Destinations

Scotland and its wild Hebridean islands

Among Scotland's great gifts to the world are peated single malts and finely woven tweed. Over a few drams, we meet the visionaries who draw their inspiration from the wild Hebridean islands.
Alicia Taylor

It started with the promise of hand-dived scallops and an honesty box for payment, and a beach scoured by Atlantic gales. During a summer holiday I spent drinking peaty whisky and ferrying between Scotland’s Hebridean islands, someone mentioned an untended shack on the far-north island of Lewis and Harris in which plump scallops appeared like magic. People have travelled further for less, I’m sure.

A year later, we’re listening to the BBC news in Gaelic on a hire-car radio, following a ribbon of road that winds through lumpy peatland, past the Callanish Stones arranged thousands of years ago in some still-mysterious pattern, past the Otter Bunkhouse (for humans or otters, or both?) to a vowel-burdened place called Uig. We stop high above a beach – pale, empty and scoured by Atlantic gales – and turn back. Hidden around a hairpin turn is a pier on a loch, and beside it is The Scallop Shack, a wee beaten-up shed clad in strings of scallop shells that shiver and rasp in the wind. The door is open. Inside is a wooden box for payments, a ceramic chook full of loose change, scribbled notes of thanks from today’s customers, and a bar fridge. Empty. Och.

**The Scallop Shack co-owner and diver Dave Smith**

The Scallop Shack co-owner and diver Dave Smith

So we rummage instead in a sack beside the chook and shuck a couple of big flat oysters (a quid each, money in the box, please). Later, at a lodge with views of moor and loch, Donald Macarthur, our host, pops in with a lobster he’s just cooked. Over a dram we talk about whisky, seafood and tweed. Along with tartan, kilts and the verse of Robbie Burns, these are Scotland’s great gifts to the world, and their purest expressions are found out here in the Hebrides, two mighty chains of islands off the west coast.

For centuries the archipelago was a realm apart, ruled by Viking kings and ferocious clans, and the islands still look and feel utterly different from the mainland, or anywhere else. More than half the islanders of the Outer Hebrides speak Scots Gaelic, for starters, and the widespread observance of the Sabbath among the Presbyterian islanders makes Sundays very quiet indeed. When Scottish lawyer James Boswell mentioned a tour of the Hebrides to his friend Voltaire, the French philosopher “looked at me as if I had talked of going to the North Pole”. Boswell and his old friend Samuel Johnson, the celebrity London diarist, both wrote acclaimed accounts of their rather sodden 83-day tour in 1773.

*Shucking scallops at The Scallop Shack*

Shucking scallops at The Scallop Shack

Mine is brief by comparison and so much more fun, involving (quite) a few drams on Islay, the home of Scotland’s unique peaty single malts, and a road trip on the isle of Lewis and Harris, through mountains and moors that have inspired generations of Harris Tweed weavers. And along the way, suppers of halibut and sea trout, lobster and brown crab, and sweet, meaty scallops.

**21st Century Kilts designs**

21st Century Kilts designs

Like Johnson and Boswell, I start in Scotland’s handsome capital. From a sandstone terrace above the city’s Royal Mile, I can hear bagpipes and seagulls, and a glorious confusion of architecture lies before me. “There’s nowhere else like Edinburgh,” says guide Jane Roy next morning as we enter the Old Town’s labyrinth of dark closes, their cobbles worn smooth by centuries of footfall. “An intact medieval city sits adjacent to an intact Victorian-era city, rather than a new town encircling the old heart.” We climb another winding staircase and pop up, rabbit-like, on Victoria Street, its curl of fairytale façades inhabited by shops selling magic wands, antiques and tweed suits.

A bell tinkles above the door at Walker Slater, tweed specialist to gentlemen, and gentlemen hipsters. “What’ll it be?” asks Joe Hall, the house’s made-to-measure tailor, moustachioed and resplendent in turquoise high-waisted trousers and braces. When I reach his attic studio at the top of the stairs he points to a crystal decanter of whisky – as integral to tailoring here as the taking of measurements. Arrayed around him are “bunch books” of tweed from across Scotland, England and Ireland. He points out a swatch fixed with a rusty bulldog clip from Donald John Mackay at Luskentyre on Lewis and Harris – “a fantastic weaver, you’ll never see this diversity of colour, and the subtlety is beyond anyone else’s” – and another from Ardalanish on the isle of Mull, a small off-the-grid mill that uses wool grown on the property, natural dyes and revives traditional patterns on 1920s looms.

