards, passing miles of peat bogs and lochans and past the hamlet of Laxey. Just beyond a side road goes to Keose. Northwards both sides of the A859 are so pocked with small lochans that you could almost be on an island. The triangle of land to the east is cut off by Loch Erisort in the south and in the north by its second arm and with the sea so close it almost becomes one.
The next tiny piece of population you pass is Soval Lodge. Two miles beyond a `C` road cuts east through Leurbost to Cross Bost and Raernish.
Quarter of a mile north and you come to the junction with a 'C' road. While Stornoway is only 6 miles or so north, I took the 'C' road westwards. It cuts through pretty bleak bogland for three miles, to Achmore. This meets the B858, which goes north east to Stornoway. Achmore sits below Ben Eitshal(732') which seems quite high after the lowlands of the past 20 miles or so.
The reason for taking the A858 is to visit the famous Callanish Standing Stone at Garynahine, four miles on where we meet the B8011 which goes on to Miavaig and Uig in the far western tip. The B8059 cuts off about three miles beyond Garynahine and goes to the island of Great Bernera. There
would be no time to visit any of these far-flung areas on this trip.
Garynahine stands high overlooking East Loch Roag and Loch Roag, with Bernera in the distance. It is separated by a small gap, which is bridged, but from this distance looks part of the main land of Lewis. The weather had been dull all day, bleak but didn't rain. However I have pleasant memories of this scene, in very soft light but with the reflection of many lochs and the soft green/brown landscape, and the smell of burning peat from the nearby houses. The smoke drifted low across the shallow valley.
The Callanish Stone Circle lies between Garynahine and Callanish Village. When you have seen pictures and read tourist bumf about certain places it is always difficult for them to live up to their hype, but Callanish does exactly that. From the road they just look like a curious circle of standing stones, but walk among them and the mystic grows by the minute. Like sentinels they appear to guard over the area casting the sort of feeling you get in paces. For pictures you can shoot them, looking south, with the mountain tops of Harris as a background, or with the lowland and peat bogs looking out to the Atlantic. The stones are said to be over 4000 years old. You will stay as long as they have that affect on you. However with time marching on I started for Stornoway.
Turning back eastwards on the A858, along the lonely road to Achmore, then turning north for the final 10 miles. The A858 becomes a grade between an 'A' and 'B' road, it twists and winds with some gradients. On the map you will find that it changes from a solid red line to a 'broken' red and white, to indicate the severity of the open country.
After so much emptiness and flat bogland it is nice to start entering via Laxdale and the tree-lined avenues with solid buildings of size. A granite Oblisk stands above the buildings and you enter a more built-up area and meet a great volume of traffic. Then find yourself in 'town'. There is a nice square with the Town Hall Clock Tower making an impressive picture. You hear yourself singing "The Town Hall Clock of Stornoway, chimes it's message every day" from the well known song made popular by Lewis born singer, Calum Kennedy.
Stornoway: Gaelic, Stoer Na Bhaig = Bay of the Rock). I spent most of my rationed time looking around the town and harbour. Lewis Castle stands in a pleasant park area. The town is situated at the base of the Eye Peninsula, a long narrow arm of land that ends at Tiumpan head. There is water on both sides of the town, but the main town and harbour are at the south shore of the peninsula.
I spent rather too long at Stornoway and had to rethink my free hours and timings for reaching Tarbert in time for the 6pm ferry. Otherwise I would have to spend th eight on Lewis or Harris, and already had my B&B at Portree, which could, have worked out expensive.
I had seen photographs and read about the area at Orosay and decided to go there, though it was quite a long dead-end route. However I motorbiked none stop to the B8080 at Balallan, This took me over the section from Stornoway to Leurbost, which I missed by coming via Callanish.
The B8080 turned out to be far slower than I had expected. The road is in good condition but is riddled with sharp twists and bends which kept my speed down considerably. There are three small hamlets on the way, Habost, Kershader and Gravir, otherwise the countryside is rather bleak and empty. It was hard work concentrating on the road and keeping a reasonable running time. The main village at the end of the road is Lemraway but about half a mile prior to this a side road cuts east then south into Orosay. The road drops down past a large three-storied house and twists to the shore of a bay just off the mouth of loch Sealg (Shalag). The island of Iuyard lies off shore and there is a fine view of the Shiant islands 3 to 4 miles off shore. The Isle of Skye can be made out in the far distance.
The very bleak light didn't allow me to see the place as I recall it from the photographs but it is a pleasant little hamlet where you would find a very peaceful and quiet break away from the hustle and bustle of mainland life.
With the slow running I didn't stay more than 20 minutes and started back on the long hard drive back to Balallan. It was my intentions to run none-stop to Tarbert but on the way I came across a Croft with a woman spinning wool on a Spinning-wheel, at Kintaravay and stopped a while. There was a guided tour around the house with its Harris Tweed machine working away like mad. It was an interesting experience but took up far too much time and I found myself having to push on at a good pace. It seemed twice as long as the light faded and grew bleaker. The hard mountain climbs seemed to drag and seemed to loom over me menacingly. Once over the summit it was faster going but hard work pulling a s much time out of the twisting road. As Tarbert finally came into view I only had 4 minutes to catch the ferry. As I looked down from the hilltop to the ferry a Range Rover was just driving in clear of the ramp and two of the crew were already raising the ramp. I didn't want to stop, but did so, calling out to the crew. Luckily they heard me and took heed. As I sped down and towards the ramp I could see it was still on its decline... I had just made it. No sooner had I cleared the doorway than I could hear the ramp being raised again.
By the time I got the motorbike tied down and walked up to the passenger deck the ferry was already on the move. It was with some relief that I could relax and watch the harbour and village drift into the distance.
While it had been so bleak most of the day. Strange enough, for just a moment or two, as we sailed out of east Loch Tarbert, there was a very pleasant, if 'watery' sunset with the outline of the shores of Tarbert and North Harris, with the small islands in the distance. Of course, my camera was still in my carrier, tied to my bike.
As I didn't expect to get back to Portree until around 9pm, I enjoyed a good meal on board, and before leaving Uig, had a half of beer at the Ferry Inn, before driving back to Portree in the dark.
On explaining how close I was to missing the ferry my Landlady said "Och you shouldn't have bothered, I wouldn't have minded, you should have just given me a ring"... well what can you say! A fine ending to a very pleasant if tiring day. At least I had proved that a good day visit is possible to Harris and Lewis, while staying on Skye.