The good ship MV Hebrides takes me across smooth water from Uig in Skye to Tarbert on the Isle of Harris in 1 hour 40 minutes. It's part of the Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac) fleet of ferries. www.calmac.co.uk. A bus is waiting at quayside to take foot passengers up to Stornoway, and minibuses to smaller settlements. To the south of Harris are smaller islands, North Uist, Benbecala, South Uist, Eriskay, Barra, connected by causeways or ferries. You can buy a single ticket, an Island Rover or Island Hopscotch ticket.
Leaving Tarbert we pass a beautiful situated football field and club house tucked under the mountains with the bay at the far end, used by Harris FC. The 9 team Lewis and Harris Football League has 8 teams on Lewis and only the one on Harris. There is also a women's and youth league. Harris is devoid of trees, but has plenty of white sandy beaches on the Atlantic west coast. The many cottages are home to Harris Tweed weavers, using wool from local sheep, and hand looms, though most production is on the Isle of Lewis, and the two islands are attached. Just over an hour later we arrive at Stornoway, the only town, with a population of around 6,000. There is a brand new sports centre on the outskirts and an airport 2 miles away. www.visithebrides.com.
Gaelic is spoken here and the road signs are in that language. There is a great deal of Viking history, and even older settlements. The Vikings named it 'Steering Bay' in Old Norse. On Kenneth Street I knock on the door of the Heb Hostel and after a few minutes wait the warden Christine Macintosh arrives from shopping. It's a cosy little place and a couple of Portuguese tourists arrive at the same time. Across the street is An Lanntair, the new arts centre with exhibits, live music,a shop and a movie theatre. Upstairs is a cafe with a superb view of the harbour where seals are at play. 14-17 July 2010 is the 15th Hebridean Celtic Festival. There is a statue of The Herring Girl on the harbour, dedicated to all the women who worked in that industry over the years.
You can fish, play golf, the best surfing in Western Europe, take short boat trips to look at birds such as a puffin colony, even minke whales and sharks, dolphins, porpoises, otters. Canoeing among the kelp forests, reefs, pinnacles and ship wrecks. Fish for cod, haddock, mackerel, lobster, prawns, shellfish. Local good eating includes lamb, beef, Stornoway kippers, Hebridean haggis, and hand made oatcakes, and the cleanest fresh air anywhere. Look out for the short legged Eriskay ponies.
There are wildflower rich machair grasslands. The Calanais Standing Stones on the West Coast are 5,000 years old, older that Stonehenge or the Pyramids of Egypt. On Sundays most places are closed for the sabbath, as the Presbyterian religion is pretty strong here. Another tourist, Mike who teaches in London, has bought a giant steak pie on sale for 50 pence and he heats it up and we share it before settling down in comfortable armchairs to watch Manchester United v Bayern Munich, along with the Benfica fans.
I am up early the next morning and less than 3 minutes walk away from the MV Isle of Lewis, the ferry that leaves at 7.00 am for the trip to Ullapool across The Minch on the mainland. You can buy a meal or a snack, sunbath or sleep in the comfortable lounge chairs with plenty of photo opportunities at either end of the voyage.
Overlooking the port is Lews Castle built in the mid 1800's by a rich merchant Sir James Mathesen. in 1918 Lord Leverhume of soap fame, bought the castle and island but gave it to the people of Lewis 5 years later. A number of movies have been filmed here. It stands in as Jupiter in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and a more recent move The Rocket Post about the 1934 attempt by a German scientist to send the mail half a mile to Harris across trecherous waters from Scarp.