For contrast Hall reaches for a swatch from the high-tech Lovat Mill in the Scottish border town of Hawick – “in the islands there’s the clackety-clack of looms, but at Lovat it’s a low hum, almost futuristic”. Even more high-tech is a Lovat tweed woven with Teflon – “for truly vicious weather”, says Hall.

The streets of Edinburgh

The streets of Edinburgh

Business is booming here at tweed central in Edinburgh, propelled by the increasingly mainstream taste for the artisanal rather than the mass-produced, and growing interest in provenance and sustainable consumption. “Tweed is made here, in Scotland, by people who support local communities,” says Hall. “And people are starting to realise that buying less and buying better is the way to go. A good tweed jacket will last a lifetime.”His point is well made at The Bow Bar, across the street from Walker Slater, where I shelter during a shower. “There’s no music, no TV, and just a pie on the menu,” says Hall. “What they do is serve good cask ales and 300 whiskies, and they really know what they’re talking about.”

It’s raining again on the way to the airport the next day. But the glass is half-full for Paul, the Glaswegian driver. “There’s a saying in these parts,” he shouts cheerfully above the downpour. “Today’s rain is tomorrow’s whisky.”

**Bruichladdich head distiller Adam Hannett**

Bruichladdich head distiller Adam Hannett

The island of Islay is famously damp, and all that shite weather, as well as generations of distilling skill and acres of peat create the alchemy that is Islay whisky. The defining characteristic of its prized single malts is peaty smoke – subtle when wrapped around dried fruit and leather flavours in a 15-year-old Bowmore; strident (or “brutal” was one barman’s description to me) in a slug of Laphroaig 10. Peat banks are everywhere – 12,000 years in the making, cut neatly across sodden fields. With no coal and few trees, peat is the island’s traditional fuel. It burns smokily – the tarry smell is on the wind as we approach the malting silos at Port Ellen – and for centuries it’s been used to dry the barley that makes whisky, imparting the unmistakable nose and flavour of Islay. Peter the barman surveys 600 whiskies behind the bar at the Bowmore Hotel. His collection runs to 1,500 bottles, “and I’m always picking up more”, he says. With AC/DC on the jukebox and a bristling dartboard in the corner, it’s a no-nonsense introduction to Islay’s finest. He pours me an unpeated 12-year-old from Bunnahabhain, to prove the point that Islay is more than smoke and mirrors. And then a Lagavulin 16: robust, complex – and very peaty.

**Whisky at Bruichladdich**

Whisky at Bruichladdich

It’s not as peaty, though, as Bruichladdich’s off-the-scale, experimental Octomore range. A little before 10 o’clock next morning I’m waiting with a crowd of whisky lovers outside the harbourfront distillery. Bruichladdich’s is one of eight on the island, and like all the old ones it’s whitewashed and foursquare, built to weather storm and tempest. The cellar door opens, and a group of Swedish firefighters and several long-distance cyclists waste no time clamouring for a splash of Octomore. “You don’t want to start with something a bit less… robust?” inquires the chap behind the bar, gesturing at Bruichladdich’s full range of single malts,spanning an eponymous unpeated collection, the heavily peated Port Charlotte range, an island-foraged gin called The Botanist, and the bold “super heavily peated” Octomore.

Named for a nearby farm that supplies Bruichladdich’s spring water, Octomore bears all the traits of the self-proclaimed “progressive Hebridean distiller”. Chief among them is head distiller Adam Hannett. Raised on the island, he joined Bruichladdich in 2004 as a tour guide and has worked in every corner of the distillery since. Like all the folk here he cares deeply about provenance, the fact that all his barley is Scottish and increasing amounts – including an ancient variety of bere barley – are grown in tricky conditions here on Islay. It’s distilled, aged and bottled on-site, and a “transparency” campaign allows drinkers to trace online the life cycle of their dram. There are plans to malt here, too.

“Let’s taste something we’ve been working on,” Hannett says conspiratorially, and I follow him into a dark warehouse full of casks that once held bourbon and sherry. He draws clear spirit from a virgin American oak barrel. “We had this idea to try growing some rye and see what happened,” he says.We take a sip of what will become Islay’s first rye whisky: potent at 65 per cent, but peppery, raisiny and full of promise. “I remember standing in the still house at three o’clock in the morning, watching the spirit coming off, making the cuts, nosing and tasting it. It was a lovely moment – doing something no one else has.” Hannett looks boyishly happy.

