Monday, September 03, 2007

Logbook: Outer Hebrides

Outerhebrides1The ferry ride on Thursday afternoon from Uig on Skye to Lochmaddy on North Uist was almost two hours long and therefore qualified -- in my mind -- as a "proper sailing." You must know how much I love being on the water, so being "at sea" -- even if only for two hours -- was a nice treat. Because we had been informed -- warned? -- that the Isle of North Uist didn't have much to offer, we planned to spend only the afternoon and evening there. While it turns out to be true that Uist doesn't have much to offer, it does offer plenty of nothing. We drove a significant loop around the island, constantly remarking to each other how desolate the place is. There are a few hills here and there, but nothing like the mountains we had seen elsewhere. Mostly it is an endless stretch of moors with the most remote feeling you can imagine. The only things of real interest to us were some black sheep, a few ancient ruins and numerous peat bogs that seem to be well harvested. Perhaps most to our amazement is that there seems to be a great deal of building going on. The only reason we could conjure up is that people are moving to Uist to "get away from it all" and, if we are correct, they will certainly be successful. We spent the night at the Lochmaddy Hotel -- a pretty run down establishment from an obviously bye-gone era -- and satisfied ourselves that we'd seen enough of Uist to feel like we had a grasp of it.

Outerhebrides2On Friday morning we made our way to the very northern end of Uist and caught a short ferry ride across to the Isle of South Harris. What a difference just a few miles can make in this outlying territory! Harris is rocky, mountainous and rugged, but it also has a most surprising collection of beautiful sandy beaches. If the temperature were thirty degrees warmer -- and the wind thirty knots calmer -- the beaches of Harris could be a world class resort area. In reality, it is a modestly populated island that is home to a huge number of sheep. At one point on our drive we caught up with a group of shepherds who -- with their fabulous dogs -- were driving several hundred sheep down the road to holding pens in preparation for sending them to market. We were informed that this was to be the second shipment of the week, with some 600 lambs having already gone the day before. That's a lot of lamb chops!

Outerhebrides3Harris is also home of the famous "Harris Tweed" and we stopped along our drive to check out a modest mill, consisting of a couple of ancient looms that are run by a mother/daughter duo. I can't figure out the economy of the business, but my best guess is that it is a "lifestyle" enterprise at best. The actual driving on Harris was some of the most challenging I have done yet. On narrow little roads that climb, dive, twist and turn, over and around a constant maze of boulders and lochs, it is quite an experience. You never know from one second to the next which way the road will turn and you often have no sight of the road ahead until you are pitching over or turning around some obstacle. In this manner we toured most of the roads on the island -- thoroughly enjoying the varied scenery compared to Uist! -- then spent the night at the Harris Hotel, another slightly funky but serviceable establishment.

Outerhebrides4On Saturday we drove north to Lewis Island. As far as we can tell, Harris and Lewis are not distinct islands, separated as one would imagine by some body of water. Instead, they appear to be parts of the same land mass, separated by a significant mountain range. The road over the mountain pass is pretty daunting, especially in the very high winds and frequent heavy rains -- mostly blowing sideways -- that accompanied our drive. A surprising treat was seeing a complete rainbow -- the first one my Mom can recall seeing in her life -- and we pulled over to have a look and grab a photo before it quickly disappeared. This was easily our worst weather of the trip, so we didn't do much in the way of exploration. Instead we opted to push on to the main town of Stornoway where our hotel had open wi-fi internet which gave us a good excuse to take the afternoon off and chill out.

Outerhebrides5Yesterday we awoke to a beautiful day and set out early, driving throughout the day on pretty good roads -- mostly two lanes! -- all around the island. Lewis is a beautiful island, almost a perfect mix of the open flat lands of Uist and the hills and lochs of Harris. We toured the coast, stopping at a variety of ancient ruins, standing stones, lovely white beaches and stunning cliffs. A high point -- figuratively and literally -- was when we stopped at the northern most point on the island to enjoy the views of crashing surf and rugged cliffs. It was a perfect finish to our day, and to our exploration of the Outer Hebrides. Back in Stornoway, we made it an early evening and got up very early this morning to catch the ferry back to the mainland. As I write this, I am looking out at the sea on a bright clear day. We will arrive in Ullapool shortly and I will take Mom to my favorite little internet cafe there and treat her to a coffee while I post this. After that, we will start making our way down through the Highlands en route to Edinburgh for her departure on Thursday.

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