A boat in Bowmore

A boat in Bowmore

Huge numbers of migratory birds stop by Islay – including geese from Greenland that inconveniently eat the barley that’s meant to make whisky – and this attracts plenty of birdwatchers. But the big draw is the prospect of hopping between these solid old seafront distilleries, surveying the mash tuns and the stills, smelling the wort, talking barrel age and drinking whisky in a stiff breeze barrelling off the Atlantic. No matter how many times I hear the complicated process of distillation explained in accents as thick as treacle, I’m looking forward to the next tour. Though the process is essentially the same, the distilleries have unique character. The island’s oldest, Bowmore, has massive old wooden mash tuns and the atmospheric Potter-esque No 1 Vaults; the newest distillery, the family-owned Kilchoman, has a malting floor piled with germinating barley.

**Harris Tweed weaver Margaret Rowan**

Harris Tweed weaver Margaret Rowan

A couple of drams before lunch doesn’t seem overly indulgent when three of the most popular distilleries – Laphroaig, Ardbeg and Lagavulin – can be reached by a bracing stroll along a coastal track, lined with wild yellow irises and occasional seal sightings. We continue north, winding through bowers of oak, and stumble upon a lonely churchyard and the remarkable Kildalton Cross, carved in the 8th century and regarded as the finest Celtic cross in Scotland. Another distillery tour in the afternoon bookends most days, which might end with dinner at baronial Islay House, a restored estate dating to 1677, where roasted Islay scallops are spiked with wasabi and topped with black-pudding crumb. Or at a rowdy session of fiddling and accordion-squeezing at the Port Charlotte Hotel, alongside one of the finest collections of single malts on the island.

From the most southerly of the Inner Hebrides, we island-hop via Glasgow to the most northerly and largest of the Outer Hebrides. Despite its double-barrel name, Lewis and Harris is a single island divided by a mountain range, with the low moors of Lewis in the north and the craggy peaks of Harris in the south. The landscape’s resemblance to tweed is unmistakable, unfurling like great bolts of cloth woven in hues of heather and rock, sand and peat, sea loch and stormy sky. “The land and the sea here are inspirational,” says weaver Margaret Rowan. “I see something in the landscape, a colour or shapes, and I work out a way to weave it into cloth.” She lays a photo of a corncrake beside a bolt of the bird’s same earthy colours, woven on her old pedal-powered Hattersley loom, and an iPad image of sand ripples at low tide sits beside a weave that cleverly evokes its colours and shapes. It’s a loom with a view – from her weaving shed we can see gannets high-diving for fish off Port of Ness, not far from Butt of Lewis, the northern tip of the island where the Atlantic converges violently with the Minch, the strait flanking the mainland.

**Rolls of Harris Tweed**

Rolls of Harris Tweed

Rowan is one of about 220 weavers on the island, continuing a centuries-old tradition of weaving An Clo Mor – the Big Cloth – known throughout the world as Harris Tweed. The word was coined in the 1820s, thought to be a mispronunciation of “tweel”– Scots for twill. Within a few decades tweed was the height of fashion in Victorian England, propelled by Queen Victoria’s purchase of Balmoral Castle in 1848 and the ensuing fad among British aristos for all things Scottish. In the Outer Hebrides, meanwhile, Countess Dunmore of North Harris Estate had introduced to her London friends the durable woollen cloth produced by her tenants in their homes, and a unique industry was born.

While Scotland’s textile industry was transformed during the Industrial Revolution, tweed continued to be made traditionally in the Outer Hebrides – and still is. Genuine Harris Tweed, signified by the Harris Tweed Authority’s Orb embossed on cloth or garments, is still dyed and spun at the island’s three mills, and handwoven by islanders in their homes.

**Stornoway harbour**

Stornoway harbour

From our base at Whitefalls Spa Lodges, close to the Callanish Stones and the centre of the island, we drive a northern loop, past the Iron-Age Dun Carloway broch, one of the best preserved in Scotland, past a Norse-era mill and a 19th-century blackhouse village converted to holiday cottages. We end up in Stornoway, population 8,000, a robust town full of tweed shops, with a busy arts centre and a gem of a museum documenting Hebridean culture. One room features mesmerising time-lapse footage of a year of weather across the islands; another houses six exquisitely carved figures from the 93-piece Lewis Chessmen, a 12th-century cache found buried in a sand dune at Uig, not far from The Scallop Shack. The museum is tucked inside Lews Castle, a 19th-century gothic-revival pile surrounded by woodland, recently transformed into stylish holiday apartments with views of Stornoway harbour.

**Wool producers**

Wool producers

The next day we head south, dodging black-faced sheep that act like traffic wardens wherever we drive, and over the crags that divide the island. Sunshine pours through a cloudburst at the top of the range, picking out patterns of herringbone and houndstooth in a vast tweedy landscape of lochs, rocks and crofts. A handsome Harris Tweed jacket is bought at a shop in Tarbert, across the road from the ferry dock and Tarbert Stores, an old hardware store that sells everything from midge repellent and loom parts to shepherd’s crooks and drench.

Across a seabridge from Tarbert is the rocky islet of Scalpay, where arguably the island’s best seafood is served by former Glaswegian chef George Lavery. The North Harbour Bistro and Tearoom is in eyeshot of the trawler that lands the seafood, its garden-shed aesthetics belying the kitchen’s attention to the balance of flavours and texture. Thrillingly, almost every dish on today’s blackboard menu includes scallops: stuffed in ravioli with crab, with discs of Stornoway black pudding, alongside sea trout and seabream, halibut and roast cod.

**Moorland at Port of Ness, Isle of Lewis**

Moorland at Port of Ness, Isle of Lewis

What lies south of Scalpay, on the South Harris peninsula, is even more thrilling. A mere map speck on the east coast called the Golden Road is a single-lane track of blind summits and 90-degree zigzags that picks through a Hobbit-like landscape of fjords and outcrops of Lewisian gneiss, said to be Britain’s oldest exposed rock. Whitewashed croft cottages and sheep fanks mark hamlets with strange old Norse and Gaelic names: Drinishader, Geocrab, Flodabay, Stockinish.

The wind has picked up by the time we step inside the 15th-century stone church of St Clement’s at Rodel, on the southern tip of Harris, and is gusting as we drive along the west coast. Sheep graze and wildflowers ripple across the machair, the Gaelic word for the wide grassy dunes that frame the long white-sand beaches of Scarista and Luskentyre. On the way home, we stop again at the Callanish Stones, just as a rainbow crowns over the Neolithic rubble. The existence of fairies and kelpies seems entirely possible at that moment.

There’s unfinished business, of course. On our last day I phone ahead, place an order for those hand-dived Hebridean scallops I’ve come so far to find, and set off again to Uig. An Atlantic gale hammers in. We get caught behind a long, slow funeral procession. Patience is required and tested. Finally, we reach The Scallop Shack and – hallelujah – the bar fridge is full of big, plump shellfish. Like magic.The scallops meet half a pound of good Scottish butter that evening. In the company of some black-faced sheep and a single malt stowed at Islay, we watch the long blue twilight deepen over loch and moor.

Getting there

GETTING THERE

Emirates, Qatar and British Airways fly one-stop to Edinburgh from select Australian cities. Caledonian MacBrayne operates regular car ferries between the Scottish mainland and the Hebridean islands. Loganair flies between Glasgow and Islay, and from both Glasgow and Edinburgh to the island of Lewis and Harris.

Stay

WHERE TO STAY

The Edinburgh Grand The neo-classical former National Bank of Scotland has been transformed into 50 luxe apartments and The Register Club, a cocktail bar, games room and snug, with splendid original features.

42 St Andrew Sq, Edinburgh, lateralcity.com

Islay House A private estate since 1677, this charming boutique hotel with a serious whisky bar is surrounded by a community garden and Bridgend Woods.

Bridgend, Islay, islayhouse.co.uk

Lews Castle This 19th-century gothic-revival castle set in a 270-hectare estate has chic apartments upstairs, and a bar, café and the marvellous Museum nan Eilean downstairs.

Stornoway, Lewis, togethertravel.co.uk

Nira Caledonia Twin Georgian townhouses emerged from a £1.4-million refurbishment last year with their grand period features intact and elegant furnishings in 28 guestrooms.

6-10 Gloucester Pl, Edinburgh, niracaledonia.com

Old Town Chambers The inspired restoration of a 15th-century townhouse has created a warren of spacious studios, apartments and penthouses in Edinburgh’s medieval heart.

Roxburgh’s Court, 323 High St, Edinburgh, lateralcity.com

Whitefalls Spa Lodges Watch the Northern Lights in winter or the long midsummer twilight from whirlpool spa baths in two luxe lodges designed for couples near Callanish Stones. Owner Donald Macarthur is a mine of local knowledge.

2 Breasclete, Lewis, whitefalls.co.uk

WHERE TO EAT

WHERE TO EAT

Gardener’s Cottage Follow a path through vegie patches to a humble 19th-century gardener’s cottage, where highly seasonal tasting menus are served at long communal tables. Chef Dale Mailley opened his third city kitchen, The Lookout by Gardener’s Cottage, on Calton Hill in November.

Royal Terrace Gardens, 1 London Rd, Edinburgh, thegardenerscottage.co

Islay House Chef Alex Floyd grew up on the neighbouring island of Jura and returned to the Hebrides after stints in London and Brazil. He uses terrific island produce in refined dishes, served in an elegant formal dining room.

North Harbour Bistro and Tearoom Book ahead for trawler-fresh seafood prepared with flair in an unpretentious boatshed on the island of Scalpay, across a bridge from Harris.

North Harbour, Scalpay, +44 1859 540218

40 North From the croft kitchen where her father used to weave, Anne Campbell runs a restaurant and home-style takeaway meal outlet; don’t miss her hearty pies.

40 North Bragar, Lewis, 40northfoods.co.uk

Oban Seafood Hut Crowds share communal benches outside this green shack at the Calmac ferry terminal at Oban, which serves the Inner Hebridean islands, for huge helpings of crab, lobster and scallops on plastic plates.

Calmac Pier, Oban

Port Charlotte Hotel Follow a hearty pub meal of island produce with a fireside session in the bar with a whisky and live trad music.

Port Charlotte, Islay, portcharlottehotel.co.uk

Royal Hotel Expect the likes of Lewis lamb and creel-caught langoustines in The Boatshed bistro.

Cromwell St, Stornoway, Lewis, royalstornoway.co.uk

Wedgwood A calm dining room of neutral tones on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile is the backdrop for chef Paul Wedgwood’s carefully crafted dishes based on exemplary Scottish produce, much of it wild and foraged (hand-dived scallops, wild garlic and leeks, wood pigeon) and robustly flavoured (monkfish with charred eggplant, pickled chilli and preserved lemon, for example). Like the menu, the drinks list is seasonal and includes some stellar single malts.

Royal Mile, 267 Canongate, Edinburgh, wedgwoodtherestaurant.co.uk

WHERE TO SHOP

WHERE TO SHOP

Walker Slater There are stores in Glasgow and London but Walker Slater’s Edinburgh HQ is the last word in tweed, fine tailoring and terrific service, whether it’s a four-piece suit in featherweight tweed, high-waisted tartan trousers with braces or a Harris Tweed overcoat for foul weather.

16-20 Victoria St, Edinburgh, walkerslater.com

21st Century Kilts From a sandstone studio in historic Thistle Street, Howie Nicholsby is on a mission to “give all men an everyday alternative to trousers” as a matter of choice and health. “You know it’s scientifically proven that men who wear kilts are more fertile and have better testicular health,” he says. The third-generation Jewish-Scottish custom kilt maker to the stars (and habitual kilt wearer) makes finely detailed tartan kilt suits but prefers to work in heavy denim, Harris Tweed and camouflage with leather details and an external pocket system. Accessorise with combat boots and a swagger.

48 Thistle St, Edinburgh, 21stcenturykilts.com

WHAT TO SEE

WHAT TO SEE

Harris Tweed Authority The office of the statutory body charged with maintaining the authenticity of Harris Tweed globally also houses an exhibition space and hosts weaving demonstrations.

Town Hall, 2 Cromwell St, Stornoway, Lewis, harristweed.org

Islay whisky trail The island’s eight distilleries (a ninth, Ardnahoe, is due to open early this year) operate a range of daily tours, tastings and experiences, including Laphroaig’s peat-cutting excursion. Hours and tour frequency are seasonal; a handy brochure is updated annually and available at all distilleries but not online, so check distillery websites for details. There are six taxi services, bike hire at Port Ellen, and car hire at Islay Airport.

Museum nan Eilean A homage to Hebridean history, culture and language in Lews Castle.

Stornoway, Lewis, lews-castle.co.uk

For more, see visitbritain.com

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